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Friday, December 9, 2016

Fabulous Five-Layer Lasagne

(Originally published in The News Review on December 1, 2015)


The beautiful Italian actress Sophia Loren once famously exclaimed, “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” If that's not enough reason to keep pasta in your diet, I don't know what is.

Spaghetti with meat sauce makes a regular appearance on the menu at our house. With just a little extra work though, I can turn that sauce into a pan of five-layer lasagne. It's a dish I often make when everyone's home for the holidays. With a universally loved, do-ahead dish like this in the refrigerator or freezer, I'm ready for anything the crazy, busy month of December brings on. And leftovers are easily reheated when we tire of turkey sandwiches.

I used to find making lasagne a bit tedious. In addition to cooking the sauce and grating the cheeses, you also had to boil the lasagne noodles before assembling the layers. Typical wavy-edged lasagne noodles, just flour and water, were boiled until almost tender, drained and then rinsed before using. Invariably, some of them split or broke while cooking and they were slippery and slimy to handle. They also added 20-30 minutes of prep time while you heated a large pot of water and cooked them al dente. The introduction of “no-boil” or “oven ready” lasagne noodles has simplified the process immensely.

I was first introduced to oven-ready lasagne noodles when my oldest daughter had her high school French class over for a movie night. One of her classmates was an Italian exchange student and he brought a pan of lasagne to bake on site. He popped up several times during the movie to check on it and I was curious about the wide, flat noodles. He told me his mother always used dried sheets of rich egg pasta and that they didn't need to be boiled ahead of time. One bite of the finished dish and I've never looked back.

Barilla® is the only brand I've found in local stores (Fred Meyer and Safeway both carry it; Sherm's does not) that makes the flat, dried sheets of egg pasta. Other brands make a “no-boil” lasagne noodle labeled as a “macaroni product” that I have not used.


The recipe I'm sharing today is adapted from my mother-in-law's recipe. I've never cared for the texture of ricotta cheese, so I always liked that Rosemary used cottage cheese in place of it. I've substituted tomato juice (home-canned is delicious, if you have it), which adds the additional liquid needed for the oven ready noodles and I like petite-diced tomatoes instead of whole tomatoes. I use local ground beef combined with mild, sweet Italian sausage from the Umpqua Valley's very own Circle Star Ranch. A leafy green salad and crusty bread are all I need to round out the meal. Buon appetito!

Gift-giving ideas

If you've got a cook to buy for or need to drop a few hints for yourself, I heartily recommend the following items:

Norpro Grip EZ Scoop Scrape and Mix Spatula
My friend Laura Smith gave me this last year and I liked it so well, I bought one for each of my daughters. It's sturdy enough for mixing thick batters, yet the flexible edges and pointed tip let you scrape every last bit out of the bowl or measuring cup.

A double-bowl lemon and lime squeezer
This was another gift from Laura. (She comes up with the best ideas!) It's a tool I would never have bought for myself, thinking it would not deserve precious drawer space. Oh, how wrong I was! It's much more efficient than the reamer type lemon juicers and so much fun to use. It literally turns the lemon or lime half inside out, extracting every drop of juice. Mine is bright yellow and green and makes me smile every time I reach for it.

A Lodge enameled cast iron Dutch oven
If a Le Creuset Dutch oven is in your budget, by all means, go for it. If you'd rather stay in the $50 to $100 price range, Lodge makes excellent enameled cast iron Dutch ovens that come in a variety of fun colors. The enamel interior and exterior are easy to clean and don't require seasoning. These heavy-duty pots are perfect for long-simmering soups and sauces, a pot roast, or dishes like Beef Bourguignon.

USA Pans
I'm always searching for American-made products. This line of bakeware is manufactured in Pennsylvania. Corrugated, aluminized steel construction and a silicone coating make for even heat conduction and easy clean up. My 9-inch square pan gets used frequently and still looks new.

Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish
This is a beautifully photographed, award-winning cookbook that should be in every serious baker's collection. My husband first discovered Ken's Artisan Bakery while on his own in Portland. We rarely go to the city now without popping in for a treat or a loaf of bread. After the success of his bakery, Mr. Forkish went on to open Ken's Artisan Pizza and Trifecta Tavern & Bakery, which we also enjoy. Any one of his establishments – or all three – are worth a visit if you're heading north.


Fabulous Five-Layer Lasagne
(Adapted from Rosemary Coalwell's recipe with tips from the Barilla® box.)

1 lb. extra-lean ground beef
1 lb. mild Italian sausage
3 cloves fresh garlic, pressed or finely minced
1 (12 oz.) can tomato paste
1 quart tomato juice
1 (14.5 oz.) can petite-diced tomatoes 
1 tablespoon dried basil
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 eggs
3 cups (24 oz container) small curd cottage cheese (or ricotta)
½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1 lb. part-skim mozzarella cheese, grated
1 box (9 oz.) Barilla® Oven-Ready Lasagne noodles

For the sauce:

Brown the ground beef and sausage over medium heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven. Drain fat. Add garlic and cook 2-3 minutes. Add the tomato paste, tomato juice, diced tomatoes, basil and salt. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer 30-60 minutes, until the consistency of spaghetti sauce. (A splatter screen is helpful here or you can cover partially with a lid.)

While the sauce simmers, beat the eggs lightly in a medium bowl. Add the cottage or ricotta cheese and the Parmesan cheese and mix well.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9 x 13 pan with oil or line with parchment. Spread 1 cup of the meat sauce evenly over the bottom of the pan. Set aside ½ cup of the mozzarella.

Assemble the remaining ingredients in the following order:

3 sheets of lasagne noodles, leaving a bit of space in between
1 ½ cups meat sauce
1 scant cup cottage cheese mixture
a big handful of mozzarella (about 3 ounces)

Repeat the above layers 3 more times. The fifth layer will be the last 3 sheets of lasagne, all of the remaining meat sauce and the reserved ½ cup of mozzarella with no cottage cheese.

Ready to be baked or frozen.

Cover the pan tightly with foil. (I like to spray the inside of the foil with oil so the cheese doesn't stick.) Bake at 375 degrees for 30 minutes. Remove foil; bake an additional 10-15 minutes to brown the cheese. Important: remove from oven, replace foil and let stand 15 minutes before cutting. This allows the lasagne to set up and makes serving much easier. Serves 8-10.

Do ahead tips 

The lasagne may be prepared and refrigerated for 24 hours before baking. Increase total bake time to about 60 minutes. You can also freeze the unbaked lasagne before baking. Defrost overnight in the refrigerator and increase bake time to 70 minutes.

Leftovers

Leftovers are excellent for take-along lunches. Cover and refrigerate the lasagne overnight for easier portioning. When cold, cut into serving-sized pieces and freeze until firm on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet. Wrap each frozen block in waxed paper or foil and place them all in a zip-top plastic freezer bag. Reheat in a microwave or toaster oven as needed. (Poking a few holes in the top with a fork helps the center heat evenly.)

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