In 1970, on her television show The French Chef,
Julia Child made lasagna. In the famous episode (which still exists in various corners of the Internet), she accidentally skips the garlic, forgets what ricotta cheese is called, and invents colorful terms like “spaghetti laundry” and “inner sauce” on the spot. Through it all, she makes one thing clear: Lasagna is a novel, new concept to her.
Half a century later, the layered pasta dish is so embedded in the American zeitgeist that it finds itself the subject of Kylie Jenner Snapchats, Chrissy Teigen Instagram Stories, and countless memes. America continues to cook lasagna, and to seek inspiration from chefs and TV personalities including Giada De Laurentiis, Ree Drummond, Michael Solomonov, and Marcus Samuelsson. We turn leftover braises and sauces into late-night baked-pasta masterpieces and spend rainy Sundays simmering ragus and cranking out thin, velvety layers of fresh pasta. In today’s age, it’s absurd—though also a little endearing—to imagine that a famous TV chef like Julia wouldn’t know her way around a lasagna.
Maybe we should thank Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child of Italian cooking, for writing so many seminal cookbooks devoted to the fundamentals of the cuisine. Or perhaps we owe it to the ever-multiplying Olive Gardens that punctuate suburban neighborhoods throughout the country for bringing a whole pantry of Italian ingredients and dishes into the American lexicon. Or maybe credit goes to Garfield, who’s been dutifully eating meaty twodimensional cubes of it in newspaper comics and on television screens since 1978. What we can say without hesitation is that lasagna is here, and it’s here to stay.
Lasagna is such a part of the collective consciousness that it has become cultural shorthand for comfort. It’s not uncommon to take a foil-wrapped Pyrex dish of lasagna to welcome a new baby home from the hospital. In the dead of winter, we make reassuring batches on cold nights to conjure strength to greet the week ahead. We stockpile it in our freezers as a safeguard against the unexpected (or simply to look forward to).
Lasagna may be imprinted in our minds as a dish made by nonnas or served against a background of red checkered tablecloths, but its history is more complicated than simply sprouting up from some bucolic, cypress-dappled town in Italy. The dish we know today could not exist without the egg-and-wheat pasta dough that was allegedly introduced into the cuisine by the ancient Greeks, or the tomatoes that explorers took to Italy from Central America in the sixteenth century.
There are theories that the name “lasagna” comes from the ancient Greek word laganon, meaning a dough that is cut into strips (essentially flat, wide pasta). It could also be named for the ancient Roman pot that the layered pasta was baked in, called a lasana. The first written recipe for a baked dish with alternating layers of meat and dough came from a book called De re coquinaria that was attributed to a Roman gourmet named Apicius in the first century A.D. The recipe (which contains no pasta, tomatoes, or cheese) describes a stew made from fish and sow’s udder and instructs you to “prepare layers of stew and pancakes, interspersed with oil” before baking it all in a metal dish.
In this book, we’re going to spare you the sow’s udder and skip ahead a few centuries to the good stuff—like layers of meat sauce and ricotta cheese, buttery béchamels, and Bolognese ragus that you might eat if you were invited to dinner anywhere from Emilia-Romagna to Erie, Pennsylvania. We’ll look at some of the dish’s Greek counterparts and precursors (like moussaka and pastitsio), and we’ll see how Italian colonialism on the Horn of Africa culminated in a rebelliously peppery berbere-spiked lasagna topped with bright orange Cheddar cheese.
And because this is a cookbook of very good pasta, cheese, and sauce combinations, we’ll dive into the wide world of baked pastas as well, from shells that are plumped up with ricotta, to a wildly cheesy, maximalist take on mac and cheese. The noodles might not be wide and flat, but these are pastas that channel the same warmth and spirit as lasagna—dishes you’ll want to gather, drink, and laugh around.
We want to think of lasagna not just as a set of grandma’s recipes that is frozen in time and space, but as a dish that continues to evolve, warp, bubble up, and melt as it sails around the globe and passes from generation to generation. Let this book be your license to make yourself a personal skillet of spaghetti pie or ravioli lasagna after a tough day of work, to skip the cheese and the tomato sauce altogether like Apicius did, or to turn your favorite Italian sub or porchetta sandwich into a lasagna. Why? Because you can. —Anna Hezel, TASTE SLOW-COOKER SPINACH RICOTTA LASAGNA
A slow-cooker lasagna recipe? Believe. Since the countertop crock traps in moisture and maintains a consistent low temperature, you can construct this lasagna with totally uncooked pasta (yes, really). All the ingredients (the baby spinach, the ricotta, the red sauce) hang out and cook together for three and a half hours, and come dinnertime, the noodles have absorbed any extra liquid, and the basil and spinach have played nicely with the cheeses. Is your slow cooker round? Or oval shaped? No problem—just break the pasta up into slightly smaller pieces as you go so it all fits.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
10 ounces baby spinach
Coarse kosher salt (preferably Diamond Crystal) and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups (15 ounces) ricotta cheese
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil leaves
1 pound low-moisture mozzarella cheese (not fresh), shredded (about 4 cups)
1 recipe (4 1/2 cups) Classic & Simple Red Sauce (page 130), warm
9 dry, curly lasagna noodles (uncooked)1. Make the spinach-and-cheese mixture:
Set a 5-quart slow cooker to the high heat setting and preheat while you prepare the filling. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook on high heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, rosemary, and red pepper flakes and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the spinach to the skillet in large handfuls and give it a few stirs, allowing each handful to wilt for about a minute before adding more. Season to taste with salt and black pepper and transfer to a colander to drain and cool slightly. Gently press the spinach to extract some of the liquid. 2.
In a bowl, combine the ricotta, basil, three fourths of the mozzarella (about 3 cups; save the remaining mozzarella for the top), 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper. Fold in the spinach.Assemble the lasagna:
Spoon 1 cup of the sauce into the slow cooker. Arrange 3 lasagna noodles over the sauce, breaking them to fit and cover any empty spots. Spread half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles and top with 1 cup of the sauce. Top with 3 more noodles, breaking to fit. Add the remaining ricotta mixture and another cup of the sauce. Top with the remaining 3 noodles, breaking to fit, and the remaining sauce. 3. Slow cook the lasagna:
Cover the slow cooker, placing a clean kitchen towel between the lid and the slow cooker to catch condensation. Cook on high heat until the noodles are tender and the sauce is absorbed, about 3½ hours. Sprinkle the remaining mozzarella on top, cover, and cook until melted, about 10 minutes. Turn cooker off and let rest, uncovered, for 15 minutes before cutting into squares and serving. To Make In the Oven
Use 15 cooked noodles (5 for each layer; see page 16), and assemble in a 9 x 13-inch (3-quart) glass or ceramic baking dish according to the instructions opposite. Top with mozzarella and bake, uncovered, at 375°F for 45 minutes. Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.
Copyright © 2019 by Anna Hezel and the Editors of TASTE. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.