There come those times in each person's life when you really just want to eat All The Cheese. When you're drinking wine, or when you've had a dreary day and are stressed out and could use something indulgent to liven things up a little bit—or, really, any other time you happen not to be dead—man, eating All The Cheese sounds really good, doesn't it? The challenge is coming up with vehicles for All The Cheese, both so that your digestive system does not wrap up its belongings at the end of a little bindle-stick, exit your body, and take to the rails for a life of itinerant wandering, and also so that no loved one or concerned citizen sees you sitting on the floor, mechanically inserting All The Cheese into your mouth, and decides that your days of living in unpadded rooms have finally come to an end.
This is why some wise person, many generations ago, had the good sense to invent baked ziti. With the inclusion of the cheap plastic glasses-and-mustache disguise of pasta, meat, and tomato sauce, this unnamed hero of the past created a way for discreet gluttons to cram immoderate quantities of no less than three distinct cheeses into themselves under the pretext of eating an actual meal. The real beauty of this invention is that, although its preparation is somewhat more complicated than simply holding a wheel of cheese up to your face and gnawing through the rind like a mad dog (which is what you want to do, but mustn't, because somehow that's [exaggerated air-quotes] psychotic [close exaggerated air-quotes], but oh, it's totally fucking OK to, like, eat tacos made of Doritos, who's really the "total fucking psycho" here anyway, what a buncha bullshit, man), baked ziti turns out to be a remarkably uncomplicated way to utterly devastate your arteries and nuke whole decades off of your lifespan.
The key to well-made baked ziti is, as you might have guessed, the cheese. Specifically, not letting the cheese get bogged down by, and soaked up in, a lot of watery, overbearing tomato sauce. In well-made baked ziti, the cheese should be the star, the pasta should be the silk-upholstered palanquin on which the star is delivered to your face, and the tomato sauce and meat should be, like, the star's friggin' earrings or some shit, I don't know, I lost track of this analogy a while ago.
Point is, cheese. Lots of cheese. Not as much of the other stuff. Some of the other stuff, sure, but not too much. Fuck it, let's just make some, OK? Begin by preheating your oven to 375 degrees.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and boil a pound of ziti in it until the macaroni are al dente but not fully cooked. This should probably take 8 minutes or so. Set a timer.
Let's pause for a moment, here. There's a reason why you're leaving your ziti al dente in the step above, and despite what you may think, it's not that pasta should always be cooked al dente. Leaving pasta undercooked—which is essentially what al dente means—has become the popular way to do things over the years, and I'm here to tell you today that that's goddamn stupid and, as of this moment, no longer permitted.
You ever made fresh pasta? It's a fucking nightmare. Kneading and rolling and kneading and rolling and kneading and rolling, thinner and thinner and thinner, teasing out the gluten, stretching it, giving yourself carpal goddamn tunnel syndrome. There's a moment in Bill Buford's great book Heat when the little Italian lady giving the author his tutorial in pasta-making describes ravioli dough as having been sufficiently kneaded and rolled at the point at which it can be rolled, without tearing, into a sheet thin enough to fucking read through. Likewise, great pasta chefs will serve you filled pasta in which you can identify the filling without having to cut through the noodle. The point here is that the very reason why pasta-making is such a huge pain in the ass is because the desired end result—a product which can be cooked to soft, delicately springy, gently chewy consistency without dissolving in the water—takes a lot of goddamn work to achieve, and is a fucking miracle of human ingenuity when accomplished. It's an insult to that miracle to cook the shit halfway, leave it with the firmness of a mildly damp sheet of cardboard, and then call it done just because you're too fucking braindead to come up with any other way of giving your pasta dish some goddamn textural character. Pasta is meant to be cooked. Cook your fucking pasta!
No, the reason you're leaving your ziti al dente at this point in this particular procedure is that it's going to get cooked again later on, and you don't want it to turn into mushy crap when it does.
So. On we go. At some point in the steps that follow, your ziti will be cooked; you can drain them and cover them if you're not ready for them just yet. Meanwhile, it's time to brown some ground meat in a hot pan. You can decide for yourself how to proceed, here: whether to use beef, or to pretend to be concerned for your health with turkey, or, I dunno, go nuts with ground pheasant or ground squab or ground your neighbor's noisy cat or whatever. I'm recommending that you buy a pound or a pound and a half of hot Italian pork sausage, remove it from its casing, and use that instead. You'll just get so much more flavor out of it: the fennel and hot pepper and the porkiness of the pork. Break it up with a wooden spoon or sturdy spatula as it cooks in the pan.
Once the meat is good and browned, it's time to lower the heat a tad and add some other stuff to the pan. First, give some chopped onion a couple of minutes to soften; then a clove or two of minced garlic; then a big 28-ounce can of whole peeled tomatoes. Crush the tomatoes in the pan with your Implement Of Grim Justice (or, more fun, crush the tomatoes one-by-one in your bare hands over the pan, letting their savaged remains plop onto the cooking meat and aromatics, and then, with tomato seeds and juice and pulp running down your arms, dramatically drop to your knees in the middle of the kitchen, raise your grisly red hands toward the ceiling, scream Whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? at the top of your lungs, and pretend that you are kneeling beside the body of your slain invisible flying anthropomorphic tiger, cut down for his magical invisible pelt by that damned exotic-fur-coat-collecting Tom Brady, damn him, why can't he just let any of the invisible flying anthropomorphic creatures live, now it is time for vengeance), and give the whole mess a stir. Maybe add a couple of glugs of cheap red wine, if you have a bottle hanging around. Lower the heat until the liquid in the pan is simmering steadily, then give it, oh, ten minutes or so, for the flavors to hang out and come together. You're essentially making a very quick, easy ragù, here.
While that simmers away, prepare cheese. Haul a big bowl out of your cupboard and, in it, mix a pound of ricotta with half the contents of one of those 8-ounce tubs of grated Pecorino cheese. Mixing and tasting (oh my yes, tasting) as you go, add salt until the mixture tastes like you have to be shot several times with a taser to stop you from eating all of it. If you want to add some finely chopped basil to this mixture, that's not a half-bad idea, but it's OK not to. Also, separately, slice a pound of fresh mozzarella into a bunch of discs, about, oh, a third of an inch thick, and set these aside.
Your cheese is prepared. Now, combine the cooked ziti with the ricotta-Pecorino mixture, either in the bowl in which you mixed the cheeses (if it's large enough), or in the pot in which you cooked the ziti. Fold the ziti into the cheese mixture gently, so as not to inadvertently fling any precious cheese across the kitchen and into the garbage disposal or an air conditioning vent, because, fuck, that would just be really awful and sad.
By now, back in your simmering pan, the tomatoes have broken down a bit and, between what they've released and the rendering pork fat in the sausages (and the wine if you added any), there's a healthy amount of liquid bubbling away in there. It's time to assemble baked ziti! Grab a ladle or a big spoon or a mug and splash a thin layer of that liquid across the bottom of a big casserole dish or deep baking pan. Just enough to lubricate the surface. On top of that, spread a nice thick layer of the ziti-cheese mixture. Top that with a healthy coating of your ragù. Top that with a layer of those beautiful slices of mozzarella. (The mozzarella slices should not overlap—hell, they don't even need to touch each other: they'll spread out as they cook. You'll want to make sure you wind up with enough of these to finish with a layer of them on the very top.)
Repeat: layer of ziti-cheese mixture, layer of ragù, bunch of mozzarella slices, until you've used up everything or filled your vessel. At the top, finish with a layer of mozzarella against the attractive red background of the ragù. Top this with the remainder of the tub of Pecorino cheese, then a generous drizzle of some good olive oil. Stick the whole thing in the oven and bake it for, what, 45 minutes or so. Everything in the dish is already cooked, so there's no need to worry about underdoneness; whenever the top is all browned and bubbly and crispy around the edges and your neighbors are punching their arms through your walls and windows like zombies to get at it, it's done. Get your baked ziti out of there, let it sit for 10 minutes or so (so that it does not light your head on fire when you eat it), and serve.
Drink some red wine with the obscene, towering pile of baked ziti heaped on your silly-looking plate, and, as always, make a tasty salad for the side. Honestly: the stretchy mozzarella; the salty, punchy Pecorino; the smooth milky ricotta; the tartness of the tomatoes and the zesty piquancy of the sausage—what's better than this? Nothing. Shut up. This is the best goddamn thing ever. It's as fine a delivery vehicle for All The Cheese as you could ever want. And no one suspects a thing.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at email@example.com. Image by Jim Cooke.