Come Into My Kitchen

For Margaret Thompson, Baked Ziti is part of cooking in the comfort zone

Margaret Thompson, of Shawnee, enjoys cooking with son Elliott, 5, and daughter Stephanie, 2. Her baked ziti is a favorite recipe for sharing with others.
Margaret Thompson, of Shawnee, enjoys cooking with son Elliott, 5, and daughter Stephanie, 2. Her baked ziti is a favorite recipe for sharing with others. Special to The Star

Margaret Thompson is a former elementary and high school art teacher from Shawnee who enjoys cooking with her two children, Elliott, 5, and Stephanie, 2. Thompson also likes making comfort foods for family and others.

Why do you enjoy preparing heartwarming foods? I am just an average everyday kind of cook. I learned to cook by watching my mom, Judy Schramm, and grandmother Margaret Harrison — for whom I am named — in the kitchen. For me, cooking is the ultimate act of caring.

Now I enjoy cooking with my own children and watching Elliott treat his time in the kitchen as a creative project. He loves to help bake, while Stephanie loves to help stir.

So you’re still teaching? Still teaching, yes. It’s just that my classroom has changed. When we decorate cookies or cupcakes, things are messy and don’t turn out perfectly, but that’s life. I like to focus on the memories we’re making together. Don’t obsess over the mess, just have fun in the moment. You will clean it up later.

I’ve noticed the more Elliott helps cook, the more likely he is to eat whatever we’ve made. I think of cooking with children as an edible craft project, science experiment or an exercise in real-world math. But beyond that, cooking is a life skill I want my children to learn.

You seem really relaxed in the kitchen. Is that also the secret to entertaining in your home? You need to be a relaxed hostess so your guests are comfortable. I try to get as much done as I can before a party, which includes doing as much of the food preparation ahead of time. If I am making the entire meal, I may order dessert from a bakery to make things easier.

This summer, we hosted a family gathering for 50 people and it was great. Just know that nothing is perfect and that the most important thing you can do when you have people in your home is to make them feel welcomed.

Why do you enjoy sharing food with others? I head the committee at our church for new mothers and coordinate taking meals to their homes. After I had my children, I know I appreciated people giving me a meal that I didn’t have to prepare. Bringing a meal is just a small thing I can do to ease someone’s hurt or celebrate a milestone.

My husband and I agreed my baked ziti recipe is my most tried and true, and I seem to have delivered it to most everyone I know who has had a baby in the last four years.

This recipe is easy to prepare, reheats well and feeds a crowd. It’s also vegetarian and can be modified to be a gluten-free dish with the appropriate pasta. When I’m making this for someone else, I’ll double the batch, so my family will eat it, too.

Served with a green salad and crusty bread, this saucy and cheesy ziti dish makes for a comforting meal. It’s just nice to share my love of cooking with others.

Mary G. Pepitone is a freelance writer who lives in Leawood. Email her at to nominate a cook.

Baked Ziti

Makes 12 servings

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1 (16-ounce) container cottage cheese

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan cheese, divided

1 cup heavy whipping cream

3/4 teaspoon cornstarch

1 (16-ounce) box ziti noodles

2 tablespoons olive oil

5 medium garlic cloves, minced

1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes

1 (14.5-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, cut thinly or chiffonade, divided

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 (8-ounce) package fresh mozzarella pearls

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch pan with nonstick cooking spray and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk eggs, cottage cheese and 1 cup Parmesan together and set aside.

In a separate mixing bowl, whisk cream and cornstarch together and set aside.

In a large Dutch oven bring water and salt to a boil over high heat. Add ziti and stir pasta occasionally to prevent sticking. Boil ziti for 5 minutes, or until softened but not entirely cooked through. Pour pasta and water into colander placed in the sink.

In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil and garlic over medium heat on stovetop. Sauté until fragrant but not brown, or about 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, tomato sauce and oregano. Simmer until thickened, or about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add sugar and  1/2 cup basil. Season with pepper and set aside.

In the Dutch oven used to boil pasta, warm the cream and cornstarch mixture over medium heat on stovetop. Whisk as cream bubbles and thickens in about 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in cottage cheese mixture, 1 cup tomato sauce, and  3/4 cup mozzarella until combined. Pour drained pasta into pot and gently stir until ziti is thoroughly covered with sauce.

Pour pasta mixture into prepared baking dish and top with remaining tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese.

Cover baking dish tightly with aluminum foil and bake 30 minutes. Uncover and bake another 30 minutes, or until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown.

Remove from oven and sprinkle with remaining basil.

Per serving: 414 calories (43 percent from fat), 20 grams total fat (11 grams saturated), 90 milligrams cholesterol, 39 grams carbohydrates, 21 grams protein, 531 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.