Lasagna from Hell

I would like to apologize for not posting anything yesterday. My intentions were good, but apparently the road to hell is paved with homemade pasta. Lots of homemade pasta, as it turns out.

Last week my youngest son turned 13. This momentous occasion was prologued earlier in the week by me asking, quite innocently, what he would like for his birthday dinner. Now Jacob, if nothing else, is a consistent child. This question has always been answered with a request for baked macaroni and cheese. To which I ask if he’s sure, and he always is. Except this time.

Now, my baked macaroni and cheese is quite good (recipe at end of article). Over the years I have refined this simple dish to the point that I get slightly annoying requests to bring it to parties and family gatherings where I would prefer showing off with a fancier offering. It is good, but doesn’t merit being much more than a side dish in my estimation. It is, after all, macaroni and cheese. Even so, I was surprised when Jake asked if we could make some pasta instead.

After some discussion, we settle on baked lasagna with fresh homemade pasta. Due to the amount of time required, his big dinner was postponed until the weekend and we were off to a local brewpub for pizza on his actual birthday. It was beer drinking time and the livin’ was easy.

Then Saturday arrived, and eventually brought reality with it. We ran out and got tomatoes and meat and fresh herbs, everything we would need. If you are going to take the time to make fresh pasta, shouldn’t the sauce all be from scratch, too? Of course! How much longer could it take?

The afternoon started off great. Jake and I were happily plunging romas into boiling water, making oregano infused garlic comfit, chopping peppers and onions, and discussing our plan of attack for the pasta. The kitchen is staying relatively clean and we’re having the sort of goofy conversation that is only possible with a 13 year old kid. Soon we have a wonderful smelling sauce bubbling away happily on the stove. Then it came time to make the pasta.

Now, I can state with full confidence that I am a good cook. In fact, I am not bragging when I say that I know that I am very good. This knowledge leads to a certain hubris that makes me believe that I can cook anything, and that I can do it well. For the record, pasta and hubris do not mix. Pasta making is a skill, and a skill that requires many hours of practice. Mario Batali effortlessly takes a mountain of flour, a few eggs, and a little olive oil and creates masterpieces on every show. Certainly a cocky culinary school drop-out such as myself can pull it off, right? The thing is, I know better. I’ve done this before and I know that, barring some sort of divine intervention having occurred as I slept, my pasta making skills are still as rudimentary as they were the last time I got out my hand cranked Imperio machine.

I can pinpoint the exact moment everything went to hell. I had a mound of flour on the counter top, Jake had cracked three eggs into the well I had created in the middle and he was beating some olive oil into a fourth egg to add to the well. As Jacob pours the last egg into the middle I warn him to be careful so that nothing escapes the fragile flour confines. None does, he has performed his duties perfectly. I grab a fork to start mixing in the eggs and inadvertently knock a hole in the wall of flour. Egg starts to escape. As I calmly (hubris again?) begin repairs, my hand betrays me yet again and I knock down the opposing wall. I now have egg flowing towards the canister set to the back and to the floor in the front. I abandon the fork and start furiously mixing with my hands. There is a reason that this is not the technique proposed by the pasta masters. It really doesn’t work very well.

What I ended up with after my heroic salvage efforts was a very dry, crumbly ball that in no way looked like the gifted hands of Mario Batali had touched it. In fact, it looked more like something the cat had made in the corner than something that we would be eating later. After an hour of adding eggs, adding oil, adding water, even adding wine, and kneading until we had something that finally resembled a ball of dough, Jake had had enough. He was off playing with his friends and I was left to clean up the disaster area and make lasagna sheets.

Eventually, after letting it rest, adding more moisture, and a lot more kneading, I managed to get the dough through the rollers and assembled the lasagna. If the old saying is true that all is well that ends well, then this story has a happy ending. The meal was a hit.

Jake had a few friends in attendance, all of whom had second and third helpings as my son told them that it was all homemade. They asked about how we had made the pasta and the sauce, etc. I think I had them believing that I had killed the cow and the pig for the meat myself, although I may have gone too far when I described having to bite the vicious pig’s jugular vein because it was him or me, and I had dropped my knife.

What does all that have to do with wine? Not a hell of a lot. However, I did have a nice Sangiovese along with the meal. It was a 2004 from Niner Wine Estates in Paso Robles. While definitely not a Chianti, it went very nicely with the meal. It had a lot of big, rich, dark fruit flavors and just the right amount of oak for my tastes. If I had a complaint, it would be that it was possibly a little too tannic.

All-in-all, it was a successful day. I had fun with my newly teened son, something that gets rarer at that age. We all enjoyed a tasty meal. I had a good wine and got to lie to some kids.

Okay, as promised, my macaroni and cheese recipe.

Take one package of macaroni and cook it one minute less than the package says. Drain, rinse, etc. Then toss half of a stick of butter into your pan over medium heat. When the butter stops foaming, but before it gets any color, incorporate two tablespoons of flour. Stir it around every 30-60 seconds until you see it loosen. This means that it is cooked. Pour in a bottle of strong, dark ale and whisk until smooth. Turn your heat up a couple of notches and add a good healthy splash of heavy cream. When it starts to simmer lower the heat back to medium and start adding some strong, sharp cheese until the sauce is thick and cheesy. Stir in a few squirts of Dijon mustard and the sauce is done.

Add the macaroni back into the pan, mix well and pour into a baking pan. Season with some fresh ground pepper, sprinkle more cheese over the top, and cover with a generous amount of cornflake crumbs. Drizzle with melted butter and pop it into a 375 degree oven. Bake until the top is golden brown and then let sit on the counter for 15 minutes.

My suggestion is to forget the wine with this and just go with the same kind of beer you used in the recipe.

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