With a homemade meat sauce, a creamy layer and plenty of cheese, this Baked Ziti pasta casserole is one of those meals you'll want to make again and again! It's easy to prep ahead and reheat - and it freezes really well, too.
16ouncesziticooked, drained (reserve ½ cup cooking water!) and cooled
For the tomato sauce:
1poundItalian sausagecasings removed and crumbled
1large carrotfinely diced
1stick celeryfinely diced
2(14-oz) jarstomato basil sauce
salt + pepperto taste
For the cream sauce:
1cupsoftened cream cheeseOR ricotta; may replace half with light sour cream or Greek yogurt
salt + pepperto taste
4-8tablespoonsreserved cooking water from the pasta
For the cheese:
1 ½cupsshredded mozzarella
Make the tomato sauce:
Brown the sausage: Heat a large, deep skillet over medium-high heat. Add the crumbled sausage meat and cook until browned. Add oil if needed (sausage usually has enough fat to cook without, but if using a lean sausage you may need to use oil).
Sauté the vegetables: Add the onion, garlic, carrot and celery to the skillet. Cook until they're starting to soften, about 5 minutes.
Cook the sauce: Stir the tomato paste and Italian seasoning into the sausage/vegetable mix. Add the tomato sauce and simmer on low heat for 5 minutes.
Make the cream sauce:
In a medium bowl, stir together all ingredients for the cream sauce. Start with 2 tablespoons pasta cooking water and add the extra spoonfuls as needed to make a thick, smooth sauce.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Spread a spoonful of the meat sauce on the bottom of a 9x13 inch casserole dish.
Assemble the casserole:
Layer 1: Add half of the pasta.Layer 2: Top with ⅓ of the shredded mozzarella.Layer 3: Spread all of the cream sauce on top.Layer 4: Top with ½ of the meat sauce.Layer 5: Add the remaining half of the pasta.Layer 6: Sprinkle with ⅓ of the shredded mozzarella.Layer 7: Top with the remaining meat sauce.Layer 8: Sprinkle with parmesan and the remaining mozzarella.
Bake the casserole:
Bake the casserole for 25-30 minutes, or until the cheeses are melted and the casserole is bubbly. Serve hot.
To freeze, follow the recipe until the casserole is fully assembled but not baked. Chill until cold, then cover with one layer of cling film and two layers of aluminium foil, making sure the edges are sealed. Freeze for up to 2 months.You can reheat from frozen. Remove the foil and cling film, then loosely cover with one layer of foil. Bake in the preheated oven for 50-60 minutes, or until bubbly and piping hot all the way to the middle.You can also divide the casserole between two 7x11 dishes instead of one 9x13 dish.