Lasagna al Forno: Two Excellent Versions

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We are a house divided. We are a house divided when it comes to Lasagna that is. My wife and youngest prefer the one common in the south of Italy while my oldest and I prefer the luxurious northern version. Recently I figured why not please everyone? Why not make both and let peace and awesome Italian pasta casseroles reign? So, what is the difference? Well, they are both properly called “Lasagna al Forno” meaning oven-baked Lasagna. So they both have lasagna (the actual flat noodle) and both are baked in the oven. They both have cheese and a sauce (and I am simplifying and generalizing quiet a bit here because really any dish of Lasagna noodles baked in the oven is a Lasagna al Forno).

Lasagna-Bolognese

Lasagna

The southern version has a sauce of tomatoes and meat. Most often the meats (sausage, meatballs, beef chunks, or ground beef or maybe a combo) are cooked in the tomato sauce to make a Neapolitan ragu before getting layered in the casserole with the noodles, ricotta cheese and mozzarella. First an foremost though, for me, what distinguishes this type of Lasagna from the northern version is the emphasis on the tomato sauce.

Now, the northern version is that of Bologna, the region (Emilia-Romagna) rich with dairy, pork and fat. It’s where so many delicious foods come from like Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and true balsamic vinegar. The Lasagna Bolognese is richer with a thick meaty Ragu Bolognese. It does not use ricotta and instead gets its creamy component from Balsamella, aka Bechamel sauce made from flour, butter, milk and seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg.

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To make the Bolognese meat sauce I follow a basic template I learned from Mario Batali that includes starting with finely minced pancetta, garlic, onions, carrots, garlic and celery. I like using a food processor for that to get them very fine so that they can almost melt into the sauce. For the meat I use at least two types (usually veal and pork). I get the vegetable mixture cooking very gently in olive oil and butter before stirring the meats in.

Tomato Paste

The only tomato in this sauce is a few spoons of tomato paste that gets added in with fresh thyme, white wine, a Parmesan cheese rind (yes, just like it sounds. I save those hard ends from the cheese I buy) and whole milk. The ragu simmers very gently for a couple of hours or more until everything is tender and the flavors are well melded. The end result is a thick meat sauce that is definitely on the drier side when compared with a typical tomato pasta sauce.

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The sauce for the Neapolitan style lasagna contains a couple of cans of San Marzano tomato, onions, basil, oregano, garlic and -this time around for the sake of time saving- ground beef. It is a delicious sauce and tastes lighter and fresher because of all the tomato, aromatics and herbs.

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To assemble the process is similar for both casseroles. A bit of sauce on the bottom followed by noodles, sauce, ricotta or balsamella, cheese (a mix of mozzarella and Parmesan), noodles,….I like to finish with a thin layer of sauce (or blasamella in case of the Bolognese) and some more cheese. I bake the dishes covered at first to get everything bubbly and cooked through then I uncover for the last 20 minutes or so to get the cheese and top browned. As for the noodles themselves, unless I made fresh egg pasta for the dish, I never boil them anymore. For dry pasta I just let them soak in water for about an hour. They hydrate and get soft and pliable. I make sure the built lasagna is slightly on the “juicy” side so the noodles cook perfectly as the dish bakes.

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Lasagna-Napoletana

Now the hardest part is to…wait. After the dishes are baked they need to rest for a good 20 minutes. They need to settle down, cool slightly and set a bit. This will, not only make them easier to eat, but also much easier to portion and cut out cleanly without the layers falling apart. Yes, two of those are a lot of baked noodles for the four of us, but Lasagna are excellent leftovers. So we enjoyed these for a couple of more days and everyone was happy.

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Ivan Ramen: Toasted Rye Noodles

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Noodles are just awesome. Italian spaghetti, Vietnamese bowl of Pho, a bowl of spicy Thai curried noodles…they are all awesome. A bowl of Japanese ramen is right up there in the culinary Pantheon of noodles. I’ve had a lot of the stuff and I’ve cooked it at home a few times. I have never made the ramen noodles from scratch though. I’ve always bought them.  This time I made the labor intensive and long recipe from Ivan Ramen, the book by Ivan Orkin (well, I did have to make a few concessions when some ingredients where pretty much impossible to find). The noodles are a major component of course and I decided to make them at home this time around.

Ivan uses an interesting and non-traditional mix of flours to make the noodles including rye and some cake flour. Rye is there for flavor and the cake flour for a more supple and tender texture. Before adding the rye I toasted it for about 4 minutes to add an extra layer of flavor. The traditional ramen noodle texture is kind of firm, springy and slippery. It also has a yellow tint (NOT from food coloring). We get that by adding a substance to tilt the mix to be more alkaline. Traditionally a product called Kansui is used. According to this site it’s a mixture of Sodium and Potassium Carbonate.

Toasted Rye Noodles

I did not use Kansui. Years ago, Harold McGee published an article in the NY Times about baking some baking soda to make it perform the same job as Kansui. From the article some cool scienc-y talk (I love Mr. McGee and everyone should have his book On Food and Cooking)

“Baking soda is sodium bicarbonate, which already includes one proton and so has a limited ability to take up more. But if you heat baking soda, its molecules react with one another to give off water and carbon dioxide and form solid sodium carbonate, which is proton-free.”

 In his book, Ivan also recommends using this technique. So, I baked some baking soda and added that to the mix.

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The rest was pretty easy. The flours and liquid plus baked baking soda are mixed for a good bit, about 10 minutes, in the Kitchenaid mixer. Then the dough is allowed to rest and hydrate and soften for 30 minutes. I was concerned that the cake flour will make the noodles too difficult to handle. Indeed, I needed to pass the dough a few more times through the pasta machine’s thickest setting than normal. In the end it came together well and made nice, rye-speckled, alkaline-smelling (in a good way) sheets.

I cut them on the thinnest setting and spread them in a baking pan after tossing them well with corn starch. After our first dinner a few hours later, I stored the remaining noodles in the fridge, covered in plastic wrap, to see how they keep. Again, worked out pretty well. We ate ramen for a few days to follow and the noodles did not stick or turn too brittle. The noodles are delicious. They are slippery but maintained a nice toothsome texture and had a lovely flavor that stood out to all the savory richness of a bowl of ramen. I will be making them again but I might try the Momofuku version next to see how they compare.

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Ravioli Genovese, Tomato Sauce and Olives

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More stuffed pasta. Delicious, elegant stuffed pasta. These Ligurian-inspired babies are ravioli filled with a mixture of sauteed Swiss chard, ground veal and homemade ricotta.

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I used to rarely cook with veal because of how it is produced and the horrible conditions the calves are kept in before they are slaughtered and sent to market. Recently though I’ve been seeing more and more naturally raised, grass-fed (not crated) veal at my local store. Frequently they have it on sale as well and I pick up a couple of packages. Ground veal in meatballs is excellent and gives a great texture to meatloaf as well.

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When my youngest son requested ravioli with tomato sauce for dinner I scanned what i had in the fridge and freezer. Ground veal, Swiss chard…there it is. Ravioli Genovese. I browned the veal a little onions and garlic. Meanwhile I blanched the chard and chopped it up. I mixed that with the veal, egg, Parmesan and homemade ricotta cheese.

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For sauce, I made a simple marinara with San Marzano tomatoes, a little garlic, herbs and olive oil. I did want something extra for the finished plate. So, I pitted some oil cured olives and scattered on top. Rich filling, tender pasta and sharp sauce made for a great dinner.

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Cappellacci di Zucca – Pumpkin Pasta with Sage, Pumpkin Butter, Pine Nuts

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This is cheat post. It’s a cheat post because I’ve posted about similar dishes before. Well, so what. We love this dish and its ilk and I try making it every fall a few times. I really love making fresh pasta and filled pasta as well so why not post about it (spoiler warning: the next post is also a filled pasta dish).

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It is a dish I make relatively often but honestly I never make it the exact same way twice, especially with the filling. This time I think is one of the favorites. The small sugar pumpkin I used was delicious on its own and I decided not to mask it with a ton of other flavors. In Mario Batali’s first book (my favorite of his really), Simple Italian Food: Recipes from My Two Villages,  has a recipe for this dish and his filling is very simple. It’s nothing more than the pumpkin, an egg, some Parmesan and a grating of nutmeg. I went with that and it was perfect. Usually I would use butternut squash for something like this, but I really am glad I gave the small “pie”pumpkin a try this time. The flesh was dry and had great flavor and sweetness.

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Sage with this dish is classic and so is butter. Both are here but with a couple of extra layers of flavor. I put all the pumpkin seeds and pulp into a pot with a bunch of butter and let that gently melt and simmer. After draining I had a nice half cup or so of golden delicious pumpkin butter.

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I boiled the pasta while I got butter browning in a pan and then tossed in sage leaves. For another texture and layer of flavor I threw in a handful of excellent quality pine nuts. These are great pine nuts that I picked up from Lebanon wen I was there a couple of months ago. After the nuts got a good color on them and the sage leaves were a bit crispy I tossed the dumplings into the pan and added a few spoons of the pumpkin butter. Served with a handful of Parmesan and anointed with more pumpkin butter it was lovely.

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Coppa e Cavatelli: Pork Collar in Whey, Ricotta Cavatelli, Onions and Peas

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Pork collar is normally cured and dried and is the delicious coppa that I’ve posted about before. Chefs figured out that this cut can be more versatile than just a salted and cured coppa. I’ve seen several recipes in books and restaurant menus recently that treat this marbled cut like an awesome pork loin. It has a great meat to fat ratio making it ideal for slow roasting or even braising. In this recipe I cooked it sous vide in whey, sliced it and pan-seared it.

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I prepared some good ricotta a day or so before using Jenn Lewis’ recipe from her Pasta by Hand book. It’s a really great book for all things pasta that require no machines or rolling. They are mostly referred to as “dumplings” in her book and she has a fascinating collection of pasta shapes and recipes from all over Italy with ingredients ranging from potato gnocchi to grated “pasta” and 100% semolina pasta.

Ricotta cavatelli

I had pasta in mind to go with the pork and the ricotta became the main ingredient in ricotta cavatelli. The dough is comprised of the homemade ricotta, eggs, flour and a little milk. It comes together quickly in the Kitchenaid mixer and is pretty simple -if a bit time consuming- to roll and form into ridged cavatelli on the little gnocchi wood board I have.

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I hate wasting when it comes to food, I try to use as much of my odds, ends and trimmings as possible. The whey produced by the ricotta making process (I also use Lewis’ recipe from the same book made with half and half, milk and buttermilk) is really tasty stuff and there’s quiet a bit of it. Typically, I mix it with about 1% salt by weight and put it in the fridge to use for cooking, baking or drinking. It lasts a couple of weeks with no problem. Lewis recommends using the whey to slow cook pork in the style of maiale al latte (pork in milk), a classic Italian recipe from Emilia-Romagna. I’ve done that before to cook a chunk of pork shoulder and it was delicious. I refined the same process for the coppa and bagged it with salted whey, thyme, lemon slices and garlic cloves. I cooked that sous vide for [[TEMP/TIME]] and allowed it to cool in the bag.

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For a tasty garnish I went with whey-cooked shallots. This is just whole peeled shallots and an onion simmered slowly in a mixture of whey and butter along with some thyme. The mixture cooks until all the liquid evaporates and the onions are golden meltingly soft and a bit caramelized. To serve, I sliced the pork and used a biscuit cutter to make neat disks. I browned them in a hot pan till crispy on the outside. The cavatelli were tossed with peas and butter. I plated the meat with the pasta around it and topped with the shallots.

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Szechuan Broth with Duck and Goose Dumplings

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Duck season is almost here and I still had a few teal in the freezer. The kids have been asking me to make some dumplings at home. They love steamed dumplings at Chinese restaurants and wanted to see if I can make a version at home. Not one to shy away from a started looking through a few of my books to see what I want to make. I have made traditional Chinese dumplings at home from Barbara Tropp recipes and was going down the same path but then thought why not make a version that is not easy to find at every good Chinese restaurant in Houston. This recipe from Heston Blumenthal at Home fit the bill. It’s light and refined while still remaining authentically Chinese in flavor, shape and ingredients.

First ting I made was the broth. It’s a pork based broth made from roasted pork ribs and chicken along with onions, ginger, cinnamon stick, star anise and Szechuan peppercorns to give it that distinctive fragrant zing. The meat and vegetables get de-glazed with Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice wine). The stock is cooked as usual in a pressure cooker and strained. This makes a delicious stock but taking it one step further towards refinement it gets clarified into a crystal clear consomme.

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Blumenthal uses his ice-filtration method to clarify the stock. The liquid is set with gelatin and frozen then allowed to slowly defrost in the fridge in a colander with cheese cloth. The clear liquid drips into the bowl under the colander. This works great but is very slow compared to the agar filtration method I talked about here. The two methods basically work the same way but agar sets at a much higher temperature than gelatin, so it can be easily broken up and allowed to leak clear liquid with no need for the freezing step. So, I went with the agar method and got my nice consomme.

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The filling for the dumplings has three components: the meat, the cabbage and the Shaoxing jelly. I made the jelly first. This is nothing more than the rice wine simmered and the alcohol flamed off then it is set hard in a thin (about 1/4 inch) layer with leaf gelatin. When fully set I cut it into small cubes and reserved them in the fridge.

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The cabbage is Savoy cabbage that is shredded and gently cooked in a good bit of very un-Chinese butter. The meat as I mentioned before is wild duck and some wild goose. I ground it up and mixed it with the cooled cabbage, skim milk powder, egg, soy sauce, ginger and sesame oil. I actually made double the recipe and made the other half with pork filling instead of the duck. For each wonton wrapper I put a teaspoon of filling and a cube or two of the rice wine gelatin.

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Duck Dumplings

To distinguish the pork filled ones from the duck/goose ones I shaped them differently. The duck ones were shaped similar to those in the book, sort of like a bundle or parcel. The pork ones had more of an angular shape. At service time I got the clarified broth nice and hot. I adjusted the seasoning and put it to the side.

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At the same time I got my steamer going and started steaming the dumplings a few at a time. They need about 6 minutes or so to cook through. During that time the wine jelly inside melts and each dumpling just bursts with delicious flavor when you bite into it. They were similar to Chinese soup dumplings. When the kids where ready to eat, I plated a few dumplings in a plate on top of finely shredded  green onions. The I poured the hot savory broth all around. The kiddos expectations were very high so I was glad they went for seconds and thirds. They might not think this is better than their favorite dumplings at Jade Garden restaurant but they definitely will do in a pinch.

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Prawn Linguini: Modernist Pasta, Rich Shrimp Sauce

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Jamie Oliver is one of the first ever chef/celebrity who I’ve learned a lot from early on and still really enjoy using his books and cooking style as an inspiration. His recipes rarely disappoint and I think his passion is infectious. This is a dish that sounds so 80’s from his Jamie’s Comfort Food book. However, when properly prepared there is no doubt that it falls under the heading “classic”.

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The instigator to making this dish was my mom. I asked her what she wanted me to cook for dinner one day so she can take a break and she mentioned shrimp. After looking through a couple of my books she immediately decided on this one upon seeing the picture. After all it combines two of her favorite food groups, pasta and shrimp.

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Homemade pasta, a wonderful food, can be a simple flour+egg mixture and lots of times that’s what I do. The ratio of flour to egg, using whole egg as opposed to yolks or maybe a combination of yolks, whites and even oil and water. I’ve been messing with the Modernist Cuisine pasta dough for a while now and really like it. It has a nice al dente texture when cooked. Due to a the small percentage of Xanthan gum in there it is very easy to work with without sticking or requiring too much additional flour. It is not really “better” than the traditional pasta dough, just different. Actually, I much prefer a classic dough if making filled pasta like Agnolotti for example. This version works very well here when you want a sturdy, snappy noodle that is still tender and rich. It is another process and cooking technique that has its place in my kitchen.  

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I include the recipe for the pasta dough in the bottom of this post. It is not a direct lift from Modernist Cuisine, rather it is adapted from the Modernist Cuisine at Home book with a few changes including the incorporation of semolina in the mix. It works very well but I will probably change something next time I make it. That’s the nature of cooking, change, evolve, test and then do it again. There is almost always room for improvement or customization. An  idea could be to include different flours instead of semolina depending on the sauce, like buckwheat or rye or corn flour….

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The other half of this recipe is the sauce, a rich a deeply flavorful one based on shrimp shell stock. I peeled the shrimp and de-veined them. The shells get sautéed in olive oil with onions. These get cooked with saffron threads, wine, canned tomatoes and anchovies for an extra briny kick. The sauce gets pureed and very well strained. This beautiful shrimp sauce is now ready to go into the final dish.

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As the pasta is cooking away I sautéed some garlic and very thinly sliced fennel in olive oil. Earlier when I cleaned the prawns, I chopped most of them and some were left whole for a nice garnish. When the vegetables are soft, I added the prawns and a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes. Last, in goes the prawn sauce. To finish, I toss the al dente cooked pasta in the prawn sauce mixture, plate in warmed plates and garnish with fresh fennel fronds and the whole tail-on large shrimp. Truly a luxurious, delicious and comforting dish.

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Modernist Pasta Dough

Adapted from Modernist Cuisine at Home

  • 600 gr. All Purpose Flour
  • 30 gr. Semolina Flour
  • 210 gr. Eggs
  • 6.2 gr. Xanthan Gum
  • 120 gr. Water
  • 37.5 gr. Olive Oil
  • 24 gr. Vital Wheat Gluten
  • 6 gr. Salt

Mix in a stand mixer and allow to hydrate for an hour before rolling and cutting.