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June 3, 2000
two years ago

Three Gallon Lasagna (plus bread)

feeds 8-12 adults, depending on appetite
2 gallons plus 2 cups milk
1/2 tablet rennet (can be found at New England Cheesemaking Supply Company along with equipment)
1/4 cup water, preferrably filtered so there's no chlorine in it
3 tsp citric acid
4 tsp kosher or cheese salt
2 tsp dried yeast
1/2 gallon unbleached flour (about)
A blop of canola or other neutral oil
1 lb Italian sausage
4-8 cloves garlic minced
Blop of olive oil
1 onion chopped
1/4-1/2 cup chopped sundried tomatoes
2 28 oz cans Italian tomatoes
2 tsp dried basil (or 2 Tbs fresh basil)
1 tsp oregano
2 bay leaves
1 cup semolina flour
4 eggs
1/2 to 1 cup Italian flat leaf parsley, chopped
2 Tbs butter
half a day of time

Instructions in the account of the day.

We knew it was going to be a pretty solid day of doing stuff, but spent most of the morning putzing about and just enjoying ourselves. Having breakfast out, shopping a little, getting home and making much of Fezzik. It wasn't until we had lunch that I actually started anything.

I know, I know. I'm insane. It's okay. And I'll have to admit that I wasn't really doing this in order to 'make dinner', if I were just going to get dinner ready as expediently as possible, I'd likely have just bought a frozen lasagna from Costco, stuffed it in the oven an hour before anyone was supposed to arrive, bought a nice loaf of French bread and a bag of salad. Walah.

I did it mostly because I was curious and liked getting into the doing of it all. Step by step and everything actually coordinated very well and getting the order right was as important as doing any single item. It was also very, very keen to be able to use all the tools I wanted to use and see how well they worked for the things I'd envisioned them to work well with. And cheesemaking is just weird. Did a mozarella just before leaving for San Diego and it turned out just like store bought. Hard and shiny and chewy and melted pretty well. Not at all like the 'fresh mozarella' sold in tubs of liquid, and that surprised me, some, as I'd expected it to be more like the softer stuff.

Anyway, so at 1 p.m. I started with a gallon of milk in a big pot. Added a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of citric acid and brought it up, slowly, to 190 degrees F, upon which it promptly curded. Masses of white curds in greenish whey, which I was able to then spoon into clean cheese cloth in a strainer over a bowl that caught all the cloudy green liquid. The cloth was then tied at the top and hung over the pot to drain.

I then spooned 6 cups of unbleached flour, the two teaspoons of yeast, and two teaspoons of the salt into my happy, new food processor with the bread blade in it. I turned it on and then gradually poured 105 degree whey (yes, it has to cool at least that much or it'll kill the yeast) into the bowl. Nearly two cups of the stuff go in, in a warm, steady stream and I watched the dough very carefully. I wanted a wet dough, most handmade breads are dry and tough and have a weird crust because the dough is too hard, dry, or it's been kneaded too much because The Joy of Cooking told every housewife that they should make a dough that's smooth and pliable and knead it for a good ten minutes until it's rubbery. For a crisp, chewy crust and tender soft interior, bread dough must be nearly too wet to handle, I certainly wouldn't want to knead it by hand. Yeast needs only a relatively small amount of gluten for the structural integrity of the holes in bread, not nearly as much as ten minutes of stoic kneading would produce. So I just let the processor go and go and poured warm whey in until the flour came together into a shaggy ball that looked like it'd almost stick to everything in the processor and was more like a gluey yellow-white spider clinging to the glass.

I found a clean bowl, poured a blop of oil in the bowl then plopped the gooey blob of bread dough into the oil. I floured my right hand and smeared the blob into the oil, then turned the whole blob over. Covered the bowl with plastic wrap and left it on the counter. I know, I know, conventional wisdom would put the dough in 'a warm place', like a mildly overheated oven, so that the yeast would make it all blow up like a balloon. I wanted a slower rise, gives the bread more flavor, gives the yeast time to convert sugars to alcohol and CO2 and add flavor to the whole mass. Besides, I had other things to do.

The cheese had hung about an hour by now, so I pulled the cheesecloth off it, and plopped it into a bowl in the refridgerator. Onto the next cheese! I spent some time cleaning up, washing off the food processor, the cheese pot, the cheese cloth, the thermometer for the milk temps, and the big wooden spoon I'd used for stirring. I'd bought the Big Wooden Spoon at the local restaurant supply and I've been using it ever since. Big enough for good leverage and good stirring capacity, small enough to fit into all my pots and not flip out. It was really, really nice to use as a kind of oar through the curds for the cheeses.

Another gallon of milk into the now clean pot. Crush half a tablet of rennet in a quarter cup of clean water. Turn on the heat to medium, sprinkle two teaspoons of citric acid on top. Heat. At about 88 degrees, add the dissolved half a tablet of rennet, heat to about 104 and suddenly the pot is filled with firm, white curds. Using the Big Spoon (or a slotted spoon'll work just fine), spoon all the curds out of the whey into a bowl. I then pressed the mass together with a clean hand and drained all the liquid back into the pot. The next bits are kinda wierd. I put the bowl into the microwave for a full minute, then, when it came out, more whey had come out and the mass was gooey. I started using the wooden spoon to knead the mass of curds into a singularity, poured off the whey and then nuked it again for about 30 seconds. This time the mass started to stretch and knead into something smooth and pliable, so I added the teaspoon of salt into the early bits of the kneading. The instructions said to do it again, but at this altitude, I think the curds dry out faster. So I didn't and the mass pretty much became a twelve ounce ball of moz. Into the fridge with that. The whey went down the drain, and I cleaned up for the next step.

The bread dough, by now, was a good doubled in size. I floured the counter and my hands and gingerly rolled it out, flattened it to get most of the air out. Punching it down is the technical term, I guess, but I didn't punch much. I then rolled it onto itself, jellyroll style and put the seam side down on a greased cookie sheet. The plastic from the bowl went on the dough and I let that just rise.

The pound of sausage got dumped into a Dutch oven, and was browned as I smashed garlic, chopped onions and let the knife chew through the sundried tomatoes as much as possible. I pulled out the meat when it was browned, poured off most of the fat and then dumped the garlic in with a blop of olive oil. When the garlic was giving off a nice, nutty aroma, I added the onions and sundried tomatos and sauted the whole until I could smell the caramel off the tomatoes and the onions were good and browned. In went the cans of tomatos, along with their juices; the can of paste was stirred in; and then the oregano and basil went in, the dried herbs being crushed, the fresh were just chopped. Two bay leaves stirred in and then the whole pot was set on the back burner (which, on our stove is lower heat) and left to simmer.

I put the oven on 400 and slashed the top of the now risen (and about twice the size) loaf with a very sharp knife.

By now my legs were sore and it was about an hour to the time people were arriving. A cup of semolina, a cup of regular flour on the counter top. I then thought a bit and found my pasta rolling pin (18 inches of dowel from a closet hanger pole) and my dough scraper, which is a flexible piece of plastic about as big as my palm, probably the best two dollar purchase I've ever made for all doughy things. Pasta making is sometimes a bit like mud pie making. I just made a well in the mound of flours and cracked the eggs into the well, took a fork to beat the eggs up and then gradually started working flour into the eggs. I had to be really careful not to make the walls break down at first, so there wouldn't be egg everywhere on the counter, but eventually the stuff combined enough to make a sort of dough. When I'd worked all the flour on the counter into the dough, with lots of intermediate scraping to get the stuff off the counter, I then started adding more white flour until I had a good, solid, stiff dough. Unlike bread dough, you want as much gluten as possible in pasta, so that the noodles will hold their shape when they're cooked, and the boiling water pretty much just firms up the proteins instead of washing away all the starches. So I kneaded the mass, adding a little flour if it stuck anywhere, for about ten minutes.

The oven was at 400 when I was done with that, so I stuffed the bread into the oven and sprayed the interior with water, so that there was steam to set the crust. I kept spraying it every three minutes through the next stage of the pasta and then put the oven down to 375 to let the interior bake.

I then started rolling the mass of pasta dought out. It has to be thin enough to see through, at least, and the thinner the better, on the most part, though with lasagna, a thicker noodle isn't a bad thing. Roll, roll, roll. And then the cool trick of actually stretching the dough on the longer pasta pin by smoothing the dough out to the ends of the pin as you picked it up with the pin. It's harder to describe than show, but it basically stretches the center portion of the dough out to the sides and when I roll on the stretched dough everything gets bigger, nearly magically. The power of protein! It holds it together and makes everything good and stretchy. By the time I thought I was finished, I'd nearly covered the counter with dough. Nearly. I then pulled out our lasagna pan, rough measured and cut the strips. They were all thicker in the center, so I went over all of them with the rolling pin and got most of them to lengthen by nearly a third. That was nice.

I turned the heat off the sauce, put a pot on to boil and while the water was coming to a boil, I pulled the cheese out of the refrigerator. I grated the mozarella and mixed the chopped parsley with the ricotta. I then stuck the butter into my saucier and added two tablespoons of flour and cooked up a roux, when it was smelling mildly nutty, I then poured milk into it while stirring madly with a whisk until it was 'right', thick enough to coat, thin enough to stir and pour. Bechemel is a useful topping substance as it browns as well as cheese does, but it doesn't get tough or as steel-like in crust as browned cheese. Then I boiled each of the wide noodles, two at a time, they only took about two minutes before they floated to the surface, which is about when I pulled them out and dunked them in ice water. Then squeegeed them off and put them, cold, in a bowl.

So, while the Goodells pulled into the driveway, I layered sauce, noodles, and cheese happily. Topped it off with the white sauce and then slid it into the oven and pulled the bread out to sit on a cooling rack. We then all sat down and talked for a while. John got everyone drinks, I sat down for the first time that afternoon and Joan, Ray, and Ray's mom and their new baby all sat down and just talked for a while. John took them on a tour of the house, including the new basement and then the buzzer went off.

John threw together the salad while the lasanga got to sit and coagulate a little. Really hot lasagna doesn't really cut or piece neatly, giving it just five or ten minutes is enough to make serving it a lot easier. Everything turned out really yummy. The noodles were tender, the sauce was rich and tasty and I could feel the texture of the various cheeses throughout the dish. That was really, really good. The bread was crusty and crunchy on the outside and tender on the inside and it sopped up the juices from the lasagna really well. Yay! Homemade lasagna! What fun.

The Goodells brought apple pie and ice cream and it was very, very yummy dessert as well. It was really fun to just sit and talk and catch up with their lives since the baby was born and their teenager had just graduated from high school. Quite the gamut, there. But fun, too. Lots of different things happening with them and it was just very nice to find it all out and just talk quietly for a while.

As usual, the party ended earlish and it was very nice to just sit and knit while John went and did all the dishes and cleaned up the last of the things. There wasn't that much to clean up, which was also nice. Just some peace and quiet and resting after a really fun day.

I guess, for me, cooking is often a moving meditation. Something complex enough that my mind has to grasp it and can't flail with the worries or concerns of the everyday. Yet it's also simple enough that I don't have to engage really high scale thinking and don't burn out the very parts that are overworked from work. So it's balanced and nice and useful. Something I care about and that rewards the effort with a pleasure that can be shared. That's very nice indeed.

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