This is a guest post written by Taylor Deckant, Program Manager at Smile Project HQ. Taylor lives life by the motto "Dream Big" and is always trying to find ways to give back. She always finds the good in people and is very happy to contribute to a movement she truly believes in.
In middle school and high school, my best friend lived in my backyard. What I mean by that is his house was behind mine. We argued over who was actually living in the backyard constantly so if you ask him, he will say I lived in his backyard. He’s wrong though.
We spent years in our backyards playing catch, jumping on the trampoline, swimming, adventuring, and eating his mom’s baked ziti with a side of cantaloupe. He and his younger sisters were incredibly picky so baked ziti and cantaloupe were almost always on the menu. It became one of my favorite meals probably just because of how often I had it.
I vividly remember having to make it for his sisters (because his mom had gone back to school) and being terrified I was going to mess it up. It isn’t hard; cooked pasta, a jar of red sauce, 16 ounces of ricotta cheese, topped with mozzarella and baked until bubbly. But this felt like my right of passage! We were older and trusted to not burn the house down or lose a sister. It was an easy dinner but it was the first time I cooked for other people and I am happy to report that I did not mess it up.
Fast forward to this week, some 10+ years later, I decided to make baked ziti for my husband because he loves ricotta cheese. (No cantaloupe though. His mom let a cantaloupe rot on the counter once and he is scarred for life). It’s an easy, quick meal so I threw it together and popped it in the oven. I plopped down on the couch to play Animal Crossing and the house began to smell so familiar and safe. Like no time had passed since that day I cooked for two young girls who are now in high school themselves.
But more importantly, that smell reminded me that I am safe and loved. It seems so silly and yet, a meal made repetitively because it is quick and easy became a direct link to some of my best childhood memories. Without ever realizing, I began associating this meal with my best friend’s loving mom, the time spent on his trampoline, his young sisters and their obsession with the Disney Channel, and all of our silly adventures. My house smelled like simpler times and when I sat down to eat, I couldn’t stop smiling.
It’s now a staple in our meal rotation partially because my husband loved it but more importantly because it feels like home. I think it’s incredibly important to identify and hold onto things that remind you of happy memories, especially if it happens to be one of the easiest comfort foods you know how to make. There’s nothing quite like being able to literally cook up happiness in a 9x13 glass dish.
Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box.
While the pasta is cooking, mix ricotta cheese and marinara together in a bowl. Save just a little bit of the marinara sauce. Make sure you use a bowl big enough to accommodate the cooked pasta!
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
When the pasta is done, strain and rinse. Fold into the ricotta/sauce mixture.
Put half of the pasta into a 9x13 baking dish, top with mozzarella cheese, add the rest of the pasta, and top with the reserved marinara sauce and more mozzarella cheese.
Bake until the cheese is melted and the edges begin to bubble (about 15 to 20 minutes.)
Best served with: salad, garlic bread, and a side of cantaloupe