Cheesy Baked Ziti With Big-Batch Sauce

March 12, 2021
2 Ratings
Photo by James Ransom. Prop Stylist: Megan Hedgpeth. Food Stylist: Kate Buckens.
  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 3 hours 30 minutes
  • Serves 8-10
Author Notes

Last July, I lost my mom unexpectedly to cancer. Raised in an old-fashioned, Brooklyn-bred Italian family, food was my mom's love language, and was at the core of my relationship with her. From her family pancake recipe to Italian staples like eggplant parmigiana, and her legendary bolognese sauce, our meals were some of my best memories of her, and now a critical part of my grieving process.

I'd watched her make her Sunday sauce so many times, but never wrote down the directions, or captured a complete ingredient list. I just always assumed she'd be around to make it herself. When she passed away, and I'd taken my last bite of the sauce she'd frozen away for me, I decided to piece together her recipe for the sauce and baked ziti. This is my attempt at connecting the past to the present—and finding a way to welcome the future.

Note: I recommend using Hunt's or Cento brand crushed tomatoes as well as Hunt's sauce, which is what my mom always preferred, but feel free to swap out with any other good quality brand—the quality of tomatoes makes a difference!

For more stories, memories, and extended histories behind your most-loved, treasured family recipes from the column, check out our new podcast My Family Recipe.Joelle Zarcone

Test Kitchen Notes

Featured in: Grief, With a Side of Baked Ziti. —The Editors

What You'll Need
  • Sunday Sauce
  • 8-10 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3-4 garlic gloves, finely chopped
  • 2 (6-ounce) cans, tomato paste
  • 8 (7-ounce) cans, Hunt’s tomato sauce
  • 1 (28-ounce) can, Hunt’s crushed tomatoes
  • salt, to taste
  • pepper, to taste
  • 1-2 tablespoons Italian seasoning
  • 2 small yellow onions, whole
  • 1/2 pound beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 1/2-3/4 pounds pork spare ribs
  • Baked Ziti
  • 1 pound ziti, cooked
  • Sunday sauce (see above)
  • 5-6 tablespoons ricotta
  • 1 log of full-fat mozzarella, sliced into chunks
  1. Sunday Sauce
  2. Add olive oil to a large, sturdy pot and place on medium to low heat. Once oil is hot, add garlic and sauté on low. (Do not let garlic burn!)
  3. Once garlic is fragrant and slightly browned, add two cans of tomato paste. Stir for 5-10 minutes.
  4. Add remaining cans of sauce and large can of tomatoes to pot and stir well. Add water to each of the small sauce cans (not the large can) and mix and pour into the mixture. Stir well to combine.
  5. Add salt and pepper to taste, as well as the Italian seasoning. Stir once more to mix seasonings into the sauce.
  6. Cover and bring the mixture to boil on a medium flame. Add whole onions and meat. Reduce to low heat and simmer for 2.5-3 hours.
  1. Baked Ziti
  2. Heat the oven to 350°F. Pour cooked pasta into a 13x9-inch oven-safe baking dish or similar pan. Pasta should cover the entire length of the baking dish in one consistent layer.
  3. Add about 5-6 heaping tablespoons of ricotta to pasta, and mix until ricotta is well incorporated.
  4. Add enough of the Sunday sauce that the entire dish is well-coated, but not soaked. (Note: Even though this is a meat sauce, do not add the meat. Instead, save it for another meal or serve some on the side of the baked ziti, mixed in with extra sauce.) Next, add a handful of mozzarella chunks, and mix well so the dish of pasta is pink with sauce and cheese is well spread out.
  5. Add more sauce to cover the top of the pasta (you don’t want the pasta to dry out in the oven), and a final layer of mozzarella. You can add as much or as little cheese as you like, but keep in mind that it will melt and spread.
  6. Bake in the oven for 20-30 minutes, or until evenly hot throughout and cheese has melted and crisped up. You can cover the pan loosely with foil to bake, but remember to remove the foil for the last 5-10 minutes. Serve with extra sauce on the side.

See what other Food52ers are saying.

  • Jennifer Bowers Villella
    Jennifer Bowers Villella
  • Liz Summers
    Liz Summers
  • Joelle Zarcone
    Joelle Zarcone
  • AntoniaJames

8 Reviews

Jennifer B. March 22, 2021
Made this yesterday for my Italian father in law, best Ziti ever he proclaimed! I thought of the author and her family, and our Italian mother who we lost to Cancer unexpectedly, as I prepared every step. A cooking tribute. And Nona’s in heaven smiling down. Molte grazie.
Joelle Z. March 24, 2021
Oh, thank you so much! I’m so glad it was a hit - my mom would have been so pleased - and I’m sorry to hear about your mom.
Liz S. March 15, 2021
I will try this as soon as I can get the meat ... I know, from the article that your mom (and you) used the whole milk tub ricotta. But, for several months, I have been making yogurt (ran out and didn't want to go to grocery and then ... no looking back) AND wanted ricotta ... short story, I used the yogurt whey with milk ... the yogurt whey being the acid and it makes the absolute BEST ricotta IMO :). 2 cups yogurt whey to 1/2 gallon milk heated to 180F, then let sit for 15 minutes and skim curds. Drain curds for 20 or so minutes. I know, not for everyone, but if you are making yogurt (greek drained yogurt) and have the whey, I highly recommend.
Liz S. March 15, 2021
Caveat. I do have access to pasteurized (not UHT) milk. I have not tried with UHT.
AntoniaJames March 6, 2022
Thanks so much, Liz, for the tip! I too make yogurt, so I always have whey on hand. I plan to use your ricotta ratio posthaste. ;o)
Risa March 15, 2021
I will make this because 1) it sounds delicious and 2) I want to honor the author’s beautiful story. Food is so intertwined with life. Also as someone who hates crunching into onion pieces in anything, throwing whole onions in to render the flavor is genius.
Angie1 March 13, 2021
Quick question, please: If the meat that cooked in the sauce is not included in the baked ziti recipe, what to do with it? Use it in another recipe with leftover sauce? Discard it? (I would have a very hard time doing that.) I presume the whole onion that cooks in the sauce is to be discarded, as all the flavor cooked into the sauce. Thank you.
Joelle Z. March 13, 2021
Hi! So what we would always do is either serve the meat (some or all) on the side of the baked ziti, either mixed in with extra sauce -- in case anyone wants to top off their baked ziti -- or on its own, or keep it in the leftover sauce that we put in the freezer to use for a future dinner of pasta with the meat sauce. The meat freezes really well mixed in the sauce. (I usually distribute it across the containers in the freezer, so each one has some meat.)

As for the onion, we used to keep it to eat -- either right away, or freeze along with the leftover sauce and then eat it (like the meat) with our pasta dinner... it gets super soft while cooking in the sauce, so sort of falls apart If you don't like onion, though, you can always discard after the sauce is cooked.