Maybe it’s because I grew up in Indiana, or maybe its because I grew up in the 1980’s… or maybe it’s because I like cheese. But authentic Italian lasagna to me, while unctuous and delicious and full of punchy flavors, is NOT what I’m looking for when I want to taste my childhood. If you grew up in Italy, or with an Italian grandma, you can just let go of all that you know right now. This is another thing.
My thoroughly not-Italian dad made our lasagna. It was creamy, and gooey, and full of distinctly not-Italian cheeses. Also, I would like to point out, my dad used cottage cheese. To this day, I don’t know if it was because ricotta wasn’t available, or because we didn’t have much money, or because ricotta at that time in our small-town grocery store was prohibitively expensive. My updated recipe allows for either option- use whichever you’d like best- or mix them! It’s a mad world out there, people. We might need multiple cheeses to make it through.
Another childhood lasagna that I couldn’t skip would be that of my school system- that’s right– my SCHOOL CAFETERIA LASAGNA was the stuff dreams are made of. My school, in the 1980’s, still made our lunches from scratch. And they were DELICIOUS. To this day, the cinnamon rolls dipped in chili (don’t make that face- we’ll cover that later), the taco bar (giant vats of help-yourself shredded cheese and veggies), and the lasagna are legendary. The school no longer makes their own lunches, due to – believe it or not- the need to count precise carbs for the rising number of diabetic kiddos in our society- but that’s a problem we’ll have to tackle in another post. It’s a sadness, but the current generation of kids at my old school have no idea what they’re missing.
My recipe hits my nostalgia squarely in between my school lasagna and my dad’s… and I can’t wait to share it with you!
First, we have to tackle an important issue:
I can’t help it. It’s terrible. It’s the Roman Empire of food– it takes over every single thing it touches. It has a slight licoricey flavor- sort of along the lines of anise- and that’s reason number 87 why we won’t be using fennel or any of its friends in our lasagna today. If you want fennel in your lasagna, you need to make traditional Italian lasagna, with Italian sausage, but that’s another post, for another day. Not today, Fennel.
Next up: noodles. I have always, for my entire adult life, used the noodles dry, because there are 1883648 recipes online for no-boil lasagna. Boiling those noodles has always seemed like an extraneous and annoying step which warranted no benefit. Here it is, folks: I was wrong. Boiling your own noodles means you have perfectly cooked noodles, so long as you don’t overcook them. So pay attention to what you’re doing. You know. Use your… noodle. We will lay them out on sheets of parchment so that they’re ready when we need them, with no drama.
Cheese is my favorite thing. I can’t help it. I’ll try pretty much any cheese, and I’ll probably love it. I love cheeses which are delicate to robust, creamy to unyielding, and there’s even a time and place for processed cheese. This lasagna, the nostalgia-ridden lasagna of my rose-colored memories, uses mozzarella and grated parmesan– the kind out of the big green canister. Don’t make that face. Just trust me here. There is logic at work here. I’ll get to it, I promise.
In my previous lasagna attempts, I have always bought a jar of my favorite pasta sauce. It was okay. It hit all the things you’re supposed to hit with lasagna… but only vaguely. So in this version, we’re making our own sauce… but don’t fret… this will come together quickly, and in the same pan as the meat. You won’t mess it up, I promise. Don’t be intimidated. You’ll be rewarded with mouthful after mouthful of rich, decadent, perfect meat sauce.
Now- why do I make some of the choices I do? Why canned parmesan and tomatoes? Why dried herbs instead of fresh? Here it is: this dish was born of busy weeknights. It’s made to be able to be thrown together at any time, with ingredients you already have on hand. Meat from the freezer that was taken out to thaw the night before, jarred minced garlic from the fridge, canned tomato products and cheese from the pantry, dried herbs, and even regular old cottage cheese mean you can throw this together in a flash, and you will be met with stuffed-mouth silence at the dinner table.
You guys, it’s time.
- 1 1/2 pounds ground beef or chuck
- 1 pound breakfast sausage- hot, medium, or mild, to your taste. I use hot.
- 2 cloves of garlic, or 2 teaspoons out of a jar of minced garlic
- 2 cans of whole tomatoes (14.5 ounces each)
- 2 cans of tomato paste (6 ounces each)
- 2 T + 2 T dried parsley
- 2 T dried basil (you can always adjust to your taste, but this is a good starting point)
- 1 t salt + 1 t salt
- 2 eggs, slightly beaten
- 3 cups of cottage cheese OR whole milk ricotta OR a combo if you’re feeling feisty
- 1/2 c + 1/2 c grated parmesan – the kind in the green can
- 1 pound sliced mozzarella- the kind you’d use for sandwiches
- 1 box of lasagna noodles
- Boil a very large pot of water on the stove. Salt the water heavily– this is your ONE chance to season this pasta. Do not add oil to your water- the purpose of lasagna is to allow those noodles to soak up some sauce, and if you add on a layer of oil, that won’t happen. Boil your lasagna noodles for slightly less time than the box says you’re supposed to. We’re going to cook them again, remember, and no one wants squishy, waterlogged noodles. When your pasta is finished boiling, lay the noodles out on sheets of parchment or wax paper. This will keep them ready for your use at a later stage.
- While you wait for your water to boil, go ahead and mix your meats and the garlic in a bowl with your hands. I use hot breakfast sausage, but you can use whatever heat level you like. Remember, it’s going to be mixed with beef, and we’re relying on the seasoning in the sausage to season ALL of the meat. It results in a rounded, warm flavor throughout. Do NOT use Italian Sausage here. Heat up a skillet and add your meat mixture. Brown, working with a wooden spoon until crumbly and relatively fine. Something I really like to do is to sort of “fry” the meat in the fat at the end– even after it’s browned. This provides a texture which I really like in the finished product- it keeps it from being sort of… mushy. After you’ve browned it, drain off the fat.
- To the meat, add the canned tomatoes, the tomato paste, the basil, the first 1 t salt, and the first 2 T of parsley. Stir it occasionally, breaking up the large pieces of tomato as it cooks. Let it go for however long it takes you to put together the rest of the ingredients– just keep stirring it every so often as you go. The longer it goes, the more the ingredients will mingle.
- While your sauce is cooking, use a medium bowl to mix together the ricotta or cottage cheese, the eggs, the first 1/2 c grated parmesan, the remaining parsley, and the remaining salt.
- Get out your dish, and here’s a secret. You can either use a 9×13 dish, OR you can use TWO 8×8 dishes, based on the size of the crowd you’re feeding. If you do two dishes, you can bake one tonight, and throw the other in the freezer, to thaw and bake off another time. That’s what I usually do.
- Cover the bottom of your pan(s) with a layer of lasagna. You’re going to have plenty of noodles, so don’t be afraid to slightly layer the edges or trim a piece to fit every available space in the pan. That’s what I do.
- Next, spoon half of the soft cheese mixture over the noodles. Spread this out evenly- everyone wants some in every bite.
- Cover your cottage cheese with a layer of mozzarella slices. I prefer slices to shreds, and here’s why. I like perfectly even distribution of cheese, and this makes it super easy. You can even trim pieces to fit extra spaces, just as you did with the lasagna noodles.
- Next comes your delicious homemade meat sauce. You’ll want to use just about half of this mixture. Spread it evenly, because even distribution means everyone gets some in every bite.
- Repeat the noodle, soft cheese, sliced cheese, and meat sauce layers again. You should have used all of your ingredients by now, except for the remaining 1/2 cup grated parmesan, and maybe some scraps of slices. At this point, go ahead and add any extra slices and sprinkle the parmesan over the top. I have made this both ways- with sliced cheese on top, and with the grated parmesan, and I must admit that it’s easier to serve– but still delicious– with the parmesan only. But you do you. If you’re a Cheesaholic, add some slices. I’m sure you’ve guessed that I add slices. I can’t help myself.
- Place in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30 minutes, or until hot and bubbly. If you’re freezing one, wrap it tightly WITHOUT baking, and throw it in the freezer. When you’re ready for it, take it out of the freezer and allow to thaw in the fridge until you’re ready for it– up to two days. Then bake at 350 for 30 minutes, just as above.
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