Perfect Lasagna

“Life starts all over when it gets crisp in the fall.”   – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fall is a celebration of new beginnings.  Many of my friends and I have found ourselves in an unexpected time of transition and change.  We have been blessed with some challenges to help us grow, evolve, and realize the importance of our friends.  Rather than anticipating what the future has in store, we should marvel at what’s happening all around. It’s already November!  Just as nature begins to change and retreat, so do we. We must honor and reflect on these changes so that we can take leaps into the unknown and emerge with opportunities for new adventures.

In my household, lasagna has always been the trademark dish we make for special occasions. Over the years, I’ve learned to master the perfect recipe. Even though there are many steps involved, this lasagna is rewarding to make and simply delicious to eat. I shared my signature lasagna at a recent dinner party to celebrate two of my good friends that are embarking on a new journey of their own. Even though it’s farewell for now, I hope this recipe lasts forever and serves as a reminder of the great times we shared together.

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Ingredients

Simple Bolognese Sauce
2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
2 red or orange bell peppers, finely chopped
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp red pepper flakes
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
1 pound lean ground beef
1/2 pound sweet Italian sausage
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 (32-ounce) cans finely crushed tomatoes
2 tsp sugar
2 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

In a food processor, coarsely puree the onion, garlic, celery, carrot, and bell peppers. Coat a large pan over medium heat with olive oil. Add the puree and season with a dash of salt. Bring the pan to a medium-high heat and cook for about 15 to 20 minute (stirring frequently). Add the ground beef and sweet Italian sausage and cook until browned. Drain any excess fat that has been rendered. Add remaining salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, oregano and thyme. Stir in the tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, sugar, parsley, and Parmesan cheese. Simmer for 2 hours.
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Classic Bechamel Sauce
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, warmed
1/2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese

In a 2 quart saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the flour and whisk continually until smooth, about 3 minutes. You will want to thoroughly cook out the bitter taste of the raw flour.  Continuing to stir, gradually add the warmed milk and whisk until the sauce is smooth and creamy. Simmer for about 5 minutes until the sauce is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Remove from heat and stir in nutmeg, black pepper, and mozzarella. Set aside.
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For the Filling
1 pound lasagna pasta (De Cecco preferred)*
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
3 cups grated mozzarella cheese
10 slices fresh mozzarella cheese
5-6 cups fresh baby spinach leaves
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2 tsp red pepper flakes
*For the pasta, bring 6 quarts of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt (crucial for flavoring the  pasta). Cook for 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Drain, rinse and set pasta aside to dry.

Assembling the Lasagna
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Coat the bottom of the baking dish with sauce to prevent the pasta from sticking.

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Add the first layer of pasta making sure to overlap them slightly.
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Cover the pasta with a generous amount of sauce. This guarantees that the lasagna will not dry out.
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Sprinkle on an even layer of grated mozzarella cheese.
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Spoon on the ricotta cheese as shown. It will melt through evenly.
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Add a layer of fresh baby spinach leaves.
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Drizzle the bechamel sauce over the spinach.
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Add the second layer of pasta and repeat the previous steps three more times.
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For the top layer, add the slices of fresh mozzarella cheese and sprinkle on additional Parmesan cheese, freshly ground black pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes.
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Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees F for one hour. Remove foil and place under broiler for five minutes, until cheese turns slightly brown and bubbly. Pairs perfectly with a good Italian Chianti.
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Antipasti
Prosciutto di Parma, salame piccante, cantaloupe, green olives, fresh bread, Chianti
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Fresh thyme from the garden.
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