Posted by: patti | February 9, 2009

Ravioli Casserole

A few weeks ago, I posted a status update on Facebook referring to my ravioli casserole, and there were a few requests for the recipe.  I had every intention of sharing it right away, but as I started writing up how to make it, I found it turning into a small essay, way too long and involved for a Facebook note.

And because it was already  too long and involved, I decided I may as well call my mom and ask her some questions about the recipe.  I thought maybe my grandmother invented it, or it was from one of the family cookbooks and it became part of mom’s regular rotation of recipes because it was so quick and good.  All I knew for sure was that she showed me how to make it — well,  no, actually.  She probably didn’t show me how.  There’s no memory of us, side-by-side in the kitchen, stirring sauce and layering cheese, sipping wine and laughing laughing laughing.  Recipe sharing in my family is usually done over the phone — the Little Brother and I call mom all the time, needing small reminders on how to recreate the tastes of our childhood.  (And it never fails to tickle me when Little Brother calls me instead.)

Ravioli casserole is my all-time favorite comfort food.  I can get all fanciful and say it is my mother’s tomato sauce and all that evokes, that it is winter nights warmed from within,  that it is the comfort of me and my brother and my parents squeezed into our small kitchen nook in the house we grew up in.  But such fancy is often a bad idea, and it doesn’t feel true.  Ravioli casserole is a cheese-delivery system, nothing more.

“I didn’t feel like making lasagna one night,” mom says.  “It has all the same ingredients, and it’s not as messy, and it’s a lot faster.”

That’s the whole story.  It’s not a recipe my little Italian grandmother taught my father or one my even littler Irish great-grandmother taught her daughter, who taught my mother, who taught me.  It’s not from a treasured cookbook that crossed an ocean.  It’s not written out in spidery handwriting on yellowed, creased paper.

No.  “It was an accident we all liked,” says my mom.  And I think that fits perfectly with the comfort-food nature of the dish.  It is made from very basic ingredients — it resists you if you try to make it fancy, trust me — it is really easy to make, and I’ve yet to meet the person who doesn’t love every bite.

You need tomato sauce, ravioli, and mozzarella cheese.  That’s it.

First, the tomato sauce.  Mom pours two 14-ounce cans of Hunt’s tomato sauce (or, she admits, “whatever’s on sale”) into her sauce pot  (I have the same one, a 2-quart copper-bottom Revere, and you can’t convince me that this pot isn’t responsible for how good every sauce is).  She swirls cold water in each can and adds the pinkish liquid to the sauce, ensuring she gets every tomatoey drop and has enough liquid.  She stirs in grated Parmesan cheese (“sprinkle cheese,” we call it), a bay leaf, powdered garlic, powdered onion, and dried oregano.  No need to measure these things;  there’s just some sauce instinct that lets us know what’s right.  Sometimes she also adds a can of tomato paste to thicken it.  The sauce simmers while the rest of the ingredients are prepared.

I make my sauce a little differently, but the actions and flavors are essentially the same.  For one thing, my mother has to use powdered garlic and onion instead of the real thing because my father is the only Italian on the planet who does not like garlic.  But she can hide it from him by using the powdered stuff — you know that’s a blog post all on its own.

I quick-brown crushed garlic in the dry sauce pot, and add two cans of diced tomatoes (a 28-ounce can and a 14-ounce can), swirling the water in the cans the same way mom does.   My current favorite is Muir Glen‘s fire roasted tomatoes, but any diced tomatoes will do.  I prefer chunks in my sauce, but not everyone does.  I add oregano and a bay leaf, and an obscene amount of crushed red pepper.

You don’t have to make the sauce from scratch.  You can always heat a jar a pre-made sauce.  But where’s the fun in that?

While the sauce simmers, get the water boiling for the pasta.  Because I am a ravioli junkie, I have tried just about every brand, fresh and frozen, cheese and meat, round and square, in this dish.  And while there’s no such thing as a bad ravioli casserole, I can tell you with authority that the best version is made with Celentano Cheese Mini-Rounds (the 24-ounce package).  The package says cook 5 to 7 minutes, but you’ll want to undercook them a little or they will get a little mushy in the casserole.   Drain and rinse the almost-cooked ravioli in cold water (not only will this make them easier to handle, it’ll stop them from cooking more on their own).

The cheese.  While the sauce is simmering and the pasta is cooking, you cut up the mozzarella cheese.  How much and what kind you use is completely up to you — this is your own personal cheese-delivery system, remember.  I’ve tried fresh, Buffalo, processed, smoked, whole milk, part skim, skim . . . it’s all good.  (Fresh  can be a bit bland, but it’s still awesome.)  I use whatever’s on hand or on sale, usually the largest brick of whatever processed goodness I can find.  I cube a little more than half the brick (stealing bits to taste here and there), and thinly slice the rest for the “cheese blanket” that will go on top when it bakes.

I use a 2.5-quart ovenproof bowl for the casserole, but you can use whatever casserole dish you prefer.  Coat the bottom of the dish with the sauce, then layer in ravioli and cheese cubes and sauce, ravioli, cheese, sauce, ravioli, cheese, sauce, until the bowl is full.  Tuck it all in with the cheese blanket, sprinkle oregano on the top, and bake (uncovered) in a 350-degree oven until the the cheese is brown and the sauce has bubbled up through the edges.  I’d tell you how long that takes, but I’m not really sure — I used to know, because I used to measure and time and fret over every recipe, afraid I’d ruin it.  But now, I always forget to time it, and I tend to wander off once it’s in the oven.  Usually, I’m in another room of the house, distracted by something shiny, when I start to smell it, and I know it’s done.

There was a time when this was the only dish I knew how to make, and chances are, if you visited me for dinner ten-eleven years ago, this is what I served you.  The dish, unlike the chef, has not changed all that much in that time.  I’ve been trying to remember that girl, that inexperienced, self-conscious, unconfident self who didn’t know how to cook at all, but it’s like trying to remember not being able to read — I know, intellectually, that there was a Time Before, a time when letters and words were foreign, lifeless,  meaningless to me, but I just can’t remember what that was like.

It’s becoming more and more important to me to find that girl.  I want to hug her and pour her a big glass of Chianti.  I want to tell her she will make a lot of mistakes, especially when she tries something fancy, and that is what is supposed to happen.   I want to tell her it’s okay to go find something shiny, because it’s impossible to ruin ravioli casserole.



  1. Ravioli casserole ranks right up there with Chicken a la King over white toast, beer balls, fall off the bone pork chops in brown sauce over egg noodles, saltine meatloaf and chicken cauliflower (don’t ask).

    These are all non-award winning award winning family recipes that pull us back to the time where food just appeared in front of us because it was ready rather than cooking it ourself. That, in and of itself, makes it comfort food.

    For the record though… why do you want to give a little girl a big glass of Chianti? Stay away from your niece…

  2. Ten-eleven years ago, I was in my twenties and learning to cook. I think it’s okay to give that girl a glass of Chianti, no?

  3. “It’s not a recipe my little Italian grandmother taught my father” Gramma was not Italian (German-English) That was a family secret” Best homemade Italian food by a non – Italian!

    How about Chicken tetrazini (Sp ?). Now that was a grandma receipe!

  4. You know, you can use dental floss to cut mozzarella. Hold a string around 10-inches with both hands, slide under the ball of mozzarella, cross at the top and pull both ends in crossed, opposite directions. Drop the slices in the casserole… Yum! I think I’ll try your recipe!

  5. Just make sure it’s not minty flavored!

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