Twenty two years ago my husband, then boyfriend, made his favorite meal for me ... Baked Ziti. Little did I know it was the only meal he knew how to make, but it was also one he had grown up with and still craves to this day. Filled with pasta, tomato sauce and a good amount of creamy ricotta, this dish also became a favorite of our children, until they became lactose intolerant. For years we've simply skipped this favorite dish in favor of alternative dairy-free pasta meals, but they alway have a little yearning for this old favorite.
A simple mention from my son last week of "I wish we could have that ziti" had me turning to the internet to see what I could do. With alternatives including tofu, dairy-free milks, and brewer's yeast, I didn't see anything that I thought would do for our family until I spotted a recipe using cashews.
Cashews? Could it work? In a word... yes! Is it exactly the same as the old ricotta version? No. But did anyone care? Again, no.
With one of those new high-powered blenders (my beloved Blendtec) on my counter, a simple spin in the Twister Jar had a cupful of cashews turning to a creamy cashew butter in no time.
With my sauce simmering along with the vegetables of the evening (this evening featured asparagus and mushrooms) I removed the pan from the heat and added a few Tablespoons of the creamy cashew butter. In no time I had a sauce reminiscent of our creamy ricotta version and into the oven it went.
Serving up the dish to the family the first comment from my son held frustration as he asked for his lactose pills along with a reminder that "Mom... you know I can't have this...".
"Yep...", I responded, "you can have this. It's dairy-free."
Quizzical looks fluttered through their eyes and hesitant forks speared the pasta as they asked "What did you do??".
Shortly thereafter the conversation switched to the usual what we did today topics and in mere minutes I had 4 clean plates. No one commented through the meal what they thought of the dish, but the "Hey mom... don't lose that recipe!" tossed over my son's shoulder as he left to finish homework warmed my heart and confirmed what I had already thought. We have a winner.
Creamy Pasta Bake
Vegan and dairy-free, this pasta will be a hit at any gathering! With creamy cashews filling in for the usual ricotta, anyone - even those with dietary restrictions - can enjoy the silky sauce clinging to the noodles. Add chicken or sausage if desired and toss in whatever vegetables you happen to have on hand.
2-3 Tbs cashew butter ** (see recipe below)
1 jar prepared pasta sauce (we like Trader Joe's Aribata Sauce)
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup chopped red pepper
1/4 cup chopped mushroom
4 spears chopped asparagus
2 cups cooked pasta (any shape)
chopped parsley to garnish
Preheat oven to 375º.
Add the chopped onion, peppers, mushrooms and asparagus to a medium pot over medium heat. Sautee/steam the vegetables in a little water until soft. Add the prepared sauce and heat until bubbling.
Remove from heat and stir in the cashew butter. Stir until the butter distributes evenly into the sauce then add the cooked pasta.
Pour the pasta into a prepared baking dish and bake until bubbly, 25-30 minutes.
Spoon onto dishes and garnish with chopped parsley.
**Place 1 cup cashews in a high-powered blender (we use a Blendtec with the Twister Jar) and process for 2-3 minutes or until desired creaminess.