There are exciting days in a life.

There are the days when you meet someone new and something skips inside. Those are the days when you think; this could work. We joking refer to those folks as ‘PLU’. People Like Us.  They’re usually those who care about what their coffee tastes like. Who believe in both personal hygiene and human rights. Who have a sense of humour- (it helps if it occasionally borders on the inappropriate or macabre). And who start to think about what’s for dinner, right after breakfast.

There are other things that prove exciting episodes in a day; namely new trousers- particularly if you find something that actually fits over your ‘is it too much pasta or is it a baby?’ stomach (for all those people who told me that once I’d bought maternity jeans, I’d never want to go back- I believe you. Seriously, why are we not all wearing these, all the time?)

Nb, I think we’re getting closer to the point where it’s not pasta.

The bump 13 days ago. It’s popped even more from then.

And then there are days when cycle couriers deliver charming packages.

Maybe  it’s a bubble wrapped swaddle in which you’ll find the first advance copy of your book. From there you get to stand by the kitchen window and thumb through the pages- admiring the blue fabric spine- which is the same colour as your favourite Derwent pencil in primary school and noting how terrific it is that they’ve managed to include a beautiful photo of EVERY RECIPE. No guessing of ‘what should the tomato keftedes from Santorini, or the apple and rosemary fritters from Zermatt one look like. It’s all there, in 144 pages of hardback glory (nb, you can also still pre order from Book Depository here, or Amazon here ).

Then later, you get an evening in which there’s nothing to do, except nest.

You get to let your husband read the acknowledgements for the first time – sure it’s only two short sentences about him, but they’re good ones. You get to eat baked pasta (because now you’ve got the jeans which means you can eat the pasta AND have a baby hanging out inside, all at the same time). And then you say a little toast; to good days, whether big or small. And to people like us, who find just as much pleasure in a night on the couch as exploring far flung lands.

Baked Ziti

If I was going to continue in a vein of curated ‘film feasts’, for post Oscars, this dish would match perfectly with fairly average ensemble film from 2004, called ‘In Good Company’. It had the smarmy charms of Topher Grace, the gruff resilience of Dennis Quaid and a few wafts of Scarlett Johannsen, pouting in pastels. There’s a scene two thirds of the way in, in which Topher Grace comes to the Quaid’s for ‘baked ziti’ for dinner. It’s the emblem for homely comfort – which then gets shattered on the floor. In the years since I’ve both wondered what baked ziti was – and what happened to Topher Grace’s career.

Turns out, baked ziti is basically a cheat’s lasagne. It’s a staple of American-Italian home cooking- right up there with chicken parm and other dishes made up of crunch/squish and red sauce.  It’s macaroni shapes, or shells, par boiled, gilded and glued with a ragu and cheese, then baked.  No need for bechamel sauces or layering, it’s just a ready tumble of comfort.

It can be tweaked to vegetarian with extra tomatoes, onions, mushrooms or eggplant. Or you can indulge in some meat. I’ve opted for a handful of lardons to play peek a boo against the rubble of skinned sausage. There are three cheeses in action; mozzarella for melting chew, parmesan for flavour and some soft dollops of ricotta for light contrast against the porkish sauce.

Make it in the afternoon. Bake it just before serving- or heat it up later on. Eat it on the couch with a bad film and a glass of red wine. And let it just be just one more thing to cap off what  was hopefully was one of life’s good days.

Baked Ziti

Serves 4 with a green salad and some bread, or 2-3 very hungry ones.

Equipment

1 saucepan and strainer. 1 fry pan. 1 baking dish, the size of an A4 sheet of paper, at least 1 inch deep, greased with butter.  Tin foil.

Shopping/foraging

3 Italian pork sausages, skinned (around 370 grams of sausage meat or mince)
80 grams (1 generous handful) of lardons, or sliced streaky bacon
1 brown onion, finely diced
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried chilli flakes (optional)
1x 400 gram tin of tomatoes (San Marzano will taste sweetest)
150 grams of ricotta
1 x 270 gram ball of mozzarella, or two small handfuls of grated mozzarella)
60 grams of parmesan, grated
400 grams of dried pasta shapes- I used over-large shells, but macaroni, penne or spirals would all work
Fresh basil to serve

Here’s how we roll

 1) Preheat the oven to 180C/350 F and put a large pot of salted water on to boil.

2) Grease your baking dish.

3) To make the pasta sauce skin the sausages and place with the lardons in a large fry pan over a medium heat. Break them up with a spatula or wooden spoon and allow to brown, undisturbed for three minutes. Then break them up a little more and shift the meat in the pan so the other side gets a chance to get some colour. This may take a few more minutes.

4) Add the finely diced onion to the pan and allow to soften in the fats that have leached from the bacon and sausage.

5) Add the oregano, chilli and tomatoes. Break up the tomatoes with your spoon and use the juice to help scrape up any flavour that’s clinging to the bottom of the pan. Allow to simmer while the pasta boils so the flavours can mingle.

6) Boil the pasta for around three to four minutes less than the designated cooking time. You want it to have a good amount of bite.

7) Drain the pasta, reserving half a cup of cooking liquid.  Add the sauce to the pasta, stirring well to encourage it into any nooks and crannies.

8) Transfer half of the pasta into the baking dish. Add half the ricotta in blobs and half of the parmesan. Add the remaining pasta over the top and add the remaining cheeses. If the sauce and pasta mix feels a little dry (it will depend on how much your sauce has reduced during your simmering), drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the reserved pasta cooking water around the edges and over the top.

9) Create a loose tent of foil to cover the baking dish. Place in the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and return to the oven to bake and brown the cheese top for another 10 minutes.

10) Serve with fresh basil scattered over the top, a green salad, some warm garlic bread if you feel like completely carbo loading and a glass of red wine.