My mom's birthday is very close to mother's day, so what we usually do is celebrate both occasions at once by going out to dinner at a nice restaurant. This year, however, was different. Joe and I invited my mom and the rest of my family to come out to our house for dinner. I was a little apprehensive about taking on the task because I was due to get a tooth extracted a few days before, and I wasn't sure if I would be up for cooking a big meal, much less eating it.
It all worked out though. We chose to make an 8-layer Cuisine at Home Lasagna, which I assembled early in the week and froze, taking it out to thaw in the fridge the day before (that didn't really work out too well, more on that later). Joe also made rolls mid-week and stuck them in the freezer before baking them. So on the actual day we were having dinner, I just had to put together the Caesar salad (homemade dressing and croutons...so good!), bake the lasagna, bake the rolls, (which were brushed with a little garlic butter and tossed with Parmesan cheese and parsley at the last minute), and pick up the birthday cake we ordered from New Morning Bakery (white cake with Marion berry filling and butter cream icing....oh yeah, it was amazing).
I was on the fence about how to store the lasagna after I assembled it, because I wanted to put it together on a Tuesday, but the dinner wasn't until Saturday. That seemed just a bit too long to refrigerate, but almost pointless to freeze, because I would have to take it out one or two days in advance for it to thaw anyway. Some recipes I've seen say you can bake it from frozen, but this one specifically said to thaw before baking.
Well, regardless of what I should have done, it was frozen in the middle when we went to put it in the oven, so after about 30 minutes of cooking, the edges were bubbling away but the center was still cold. So we turned the oven temperature down a bit, covered the top with foil to prevent burning, and let it slowly warm up. We checked periodically with an internal thermometer. Alton Brown says that all previously cooked foods should be reheated to 165 F to be extra safe, so that's what we did. It took longer than we expected, but it was delicious, and well-worth the wait.
I think the most annoying part about the whole thing was par-boiling the "oven-ready" lasagna sheets. Hello?! I thought buying oven-ready sheets meant not having to boil them? I guess they are prone to breaking during assembly, so Cuisine At Home recommends that you boil them for one minute so that they are more pliable. Sounds simple enough, and I totally see their point, but it was a huge pain, in my opinion. You are supposed to arrange the boiled pasta sheets in a single layer on a foil-lined, sprayed baking sheet, each layer of pasta separated by a layer of sprayed foil, so they don't stick together while waiting to be added to the lasagna pan. Except, of course, we didn't have any cooking spray, so we had to drizzle oil onto each foil sheet and try to spread it out evenly without ripping it. Also, my pasta sheets kept wanting to clump together in the pot of boiling water so I had to cook them in small batches, so it felt like it took forever. Ugh.
On a brighter note, Joe's garlic rolls turned out especially delicious.
adapted from Cuisine at Home, February 2004 issue
Notes: Don't buy the brick of frozen spinach, buy the kind that is loose in a bag; it will thaw faster in the sauce. Also, if you have a traditional 9x13x2 inch baking dish, you won't be able to get all eight layers in there. Buy a disposable aluminum lasagna pan at the store (they are 3 inches deep), or just make your lasagna 6 layers, like I did, and have leftover filling to eat any way you want.
For the meat sauce:
1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
1 1/2 pound mild Italian sausage
2 cups yellow onion, diced
2 tablespoons garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons each dried basil, thyme, and oregano
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 bay leaf
1-28 ounce can crushed tomatoes in puree
1-14.5 ounce can diced tomatoes, drained
3/4 cup beef broth or water
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
For the Bechamel:
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup yellow onion, diced
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
Pinch of nutmeg
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
10 ounces Boursin cheese
Salt to taste
8 ounces frozen chopped spinach
1 egg, beaten
For assembling lasagna:
1 pound oven-ready lasagna sheets, parboiled (see my rant above)
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
6 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
If baking this today, preheat the oven to 400 F, with the rack in the center.
To make the sauces:
In a large pot or dutch oven, brown both meats over medium-high heat. Spoon or pour off as much of the fat as possible. Add the onions, garlic, tomato paste, dried herbs, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf. Cook until the onions have softened, about 8 minutes.
Add both types of tomatoes, broth, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary. Set aside.
For the bechamel, start by melting the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, cayenne, and nutmeg, and saute for about 5 minutes, or until the onion has softened. Stir often during this time to prevent scorching.
Add the flour and stir to coat. Cook for 2 minutes, then gradually add the milk, stirring until smooth. Add the Boursin in small pieces and whisk until smooth. Season with salt to taste. Set aside one cup bechamel for the top of the lasagna. Let the rest of the sauce cool for about 10 minutes. Whisk in the egg and frozen spinach. Set aside.
Prepare the lasagna sheets as described above, and have both cheeses ready.
To assemble the lasagna:
1. Coat a 9x13x3 inch baking dish nonstick spray.
2. Spread 1/3 cup of the Bechamel on the bottom (it's a thin layer, that's ok).
3. Lay three pasta sheets across the bottom of the pan.
4. Spread another 1/3 cup Bechamel over the pasta sheets.
5. Spread 1 cup of the meat sauce over the Bechamel (the sauces will blend, and they may not cover the pasta completely).
6. Top with mozzarella (I allocated two slices per pasta sheet).
7. Sprinkle with Parmesan.
8. Layer three more pasta sheets across the top.
9. Repeat steps 4-8 until all the pasta is used, or you run out of room (I admit, I pressed down on the layers of lasagna as I assembled it to fit in as much as possible).
10. Spread the reserved Bechamel over the last layer of pasta, and sprinkle with Parmesan.
When ready to bake:
Bake lasagna, uncovered, at 400 F, for 40-45 minutes, or until hot all the way through. The top should be a little browned and the sauce should be bubbling. Take out of the oven and let rest for 20-30 minutes before slicing and serving.