Penne al Forno aka Penne “Lasagna.”

This pasta.  I mean, I just can’t even.  I have no words.  From the outside it seems like a basic lasagna recipe.  But oh, it’s so much more.  To this day, it is my favorite, favorite, favorite (there aren’t enough favorites) pasta dish of all time.  It’s everything.  It’s hearty (but not too heavy,) it’s cheesy, it’s meaty (but not too meaty!) it’s, ahhhhh just heavenly.  Rarely in my life have I gone to an Italian restaurant and had something truly sensational.  Except in Sicily.  I don’t like to order meat at Italian joints.  I can make meat at home! I want pasta, pasta, pasta!  However I’m often left unsatisfied.  Maybe it’s because I came from the best of the best.  And that sounds like a snobby thing to say but it’s damn true.  Luciano’s Restaurant in Clinton Township, MI is the ONLY Italian restaurant that held a candle to my family’s cooking.  I still love that place.  I can get a 5 course meal for like $25 too!  It’s also the only restaurant my family ever enjoyed going to growing up-so that says a lot because they never went out to eat!  Where as at my favorite Italian in Nashville…Giovanni, just a dish of pasta is $25 and let’s just say the servings are not that hefty! But it’s amazing.

My dad had 4 older sisters growing up in Sicily and 2 of them moved to Michigan with my dad when they were younger.  So I was fortunate enough be to close to them and appreciate the food they made.  To this day their pizza is still my favorite pizza on the planet.  They are like the Sicilian Iron Chefs!  No joke.

About this pasta.  This has been my favorite pasta since I was a little girl.  For as long as I can remember they’ve been serving this up!  And I always remember thinking…”gosh one day I really need to watch them make this!”  They don’t have too many “written down” recipes so it was hard over the years for me to say “ok please tell me how to make this?” I have to physically watch them carefully and take lots of pictures and notes!  They were here in Nashville over Easter weekend and I FINALLY learned how to make this delicacy.  It’s definitely time consuming.  But a great make-a-head dish!  You can also make the sauce a day or two before which will really help speed up the process.

Let’s start with the meat sauce!  I’ve tried to make meat sauce several different ways over the years and NOTHING has come close to this.  You have to use San Marzano tomatoes.  They are the best.  It’s either been not “saucy” enough.  Too dry.  Too meaty.  Too many carrots.  It’s always been something.  To me, this sauce is as perfect as it gets.  I kept dipping bread into it the whole time it was cooking!  A big secret….total game changer that I never did was add nutmeg to the sauce.  Omg. It’s huge.

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Finely chop 1 carrot, 1 celery stalk and 1/2 of an onion. Add to a large pot.  Then pour in 3 TBS of olive oil.  Sauté over medium low until soft and translucent.  Season well with salt.  
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Add 1/2 lb. of ground pork and 2 lbs. of ground beef sirloin.  With a wooden spoon break up all of the meat until brown.  Season the meat with salt and a couple good shakes of garlic powder.  Now you are ready to add the tomatoes.  
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Add (2) 32oz. cans of tomato puree to the meat.  We couldn’t find 32 oz. cans so you may have to use (3) 28oz. cans and just omit some.  Then add 1/2 can of tomato paste and a 1/2 cup of water.  (I’m not sure how many ounces but it’s the tiny Contadina Tomato Paste.) If the sauce still seems too thick, add just a touch more water.  Add 1 teaspoon of nutmeg.  (Use a microplane zester and grate yourself!!!)  Add a good pinch of oregano, a few leaves of fresh basil, and some black pepper to season.  Stir together and TASTE.  May need more salt, pepper, nutmeg etc.  Use your judgment.  Let the sauce simmer for 2 hours stirring occasionally.  Half way through cooking add 4 TBS of sugar!!!  Taste!  

  When the sauce is finished, taste it!  It may need a little more sugar (if you like it sweeter) or more salt and pepper.  If you do not plan on using this right away….wait until it’s cooled completely and then store in an airtight container in the fridge.  Or stick the whole pot in there and cover with a lid!  Then when you plan on using, warm up on the stove before assembling the pasta.

Whenever you plan on making the Lasagna, continue with the next steps.  This pasta requires not one but TWO different sauces.  A meat sauce and a béchamel sauce.    Béchamel is just amazing.  It consists of flour, butter, milk and nutmeg.  It’s what makes this pasta stand out from the rest.  You cannot make in advance, has to be done right before using.  It’s like a creamy goodness!  I follow Giada’s Béchamel recipe which is almost the same exact as my aunts.  (See below.)  The key to Bechamel is making sure you get it nice and thick and lots of nutmeg!

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Giada’s Recipe.  It’s the best.  
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It will look like this when finished.  See how thick and creamy?  Giada says to use a pinch of nutmeg.  We use a good 1 1/2 teaspoons AT LEAST.  Taste it and see if it needs more at the end.  

Ok!  Not that you have made 2 sauces (phew!)  Time for the easy part.

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Put 1 1/2 lbs. of Ricotta Cheese in a mesh strainer with a bowl underneath.  You want as much liquid absorbed as possible.  Let it sit for about 15 minutes.  Now, a note about Ricotta.  It’s NOT ALL CREATED EQUAL.  Don’t buy the kind in a container.  Go to an Italian Market and get it behind the counter.  Unless you’re like me and don’t have a choice because the South and Italian food are just not with it.  You can get 50 fucking types of hot chicken but I can’t find a decent Italian Market.  Can you tell I’m getting worked up about this?   However I have found a great brand that I honestly can’t even tell the difference.  It’s called Calabro.  Whole Foods carries it.  It’s the closest thing.  Please don’t buy Sargento or Kroger brand.  Please.  It’s wrong.  And if you plan on using cottage cheese, well just pretend you got this recipe from someone else because I don’t want to be associated with that.  
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When all of the liquid is removed from the ricotta, put it in a bowl.  Add one egg, about 1/4 cup of finely chopped parsley and about 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese.  Stir it up!
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Mmmm done!
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There is no right amount of peas.  Grab as many frozen peas as you want.  I think we used a half bag.  Put in a skillet with water a couple pinches of salt and a bay leaf.  Heat over medium low for about 5-7 minutes until soft and fragrant.  
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Boil 1 1/2 pounds of penne noodles.  Or you can also use lasagna noodles.  However if you use the no-bake ones you have to make sure the sauce is a little thinner because they need to absorb liquid!  
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Strain noodles and return them back to pot.  Add a scoopful of the meat sauce so they don’t stick together.  
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Butter a foil pan!  We used a large foil baking pan because of the number of people we had coming.  And to be honest, a basic 9×13 pan is too small and even a lasagna pan is just tight.  This recipe is for a large crowd.  I bought one of those large square roaster pans.  So much easier and you don’t have to worry about it spilling over and the pieces are nice and thick.  You can use a basic glass dish (not 9×13) but if you have a larger one that would work!  You may have some leftover but just make a small batch.  
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Spoon a little bit of sauce over the pan, then add your first layer of noodles.  Spoon sauce over the top.  
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On top of the meat sauce dollop some of the béchamel all over and spread.  You want it completely covered!  Then sprinkle a handful of parmesan cheese and as many peas as your little heart desires.  
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Then, repeat what you just did.  Layer of pasta, layer of meat sauce, layer of béchamel, parmesan cheese and peas.  Lastly, spread a good thick layer of ricotta cheese evenly on top of the peas.  
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Like so!  See that little empty corner?  That’s because my husband hates ricotta cheese.  Unheard of right?
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On top of the ricotta, start your layers again!  Pasta, meat sauce, bechamel, parmesan cheese and peas.  
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Ready to bake!  375 degrees, middle rack for at least 45 minutes to an hour.  
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Mmmmm all done!  Cover with foil and let rest for at least 20 minutes.  
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Enjoy!

RECIPE:  

Meat Sauce

1 LB. Ground Pork

2 LBS. Ground Beef Sirloin

(2) 32 oz cans of Tomato Puree

3oz. of Tomato Paste (half of a oz. can)

1 large Carrot, peeled and finely chopped, 

1 Celery Stalk, finely chopped

1/2 Onion, finely chopped

3 TBS Olive Oil

4 TBS Sugar

1/2 Cup Water

Fresh Basil

Dried Oregano

Salt and Pepper

Garlic Powder

1 TSP freshly grated Nutmeg

In a large pot combine carrots, celery, onion and olive oil.  Saute over medium low until soft and translucent. Season well with salt.

Add the ground beef and pork to the pot.  Raise the heat to medium high and break up with a wooden spoon until cooked.  Season the meat with a few pinches of salt and garlic powder.  When nice and brown, add the tomato puree, 3oz. of tomato paste and 1/2 cup of water.  Stir together.

If sauce seems too thick, add just a little bit more water SLOWLY.  You can always add more but you can’t take away!  Then add a good pinch of oregano, a couple pinches of pepper, a few fresh basil leaves and a teaspoon of nutmeg.

Stir well and simmer for 1 hour.  Then stir in 4 TBS of Sugar. Continue cooking for another hour.  Stirring occasionally.  Taste periodically to see if it needs more salt, pepper, sugar, etc.  These measurements should be pretty accurate however it all depends on what kind of tomato puree you use.  ***Use a good Italian brand!***  Try to get San Marzano if can.  San Marzano is the type of tomato it’s not a brand.  It will say on the front of the can.  Don’t use Hunts or Red Gold.  Yucky yucky.  You want good quality ingredients.  That’s what separates something from being good to being great!  

After you have made the meat sauce, make the Béchamel Sauce.  RECIPE IS ABOVE.  Except add 1 1/2 teaspoons of nutmeg at least.  Taste!

Now that you have the Meat Sauce and Béchamel Sauce done, you can do the rest.  Here is what you will need.

 

Penne al Forno

1 1/2 pounds of penne pasta

Bag of Frozen Peas

1 Bay Leaf

1 1/2 lbs. of Ricotta Cheese, strained

1/4 c finely chopped parsley

1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese, divided

1 egg

Meat Sauce

Bechamel Sauce

In a large bowl combine ricotta cheese, 1 egg, parsley and 1/4 cup of the parmesan cheese.  Stir together and set aside.

Fill a large pan with water and boil the penne to al dente about 6-8 minutes.  Salt the water good.  The pasta will continue cooking in the oven.  When noodles are finished, strain them and pour them back into the pot.  Add a couple spoonfuls of the meat sauce and stir.  This way they won’t stick together and will be easier to work with.

Butter a large foil pan.  Make sure you get up the sides too.

Pour a half bag of peas in a skillet and fill with water until just covered.  Add a bay leaf.  Cook over medium low for about 5-7 minutes until soft and fragrant.

Get everything set up.  Make sure you have both sauces, the noodles, ricotta and parmesan cheese easily accessible.

Spoon a little bit of meat sauce over the bottom of the pan.  Then do a layer of noodles and spread out evenly.  On top of the noodles spoon meat sauce on the top and spread out.  Then dollop Béchamel all over and spread out as well, making sure to completely cover.  Sprinkle a good handful of parmesan cheese over the top and some peas.  As much or as little as you like.  Don’t go crazy now!  Then, repeat the steps again.  (Noodles, meat sauce, bechamel sauce, parmesan cheese and peas.)  After your second layer of noodles, add the ricotta cheese.  Spread it out evenly over the whole pan.  Finally, your last layer.  (Noodles, meat sauce, béchamel sauce, parmesan cheese and peas.)

Aannnnnnd that’s it!  Now you are ready to bake.  375 degrees, middle rack for 45-60 minutes until nice and bubbly and golden brown.  When done, remove from oven and highly cover with foil for at least 20 minutes.  This will ensure when you cut that it doesn’t fall over the place.  It will still be piping hot!

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