Welcome to my world!

I've developed a passion for cooking since childhood, but in the past six years, that passion has grown into a geeky obsession. I love cooking, baking, and most importantly, sharing the love of food with family and friends. I invite you along on my journey of food discovery and passion.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Lasagna Debacle, Part II

Hopefully, you've read my love letter to my husband from Part I of the post.  If so, you know that we have a lasagna recipe that continues to bind us together with memories and cheese.  Since our tastes have evolved and I really try and make more things completely from scratch, I was inspired to make as many components myself, including the ricotta cheese.  Ambitious? Yes.  Crazy?  Possibly.  Committed?  You bet!
Lasagna is a great dish because you can make it partially or competely ahead of time.  Last weekend, due to some scheduling limitations, I planned to make the lasagna over two days.  Because I've never undertaken quite this elaborate amount of pre-prep work for a one-dish wonder, I journaled the experience.

The ingredients of ricotta
Day 1 - Got all of the ricotta-making ingredients laid out, along with my trusty copy of The Cheese Lovers Cookbook by Paula Lambert (for those in the Dallas area, check out her store, Mozzarella Company, in Deep Ellum.  They supply a who's who of Dallas restaurants) and a back-up recipe I googled for a second opinion that is anonymous, how can I fail?  Oh wait, I recall now from the class IceDaddy and I took on cheese making that raw milk is best.  Since the Wisconsin family farm is about 2,000 miles away, no such luck on the raw milk (illegal to buy).  Will have to make do with what the grocery store offers.  I remember something Paula said about pasteurized versus ultra-pasteurized and how the ultra won't curdle.  Praying they did not mislabel the milk at the store.

The epic fail - not many curds
I put the milk into a pan, sprinkle on salt, then the lemon juice in circles to hopefully curdle the milk.  Seems to have a little curdling going on... could be a good sign.  Milk is about to boil - remove it from the heat and WAIT!  15 minutes later and we have... milk, with a few curds.  Hmmm... recipe says lemons may not be acidic enough, so adding a couple tablespoons more lemon juice.  WAIT MORE... and, pretty much no curds.  Ok, $3.00 of milk down the drain there.  Must go back to store and hopefully find pasteurized milk. 

Back from store!  Juice the lemons, repeat above process, and... WAIT.  Ok - WE HAVE CURDS!! 
More liquid than curd
Happily draining ricotta... to find that there aren't a ton of curds.  $3.00 of milk (1/2 gallon) and $2.00 of lemons to make... maybe 1/2 cup of ricotta!?  That's pretty pricey ricotta.  Add to that the $3.00 from the ruined batch and the lasagna has cost $8.50 from the ricotta alone.  It only took me 3 hours and $8.50.... Oh, and I have that back-up container of ricotta in case there isn't enough... which there isn't.  Grrrrrr... on to the meat sauce.

Mushroomy good!
Mushrooms & meat
Day 1 3/4 - Hopefully, I'll have better success with the meat sauce.  Browned ground beef - check.  Decided to make sauteed mushrooms to add some flavor and texture - check.  Love adding sherry to the mushrooms for additional dimension.  Wonder if I'll even taste the sherry when the lasagna is cooked.  Added mushrooms to meat and let sit while I make the tomato sauce.

Cost tally: $3.50 for the beef, $2.00 for mushrooms

Day almost 2  - Over 4 hours into cooking and still have at least about 1 - 2 hours since the sauce has to simmer.  This tomato sauce promises to be good - borrowed liberally from a Nancy Silverton recipe in Bon Appetit.  Chopped carrots - baby carrots were flying everywhere!  Had to buy those because I know I can use the rest up another day to make my maple-glazed carrots (really good recipe too).  Diced up celery and really cut the amount because we are not celery people.  Added the monstrous cans of San Marzano tomatoes (there's another $5.00 for tomatoes alone!).  Combined sauce with mushroom/meat mixture and called it a day!  Total dollar tally for the day's lasagna making- $20 (if you count the carrots and celery at about $1.00)

Day 2 - Pasta day!  I found a $20 pasta roller at TJ Maxx, so I'm ready to roll out lasagna noodles.  (That does not count toward the total since I've owned it since this summer).  I go to the best pasta recipe I've found, oddly enough from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Italian which would not seem like the most authentic Italian food tome, but Maria Guarnaschelli was the editor, so it meets with her exacting standards.  (Her daughter, Alex, is the resident mean judge on "Chopped").  Why is this the best?  Because it involves adding actual semolina flour and not just all-purpose.  Makes it seem more authentic to me and has better texture (more nubby to pick up sauce).
Happy cooked noodles
Dried and ready
 Phew! This actual rolling out the lasagna takes some muscles.  Glad I'm back at Koko FitClub again or I'd need to rest halfway through!  Laid out the sheets by the pot of boiling water and then went all Giada in the trick for cooking and getting the noodles to not stick together - brushed them with olive oil and laid them on a sheet pan!  Brilliant! 

Cost of noodles - about $0.50 total for the flour and minor amount of good olive oil and good salt.  Cheap chic!
Day 2 1/2 - This was a MUCH easier day today.  Ready to assemble the lasagna after only about 2 hours of work (noodles have to cook in batches about 3 minutes each - takes time).  Layer, layer, layer it up!  I splurged on real shredded parmesan, not the stuff from a can.  A little pricey ($3.00 for 3 oz), but worth it!  Oh, and mozzarella is in there too, but I stuck with traditional shredded, not fresh.  Different textures - $2.50 for the mozzarella (on sale).
7:30 pm - Lasagna is DONE baking.  I threw in some garlic bread to toast the last 15 minutes of cooking and we are ready to eat.  After spending about 8 hours (not all the time was actively cooking) prepping, and WAITING, we are ready to eat!  Total cost: $26!  That's probably a little higher than I would want to spend to make a simple pan of lasagna, but it was memorable and I'm glad I tried it! 

How was the taste?  Well, the ricotta has a lemony freshness and is pillowy soft, not like the grainy texture of store bought... when you taste it by itself.  In the lasagna, it wasn't distinguishable from the store bought.  The mushrooms had a nice flavor and meaty texture (baby bellas are the best), but couldn't really taste anything special from the preparation with the sherry once in the lasagna.  Tomato sauce did taste different than store bought, even in the lasagna.  Had a nice freshness and the carrot added a great sweetness and dimension.  Noodles were different - they had more flavor. 
Yummy yummy $26 in the tummy!
Overall, there are things I WILL do next time I make "Date Lasagna" from my experiment - I probably will make my own noodles and add mushrooms.  I might even make a homemade tomato sauce, especially since you can make that ahead and freeze it.  Each of those components add something special to the dish.  Plus, the noodles made leftovers I turned into a pasta dish the next day.  Loved that option! Everything else?  Less likely.  That said, it was a delicious experiment.
Happy eating!

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