I adore pasta bake in all its forms. It’s not pretty food and it certainly doesn’t tend to be sophisticated but, oh! A big pile of gooey, cheesy pasta will always make my greedy little heart beat slightly faster. As a child, admittedly before my taste buds developed a modicum of sophistication, tuna pasta bake would often be my choice for a birthday supper. Yes, it sits leaden in the stomach. Yes, the majority of Italians would turn their noses up. Yes, by the time that you’ve strewn enough cheese it becomes ridiculously high in calories and saturated fat (add a side salad if it makes you feel better). I don’t care.
The dish that I cooked last night, a layered tomato and ricotta pasta bake, was a vague attempt to re-create a baked ziti that I used to eat at the restaurant chain Sbarro. Sadly, it no longer has a UK presence so I cannot go back to check how close I got – however, it chimed pretty closely with the memory and I adored it. D felt it lacked a little oomph – perhaps some chorizo or bacon or chilli in the tomato sauce would remedy this – to me, was perfect as it was, and incredible comfort food.
In terms of technique, I aped pretty closely the Pioneer Woman’s baked ziti, figuring that an American dish required an American home cook’s wisdom. Her recipe is here – as you see, she favours a meat sauce, but mine is strictly vegetarian. That is not to say that it is particularly healthy; yes, there is a lot of cheese in there. Comfort yourself that the tomato sauce will pack in a couple of your five a day and contains relatively little fat.
Cooks’s notes: I didn’t have a stick of celery so substituted it for a second grated carrot, but you’re ideally aiming for a classic soffrito here. I keep a stash of Parmesan rinds in my freezer to whack into soups and sauces and they do add tremendous flavour but, if you’re not weird like me, just make sure you add stock rather than water to the tomato sauce. For the mozzarella, go for the slightly firmer kind that comes in a square block rather than a ball – it’s better for cooking.
Tbsp olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stick of celery, finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, crushed
Generous sprig of oregano (or a heaped tsp of the dried variety)
50ml red wine
200g tin of chopped tomatoes
Tbsp tomato puree
200g ricotta cheese
50g Parmesan cheese, finely grated
75g mozzarella cheese, grated
Scant pinch of ground nutmeg
Tbsp lemon juice
180g dried penne pasta
100g mozzarella cheese
Serves 2 – 4 depending on the depths of your hunger / greed
Make the tomato sauce. Heat the olive oil and sweat off the onion and the celery with a decent pinch of salt. When beginning to soften, add the carrot, garlic and oregano and sweat a bit longer until you have a colourful mulch of vegetables.
Tip in the red wine and allow it to bubble down to almost nothing. Then add the tomatoes, the puree and the sugar and stir well. Fill the tomato tin with water and add that too, along with the Parmesan rind. Season, bring to a vigorous boil, then turn down to a gentle simmer and reduce by about a third. When it is done, allow to cool slightly before blitzing to a rough puree in the food processor.
Combine all the ingredients for the cheese sauce in a nice, large bowl and season well. Plenty of black pepper is called for here.
Cook the pasta for a couple of minutes less than it suggests on the packet – you want it to be a little too al dente so that it retains texture on baking. Once cooked, stir into the cheese sauce, along with a generous spoonful of the tomato sauce. You should have a nice, loose texture but, if not, a little splash of the pasta water will help it along.
Layer up the bake – half the pasta, half the remaining tomato sauce, half of the mozzarella cheese then repeat. Cover with foil and bake in the oven for 40 minutes, removing the foil for the last 15 to get some colour on the top.