Baked Ziti with Italian Sausage

About a month ago, a dear friend of mine was working on his house, when the scaffolding on which he was standing broke and he tumbled to the ground resulting in a severely broken ankle.  The ER doctor and the orthopedic surgeon told him it was one of the worst breaks they had ever seen and was definitely going to need surgery, once the swelling went down.  Despite the fact that the surgery went well, he still has a long road ahead of him with restricted mobility and confined surroundings, so I have been trying to drop off food and a bit of cheer now and again, to hopefully help keep his spirits up.

Soon after his fall, I took over a ham, tomato and cheddar quiche which I discussed a few weeks ago.  I knew a lot of friends were dropping food off, so I thought this quiche would be a little bit out of the ordinary from the other dishes they might be receiving.  But when I started planning something else to drop by this week, I was having a hard time coming up with anything that sounded good, was semi inexpensive to make (seeing as how I am currently between jobs) and would be easy to reheat.  I knew that someone had already brought them lasagna, which tends to be an old standby for me on such occasions, and for some reason there wasn’t a soup recipe that was really speaking to me at the moment, other than corn chowder, which I figured might be a bit rough to digest on all those pain meds.  So, in some round about way I settled on baked ziti with spicy Italian sausage.

Ever since Nate and I traveled to Florence, Italy in the spring of 2010, I have been craving the unbelievably delicious and melty baked ziti that we had at this little delicatessen type Italian lunch cafe.  Off the beaten tourist path a bit, this little shop was nearly impossible to step into upon first arrival, because it was so packed with locals.  In fact you had to be quite assertive to get in the door before someone else would rush in ahead of you.  But once you got in and up to the counter display case, you found every Italian antipasti delicacy that you could possibly want, along with paninis made to order, and two pasta dishes which changed daily, amongst a great many other things.  If you ordered the pasta special you were handed a heaping plate of pasta, that could easily serve two, and a side of bread for 2 Euro.  A steel for central Florence as far as we were concerned!  And while this plate of pasta could serve two, it was so unbelievably delicious in the simplest most traditional way, that Nate and I each had to have our own, because this was simply too good to share.

Since we returned to this spot every day for the remainder of our stay in Florence we tried many different pasta dishes.  Ever since then I have craved baked ziti as delicious as it was in the little delicatessen, but to no avail.  This dish is probably much less fattening since I used mostly skim and part skim dairy products, despite that, it is a decent alternative when one does not have access to authentic Italian cooking.

Baked Ziti with Italian sausage

Adapted from Cooks Illustrated
 
1 pound cottage or ricotta cheese
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese
1 pound ziti
3 hot Italian sausages, casings removed
5 medium sized cloves of garlic, chopped
28 ounces tomato sauce
14 ounces chopped tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1/2 teaspoon fresh)
1/2 cup and 2 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
1 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch (reduce the amount if not using skim milk)
1 cup milk
8 ounces low-moisture mozzarella, diced or grated
salt and fresh ground pepper
 
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Whisk together the cottage/ricotta cheese , eggs, and 1 cup of the parmesan cheese.
  3. In a pot of salted boiling water, cook the ziti for 5-7 minutes, or until it begins to soften, do not cook through. Drain in a colander and set aside.
  4. In a sauce pot, cook the sausage over medium heat, using a spoon to break it up, for about 5 minutes.
  5. Add the garlic and cook for about 2 more minutes.
  6. Add the sauce, tomatoes and oregano and let simmer for about 10 minutes or until it begins to thicken.
  7. Remove the sauce from the heat, add a 1/2 cup of the basil and add sugar, salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Whisk together the milk and cornstarch, place in the dutch oven and set over medium heat.  Simmer, stirring frequently until milk begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
  9. Remove from the heat and stir in the cottage/ricotta cheese mixture, along with 1 cup of sauce and 3/4 cup of mozzarella.
  10. Add in the pasta and stir to coat thoroughly with the sauce cheese mixture.
  11. Transfer to a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish, pour the sauce over the top of the pasta and spread evenly.
  12. Sprinkle 3/4 cup of mozzarella and 1/2 cup of parmesan over the top.
  13. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes.*
  14. Remove foil and bake for another 30 minutes until the crust is bubbly and golden brown.
  15. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 Tablespoons of basil and let cool for 20 minutes before serving.
*Dish can be prepared ahead of time up until this point and refrigerated overnight.  Let the casserole reach room temperature before baking.
 

Makes 8 to 10 servings.

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