Weekend Lunch Now Served at Appia

One of my favorite new restaurants of the past year is Appia, the Roman trattoria on Sukhumvit Soi 31. Now that evening operations at the nearly always-packed restaurant are running smoothly, owner Jarrett Wrisley and owner/chef Paolo Vitaletti have introduced a lunch menu. Based on my first visit this afternoon, I think I now have twice as many reasons to make regular visits to Appia.

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The first thing I noticed upon arriving just before noon (the restaurant opens at 11:30 on Saturday and Sunday) is that the already welcoming dining room is even warmer and cozier with daylight streaming in the one wall of windows.  It would be very easy to just curl up in a banquette and spend the whole day there draining a few bottles from Appia’s thoughtful wine collection, grazing from lunch to afternoon snacks to dinner.

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The lunch menu is largely different from the dinner menu although you will recognize them as relatives. For example, the succulent porchetta appears not as a stand-alone dish but as a sandwich with roasted peppers and homemade pickles. There are a variety of salads, sandwiches, pasta and grain dishes (these, too, do not completely overlap the dinner menu) and a handful of egg dishes.

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With two of us dining, we had to restrain ourselves a bit while still trying a cross-section of the menu. We began with a roasted pumpkin salad, which is garnishes with rocket, pumpkin seeds, almond slivers, and pomegranate seeds, dressed with dijon mustard and honey. This salad was perfectly seasoned and the pumpkin was tender but not mushy, a texture that can be unappealing with a room-temperature salad.

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We also tried the crab sandwich served with spicy aioli and provolone cheese on whole grain bread, served with a side of the homemade pickles. While the sandwich may not have looked like much, its pedestrian exterior hid a generous portion of fresh, sweet, large-lump crab meat. This sandwich along with a salad would make for a very satisfying meal.

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The first of our two egg dishes was the uovo alla pizzaiola – two Parisi eggs (imported from Italy) baked in a vibrant tomato sauce topped with stringy fresh scamorza cheese. Served with some toast, this assertively seasoned dish verged on the hearty, even though it is vegetarian (albeit not vegan). Chef Paolo really coaxes a great deal of flavor out of just a handful of ingredients.

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The second of our egg dishes was Appia’s take on Eggs Benedict: poached eggs served on corned beef, chicory, n’dujia sabayon (think spicy spreadable pork sausage Hollandaise sauce), over sourdough bread. This dish packed a punch! The bitterness of the chicory was cut by the saltiness of the beef and all of it was tamed by the n’dujia sabayon. The dish brimmed with umami.

Prices are very reasonable for the quality of food, with sides and smaller dishes starting at around 140 baht and mains topping out at 380 with most in the 280-300 range. Since lunchtime dining has just been introduced, there isn’t yet a crowd, but I would imagine that before year’s end reservations will be advised.

 

Baking Double Crust Stuffed Pizza Pie

Between clients and visiting guests, these have been busy days. Still, I manage to find some time to get into the kitchen and cook. This evening it was an attempt at double-crust stuffed pizza pie.

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Unlike “deep dish” pizzas, which are single-crust pizzas with a very thick layer of toppings, a double crust stuffed pizza has the first layer of crust topped with all the normal pizza toppings minus the sauce, wrapped with a second layer of crust. The sauce, a bit drier and chunkier than normal, is put over the top crust and then the pie is baked. I first tried this style of pizza in the San Francisco Bay Area at Zachary’s and Little Star.

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In addition to making my own crust, using Tipo 00 flour from Italy and some rosemary from my garden, I made my own sauce, cooked some spinach, and cooked some mushrooms, draining them so there wouldn’t be too much extra liquid.

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After placing the bottom layer of dough in a cake tin, I added alternating layers of the ingredients: cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and pepperoni.

This video shows me adding the second crust, tucking it in, and adding the sauce. The only part of the pizza that was a problem was too much crust along the sides. In the future, I think I would cut the top dough to fit and just pinch the seams closed instead of having an overlap and folding the pieces together.

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The end result was beautiful. The crusts were crisp, the interior ingredients were a cheesy mass, and the slightly spicy sauce cut through the richness of the fillings.

 

Adventures in Cooking: Raviolo

At a friend’s recently opened Roman style restaurant (about which I will write), I enjoyed a “raviolo” – singular of “ravioli” – a single, large filled pasta. His version has an egg yolk in the middle and it is cooked to just the right point that as you cut into the raviolo, the egg yolk pours out. Very dramatic presentation. I decided to try my hand at the concept and make my own raviolo.

The end result, which looks pretty enough, is about seven inches in diameter. Truly, I did make “ravioli” as there was one for Tawn and one for me. I just like saying “raviolo”. All things considered, it was a bit of a misadventure due to lack of experience and finesse on my part. But we learn from our mistakes, right? Well, I try to.

The filling was made of braised spinach and chicken, seasoned liberally with garlic, rosemary, and chili flakes.

I used Thomas Keller’s seven-yolk pasta dough recipe, which is my go-to recipe for pasta. Instead of pulling out the KitchenAid mixer, I hand rolled the dough. First mistake, as I couldn’t roll it nearly as thin as I should have. That may be because I didn’t let the dough rest long enough after kneading. It was getting late and I wanted dinner on the table before 9:00.

A good-sized portion of the filling was placed in the midst of the dough and an egg yolk was nestled on top. This was my second mistake. I separated the egg yolks at the same time as I separated the egg yolks for the pasta dough. In the intervening hour or so, the yolks formed a slight skin on them, so when I tried to pour them onto the filling, they tore. That ruined the effect of having a nice soft-cooked yolk to cut into!

Mama-mia! That’s a meat-balla! Well, actually, just a raviolo. Quite large and a bit of a pain to cut because I had no cutter large enough. Instead, I traced around a saucer with a sharp paring knife.

After about six minutes boiling (they were a pain to flip!), the ravioli were ready to serve. I put a simple homemade tomato sauce on top, sprinkling a bit of mozzarella cheese. As you can see, the egg yolk is hardly discernible as it has melted into the filling. The pasta skin, as I mentioned, was a little thick especially around the edges. All in all, I think it was an okay first attempt and was definitely a learning experience. Next time, I’ll make them a bit smaller, roll out the dough using the pasta machine, and separate the egg yolks at the last minute. The one thing I was pleased with was the filling. While it could have used more spinach (the darn vegetable just shrivels up to nothing when you cook it!), the flavor was very good – salty, garlicky, and slightly spicy.

 

Italian Sunday Gravy

Not the first time I’ve written about Italian Sunday Gravy, the seminal slow-cooked tomato sauce filled with various cuts of meat. Shortly before leaving for the US, we visited a Swedish-Thai couple we know and prepared Italian Sunday Gravy for them and several other friends.

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A plate full of meats – sausages, ribs, and loin – are seared to get some color into the pot. Then onions are sauteed, tomato sauce is caramelized, canned tomatoes are added, and then the meat is placed back in the sauce and the whole thing bakes in the oven for three hours.

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Meanwhile, I made some homemade pasta using Thomas Keller’s French Laundry pasta dough recipe. Since we were at friends’ house and I didn’t want to carry my KitchenAid mixer (which has a pasta rolling attachment) I just used a cutting board and rolling pin. A little more rustic, but it still turned out okay.

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Letting the sheets of pasta dry for a few minutes before cutting them. This way, the individual pieces of pasta cut more easily.

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The hand-cut pasta – I didn’t have a ruler or straight edge handy so these are cut with all sorts of varying width. Very rustic, indeed! My technique (or lack thereof) would shame Italian grandmothers.

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Cook the pasta in salted boiling water just as the sauce is finished. Fresh pasta cooks much more quickly than dried pasta so one needs to pay close attention.

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Once the meat is tender, you pull it out of the sauce and serve it on a platter.

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The remaining sauce is served directly from the pan and spooned over your pasta. Lots and lots of flavor in there!

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A side dish of cabbage, fennel and radish cole slaw with a sesame dressing. Makes a nice accompaniment to the heavy Sunday gravy.

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For dessert, one of our hosts cooked raspberry almond bars. These were fantastic. All in all, not only did we have a very fun time visiting with our friends, but the cooking was fun, too.

 

Food in Hermosa Beach: Buona Vita Trattoria

As I mentioned in my previous entry, I’m fortunate that I have a very good working relationship with my boss and colleagues and enjoy my job and the company at which I work.  Because of the twists of circumstance surrounding my move to Thailand more than five years ago, my current manager was my subordinate’s subordinate before I moved.  For my trip to Los Angeles, she and another of my colleagues traveled out to meet me for two and a half days of meetings.  One evening we dined at an Italian restaurant in Hermosa Beach called Buona Vita.

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Buona Vita is on Pier Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Hermosa Beach.  I first went here back in 1995-6, when I lived in LA for my second time.  A colleague, who was of Italian heritage, loved going here because the food reminded her of her grandmother’s cooking.

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There are actually two dining rooms, located about four doors apart.  One is the trattoria, pictured above, and the other is the pizzeria.  My recollection, though, is that you can order the same menu items at both restaurants.

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We started by sharing the Insalate di Pollo e Formaggio di Capra, mixed greens served with chicken, tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, basil, and goat cheese.  I remember this salad from my visits more than a decade ago and it is every bit as good today.  In fact, with a little bread, two people could share this salad and have a perfectly healthy meal.

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Our main courses looked a little more “American Italian”.  I had Polenta Bolognese – grilled polenta (a cornmeal cake) with meat sauce and melted mozzarella.

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My manager enjoyed Lasagna Di Carne – a meat lasagna with Bolognese sauce and ricotta and mozzarella cheeses.  Both these dishes were very good but even before digging in we cut the portions, placing about two-thirds in a two-go box and eating only a third.  Portion sizes were too large.

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My colleague had Spaghettini Alla Checca – thin spaghetti noodles, fresh tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, dressed in basil and olive oil.  Portion size was more reasonable and it was overall lighter in composition. 

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For dessert we tried two things.  The first was the tiramisu.  This seems very different at each restaurant.  I like that this version was less gloppy.  The espresso and liquer mixture was much lighter and the dessert didn’t taste boozy.

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I had the cheesecake which was fine but uninspiring.  The whipped topping doesn’t taste like cream.  I might be wrong, but it tasted more like whipped “topping” rather than whipped cream.

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And here is my colleague and my manager.  All in all, the meal was very enjoyable and food and service were good.  The pasta dishes are a bit heavy and portion size is large, but the salad was certainly a hit.

 

Saturday Cooking Part 2

Whereas Saturday morning was spent at the Seagull Cooking Cafe helping break in their new cooking school, Saturday evening was spent at the house of Khun Nat, co-editor of the website catandnat.com where some of my entries are cross-posted.  After he started editing my pieces and discovered our common interest of food, he suggested we cook together.  Our first venture: Hearty Italian Sunday Gravy based on a recipe from Cooks Illustrated.

This over-the-top tomato sauce usually calls for six cuts of meat and half a day by the stove.  Thankfully, the CI recipe cuts that down to just three cuts (ribs, sausages, and meatballs) and just a few hours, most of which is in the oven.  In addition to preparing the sauce, spaghetti and a salad, Nat prepared an angel food cake.  Not wanting to waste the egg yolks, we also prepared two batches of ice cream: one banana and the other raspberry.

I did not go to the trouble of shooting everything, simply because I was being put to work.  But here is a video showing the highlights of the afternoon and evening.  If you cannot view the video embedded in this entry, the link for it is here.

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Raised in New York City, Nat moved here in his mid-twenties and has been here ever since.  He is one of those fortunate souls who got to design his kitchen from scratch and it is perfectly laid out to have lots of people involved in the cooking.  Off to the left is a seating area where guests can relax and talk with the chef.  Very useful arrangement, if only I had another few dozen square meters in my condo!

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Iron Chef New York prepares the tomato sauce after browning in the meats in a skillet.  The secret behind the rich flavor is that you sautee the onions until they start to brown and then add tomato paste and cook it until nearly burned.  While this may seem too far at first, it concentrates the flavors and nicely caramelizes the sugars in the paste, and it ends up adding an incredible richness to the sauce.

After adding crushed canned tomatoes and cooking for a while, you add the ribs and sausages to the sauce and let them bake, covered, in the oven for two hours.

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Starting ingredients for the meatballs: Italian parsley, egg yolk, bread crumbs, buttermilk, chili flakes, salt, and spices.

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Nicely shaped (golf ball sized) meatballs.

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Nat has a half-dozen or more beagles, all of which are very cute.  They must have been tortured by the wonderful smells coming from the kitchen!

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Fry the meatballs until browned.

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Busy kitchen as Tawn and Cha handle the wine, Nat keeps an eye on the meatballs, and the angel food cake rests upside down on the concrete countertop.

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The finished meatballs with nice browned bits on the outside, ready to add succulent flavor to the Sunday Gravy.

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After the first round of cooking the ribs and sausages in the sauce, we agreed that it needed more liquid so added some water.  Then added the meatballs and let them finish cooking.

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Beautiful angel food cake.  I really should make these more often.  They are fat-free and very showy and satisfying desserts, especially with some fresh berries spooned on top.  We went for homemade ice cream, but berries would have been nice, too.

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Keeping with the Italian theme, a nice mixed salad with cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, salami, feta cheese, and olives.

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The meat piled on a platter, ready to serve.  Too bad Xanga doesn’t have a smell-o-blog feature.

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The final product: whole wheat spaghetti served with rich sauce and three types of meat.  Oh, this was good.  I hate to rub it in, but you really missed out!

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A slice of heaven.  Didn’t photograph the two types of ice cream, but you can trust me that they were tasty, too.  Is there room in my kitchen for an ice cream machine?

 

Lasagna Bolognese from Scratch

Weeks ago, a group of Tawn’s university friends conspired to hold their holiday dinner on Christmas Eve.  “It’s a potluck,” they said.  “Everyone should bring something!”  For whatever reason, I decided a lasagna would be a nice addition to the eclectic mix of food.  And as the party crept closer, I was possessed with the idea of making the lasagna from scratch.

My uncle’s mother-in-law makes the best lasagna, a recipe-less dish with a meaty sauce and lots of gooey mozzarella cheese.  Since there is no recipe from which to work, I turned my attention to various online resources, settling (kind of) on a recipe from fxcuisine.com for Lasagna Bolognese.

The process was two-part: The first part was to make a hearty ragù in the traditional style of Bologna, Italy.

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This recipe is based one one written by two legendary Bologna home chefs, sisters Margherita and Valeria Simili, from their book Sfida al Matterello. I found it presented in exacting detail on fxcuisine.com.

It uses both butter and oil, pancetta or parma ham, a mixture of beef and pork shoulder, puréed tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrot, celery, chicken livers, dry white wine, milk, chicken stock, and salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.  Reviewing my picture, you will notice that I made some substitutions.  The meat is just ground pork and spicy Italian sausage (which I removed from the casing), instead of the beef and pork shoulder mixture.  The chicken livers have been removed but I did substitute an anchovy fillet.

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The first step after prepping all your vegetables and other ingredients, is to sauté the onions until soft but not browned.  This is done in a mixture of oil and butter.

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Add the carrots and celery and sauté further until they start to brown.

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Add the pancetta.  You can also use Parma ham or good quality dried bacon, finely diced.

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In lieu of chicken livers, of which you use only one or two for a more meaty flavor, I diced one anchovy fillet and added it to the onion, carrot, celery, pancetta mixture.  While I would have preferred to stick with the chicken liver as per the original recipe, one must accommodate one’s spouse’s preferences.  This is the secret to a happy marriage.

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After removing the aromatics to a bowl, I browned the ground pork and sausage in small batches.  A key to browning meat is to not crowd the pan, otherwise you steam it more than brown it.  As each batch finished browning, I added it to the bowl of aromatics.

Finally, after all the meat was browned, I deglazed the pan with a bit of white wine.  This simply means I scraped down the pan as the wine was boiling in order to remove all the tasty little caramelized bits that were stuck to the bottom.  After the alcohol burned off – the point at which it stops smelling like boiling wine – I added the liquid and caramelized bits to the bowl of meat and aromatics.

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Switching cooking vessels, I placed the whole mixture in a large Dutch oven on medium heat and added the warmed milk.  Actually, I used a combination of cream and milk, just for some additional richness since I used a leaner meat.  The milk adds a sweetness that softens the “meatiness” of the ragù.

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Once the meat mixture was boiling, I added some canned puréed tomatoes.  In my book, canned tomatoes still count as scratch because the tomatoes you can find here in Thailand just aren’t as rich and sweet and tomatoey as canned ones.  To this is added some chicken stock.  I also cheated and used boxed stock since the amount was small and not worth the effort to make stock from scratch.  After this comes to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, cover tightly, and then let simmer for three to four hours.

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The result, after four hours, is a wonderful sauce.  I let it cool and then refrigerated it for two nights before continuing with the second step of the process.  For some reason, sauces, stews, and ragùs benefit from some time to rest.  The flavors mingle and become much more than the sum of their parts.

The second stage of the lasagna-making process was to make the pasta and assemble the lasagna.  I opted to use a semolina flour pasta, which is a little more stable than one made with all-purpose flour.  While I have made pasta from scratch two or three times, I don’t have a lot of experience.  “Pasta making is easy!” people will tell you.  While that is true, it is also a bit of a process and tends to require a bit of cleaning up, at least when you are inexperienced.  Maybe if I practice more, pasta making will be less of a production.

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The ratio is easy: one large egg to every 100 grams of flour.  I added a little pinch of salt and also a small splash of olive oil to make the dough a little more forgiving of me.  In this case, I used six eggs and 600 grams of flour, which makes a lot of pasta!

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I used the Kitchen Aid mixer to combine the dough, but it was pretty dry and my machine doesn’t have the strength necessary to knead it.  Desirous of Popeye-like forearms, I kneaded the dough myself for about ten minutes, until it became silky.  Well, silkier.  Then I let it rest in a plastic bag, refrigerated, for thirty minutes.

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While the pasta dough was snoozing, I made a Béchamel sauce.  This is a really basic white sauce that is the foundation of macaroni and cheese.  For this reason alone, everyone should learn how to make it.  Here’s the formula: equal weights flour and butter.  The process is equally simple: melt the butter, add the flour and whisk for a few minutes as the flour cooks.  Then add the milk a little at a time, whisking until smooth and at the desired consistency. 

There was probably no good reason to make the sauce this early, but I know that once you start with the pasta-making process you need to be undistracted. 

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I used discs of pasta dough about the size of a small lemon and passed them through the pasta roller until they reached the second-to-the-last setting, almost as thin as crèpes.  Upon reflection, leaving them one setting thicker might have been better as lasagna is a hearty dish, calling for a hearty pasta.

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Here is the result of my work, drying on a well wiped-down clothes rack.  The problem is that the wires for the rack are too narrow, and my pasta sheets stuck to them.  I had to be very careful when removing the pasta, lest they tear in half.  You’ll notice the inconsistency in both sheet width and length, an illustration of how far I have to go before I am a pasta Jedi master. 

In case it looks like a lot of pasta, it is.  This is enough pasta for three full-size lasagna dishes!

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Using a large pot of boiling salted water and a large tub of ice water, I cooked the pasta sheets one at a time for about 30 seconds.  The idea isn’t to cook them to completion but to make them soft, flexible, and generally more stable to handle.

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Before assembly, grate the high-quality Parmesan Reggiano cheese.  No mozzarella in this recipe.  I have to say, it is actually very nice without the mozzarella.  I think Americans have learned to expect that their lasagna will be gooey.  Time for mass re-education.

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Okay, we’re ready to assemble.  Pasta sheets are on tea towels, Béchamel sauce and ragù are warm but not bubbling, and the cheese is grated.  One note on the ragù, you should taste it and adjust the seasoning at this time.  Each component of the dish should taste good by itself if you expect the final dish to taste good.

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Since my sheets of pasta were varying lengths, I just let them overlap and fold back on themselves as necessary, giving the dish a rustic, authentic look.  Unlike what the original recipe said, I think there needs to be a layer of ragù under the first layer of noodles.  Simply oiling the dish wasn’t enough to prevent the bottom layer of pasta from sticking.  Add some ragù.  Doing it again, I would also double the amount of ragù to make it meatier.

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Then add the Béchamel sauce.  The recipe stressed that this does not need to be incorporated into the ragù as they are meant to be two distinct layers.  So I just poured it on and left it as is.

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Sprinkle on some Parmesan Reggiano cheese, then continue with the alternating layers of pasta, ragù, Béchamel sauce, and cheese until the dish is full.

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I made two single portion lasagnas, each with a single long noodle.  Cute, huh?  They freeze nicely, too.

These are covered tightly in foil (oil the piece that is touching the top so it doesn’t stick too badly) and then bake at 180 C / 375 F for about 50 minutes or until the lasagna is bubbling.  Remove the foil and cook for another ten minutes until the top is lightly browned.

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The end result.  I removed the foil too early so the pasta edges are a little crisp, which is actually kind of nice.  The party guests really enjoyed the lasagna and if pleasing a crowd is a measure of success, then this adventure was well worth the effort.

Lessons learned: homemade pasta makes a ton of difference, so I will make it again when doing lasagna.  Over time, I’m sure it will be easier for me.  Also, for a richer lasagna, I will double the proportion of ragù to Béchamel sauce.