Remember how much fun it used to be to make lasagna? Cooking the sauce, then the slippery lasagna noodles, and then layering it all with ricotta cheese. What a great comfort food that used to be in our household, and one that generated about 12 lasagna recipes in my family cookbook from relatives and friends.
It has been YEARS since I made a lasagna recipe from the family cookbook. After awhile it seemed almost too costly and labor intensive to bother. But I got to thinking that making a big batch and freezing it into smaller portions certainly would be cheaper than those expensive brand-name prepared lasagnas I’ve come to rely upon in the frozen food section of the supermarket. (I admit that 2 trays of the stuff in a large pan has been a lifesaver for many a potluck contribution.)
Yet, the commercial taste of lasagna just doesn’t quite cut it, does it, in comparison to a lasagna recipe from the family cookbook? So, I decided to go back a few years and make lasagna today. I toyed with the idea of doing something different, like making it with a variety of vegetables, but my taste buds wanted an old-fashioned style of lasagna layered with creamy cheese (gotta have my cheese, you know). A lasagna recipe from the family cookbook was in order. I thumbed through the 12 lasagna recipes in the family cookbook and selected a favorite.
My lasagna recipe from the family cookbook (see below) calls for Italian sausage and hamburger. I like to buy bulk Italian sausage (usually at an Italian market), but Italian sausage links will work too (I just squeeze the sausage out of the sausage casings and fry it like hamburger). I also like to use ground sirloin for some additional flavor, although lean ground meat will do.
For the lasagna’s tomato sauce base, I have found better results when using canned tomato products from the same brand, rather than mixing brands. The brand’s consistency in its tomato taste does influence the integrity of the sauce. (While using mixed brands of canned tomato products can save money, I have found that the taste won’t be quite right since some brands favor an acidic vs. sweet tomato taste.) Likewise, I have never used sliced fresh tomatoes in lasagna because it might get too watery (even though a lasagna recipe in the family cookbook does call for fresh tomatoes).
Some people also like to use the new lasagna noodles that require no pre-cooking and cook in the sauce, but I prefer boiling them the old-fashioned way (just because I like to make sure they are a bit more done than al dente). No lasagna recipe in my family cookbook lists the new no-cook noodles in ingredients.
As for the cheeses, get the best fresh ricotta, mozzarella and parmesean cheeses you can afford for the filling layers. The cheese needs to stand up to the sauce, so be generous in your portions. There’s nothing more disappointing than a lasagna recipe from the family cookbook that has hardly any cheese flavor (to me)!
So, here we go. This is my recipe for some pretty good lasagna:
Matilda’s Pretty Good Lasagna
1 pound bulk (or link) hot Italian sausage (use mild if you prefer)
1 pound ground sirloin
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 large (28 ounces) can crushed tomatoes
2 cans (6 ounces) tomato paste
2 cans (6.5 ounces) tomato sauce
2 tomato paste cans of water (12 ounces)
1 cup dry red wine
3 teaspoons dried or ground basil
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon each: dried or ground marjoram, oregano, rosemary, sage, savory, thyme
1 tablespoons dried parsley
1-1/2 teaspoons salt (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons granulated sugar (to taste, if desired)
1 package lasagna noodles
16 ounce carton of ricotta cheese
1 tablespoon milk
½ teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced into thin slices
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
WHAT TO DO
First cook the sausage with the hamburger, drain off any fat and set aside in a large pot. In the same pan used to cook the meat, brown the onion and garlic, then stir in all the canned tomato products, water and wine. Pour this into the large pot with the cooked meat. Put all the dried spices and herbs into a blender and pulverize them to release their flavors. Add these powdered spices to the meat sauce and stir. (You may want to add some of the sugar at this stage if you prefer a sweeter sauce.) Simmer two hours, stirring frequently. (You can also put the meat sauce in a slow cooker and let it meld flavors all day before assembling the final phase for dinner).
Cook the lasagna noodles in salted boiling water according to package directions. Noodles should be just after the al dente stage, but still hold together when handled. Drain and cool.
In a mixing bowl, beat the egg, then add in the ricotta cheese and milk. Pulverize the nutmeg, parsley and salt in a blender and add to cheese mixture. Mix thoroughly.
Assemble the lasagna layers with meat sauce first, then noodles, and then ricotta cheese mixture topped with a layer of mozzarella and parmesean. I usually do three layers (depending upon size and depth of the pan), then top with any remaining cheese.
Cover loosely with a foil tent (shiny side down) and bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 20 minutes to brown the top. Ideally, lasagna needs to rest 15-20 minutes before cutting into serving size squares (if you can wait that long). Serve with a green salad and crusty bread.
Well, making a lasagna recipe from the family cookbook was a lot of work (much more than I remembered). However, it tasted much better than I remembered, too. I suppose you could make it a family affair and have someone make the sauce, another family member cook the noodles, and yet another family member do the assembly. Or, you all could just go to your favorite little Italian restaurant and try a lasagna recipe from their family cookbook. But where’s the fun in that! Grin.