Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti

You know how there are some dishes you can’t eat out at restaurants or when anyone else makes them because they just aren’t the same as how you had them when you were growing up? I have a million of those dishes – meals that no one could make the way my mother made them. Foods that I would taste at a restaurant and grimace, “That’s not right! That’s not how MY mother makes it!”

To this day, there are so many foods I would just never order in a restaurant because they are not Mom’s, especially Italian food. Of course, since I became vegan, many of those dishes aren’t an issue for me anymore. Still, I watch cooking shows on TV and shake my head at the celebrity chefs, “Uh uh, that’s not how Mom made those. She never fried her meatballs, she boiled them right in the sauce. And no, no carrots in the sauce. It never tasted acidic.” But, alas, the celebrity chefs can’t hear me and maybe, even if they could, they are making their food the way their families always did.

In my entire life, I have NEVER tasted a sauce (or gravy, if you prefer) that came close to my mother’s – whether it was a meat sauce or a marinara. Except mine, of course, because I make it the way she did or at least, how I remember she did. I never really paid attention but so much of what she did in the kitchen made its way into my subconscious anyway. Thank goodness.

Baked ziti was a dish my mother made often. Everyone loved it. One day we went out to dinner at the ONLY Italian restaurant my mother would eat in – Frankie and Johnny’s Pine Tavern in the Bronx. She thought their sauce was delicious and she liked their eggplant parm (Mom NEVER ate meat in restaurants). I was young, maybe 12 or so. I wanted to order the baked ziti and my mother said not to, that I wouldn’t like it. I argued that I loved baked ziti and she argued that I loved HER baked ziti. In the end, I ordered the baked ziti.

It came to the table looking and smelling delicious. It was hot, covered in a fresh-smelling tomato sauce and covered with ooey-gooey mozzarella. So far, so good. But when I dug in, all there was under the cheese and sauce was dry, baked pasta. I looked at Mom and asked, “Where’s the cheese? Where’s the sauce? Why isn’t there cheese running all the way through like when you make it?” She got her “I told you so” moment and I never ordered baked ziti at a restaurant again.

Years later Mom made baked ziti for Tom so he could experience what it SHOULD taste like. She made it for him every week, enough for him to take home and to work. I think that may have been a big factor in why he kept dating me. The fact that I could make it just like Mom might be a factor in why he married me.

Now I make vegan baked ziti. Vegan, gluten-free baked ziti. In some ways, it’s very different than the baked ziti I grew up on but it’s still my mother’s sauce and it’s still my mother’s technique. Sometimes I change it up and make a ricotta out of nuts instead of tofu, like my hazelnut ricotta. Depending on the mozzarella you use, that could make the whole dish soy-free. Usually, I would use a penne-type pasta but in these pictures you see shells because that’s what I had on hand.

My Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti is just how I always loved it: ooey-gooey, creamy, cheesy pasta topped with a simple sauce that’s bursting with flavor and more melted cheesy goodness on top along with some crunchy bread crumbs. It’s still one of Tom’s favorites that make his eyes light up. Just like Mom’s always did. Enjoy!

Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti

1 lb. gluten-free pasta (any shape you like)
Kosher salt
Simple Marinara Sauce (recipe below)
Creamy Tofu Ricotta (recipe below)
1 ½ cups vegan mozzarella shreds
1/3 cup gluten-free bread crumbs
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Fresh parsley, for garnish

For the Simple Marinara Sauce

1 tsp. extra virgin olive oil
½ medium red onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1- 28oz. can crushed tomatoes
1- 14 oz. can diced tomatoes
½ tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried basil
½ tsp. dried parsley
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a medium size saucepan over medium-high heat. Sautee the onion and garlic for a few minutes until softened. Add the crushed and diced tomatoes and stir. Mix in the spices and herbs. Cover and let cook on low heat for about 15-20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

For the Creamy Tofu Ricotta

1 lb. firm tofu, drained
2 Tbs. nutritional yeast or vegan grated parmesan
1 tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
1 ½ tsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. dried basil
2 Tbs. fresh parsley, chopped
1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper
1/2 cup vegan cream cheese

Crumble the tofu in a bowl. Add the other ingredients. Mix until fully blended. (You can use a food processor but I prefer to use my hands and play with my food). To make the tofu ricotta creamier and more decadent, add vegan cream cheese. It’s soooo good, you could just eat it by the spoonful!

For the Baked Ziti

Fill a large pot with water, cover and bring to a boil. While you are waiting for the water to boil, you can make the marinara sauce. When the water comes to a rapid boil, add a good amount of Kosher salt so that the pasta gets seasoned. Add the pasta, stir it around a bit and let cook until it is just shy of al dente.

While the pasta is cooking, make the creamy tofu ricotta. When the pasta is just shy of al dente, meaning it’s a little bit undercooked (remember it will cook further in the oven), drain it, reserving about ½ cup of the starchy cooking water. Return the pasta to the pot you cooked it in.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Add the ricotta to the pasta. Pour in the starchy cooking water and toss well. In a large baking dish, add a ladleful of the marinara sauce to line the bottom of the dish. Transfer the pasta-ricotta mixture to the baking dish and spread it out evenly. Top with a generous amount of the marinara sauce. You might want to reserve some to spoon on top when you serve the dish. Add a layer of the mozzarella shreds.

In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs with the oil. Use your fingers to mix it. The bread crumbs will become moist and crumbly. Sprinkle this mixture over the top of the mozzarella shreds.

Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 20 minutes until the cheese is melting and the sauce is bubbling. Uncover the dish and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes until the bread crumbs are browned. Remove from the oven and let sit for 15 minutes or so. This helps the pasta to set.

Garnish with fresh parsley. Serve with extra marinara sauce, if desired. Enjoy!

The “V” Word: Say it. Eat it. Live it.

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27 Responses to Ooey-Gooey Baked Ziti

  1. Roppie January 10, 2015 at 4:34 pm #

    What brand of gluten free bread crumbs do you use? I just got back from the store and I saw that the gluten free bread crumbs I bought have egg in them. I am just going to ditch the bread crumb topping and only have the melted cheese. I am sure it will be good, but a little messy when I transport it the to the potluck. I can regift the bread crumbs, later, to a co-worker who has celiac.

    • Rhea January 13, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

      My store carries Gillian’s Foods brand. I also like Mary’s Gone Crackers GF bread crumbs. Both are vegan. You could make your own but GF bread is pricey for that.

  2. Brian June 26, 2014 at 9:08 am #

    Two questions: how many servings? I want to make this tonight for eleven of my non – vegan extended family to promote my vegan/gluten free lifestyle & there will be at least 12 people, whatta think? Double the recipe? What brands of pasta, tofu, & especially cheezes did you use? Or in your opinion, what are the best “as close as you can get” to real cheese flavor brands? Last time I made a version of this this was many, many years ago when Follow Your Heart brand was the best on the market & it too was a hit but are there better choices now? My family are New Yorkers & I really want to wow them.

    • Rhea June 27, 2014 at 6:36 pm #

      I never write servings since my hubby and I can eat for 12 but a pan of ziti should feed 4-6 people. If I were feeding 12, I would probably triple it and have leftovers. My favorite brand of gluten-free pasta is Tinkyada, my favorite tofu is Woodstock and vegan cheeses – usually Daiya mozzarella shreds, Go Veggie Grated Parm, Go Veggie cream cheese. I hope it goes well. Let me know.

  3. Fiona February 1, 2014 at 3:52 pm #

    This was delicious! I used 1/2 c cashews instead of cream cheese, forgot the bread crumbs, and it was still really delicious! So good with garlic bread! Thanks for a great recipe I will be using again!

    • Rhea February 2, 2014 at 3:20 pm #

      Yay! Fiona, I’m glad it worked for you. Great subs!

  4. Rachel December 30, 2013 at 5:57 pm #

    I finally made this tonight and OMG I’m not sure how I’m going to keep from eating the whole pan myself. THANK YOU. SO GOOD! My kids loved it, too.

    • Rhea December 31, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

      Thank you Rachel! I’m so glad you and the kids loved it. Happy New Year!!! xoxo

  5. heather December 25, 2013 at 11:42 pm #

    This is wonderful!!! Even good heated up the next day.

    • Rhea December 26, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

      Thanks Heather. So many foods taste better the next day!

  6. Maunone Tanner December 23, 2013 at 9:50 pm #

    Another never-fail recipe. Delightfully Italian comfort food. Gonna be a go-to meal for guests. With dishes like this, I’ll be able to completely convert my boyfriend to veganism soon.

    • Rhea December 24, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

      Hi Maunone, comfort food indeed! I’ll help convert your boyfriend however I can! 🙂

  7. Alyssa December 21, 2013 at 1:04 am #

    Hi Rhea! I’m going to try this recipe for my dad who is vegan and visiting for Christmas this year. Based on these comments I think he will love it. Also I feel confident in the recipe because he is an Italian from the Bronx too. Wish me luck!

    • Rhea December 21, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

      Oooh, a real Bronx Italian. I’m scared now. 🙂 I hope he likes it!!!!!

  8. Pamela November 24, 2013 at 8:01 am #

    I hosted an event at our club this summer. I prepared the ‘traditional’ baked ziti and yours (we are plant-based.) Only diff was I used sprouted pasta. Your version was DEVOURED, and people asked for the recipe. The other? The left overs were tossed. Thank you for this great recipe!

    • Rhea November 24, 2013 at 1:18 pm #

      Woo Hoo! That’s the best comment EVER, Pamela! I’m so glad everyone liked the ziti and it beat the evil dairy one!!! HA! Thank you so much for telling me this, Pamela. You made my day! xoxoxox

  9. Rhea Parsons June 4, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    Hi Samantha, Yay!!!!! I am so glad you loved it and your boyfriend too! Most of the recipes here are GF and if not, can be made so. Let me know if I can help. 🙂

  10. Samantha June 4, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    I’m so happy I stumbled upon this recipe by googling “vegan baked ziti.” I am a vegan and newly-diagnosed celiac and was craving one of my favorite (old) comfort foods and decided to give it a shot. I never thought I’d taste a dish like this again! The real test was my carnivorous boyfriend. When he got home from work he a.) Didn’t BELIEVE I had made this and insisted I had my mom or someone come over to help, since recipes notoriously don’t turn out so well for me and b.) DEVOURED half the casserole. You should have seen his face when I told him that the ‘ricotta’ was tofu! THANK YOU!!!

  11. Rhea Parsons May 15, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Thanks Cathy, I hope you like it!

  12. cathy cadra May 15, 2013 at 12:52 pm #

    This looks so good and I’m not even hungry right now! I’m getting up early tomorrow to get to the store for ingredients for this! I better double it because this one will be gone fast! Thank you so much for your yummy looking pictures!

  13. Rhea Parsons February 6, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    Thank you Robin 🙂

  14. Robin F. January 25, 2013 at 9:27 am #

    I made this ziti earlier this week and it was the BEST ziti I have ever tasted. And since going vegan 5 years ago, I never imagined anyone nailing a good ziti until now!!! My 2 year old devoured it and of course the hubby was grinning from ear to ear. It went so well with a simple side salad I swore I was in a restaurant! Since I am currently pregnant, I am also looking into good meals to store in the freezer for those first few weeks and I am sure this ziti will be on my list!!! Thank you for sharing (and perfecting) this recipe!!!

  15. Rhea Parsons September 27, 2012 at 3:56 am #

    Thanks Jodi!

    • Debi January 24, 2014 at 10:25 pm #

      I want to make this yummy ziti for my vegan friend battling cancer. I can’t find nutritional yeast (grocers don’t know what this is), vegan grated cheese, and vegan cream cheese. Any suggestions on grocers that may carry them? I found veggie mozzarella shreds not vegan but don’t think I can use it since ingredients say although soy based there is dry milk. That makes it a “no” for a vegan, right? Any help

      • Rhea January 25, 2014 at 1:11 am #

        Hi Debi, that’s so nice of you to want to make your friend a yummy dish. You’re a good friend. I’m kind of surprised you can’t find all those ingredients; even small stores have one but no worries.

        You don’t need the nutritional yeast at all. I put it in because it adds a bit of cheesy flavor but you don’t need it. That’s one down.

        If you don’t live where there is a Whole Foods or a natural foods market, you may need to go online for name brand items. Go Veggie! Makes the grated cheese as well as cream cheese and vegan shreds. Tofutti also makes cream cheese and Daiya and Vegan Gourmet make shreds and cream cheese. You can purchase these online at Pangea http://www.veganstore.com or Vegan Essentials http://www.veganessentials.com

        You could also make your own cheeses but I don’t know if you want to do that. There are vegan cheese recipe books out there.

        You could also make a simpler dish and make a tofu ricotta or a cashew or hazelnut ricotta to toss with pasta and then bake it.

        Let me know if I can be of any other help or lead you to another recipe like Mac and pumpkin cashew cheese. That’s delicious too.

  16. Jodi September 21, 2012 at 9:44 am #

    Holy non-cow moly! This looks and sounds fantastic!

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