Sunday, March 9, 2014

The world does not need another "best ever" lasagna recipe

As my friend Sandra says, "What the focaccia?!"

How in the internet realm of tens of thousands of recipes--a realm largely devoid of standard qualitative measures for rating recipes--do you offer accurate descriptors for your recipes?  Ideally, you would want to induce your readers to try your recipes in their own kitchens and at the same time, deliver results that live up to your claims.  But if you make a statement that your recipe is the "best ever," then you've made a claim that is impossible to verify and is a landmine of subjectivity.

And that's exactly what prompts this post.  I suppose I'm rather weary of "best ever" recipes.  Not because my palate is better than your palate, but because my palate often looks for a different flavor profile than most people.  My "best ever" recipe might include anchovies, while you might hate anchovies.  I tend to like deeper, richer flavor profiles while you might want something simple and uncomplicated.  I look for umami.  Maybe you don't.

Recently, I was looking for a lasagna recipe that would be both tasty (i.e., have a good amount of umami), economical, not terribly complicated and good for feeding a crowd.  Maybe my criteria are too unrealistic (and you are welcome to let me know if you think they are).  I searched the internet for a made-from-scratch version that would please me and my guests.  Being a sucker for hyperbole, I was drawn in by several recipes that claimed to be the "best ever," in addition to being easy and economical.

I'll admit that whenever I see something labeled the "best ever," I immediately want to find all the ways in which it's not the best ever.  The statement that something is the "best ever" is tantamount to claiming that my dad can beat the S#%* out of your dad.  Anybody who knew my dad would know he was a lover, not a fighter.  But not his daughter.

I didn't feel like I could take a swing at the recipes posted on sites like or, since there are so many badly-written and sometimes disastrous recipes on those sites.  And there's a mighty big contingent of home cooks who are mighty proud of their lasagna.

But then I spied The Pioneer Woman's "The Best Lasagna. Ever."  Perfect.  I figured if anyone could take a whoopin' on her claim of "best ever" lasagna, The Pioneer Woman could.  The original recipe, at first glance, seemed to be the working mother's answer to prayer; Ree Drummond claims that "part of its appeal is that the ingredients used are totally basic; you don’t have to hunt down fresh basil or buffalo mozzarella or Parmigiano-Reggiano or handmade sausage from an Italian mama in old Napoli. Anyone can make this, anywhere, anytime. And it’s the easiest thing in the world." 

You are correct; that is NOT shredded mozzarella.

About these things, The Pioneer Woman is mostly right.  I was able to find all of the ingredients in my local HEB (which, as I've written before, is in a county that is demographically challenged where discriminating palates are concerned).  Yeah, I hear you callin' me a food snob.

But then, here's where The Pioneer Woman goes too far: "Aside from the simplicity and availability of ingredients, however, this lasagna is just dadgum good."  Because after testing Ree's sauce, I can honestly say that it lacks character, balance among the acid, sugar and salt components, and is missing some essential flavors that I consider necessary to good lasagna.  In other words, it lacks umami. 

Not to put too fine a point on it, if anyone can make this lasagna, anywhere, anytime, then this lasagna is going to taste fairly pedestrian and would certainly not impress nor offend anyone.  People, that is just not my way with food.  And I don't need specialty ingredients to get a better result, just some that are different than what's called for in the original recipe.

For instance, the Parmesan cheese The Pioneer Woman calls for is the kind in the green can that, to me at least, tastes like sawdust.  And the meat sauce?  Made with part ground beef (too much fat) and part "hot breakfast sausage."  Um, no.  Ground chuck and Italian sausage are, to me, the best way to get a good, rich flavor in your meat sauce.  The cheese filling?  Lowfat cottage cheese and sliced mozzarella.  Again, fail.

Sliced mozzarella in lasagna makes a rubbery layer that I find unpleasant. I found that out trying to make lasagna the Pioneer Woman Way.  Next time, I'll go back to using shredded mozzarella.  And while my mother used cottage cheese frequently in her lasagna when I was a child (mostly because cottage cheese was cheaper than ricotta and more often available in our refrigerator), I don't like the texture of lowfat anything in most recipes.  I would concede to mixing whole milk ricotta and whole milk cottage cheese in equal portions if you must, but I prefer the moist, creamy texture of ricotta that only milk fat brings, especially when it's enhanced with egg, freshly grated or shredded Parmesan cheese and other seasonings.

I also found the herbs and spices in the original meat sauce to be lacking in character, so I added more seasoning, a little sugar and a little dry red wine.  The addition of fresh parsley to both the meat sauce and the cheese mixture is, I think, worth the time and effort.  The resulting sauce was tasty and nicely cohesive without cooking any longer than the original recipe stated.

Since the world does not need another "best ever" lasagna recipe, I'll offer the rendition below as "pretty good" for a basic, straightforward lasagna.  What's more, I'll even say that it passes the husband test with flying colors. And that, modern women of America, is what's most important.

Sheesh.  I'm kidding.

Pretty Good, Basic, Straightforward Lasagna

I found all of the ingredients (except for the Italian herb seasoning) at my local HEB.

Meat Sauce:

1-1/2 lbs ground chuck

1 lb. Italian sausage (hot or mild) 

2 cloves garlic, minced

2  14.5 oz. cans whole tomatoes

2 6 oz. cans tomato paste

2 Tbs. Italian herb seasoning (such as Penzey's or Savory Spice; yes, you can use McCormick's)

1 tsp. fennel seed

1 tsp. salt

1 1/2 Tbs. sugar

1/4 cup dry red wine

1/2 cup water

freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 Tbs. minced fresh parsley, divided

Cheese Mixture:

3 cups whole milk ricotta cheese (you can substitute up to 1 1/2 cups whole milk cottage cheese for the ricotta if you like)

2 eggs, beaten

1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese (you can use grated if you promise not to use the stuff in the green can; use only 3/4 cup if you do), plus extra for the topping

1 tsp. salt

For assembling:

1 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese (reserve approx. 1/2 cup for the topping)

1 10 oz. pkg. lasagna noodles

1.)  Bring a large pot of water to a boil, salt it well (I use about 1 Tbs. salt) and add a little oil if you wish to prevent the noodles from sticking.
2.)  Meanwhile, in a large skillet or saucepan, combine ground chuck and Italian sausage (remove casings first). 
3.)  Cook over medium-high heat until browned; stir in minced garlic cook for 1 more minute.
4.)  Drain the fat if you wish and return pan to heat.
5.)  Add tomatoes, breaking up with your fingers, tomato paste, Italian herb seasoning, fennel seed, salt, sugar, dry red wine and water.  
6.)  Simmer the sauce for about 45 minutes while you prepare the cheese mixture and cook the noodles.
7.)  In a medium bowl, mix ricotta cheese, Parmesan, 2 Tbs. minced parsley and salt. 
8.)  Stir together well and set aside. 
9.)  Cook lasagna until al dente; drain and set aside.
10.)  Remove meat sauce from heat and stir in remaining minced parsley.  Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary.
11.)  Oil a large baking dish and preheat oven to 350 degrees.
12.)  Arrange 4 cooked lasagna noodles in the bottom of a baking pan, overlapping if necessary. 
13.)  Spoon half the cheese mixture over the noodles and spread evenly. 
14.)  Cover cheese mixture with half the shredded mozzarella cheese. 
15.)  Spoon half the meat sauce mixture over the top.
16.)  Repeat, ending with meat sauce mixture. 
17.)  Sprinkle top with remaining Parmesan and shredded mozzarella.
18.)  You can freeze or refrigerate the lasagna at this point and finish cooking later, or bake it immediately for 30-40 minutes, or until hot and bubbly.  Serves 8 generously.


  1. Gosh....Just listening to you describe how you make this literaly made me start drooling! I agree whole heartedly.

  2. Shelly, thanks so much for your comment. I do try hard to make people feel as though they need to lick the screen...