So many individual components of this dish are just delicious on their own, making the mastery of this recipe a versatile trick for your kitchen. The tomato sauce is great! The cheese mix is very good! Putting them together is happiness. Consider variations -- adding some blue cheese to the mix. Swirling all the ingredients together, rather than layering like a lasagna. Maybe some nutmeg or cinnamon in the sauce. It's all good, when it comes to mac-n-cheese.
I'll be honest. The below, original version uses a lot a lot of cheese. I was a little worried-slash-giddy when I started putting it all together. It's delicious, but I think you could easily lower the amount of cheese by 1/3 or even by half.
Baked Ziti with Vegetable Sauce
1/4 c olive oil
3 dried red peppers (or, 1/2 tsp red pepper flakes)
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp rosemary, chopped
1/2 tsp thyme, chopped
1 red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 T coarse salt
2 red bell peppers, thinly sliced
1 T sugar
3 c canned crushed tomatoes
1 c water
1 lb ziti (or whatever cheese-holding pasta you have on hand)
8 oz mozzarella cheese, coarsely grated
4 oz Pecorino Romano, coarsely grated
1 lb ricotta cheese
1 c basil, chopped
2 T unsalted butter, melted
2 T unsalted butter
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1/2 tsp pepper
Preheat oven to 400. Grease a 9x13" baking pan with 1 tsp oil and set aside.
To make the sauce, heat oil, chiles (or red pepper flakes) and pepper in a large pot over medium heat. Cook 1 1/2 minutes. Add rosemary and thyme and cook 14 seconds.
Add onion and salt and cook 4 minutes.
Lower heat and add bell peppers; cook until they start to soften, about 3 minutes.
Mix in sugar and reduce the heat even more; cover the pot and cook 5 minutes, stirring halfway through. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add 1 c water and return to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and partially cover. Simmer 20 minutes. Turn off heat and set aside. (At this point, the sauce can be refrigerated for 3 days, or frozen for 3 months.)
To make the ziti, mix a quarter of the mozzarella, half of the Parmesan, all of the Pecorino, ricotta, eggs, basil, melted butter, salt and pepper in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, mix remaining mozzarella and remaining Paremsan together.
Bring a large stock pot of salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente. Drain and add to the vegetable sauce, along with 2 T butter. Warm over medium heat and cook until you can hear the sauce simmering, about 2 minutes. Turn off heat.
Add a third of the pasta to the baking dish.
Divide ricotta mixture into two equal portions and break chunks off of one portion; dot over the pasta. (If the temperature is right, you can simply smooth on top of the noodles using a spatula.)
Cover with another third of the pasta and dot with remaining ricotta. Spread the rest of the pasta on top and sprinkle with the mozzarella-Parmesan mixture.
Bake 20 minutes. Broil about 6" from heating element for 2-3 minutes to finish. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.