Our Favorite Italian Hotdish: Baked Ziti Casserole

Several years ago, Tony and I hosted a weekly radio show, which included a regular segment called the “Hotdish Hot Seat,” and every week we would feature a different hotdish recipe submitted by one of our listeners. One week, our neighbors joined us in the hot seat and shared a recipe that has become one of our family’s all-time favorite easy meals: Baked Ziti Casserole.

Having grown up in Toronto, Tony was unfamiliar with the regional culinary category that is the vast world of hotdish, and has pretty much shied away from it as a rule. But, while this field may include such dubious specialties as tuna fish hotdish, tater tot hotdish and Fritos hotdish (a personal favorite of mine at any respectable church potluck), the very concept of hotdish could also include lasagna, manicotti and other Italian specialties that are baked “al forno” (in the oven).

A basic hamburger hotdish, or what Tony argues should more accurately be called ground beef hotdish, typically consists of elbow macaroni noodles, tomato sauce, hamburger meat, and some kind of shredded cheese. Some recipes call for a little bit of fresh onion and garlic while others might simply use onion and garlic powders, and some choose to forego this added flavoring altogether. But the core ingredients of pasta, meat sauce and cheese tend to make up the quintessential hotdish.

This week’s recipe is no exception, but due to its inclusion of authentic Italian ingredients like fresh mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, as well as Italian sausage and fresh herbs, Tony has elevated its status to “deluxe hotdish” or what most of us would call a casserole.

The original version of this recipe came from the Food Network Kitchens, and we have made very few changes over the years. We have opted to use mild Italian sausage instead of spicy, and rather than removing the meat from the sausage casing, and then crumbling it, we prefer to use ground sausage which is easier to find fresh in our local stores.

This casserole features ziti noodles, which are smooth tubes of pasta about two inches long, with a smooth surface that makes them ideal for hotdish. An easy sausage marinara sauce is made from scratch, which can be made in advance and refrigerated or frozen until ready to use. I will often double the batch and freeze half of it for later use.

Sprigs of fresh thyme and basil are added to the sauce as it cooks, and then discarded. I haven’t tried dried herbs for this recipe as I feel that fresh is best in this case, but I do end up with a fair amount left over. The basil I can always use before it spoils, but I wash and dry the thyme sprigs, wrap them in plastic and freeze in a plastic bag for up to 2 months.

Half of the mozzarella and parmesan cheese are mixed into the meat sauce, while the remaining half is used to cover the pasta before baking.

Baked ziti casserole is a perfect choice when you need to make a meal for someone in need, and I have brought it to many a new mother, grieving family or sick relative. It freezes beautifully and is hearty enough to serve with a light salad and good, crusty bread. Kids love it, and our ten-year-old son, Giovanni, summed it up best.

“Baked ziti has all the good Italian tastes – meat, cheese, pasta and sauce. It’s a really good hotdish that your family will enjoy forever.”

Baked Ziti Casserole
Gently adapted from a Food Network Kitchens recipe

Serves: 6 to 8

1 pound dried ziti pasta
Kosher salt
3 1/2 cups sausage marinara sauce, recipe follows
1 pound fresh mozzarella, half cut into 1/2-inch cubes and half thinly sliced
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add 1 to 2 tablespoons kosher salt and boil pasta until al dente, tender but still slightly firm. Drain pasta and rinse with cold water to stop the cooking process if not using immediately.

Return the pasta to the pot and toss with the meat sauce, cubed mozzarella, ½ cup Parmesan cheese, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Transfer pasta mixture to an oiled 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Layer the top of the pasta with the mozzarella slices and and sprinkle with remaining ½ cup Parmesan. Bake until lightly browned and bubbly, about 25 to 30 minutes. Serve immediately.

Sausage Marinara Sauce

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound mild Italian sausage
1/4 medium onion, diced (about 3 tablespoons)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 28 oz. can whole, peeled, canned tomatoes in puree, (3 ½ cups), roughly chopped
Sprig fresh thyme
Sprig fresh basil
1 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook the sausage until beginning to brown, about 3 minutes. Add the onion and garlic, stirring, until lightly browned, about 3 minutes more. Add the tomatoes and the herb sprigs and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for 10 minutes.

Remove and discard the herb sprigs. Stir in the salt and season with pepper, to taste. Use now or store covered in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.

Cincinnati Chili: Perfect Super Bowl Food!

Chili is the perfect Super Bowl party food, especially if the recipe is my sister-in-law Sarah Anstett’s Cincinnati Chili!

This week Tony shares her recipe, which has become one of our favorite game day foods, and it is perfect for the big event later this month! Serve it over spaghetti, like a real Cincinnatian, or go classic coney style and serve it with your favorite hot dogs!


To watch Tony’s video demonstration just click on the PLAY button below.

Fresh Berry Birthday Galettes = Happy Birthday, Tony!

One of my food resolutions for 2015 is to bake something every week, so to (quietly) celebrate Tony’s birthday tomorrow, I’m making one of his favorite pastry treats:  sweet little bundles of goodness that we call fresh berry galettes.

A galette is best described as a free-form tart or pie, which can be made with either a sweet or savory filling. Galettes can be formed as one large pastry, similar in size to a whole pie, but I prefer to make individual tarts which can be eaten by hand, almost straight from the oven.

Tony and our son, Giovanni, just adore these fruit-filled pastries, and I adore the fact that, despite their fancy name and pretty presentation, galettes are surprisingly easy to make.

The secret is in the crust, and for this specialty I like to make a basic pàte brisée crust. Pàte brisée (pronounced paht bree-ZAY), is a short crust pastry dough, meaning it has a high ratio of fat to flour, resulting in a texture that is crisp and crumbly, and a flavor that is oh, so buttery. The crust can be made in advance and refrigerated for at least two days, or frozen for up to two months.

The key to achieving the best crust is to use very, very cold butter and water. I cut each stick of butter into ½-inch cubes and then place them in the freezer for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then I fill a small bowl with ice and water.

I use a food processor to mix the dough, but you could also use a pastry blender or even your hands, if they’re cool enough. Mix the dry ingredients together first for about 15 seconds, and then add the cold butter and process again for about 15 pulses, until the mixture appears coarsely ground.

Add the water slowly through the feed tube, starting with a ¼ cup, until the mixture just holds together when pinched between your fingers. Unlike bread or pizza dough, this dough will not form automatically into a ball or be sticky, at all.

Once the dough is ready, turn it out onto your work surface and gather it into a ball. It will be somewhat crumbly, but should come together without much effort. If it seems like the dough just will not hold together, return it to the food processor and pulse-in more cold water, starting with a teaspoon.

The dough is divided in half, with each half formed into disks then wrapped in plastic and refrigerated for about an hour. When ready to form the galettes, cut each disk into quarters and gently pat into round disks.

Roll out each disk to a circle approximately 6-7 inches in diameter and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. The crust is versatile enough to work with sweet or savory fillings, but I’ve always used fresh berries. Sprinkle about a half-tablespoon of sugar in the center of each pastry circle, top with your favorite fresh berries, and finish by sprinkling more sugar directly over the berries, according to taste.

Gently fold the sides of the pastry up and inward, pinching together accordion-style. Brush each galette with eggwash and sprinkle the crust with sugar before baking in a 425-degree until golden brown, about 20 to 25 minutes. Or, freeze, unbaked, for up to one month.

Remember, this is a rustic pastry so don’t worry about making them perfect. They will look and taste great once baked, and will be worthy of anyone’s birthday.

Fresh Berry Birthday Galettes

Makes: 8 galettes

2 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt (I prefer finely-ground sea salt for better flavor)
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes and chilled
¼ to ½ cup ice water

2 to 3 packs fresh berries

1 egg
1 to 2 tablespoons water

Pre-heat oven to 425 degrees. Chill cut butter in freezer for 15 to 20 minutes.

In a food processor, mix the flour, sugar and salt together until combined, about 15 seconds. Add the butter and pulse 15-20 times until the mixture appears coarsely ground. Add the water slowly through the feed tube, starting with a ¼ cup, and then by the tablespoon, until the dough just holds together when pinched between two fingers.

Turn the dough out onto a work surface and form into a ball. Divide the ball in half and form each half into a disk. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for one hour, or up to two days, before using.

To form the galettes, divide each disk into quarters, gently patting each into rounds. Roll each small disk out to a circle approximately 6-7 inches in diameter and transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Sprinkle ½ tablespoon of sugar in the center of each pastry circle and top with fresh berries, leaving about 1-2 inches of pastry border. Sprinkle more sugar on top of the berries, according to their tartness.

Gently fold the sides of the pastry up and inward, pinching together accordion-style. Brush the crust of each galette with eggwash and sprinkle with more sugar if desired. Before baking, chill galettes in refrigerator for 20 minutes to set up.

Bake in 425 degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes until crust is golden brown and berry juices are just starting to bubble. Remove from oven and transfer to a cooling rack until ready to serve. Serve with a dollop of ice cream, or as a breakfast pastry.

To Store: Store galettes wrapped tightly in tin foil or in a metal/tin container for up to two days, at room temperature or in refrigerator.

To Freeze Galettes: Place baking sheet with unbaked galettes in freezer for an hour; then, individually wrap each galette in plastic, transfer to a freezer bag or airtight container, label with date and freeze for up to one month. For even baking, thaw slightly (about 15 minutes) and increase baking time by 3 to 5 minutes if needed.

To Freeze Pastry Dough: Wrap each pastry disk in plastic, transfer to a freezer bag, label with date and freeze for up to two months.

Sarah’s Tips:

  • In addition to fresh berries, you could also use sliced pears, apples, peaches and/or cherries as filling.
  • To achieve the best crust, use very cold butter and water and avoid mixing or handling the dough too much.
  • Taste the berries or fruit for tartness before adding sugar, then add according to taste.
  • Do not store baked galettes in plastic, which will soften the pastry crust.

Acquacotta, A Delicious Tuscan Stone Soup

The new year has arrived and our cooler winter weather has given Tony a craving for a Tuscan soup specialty called Acquacotta, which literally means “cooked water.”

Acquacotta (pronounced “aqua-coat-a”) is a comforting vegetable soup with an ancient peasant history, and is said to have originated among the shepherds and coal men of the Maremma area in southwestern Tuscany. These workers were often away from home for long periods of time and traveled only with foods that could withstand the journey.

In those days, acquacotta consisted simply of water, bread, onions, tomato and olive oil, and any other vegetables or herbs that were on hand. It was an excellent way to utilize stale bread, as hearty chunks of old bread would soften and become edible as the base of the soup.

There are variations of a legend surrounding this Italian soup about a poor traveler who arrived in a village with just a stone, but was clever enough to convince the reluctant villagers to contribute ingredients to enhance his amazing “stone soup.” Somehow knowing that there’s a legend attached to it makes this soup taste even better.

A broth-based soup, acquacotta is light and simple, yet surprisingly comforting. It’s also quite affordable, and good for you, which makes it an excellent post-holiday option for a light lunch or dinner.

Today acquacotta is widely popular throughout Italy, and over the years more ingredients have been added to the soup. While the preparations are as varied as the regions of Italy, the use of egg and bread are the unique signatures of this soup and are present in nearly every version.

This recipe is an excellent way to use up old bread, but fresh bread is also fine. We like to use a loaf of good, crusty bread like French or Italian loaves, which we slice along the bias (for bigger pieces) and then toast in a 400-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes until a light golden brown. The slices of bread should be generous enough to fill the bottom of your serving bowl.

We’ve added celery and carrots (great flavor builders for any soup), as well as red bell pepper, tomatoes and spinach for additional flavor, color and nutrition. While water was the original base for this soup, we prefer to use a low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock instead, which further enhances the flavor.

You can be as creative as you like by adding cannellini or kidney beans, mushrooms, parsley, basil, or whatever vegetables and fresh herbs you have on hand; but, keep in mind that acquacotta is, at its essence, a simple vegetable soup.

Some versions of acquacotta place a poached or fried egg on top of the soup, while others, like ours, use beaten eggs that get mixed in with the broth. We beat the eggs first, then mix them with grated Romano cheese. We place a slice of the stale or toasted bread in each bowl and pour a bit of the egg and cheese mixture over each slice. Then we ladle a hearty helping of the broth on top and serve.

According to Tony, making acquacotta is a fairly simple process. “All you have to do is sauté some vegetables, add the stock and you’re done. That’s it.” Sounds to me like the perfect antidote to a chilly winter day.

CLICK HERE for Acquacotta / Tuscan Stone Soup Recipe

3 medium yellow onions, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 lb. peeled, chopped tomatoes
1 lb. fresh spinach leaves
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
6 cups water or chicken stock (or vegetable stock)
4 fresh eggs, beaten
1 cup Romano cheese, grated
Salt and pepper to taste

Slices of stale or toasted Italian or French bread – slice on the bias for good size

Heat oil in a large stock pot, add onions, celery, carrot and bell pepper and cook over medium heat until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the spinach leaves and cook over low heat until the greens have wilted.

Add the tomatoes and cook over medium-low heat for 20 minutes. Add the water or stock and taste-test for seasoning, simmer over medium-low heat for 15 minutes.

Mix the eggs and cheese together. Line each serving bowl with one slice of toasted bread and spoon the egg mixture over each slice of bread.

Stir the soup well and ladle into each bowl – enjoy!