It's SO easy to mess up baked pasta. It's even easier to mess up freezer-friendly pasta.
This is another tried and true recipe from my heroes at Cooks Illustrated. I've had a lot of BAD baked pasta - dry, rubbery, mushy, gooey, etc. This one tastes great. A few things to keep in mind: you can't cook pasta to al dente if you're going to bake it - you'll overcook it, and it will be mushy and gross. Under-cook it a bit. Don't use pre-shredded cheese - it will get rubbery and crusty. Use the mozarella and cut it up, use cottage cheese, not ricotta,.
Serves 8 to 10. Published March 1, 2009. From Cook's Illustrated.
1 lb. whole milk cottage cheese or 1 percent cottage cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese (about 1 1/2 cups)
1 pound ziti or other short, tubular pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
5 medium garlic cloves, minced (about 5 teaspoons)
1 (28-ounce) can tomato sauce
1 (14.5-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil leaves (using fresh will add flavor - I recommend it)
1 teaspoon sugar
Ground black pepper
1 cup heavy cream (1/2 & 1/2 or whole milk will work - we prefer them)
3/4 teaspoon cornstarch (increase to 2 tsp. if you use whole milk)
8 oz. low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella cheese, cut into 1/4-inch pieces (about 1 1/2 cups)*
*I would not recommend using fresh mozzarella, since it doesn't melt as well as cubed low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella - in fact, I have subbed part-skim, and it's fine. Here's a photo I borrowed to show what it looks like when I'm done. this way the cheese melts better, and is more evenly distributed.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk cottage cheese, eggs, and 1 cup Parmesan together in medium bowl; set aside. Bring 4 quarts of water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and pasta; cook, stirring occasionally, until pasta begins to soften but is not yet cooked through, 5 to 7 minutes. DO NOT OVERCOOK the pasta, especially if you're freezing it. The noodles will absorb moisture from the sauce, and it will get soggy if it's cooked fully. Drain pasta and leave in colander (do not wash Dutch oven).
2. Meanwhile, heat oil and garlic in 12-inch skillet over medium heat until garlic is fragrant but not brown, about 2 minutes. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, and oregano; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in ½ cup basil and sugar, then season with salt and pepper.
3. Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in small bowl; transfer mixture to now-empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to simmer and cook until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. (If you use whole milk, then increase the corn starch as noted, and cook about 2 minutes more.) Remove pot from heat and add cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce, and ¾ cup mozzarella, then stir to combine. Add pasta and stir gently to coat thoroughly with sauce. I MIGHT add a little additional tomato sauce if I'm freezing it - I need to do some experimenting, so I'll let you know.
4. Transfer pasta mixture to 13- by 9-inch baking dish and spread remaining tomato sauce evenly over pasta. Sprinkle remaining ¾ cup mozzarella and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over top. Cover baking dish tightly with foil and bake for 30 minutes. [To freeze, cool completely, and freeze here - be sure to spray the foil with non-stick spray so your cheese doesn't stick when you cook. Thaw in fridge, and then cook as directed.]
5. Remove foil and continue to cook until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about 30 minutes longer. Cool for 20 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 tablespoons basil and serve.