I hope you’ve decorated the noodle tree – and no, that’s not a euphemism – because today is World Pasta Day!

Yeah, I usually ignore these food holidays, too, but one that gives me an excuse to eat more spaghetti? Especially on Meatless Monday? I’m in.

This Baked Ziti with Spinach and Gorgonzola comes from Jack Bishop’s “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook,” which every vegetarian (or lover of Italian food) should own. In this recipe, the star is the sauce, a classic buttery béchamel pimped out with a big handful of Gorgonzola while the sauce is still hot. As the pasta bakes, it absorbs most of the sauce, so you have the sharpness of the creamy Gorgonzola permeating the dish and acting as a counterpoint to the bitterness of the spinach.

However, if you’re not a Gorgonzola fan, no worries! Replace it with another good melting cheese, like fontina, gruyére, cheddar, monterey jack, gouda or asiago. Just be sure to use the full-fat version of whatever cheese you choose. Low-fat cheeses generally don’t melt well, and they won’t have the intense flavor that this sauce requires.

If you need to cut calories, just spoon a smaller serving onto your plate and enjoy the hell out of every bite.

Baked Ziti with Spinach and Gorgonzola

Adapted from Jack Bishop’s “The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook”

Serves 4

  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 cups Classic Béchamel (recipe below), hot
  • 4 ounces full-fat Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled (about 2/3 cup)
  • 1 pound flat-leaf spinach
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • Salt
  • Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 pound ziti (recommended: Barilla Plus®)
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
  1. To cook the pasta, bring 4 quarts of water to boil in a large pot over high heat. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with 1/2 tablespoon of butter, and set aside.
  2. Grab a large bowl (one big enough to hold the cooked ziti, spinach and béchamel), and pour the hot béchamel into the bowl. Add the Gorgonzola, and stir it into the béchamel. Set aside.
  3. Remove and discard the stems from the spinach. (If the spinach hasn’t been prewashed, wash the leaves in cold water until grit no longer appears in the bottom of the bowl. Shake the leaves to remove excess water, but don’t pat them dry.) Set aside.
  4. Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a deep pot. Add the onion, and sauté over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add spinach. Stir to coat the leaves evenly with the butter. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until the spinach has wilted, about 5 minutes.
  5. Transfer the spinach mixture (including any liquid in the pot) into the bowl with the béchamel. Stir. Add nutmeg, and adjust the seasonings. Set aside.
  6. When your water comes to a boil, add salt and ziti. Check the recommended boiling time in the instructions on the package, and cook until it is 1 to 2 minutes shy of that time. Drain.
  7. Stir the ziti into the large bowl with the béchamel and spinach. Toss to coat well. Pour the mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano over the pasta.
  8. Bake, stirring twice, until the pasta has absorbed most of the sauce in the baking dish and is just beginning to turn golden brown in spots, about 25 minutes. Serve immediately.

Classic Béchamel

Makes about 3 cups

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter
  • 4 1/2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  1. Using a small saucepan, heat the milk until hot but not scalded or boiling. In the meantime, in a separate saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When the butter is foamy, whisk in the flour until smooth. Stir for 2 minutes over medium heat. Do not let the flour brown.
  2. Add several tablespoons of the hot milk, and whisk vigorously. Continue adding milk in small increments, whisking until incorporated, until it has all been added to the sauce.
  3. Add the salt, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until the sauce thickens to the consistency of heavy cream, 3 to 5 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, and use immediately or cool to room temperature.

STORAGE: You can refrigerate the sauce for up to 2 days. Before you use it, bring it up to room temperature, and whisk until smooth.