Saturday, September 4, 2010

Our Favorite

Slow-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

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. 

Lasagna with Sweet Italian Sausage
Caesar Salad with Slow-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Pancetta & Parmesan
Crusty Bread
Gooey Chocolate-Gingerbread Cookies

Delicious Lasagna

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. 

Up Close

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!

Salad Fixin's

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. 

Cloves & Nutmeg

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! 

Gooey Goodness with a Glass of Milk

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.

Lasagna with Sweet Italian Sausage
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Family Style by Ina Garten
Serves  8
Hot out of the oven
2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, peeled & chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 # sweet Italian sausage, casings removed
1 6-oz can tomato paste
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes, in tomato puree
2 Tbl plus 2 Tbl chopped flat-leaf parsley, divided
1/2 cup chopped basil leaves
1/2 # lasagna noodles
15 oz whole-milk ricotta cheese
4 oz creamy goat cheese, crumbled
1 cup plus 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, divided
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 # fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 400ᵒF. 
Heat your largest sauté pan over high heat, for about 2 minutes.  Add the olive oil to the pan, then reduce the heat to medium-low and add the chopped onions.  Season with a good pinch of salt and pepper.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender and just turning translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook for 1 more minute, stirring frequently.  Add the sausage and cook, breaking it up with the back of a fork or a potato masher, until the sausage is no longer pink, about 8-10 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and stir to combine.  Add the crushed tomatoes and stir to combine.  Season with another good pinch of salt and pepper.  Simmer, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes, until just thickened.  Then add 2 Tbl parsley and the basil and stir to combine. 
Tomato Sauce with Italian Sausage
While the sauce is simmering, fill a large mixing bowl with boiling water.  Add the noodles (one at a time, or they’ll all stick together) and let them soak in the water for 20 minutes, then drain.
Lasagna Noodles
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, stir to combine the ricotta, goat cheese, 1 cup of grated Parmesan, the egg, and the remaining 2 Tbl parsley, along with a good pinch of salt and pepper.  Set aside.
Spoon one third of the tomato sauce into a 9x13-inch baking dish.  Spread the sauce evenly over the bottom of the dish.  Then add the following layers: half of the pasta, half of the sliced mozzarella, half of the ricotta mixture, one third of the sauce, the rest of the pasta, the rest of the mozzarella, the rest of the ricotta, and finally, the rest of the sauce.  Sprinkle the top evenly with the remaining 1/4 cup grated parmesan. 
Layers of Goodness
Bake for 30 minutes, uncovered, until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden brown.  If you’d like to make this ahead, the assembled, unbaked lasagna can be refrigerated and covered with plastic wrap, then baked for 30-40 minutes until bubbling. 


Caesar Salad with Slow-Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Pancetta & Parmesan
Adapted from Barefoot Contessa Parties! by Ina Garten
Serves  6-8
 Caesar Salad with Pancetta, Slow-Roasted Tomatoes & Shaved Parmesan
For the slow-roasted tomatoes:
2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
1 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
4 sprigs thyme
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Preheat the oven to 300ᵒF.  Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven.
Slice the tomatoes in half, from top to bottom.  Toss with olive oil, thyme sprigs and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Spread over a parchment paper-lined baking sheet, arranging the tomatoes so the cut sides all face up, in a single layer.  Roast until wrinkly and soft, about 2 hours, rotating the pan about half-way through the baking time.  Cool on the pan to room temperature, then store at room temperature in an air-tight container until needed.  If keeping overnight, store in the refrigerator.
Sliced Cherry Tomatoes with Thyme & Olive Oil   
For the Caesar Dressing:
1 large egg yolk, room temperature
2 tsp Dijon mustard
2 large garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
8 anchovy fillets
1/2 c cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (from about 3 lemons)
2 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

Combine the egg yolk, mustard, garlic, anchovies, lemon juice, salt and pepper into the bowl of an electric food processor.  Process until smooth, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula as needed.  With the food processor running, very slowly pour the olive oil, and then the vegetable oil through the feed tube, adding only a few drops at a time and allowing the oil to incorporate fully and thicken the sauce.  Add the grated Parmesan and pulse a few times to combine.  This can be kept refrigerated in an air-tight container for about 2-3 days. 

For the rest of the salad:
3/4 pound pancetta, sliced 1/2 inch thick
3 large heads romaine lettuce, outer leaves and any blemished leaves discarded
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese, plus 2 oz chunk Parmesan, sliced into ribbons with
     a vegetable peeler
kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Cook the sliced pancetta in a sauté pan over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally until browned and crispy, about 15 minutes.  Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cooked pancetta to a bed of paper towels to drain.   Cooking the pancetta should be done at more or less the last minute.  It hardens as it sits, and is best eaten within an hour of cooking. 
Slice the romaine cross-wise into roughly 1 1/2-inch slices. 
In a large mixing bowl, toss the sliced romaine with enough dressing to coat it well.  (You won’t need to use it all, by a long shot.)  Add the grated Parmesan, most of the sliced Parmesan ribbons, most of the pancetta and most of the tomatoes.  (I say ‘most’ because you’ll want to leave a bit of these things left for topping the salad.  It’s prettier that way.)  Season with a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then toss well to combine.  Transfer to a serving bowl or platter, then garnish with the remaining Parmesan ribbons, pancetta and roast tomatoes.  Serve immediately.


Gooey Chocolate-Gingerbread Cookies
Makes 2 dozen
Hot Out of the Oven
1 1/2 cups plus 1 Tbl all-purpose flour
1 1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp grated nutmeg
1 Tbl unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature
1 Tbl freshly grated peeled ginger
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup molasses
1 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp boiling water
7 oz good-quality semi-sweet chocolate, cut into 1/4-inch chunks
1/4 cup granulated sugar
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, ground ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and cocoa.  Set aside.
Using an electric stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and fresh grated ginger on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 4 minutes.  Add the brown sugar, beat until combined, then add the molasses and beat until combined. 
Dissolve the baking soda in the water in a small bowl.  Beat half of the flour mixture into the butter mixture, scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, as necessary.  Beat in the baking soda mixture, then the remaining half of the flour mixture.  Add the chocolate and mix by hand to incorporate. 
Transfer the dough onto a large sheet of plastic wrap.  Pat out to a thickness of about 1-inch, then wrap with the plastic.  Refrigerate for at least two hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325ᵒF.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.  Roll the dough into 2 dozen 1 1/2” balls.  Arrange 2 inches apart on prepared baking sheets.  Refrigerate for 20 minutes, then roll the balls in the granulated sugar.  Bake just until the top surface begins to crack, about 10-12 minutes, rotating the pans half-way through.  Let the cookies cool on the pan for 5 minutes.  Then, using a thin metal spatula,  transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.  These are best eaten the day they are made, especially for the sake of the gooey centers, but they can up stored at room temperature in an air-tight container up to 5 days.  You’ll loose a bit of the gooeyness, but they’ll still be incredible.


  1. Seriously Mary, make some tonight!! And save half the batter and make more tomorrow! Make sure you have some cold milk on hand too :).

  2. super excited to try this whole meal. Especially since I am wrapped up under a blanket currently...warm food sounds delicious!

  3. Sounds cozy, Dana :). Cool weather... yay!

  4. Those Cookies Are My Favorite!!!!!!! They are an instant crowd pleaser!! I always make a ton of dough and roll them up and freeze them in the little balls and make them in small batches so I don't eat them all. And then I can have them whenever I want! Sooo delicious!

  5. Katie - You've totally got the right idea! I hope everyone reads your comment, because it is filled with incredible wisdom! Thanks :).