Who is Uncle Vito? I have no idea. A close friend of mine who grew up in a culture rich in Italian cooking traditions near Buffalo, New York, made this lasagna for my family many moons ago. It was the first lasagna I ever ate made with ricotta cheese – a culinary epiphany. It was also the first lasagna I ever ate stuffed with pieces of sweet and spicy Italian sausage, in addition to using a traditional meat sauce. As I took the first bite of hot, bubbly, cheesy, creamy goodness, the noodles perfectly al denté unmistakably flavored with fennel, my eyes rolled to the back of my head, and I swore to never buy another carton of cottage cheese. Cindy named her dish Uncle Vito’s Stuffed Lasagna. Whether or not Uncle Vito ever existed, I’m not sure, but I have no doubt there is a candle lit for him at the basilica in Buffalo.
While well made homemade lasagna isn’t difficult to prepare, it is a labor of love. So, I made a pan last night to have ready for my son, who arrives from Florida Thursday, because I love him and he needs to be fattened up. Really, I’m hoping he is so overwhelmed with dinner that he forgets he left 80° temperatures to visit his mother in 30° Billings, and comes to visit again.
I’ve got lots of pictures, but don’t let the steps fool you. This is easy – so very yummy!
Here we go:
Last week, I made a batch of Italian meat sauce. Richard and I had some with spaghetti, and I saved the rest to make this lasagna. It’s a real easy recipe that you can find here.
Preheat oven to 375°F. Fill a 5-quart or larger dutch oven with water. Cover and bring it to boil, add a tablespoon of salt. While the water is coming to a boil, I gather ingredients for my lasagna assembly station.
Please disregard that I have a few of the cooked noodles in this shot. There are just a few pre-assembly steps to complete, before you begin to cook the noodles.
1. Use one 10-ounce package of frozen chopped spinach. Cook it in a medium saute pan with a little water over medium-low heat, until it’s thawed and the liquid is evaporated. Line a colander with paper towels, cheesecloth, or a few coffee filters, and drain the cooked spinach. Now, it may look like the spinach is dry, but in reality it is not. Spinach holds a lot of water. Whether it is fresh or frozen, once it’s cooked you’ll need to drain it and gather it up in the paper towels/cheesecloth/coffee filters, and squeeze more liquid out. You’ll be surprised how much liquid is still there. And you need to get out as much liquid as you can, so when it’s mixed with the ricotta cheese, it’s not watery. Does that make sense?
Cooking Tip: I’ve started using coffee filters, the fluted ones, to drain and filter things, like spinach, oil to clean up after deep frying that I’ll save for another time, or chicken stock. They’re cheap, and recently I discovered I have an inordinate supply.
2. In a small bowl, add the dry spinach to one 15-ounce carton of ricotta cheese. Add two lightly beaten eggs, salt, pepper, and a few gratings of fresh nutmeg. (Spinach and nutmeg make a delicious pairing.) Stir the mix with a fork, until everything is nicely incorporated. Set aside.
3. Coarsely grate one pound of mozzarella cheese. You can use whole milk mozzarella, 2%, or skim milk mozzarella. It’s really your preference. Once grated, set aside.
4. Finely grate Parmesan cheese. The amount is up to you, 1 1/2 – 2 cups. Set aside. My grater has coarse and angel hair sides. When I do this again, I’ll probably use a larger grater, but this batch was very fine, very light, and melted beautifully.
5. The Italian sausage I used in this recipe was pre-cooked. Richard and I sampled it over the weekend, and we loved it. Spiced with garlic, lots of fennel, green pepper, and onion, it was the perfect sausage to stuff between the noodle layers in this lasagna. Any Italian sausage will do: fresh or spicy in links, bulk, or be a rebel and make your own from ground pork and pantry spices. One of these days, I’m going rebel. Until then, I’ll take the easy route. If you’re using fresh sausage, be sure to brown it ahead of time. Even though this sausage was already cooked, I sliced it up into rounds, and browned it anyway to intensify the flavor.
Now that everything is at the ready at the lasagna assembly station, it’s time to boil the noodles. Package directions said to cook for 8-9 minutes for al denté, but I cooked them for 7 1/2 minutes. I like the noodles to have a little firmness, so they don’t get all mushy when the lasagna bakes. Remember, there’s still liquid in meat sauce, cheese, spinach, so the noodles will plump up. Who likes runny, watery lasagna? To facilitate that endeavor, I boil the noodles four at a time, just enough for one layer, drain them on a sheet tray, and dab away excess water with a paper towel. While I’m assembling one layer, noodles are cooking for the next.
If you’d rather, you could use “no-boil” noodles. Barilla makes one that is packaged in short sheets. I’ve used them before, but was disappointed in the finished noodle. Just not the same consistency, but definitely a time and mess saver. Make sure you buy enough for your recipe – you may need 1 1/2 packages to equal one pound of regular dried lasagna noodles. You’ll make four layers, so you’ll need 16 lasagna sheets.
Okie dokie – let’s make lasagna!
Spray a 9×13 pan lightly with cooking spray. Ladle some meat sauce onto the bottom of the pan, and spread around out to the edges.
Top the meat sauce with four cooked lasagna sheets, 3 placed vertically and cut another sheet to fit horizontally across the top of the pan. Sprinkle the noodles with mozzarella cheese, dollops of the ricotta/spinach mixture, and cooked sausage.
Top with another ladle or two of meat sauce, and sprinkle with 1/4 of Parmesan cheese.
Top with another layer of noodles, and gently press down to compact the ingredients beneath.
Repeat layering the ingredients, until they are all used up.
The last or top layer of the finished lasagna should be only meat sauce. And you should have 1/4 of shredded mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses to use about 15 minutes before the lasagna is finished baking.
OK, now cover the baking dish with foil. Pop into the oven, and bake for 40 minutes.
Remove the baking dish from the oven, and top with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Return to the oven, uncovered, to bake for another 15-20 minutes, until the dish is gently bubbling in the center.
And the cheese is melted. Wow! does that look delicious or what??
Let the lasagna sit on a cooling rack for about 10 minutes. Cut and serve the gooey goodness with more shredded Parmesan cheese, crunchy garlic bread, and/or a leafy green salad dressed with a light vinaigrette.
- 16 sheets of uncooked lasagna noodles
- 1 recipe Simple Italian Meat Sauce or any meat sauce you prefer
- 1 pound sweet Italian link sausage, fresh or precooked
- 1 pound shredded mozzarella cheese, shredded
- 1½ - 2 cups Parmesan cheese, finely shredded
- 1-10 oz. package frozen chopped spinach, thawed
- 1-15 oz. carton ricotta cheese
- 2 eggs lightly beaten
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- Pinch grated nutmeg
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
- In a 5-quart dutch oven or large stockpot, bring water to a boil. Add one Tablespoon salt.
- While the water is coming to a boil, drain the spinach, and saute in a small skillet until the spinach is dry. Put spinach in a colander lined with a paper towel or cheesecloth, drain and squeeze to remove any additional liquid.
- In a small bowl, combine ricotta cheese, beaten eggs, spinach, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Stir until all is combined. Set aside.
- In a small skillet, brown the sausage. If using bulk sausage, break into chunks. If using link sausage, cook then cut into ½" rounds. Make sure raw sausage is thoroughly cooked. If using precooked sausage, cut into rounds and brown to help intensify flavors. Set aside.
- Grate the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses into separate bowls. Set aside.
- Cook the lasagna noodles four sheets at a time. Noodles should be boiled one minute less than package instructions to retain some firmness in the pasta.
- Using tongs, remove the pasta from the boiling water. Drain on a sheet tray lined with paper towels. Take an extra paper towel and blot excess water from the tops of the noodles.
- To assemble the lasagna:
- Take a 9x13 pan, and lightly coat with cooking spray.
- Ladle one scoop of meat sauce, and spread it evenly over the bottom of the pan.
- Layer three lasagna noodles lenthwise in the pan. Cut the fourth noodle into pieces to fit across the top, so the entire meat sauce layer is covered with pasta.
- Coat the pasta with shredded mozzarella. By tablespoonsful, dollop the spinach/ricotta mixture evenly over the surface. Add a single layer of sausage. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Ladle two scoops of meat sauce over the top. Cover with another layer of noodles. Gently press the noodle layers down so the layer is even.
- Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used. Reserve ¼ of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.
- End with a pasta layer. Top with remaining meat sauce. Cover with foil, and bake for 40 minutes.
- Remove the lasagna from the oven. Remove the foil. Top with the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Return to the oven, uncovered. Bake for an additional 15 minutes, until the lasagna is gently bubbling in the center.
- Remove lasagna to a cooking rack, and allow to sit for 10 minutes before serving.