¾cupfinely grated Parmesan – divided, plus more for serving
1 ½cupMozzarella – freshly shredded
Optional for garnish: Fresh Basil and/or Parsley, Mini Pepperoni
Optional for serving: Crusty Bread
Soak the pasta: Place the pasta in a large bowl and add enough lukewarm water to cover the pasta completely. Season generously with salt. Set the pasta aside and let stand on the counter for 50 minutes.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
Meanwhile, make the sauce: Heat the oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until almost softened, about 3 minutes. Add in the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
Add in the sausage and season generously with salt and pepper. Cook, breaking up the sausage with the back of a wooden spoon, until browned. Drain off the fat, leaving the meat and vegetables in the skillet. Add the oregano, paprika, basil and tomato paste to the meat and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes, or until the tomato paste is slightly caramelized.
Add in the crushed tomatoes and sugar. Season again with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, immediately reduce heat to low and cook for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat. Taste sauce and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Let cool.
Make ricotta filling: In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta with ¼ cup of parmesan and season to taste with salt and nutmeg (if using). Set aside
Drain the pasta in a colander and return to the large bowl.
Add sauce to pasta: Add half of the sauce (about 2 ¼ cups) to the pasta and stir until well coated.
Fold in the ricotta: Add the ricotta mixture to the sauced pasta and gently fold it in, making sure to leave large pockets of ricotta throughout.
Assemble ziti: Lightly spray a large casserole dish (9 x 13’’) with non-stick cooking spray. Add half of the pasta mixture to the casserole dish and gently spread in an even layer. Sprinkle half of the remaining parmesan and half of the mozzarella and pepperoni on top. Top with the rest of the pasta mixture in an even layer. Pour the remaining sauce evenly over the top. Top with the rest of the pepperoni. Sprinkle with remaining mozzarella and parmesan.
Bake: Cover loosely with foil and bake on the middle shelf in the oven for 15 minutes. Remove foil and continue to bake for 15 minutes, or until cheese is bubbly and golden.
Let cool slightly: Remove the casserole from the oven to a wire rack and allow to cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.
Serve: Garnish with basil and/or parsley, sprinkle with parmesan and enjoy!
Pro-tip: Don’t pre-cook the pasta! Instead, soak the pasta in lukewarm water! This easy trick insures the pasta in the baked ziti isn’t over or under cooked. Just make sure you season the water generously with salt! To save time, soak the pasta first, and then proceed to prep all of your ingredients.
While I used Italian ground sausage in this baked ziti recipe, you can use Italian sausage links. Just be sure to remove the sausages from their casings before proceeding with the recipe.
Make sure you gently fold ricotta into the sauced pasta. Folding, versus stirring, is essential for pockets of creamy, cheesy baked ziti goodness!
Be sure to generously season everything with salt and pepper. Since there are a lot of different components to baked ziti, it is important to season each element properly to taste!
Allow baked ziti to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving! Allowing the baked pasta to rest before serving gives the sauce a chance to settle into the pasta without pooling to the bottom of the casserole dish.
To assemble in advance: Assemble the ziti according to recipe directions. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days in advance. Or, cover tightly with plastic wrap and then foil and freeze. Assembled (unbaked) ziti will keep in freezer for up to 1 month.
To bake refrigerated ziti: Preheat oven to 425 F. Bake, covered for 20-25 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake for 20 minutes or until cheese is melted and ziti is heated through.
To bake frozen ziti: Allow ziti to thaw in the refrigerator (this can take up to 2 days). Unwrap and discard the plastic wrap and recover with greased aluminum foil. Follow instructions above for baking refrigerated ziti.
This recipe serves 6-8 people. Nutritional information is based on 8 servings.