The recipe was uploaded last year by redditor Brenda W., who lives in New Jersey and asked to remain anonymous. Brenda told TODAY Food the recipe sat dormant on the site for a few months until another user asked people to share their favorite things they'd made from the subreddit's treasure trove of family recipes.
In the comments on that post, Brenda saw her grandmother's recipe had become a beloved addition to the kitchens of many of her fellow Redditors.
The cheesy, comforting recipe got its name from Brenda's son, who often requests his great grandma's baked ziti for special meals. But in Great Grandma's day, the ziti served a different purpose.
"It's funny because no one in my family knows where Grandma got this recipe, and we are not Italian at all," Brenda told TODAY. "She was a wife of a factory worker and had five children, so she was always looking for affordable recipes."
"My dad remembers her frequently making casseroles and using home-grown vegetables from their family garden," she added. "The ziti is inexpensive and very filling so it worked well for her large family."
Brenda says her grandmother has passed away, but she's able to keep her memory alive by cooking some of her recipes.
"My family and I have many fond memories of her and her cooking," said Brenda. "She would host weekly Sunday lunches where her chicken noodle soup was always a hit. She would also host Christmas every year — dozens of us would cram into her small house for a cozy celebration."
"Each time I make this comfort food, I am reminded of my Grandma and those warm memories."
Recently, I turned my pandemic pod into my ziti squad and invited the other family we've spent time with during the COVID-19 crisis into my home to help me test the recipe out.
The prep for the ziti is blissfully simple. Great Grandma's recipe calls for combining browned ground beef, ricotta cheese, cooked ziti noodles and a few other ingredients in a rectangular pan, then baking for 20 to 25 minutes.
"I would recommend following the recipe exactly because some users tried to modify it and they said it just wasn't as good," said Brenda, adding that, when it comes to ingredients, Grandma kept it simple, right down to the pasta sauce she preferred.
Grandma's pick? A simple jar of Ragu spaghetti sauce.
I doubled the recipe so we'd have delicious leftovers the following day, and the aluminum baking pan I cooked it in probably weighed 20 pounds. (I tried weighing it on my kitchen scale, but kept getting an error.)
But there was no mistaking how delicious the pasta would taste once it came out of the oven. The mozzarella cheese on top was browned to perfection and each time we opened the oven to peek at it, heavenly smells of tomato sauce and cheese wafted through the kitchen.
When I spooned some of the pasta into bowls, I was taken aback by how beautiful it looked. From the stretchy mozzarella cheese to the crisp brown edges of the ziti noodles at the top of the pan, this pasta dish looked like a restaurant-quality meal, despite how simple and inexpensive it was to make.
Brenda said she typically serves salad and garlic bread with her baked ziti, so I did the same. The side dishes were the perfect accompaniment to a amazing Italian-style meal.
One of the grandmas at our dinner table took a few bites and said, "Baked ziti is always what I get at the Olive Garden because they let you take pasta home, too, and I can eat it again the next day. This one is better than that."
Of course, I sent her home with her own container of leftovers for later — I had to keep up with the Olive Garden.
And the kids at my table? Each of them went back for scoop after scoop of the cheesy deliciousness. My friend mentioned that the recipe is so simple, our middle school-aged kids could probably prep it and get it into the oven on weeknights when we have to work late. I agreed.
Everything about this meal was simple but incredibly satisfying. And, whether you're halving the recipe for a small family dinner at home or making the dish for a crowd, it's a dish that pleased all generations at my dinner table.
"It's been an astonishing and humbling experience watching Grandma's recipe gain popularity," Brenda said. "What an honor to have so many people making and enjoying our family recipe. I never dreamed it would go this far, and Gram likely would have felt the same way we do."