Mario Batali's Baked Ziti Arrabbiata Recipe

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From Yahoo Food’s Cookbook of the Week: Mastering My Mistakes in the Kitchen by Dana Cowin. 

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Photo credit: John Kernick

Baked Ziti Arrabbiata
Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour
Serves 6 to 8

The last time I made baked ziti arrabbiata, based on one from the maestro of Italian cooking, Mario Batali, I started cooking early in the afternoon, giving myself ample time to “fail and fix” the dish if necessary. When I made the béchamel, I thought it was too thin, so I decided to reduce it—but it wouldn’t reduce. I assumed my problem was using skim milk (the only milk I had in the house), but my diagnosis was incorrect, as I found out when I told the story to the Food & Wine test kitchen crew. They explained that béchamel never, ever gets reduced. If you want a thicker béchamel, you add more flour at the start. I realized I had to stop using my ill-informed instincts to solve a problem. Mistakes aside, this is my absolute favorite baked pasta, particularly when I’m cooking for a crowd. Mario told me it was one of his favorites, too, so I got a little more advice from him on perfecting it. 

1⁄4 cup olive oil, divided, plus more for brushing
1 garlic clove, minced
11⁄2 teaspoons crushed red pepper, divided
One 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, smooshed with your hands, juices reserved
Kosher salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups whole milk, warmed
Freshly grated nutmeg
11⁄2 pounds ziti
1⁄2 pound mozzarella cheese, cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 cup coarse bread crumbs

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the garlic and 1 teaspoon of the crushed red pepper and cook, stirring, until fragrant, just a minute or so. Add the tomatoes, with their juices, and a very large pinch of salt, turn the heat to high and bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heatand simmer the sauce until just slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

2. Meanwhile, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, until a smooth paste the palest shade of brown forms, about 2 minutes. While whisking continuously, slowly pour in the milk. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook, stirring, until it is nice and thick, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and season the béchamel to taste with salt and nutmeg. Set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Brush a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with olive oil. 

4. Fill your largest pot with water, bring it to a boil and season liberally with salt. (You might need to cook the pasta in 2 batches, depending on the size of your pot.) Add the ziti and cook it 3 minutes short of the package instructions—you don’t want it to cook all the way through, or it will overcook when you bake it. Drain the pasta and transfer it to a large bowl.

5. Add the reserved tomato sauce, the béchamel, mozzarella and 3⁄4 cup of the Parmesan to the ziti and stir well. Transfer the mixture to the prepared baking dish and scatter the remaining 1⁄4 cup Parmesan over the top. 

6. Toss the bread crumbs with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a small bowl and season with salt. Scatter the bread crumbs over the ziti, then sprinkle with the remaining 1⁄2 teaspoon crushed red pepper and a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg.

7. Bake the pasta until it is bubbling and the top is browned, about 15 minutes. Let the pasta rest for 10 minutes before serving.

MAKE AHEAD: The dish can be assembled ahead, covered with plastic and refrigerated for up to 2 days. Add an extra 5 to 10 minutes baking time to compensate. You can also bake it, cool it and refrigerate it for up to 1 week, or freeze it for up to 1 month. To reheat the pasta, thaw to room temperature, cover with foil and bake in a 325°F oven until hot all the way through (test with a paring knife or metal skewer).

From the Yahoo Food Team: Do you bake ziti? We’d love to know your cooking secrets.