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One of the issues with running a food blog is trying to figure out if the recipe you’re posting is good enough. Sure, you might like it, and it’s reasonably close to your Platonic ideal of the dish, but there are a zillion other recipes for it out there in the blogosphere, and does the world really need another one if it’s not bringing anything new to the table?

It helps immensely when you’re planning on posting a recipe and your test batch comes out exactly the way you wanted it to, as it did when I happened to make the best baked ziti recently. With a complex flavor and a great texture, the meal was the perfect accompaniment to a cold (well, for Arkansas, anyway) winter night.

This dish was also great because I was able to make it in a single skillet, so I didn’t even wreck the kitchen in the process of making it. You start by building the sauce, frying an herb paste and tomatoes, before cooking the pasta directly in the sauce (with some added liquid, of course). You then add the dairy before finishing the dish in the oven.

This recipe does call for a nonstick, oven-proof skillet, and if you don’t have one – or if you’re nervous about using your cast-iron skillet for a gooey, acidic dish – I have successfully made this dish in a regular metal skillet, though I did stir things a little (read: a lot) more frequently. You could also cook the dish on the stove in a nonstick skillet and transfer everything to a lightly oiled oven-proof dish before adding the dairy.

Of course, everyone has different preferences when it comes to baked pasta, and this dish allows for some easy variations. Prefer browned cheese to a gooey mix of cheese and pasta? Use part-skim instead of fresh mozzarella (and stick it under the broiler for a couple of minutes to really brown things up). Want a saucier dish? Add tomato sauce with the tomato juice. As long as you follow the basic method, you should end up with a great pasta dish.

skillet-baked ziti

Rather than pounding the herbs and spices in a mortar and pestle, you could also grind everything together in a food processor, adding a little water as necessary to mix everything together. You can also substitute the fresh mozzarella with grated part-skim mozzarella if you’d like a less gooey dish with browned cheese.

  • 1 teaspoon dry basil
  • 15 black peppercorns
  • ½ teaspoon dry oregano
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 3-4 whole garlic cloves, peeled
  • ¼ cup parsley, rinsed
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine, divided
  • 2 28-ounce cans whole tomatoes, drained, juice reserved
  • 1 pound ziti or penne
  • ⅓ cup milk
  • 1 ounce grated Parmesan cheese (about ¼ cup)
  • 8 ounces fresh mozzarella, sliced into thin rounds

In a mortar and pestle, grind together basil, peppercorns, oregano, salt, and red pepper flakes. Add garlic cloves and pound until garlic is mashed. Add parsley and olive oil and pound into a rough paste, scraping the sides as needed (if you’re having difficulties forming a paste, try adding a tablespoon or two of water). Add paste and 1 tablespoon red wine to an ovenproof nonstick skillet and heat over medium heat. Once it begins to sizzle, begin stirring, and fry the paste for 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes to the skillet and increase heat to medium high. Fry tomatoes for 5 to 7 minutes, or until all the water has cooked out.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Once you’ve cooked the water out of the tomatoes, add reserved tomato juice, 3 cups water, and ziti to the skillet and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Remove the skillet from heat and taste the sauce, adding salt as necessary. Add milk, Parmesan, and 1 tablespoon red wine and toss the pasta until the dairy and wine is well-incorporated. Top pasta with mozzarella.

Put the skillet in the oven and bake for 12 minutes, rotating the skillet halfway through. Remove from oven and let rest for 5 minutes before serving.