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Baked Ziti with Sausage and Creamy Tomato Sauce
(Serves 8 to 10)
Most baked ziti dishes have three kinds of cheese: mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta. But many times when the ricotta is baked it develops a dry, grainy texture.  This baked ziti dish is packed with cheese but we've left out the ricotta and instead added cream to the sauce.  The result is a delicious baked pasta with a sauce that is creamy and smooth. You can use mild or hot Italian sausage in this recipe but if you use hot sausage, leave out the additional red pepper flakes.

One of the problems with baked pasta dishes is that the pasta sometimes comes out over-cooked, mushy, or gummy. We recommend that you only cook your pasta to al dente firmness before adding it to the sauce.  The pasta will continue cooking in the oven a little more, and will absorb some of the liquid from the sauce. This will give you perfectly cooked pasta out of the oven every time.

1 pound ziti or penne
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 Italian sausages, removed from casings
2 large garlic cloves, minced
28 ounces Traditional Tomato Sauce
1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch red pepper flakes
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup grated Pecorino or Parmesan cheese, divided
8 ounces whole milk mozzarella, shredded (about 2 cups)


Cook the pasta in boiling salted water until very al dente, about 7 minutes.
Drain and return back to the pot; set aside.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Crumble the sausage into the skillet, breaking it apart with a wooden spoon.  Cook until lightly browned, about 5-6 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute.  Add the tomato sauce, sugar and red pepper flakes.  Simmer, uncovered, for 10-15 minutes.  Add the cream and 1/3 cup of grated cheese to the skillet; stir until evenly combined.  Carefully pour the contents of the skillet into the pot with the pasta and gently stir to combine.

Spoon half of the mixture into a 9 x 13-inch baking dish.  Sprinkle with half of the shredded mozzarella and 1/3 cup of the Parmesan cheese.  Spoon the remaining mixture on top and sprinkle with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.  Place in the oven and bake, uncovered, until the cheese is melted and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes.  Serve.

TO MAKE AHEAD:  Assemble and refrigerate, covered, up to 2 days in advance.  Since the dish will be cold, the baking time will need to be increased.  Cover the dish with aluminum foil and place in a 450 degree F. oven for 25 minutes.  Then uncover and bake for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the cheese is lightly browned and the pasta is hot throughout.

TO FREEZE:  The dish can be frozen unbaked.  When you're ready to bake it, defrost it in the refrigerator for 24 hours then proceed with the directions for making it ahead.
Baked Ziti with Sausage and Creamy Tomato Sauce
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