All of a sudden, hints of fall began to creep up on us last week. Even without a difference yet in the tree colors, the fresh energy of the new season is undeniable - cool breezes, crisp mornings, little welcome changes here and there. We donned our first sweaters in ages, switched from flip flops to sneakers, from air-conditioning to wide-open windows, and from iced coffees to huge, comforting mugs of hot tea. I have a feeling there’s a good few days of hot weather still hiding behind the corner, waiting to sneak out before they’re blown away for the rest of the year. But for now, this little taste of fall is sure nice. I’d been craving it for a while.
Speaking of craving, this bit of cool weather gave us the perfect excuse to make a meal Ben and I had really been pining for lately – Lasagna. Comfort food to the extreme, lasagna is so warm and cozy, and just so much better in the cooler months, I hate to waste it on summer. But as soon as we noticed these slightest signs of autumn, we knew it was time for our favorite lasagna, and time too to share it with our favorite new friends, our neighbors from the first floor, Jen and Ted and little baby Luca.
It’s a recipe of Ina Garten’s (Thanks again, Barefoot Contessa!), and it is now officially our favorite. We made it for the first time about a year ago, during the same sort of in-between-fall-and-summer time. We’d been out all morning on a neighborhood architecture tour. The crisp weather must have inspired us the same way it did this year, because by the end of the chilly walk, we’d decided that dinner would have to be lasagna. Hungry already, we made a quick stop at the market, and got cooking as soon we arrived home. Ben sautéed sweet Italian sausage, onions and garlic, while I chopped huge handfuls of basil and parsley. He grated cheese and simmered and stirred tomato sauce, while I folded together ricotta and parmesan and creamy goat cheese. And then, we assembled the layers - rich and heady tomato sauce full of fresh herbs and plump juicy sausage, tender flat noodles with swirly edges, wet slices of fresh mozzarella, creamy herb-flecked ricotta and goat cheese – piling one on top of the next, then topping the stack with a powdery dusting of freshly grated parmesan.
As soon as it came out of the oven, all hot and bubbling and divinely golden brown, we knew it was going to be our favorite lasagna. And isn’t it true that everyone has a favorite lasagna? Mine has always been my mom’s, an absolutely delicious and surprisingly meatless variation, with tender steamed spinach, mozzarella, parmesan and a sweetly savory tomato sauce. And to me, nothing will ever compare to this dish. It will always taste purely of home. It will always be my favorite lasagna. But somehow, this new lasagna has become a favorite too. The only way I can describe it, is as our favorite. It has something to do, I’m sure, with that very first day we made it. Together, after a great morning in our new city. I taste that morning every time we eat this lasagna, just like I taste home ever time I eat my mom’s.
By now we’ve fallen into the pattern of always having our lasagna alongside toasty slices of crusty Ciabatta bread, and this particularly fabulous Caesar Salad (another recipe of Ina Garten’s, but from another one of her incredible cookbooks). Ordinary Caesar salad is delicious to begin with, with it’s lemony parmesan dressing, crisp green romaine and showers of even more parmesan. This Caesar takes all that inherent deliciousness to another level, with wide thin ribbons of parmesan, crunchy bites of sautéed pancetta (like gourmet bacon bits) and sliced cherry tomatoes, roasted ever so slowly with olive oil and thyme, until their juices concentrate, their flavors intensify and sweeten, and they begin to shrink and wrinkle, becoming savory version of plump and juicy raisins. Oh wow, if Caesar salad is good, this twist is just too good to be true!
And finally, dessert. And oh, what a dessert! These gooey chocolate-gingerbread cookies are hands down the best cookies I’ve made in ages. The recipe is from the pages of my Martha Stewart’s Cookies cook book, and I tried it out for the very first time only a few weeks ago, while private cheffing down in North Carolina. With my first bite, I just about died. I expected them to be good, but these were out of this world, unbelievable. The deeply dark cookie dough is rich with big notes of molasses, fresh ginger, Dutch cocoa powder, dark brown sugar and intoxicating spice flavor – cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – and loaded with large chunks of bittersweet chocolate. Rolled in granulated sugar, the balls of deeply colored dough bake into thin, tender circles with a crisp, sparkling crust and a centers of molten chocolate.
The most amazing part is – and I can’t quite figure out how this works – the gooey chocolate stays in its liquid state, ages longer than it seems possible. The gooeyness far outlasts the heat of the oven. Check out that picture below. Wouldn’t you assume that cookie to be fresh out of the oven, burn-your-fingers hot? Well that’s the incredible thing – it’s not! Hard to believe, but that cookie is at least an hour old. Even at room temp, the molten center lasts and lasts. Truly, I’m awestruck by these unbelievable cookies!
It’s funny. Not even quite fall yet, and already I’m wishing it were Christmas. But only because I think these guys have all the makings to be the best Christmas cookies ever. But no need to rush things – autumn can last as long as it likes. As fun as it will be to wow everyone at this year’s cookie exchange, I can wait patiently. These cookies are wonderful all year round – winter, spring, summer, fall, or best of all, those times like now, somewhere right in between.