I met baked ziti about 20 years ago. My mother had a cookbook entitled "365 Days of Italian Dishes," or something like that. There is a whole series, I believe. You could spend a year as all Italian, then one as all French, and so on. I was just getting into reading cookbooks and trying my hand at cooking. When choosing from the Italian book, I knew I needed a meal enough for the family of five that we were. I chose shrimp and kidney beans as a first course (a lovely combination, by the way), probably a salad on the side that I do not recall, and baked ziti. Everyone liked everything and my budding chef identity began. Ziti became a family favorite and even started appearing on the Christmas table. But it does have those pasta casserole sins: mushy pasta and a general dryness.
Fast forward 20 years or so when I met America's Test Kitchen.
I do not recall who introduced Josh and I to ATK, or if we discovered it on our own, but it's ingenious. The idea is that a bunch of chefs test recipes many times and many ways and come up with The Best way to make X. There are cookbooks, magazines, and a TV show. One day, I saw baked ziti. So I made it, and it was excellent.
The keys are way undercooking the pasta, like half the time, and making two sauces - bechamel and red sauce; also, a lot of basil. Oh yeah, instead of ricotta, cottage cheese! Ricotta is really moist and so contributes to mushy pasta. It felt odd pulling pasta out of the boiling water when it was still rigid (4 minutes instead of 11!), but it absolutely worked. And making your own pasta sauce is really the way to go. I just can't buy red sauce anymore in jars. Reading the labels is a horrible habit that puts me off buying, well, everything in a jar or box. And, sometimes, you just need something in a jar or box to help you out.
The size of this dish brings into relief the problem of cooking for two people, only. Too bad we don't live in a community with cousins and siblings, where you have a few extra people for dinner every night. I certainly halve recipes, but sometimes just go for the whole, thinking that we can reheat for leftovers. But reheating is not such a good idea with pasta casseroles, I find. The pasta gets mushier every time.
So the next time I make baked ziti, I'll just have to invite some people over.