I spent last weekend in Southern California, which had me asking many questions, namely: Why don't I live there? And how might I live there? And am I too old to wear a trucker hat? And how is one supposed to be productive, with distractions at every turn? Surfing at sunrise? Crossfit at noon? Poached-egg-and-avocado-toast brunch somewhere in between? I returned home thinking about which memorable dish from the trip I might try to recreate first: Baja fish tacos? Toast with cucumbers, labneh, and za'atar? Mint mojito iced coffee?

All these guys meet in one pan, in upstate New York. | (Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

Alas, a brisk upstate New York August morning shook me from my dream, and at once all I wanted was pasta. I had flagged this baked ziti recipe from Cook's Country's Cook It In Cast Iron last summer after making the huevos rancheros from the same book. The two recipes start out identically: by making a sauce with olive oil-slicked cherry tomatoes in a preheated skillet. After 10 minutes, when the tomatoes begin to blister, the recipes diverge: For the huevos, hot peppers and cilantro enter the equation; for the ziti, it's garlic, red pepper flakes, and tomato paste.

Both sauces are incredibly simple to prepare and flavorful, thanks to the caramelized, charred tomatoes, but this baked ziti recipe has the added bonus of being a one-pot wonder: After you crush the tomatoes with a potato masher (or whisk or spoon), you add the dried pasta and water directly into the pan and simmer everything together until the pasta is cooked and the liquid has evaporated.

(Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

(Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

You can save this to broil later. | (Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

Like other one-pot pastas, this one benefits from the starch released from the pasta as it cooks, which helps to nicely thicken the sauce. But unlike many other one-pot pastas, this one takes the method a step further, calling for a final pass under the broiler with a layer of fresh mozzarella scattered over top. In just about five minutes, your one-pan, no-fuss baked ziti is done: crisp noodles, melty cheese, bubbly sauce.

Ready to eat! | (Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

A few notes

Variations: Cook's Country offers a simple puttanesca variation: Add minced anchovies along with the garlic and pepper flakes, replace some of the water with wine, and stir in capers and minced olives at the end (see recipe notes for more details). Other ideas include adding finely chopped kale, Swiss chard, or spinach to the cooked pasta, which will incorporate easily and up the veggie quotient. Another idea is to add roasted eggplant or sautéed zucchini or other vegetables to the cooked pasta. For a richer variation, replace some of the water with heavy cream.

Ready to be embellished. | (Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

Other pasta shapes: Penne is a natural substitution for ziti, though other shapes could work, too. Because different pastas cook at different rates, for the best results, try using a similarly shaped pasta to ziti with a comparable cooking time (10 to 11 minutes). If you use something smaller with a faster cooking time, you may have to reduce the liquid and overall simmer time.

Let's attack. | (Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

Make ahead: To get a head-start on dinner, make the dish nearly to the end, stopping just after you add the basil and Parmesan. Let the dish cool, add the mozzarella and store in the fridge until ready to broil. If time permits, bring the pasta to room temperature before broiling. (On that note, this dish would make a great gift: simply wrap in foil and include final broiling instructions.)

One-pan skillet-baked ziti with burst tomato sauce

(Alexandra Stafford/Courtesy Food52)

This story was originally published on Food52.com: The 1-pan, 3-step route to baked ziti.