Saturday, March 28, 2009

Daring Bakers March Challenge: Lasagna

This month's Daring Bakers Challenge was a little different. Instead of a bread or a dessert, we baked lasagna. Find the complete recipe below. We made the noodles with fresh spinach, flour and eggs, the bechamel sauce and ragu from scratch. This lasagna was a change from what I am used to, which is a saucy oozy cheesy lasagna, more sauce than noodles. This lasagna is a less-is-more blend of thin layers of bechamel, noodles and ragu.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

The noodles were a challenge all by themselves. Fresh spinach was washed and chopped. Flour was measured into a pile, a well was made in the center, and three eggs and the chopped spinach were mixed together, gradually pulling in the flour into the mixture. The dough was kneaded together into a smooth ball and allowed to rest, covered, for two hours while the bechamel and ragu were made.

Then the noodles were rolled out as thinly as possible and sliced. The coarse fresh spinach made the dough very difficult for me to roll out. My noodles came out much thicker than they were supposed to be. The noodles were allowed to dry overnight, then cooked the next day. I had doubts about them being too chewy in the resulting lasagna, since I had to cook them for nearly 12 minutes and they were still not to al dente stage, but they came out just fine.

The lasagna went together easily, and turned out quite nicely. I probably won't ever do this again, but I'm glad I did it once.

RECIPE and Directions:

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)

(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

MethodWorking Ahead:

The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:

Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand.
Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove.
Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius).
Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:

Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender.

Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:

Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese.

Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:

Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes
Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:

A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.
A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.
A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.

Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.
A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.
Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:

Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.


With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:

If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm).


Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel
Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time:

Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:

Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering:

Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

White House Kitchen Garden

Well, it's official! There will be a (substantial) kitchen garden on the White House Lawn. Michelle Obama helped break the ground on Friday, making the dream of many people (Alice Waters, Michael Pollan among them) a reality. With this time of financial uncertainty, concerns about food safety, and an epidemic of obesity, the day was long overdue.

The vegetables, fruits and herbs will be used in meals served to the first family and their guests in the White House, and any excess will be donated to a local food pantry. This has the potential to get the "eat local" movement some additional momentum-- and that is a great news for sellers of garden seeds and plants. It will help farmers markets as well, as folks begin to shop for those veggies and fruits thay haven't been able to grow for themselves.

I'm sure there will be critics of the plan springing up like dandelions, but I say, "Good job!"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Garden Bloggers Bloom Day March 15, 2009

Hey, hey, hey! It's Garden Bloggers Bloom Day again and I finally have something blooming outside (and a pot of blooming cheerfulness inside!) Yellow crocus are popping up all over in the patio garden and the long perennial borders. I used to have white and purple, too, but the deer eat them and leave the yellow ones alone, for the most part. (Anyone know why?)
Daffodils and day lilies are poking up already, but they are a long way from blooming. The daffodils will be pictured here next month, I'll bet.

And inside, on my table, a big bowl of yellow violas. Aren't their little blossoms cheerful?

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Chocolate Valentino-- The Daring Bakers Challenge for February

The Daring Bakers came up with a fairly easy challenge for us this month. It is called a Chocolate Valentino-- a dessert unlike any I've ever made before. It looks like a cake. It feels like a brownie when you touch the top and sides. It has the texture of a chocolate souffle. And the flavor? Heaven! The recipe comes from Chef Wan's Sweet Treats. (I don't think the book is available in the US-- sorry!)

The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE's blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef. We have chosen a Chocolate Valentino cake by Chef Wan; a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Dharm and a Vanilla Ice Cream recipe from Wendy as the challenge.

Along with the Valentino, I made Wendy's Philadelphia Style Vanilla homemade ice cream to serve with it. I followed a recipe that was a lot easier than the vanilla ice cream recipe I usually use. Find the recipe at the end of the post.

Chocolate Valentino
Preparation Time: 20 minutes
16 ounces (1 pound) (454 grams) of semisweet chocolate, roughly chopped
½ cup (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons (146 grams total) of unsalted butter
5 large eggs separated

The Valentino was quick to make. I used Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate bars (the kind of chocolate we used was up to us.) The cake basically tastes like whatever chocolate you use, so the better the quality of the chocolate, the better the cake. Ghirardelli was the best I could find. (I live in an area where there are no good food stores like Whole Foods.) Next time I'll order Scharffen Berger on line.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

First you coarsely chop the chocolate and combine it with the unsalted butter in a heatproof bowl over a pan of simmering water. (Don't let the water boil or touch the bottom of the bowl.) Mix the butter and chocolate together as they melt, and when they are all melted and blended, remove the bowl from the pan of water and let cool.

Next I buttered a deep 8 inch cake pan, lined it with a round of parchment and buttered that.

I separated the 5 room temperature eggs, and beat the whites in an oil-free bowl until stiff peaks formed. (Don't let them get dry, or your cake will be dry.)

Next I beat the yolks until smooth and creamy and blended them into the cooled butter/chocolate mixture. Then I folded in 1/3 of the egg whites gently, then the remainder, folding only until no white remained. (Don't overmix or you'll deflate the whites-- the egg whites are what makes the cake light and airy.)

Then I baked the cake at 375 degrees for 25 minutes. The cake is ready when an instant-read thermometer reads 140 degrees in the center of the cake. (It will still be wet in the middle.) I let it cool for 10 minutes and then removed it from the pan onto my serving plate. I let it cool completely and then served it with the homemade vanilla ice cream. Gooood!

The ice cream recipe is below. Thanks, Wendy! Check out her blog here.

Wendy's Ice Cream Recipe
Vanilla Philadelphia Style Recipe
Preparation Time: 5 minutes

2 cups (473 ml) of half and half
1 cup (237 ml) heavy cream
2/3 (128 grams) cup sugar
Dash of salt
1 (12 grams) tablespoon of vanilla

Mix all ingredients together (we do this in a plastic pitcher and mix with an emulsifier hand blender-whisking works too).
Refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer.
Mix in your ice cream maker as directed.