Lasagne alla bolognese

As much as I love Rome, my top Italian city is not the home of the Coliseum and Piazza Navona, but rather the land of tortellini, portici, and le due torri, the city all the way up North also known as Bologna. I know, I know -- Bologna may not boast the history and grandeur of Rome, but it is undoubtedly my citta' nel cuore, or the city in my heart, a place that holds immeasurable sentimental value for me. I spent my junior year of college (that's the third year, for you non-Americans) in Bologna nearly a decade (!!!) ago. I lived in a homestay, was a student at the Università di Bologna, and traveled not only in Italy but also Europe; I really learned Italian, in that way that is possible only once you leave the classroom and go to the country; I met wonderful people who became wonderful friends I still have all this time later. It was a lovely, exciting time in my life, one where I was navigating a city for the first time, was living off on my own as an adult (though without the worries of paying bills, working, or paying rent -- ahh, student life!), and was meeting not only Italians but people from all over the world who taught me so much. Every day was an adventure, and I loved it. See for yourself:

But wait, there's more! Bologna also gave me an incredibly rich culinary education, teaching me all about not only food in Italy but also la cucina bologneseIn Bologna, I ate tortellini the size of my thumb nail, served in an ultra flavorful broth; I fell in love with piadine, or flatbread with the filling of your choice; I learned about crescentine and tigelle, gramigna and tagliatelle; and then, most importantly of all: lasagne alla bolognese.

A bit about lasagne -- there's more than one way to make it in Italy. In Liguria, it's made with basil pesto; in Naples, there's a crazy rich version made around Carnevale, complete with meatballs, ragù, hard-boiled eggs, and ricotta. In Bologna, lasagne consists of sheets of homemade pasta layered with ragù, béchamel, and Parmesan cheese, and it's the very, very best one that I know, one that I fell madly in love with during my time there. The emphasis here is not so much on the cheese but rather on the ragù, which is a whole different story in itself -- every bolognese cook has a different idea of what ragù should be like, and the recipe for this can vary greatly. Some are heavier on the tomato than others, some are made with milk, some use beef while others use a combination of beef, pork, veal, or even pancetta; there are recipes that use white wine, while others opt for red, and in short, everyone thinks their recipe is the best and right one.

So! Just in time for Christmas, here's my recipe for lasagne alla bolognese, the primo piatto served at my house every 25th of December. It's a dish that is comfy and familiar but still manages to be festive and special at the same time; here we've got layer up on layer of pasta tucked amongst a rich, meaty rag
ù, silky bechamel, and lots of sharp flavorful Parmesan, and the whole thing is a dream to eat. Preparing this is quite possibly my favorite holiday ritual (move aside, gingerbread men!) and though I don't live in Bologna anymore, a bite of this brings me right back to my blissful days there as a student. And wait just a second! If the recipe feels a bit lengthy to you, well, it is, but fear not – none of this is difficult. The ragù is just a matter of chopping, mixing, and simmering, the béchamel comes together in a snap, and then all that remains is a little layering and baking. The hardest part will be waiting for the lasagna to be cool enough to eat. And coming to terms with the fact that leftovers are unlikely, of course. 

A couple of notes: Feel free to use all beef here instead of pork and veal, if you'd like. The milk in the sauce may sound weird, but it's something my cooking teacher in Bologna used to do; it tenderizes the meat and breaks it down. That being said, if it seems too odd to you, feel free to leave it out. I used no-boil noodles here to keep things simple -- and I happen to also really like them -- which is what we all need around the holidays, but feel free to use your own homemade pasta or the noodles that you boil first, if you prefer. Finally, this recipe will serve about 6-8, but feel free to up the quantities as I do if you're feeding a crowd at Christmas. 


Looking for other cozy pasta dishes? I've got this cacio e pepe, this butternut squash lasagne, pasta e ceci, this pasta with tomato, butter, and onion sauce, and this pici with sausage ragu'.

LASAGNE ALLA BOLOGNESE


Ingredients for Ragù:
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
8 ounces (224 grams) ground veal

8 ounces (224 grams) ground pork
8 ounces (224 grams) ground beef
3/4 cup (102 grams or 185 mL) whole milk
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) red wine

1 can crushed tomatoes (28-32 ounces)

Ingredients for Béchamel:
3 tablespoons (32 grams) of butter
3 tablespoons (24 grams) of flour
3 cups (750 mL) whole milk

A pinch of salt

To assemble:

15 sheets no-boil lasagna noodles
2 cups (240 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Directions:
Over medium heat, heat enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of a large saucepan and sauté the carrot, celery, and onion until softened but not browned. Add the pork, veal, and beef and cook, breaking the meat up as much as you can with a wooden spoon until lightly browned -- season with a little salt and pepper. Add the wine and let it cook down and evaporate for 10 or so minutes. Next, lower the heat on the stove and add the milk, and let the beginnings of your sauce simmer for 35-40 minutes. After this, stir in the crushed tomatoes and bring the ragù to a bubble, then reduce the heat cook until sauce is thickened, about 40 minutes, stirring to make sure the sauce doesn’t cook too much on the bottom. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

While the meat sauce cools, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and whisk the flour. Let the flour and butter cook for a minute or so, then whisk in the milk and bring it to a bubble. Add the salt and let the milk mixture cook a few minutes more, or until the béchamel is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.  

Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix a generous ladle-ful of béchamel into the ragù until thoroughly combined.

Spread a little of the ragù over the bottom of the baking dish. Place 3 pasta sheets in a single layer on top of sauce, positioning them to fit the pan. Spread about 1 cup meat sauce evenly over the pasta (a ladle-ful plus a bit more) and drizzle with some béchamel, about 1/3 cup. Sprinkle some Parmesan over the béchamel, about 1/3-1/2 cup. Repeat this layering of the pasta, ragù, bechamel, and Parmesan cheese 3 more times. Place final 3 pasta sheets on top of the lasagna, and cover completely with remaining béchamel and Parmesan. Note that you may not use all of the ragù, so just serve along side your lasagne if you'd like.
Cover the lasagne with aluminum foil and bake until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and continue to bake the lasagna until the parmesan and béchamel have browned, about 10-15 minutes. Let the lasagna cool a bit before slicing and serving. Enjoy!



Gingerbread Shortbread

If cookies had their own Season -- no different than Summer, Winter, Spring or Fall -- it would, most certainly, be the month of December (in case you were wondering: chocolate season is in February; ice cream season in August. Obviously.) December leads us right up to Christmas, the most festive time of the whole year that subsequently demands cookies, and lots of them, to be baked, exchanged, and eaten, preferably with a mug of hot chocolate nearby. Cookie Season includes (but is by no means limited to) everything from gingerbread men to jammy linzer stars, iced sugar cookies to cinnamon-y snickerdoodles, chocolate chip, oatmeal, and peanut butter cookies, pecan sandies, rugelach, and Russian tea cookies (also known as Mexican wedding cookies -- a cookie with an identity crisis). My mom bakes up almond, white chocolate, and apricot cantucci every year; my grandmother churns out batches of fig stuffed cookies from Calabria called nepitelle and shatter-y anise scented pizzelle; I myself opt for these brownie cookies and these crazy chocolate chunk cookies. Bottom line: there is no one way to do Cookie Season, just be sure to bake a lot of whatever you love most.

So! Having said all this, here's my new favorite cookie, one I will most certainly give away in tins as a gift, if I don't change my mind at the last minute and keep them for myself (Merry Christmas to me!) -- this, my friends, is gingerbread shortbread. Now: these are rather simple in appearance -- no rainbow sprinkles or glint of sea salt or melt-y chocolate puddles here -- but don't judge a cookie by its cover! These cookies pack a serious punch, and are more chic than plain, an understated, elegant kind of addition to your cookie repertoire. They're buttery and crumbly and a tiny bit salty, but also spicy and fragrant, the usual ginger bolstered by cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg, with a hint of deep moody molasses. Think of these as shortbread, all dressed up for the holidays, or gingerbread, on a trip to the UK. Most of these were gobbled up by a group of Italians (who generally shy away from anything with cinnamon or spice); two more taste tasters deemed they tasted "just like Christmas;" my sister said that it was impossible to eat just one; they make your whole apartment smell incredible; they're a piece of cake to make, a slice-and-bake kind of deal. I'd go on here, but I'm pretty sure you've already stopped reading this and headed to your kitchen to bake these, haven't you?!

A couple of notes: In the original recipe, there is also the addition of 1/8 teaspoon cardamom (I didn't have any on hand) plus dried cranberries, to be mixed in to the batter at the end (I wanted to keep my cookies plain). Feel free to add either or both of these as you wish. Interestingly, I found that on the first day I baked these, they were more gingerbread than shortbread; when I baked the rest of the dough two days later, the buttery shortbread flavor was a lot more pronounced and these were more shortbread than gingerbread. In any case, the roll of dough for these can most certainly be made in advance; the dough is easy to cut straight from the fridge. 

Looking for other gingerbread recipes? I've got this classic gingerbread, this gingerbread cake, these chocolate gingerbread bars, and these gingerbread cookies. Looking for other recipes with shortbread? I've got these classic shortbread cookies and this pear and chocolate tart with a shortbread crust.

GINGERBREAD SHORTBREAD
Recipe barely adapted from www.rachelcooks.com

Ingredients:
2 sticks (8 ounces or 250 grams) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup (120 grams) powdered sugar
2 tablespoons molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 and 1/3 cups (about 305 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Directions:
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, powdered sugar, molasses, vanilla, and salt until smooth. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour and spices. Gradually add the flour/spice mixture and mix on low until combined. On wax paper or parchment paper, form into a 12- to 14-inch log and freeze at least 30 minutes or until firm. Alternatively, you can also refrigerate this until cold. 

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350°F. Cut the shortbread dough into 1/4-inch slices and bake for 11-14 minutes on parchment lined baking sheets. Makes 25-30 cookies (really depends on thickness though). 



Where to Get the Best Sweets in Rome

I've written more than a few posts on my Favorite Places in the Eternal City for this blog; for starters, I've told you lots about my preferred places to dine out, plus my favorites in the Monti, Testaccio, and Prati neighborhoods; I've told you where I go when I want to to eat a good panino, and where I pay a visit around Christmas, not to mention my top ways to spend a few days when I have some time offBut nowhere (nowhere!) on the blog is there a post about where I choose to go to satisfy my sweet tooth (!!!)

How is this possible?! After all, this is not a blog that shies away from sweets -- on the contrary! Having said that, Rome is far more renowned for its bucatini all'amatriciana or its suppli' than it is for its desserts. Unlike Naples or Sicily or Torino -- places in Italy famous for dolci, everything from babà al rum to cannoli to bonet -- Rome has no characteristic dessert, no signature end to a meal. Eager to get to the bottom of this matter, I went straight to my culinary guru, the all-knowing, ever-so-wise Carla Tomasi, who, as I predicted, had an answer to my query. Carla explained that Rome had never had a court, and therefore, a "court cuisine" never developed in the city; Rome had a Pope, sure, but was never occupied by a ruling family like the Bourbons (Naples) the Medici (Florence) or the Savoia (Piedmont region). According to Carla, a more elevated cuisine, complete with desserts, developed in Italy when in the presence of nobles. Interesting indeed.

So! In light of all this, the places suggested here -- with the exception of one -- do not exemplify typically Roman sweets, but are delicious nonetheless, exactly where to go in the capital when only a cookie or a piece of cake will do. They are especially appropriate as we approach Christmas, when sweets (hot chocolate! Christmas cookies!) tend to enhance the holiday spirit. Ehem: 

CHARLOTTE PASTICCERIA
Address: Via Vercelli 12
Ahh, Charlotte! This pasticceria -- located just a short walk from the Re di Roma metro stop -- is not only my favorite bakery in Rome, its also one of my very favorite places in the capital all together. The desserts are not typically Italian -- you'll find everything here from cookies to cheesecake -- but appreciated all the more by an American like myself. The pastry chef is Claudia Martelloni, who is purely self taught (no formal training!!!) which is downright remarkable when you see what she is capable of. Highlights include, but are not limited to: the Snickers, or rather a dark chocolate brownie, topped with caramel, covered in a crunchy milk chocolate peanut shell, and garnished with peanut butter cream; the Tiziana, or milk chocolate and dark chocolate mousses with a raspberry center, covered in chocolate, with a crisp hazelnut cookie base; and their individually portioned cheesecakes, which are too pretty to eat and change according to the season. Charlotte also serves some of the best tiramisu I've ever had, plus a variety of brightly colored, incredibly tasty macarons, salted caramel chocolate cookies, and a variety of tiny, perfect tarts (lemon meringue is my favorite). Number one on my list: Claudia takes whatever fruit is in season (everything from pears to figs to apples) and recreates them as dessert. What seems like an apricot (pictured below) for example, is actually vanilla mousse with a jammy apricot center, encased in a white chocolate shell masterfully decorated to look just like an apricot (click here to get the full effect). I can't say enough good things about this place. Bonus: Charlotte sells big take away cups of American-style coffee, if that's your thing; the staff couldn't be nicer. Fun fact: Charlotte is named after Claudia's adorable King Charles Spaniel, the bakery mascot. Credit for a few of the photos below goes to Charlotte. 
Photo credit to Charlotte Pasticceria
Photo credit to Charlotte Pasticceria
Photo credit to Charlotte Pasticceria
Photo credit to Charlotte Pasticceria
Photo credit to Charlotte Pasticceria


S.A.I.D - ANTICA FABBRICA DEL CIOCCOLATO
Address: Via Tiburtina 135
Opened all the way back in 1923 by a family of chemists -- who decided to making chocolate instead of medicine -- S.A.I.D is a chocolate lover's dream come true; it's like a chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory come to life; it's all you've ever wanted any more. At S.A.I.D (pronounced SAI-EED) you'll find chocolate cake, brownies, cookies, truffles, and chocolate spread in a variety of flavors; they sell everything from the classic Italian gianduiotti and cremini to more creative chocolates made with cardamom, curry, or even black tea and mint. The standout for me, though, is the hot chocolate -- S.A.I.D serves up cioccolata calda, or hot chocolate, Italian-style, thick and rich and served with a spoon, made with either milk chocolate or dark chocolate. It is stellar, deliciously cozy, and just what you want on a cold December day. Fun fact: S.A.I.D stands for S.A.I.D, or Societa' Anonima Industria Dolciaria, or rather the anonymous confectionery factory society (not sure what the story is behind the "anonymous" bit but it sounds mysterious). Bonus: Some of the old machinery used in S.A.I.D's early days are on display inside the shop. 
 


IL MARITOZZARO
Address: Via Ettore Rolli 50
Remember what I said at the beginning of this post, about how Rome sort of did have a characteristic dolce of its own? That would be the maritozzo, which, while more breakfast pastry than dessert, definitely falls into the "sweet" category. Maritozzi are light, yeasted buns (sometimes with the addition of pine nuts, orange zest, or raisins) that are brushed with a sugar syrup once out of the oven, then split and stuffed with freshly whipped cream (drooling yet?) The best maritozzi in the city come from Il Maritozzaro, a place that, as the name suggests, takes maritozzi quite seriously. The maritozzi sold here are freshly baked, plain, with no raisins or nuts or extra flavorings; the cream is fluffy and cloud-like and piled very high, making for the very most opposite of a light breakfast, but oh-so-worth it. Be warned, however: Il Maritozzaro can sometimes be a bit unpredictable, in terms of hours and, um, being open; I have gone before to find it closed (?) for no reason at all. As a word of advice, try calling before you go to make sure you will actually be able to get your maritozzo fix. Bonus: Il Maritozzaro is run by identical twins, Mauro and Emilio Agostini, the coolness of which is note lost on an identical twin like myself.  Fun fact: Wondering where that weird name comes, from, by the way? My Maritozzi 101 studies taught me that the name maritozzo comes from the word marito, which means "husband" in Italian. Legend has it that way back in the day, Italian men offered these treats to their fiancees on the first of March, or what we now celebrate as Valentine's Day. 
Photo courtesy of www.instagram.com/maritozzaro



BISCOTTIFICIO INNOCENTI
Address: Via della Luce 21
Located in the picturesque, postcard-like neighborhood of Trastevere, this cookie shop -- a family business, run by four generations of women in the Innocenti family -- sells the best biscotti in the capital. Now: if you're looking for cookies that are buttery, fudge-y, or slightly under-baked (I'm looking at you, fellow Americans!) then you're in the wrong place. Biscottificio Innocenti sells cookies done the Italian way, i.e crisper and on the lighter side, meant to be dipped in tea or even acceptable at breakfast, and I love them for it. Here you'll find everything from delicate sandwich cookies (filled with Nutella or jam) to super lemon-y limoncini to feather-light meringues to vanilla cookies dipped in bittersweet chocolate. The cookies at the top of my list, though? Brutti ma buoni, or crispy, chewy, meringue and hazelnut cookies that don't look like much (the name translates to "ugly but good") but are downright divine. Bonus: the owner and head baker at Biscottificio Innocenti -- Stefania -- is one of the sweetest, loveliest people you'll ever come across. Fun fact: The huge oven you'll see in the cookie shop goes all the way back to the 1950s (it was purchased by Stefania's mother). It was a huge investment for the time, costing almost as much as an apartment would, but one that certainly paid off. 


FORNO BOCCIONE 
Address: Via del Portico d'Ottavia 1
Head to Rome's Jewish quarter (ghetto ebraico) and -- if you look closely, there's no sign on the door -- you'll find Forno Boccione, a Jewish bakery that makes a show-stopping crostata di ricotta e visciole, or ricotta and sour cherry pie. A little research told me there are many ways to make this dessert, but I think that Forno Boccione has it down to a science: the pie is sliced into generous slabs, not elegant slices -- they're not messing around here, guys -- with a tall, just sweet-enough ricotta filling. The cherries are cooked until soft and jammy, and contrast beautifully with the flavor and color of the ricotta. Note that the shade of pies' exterior can vary from deep golden brown to nearly burnt; never fear! Forno Boccione believes this extra bit of cooking adds to the flavor of the finished crostata, and I'm apt to agree; even when so dark in color, the pastry remains crumbly and eggy and slightly caramelized, and the whole thing is a real treat. Bonus: I desperately want to try and create this dessert at home; stay tuned for a recipe. Fun fact: If you'd like a side of history with your cake, the Forno is right near the Portico d'Ottavia, a structure built by the emperor Augustus in around 27 BC; the portico was restored a little over a year ago.

ZIA
Address: Via Goffredo Mameli 45
Unlike the other selections on this list, Zia is not a bakery or a cookie shop or a chocolate factory, but rather a restaurant, and a spectacular one at that. The dishes at Zia are creative, beautiful, and delicious -- in that way where a telltale hush falls over the table as all parties take their first bite -- and the desserts are no exception. Zia's incredibly talented pastry chef Christian Marasca is responsible for desserts like the the Nocciola (hazelnut) which consists of hazelnut mousse, vanilla caramel, and praline and hazelnut cookie, all encased in a milk chocolate shell finished off with edible gold dust; the Tourbillon (whirlpool) or a buttery, swirly, intensely vanilla-y tart; house made chocolates; or Risolatte with cherries and black garlic, a fancier take on the typical rice pudding, complete with a crackly brulee shell to dig in to. More on the savory side, but still not to be missed are the foie gras macarons that are served at the start of the meal. You can see Christian (who, by the way is all of 25 years old) placing the finishing touches on the Nocciola here; take a look at the final stages of the Tourbillon hereBonus: The staff are some of the nicest, most accommodating people you’ll ever meet. Fun fact: Christian is an expert not only in pastry but also in American barbecue (!!!) You can check out his work here
Photo courtesy of Christian Marasca at www.instagram.com/smokensweets