A few years ago, when I ran a Kickstarter to fund the Now I Know YouTube channel, I included an essay (by me, of course!) about my grandmother’s ziti recipe as one of the rewards. I’ve really wanted to share it more widely ever since, and as her birthday would have been this week, I’m going to today. As in, right now.
My Grandmother’s Baked Ziti Recipe
My grandmother died at age 80, just a few days before my 27th birthday. It wasn’t tragic. Alzheimer’s had robbed us of her — and her of everything — years prior. She had moved out of her home and into a “home” by the time death finally took her, but I remember that the house she and my grandfather shared was virtually untouched when she passed. (My grandfather predeceased her by a number of years.)
She left two sons, their wives, and six grandchildren. How her and my grandfather’s possessions were distributed is something I’m not familiar with; I’m rather sure that neither specifically detailed in their wills who was to get what specific item. But it wasn’t controversial in the slightest. I have her old Rummikub set, which I almost certainly cared about more than the others because I played an extraordinary number of Rummikub games at her house. I also have a picture of my grandfather hanging out in his long-shuttered restaurant with Joe DiMaggio, which would only be more on-brand for me if it were a picture of Keith Hernandez. One of my brothers — he lives in California now — ended up with my grandmother’s recipe box. In other families, this would have caused a civil war; in mine, nothing could be further from the truth. My brother cooked with my grandmother more often than the rest of us combined. He wanted the recipes and I don’t think any of us cared. I certainly didn’t.
My grandmother’s ziti recipe, as you’ll see shortly, is extraordinarily simple and rather difficult to screw up. You don’t need the recipe to make it. Trust me: I’ve made it many, many times over the past 25 years but only obtained the “real recipe” about a year ago. The same can’t be said for most of her other go-to dishes and, in particular, her oatmeal walnut chocolate chip cookies. Seven-year-old me loved these cookies.
About a year ago, I happened to have oatmeal, walnuts, and chocolate chips in my house, and having never made the cookies before, I decided to give it a try. (Cooking has been an on-again, off-again hobby of mine for the last six or seven years, likely due to a move to the suburbs which came with a larger-than-before kitchen.) I asked my brother for the recipe and, through the magic of the Internet, he was able to send it back to me, from across the country, in a matter of minutes. Here’s what he sent.
You’ll notice immediately that the recipe is typed on notecards — and by “typed,” I mean “on a typewriter.” My grandmother made some revisions in pen over the years, too. It’s clear but imperfect, improved by years of experimentation, and best of all, yellowed by the passage of time. It really is the archetype of what an old recipe from a recipe box should look like.
But there’s a problem with the recipe. If you follow the instructions and take a few bites, you’ll learn why: you end up with bland, dry, tasteless lumps of beige which happen to have some chocolate chips hidden somewhere within. There’s not nearly enough sugar. There’s not enough liquid. And that’s if you followed the directions as typed! If you go by grandmother’s handwritten changes, they’re even worse. She revised the recipe to reduce the chocolate chips and increase the cooking time, making these even blander and dryer.
I know what happened, mostly. Whatever my grandmother typed on those notecards wasn’t the original recipe. The original recipe — the one I ate as a kid — had a lot more sugar. Probably four times as much. It probably also had twice as many chocolate chips as what the typed recipe called for; I vaguely remember my grandmother dropping the whole bag into the mix, and those are two-cup bags. My grandmother always used orange juice instead of milk (and oil instead of butter, although oil is the right ingredient in this case) because she wanted to make things dairy-free when possible because she kept kosher. She probably used a whole cup of OJ back in the day. Or maybe she just used more oil, I don’t remember. Regardless, the recipe changed over time, most likely because of my grandfather.
My grandfather loved these cookies but was terrified of dying — much, much more scared of dying than anyone you’ve ever met — and anything that could put his mortality in play was fair game for an overreaction. When Lyme disease first appeared in the news, he would wrap the bottom of his pants in his socks when going to the mall, in case there were any ticks on his way from the couch to his car parked in the garage. When he learned about the benefits of fiber, he sprinkled it on everything — his food, yes, but your food too. He sent one person to the hospital this way. (I’ll let your imagination take it from there.) To get exercise, he’d power walk around the house — family room couch to kitchen to living room to dining room back to the couch — during commercial breaks in “Wall Street Week.” He ran the carpet threadbare this way.
The cookies suffered a similar fate. Over time, he instructed my grandmother to use less of this ingredient or more of that one; the cookies became increasingly inedible as a result. But the change, for him, was incremental, so he probably didn’t notice. Had they lived to be 120, the recipe would have been “soak oats overnight, shape into lumps, place one chocolate chip on top, bake at 350 for a day” and he would have still very much enjoyed my grandmother’s oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.
This has nothing to do with her baked ziti, though, and that’s the recipe I promised you. But you need that background — well, some of it — to understand what happened when I asked my brother for the ziti recipe a few weeks later.
My daughter’s elementary school class was doing a unit on family histories and they were going to celebrate with an in-school party — everyone was going to make a family recipe and share the food with the class. The class parents collected the recipes and put together a class-wide recipe book, too. I had suggested that my daughter make my grandmother’s cookies, but, again, they’re gross. (Despite the obvious flaws in the recipe, I made the cookies after my brother sent over the instructions. They weren’t popular.)
She suggested we make my grandmother’s ziti.
This was a great idea because unlike the cookies, my grandmother’s efforts to make baked ziti into a death-defying elixir didn’t come at the cost of the quality of the product. Baked ziti is rather simple and straightforward — it’s just ziti, cheese, and sauce. Most recipes involve meat but again, my grandmother kept kosher and therefore didn’t mix meat and dairy. And this was before low-fat cheese was ubiquitous and before anyone had ever heard of whole wheat or gluten-free pasta. And she wasn’t one to check the sugar content of a jar of marinara sauce. My daughter actually likes my grandmother’s baked ziti. So, we got cooking.
Now, if I were a normal parent, I’d have just typed up the recipe I knew from memory and emailed it to the class parent. But I appreciate history more than most and wanted the “real” recipe. The typed-on-a-typewriter, yellowed-by-time, edited-by-hand recipe that my grandmother perfected, or in the case of the cookies, destroyed. I wanted it to be authentic, just like the cookie recipe above. It wasn’t hard to get — my brother had it in the recipe box. All I had to do was ask.
This is what he sent back.
If you can’t see the image for some reason, it’s a folded piece of yellow lined paper with ten words total on it, written by hand in cursive. There are two words on each line. It reads:
Ziti Noodle [yes, “noodle,” with no “s”]
Arguably, it’s a list of ingredients — an incomplete and potentially incorrect one at that. There are no amounts listed. And there are no instructions. If you were to somehow divine the correct amounts of each of the five items listed and put them in the same general space, you could live forever and you would still never end up with baked ziti.
I can’t tell you why the “recipe” is in this shape. My brother joked “I supposed the quantities were part of the oral tradition,” but my guess is that it was never intended to be a recipe. First, the paper is too big for the recipe box, which is why it’s folded over. Second, it doesn’t say anywhere on the sheet that this is a recipe for baked ziti and, given the non-traditional cheese options, if someone were to come across this piece of paper, they’d not immediately think would turn into a baked ziti if so prepared. (I think my grandmother used cottage cheese instead of mozzarella because it’s relatively easy to find kosher cottage cheese but not so easy to find kosher mozzarella.) And finally, it’s missing an ingredient — oregano — and contains one — canola oil — which I’ve never used when I make the dish.
This feels a lot more like a shopping list.
The actual recipe calls for a box of ziti, a container of cottage cheese, a jar of sauce, and a full pack of muenster cheese. And chances are, you don’t have that in your house, or at least she wouldn’t have. So every time you want to make it, your first step is to go off to the grocery store. She typically had oregano on hand so that wouldn’t be on the list, and either she was low on canola oil or something. I don’t know. Or maybe I’m just trying to find an explanation for something; maybe it’s not a shopping list and maybe this is what she thought a “recipe” was by that point in her life; Alzheimer’s does terrible things, and this would be the least of those problems. Again, I don’t know. But I like the “shopping list” theory, so I’m going to go with it.
Why this list ended up in the recipe box — that, I don’t have as good a theory for. There are other handwritten recipes in the recipe box, and my guess is those came toward the end of her life, after she was unable to type. (After her typewriter kept breaking, my dad got her a computer, but she never figured out how to use it.) Maybe she had some urge to memorialize her recipes for the next generation, and this list of five ingredients, quantities not provided, seemed adequate enough for a simple dish.
And it is, indeed, simple. Here’s the recipe, in case you want to make it, and you should: it’s good.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
One box of ziti noodles. It doesn’t really matter if it has ridges. Make it on the stove like you normally would, but cut the cooking time by a couple of minutes. If the box says “al dente in seven minutes,” go for six minutes. Drain it, but don’t rinse it, although I don’t really think the rinsing/no-rinsing thing matters if you’re baking the pasta afterward. Return the pasta to the pot.
One jar of marinara sauce. One tub of cottage cheese, I think 7 ounces. Dump both into the pot with the cooked pasta. Mix well. Transfer the whole thing to a rectangular Pyrex dish, I think 13” by 9” but honestly I don’t know. If you want, I’ll measure mine.
One pack of sliced Muenster cheese. Layer it on top. Overlap a bit if you want, but make sure you go edge to edge. Sometimes you need a second pack of cheese.
A lot of oregano. Sprinkle liberally over the whole thing. I use a lot; you can use less.
Cover in aluminum foil. Bake for 30 minutes covered. Uncover, bake for another 15 minutes. This feels incredibly inefficient and I bet you could just do 30 minutes uncovered, but why mess with success?
Let it cool after you take it out. It should be served warm enough where you don’t want to microwave it — gross — but not so warm that when you cut it, it becomes a gooey mess.
Cut, serve, enjoy. That part is self-explanatory.
The Now I Know Week in Review
Monday: This Isn’t a German Fight Song. Coincidentally, it’s a recipe.
Tuesday: The Extra Legs for the Last Leg. This isn’t the most obscure story; there’s a very good chance you’ve heard it before. But in my effort to do more good with the newsletter, I decided to share it anyway, as it’s an exceptional example of sportsmanship and empathy.
Thursday: Snow Reason to Think a Crime is Underway. Honestly, this one is kind of silly.
And some other things you should check out:
Some long reads for the weekend.
1) “The True Story of the Married Woman Who Smuggled Her Boyfriend Out of Prison in a Dog Crate” (The Atlantic, 30 minutes, October 2020). I don’t think this requires any further elaboration on my part.
2) “Grapefruit Is One of the Weirdest Fruits on the Planet” (Atlas Obscura, 12 minutes, October 2020). As a master of overthinking things and being mesmerized by minutiae, I really, really, appreciate this essay.
3) “A TikTok house divided” (Vox, 33 minutes, October 2020). The subhead: “You’re 19 years old. You get famous overnight. You move to LA. Now what?” TikTok is a weird place, but it’s also a lot of fun. And like anything else, one’s experience can go south, as seen here.
Have a great weekend!