I like baked pasta—the charred, crispy noodles and gooey cheese lid—as much as the next person. Which is to say a lot. I, like many others, grew up looking forward to baked ziti day in the cafeteria lunch rotation, accompanied by green cans of "Parmesan cheese" which I zealously sprinkled on top. As I've gotten older and become more of a food snob (sorry, family and friends and anyone who tries to eat with me!), I developed a qualm about baked ziti: ricotta.
In this, I am not alone. There are plenty of other baked ricotta haters out there, and we all share the same complaint: when baked into a pasta, ricotta's silky texture becomes grainy and unpleasant. It takes one of the most beautiful things in the universe and corrupts it, simultaneously ruining both ricotta and baked pasta. This is a heinous crime.
And so, for many years, when it came to baked pastas of all stripes, I became firmly Team Bechamel, avoiding ricotta altogether. Recently, however, I stumbled upon a tip from Alison Roman, author of the delightful, brightly-hued cookbook Dining In, that changed everything. In her baked ziti recipe on NYT Cooking, she instructs you to "mix cream into ricotta before incorporating it into baked pasta dishes, so the ricotta doesn't become grainy during baking."
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Adding the heavy cream, she writes, prevents the ricotta from becoming dry during baking, "letting it be its most luscious self."
A way to maintain ricotta's silky integrity, even during baking? I'm intrigued. Of course, the better your ricotta, the better it will taste during baking. I recommend making your own (it's easy, promise!), but if you don't feel up to it, just buy the best you can find.
The best part is that this tip doesn't only apply to traditional baked ziti; try incorporating heavy cream-dosed ricotta into any of your baked pasta dishes for creamy goodness. Need some inspiration for how to use this newly discovered tip? Try it in some of these recipes (and not recipes):