I found this recipe for Giada's Baked Lemon Ziti last week and thought it was a very fitting spring-based pasta casserole to close out casserole season. I mean how can one go wrong with a pasta casserole made with a Parmesan-based white sauce spiked with lemon zest and lemon juice, flavored with pancetta and basil, before being topped with creamy and ooey-gooey mozzarella and crunchy golden-brown panko?
This was easy enough and fell into my plans perfectly as my husband does not like savory dishes spiked with lemon and he was away on business. The dish came together in no time at all.
I made a few changes to the recipe, namely: I subbed bacon in place of pancetta for both sourcing reasons and financial reasons and I would likely do this again; I also subbed panko in place of regular breadcrumbs as I prefer panko; and lastly, when the the pasta and sauce had been mixed, and the pasta was poured into the baking dish, I added almost another cup of milk and stirred. I do this often with baked pastas as I find them dry if I do not.
*One more tip: Giada says to mix the breadcrumbs and Parmesan and top the casserole, then drizzle with olive oil. I DO NOT like this method because the olive oil does not evenly distribute amongst the crumbs and you have patches of golden-brown topping and then pale topping. Instead, I prefer to mix my breadcrumbs and/or panko with the Parmesan and then douse them with olive oil or melted butter in the same bowl and mix until all is combined and every bit of topping in covered in oil or melted butter and then spread the crumbs over the casserole. This yields a much more desirable topping in every instance!
Reviewers of this recipe had largely given this dish great reviews, saying that it was a real favorite. Some suggested that they couldn't taste the lemon at all. I didn't find this to be true at all. I definitely tasted a good amount of lemon flavor.
I found this to be a very unique pasta dish, one that marries the fresh flavor of lemon with a very rich and cheesy sauce. While good, I felt like something was missing and I couldn't quite put my finger on it. Did it need some garlic? I can't quite say. I loved the bits of bacon and the crunchy panko crust, but I did feel like the basil lent a somewhat overwhelming licorice flavor and maybe some pesto added to the sauce would be a more agreeable addition.
This will likely be one of the more interesting dishes I make this year and I can't say I loved it, but I can't say I hated either. Instead I am left somewhat perplexed, wondering if perhaps this could be improved upon somehow, if I could only figure out how.
If you have any suggestions, please leave them below. Perhaps some peas and spinach? Green veggies?
Baked Lemon Ziti
Adapted from Food Network
By Giada De Laurentiis
Butter, for greasing the dish
salt, to taste
1 pound ziti pasta
1 tablespoons olive oil
12 ounces pancetta, sliced into 1/4" thick slices/chopped
1 stick butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3-1/2 cups whole milk
zest of 2 large lemons
3/4 cup grated Parmesan
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup chopped fresh basil
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (1 large lemon)
2 cups shredded mozzarella
2/3 cup plain breadcrumbs or panko
1/3 cup grated Parmesan
extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
For the pasta: Place an oven rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter a 13 x 9 x 2 glass or ceramic baking dish.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until tender but still firm to the bite, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes.
In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook until brown and crispy, about 8 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pancetta and drain on paper towels.
For the sauce: In a 2-quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Add the lemon zest. Simmer over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the Parmesan, salt and pepper.
In a large bowl, combine the cheese sauce, cooked pancetta, pasta, basil and thyme. Toss until the ingredients are coated. Stir in the lemon juice. Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish and sprinkle with the mozzarella.
For the topping: In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs/panko and Parmesan. Sprinkle the topping over the pasta mixture. Drizzle the top with the olive oil and bake until the top is golden brown, 25 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes and serve. (*See note above within post regarding how I make my breadcrumbs). *The topping can be drizzled with the pancetta cooking juices in place of the olive oil.