Like many wives I periodically expect my husband to do the impossible – read my mind. Although not always telepathic, Giuliano hit the ball out of the park for my birthday. He knows my favorite dish is his lasagne bolegnese and that was his unexpected, but greatly appreciated gift to me this year.
A few weeks before, my girls asked me what I wanted for my birthday. Specifically, they wanted to know if I wanted a party. Like all good moms, I said, “Anything you make will please me”. However, 7-year-old Michela, who adores making lists, came back and asked me whom I wanted at my party. I told them, within hearing distance of my husband, that this year I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted them to come up with and execute (yes, I really used that word) the entire project.
I have a confession to make. Birthdays are a BIG deal to me. Growing up, my parents meant well but because my birthday is so close to winter vacation, I often was told, “Oh, we are traveling to (insert name of city to visit family members here), or going to see (insert name of play I didn’t choose or great place I didn’t care about, or fancy restaurant here) and that will be your birthday present. It wasn’t that they were forgetful nor that they weren’t generous. The trips were great and the dinners spectacular, but they never occurred on the exact DATE of my birth and often seemed an afterthought, something that we would be doing anyway, and my birthday just coincided. Yes… it is a whine that has stayed with me and even as I’ve grown older, it grates. Not wishing to repeat my growing up experiences, I tend to throw my children overly lavish parties.
Now that you know my baggage, you will understand that giving up control of my birthday was a big deal. However, I did want to mature, I was turning 45 after all, and I was thrilled that my kids, aged of 7 and 11, wanted to do something that didn’t necessarily revolve around themselves. I tried not to give my birthday any more thought.
During the week before my birthday, both the kids and Giuliano acted completely normal. At one point Giuliano said, “I’ve made arrangements with Cynthia to watch the kids on your birthday night, a Thursday, so we can go out”. “Oh”, I thought, “that is generous of her and it will be nice to have a date night as we haven’t had one in awhile”. Giuliano went on to say that the next night, Friday, we would celebrate my birthday with the kids. It all sounded lovely and low key, a perfectly fine way to celebrate. Later he asked which kind of lasagne he should make, mushroom or meat. I told him I preferred meat lasagne and he said he would make it for the evening when we celebrated with the kids. What more could I ask for or want?
Lasagne, the Italian plural of lasagna which refers to just one sheet of pasta, is now one of my favorite foods. Before I met Giuliano I had experienced what I thought was lasagna and although I enjoyed the taste, it didn’t leave a fabulous impression. You know the lasagnas of which I speak, those heavy things that rest in the pit of your stomach for days after eating. The first time I had Giuliano’s lasagne was at a family celebration. His father Victor adores green lasagne and Giuliano had made it. It was nothing like what I had experienced before. True Bolognese lasagne is light, almost airy. It is a savory concoction, with each creamy bite melting in your mouth. It must be made with homemade egg noodles and there is NO ricotta to be found in any of the Hazan’s recipes.
Lasagne makers are often judged on how many layers than can create. Five or six layers are considered the minimum for acceptability. Ooh’s and ahh’s occur the higher they go. For my birthday celebration, Giuliano created a spectacular 9-layer lasagne!
Thursday, the day of my birthday, arrived with great fanfare. My children had created beautiful homemade cards that I proudly now display in my office. My husband, who knew I wanted an easy point-and-shoot purse sized camera, bought me an iPhone because the camera is just as good as most point-and-shoots. I can see most of you wives smiling, as you understand the rationalization. During the day I received a notice from the post office that a package had arrived from my “computer” friend Jamie, author of Life’s a Feast. I also received great cards from friends and relatives. My in-laws sent me a bouquet of beautiful peonies, and I was truly overwhelmed by the amount of Facebook and twitter kudos. Thank you to all who participated. Early that evening the girls got themselves ready and soon we were off to our friends’ house to drop them off.
When we arrived, the only person there was the housekeeper. Both of our friends are physicians and often put in long hours, so I didn’t think that anything was unusual. However, Michela ran off and I thought she was looking for her friend, so I admonished her to “listen” and ask “permission” from the housekeeper to explore. Just as I was disciplining her, out from the hallway came our friends wishing me happy birthday! I was so surprised I was speechless! I later learned that Michela, who is known for telling me the endings of movies she has yet to see, not only knew of the surprise party, she had told everyone in her class and in her after school activities about it. However, she amazingly had kept the secret from me. Giuliano had also invited another couple I am good friends with and I
was thrilled. The evening began with Prosecco, and had a finale of a cake that our friends had made with help from our children! Of course, the pièce de resistance was the lasagne, perfectly crispy on the top and soft and creamy inside. I teared up – the evening was perfect.
Below is Giuliano’s recipe for the lasagne he made and videos showing how to make the homemade pasta for it. That evening, I think Giuliano made three times the recipe, enough, we thought, for a small army. It was so tasty and delicious that even the kids had thirds. So don’t expect any leftovers!
Lasagne alla Bolognese
(from How to Cook Italian by Giuliano Hazan)
Preparation time: 1 hour and 25 minutes
Total time from start to finish: 5 hours
Green or regular Egg Pasta of Emilia Romagna, made with 2 eggs and 1 1/2 cups flour
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 tablespoon butter
1. Make the Bolognese sauce.
2. Make the pasta dough, wrap it in plastic and set aside to rest.
3. Make the béchamel sauce.
4. Fill a pot for the pasta with at least 6 quarts of water, place over high heat, and bring to a boil
5. Roll out the pasta dough according to the directions. Cut the pasta sheets so you have a total of 8 pieces. Fill a medium bowl halfway with ice water and keep it close to the pot of water on the stove.
6. Add 2 tablespoons of salt to the boiling water and put in 4 of the pasta sheets. Cook for a minute, then lift the pasta out of the water with tongs and place it in the ice water. Swish the pasta sheets in the water, then lay them flat on dry towels. Repeat with the remaining 4 pasta sheets.
7. Preheat the oven to 425° on the regular bake setting.
8. Coat the bottom of a 8” X 11 1/2” rectangular baking pan with some béchamel, then mix the rest with the Bolognese sauce and 1/2 cup of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Place a sheet of pasta on the bottom of the pan, trimming any excess so it fits. Spread a thin coating of the filling over the pasta sheet, then cover with another sheet of pasta. Continue until you have 7 layers of pasta and filling, saving a little filling to cover the top layer. Do not worry if the sheets of pasta do not fit perfectly; it’s all right to patch as necessary. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top and dot with the butter.
9. Bake until the top has lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Take the lasagne out of the oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
Note: The lasagne can be assembled completely up to a day in advance and kept, well wrapped, in the refrigerator. Take it out of the refrigerator I hour before baking. It will also keep in the refrigerator after it is baked, for up to 2 days.