Once again we went to the archives of NYTimes Cooking (Alison Roman) for a filling comfort food on a cold rainy autumn night. This version takes a bit of time but the depth of flavor is worth it. The real trick is cooking the pasta just enough that it isn’t fully done but won’t overcook when baked for 30 mins. Generally that works when you shave off about 2 minutes of boiling time and rinse with cold water once you’ve strained it.
For this you’ll need: 1 lb rigatoni (or ziti, if you’re a traditionalist) pasta, 16oz ricotta cheese (preferably the whole milk version), x1 28oz can of tomato puree, x1 28oz can of whole tomatoes, 1 onion (chopped), x4 garlic cloves (crushed and chopped), x2 Tbsp tomato paste, 3/4 tspn red pepper flakes, 2 Tbsp fresh oregano (chopped), 2 Tbsp fresh basil (chopped), 1/2 cup heavy cream, 1/2 cup white wine, 1/2 + 1/2 cup grated parmesan, 1 Tbsp brown sugar, 1 lb fresh mozzarella, olive oil, salt and pepper.
In a dutch oven or medium sized pot, place a good glug of olive oil and heat over medium flame. Add the chopped onion and garlic and sauté while stirring occasionally until just soft, about 3-4 mins. Add 2 Tbsp tomato paste, red pepper flakes, 1 Tbsp oregano, 1 Tbsp basil and some salt and pepper. Stir well to combine and cook until the past begins to darken – 3-4 mins. Add white wine and turn up heat to high – cook until reduced by half – about 4-5 mins.
Add in the tomato puree and whole tomatoes and (before it gets too hot) gently crush the whole tomatoes between your fingers (or do this in a separate bowl before you place them into the pot if you don’t want to put your hands in a heating sauce). Add the brown sugar and stir well until combined. Bring back to a boil and reduce the heat so that the sauce gently simmers. Allow to simmer, with a cover only partially covering the pot, until thickened and reduced – about 25-30 mins.
Meanwhile – mix together the ricotta, cream, 1 Tbsp oregano, 1 Tbsp basil, 1/2 cup parmesan, and a little salt and pepper in a bowl. Make sure it is smooth and combined well and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 425 and start a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta. Once boiling, add the pasta and cook for about 2 mins less than the package suggests so that the pasta hasn’t quite yet reached al dente – it will cook more when it is baked. Strain the pasta well – reserving 1 cup of the pasta water – and rinse with cold water to stop it from cooking. Place into a large bowl.
Once the sauce has cooked down, turn off the heat, add the 1 cup of pasta water and stir well. Now remove 2 cups of the sauce and pour this over the near-cooked pasta. Stir the pasta and sauce well to ensure that all of the pasta is well coated inside and out.
In a large baking casserole dish or dutch oven, place a small amount of sauce to coat the bottom. Add 1/3 of the pasta then 1/3 sauce then of the ricotta mixture then 1/3 of the mozzarella – repeat this two more times to make three layers.
Add the remaining 1/2 parmesan to the top and bake, uncovered on top of a baking sheet to catch drips, for 30-40 mins until golden brown on top and bubbling.
Allow to cool slightly before serving with crusty bread and a leafy salad.