Friday, March 27, 2009

Dare to be a Kitchen Hero

Recently in the Land of St. Honore’, a Daring Baker of the female persuasion looked around the kitchen to make sure that she had all of the pots and pans, spoons and whisks, rolling pins and piles of ingredients she needed for the March challenge.

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 most important part of this challenge is the hand-made Spinach Egg Pasta. She is also going to use Lynne’s recipes for béchamel (white) sauce and her own zucchini based turkey ragu.

It was a new kitchen, so she wanted to be prepared. Her children watched in awe as she spun around, faster and faster and when she stopped she had on a red hat and was holding her scale.

She measured the pasta ingredients, grabbed her bench scraper and a wooden spoon and mixed together the green, sticky pasta dough with her bare hands.

Such fun! She let the kids help with the kneading so everyone could have greenish hands.

Once the dough was set aside to rest it was time for her next transformation.

First she gathered the Béchamel sauce ingredients and pot by the stove, then spun around and around in a blur and when she stopped she had on a slinky turquoise dress and carried her trusty whisk. The children’s eyes nearly popped out of their heads. Béchamel sauces need a lot of whisking, so she shared that task with the kids, too.

The day before she had partnered with her friend, The Mighty Flame, after she donned her ninja outfit and chopped up the zucchini for the ragu. Today he was helpful again with the Béchamel, but the kids kept their distance since he was so hot. She would never tell them just how hot…too much information.

While the kids took a nap, she returned to her normal appearance and made good use of her rolling pin, starting with snake shaped pieces of the dough

and ending up with long, thin, narrow sheets of green specked pasta, piled up on the counter with plastic wrap in between.

Time for a cup of tea and a salad for sustenance! Making lasagna noodles took real effort.

Too bad there was no rolling pin super hero persona to change to.

In the afternoon Flame helped her get a big pot of water boiling. The kids, awake again, found it fascinating to see how bright green the pasta looked as it came out of the boiling water

and how dull the green turned as it was instantly cooled when placed in the bowl of cold water near the stove. A quick drying on paper towels was all that was needed, then the fun began.

Flame did the spinning around thing and when he stopped he was dressed in green and wielding a spatula. As the Daring Baker of the female persuasion added the Béchamel sauce to the baking pan, he spread it out to a thin layer. She layered on the pasta, ragu sauce and more Béchamel, with El Spatulla helping with spreading when needed.

Grated real Parmesan was sprinkled on, too, in turn, and as the final layer over a layer of Béchamel.

By this time everyone was a bit tired and ready for the gorgeous lasagna to go into the oven to bake. Milk and cookies were enjoyed all around.

At dinner time the lasagna was baked and delicious. The thin sheets of pasta were delicate and full of flavor. The creamy sauce, pungent cheese and hearty ragu combined with the pasta to make the perfect meal. The kids even asked for seconds. Once again the Daring Baker of the female persuasion wished for another super hero persona…this time for photography. She was so tired that her photos of this grand and glorious dish are not of the best quality.

As she tucked the kids in to bed later that evening, she thought to herself, “and this morning I was just a mild-mannered housewife”. Thus ends the story for the March Daring Baker Challenge…pure fiction.

If you haven’t yet visited, please visit the NEW Daring Kitchen blog (Click on logo at right of this post...@X#!*Blogger isn't letting me do an actual link!), home of these super heroes and of the Daring Bakers and Daring Cooks. It has a blogroll so that you can visit lots and lots of other Daring Bakers’ blogs to see what super heroes they have been this month in creating their own version of the delicious lasagna.

Many thanks to Ivonne, Lis, Patricia (for the logo and hero images) and Steve for the new site. It’s awesome, people. Go take a look and you can see patricia’s super heroes of the kitchen who inspired my little story.

The March Challenge recipes for the lasagna noodles and the béchamel are from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992). The ragu is my own recipe, created over 25 years ago for my daughter.

Lasagna 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 Béchamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Turkey Zucchini Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working 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 lasagna 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 lasagna 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 Lasagna:
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 Lasagna:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagna. 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 lasagna rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagna, 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 lasagna, 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). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagna 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. (NOTE: Since I was making the lasagna the same day, I didn't dry the pasta sheets.)

#2 Béchamel
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 Turkey Zucchini Ragu
1/2 lb ground meat (beef or turkey - I use turkey)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 medium squash, cut into chunks (any summer squash, but zucchini works best)
1 15 oz. can tomato sauce
1 15 oz can diced tomatos in juice
2 teaspoons oregano
1 teaspoon dry basil
1/4 teaspoon dry rosemary
note - fresh oregano, basil and rosemary can be used - use twice as much, or more, to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper

In large skillet heat oil over medium high heat. Brown ground meat. Set aside.
Using same pan, cook onion and garlic until transluscent and barely brown, about 5 minutes, stirring now and then.

While meat and then onions/garlic cook, put half of squash in a blender. Add 1/2 of the can of tomato sauce and 1 tablespoon of water. Pulse blender, removing top and stirring every couple of pulses, until mixture is broken down but still chunky. Once onions have finished, pour this mixture into the pan. Lower heat to simmer and deglaze the pan with the tomato mixture, scraping up the browned bits.

Return browned meat to the pan and stir. Put the rest of the squash into the blender, add rest of tomato sauce, pulse the same way the first batch was done. Add this batch to the pan of meat mixture and stir.

Add diced tomatoes, herbs, salt and pepper to pan, stir.

Return to boil, cover, turn down heat and simmer at least 2 minutes, stirring about every 10 minutes to avoid scorching. (The longer the sauce simmers, the better it will taste.)

note - this sauce tastes even better if allowed to cool and left in the refrigerator overnight to blend the flavors. Reheat over low heat until simmering.

Verdict: This is not a heavy, gut busting lasagna, but a delicate, savory and delicious version. We liked it very much. It seemed to be best the day it was made and didn’t taste as good a few days later…the pasta seemed dry and the sauce not so creamy. It is a bit of work, but would be a nice celebration dish.
Thank you Mary, Melinda & Enza for choosing such a great recipe for the March Daring Baker challenge! I've never made fresh pasta before and would not have if y'all had not chosen this recipe. Great job!


  1. the ragu looks delish and everything turned out great! sorry blogger was being mean :)!

  2. the ragu looks delish and everything turned out great! sorry blogger was being mean :)!

  3. Tired or not, your lasagne looks beautiful! I love what you did with the ragu, too. Well done!

  4. We find that when we make homemade pasta and use it undried, it does tend to kind of almost revert a little to its semolina self. Definitely it's a dish to eat with friends 'round the table to consume it all at once.

    And it IS so delicate, isn't it? Amazing, delectable stuff. Yum, this looks fabulous -- I don't know how you find the time to do everything, my friend! You must be a secret super hero yourself!

  5. g yes - but a bite of fresh pasta dishes makes me forget how tiring it is. brilliant looking lasagne

  6. Not only does your lasagne look awesome, but I LOVE the photo of the egg running down Mount Flour! Kudos on a job well done!

    Also, I love the title of your blog!

  7. You always do it up right!
    Wished I'd used a turkey ragu. Loved these noodles!

  8. I love how you worked in the new personnas for this. Well done!

  9. You did such a good job of this month's challenge. When I look at the process you went through I'm almost glad I totally forgot about it - how pathetic of me. BTW - how do you like that IKEA scale? Is it really accurate?

  10. Mmm, your lasagne looks awesome!! Beautiful job =D.

  11. Y'all, thanks for the nice comments!
    Giz, no the IKEA scale is not terribly accurate. It was inexpensive and OK for general weighing. Will try to get a more accurate scale soon.

  12. What a creative and fun to read write-up. And a midway snack is definitely needed for this recipe.
    The kitchen is for the Daring Bakers, what the next phone booth is for Clark Kent. :)

  13. Awesome job. Your lasagna looks yummy!

  14. I tip my hat to those who have not only made this with such great effort but taken the time to take pics and post the whole thing....awesome job!

    And did you change your header's pic...the yolk looks cool :)

  15. Love your titles.. so witty and funny.Your lasagna looks fantastic. Absolutely fabulous.

  16. Always such a joy to read your challenge adventure! And so many heroic sous chefs added to the story made it even more delightful! I agree.. we sure could have used a rolling pin hero this month!

    Beautiful job accomplished by a beautiful girl :D


  17. I love your tale of mild-mannered-housewife-turned-lasagna-hero. Well done!

  18. I love you tale of mild-mannered-housewife-turned-lasagna-hero. Well done!

  19. Smiling at the write up -- you really put some time into this! Definitely a lovely lasagne -- even with all the production. I still have some pieces frozen...

  20. Anonymous9:51 AM

    Great job! Your rolled-out noodles looked just like mine. It's amazing! Beautiful lasagne!

  21. Well worth all the effort. Your lasagna is perfect!

  22. Your lasagna look delish! nice job on this challenge!

  23. Your pasta looks just lovely Elle and as always a great story to go with the post! Sorry I've taken so long to get to you but I've been away... will be e-mailing you something soon too!!

  24. Your lasagna looks wonderful! I like the addition of the courgettes into your filling

  25. I loved how you turned into all the kitchen heroes, some people would call that insanity, I call it cool!

    Nice lasagna!