Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Classic Italian Lasagna


One of the reasons I love winter is the comfort food that you only crave when it's cold. Well, it might be the only reason I love tolerate winter (and the wind that goes right through my wool coat). Mid-January can be pretty bleak. Thankfully, there is a remedy: Layers of noodles and creamy, cheesy sauce. Baked pasta is the king of comfort food and my absolute favorite baked pasta is lasagna.


My mom is very well-known for her fabulous lasagna. Hopefully, this recipe will carry on that tradition. I spent every evening in the kitchen with her helping to make dinner (well, most nights, I'm pretty sure....) and I definitely learned that there is a big reward for some extra effort put into a meal. People appreciate good food prepared with love. It's a small part of why I love to cook. Mostly it's the creative aspect of cooking that I love. But I also enjoy hearing that something I made was delicious. This version is a little different than the lasagna I grew up with: it takes the dish to a whole new level. There's creamy tomato sauce, crumbled Italian sausage, spinach, mushrooms and more creamy ricotta. A whole lot of things are going on in this dish and I won't pretend that it's a quick, throw-it-together kind of meal. But, wow, is it ever worth the time and energy. The basis of the recipe is taken from Giada de Laurentiis' Everyday Italian cookbook. This is her first book and it's packed with no-fail, approachable Italian meals. It's the next best thing to watching her create simple, delicious Italian meals on television. I miss the original show. "Giada at Home" just isn't quite the same. Sometimes reruns can be a good thing....

Classic Italian Lasagna
adapted from Everyday Italian

serves 6

15 dry lasagna noodles
3 T. extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. Italian sausage (sweet or hot), removed from casings
8 oz. cremini/ button mushrooms, sliced
1 t. ground black pepper
2 1/2 c. Bechamel sauce
1 1/2 c. purchased marinara sauce
1 1/2 lb. whole-milk ricotta
3 eggs
2 T. unsalted butter
1 (10 oz.) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed dry
3 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 c. grated Parmesan cheese

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add lasagna noodles and cook, stirring once in a while, about 6 minutes or not quite al dente. Drain and rinse pasta under cold water. Spread on a baking sheet and cover with some dampened paper towels. Set aside.

For bechamel sauce:

5 T. butter
1/2 c. flour
4 c. warm milk
1/2 t. salt (more to taste)
pinch of white pepper
pinch of grated nutmeg

In 2 qt. saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add flour and whisk until smooth, 2 minutes. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Simmer over medium heat, whisking, until sauce it thickened, 10 minutes (do not let sauce come to a boil). Remove from heat and stir in 1/2 t. salt, pepper and nutmeg. Adjust seasoning to taste. Set aside.

In large skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add sausage and break up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Cook until no pink remains, 8-10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside in a bowl. Add mushrooms to skillet and cook until browned and soft, 10 minutes. When cooked through, transfer to paper towels to drain and let cool.

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

In a medium bowl, combine bechamel and marinara sauces. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if desired. In another medium bowl, combine ricotta, eggs and 1/2 t. each salt and pepper. Set aside. Spread butter over bottom of 13x9" baking dish. Spread one-third of bechamel mixture over bottom of dish. Place 5 lasagna noodles (I actually used three long sheets of pasta for each layer, using only 8 noodles total, but it's a good idea to make more than you need in case some tear in cooking) over sauce, overlapping slightly. Spread ricotta mixture over pasta. Top with spinach and mushrooms. Arrange 5 ( or three)  more noodles on top of vegetables, then top with sausage. Spoon one-third of bechamel mixture over, then sprinkle with 1/2 c. mozzarella. Top with last of pasta, then sprinkle with rest of mozzarella and the Parmesan.

Line a large baking sheet with foil. Place baking dish on the sheet and bake lasagna until heated through and bubbling, about 45 minutes. Let rest 10-15 minutes before cutting.

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