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Gustavore: Free-Form Lasagne

I love lasagne but the traditional form (12 servings in a huge pan) sorely tries my self-control. The solution: free-form, single-serving lasagne every bit as good as the big batch.

One of my slimming strategies had to do with and that meant not preparing any food that was in a casserole dish — just too easy to overeat. Sadly, this also meant giving up lasagne. At first. Then my super excellent Lodge cast iron round mini-servers clicked on that sometimes dim light bulb in my head. I would make single-serving lasagne! Not only did this align with my portion management goals, it unleashed endless variations of free-form lasagne dishes veering far and wide from red sauce and ricotta AND many were relatively quick to prepare and quick to cook.

Fresh Pasta

Fresh pasta dough in sheet form is available at Your DeKalb Farmers Market and maybe someday I’ll try that and let you know how it is. Until then, I make my own pasta dough because (a) it’s tasty, (b) I control the flour source, and (c) I can roll it out to the desired thickness. I usually make dough in 8 serving batches, portioning and freezing the 6 I don’t need immediately. Using the frozen dough (thawed, of course) makes lasagne a viable weeknight choice since the dough then just needs to be rolled out and boiled before assembly.

For 8 servings, the recipe is simple: 4 eggs + 4 cups of flour + 4 teaspoons salt and a little water. I like to use a mixture of 3 cups organic spelt flour (available, among many other types of flour, at Your DeKalb Farmers Market) plus 1 cup organic all-purpose flour. I find this combination gives the resulting pasta a pleasant nutty flavor with the added fiber and nutrition whole grains offer, but without the heaviness of some whole wheat pastas.

On a clean counter, mound the flour and sprinkle the salt over it. Mix with a fork, reform into a mound with a dough scraper (also known as a dough cutter, dough knife, pastry cutter, bench scraper, board scraper and bench knife … a handy $6-$21 tool that every cook should have), and form a well in the center of the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and add a little water. The amount of the water needed depends on the flour and humidity. I usually add 2-3 tablespoons. Using a fork, blend the eggs and water within the well, then start incorporating the flour until the dough is formed. Of course, you could do all this in a bowl, but on the counter, you can use the dough scraper to aid in your efforts.

Once the dough is formed, set it aside to rest for 5 minutes while you clean up the counter and wash the residual dough off your hands. Then knead the dough for 15 minutes by hand or 10 minutes in a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. This step is more important than it may seem during the interminable 15 minutes it takes to knead by hand. Proper kneading will result in a dough that is much easier to handle when it is time to roll it out. Let the dough rest again for 15 minutes. Cut it in quarters (2-serving pieces) and freeze (wrapping the pieces in wax paper first so they don’t freeze into one inseparable piece) whatever you don’t need right away.

You can roll out the dough with a rolling pin for an upper body workout, or get a pasta rolling machine. A hand crank version with two cutting heads (spaghetti and fettucine) can be yours for between $30 and $100. With the machine you get uniform results and an opportunity for quality partner time, with your partner assisting as the cranker. I usually roll a quarter of the pasta dough at a time out to the thinnest setting with a drink break between the completion of one sheet and the start of the rolling of the next. Sheets should be about 5” wide for lasagne and this is accomplished through strategic folding at the first setting. Once rolled, it is useful to have a pasta drying rack on which to hang the sheets as you go. There are several styles available, starting at $17.

Immerse the sheets in boiling water until they float. This will take just a couple minutes. Drain the sheets and lay them out on a cutting board so they don’t stick to each other. Cut the cooked sheets into approximately 6” x 6” squares. You’ll need at least 3 sheets per serving. Even though I said this portion of the dough recipe makes 2 servings, I usually get enough pieces in this preparation to make 3 or 4 individual lasagne. If you have some random pieces of cooked pasta leftover after you cut your squares, you can cut the leftovers into ½” strips and put them on the top of the assembled lasagne. They’ll cook up crunchy like the small exposed edges of the pasta layers.

Fillings

Now for fillings. I usually get these all prepared before starting to roll the dough in accordance with that wise Italian proverb: “The sauce waits for the pasta. The pasta does not wait for the sauce.” Here are some successful combinations that I have tried:

  • Simple with no advance cooking: Can of diced tomatoes (drained), minced garlic, thinly sliced onions and chopped basil. Spice it up with a sprinkle of red pepper flake. Add sliced peperoni if you like.
  • Classic Genoese flavors: Pesto (Your DeKalb Farmers Market makes a credible version), boiled and sliced potatoes, and steamed green beans.
  • Rich fall flavors: thinly sliced sweet potatoes, goat cheese, nutmeg, sage leaves and minced garlic.
  • More rich fall flavors: sautéed cubes of butternut squash, ricotta or mascarpone, basil and pinenuts.
  • Sausage (removed from casing or bulk, and cooked), fennel seed, red pepper flake, diced tomatoes, thinly sliced onions and minced garlic.
  • Sliced and sautéed mushrooms, onions and diced tomatoes.

You may have noticed that many of these omit cheese. I love cheese but I often found that it would get lost in the other flavors, jacking up the calorie count without the taste payoff. When using a grated cheese like mozzarella, I usually put it only on top where it will get brown and bubbly, and I frequently toss it with a stronger cheese like parmesan or pecorino. Initially, I did this for appearances, since I felt the dish would seem unfinished without it. However, I’ve since made dozens of free-form lasagne without any cheese at all and no feelings of hollow wanting ensued.

Assembly

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil your cast iron mini-servers. Start layering with one square of pasta on the bottom. Filling, pasta, filling, pasta, filling. You can drizzle each layer with olive oil, if you think it’s needed. I usually do so when using raw vegetables. There should, generally, be some space between your lasagne and the edge of the server with little corners of pasta exposed. I sometimes alternate the contents of the layers but I can’t think of a very good reason why you should go to that extra work. Top with cheese if using. I place the cheese in a little mound so it takes longer to melt. That way, the rest of the lasagne cooks before the cheese burns. Pop the servers in the hot oven.

Fifteen to 25 minutes later, your lasagne should be bubbly and ready, depending on whether you started with raw or cooked fillings. You can serve your lasagne in the cast iron servers they cooked in, but if you are prone to burning yourself, you should slip a small heat-resistant spatula around the edges and underneath and easily slide the lasagne onto a plate. Left in the cast iron servers, they will stay pretty hot for a good while, giving you time to toss and serve the salad after the lasagne come out of the oven.

With creative ingredients and fresh pasta, you can expect single-serving satisfaction without seconds and thirds tempting you from the casserole.

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