Like pizza or macaroni and cheese, lasagna is the perfect comfort food (Garfield the cat can attest to its greatness). Yes, there is time involved in the preparation of this baked pasta that is unique for its architecture: large and wide flat noodles draped in parallel rows and slathered with sauce, meat or vegetables, and ricotta and mozzarella cheese. But the result is something quite divine when your fork sinks into that golden browned top, revealing layers loaded with melted cheese. It’s appropriate for any occasion, but often called upon for holiday meals, potlucks and cold winter nights.
There are actually other types of lasagna than the classic version you find at most Italian joints and the frozen food aisle of your supermarket. They include moussaka; red-wine braised short rib; sweet pea; carbonara and an Ethiopian version. The recipes of these variations and others can be found in the recently published cookbook, Lasagna: A Baked Pasta Cookbook, by Anna Hezel and the editors of the online food magazine TASTE. Dishes that go great with lasagna, including Caesar salad with Parmesan croutons, garlic knots, and my own personal favorite dessert, tiramisu, are featured as well.
Hezel, who resides in Brooklyn, is the senior editor at TASTE. She spoke with Brooklyn Based about lasagna and the factors that go into making a terrific one—even for terrible cooks (including myself).
In your opinion, why is lasagna such a universally loved dish?
To me, lasagna kind of strikes the perfect balance between practicality and fun. It’s easy to make a lot of it, and easy to transport to a party. But it’s also a really fun project. You can experiment, bring in personal flair, and even make a few mistakes, and once you sprinkle some cheese on top and bake it all, it will pretty much look incredible, no matter what.
As you were working on the book, was there anything about lasagna that you discovered for the first time?
I learned a lot while working on the book, especially from the chefs and writers who contributed recipes. I learned about how important lasagna is to Ethiopian and Eritrean food. I learned from chef Mark Ladner, that if you cut lasagna into little cubes, and freeze it and dredge it with flour, you can deep-fry it. A really exciting discovery made by Grace Parisi, who developed recipes for the book, was that you can skip the whole boiling noodles business and make lasagna in a skillet, with frozen ravioli!
The idea of making lasagna seems quite intimidating to the novice cook because of the architecture involved. In your view, what makes a successful lasagna?
Don’t be intimidated! One of the crazy things about lasagna is that there ultimately isn’t that much difference between the lasagna made by a pro and the lasagna made by a rookie. If you add a tiny bit too much sauce in one layer, and not quite enough cheese in another layer, it’s not going to ruin the end result. You still wind up with a melty, bubbling, cheese-coated masterpiece.
Tips for success:
*If the idea of boiling noodles until they’re al dente and then finding space in your kitchen to cool them sounds like a headache, try the no-boil noodles. A few pasta brands have also started selling fresh lasagna sheets. They’re kind of pricy, but look for them in the refrigerated section of the grocery store.
*Making your own tomato sauce is completely worth it and so much easier than people think. It’s something everyone should know how to do.
*Add more cheese to the top than you think you need, and don’t be tempted to take it out of the oven until the top is really brown and toasty. You can finish this process by turning on the broiler for a couple minutes at the end of the baking time.
You also include recipes of foods that go well with lasagna, especially tirimisu.
Tiramisu is such a fun ‘80s throwback dessert, but when you make it with care (and brandy), it’s such a luxury. For a seriously great housewarming gift, show up to the party with a cool marbled enamel pan filled with a batch of tiramisu.
For you personally, how often do you make lasagna and is it usually the classic version? And what do you hope people will come away from the book?
I make some kind of baked pasta a few times a month. My favorite type of lasagna to make for myself is the Classic Bolognese & Bechamel Lasagna—it’s a great excuse to spend an afternoon making a Bolognese sauce and sticking some of the leftover sauce in the freezer.
I hope that people will use the book as a jumping off point to improvise, make some whacky lasagnas, make some impulsive lasagnas, and cook nice things for their friends and family.