Whenever I make Baked Ziti I think of my dear friend, Connie. And when I think of Connie my heart never fails to fill with love and the deepest kind of gratitude. She was THAT friend. The friend on whom you could always rely - who was never too busy. And she was put into my life at exactly the right time! And, although we lived by each other only five years (1986-1991), we have remained just as close of friends. We don't talk every day - not even every month - but I know she is always there for me - and I for her. That's the hallmark of a very good friendship. Oh - and that they share really yummy recipes with you!
The last five years of my husband's education found us moving to upstate New York. We lived in a little town outside of Syracuse called Baldwinsville. At about the same time, Connie and her family moved into the area. We met at church and the friendship was immediate.
I could not have survived those years were it not for Connie. My husband's work kept him away for days on end, never knowing when he would be home again. With three little ones - and eventually five little ones - she became my life raft! Even if it was just being someone I could call and chat with each day - that tether to the outside world!
The best part was that my kids really liked her, too! As a matter of fact, I'd hear on more than one occasion how much nicer she was than me! Haha! Oh well! I didn't blame them! She is one of the nicest people I know! And fun! She showed me how wintergreen Lifesavers spark in the dark when you bite down on them! She was also the person who had me do a Chinese fire drill for the very first time! Imagine, if you will, a car full of women in their 20s and 30s, running around the car at a red light! Now, imagine them all dressed in their Sunday best - high heels and all! And, one of them, maybe it was me, getting a fit of giggles so bad she could hardly stand upright - let alone run! Cars didn't honk, though. I think they were all stunned at the spectacle of us all! Yes - I learned many things from Connie!
One time, when my kids returned from spending an afternoon at Connie's house, they were raving about some noodle dish she had prepared. They went on and on about how delicious it was and why didn't I ever make it. To calm the masses, I called to find out about these noodles that were so amazing.
She laughed when I asked. She said there really wasn't much of a recipe. She warned me that it wasn't exactly "light" fare. But she agreed with my children that it was very, very tasty! And very, very easy! She gave me step-by-step instructions over the phone and, in a matter of minutes, I had in my possession a dinner that would become a family classic. Whenever anyone asks for a suggestion for a simple family meal, this is the recipe I share. You can't go wrong! I have used all sorts of cheeses together in this dish - whatever I happen to have on hand. It's a great way to use up those last little bits leftover from other recipes.
1 lb. of ziti - or penne pasta
2 - 3 c. shredded cheese - mozzarella, cheddar, gruyere - whatever you have on hand (roughly 8 oz.)
4 - 8 T. butter
1/2 c. grated Parmesan Cheese
2 wedges of Laughing Cow cheese, optional
Cook the pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1/2 c. of the water off the pasta, then drain.
While the pasta is cooking, spray a 9X13 casserole dish with cooking spray. After the pasta is drained, return it to the hot pan and add the butter and stir until melted and the pasta is coated. Add the shredded cheese and stir until it is melted and distributed evenly. You won't need to place over a hot burner. The heat of the pan will melt the butter and cheese. Adding the butter first will help keep the cheese from sticking to the pan too much. If it seems a little dry, add some of the hot reserved pasta water and stir. After the butter and cheese are melted, place the ziti/cheese mixture into the casserole dish.
Sprinkle the grated Parmesan cheese evenly over the top.
Place under a broiler on high. WATCH CLOSELY! You'll want the top to be a crispy and toasty brown - not charcoal black! And a word to the wise - everyone is going to want some of the crusty toasted noodles on their plate so make sure you divvy them up accordingly. I've had severe pouty faces when someone gets a plate with no toasty cheese noodles!
Heat the marinara and serve the ziti with the marinara on the side. Some of my kids preferred the noodles as is, sans the marinara. But that was before I started making my own marinara!
The recipe originally called for a whole cube of butter - 8 T. However, I have found that half that amount works just as well so I only use 4 T. Also, my daughter told me she uses the Laughing Cow lite cheese wedges in place of some of the shredded cheese to reduce the calories even further. The creamy nature of the cheese helps with that luxurious mouth-feel you're looking for in a cheesy pasta dish like this - yet cuts the calories! And, to let you in on a little secret, I often use the canned grated Parmesan you find in the aisle with the pasta. You can grate your own if you like, but I'm just saying I won't hold it against you if you decide to go the easy route!