I don't believe that I've mentioned this before, but Greg and I have a little Test Kitchen going on these days. We are auditioning recipes for our wedding reception, an event that we will be catering ourselves. Since we were technically wed on May 21st in Italy (or more technically, by a justice of the peace on May 13th in New Haven), and since only about a third of the 150 people we invited are attending, we don't have to worry about anything except the food, and it is only a relatively small quantity of food that we need to prepare at that.
In our spare evenings, after we shine our shoes and dust under the piano, we're trying to come up with a menu that can serve 50 (maybe 60?) people at 6:30pm on September 1st. Here's our plan so far:
- Cheese platter
- 120 mini Costco crabcakes (they're really good!) with dipping sauce
- 120 Lox Bites (Lox and Dilled Cream Cheese on Crostini)
- 180 Veg meatballs simmering in homemade sauce
- 2 9" Spinach Tortes
- 120 Grilled Shrimp in Italian Marinade
- Big Salad, greens with feta, pears, and balsamic dressing
- Loafs of our amazing local bread (Ciabaso) with Olive Oil and Balsamic for dipping
- Bruschetta bar, with 2-4 cups each of various toppings: olive tapenade, traditional tomatoes, roasted garlic, pesto
- Fresh Fruit Platter: Cantaloupe, Pears, Grapes, Strawberries, and whatever else
- Lots of Greg's Pizza Bites (puff pastry stuffed with pizza toppings)
- My Father-In-Law's Bacala
- Caprese salad skewers
I joked about the "New Haven Test Kitchen", but it is partially true. I spent 8 hours on Saturday and 3 hours on Sunday gathering ingredients, new kitchen equipment (fluted removable bottom tart pans!), and nerve to tackle several previously unexplored recipes with Greg. Not only do we need to find recipes that taste good, they need to be straightforward to prepare (read: assembly line), not too expensive, and most importantly - transport-able, reheat-able, and easily serve-able at room temperature or on chafing trays with sternos. This veritable food convivium has been exhausting, to say the least, since it turns out that despite what I may have thought when I was 6, stuffing myself with puff pastry dough and cheese for hours on end is not What I Always Wanted.
Speaking of saturated fat, let's talk about the point of this whole article: the main dish of the reception. The Big One. Because it turns out that catering to a crowd of meat-eaters, when you yourself would prefer not to serve meat, is complicated. If I had my druthers, I'd like to not serve so much dairy either, but clearly my duties as a hostess outweigh my political views. Except for the 10% about meat. Thus, sans flesh-based animal protein, I will turn to another source: four 9x13 size pans of Cook's Illustrated Four-Cheese Lasagna, or what I like to call, Melted Heavenly Sin (until today I would have doubted that you could stack "heavenly" and "sin" together, but oh, yes, yes you can). This is a recipe from America's Test Kitchen, and I constructed it, almost to the letter, over the course of two hours this afternoon.
If you know anything about me as a blogger, a cook, or, heck, a person, it's that I do not follow written instructions well. I simply can't stand making something without changing it, even if I've never made it before. I know, sick, but I swear it's not cooking ego or anything like that - it's curiosity. If I trust the author of a basic recipe well enough to try the recipe, I believe it will taste good as is. I want to know what happens when I muddle with it. Thus, you will rarely find my basic pancakes without a new fruit or bran ratio in them, my cake recipe without a soy based substitution, or my heavy-cream-alfredo without some skim plus roux. I just have to fiddle. I have to tweak. And although it often leads me to rubbery pancakes, dry cake and curdled sauce... I do enjoy the process.
Except in this case. I took it upon myself as a challenge: make a recipe as it was intended, with no substitutions or alterations. Just do it! Do it so that I will know the perfect proportions, so that I only need try it once before the real deal, so that the alterations that I do eventually make are to things like prepping ingredients ahead, rather than major Taste Kidnappers. Do it because it will make my to-do list shorter and my taste buds, probably, happier.
And I did it. Sort of. Like I said, I don't follow directions well. I got 80% through assembling this lasagna, grumbling in my head the whole time about how the pasta:cheese ratio was totally off, when I realized where my missing cheese was: sitting in front of me, that big bowl of ricotta that I had entirely forgotten to layer.
More on that later. Meantime, I can promise you that while this is not a quick or simple recipe, this is an extraordinary lasagna. I can also promise you that I've never used the word extraordinary to describe food. Why today? Well, it's perfect in flavorful complexity. In short, it fills your mouth with some of the greatest cheese-based sensations you've ever met with, and your stomach with something that will keep you full for hours (a 2x2" square of this packs a whopping 420 calories). It's just cheesy and delicious.
What was that about forgetting the ricotta? Oh, yeah. So I ended up having to pull back pasta layers and stuff the ricotta into where it should have been in the first place (i.e., in every layer of all four layers), which disturbed the delicate structure of layers a bit, definitely ruined the photos I was hoping for, but didn't harm the taste at all. In the end, because of this mistake, I ultimately omitted a decent quantity of pasta sheets, and thus the cheese:pasta ratio is way off (so if it looks a bit soupy in my photos, that was my fault not the recipe's). But I know this will be fixed by performing the recipe exactly as intended, and that was the lesson I needed in the first place.
America's Test Kitchen Four-Cheese LasagnaServes: 8-10
From the July 2007 issue of Cook's Illustrated
It's important not to overbake the lasagna. Once the sauce starts bubbling around the edges, turn the oven to broil. If your lasagna pan is not broiler-safe, brown the lasagna at 500 degrees for about 10 minutes. Whole milk is best in the sauce, but skim and low-fat milk also work. Supermarket-brand cheeses work fine in this recipe. The Gorgonzola may be omitted, but the flavor of the lasagna won't be as complex. The test kitchen prefers the flavor and texture of Barilla no-boil noodles, but this recipe will work with most brands. One box of Barilla will yield enough noodles for this recipe; you may need two boxes of other brands.6 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded
1 oz Parmesan, finely grated
1 1/2 c part-skim ricotta
1 large organic egg, lightly beaten
1/4 tsp black pepper
2 tbsp + 2 tsp minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 medium shallot, minced
1 medium garlic clove, minced
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups whole, organic milk
1 1/2 cups free-range, organic chicken broth
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 bay leaf
15 no-boil lasagna noodles
8 oz Fontina, shredded
3 oz Gorgonzola, crumbled
- Place Gruyère and 1/2 cup Parmesan in large heatproof bowl. Combine ricotta, egg, black pepper, and 2 tablespoons parsley in medium bowl. Set both bowls aside.
- Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming; add shallot and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until beginning to soften, about 2 minutes. Add flour and cook, stirring constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 1 1/2 minutes; mixture should not brown. Gradually whisk in milk and broth; increase heat to medium-high and bring to full boil, whisking frequently. Add salt and bay leaf, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until sauce thickens and coats the back of a spoon, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally with heatproof rubber spatula or wooden spoon and making sure to scrape bottom and corners of saucepan (you should have about 4 cups).
- Remove saucepan from heat and discard bay leaf. Gradually whisk 1/4 cup sauce into ricotta mixture. Pour remaining sauce over Gruyère mixture and stir until smooth; set aside while softening noodles.
- Adjust oven rack to upper middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Place noodles in 13 by 9-inch baking dish and cover with very hot tap water; soak 10 minutes, agitating noodles occasionally to prevent sticking. Remove noodles from water, place in single layer on kitchen towel, and pat dry. Wipe out baking dish and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray.
- Distribute 1/2 cup sauce in bottom of baking dish. Place 3 noodles in single layer on top of sauce. Spread 1/2 cup ricotta mixture evenly over noodles and sprinkle evenly with 1/2 cup fontina. Drizzle 1/2 cup sauce evenly over cheese. Repeat layering of noodles, ricotta, fontina, and sauce 3 more times. Place final 3 noodles on top and cover completely with remaining sauce, spreading with rubber spatula and allowing to spill over noodles. Sprinkle evenly with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan.
- Spray large sheet foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover lasagna; bake until edges are just bubbling, 25 to 30 minutes, rotating pan halfway through baking time. Remove foil and turn oven to broil. Broil until surface is spotty brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Cool 15 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining 2 teaspoons parsley; cut into pieces and serve.