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 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.)

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Whole Grain Pecan Sticky Buns

Merry Christmas! Yes, the big day is still weeks away, but this much-coveted recipe is my gift to you. Friends have been pleading with me to share it for several years, but I had never gotten around to scaling my Whole Grain Pecan Sticky Buns recipe down to a reasonable size (you probably don't need  five dozen!) and converting it from weights to measurements. Until now.

A little history on my sticky buns is in order. Baking, particularly bread baking, has been a passion all my adult life. In 2004 I decided to get my home kitchen licensed and sell bread on Saturdays at the Umpqua Valley Farmers Market. I showed up that first morning with butterflies in my stomach, second-guessing myself and doubting that anyone would really want to buy my bread, as I nervously set up my awning and table. One of the other vendors wandered over, admired the still warm loaves (I stayed up all night baking so the bread would be absolutely fresh!) and asked if I had anything sweet to sell. Well, no, I only had whole crusty sourdough hearth loaves,  rustic ciabatta, 100% whole wheat sandwich bread, and currant bread with a fragrant cinnamon swirl. I was prepared to offer samples, but I hadn't thought to bake anything in individual portions that could be eaten on the spot. 

“You know, most of the vendors don't have time to eat breakfast before they load up their trucks. If you had something like, say, cinnamon rolls, we'd probably all buy one before the market even opens,” suggested my new friend. “Cinnamon rolls? I can do cinnamon rolls!” I thought. So the next week I mixed up a batch of my whole grain sweet dough and, just for fun, decided to make half the batch into sticky buns by placing the rolled and cut dough onto a layer of pecans and a brown sugar glaze. I let them rise in the refrigerator overnight and baked them in the morning, turning them out of the pan just before heading into town so they'd still be warm for my first customers. Jennifer's Whole Grain Pecan Sticky Buns were born. 

The response was overwhelming. I soon had people in line before my awning was up, grinning with anticipation as they watched me turn the last pan of sticky buns out onto the tray and peel off the parchment, exposing the candied nuts and gooey goodness. I started providing forks because, even though I was required to package them, most of the sticky buns never made it home. A few folks would would arrive each week, Tupperware in hand, and buy four or six sticky buns at a time. 

Eventually, I added cookies, scones, fruit tarts, brownies, and other seasonal treats to my baking schedule, but my reputation as “The Sticky Bun Lady” lingers to this day.

Tips for success:

Let me assure you at the outset that there is nothing difficult about making these sticky buns. They are time-consuming because there are many steps in the process, but nothing is complicated and boy, are they worth the effort. The dough can be mixed two days before you intend to eat them. They can be shaped one day before or early in the morning before baking. The shaped sticky buns can be frozen in the pan for up to one month without sacrificing taste or texture. You can also use half of the dough to make plain cinnamon rolls, for those who don't like nuts.

This rich, sweet dough contains no eggs.  More than half of the flour is whole wheat. I add rolled oats and mashed potatoes for moisture and lightness. 

Parchment paper is a must if you want all of the topping (on the bottom) to stick to the buns and not the pan. Foil pans will work without parchment if you spray them heavily with oil, but be sure to place foil pans on a cookie sheet when baking so the bottom (eventually the top) doesn't burn. For freezing, six rolls fit perfectly in an 8 ½-inch foil cake pan, which fits nicely into a gallon ziploc bag.

Oil spray is very helpful in keeping the top of the dough and shaped buns from drying out in the refrigerator or freezer.

If, upon reading the recipe, you decide it's more work than you're up for but you're still craving these extraordinary sticky buns, email me at and I will add you to my customer list. I still bake for sale whenever the mood strikes and I'll let you know where you can find me with fresh-from-the-oven baked goods.

Jennifer’s Whole Grain Pecan Sticky Bun and Cinnamon Roll Dough
Makes one dozen sticky buns 

You can make this dough in a heavy-duty stand mixer or in a large bowl with a sturdy wooden spoon and a strong arm. It is not kneaded, just mixed until all the flour is incorporated.

Peel, cut into chunks and boil one medium (3 to 4 oz.) potato in water to cover. 

While potatoes are boiling, combine the following ingredients in large mixer bowl:

½ cup (rounded) granulated sugar
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
¾ cup quick rolled oats
1/3 cup canola oil (or other neutral oil) 

When potatoes are tender drain, reserving the water. Whip or mash until smooth.  

Add 1/3 cup mashed potato and 3/4 cup hot potato water to the mixer bowl, stirring well. Let stand 30 minutes. (You can freeze any leftover mashed potato for another batch.)

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine and then set aside:

2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour (King Arthur White Whole Wheat is good)
1 ¾ teaspoons instant yeast (Red Star QuickRise or SAF Red Label)
½ cup instant powdered milk

After the 30 minutes is up, add 3/4 cup cold water to the bowl and the whole wheat flour mixture. Mix well to combine. Let stand 15 minutes.

Mix in 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour and stir well until the dry ingredients are fully incorporated. The dough will be sticky.

Place in an oil-sprayed container with enough room to double. Spray top of dough, cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.

Prepare the filling, topping, and nuts as directed below.

Cinnamon mix:
In a small bowl, stir together ½ cup firmly packed dark brown sugar and 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon until the cinnamon is evenly distributed. Soften 4 tablespoons (½ stick) butter.

Brown sugar glaze and nut topping:
In a small saucepan, melt and whisk until smooth:  ¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) butter, 1 1/8 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar, 1 tablespoon honey or corn syrup, 1 tablespoon water, 1 teaspoon vanilla and 1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon.

Coarsely chop 6 ounces (1 1/3 cups) pecans.

Prepare the pans: Spray a 9 x 13 baking pan (or two 8 1/2-inch foil cake pans) with oil and then line with parchment paper. (The oil keeps the paper from sliding around as you assemble the rolls.) Sprinkle the chopped nuts evenly over the bottom of the pan, then ladle the brown sugar glaze on top of the nuts to about 1/4-inch thick. (You will probably have a little glaze leftover, which makes a great ice cream topping.)


Remove dough from the refrigerator. Turn out onto a well-floured board or counter and roll out to a rectangle about 10 x 14 inches. Spread with the softened butter. Sprinkle on the cinnamon-sugar mix leaving a one-inch border at the top edge of the dough. Roll up tightly and seal the seam well. Cut the roll into 12 equal slices, about 1 ¼- thick.

Set the slices, cut side down, on top of the glaze and nut mixture in the pans. At this point you can spray the top lightly with oil, cover them with plastic wrap or waxed paper, let rise until the rolls come almost up to the edge of the pan (about an hour) and then bake. Or, you can cover tightly and refrigerate them overnight. In the morning, take them out of the refrigerator and let them rise  for 1 to 1 ½ hours and then bake as directed below. If you'd like to freeze the sticky buns, spray the tops well with oil and cover tightly or place in heavy-duty freezer bags, squeezing out as much air as possible. The night before you wish to serve them, remove from the freezer just before bed and let them thaw and rise at room temperature overnight. In the morning, bake as directed below.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. If using foil pans, place them on a cookie sheet for baking. Bake fully risen rolls for 25 minutes, until golden brown and the center springs back when very gently pressed. A thermometer should read 180 degrees when inserted in the dough. Cool on a wire rack for 5 minutes and then invert onto a serving tray. Don’t wait longer than 5 minutes or they won’t come out easily.

The individual sticky buns separate easily after baking.

The dough makes fine cinnamon rolls, too!