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Sunday, March 29, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge: Lasagna of Emilia-Romagna

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.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was skeptical about this really counting as a baking challenge. It does involve dough and it was baked, but pasta isn't what comes to my mind when I think of baked goods.

I thought this one had me beaten. We were supposed to make, by hand, spinach lasagna noodles and put together a homemade lasagna in the style of Emilia-Romagna with a bechamel sauce and meat sauce. The sauces were no problem. It was the pasta that nearly got me down.

If you have made pasta before, you know about the mountain of flour with the eggy crater in the middle. I cleaned my surface, mounded my flour and prepared to put the eggs and spinach into the crater. Eggs immediately started running down the flour like a golden lava-ed volcano. I didn't get a picture because my hands were already encrusted from trying to stem the tide and Rich hadn't come home yet. I did remember to take off my wedding ring before I began mixing the dough, though. Did I mention that I planned to start this whole process at 2:00 and didn't get on it until 4:30? We ate dinner at 10:00 that night.

So, back to the dough. The instructions told us that it would be a rough mass, but that after vigorous kneading, it would become more elastic. I'm not sure that word means what they think it means. I have never kneaded dough this tough. I gave up after half an hour and beating it up with the rolling pin to vent my frustration. Then I wrapped it and let it rest. While I rested.

Rich got home in the middle of my kneading workout. He started calling out "Five more, four more!" like those awful aerobics instructors that you always wanted to strangle for thinking you didn't know how to count when they snuck in a 10 more after you were already down to four. Eventually, I got so that I was grunting with each stroke as I kneaded the dough. I sounded like those tennis players in Wimbledon. Or a woman in labor, as it triggered memories of delivering our first two children and Rich started telling me to breathe through it. He thought with the c-sections we have to have now, he'd never use that skill again.

When Rich walked in the kitchen, he immediately took stock of the situation and made hot dogs for the children. And asked me what he could do to help. He grated cheese for me and corralled children and got them in bed while I fought with pasta dough. I will never complain about the price of handmade pasta again. I will pay a lot of money not to have to do this again.

I did get it rolled out, and it was easier to work with the longer it rested. It never got elastic, though. We were supposed to roll it so thin that you could see color through it. I could see the pinkiness of my hand, and I decided that was color enough. I did roll each individual noodle out a little more, because I was worried it wasn't thin enough.

Alexander was amazed that I was making pasta from scratch. He exclaimed to Amira that "Mama is making pasta!" To which she replied "So." He said, "No, she's making it from flour!" That made her a little more interested. She didn't seem to think that boiling a pot of salted water was anything to get worked up about.

The children were so excited to eat this dinner, and then they found out they were getting hot dogs. That was a blow. We promised them that they could have it for lunch the next day, and it turned out there was enough left that they had it for dinner the next night as well, with us, and we still had enough to send home with our cleaning lady to her family's restaurant, where she shared with all the kitchen and wait staff, as well as Rich taking some for him and his assistant for lunch the next day. It was a 20 pound lasagna.

So, the things I did to make it larger and more difficult. I made one and a half times the pasta recipe. I doubled the bechamel. I replaced about a third of the flour with semolina. Fortunately for all of us, it tasted good. I did have a back up of scrapping the pasta ordeal and using pasta sheets from the pantry if I completely botched the pasta. We did not have to do that. The first layer of pasta was my thickest set of noodles, but the rest worked out very well and we were all happy with it.

Since this process took me about five and a half hours from start to finish, I cheated a little. I did not boil pasta. I figured it was fresh pasta, and we should use it as such. We liked that. I didn't dry the pasta. Again, I figured, if I was getting my workout for the week, I was going to use it fresh and soft. So there.

The highlight was the meat sauce. I used my own recipe, which I did out of my own brain, even. I took the skeleton of the recipe I normally use for lasagna meat sauce, added some elements from a vegetarian lasagna I make and blended it together into the most perfect sauce in the universe. Look on it and marvel:

Meat Sauce

1/4 cup olive oil
2 pounds Italian sausage (I used bulk sweet)
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 large onion, diced
10 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound sliced, mixed peppers
2 cups red wine
1 1/2 cups roughly chopped kalamata olives
1/2 cup drained capers
2 28 ounce cans of tomato sauce
1 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon basil

Brown the sausage in the olive oil in a large sauce pot. Add the pepper flakes (I did this because I normally use hot sausage, and we only had sweet), the onion, the garlic and stir it all until the fat starts to render out of the sausage and the onions turn transparent. Toss in the peppers (I used a bag of frozen ones) and cook until the liquid starts to evaporate.

Add the red wine and cook on medium-high until it is reduced by more than half. Add the olives, capers, tomato sauce, diced tomatoes and herbs. Bring to a low boil and reduce heat to simmer for two hours.

Thank you again to Mary, Melinda and Enza. This was most certainly a challenge! I don't know that I will brave any more pasta, besides gnocchi, for a long time, though.

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