Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Creamy Baked Ziti

Recipe modified by Gretchen Wilson – December 15, 2010
For a commentary-free and printer-friendly version of it, please click here.

Recipe originally published in Kraft Food & Family – Holiday 2010.

I love Italian food, but I’ve never had baked ziti.  Ever.  So this quickie-version of the dish intrigued me.  If you cringe at the thought of eating sauce from a jar, you can always make your own favorite marinara sauce and use that.  Of course, don’t discount all jarred pasta sauces.  My favorite is an organic sauce with no preservatives that has a great taste.

My finished product:

Picture published with recipe:

© Kraft Foods

As you can see, I ended up with what Kraft intended when they created the recipe.  I even managed to get it to brown like they did.  Although they didn’t show a serving, I wanted to make sure you could see how nicely it scooped out of the dish and how the cheese melted all the way through.

for more details about what my ratings mean, go to Gretchen’s Rating System

MessNADA – Yes, you have to cube the cream cheese.  Yes, the NADA rating is mix and go.  I just don’t consider having to make the cream cheese in smaller chunks all that difficult.  You don’t even need a sharp knife!  All you have to do is get the recipes out and you are ready to go.

Start-to-Finish Time: UNDER AN HOUR – Kraft says it will take you 40 minutes and that is pretty close.  They give you 20 minutes to cook the pasta, melt the cheese in the marinara sauce and assemble the casserole.  Even if that is pushing it for you, I’m certain you can still get it done in under an hour.

Prep Work: ALL FINGERS STILL HERE – You have to cube the cream cheese, but you can do that with a butter knife in the wrapper.  The rest is prep-free!

Ease of Recipe: COOK IT IN MY SLEEP – If you can boil water and heat up sauce, you’re going to be able to do this recipe with ease.

OverallSORRY HONEY, NO LEFTOVERS – This dish was so unbelievably good I almost didn’t tell my husband I made it.  As a matter of fact, I started writing this blog just before making my dinner tonight and when the milk I was going to use was bad, I couldn’t stop obsessing about this dish.  If I would have had a ziti-like pasta on hand, it would have happened.

Recipe Information:
Time estimates are from the original publisher of the recipe, not the length of time it took me to create it.  Look for my comments below.  Nutritional Information is based on original recipe.  Any changes I make to reduce the caloric, fat, cholesterol or sodium content are not reflected in the Nutritional Information.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 40  minutes
Servings: 8

Nutritional Information
  • Calories 420
  • Total Fat 21g (Saturated Fat 11g)
  • Cholesterol 65mg
  • Sodium 830mg
  • Total Carbohydrate 41g
  • Fiber 4g
  • Sugar 9g
  • Protein 18g
  • Vitamin A 25%DV
  • Vitamin C 25%DV
  • Calcium 35%DV
  • Iron 10%DV

As I said before, I think you can get this done within 40 minutes, but even if you can’t, you should be able to get it done in an hour.  The number of servings is fairly accurate, but I would probably serve it with a large salad and loaf of crusty bread.  If you’re looking for a vegetable to serve, I’d go with an Italian green bean blend.

I significantly lowered almost all the “bad stuff” in this recipe by using wheat pasta and no-fat or reduced-fat versions of the dairy products.  I was afraid the “cheesiness” of the dish would be affected by doing this, but it ended up tasting great.

Changes denoted by red text

4 cups wheat ziti pasta, uncooked
1 jar (26 ounces) marinara sauce
1 can (14½ ounces) diced tomatoes, undrained
6 ounces Fat Free cream cheese, cubed
¾ cup Fat Free or Reduced Fat sour cream
1 package (8 ounces) shredded mozzarella cheese
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
Cooking spray

Ingredient Notes:
Wheat Ziti Pasta
  • According to Weight Watchers wheat pasta is “loaded in vitamins and minerals and has two to three times as much fiber as refined-wheat (regular) pasta."  Some food for thought if you’re debating whether or not it is worth switching to whole wheat pasta.
  • If you can’t find ziti, you can substitute penne, mostaccioli or rigatoni.
  • Many an Italian has told me that wheat pasta is blasphemy.  Personally?  I can’t tell the difference.  However, the original recipe does call for traditional pasta, so feel free to use it in the event (a) you can’t find wheat ziti or (b) you can’t bring yourself to eat the wheat.

Marinara Sauce – Marinara is meatless pasta sauce.  My favorite is Paul Newman's Own Organic Marinara Sauce, but you can use any one that you enjoy.  Also, when I make homemade marinara sauce, I will usually make extra to freeze.  This will also work well in this recipe.  The “quick” portion is that you don’t have to make your own.

Fat-Free Cream Cheese – one serving of fat-free cream cheese versus regular cream cheese has half the calories, half the fat and half the cholesterol.  The sauce was still very creamy and had a great taste.

Fat-Free Sour Cream – one serving of fat-free sour cream versus regular was half the calories, half the fat and half the cholesterol.  I was worried that it could be too thin and would make the sauce too watery, but it wasn’t affected at all.

Mozzarella Cheese – I used part skim low moisture mozzarella cheese since I wanted to cut fat and calories, but as I started to do my research I realized that’s pretty much all mozzarella cheese.  See, people think I’m really smart, but not so much.

Shredded Parmesan Cheese – I had shredded instead of grated on hand, so that was what I used.  According to Dr. Gourmet shredded cheese melts slower than grated and works better for casseroles, so I guess it is a happy coincidence that this is what I used instead.  Maybe that is why it browned so beautifully this time?

Cooking Spray – Although it doesn’t state it in the recipe, I lightly greased my baking dish.  When I’m cooking cheese, it has the potential to get really difficult to clean off the pan.

Equipment Needed:
Cutting board
Sharp knife
Pasta pot or Large saucepan
Wooden spoon
Large spoon
13x9" Baking dish

Equipment Notes:
Cutting Board and Sharp Knife – It really isn’t needed because cream cheese is so soft and easy to cut.  I always do my cutting on a cutting board with a sharp knife though.

Baking Dish Better Homes and Gardens says one of the major differences between metal pans and glass/ceramic baking dishes is the way heat affects them (high temperatures can make glass shatter and cooking temperatures need to be altered when substituting one for the other).  However, in this case, the acidic quality of tomatoes can react with metal pans and cause the food to discolor, so you definitely want to use glass if at all possible.

(1)  Before preparing ingredients, start a pot of water boiling to cook pasta.  Heat oven to 375ºF.

(2)  Cook pasta in large saucepan as directed on package, omitting salt. Remove from pan; drain.

(3)  Meanwhile, add marinara sauce, tomatoes and cream cheese to same pan; cook on medium heat 5 minutes or until cream cheese is melted and mixture is well blended, stirring frequently.

(4)  Return pasta to pan; mix well.

(5)  Layer half the pasta mixture in lightly greased 13x9-inch baking dish; cover with layers of sour cream, 1 cup mozzarella and remaining pasta mixture.

(6)  Top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.

(7)  Bake 20 minutes or until heated through.

This was creamy comfort food that was incredibly easy to make.  Using the no-fat ingredients didn’t affect the texture or taste at all and I found myself hiding the leftovers to keep to myself.  The other great thing about this dish is that you can make it before baking it and keep it in the refrigerator.  Just increase the bake time by about 10 to 15 minutes.

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