Lasagna, because every day can be a celebration.

 

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Lasagna

 

Everybody has their own special Lasagna recipe that some family member has made since the beginning of time. I am going to share mine. You can adjust it as you like. It’s important to have good ingredients. The secret ingredient is love.

 

I like to make mine with meatballs. I bake them in the oven, not fry, and simmer them in tomato sauce for as long as I can. Lasagna is time consuming but worth it. Simmer the meatballs in the sauce for at least two hours.  I often cheat and buy jarred tomato sauce. Sometimes you have to cut corners. Making tomato sauce is not complicated. It’s all about sautéing and simmering. You can do this!

 

I suggest that you buy a brand name lasagna noodle. I prefer the ones you have to boil. Cooking the lasagna noodles are easy, but you have to include time for them to cool. They are easier to layer in the lasagna if cooled.

 

It’s important to use “good” ingredients. I don’t like the typical ricotta cheese or mozzarella that you find in most grocery stores. Ricotta should not look gelatinous. I use a brand that I find at a grocery store chain that sells natural and organic foods. This Italian hand dipped whole milk ricotta is creamy. I also use the same brand for the mozzarella cheese. You can use whatever you like, but the higher quality the ingredient, the better your finished product.

I always recommend thoroughly reading a recipe before using it. It’s important to have your ingredients ready, such as the onions being diced, garlic minced. This makes cooking a more pleasant experience. Mise en place as the French say!

Sauce

Let’s start with the sauce. If you are buying your sauce premade, you will need approximately 96 ounces of sauce. It’s better to make more than not have enough. You can freeze leftover sauce and meatballs for another meal. For something this labor intensive, it’s nice to get multiple meals.

 

Large onion, diced or grated

3 garlic cloves, minced

Olive oil (good quality)

6 ounce can of tomato paste

Water

3 28-ounce cans of tomato sauce

 

Heat a very large lidded pan on medium heat. To test the heat of the pan, sprinkle drops of water from your fingers into the pan. If they roll up and evaporate, the pan is ready for olive oil. Pour enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the hot pan. Place the minced onions in the pan. Sprinkle one teaspoon of kosher salt over the onions, to help draw out the liquid. If you are using grated onion, cook at a lower temperature until are soft and fragrant. They cook differently than diced onions. I like to sauté the diced onions until they are soft. You don’t want them to brown. You may need to lower the heat or add another splash of olive oil. While the onions are cooking, open the sauce and paste cans.

When the diced onions are soft and almost golden, add the minced garlic and stir. Let the garlic cook for 30 seconds. Garlic burns quickly. Stir in the tomato paste. Stir in a tomato paste can of water to this mixture. Add the cans of tomato sauce and once again stir. You can add a teaspoon of dried oregano, pepper flakes or leaves of fresh basil if you like. I prefer not to. Put the lid on and let it simmer on a low heat. Occasionally peak under the lid, you may need to lower or raise the heat under the pan to get a simmer.

 

Meatballs

 

I find flavorful meatballs make the lasagna.

 

2 lbs. ground hamburger, not lean meat

1 large onion, grated on a box grater or finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

Handful, chopped fresh parsley

2 pieces of white bread, crust on or off

Milk

¼ cup seasoned breadcrumbs

½ cup grated parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

2 large eggs

 

My general rule is for every pound of hamburger, use one egg and one piece of bread. If you can find it, ground pork adds more flavor. You can substitute one pound for one pound of the hamburger.

Place the bread in a large mixing bowl. Pour milk over the bread. Add just enough milk to be absorbed by the bread. Get a fork and mash the bread. Add the grated onion.  You certainly may use finely chopped onion if you prefer.

Mix in the eggs, parmesan cheese and parsley. Add a tsp. of kosher salt. Add the ground beef and breadcrumbs. You may use a utensil to stir, but clean hands are the best tools. You want to stir and toss the meat mixture. You don’t want to squeeze or compress. Legend says it makes for a heavy meatball. If the mixture seems too dry, add a splash of milk. If it seems too wet, add a sprinkling of breadcrumbs. Like my grandmother said, it’s a “feel” you develop. Shape the hamburger mixture into meatballs. Not too big. Not too small. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and parchment paper. This makes for a quick cleanup. Bake the meatballs at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Turn the meatballs over after 15 minutes for even browning. To make sure they are cooked, taste one!

When meatballs are done, gently place into simmering sauce and cook for several hours.

 

I use about ½ the meatballs in the lasagna. You can slice them. I prefer to mash them. After they are cooked, place the meatballs into a bowl. Drain the sauce off of the meatballs as you take them from the pan. Mash with a fork or potato masher. They can be still somewhat intact.

 

Cook lasagna according to the directions on the package. Drain and pour cool water over them in a colander. You want them cooled off before you place them in the pan. Separate them on a cookie sheet into piles of 4. Each layer of the lasagna will use 4 noodles across. If any noodles tear, save them for the body of the lasagna. The best noodles go on top. Sometimes, depending on the brand, you will have to use three noodles on one layer. I have found that sometimes there’s an odd number of lasagna noodles in a package.

 

The next step is what I call “assembly.” You’re almost done. You can do this.

 

You will need a pan 9 x 13 that is at least 2 inches high.

 

1 15-ounce container fresh ricotta

8 ounces mozzarella, sliced, or diced, or shredded

½ cup grated parmesan

1-pound mashed cooked meatballs

Tomato sauce

 

Preheat oven 350 degrees

 

Place a thin layer of tomato sauce on the bottom of the pan. Add 4 lasagna noodles, slightly overlapping them. I add layers of meatballs, and cheeses between layers of noodles and sauce.

On top of the noodles, spoon about ¼ cup of tomato sauce. Drop spoonfuls of the ricotta over the noodles. Add spoonfuls of mashed meatballs and mozzarella to the layer. Sprinkle some parmesan on top. Keep in mind you will have about 3 layers, so divide accordingly. It’s all approximate. Sometimes I forget an ingredient in a layer, and just add a little more in the next. It will still taste wonderful.

Repeat the 4 noodles, sauce, meat and cheeses layers. Your final layers will just be the lasagna noodle and sauce. Make sure you completely cover the noodles with sauce, including the corners. The corners could become very crisp if they don’t have sauce on them.

 

Bake at 350 degree for 45 minutes. It should be bubbling hot. Let it rest for 15 minutes before serving.
To re-heat leftovers, place a little sauce or water in the bottom of a 10-inch fry pan, with lid. Cut lasagna and place in pan. Put lid on and simmer for about 20 minutes. Cook until it’s piping hot. You can also add some cut up meatballs to the pan. I like leftover lasagna better than fresh from the oven. You can freeze the cooked meatballs and sauce for another night. Goes great with spaghetti.

 

I like to freeze any leftover lasagna. It makes a quick lunch or dinner on a busy night. A little goes a long way.

 

Enjoy!

 

Cranberry-Orange Ricotta Bread

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I love a good quick bread recipe as much as the next person. This one was shared by a friend from the past, Nancy. We went to school together from elementary to high school. I never saw her after graduation. I never saw most of the my friends after graduation. We didn’t have Facebook or Twitter or Instagram to say in touch. We had a black phone anchored to the wall, with a short cord, and the USPS. Nancy and I reconnected on FB. I’ve discovered she is an incredible baker. I adore her baking postings. She is talented, and oh so creative in all aspects of her life. I’d call her a crafter, but that would be an insult to her artistic abilities! This recipe is one that Nancy recently posted.

With the threat of snow and miserable weather, I printed the recipe and ran to the store. Where I forgot to buy the cranberries. So, I improvised and used dried cranberries. I didn’t want to fight the crowds at two stores, so I skipped the trip to Whole Foods for the “good ricotta”. I deeply regret that decision to this day.  I baked the bread with these substitute ingredients. It came out good. I knew it could be great. The next weekend I found frozen cranberries and my Calabro Ricotta. This time, the bread was fantastic. The quality of ingredients makes a difference!

When I decided to bake this, I started pulling out my hand-mixer. I noticed this recipe was mixed and folded by hand! Are you thinking, what I’m thing? I can make this early in the morning without waking anybody. No? I baked this in 4 mini loaf pans. This is my idea of portion control. Ha! It’s nice to freeze these mini loaves, wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in plastic bags. It makes a great gift if you’re visiting a worthy recipient. Don’t forget to label them. I tend to have a couple of different breads in the freezer. You want to know what you’re handing off to your friends!

Ingredients

1 2/3 cups + 2 tbsp. all-purpose flour; divided

1 3/4 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. salt

3/4 cup ricotta cheese; preferably whole milk

1/4 cup sour cream

1 cup sugar

4 large eggs + 1 egg yolk

2 tsp. grated orange zest

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1/2 cup canola oil

1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped

 

Glaze

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1-2 tbsp. orange juice

1 tsp. orange zest

pinch of salt

 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a large loaf pan, line with parchment paper. I also like to use 4 mini loaf pans, also using parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the ricotta, sour cream, sugar, eggs, egg yolk, orange zest, and vanilla. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine the 1 2/3 cups of flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix to combine. Set aside.

Chop the cranberries and toss them with remaining flour. I chop them into quarters, unless the berries are big. I don’t defrost the frozen cranberries. Chopping them frozen is actually easy. Toss the remains 2 tbsp. of flour with cranberries. This helps prevent them from sinking in the pan while the bread is baking.

Slowly whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. With a rubber spatula, fold the oil into the batter, folding from the bottom and up. You want to fold in air. Make sure you get the bottom of the bowl with the spatula.  Mix until it’s all incorporated. Fold in the flour coated cranberries

Pour batter into prepared pans and bake for 50-55 minutes, or until a toothpick placed in the center of the loaf comes out clean. I’ve been know to use a skewer. Use what you have! If you are using mini loaf pans, reduce the baking time. I start checking at around 30 minutes. They start to get a little golden brown coloring on the tops.

Cool the bread in the pan for 10 minutes, then carefully transfer to a cooling wrap to cool completely.

To make the glaze, whisk together the ingredients until smooth. Add more juice for a thinner glaze, and more sugar to thicken it up. I like to put the glaze on while the bread is still warm. I put a cookies sheet under the cooling rack to catch the glaze. This makes clean-up easier!  Before you wrap this to store in the fridge or freezer, let the glaze cool and harden. You don’t have to glaze it, but WHY NOT?

NOTE: I have found this bread bakes better in mini-loaves. It’s very dense and it takes a little longer to bake in a loaf pan. They both taste great, but the mini-loaf comes out a little better.

Sausage, Spinach, Ricotta Stuffed Pasta Shells….say that five times fast!

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You had me at jumbo pasta shells. I don’t recall ever making stuffed shells. Shameful. What’s a Sunday without a confession or two. I always thought that it would be more complicated. I made these on a weeknight with little effort. It was a rare night where I didn’t have to make 2 train station runs. If you want to do it in steps, prepare the stuffing the night before and refrigerate it. I love doing things in steps. Here’s my dirty little secret. I used Ragu spaghetti sauce. Yup. Another confession on this rainy Sunday. When the kids were little I used to make my own, but they fussed at the sight of onions in it. I waved the white flag and started buying it. Sometimes on the weekends, when feeling my inner Italian calling, I make it. But, I.AM.BUSY.

This is a public service announcement. Use good quality ingredients. When you invest time and effort into cooking, use the best ingredients you can find, especially if there are only a few ingredients in the recipe. (Hey, there’s nothing wrong with Ragu!) I implore you to use a good ricotta. What’s a good ricotta you ask? It should taste sweet and creamy. It should not be rubbery.  Google it. I really like Calabro ricotta. You can taste and see the difference between this and most grocery store brands. Also, use real Parmesan. Try to find Parmesan that looks like it was chiseled out a big Parmesan wheel. Don’t buy the pre-grated Parmesan. You want to use real Parmesan Reggiano. Cut off a piece and taste it. It’s a hard, dry cheese with a rich sharp flavor. It’s made in Italy and has a superior taste to grocery store Parmesan. It’s expensive, but it makes such a difference. I freeze the rinds and pull them out to help flavor soups.

So, as usual, read through all recipes before attempting to bake. Because I didn’t, you should!

1 12-ounce package jumbo pasta shells

1 tbsp olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 large egg

16-ounces ricotta cheese

10-ounces chopped frozen spinach, thawed, squeezed dry, and chopped further

1 cup Parmesan cheese, divided

1 tbsp chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp dried basil

1/4 cup breadcrumbs, seasoned or unseasoned

8 ounces fresh mozzarella pearls or 2 cups of shredded/grated mozzarella

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 tsp ground black pepper

28 ounces of tomato sauce, or so

*2*   9 X 13 baking dishes

First, cook your shells according to the package directions. When they are done, drain them in a colander and run cold water over them. Shake, shake, shake the water off. Put them aside.

Heat olive oil in a large skillet on medium heat. Add the onions and cook until softened. I may or may not have used more than one onion. How could it hurt? Add the sausage to the pan, breaking up the sausage into smaller bits. You can use chicken or turkey sausage if you prefer. Make sure there is no pink in the center of the sausage. Add the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Dropped food on the floor has a 5 second rule, cooking garlic has a 30 second rule. Remove the pan from the heat.

Beat the egg slightly in a large bowl. Mix in the ricotta, chopped spinach, 1/2 cup Parmesan, basil, bread crumbs, salt, pepper, sausage mixture and the pearls. I cannot tell you the sheer joy mixing in the pearls brought me. They are so cute. Shredded mozzarella does the trick, but these are just pearls of joy! Fill each cooked pasta shell with some of the mixture. Don’t forget to taste test it!

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Spread about 1/2 cup of tomato sauce over the bottom of both pans. Full disclosure, I did not pay attention to this detail, and crammed “most” of the stuffed shells into one pan. I would suggest using two. Use an aluminum foil pan and freeze it for another dinner. Also, I did not heat up the sauce. I just poured it from the jar. A big no-no, but it worked.  Sorry Nonni. Just eye-ball it and use a little less, knowing as it heats up, it thins out. If you are a stickler for rules, heat it up in another pan. It.was.a.week.night. Yes, this is my third cooking confession. (Maybe four) Arrange the stuffed shells in the dishes (sigh). Spread some sauce over the top of the pasta shells. Again, guesstimate it. You don’t want them swimming, or, too dry.

Place foil covered pans in a 375 degree oven, and bake for 30 minutes, until hot and bubbling. Remove foil and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan over the shells and bake uncovered for 10 more minutes. I may have grated more Parmesan “by accident” (ahem).

Let it set for about 10 minutes. Serve with a salad to make yourself feel better.

Enjoy!

 

Here is the original recipe. It uses canned tomatoes instead of tomato sauce. It also did not include mozzarella, which is madness. Sheer madness.

 

Miss Fancy-Pants Brunch idea

Lemon Ricotta Pancakes

 

Christmas morning I had a crowd for breakfast. I typically make my Egg Strata (previously posted) with bacon. I knew that I would need a little more to feed my family. I had printed out this recipe a while ago, and thought what better time to try it. I was so right. They were delicious. The pancakes are very light with a great lemon flavor. I had tasted the batter and thought there wasn’t enough lemon, but left it alone. I’m glad I did. Once the grated lemon zest hits the heat, the flavor pops. The ricotta makes the pancakes very light. These might be on the menu for tomorrow too. It’s a perfect “fancy” brunch recipe, or something to nosh on with your kids. The original recipe called for sautéing apples and serving them over the pancakes. I wish I had done this. But, hey it was Christmas and I was tired from a week of cooking. The thought of warm apples and maple syrup makes me tingle. Try this recipe. If you’re nervous, keep that box of Aunt Jemima nearby. I am betting you won’t need it. There are no pictures of these pancakes. They were gone by the time I thought of it.

 

4 large eggs, separated

1 1/3 cups ricotta

1 ½ tablespoons sugar

1 ½ tablespoons grated lemon zest

½ cup all-purpose flour

 

Melted butter for brushing the griddle

Maple syrup, as an accompaniment

In a bowl whisk together the egg yolks, the ricotta, the sugar, and the zest, add the flour, and stir the mixture until it is just combined. In a bowl with an electric mixer, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until they hold stiff peaks; whisk about one fourth of them into the ricotta mixture, and fold in the remaining whites gently but thoroughly. Heat a griddle to a medium heat. When drops of water scatter over its surface, brush the griddle with some of the melted butter. Working in batches, pour the batter onto the griddle by ¼ measures and cook the pancakes for about 2 minute on each side, or until they are golden, brushing the griddle with some of the melted butter as necessary. Transfer the pancakes as they are cooked to a heatproof pan and keep them warm in a preheated 200-degree oven. Transfer to a serving platter to serve.

I may be the last one on the planet that has heard of this recipe. The original, original recipe was from Gourmet Magazine 1991. I think I was deep in diapers and trying to stay sane. It is the best excuse I got. I was not reading Gourmet Magazine in 1991. I was reading picture books and watching PBS children’s programs. This trend continued for many years……

Serve the pancakes with maple syrup, and if you’re smart, with sautéed apples. They make about twelve 3-to-4-inch pancakes.

 

Here is the Smitten Kitchen recipe. There are pictures and detailed directions if you need them. If you haven’t visited this website, you should. It is fantastic!

NOTE: I made these pancakes today. I added a tsp. of lemon juice and made the apples. Oh please make the apples. It’s like apple pie on pancakes.photo And, for the love of bacon, please bake your bacon

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Zest when you think you’ve seen it all…..

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  Lemon Ricotta Cookies with Lemon Glaze

 

A few weeks ago, I was trying to use three pounds of ricotta cheese in under a week.  I did it! I made a lasagna, a ricotta and spinach pasta dish and some amazing lemon cookies, using a Giada De Laurentiis recipe. If you are looking for a taste of Spring, try these cookies. The lemon glaze puts them over the top. I thought the ricotta would make them heavy, but they were very light. The cookies did not spread out while they cooked. They made a beautiful mound of cookie. They were wonderful. Even my son, who made a face when I told him what I was baking, devoured them……

2 ½ cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. salt

1 stick of unsalted butter, softened

2 cups of sugar

2 eggs

1 15 oz. container of whole milk ricotta

3 tbsp. lemon juice

1 lemon, zested

Glaze

1-½ cups powdered sugar (10X)

3 tbsp. lemon juice

1 lemon, zested

Recipes are wonderful, but they never tell you how many lemons you are going to need. This recipe calls for 6 tablespoons of lemon juice, divided. How much juice you get from a lemon depends on several things. When you are looking at lemons, pick them up. You want to buy a heavy lemon. The heaviness means there’s more juice. So, for this recipe I bought 6 lemons and used about 4. I would rather have too many lemons, than to run out and buy more. Make sure the lemons are room temperature. You will get more juice out of a lemon that is NOT cold. Roll the lemon on the counter before you juice the lemon.  Also, juice the lemons before you start the recipe. I use a wooden reamer, and juice the lemons over a glass-measuring cup.  You can just use your hands to squeeze them. Remove the seeds with a spoon. Before you juice the lemons, I would zest them into a separate container from the juice. You can use a zester or a box grater that has a zesting side. Now you are ready to get baking.

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt into a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar. You use unsalted butter in baking for freshness. Salt is a preservative and gives butter a long shelf life. Therefore, unsalted butter is fresher. Using an electric mixer beat the butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. This takes about 3 minutes. Add 1 egg at a time. I recommend breaking the eggs into bowl, just in case they have gone bad. Beat the mixture until the eggs are incorporated.  Add the ricotta, lemon juice, and lemon zest. Beat to combine. Stir in the dry mixture of flour, baking powder and salt.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Spoon the dough onto the baking sheet, using about 2 tbsp. of batter for each cookie. You can place 4 across the pan, as the dough does not spread out.

Bake each sheet for 15 minutes until slightly golden at the edge. I like to bake each sheet one at a time. That’s my preference in my oven. Remove the cookie sheets from oven and let cookies rest on the baking sheet for 20 minutes to cool.

To make the glaze, combine the powdered sugar, lemon juice and lemon zest in a small bowl. Use ½ tsp. of glaze on each cookie, using the back of a spoon to spread. Let the glaze harden for 2 hours. Store in an airtight container.

If you want to go over the top with these cookies, you could put a few candied lemon peels on before the glaze hardens. Enjoy!

Giada De Laurentiis lemon cookies