The Behemoth-sized Baked Ziti (with or without an oven)

It was my eldest sister’s birthday and she requested for me to cook Baked Macaroni for her tennis friends on a Saturday afternoon. Now you have to understand, this is a group of working profressionals who train and play tennis almost every day, joining tournaments on a regular basis. These people also know their food (based on my sister’s posts), so I really wanted to make sure that they were well fed and that they enjoyed what they ate. So I went a little extra and decided to go for Baked Ziti.

I normally don’t cook for crowds as huge as that, and have made mistakes in the past, so I was careful of the following:

  • Not to overcook nor to allow the pasta together
  • To have not enough sauce
  • To have too much sauce it looks like a soup
  • Oil content
  • Salt levels
  • Layering flavor so that it won’t be just one note

Many steps are required for this dish, and cooking it took longer than expected– and mostly because the dish itself is so big and also because my bechamel was being so difficult! (I will discuss later how to make a proper bechamel and avoid some little mistakes I made) 🙂

It was a success! More than twenty five folks were able to eat the baked ziti in between or after tennis and with a good number of positive comments and coming back with a very empty tray. Ultimately, I realized that it is true that you cook better when you cook with love in your heart. Not being cheesy (pun intended), but this allows you to add extra effort and cheerfulness into preparing the dish (even in the midst of a very scorching summer noon).

Stats:

1 kilogram of pasta

1 kilogram of meat

14×10 baking pan that is 3 inches thick

Total of 3 layers of pasta, 3 layers of bechamel, 3 layers of cheese

If you want to scale it down for a smaller group, reduce meat or vegetables to half first (if you want to feed a group of ten). Then scale the pasta down to 500 grams as well, if you want to feed five.

I had a little left that would not fit in the pan and assembled some for myself. I would agree to what they said: flavorful, juicy ground meat accompanying the bright marinara sauce, coating each pasta noodle. The bechamel and the cheese adds a creamy component, making each bite perfect 🙂

For today’s recipe, I will discuss how I made it first. And then, I will also talk about how to do the dish on a budget, using a different type of meat, going vegetarian, and how to hack it without an oven.

Behemoth-sized Baked Ziti

Prep: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 1 1/2 hours

Serves 25

Ingredients:

  • 1 kilogram penne pasta

Cheese:

  • 2 cups of mozarella cheese, grated
  • 3 cups of cheddar cheese, grated
  • 1 cup of grated parmesan (optional)

Cheese On a budget:

  • Use 1 cup cheddar cheese vs 2 cups of any cheaper quickmelting cheese (velveeta, quickmelt etc)

Cheese sauce (No Oven):

  • Use 1 cup cheddar cheese vs 2 cups of any cheaper quickmelting cheese (velveeta, quickmelt etc)
  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1 tbsp of butter
  • 2 tbsps flour
  • 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Meat (if you will use beef):

  • 1 kilogram of ground beef (choose a leaner cut to avoid too much oil)
  • 2 tbsps worcestershire sauce
  • 1/2 tablespoon of oregano
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 7 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Meat (if you will use Chicken):

  • 1 kilogram ground chicken. You can also use cooked chicken breast flakes
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 7 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Meat (if you will use Pork):

  • 1 kilogram ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 sprigs of thyme
  • 2 tablespoons soysauce (optional)
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 7 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon of honey
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Vegetarian:

  • 2 cups of spinach, chopped
  • 2 cups of eggplant, minced
  • 2 cups of mushrooms (preferrably portobello)
  • 1/2 tablespoon oregano
  • 1/2 tablespoon thyme
  • A dash of dried sage
  • 2 large onions, diced
  • 7 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

3 1/2 cups of Marinara Sauce:

If you are in a hurry or want to cut down on prep and cooking time, you can buy premade tomato pasta sauce or Marinara Sauce.

Otherwise, here are the ingredients and instructions:

  • 3 cans of stewed tomatoes or 4 cups chopped tomatoes (should be very ripe)
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup minced fresh basil
  • 1 onion minced finely
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Optional to add or honey to taste

Saute the garlic, onions and herbs in olive oil until onions are partly translucent. Add stewed tomatoes and season with salt, pepper and honey. Let it stew in low heat for 20 minutes, crushing the tomatoes if tomatoes are whole. If you are using fresh tomatoes, stew for 30 minutes.

2-3 cups of Bechamel Sauce:

  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • 6 tablespoons flour
  • 3 3/4 cups milk, heated
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

Note: Ensure that your saucepan is not so big as it can make you overshoot your proportions. It is also harder to whisk with a very big saucepan — something I did because I did not want to bring another sauce pan, I used the pot that I used to boil the pasta in (imagine how crazy big that is!). I overshot my measurements and added too much flour so that my bechamel was almost like mashed potatoes. Instead of making the sauce in a few minutes, I ended up doing it for thirty minutes.

Melt the butter in a sauce pan. Add the flour slowly and mix it in until you make a roux. Wait for the raw flour smell to be gone (instead it should be a fragrant, buttery smell) before mixing in milk very slowly, whisking until there are no lumps. Your bechamel should cover the spoon (as shown in the photo), but not enough so that drops back to the pan in blobs.

Directions for making the Ziti:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 10 minutes.
  2. In a large pot, boil the pasta in salted water and 1 tbsp vegetable oil or olive oil — until it is only nearly al dente. It is important not to overcook it because it will go back into the oven. If you won’t use the oven, cook the pasta until al dente.ispices and herbs in a separate larger pan.
  3. Add the meat (or vegetables) and cook thoroughly, seasoning according to taste. This is also where the worcestershire goes in for the beef, and the soysauce and honey for the pork. The beef and pork need about 5-10 minutes of cooking in low heat before we go the next step.
  4. Remove any excess oil from the meat so that we avoid making an oily dish.
  5. Heat the marinara sauce (if pre-made) in a large pot and add the meat or vegetables, mixing until sauce is well integrated with the meat.
  6. Remove from the heat.
  7. Start layering the components in a baking tray. Start with 1 layer of pasta, then top w,
  8. ith 1 thin layer of bechamel then top with this with cheese before adding another layer of pasta. sequence: pasta, bechamel, cheese. Ensure that your last layer will be cheese with bechamel underneath it, and top with parmesan cheese.
  9. Place the tray in the oven and let it cook for 30 more minutes

No oven? No problem.

After step 8, make the cheese sauce by melting the butter in a sauce pan. Once melted, ad the flour until the “raw” flour smell is gone. Add the milk slowly, mixing to ensure there are no lumps . Then add in the cheese and mix untul cheese is melted and fully incorporated.

Layer the pasta, bechamel and cheese as usual, but use the cheese sauce instead.

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