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  • Shana Rae

Creativity in Cooking: Cheesy Baked Ziti

One of the ways we all express creativity on an almost daily basis is through cooking. Deciding what to cook is a creative process in itself because you draw from memory and experience to identify the meal that suits your preferences and mood for that day or that week. If you have moved past cooking basics, you also likely adapt recipes to meet your own needs. Even if it’s a small tweak or substitution, you are creatively changing a recipe into something new and different from the way anyone else might prepare that meal.

As my confidence in the kitchen has grown over recent years, I’ve become more adept at noticing the commonalities among types of dishes and preparation methods, allowing me to modify a recipe based on the way it may have been done in a similar recipe. I’m confident that the change will work because I understand how the flavors will meld or know that a certain ingredient will act the same way as another in similar circumstances.

As an example, I’m going to show you how I adapted a baked ziti recipe from Jenn Segal at Once Upon a Chef.[1] You’ll notice if you look at the source page that Jenn herself discusses how she swapped out the traditional ricotta for mozzarella and heavy cream.

While I make many of Jenn’s recipes as written because they are perfect as they are, for this one I replaced the original 1.5 pounds of Italian sausage (spicy or mild) with 1 lb. mild Italian sausage and 1 lb. ground beef. My daughter isn’t a huge fan of sausage, and this is the ratio that I use in my lasagna recipe, so I was confident that the mixture would work. Since I added the less flavorful ground beef, I also seasoned the meat the way that I do for lasagna, with some garlic salt and Italian seasoning. If you want to use real garlic, you could certainly do that by mincing it and adding it to the meat as it browns. You would need to add some kosher salt to taste as well.

I have also made this recipe with pre-made frozen mini Italian meatballs from the grocery store, and it’s wonderful that way. You can usually be very creative with meat in an Italian dish. You could use turkey sausage, or as in Ina Garten’s lamb ragù, ground lamb.[2]

When I first made this dish, I didn’t have the time to make the sauce as written, but I had a jar of marinara. I do like to make sauce from scratch when I have the time because it can be adjusted to taste by so many variables. For instance, in Ina’s Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù and other traditional Italian recipes, fennel is used in the sauce. My family does not appreciate the licorice flavor of fennel, so I leave it out without any consequence.

Cheese types and amounts can also be adapted to taste, so long as cheeses with similar melting characteristics are swapped. I discovered by accident that I preferred to use half of a sliced block of mozzarella plus half shredded mozzarella. On one occasion I had only one cup of shredded mozzarella, but I had part of a block left in the refrigerator. I decided to slice it rather than shredding it, and we all loved the way it melted into the pasta.

I hope you enjoy this recipe, perhaps with your own creative adaptations!

Cheesy Baked Ziti

Yield: 8
Prep time: 30 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes


1 lb. | ziti or similar pasta

1 lb. | mild Italian sausage

1 lb. | ground beef

½ tsp. (or to taste) | garlic salt

1 tsp. (or to taste) | dried Italian seasoning (or combination of basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram)

1 jar | high-quality marinara sauce, such as Victoria

1 cup | heavy cream

1.5 cup | grated pecorino Romano, divided

⅓ cup | fresh basil, chopped, or sprinkle dried basil to taste

1 cup | shredded whole milk mozzarella

½ package | block whole milk mozzarella (or shred half of the package yourself and slice the other half, leaving out the pre-shredded mozzarella)


Preheat the oven to 425°F with the rack in the middle of the oven.

Place the sausage and ground beef into a large skillet or sauté pan over medium-high heat and use a wooden spoon to break it apart as it starts to brown. Sprinkle the meat with the garlic salt and Italian seasoning, mixing it in as you turn and break up the meat.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil, liberally salted. Boil the ziti until barely al dente, about seven minutes. Since it will continue to cook in the oven, it needs to be slightly undercooked on the stove. Drain the ziti and add it back to the pot, off of the heat.

Once the meat is browned, drain it and add to the pasta in the pot. Add the marinara to the skillet on low. Add the heavy cream, 1 cup of pecorino Romano, and the basil to the skillet, stirring to combine and melt the cheese. Pour the contents of the skillet into the pasta pot and stir gently to combine.

Prepare a 9x13 baking dish or lasagna dish with cooking spray or butter according to your preference.

Spoon half of the pasta mixture into the dish and sprinkle with half of the shredded mozzarella then space slices of the mozzarella evenly over the top. Add the remaining pasta mixture and repeat with the shredded mozzarella and the sliced mozzarella. Finish with the remaining pecorino Romano.

Bake uncovered for 15 minutes or until the cheese has melted and started to brown. Rest for a few minutes to allow the sauce to thicken and serve with a green salad or vegetable and crusty bread.

[1] Jennifer Segal, “Baked Ziti with Sausage,” Once Upon a Chef, Accessed March 4, 2023. [2] Ina Garten, “Baked Rigatoni with Lamb Ragù,” Modern Comfort Food (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2020), 134.


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