Adapted from the New York Times. Cooking the pasta only until it is al dente seems to make a big difference. This dish is really delicious and appeals to those who don’t like a lot of vegetables in their pasta.
If you add the meat and/or the mushrooms, you will need a 4-quart casserole instead of a 3-quart, either a deeper 9 x 13-inch or a 10 x 15-inch one.
¼ cup olive oil
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can whole peeled tomatoes, packed in juice
1 (28-ounce) can tomato purée or sauce
¾ teaspoon red pepper flakes(optional)
16 ounces/1 pound ricotta
½ cup heavy cream
½ cup finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino, plus more for grating on top
1 pound ziti, rigatoni, penne, manicotti or other short, tubelike pasta
1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
(1 pound ground beef, optional)
(1 pound small portabella mushrooms, sliced, optional)
Make the tomato sauce: Heat oil in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is totally softened and translucent (without letting it brown), 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomato paste and continue to cook, stirring until it has turned a deeper brick-red color, tinting the oil and onions a fiery orange color, about 2 minutes. Crush the whole tomatoes by hand and add them (including the juice) and the tomato purée to the pot, stirring to scrape up any bits from the bottom of the pot. Season with salt and pepper and add red pepper flakes, if using. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the tomato sauce has thickened and flavors have come together, 20 to 30 minutes.
Brown the ground beef if you are using it. Sauté the mushrooms in a little olive oil if you are using them. Season with salt and pepper. Mix with the tomato sauce.
Prepare the filling: In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, heavy cream and 1/2 cup Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.
Prepare the pasta: As the sauce cooks, heat oven to 425 degrees, and place a large pot of salted water to boil on the stove.
Cook pasta until it’s nearly al dente. (You want to undercook the pasta slightly, as it will continue to cook in the oven. A good way to do this is cook it 2 minutes less than you normally would if preparing it al dente.) Reserving 1 cup of the pasta cooking liquid, drain pasta.
Once tomato sauce is done, stir in reserved pasta water.
Place pasta in a large bowl and add 2 cups sauce. Stir to coat pasta evenly encouraging the sauce to go inside each tube.
Spoon a bit of remaining sauce on the bottom of a 3-quart 9 x 13-inch baking dish and top with 1/3 of the pasta. Spoon 1/3 of the remaining sauce on top, dollop with half the ricotta mixture and scatter 1/3 of the mozzarella on top of that. Repeat, beginning with the pasta, one more time. For the final layer, add the last 1/3 of pasta and the last of the sauce. Dot remaining mozzarella on top and shave a bit more Parmesan on top of that. Place baking dish on top of a sheet pan lined with parchment paper to catch any drips. Place in the oven and bake until the edges are golden brown and bubbling and the top has browned nicely, 20 to 30 minutes.
Let cool slightly before serving.