Sweet Christmas Eve Lasagna
My father was born in Barile, Provincia di Potenza, Basilicata. His father was from Bari. My grandmother and my mother always made their lasagna with eggs mixed in the ricotta, and with sugar and cinnamon. We ate this with the meatballs layered in between, and with tomato sauce. I never liked this lasagna, and when I married I started making it without the sugar and cinnamon. I married a man from Naples who doesn’t like my family’s way of cooking.
I was wondering if this was a recipe that was brought over from Italy. My mother seems to think that my grandmother mistook nutmeg for cinnamon, and that we just carried it on. But why the sugar? I love trying to find out Italian customs. Thanks for any info.
My own mother is not a nostalgic person, very far from it actually, but every once in a while she gets sentimental about some old family recipe that I’ve never heard of, and she hits me with memories of a fabulous-sounding Southern Italian concoction that makes me crazy with desire, hearing about it but never tasting it. So many interesting dishes from early Italian immigrants have slipped away, leaving, it seems, a kind of generic, boring idea of what Italian-American cooking is all about. Sad, but I suppose inevitable, with the passing of years and generations. But of course, that is exactly the reason I started “Lost Recipes Found,” because this type of loss makes me unhappy.
Such a situation occurred a few years ago when, out of the blue, my mother started reminiscing about a sweet ravioli her grandmother used to make for Christmas, a beautiful and unusual-sounding thing, flavored with cinnamon and sugar, but nonetheless served as a first course, not a dessert. My mother is a very good cook, but homemade ravioli was a little out of her league. (Believe me, I didn’t mind at the time. I was just as happy having her throw a steak on the grill and stir up a batch of negronis, which I was allowed, for better or for worse, once I turned sixteen.) But this large ravioli, filled with ricotta and flavored with sugar, cinnamon, black pepper, and parmigiano, made by her Sicilian grandmother, was an idea that haunted me, so I badgered her for details and finally got enough information to reconstruct it according to her fairly intact recollection.
And boy was it good, so good I including the recipe in my book The Flavors of Southern Italy. And then last week I get this e-mail from Rita describing a lasagna from Bari that sounds like it would taste very similar to my great-grandmother’s wonderful dish.
It’s hard to trace food origins for certain, and I’m no historian, but I do know that Southern Italian cooking is dotted with strange creations, including savory dishes that have unexpected tinges of sweetness to them. Sweet-and-spice-laced pastas were standard in medieval times, when dishes were devised for the rich to show off their ability to purchase costly spices, such as sugar, black pepper, saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, and vestiges of these foods remain in the contemporary repertoire. In Sicily, where it’s believed pasta got its start in Italy, the Arab influence was apparent in the use of almonds, rose water, and dried fruit, as well as spices and sugar.
The use of spices in Italian cooking has fallen off a lot, in both the north and the south, Italians seeming to prefer the freshness of herbs instead, but fragments of these flavors still punctuate many dishes, especially in the deep south. In Sicily some contemporary fish dishes, such as pasta con le sarde which incidentally is seasoned with almonds and saffron, are often topped with sweetened breadcrumbs, and sweet pastry encases savory fillings such as in the salami and provolone stuffed pizza rustica we always have for Easter, which also frequently incorporates hints of nutmeg and cinnamon. A strange mix of flavors, you’d think, but it all makes sense on the tongue. And the most interesting thing about some of these surviving dishes is the way they’ve evolved to include New World touches. My mother’s sweet ravioli, for instance, was always served with a tomato sauce, as was Rita’s lasagna.
The note from Rita got me thinking about how much I love the Southern Italian mix of sweet and savory. And it reminded me that Christmas Eve is only a week away, and for various family-related and emotional reasons, I haven’t yet focused on what I am going to be cooking. I know it’s going to be a very pared-down affair this year, not the big fish extravaganza I usually do. I’ve started playing around with Rita’s lasagna idea, coming up with a meatless version suitable for Christmas Eve. With all the sweetness and spices, it tastes very Christmasy to me. I’ve taken out the meatballs but added instead toasted almonds, an Arab-Sicilian touch, and I’ve also included an abundant amount of fresh basil, along with the cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar, and a lightly cooked, uncomplicated tomato sauce to pull it all together. I think I’ll make it.
Rita says she never liked her family’s sweet lasagna. Possibly she needs to try it again with a fresh palate. Maybe her Neapolitan husband will even go for this one.
Merry Christmas to all.
Even though this is a meatless lasagna, the spices and sugar make it rich. I would serve it as a first course.
(Serves 6 or 7 as a first course)
For the filling:
1 1/2 pounds whole-milk ricotta
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons powdered sugar
1/8 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A large handful of flat-leaf parsley, the leaves lightly chopped
For the sauce:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 medium shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
A generous pinch of ground nutmeg
A splash of brandy or cognac
2 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes, chopped, one can drained
Freshly ground black pepper
A few basil leaves, lightly chopped
3/4 pound homemade, or very thin store-bought, sheets of fresh lasagna
1 cup blanched almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
A large handful of basil leaves, lightly chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling
In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients for the filling. It should be slightly sweet but with a salty edge from the cheese. Be liberal with the black pepper; it serves to balance out the sweet spices.
In a large skillet, heat the 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the butter over medium heat. Add the shallots and the nutmeg, and sauté until the shallots are softened, about 4 minutes. Add the splash of brandy or cognac, letting it boil away. Add the tomatoes, and season with salt and black pepper. Let the sauce bubble, uncovered, for about 10 minutes. It will have thickened slightly but still have a fresh taste and bright color. Add the basil.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Set up a large pot of pasta-cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt. Boil the lasagna sheets, a few at a time, until just tender. Scoop them from the water with a large strainer spoon and into a colander. Run cold water over them to stop the cooking, and lay them out on kitchen towels.
Lightly oil an approximately 9-by-12-inch baking dish (you’ll want it 2 1/2 to 3 inches deep). Put down a layer of tomato sauce and then a layer of pasta. Add a layer of the ricotta mix, and then scatter on some almonds, some parmigiano, and then some of the basil. Put down another layer of pasta, and cover it with tomato sauce. Make another pasta layer, and repeat the ricotta, almond, parmigiano, basil pattern. Repeat this pattern (you’ll probably get four layers of pasta), finishing with a layer of pasta, a layer of tomato, and a sprinkling of parmigiano. Drizzle the top with olive oil, and bake, uncovered, until bubbling and crisp around the edges, about 30 minutes. Let sit about 5 minutes before serving.