Do you remember going to the Old Spaghetti Factory as a kid and having the option of red sauce, white sauce or a mix of the two? The latter was like the equivalent of a twist cone in soft serve joints, but savoury and therefore superior. The sauce twist was of course the best choice – the 2 of them came together into this creamy, tangy meld of noodle-y goodness, especially if you didn’t properly mix them together and instead let them just bleed into each other, slurping up separate bites of each sauce in the same mouthful. Perhaps I’m being too wistful in my nostalgia (especially because, like, have you been to an OSF recently? That shit is bleeeeeeak), but I’m a sucker for the sauce “twist”. Bon Appetit gets it too, as this recipe calls for a combination of a rich, creamy parmesan béchamel and a garlicky tomato sauce, both of which stay relatively intact through the baking process (assuming you go easy on the mixing). If you really want to do it right, buy yourself a pint of cheap spumoni ice cream and a $7 bottle of red, be your own overly enthusiastic server, and relive those OSF glory days in the comfort of your own living room.
BA’s Best: Baked Ziti
Taken from BA’s Best arsenal, with some tweaking here and there
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
2 ¼ cups whole milk, warmed slightly
2 ½ cups grated parmesan, divided
¼ cup olive oil
1 oz pancetta, chopped (7-8 thin circles if buying pre-sliced – I suppose you could use regular bacon if you were in a bind)
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tbsp tomato paste
1 28-oz can whole peeled tomatoes
¼ cup chopped basil leaves
1 lb (500 gr) ziti or penne pasta (if using penne, try to get the smooth ‘lisce’ noodles instead of the ridged ‘rigate’ ones)
1 lb fresh mozzarella, cut into ½-inch cubes
Handful grated dry mozzarella (optional)
Heat the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming. Sprinkle the flour over and cook for 1 minute, whisking constantly. Let the flour and butter turn a lightly toasted brown (there should be a nutty aroma happening that sends a chill of delight down your spine). Gradually whisk in the warm milk to make a roux. The roux will initially thicken very quickly, and then thin out as you add more milk. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer, whisking constantly until the sauce has thickened and feels smooth when rubbed between your fingers (8-10 minutes). Remove from the heat and add 2 cups parmesan, whisking until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth. Set aside. The béchamel will develop a film as it sits, but just whisk it up a bit to smooth things out again.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the pancetta, stirring often, until golden brown, about 2 minutes (unless you got thick-cut pancetta, in which case cook a bit longer). Turn the heat down to medium and add the onion, garlic, and red pepper flakes, then season with salt and pepper, keeping in mind that the pancetta is also adding a good dose of salt. Cook, stirring often, until the onion is golden and soft, about 8–10 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until slightly darkened, about 2 minutes.
Add the canned tomatoes and their juices, crushing the tomatoes into the pot as you go. Season to taste with more salt and pepper. Bring the sauce to a simmer and cook, stirring every so often, until thickened (about 20-25 minutes). Let cool slightly then coarsely mash it with a potato masher. You can also blend the sauce if you like things smoother, but I prefer my tomato sauce chunky and rustic. Stir in the basil and season to taste (once again!) with salt and pepper if needed.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, stirring occasionally until very al dente, about 5 minutes (the pasta will continue to cook in the oven). Drain and set aside.
Transfer the reserved béchamel to a large bowl then add the pasta and fresh mozzarella cubes, tossing to combine. Gently fold in all but 1 cup tomato sauce into the pasta, leaving large streaks of béchamel still visible (or be like me and barely incorporate the 2, letting them each forge their own trail). Dump the pasta mixture into a large greased baking dish (or cast-iron skillet) then dollop with the remaining tomato sauce. Scatter the remaining ½ cup parmesan over the noodles along with the handful of grated mozzarella (if using). Bake until the mozzarella cubes are oozy and melting, with the sauce bubbling around the edges, 15–20 minutes. Turn the broiler on and cook the pasta another 5 minutes until deep brown patches appear over the cheese and noodles. Let the pasta sit for 5 minutes before serving. Die, just absolutely die, as you bite into one of those fat melted cubes of mozzarella.