*This is an updated version of a project I did previously*
My Layers of Love for Lasagna
The Family Encounter
I don’t remember how young I was, but my great-aunt was the first person to introduce me to a pasta dish called lasagna. My family and I were up at her house for a family gathering and I remember eating this meat sauce and cheese layered “thing.” I didn’t ask what it was called. It was good, and that was all that mattered. When did I learn it was called lasagna? Even that is very hazy. I don’t recall the specific date or time I learned it was called lasagna, but I sure do remember eating it, loving it, and being fascinated by it. The next thing I know, I was asking for “la-ja-nya” during dinner. As I’ve gotten older, my childhood memories have faded – heck, even memories from a few days ago get a little hazy – but I sure know that lasagna wasn’t common on our dinner table. As I’d eat my Korean meal – rice with various ban-chan (side dish) – I’d hear my parents and grandparents talk about their days, the future, upcoming family plans, and the next meals to cook. Those next meals were rarely American, and if they were, my mom would just cook whatever she felt like cooking – usually non-Korean food meant Japanese style curry, mom’s homemade spaghetti, cheese pasta with leftover spaghetti sauce, or chicken stew.
After that first encounter, my great-aunt made lasagna so many times I cannot possibly count them all. Each time, when we were ready to leave her house, she would yell, “Wait!” in a hurry as she would remember about the lasagna she left in the freezer for us. They were cut into cubes and packed in Ziploc bags. She instructed us, “You take one out and put it on the plate. Remember, it has to be microwaveable plate. Ask your mom if you don’t know. Two minutes. Microwave for two minutes, okay? If two minutes is not good, microwave every one minute,” and we’d respond with nods. Now she skips that step. We’re capable enough to at least microwave food.
With my grandparents and brother.
The only other time I remember having lasagna with my family was when my grandmother decided to make it. It was during the summer. Her passion to cook was ignited by my brother and I whining about how much we wanted our “great-aunt’s” lasagna and how we never made it at our home. Next thing you know, she decided to make the lasagna and I remember that that day was her first time making it for us, and she was really confident about it.
I don’t know if she made it for my brother or grandfather before I was born (my brother is six years older), but it’s a day I still remember so well. I was really excited as I watched her boil the pasta and make spaghetti sauce. Then she would take a big aluminum pan and layer it with lasagna noodles and pour the homemade spaghetti sauce over it. On top of that, she would put on another layer of lasagna noodles (this time, perpendicular to the original layer) and then a layer of ricotta cheese. I’d stick around nibbling on a plain pasta noodle and put my hand into the pint of ricotta cheese trying to salvage any leftover smears of cheese. She would continue repeating the process of layering lasagna, sauce, lasagna, ricotta, lasagna, sauce, etc. until it filled to the top of the pan. The final piece would be topped off with shredded mozzarella cheese and it would be popped into the oven until the cheese was toasty and bubbling. However, our oven’s temperature knob fell off so we never had a precise temperature – the only people allowed to touch the oven were my mom and grandma, and maybe my grandpa. They would usually crank it up to whatever degree they thought felt right, but to keep things safe the only thing we’d bake were sweet potatoes and potatoes, and we very rarely baked chicken (that would take so long). The day grandma made lasagna for us was really special... because she hasn’t made it since.
The Personal Encounter
The first time I ever had lasagna at a restaurant was in 2015 at a place called Palma. Looking back on it now, it was such a romantic experience. In part because the setting was just fantastic. It was like a scene right out of a movie, and I think that elevated my mood and perception. My friends and I were sitting in the back room called “The Garden.” There were fresh flowers on the walls and around the room, string lights lit up the see-through ceiling, the table was set with rustic plates, and the colorful tablecloths and candles all came together to create this harmonic ambiance that pulled you into the moment. Once I stepped foot into “The Garden,” I was mesmerized.
My initial idea and construction of lasagna was ragu, ricotta cheese, and mozzarella cheese - that's all I knew and I didn't care to think about how the recipe for it could change. However, at Palma, the ingredients listed were béchamel, wild mushrooms, and parmesan cheese. What?! A rich, creamy, non-red lasagna!? Are you kidding me? Was this supposed to be a new thing? Does lasagna like this exist elsewhere? Is it normal to have a creamy lasagna? Are there rules for lasagna? These were all questions that ran through my mind. The only picture of lasagna that I had in my head was the typical red lasagna. I couldn't wrap my head around it!
When I asked my friends about the color they thought of for lasagna, they all responded with “red.” Even when I passed by the frozen food section in supermarkets, the pre-made lasagnas all had red tomato sauce in them. The only type I thought existed was the one with ragu and ricotta. I believed that was the only way lasagna could go, and this decadent white lasagna was a god-send for lasagnas all around the world - at least, in my head. Frozen ready-made dinner lasagnas sold in flimsy paper boxes were the norm for me. I didn’t have a lot of Italian friends, so I was never introduced to “real” Italian food. Prior to my adventures for good, authentic food, and with the influence of TV ads, I had thought that Olive Garden would be the place to go to “engage” with “real” Italian food. Thank goodness, that wasn’t the first Italian restaurant I visited. I truly mean that.
Lasagna with Béchamel and Wild Mushrooms from Palma NYC.
If I had to choose between tomato sauce or cream sauce, I might have chosen tomato sauce before tasting this dish at Palma. I’m not a fan of rich, heavy dishes, mainly because I start getting nauseous but I figured I’d give this one a chance. I also hadn't tasted bechamel either (I know so many new things I'm trying) so I figured why not. The key word for this dish though was mushrooms, as I am a die-hard mushroom fan. Surprisingly though, while having a debate with myself about this dish, my friend said that she would get it so I ended up choosing another dish so we could have more to taste.
“Ravioli ai Carciofi” – ravioli filled with artichokes, served in basil and butter sauce with fontina cheese. Artichoke is another head-turner, but unfortunately, when I had a nibble of my friend’s order, I was disappointed with my choice. The ravioli dish was a bland one compared to the lasagna, filled with cheese, bechamel, and mushrooms - a gift box filled with umami. The ravioli had an odd sour taste to it that made my forehead frown - not like rotten sour, but pickled sour. On the other hand, the lasagna had a beautifully crisp outer layer, and the burnt pieces of cheese filled my nose with a toasty aroma that made my mouth water. The nuttiness of the cheese danced with the creamy béchamel sauce, and the chewy mushrooms added texture and flavor to the dish. Hallelujah.
Each ingredient’s story
Each component of lasagna is more complicated than it seems. A simple béchamel sauce is easy to make and it’s delicious, but it also has its own story that we forget about. Beyond the taste, we must ask: “Do we really know each ingredient?” “Do we care for and respect their individual stories?” Lasagna is filled with layers of stories that come together to create a story-book. We can devour lasagna in a few bites, but within each layer, there’s a story that we have yet to fully grasp. Eating is a ritual where we connect with what we eat and until now, I didn’t know each ingredient’s story. Below, you will read about the individual stories of the various components that make up the two different types of lasagna I have had and love.
The second lasagna I ever made – May 5, 2015.
Lasagna is an Italian pasta dish that is made up of wide pasta strips. Between each layer of the pasta strips, different fillings are used. The name of lasagna is said to have come from a Greek word “laganon” which means a strip of dough. There is another ancient word “lasanon” which refers to a crock-pot. The Romans took this word and turned it into “lasanum” which also means a sort of cooking pot. The original lasagna dish was said to have come from Naples, Italy during the Middle Ages and included béchamel, ragu, and Parmigiano–Reggiano, but there is another 14th century recipe that calls for “lasagna noodles to be layered in a baking dish with grated cheese and pulverized spices: not oregano and garlic like we might see now, but more likely cinnamon, nutmeg and black pepper.” This dish entered the United States via Italian immigrants in the late 1800s and developed its own variations depending on the family. Depending on the occasion, the type of lasagna you make can change. The fillings are chosen by the cook, but the region, season, availability and accessibility of ingredients are all factors that can affect lasagna. However, in Bologna, the Bolognese lasagna recipe is protected and there are rules and regulations for how the lasagna should be made.
The flavorful, yet simple creamy sauce in the lasagna I had at Palma was béchamel sauce, which is one of the five mother sauces in the French culinary world (others being Tomato, Espagnole, Hollandaise, and Veloute). Its origins are debated between Italy and France, and there are several theories for the creator of béchamel. The oldest theory is that the 14th century Italian chefs under Catherine de Medici’s rule introduced béchamel to the French when they followed her to France after her marriage with future King Henri II.Another theory is that during the 17th century, béchamel was created by Chef Francois Pierre de la Varenne, who even wrote about it in his book Le Cuisinier Francois. This sauce is also said to derive from the Mornay sauce, which is credited to the Duke Philippe de Mornay of France.
Tomato sauce is the more well-known sauce used for lasagna than béchamel. Lasagna with tomato sauce was also the first type of lasagna I was introduced to. Tomato sauce itself is a revelation! Another mother sauce in the culinary world, tomato sauce is used worldwide because of its versatility in various cuisines, especially Italian. However, it is interesting to think about how tomatoes were not originally found in Italy. They travelled to Italy via the Columbian Exchange.
Originally found in Central America, tomatoes were thought to be weeds, but found their way to Spain and Portugal, and once they entered Naples, they spread throughout the various regions of Italy. Originally, tomato comes from the Aztec word “tomatl,” and these fruits were called “pomodoros” by Italians, which means “golden apples.” Despite being edible, these fruits were described as poisonous by British barber and author, John Gerard. This could have been the case because much of the flatware used by rich people was made with pewter, which is high in lead, and the acidic tomato would leech the lead out into the food, making it poisonous. However, commoners that also ate tomatoes did not have the aversion because of their flatware was made of wood. By the 1700s, tomatoes were introduced to various cuisines throughout Europe, but they were mainly eaten by poor people until the 1800s. The first mention of tomato sauce was in a French cookbook from 1797, but with immigration and the invention of pizza by an Italian chef in Naples, tomatoes and tomato sauce became widespread, and different tomato-based pasta sauces also developed (i.e. bolognese, pomodoro, puttanesca).
Parmigiano-Reggiano is one of the most famous and widely used Italian cheeses. It is nutty, sweet, and has a distinct flavor and scent. This is also the cheese that many of us shave on top of our favorite pastas. Would you believe that this cheese has been around for more than 500 years? First made in the 12th century by Cistercian monks near Milan in Lombardy, Parmesan cheese travelled from Parma to Tuscany, then Pisa and Livorno and other Mediterranean ports. Through trade, French nobility acquired a taste for the cheese and its name spread to other countries as well. Since its creation, this cheese was originally called Parmesano by the Italians and Parmesan by French nobility. The name refers to Parma, the original province the cheese was made in, but it officially changed to Parmigiano-Reggiano in 1954. A few years ago, this cheese was also given the legal right to be the only hard cheese to be called Parmesan. There are also specific production guidelines in Italy for how this cheese can be made, as well as for the farming and cattle practices.
Mozzarella is another famous cheese that is not only used in Italian cuisine but all over the world. Originally made with buffalo milk in Nap les, today it is mostly made with cow milk.Depending on the diet of the animal, the cheese can vary in color from white to a mild yellow, but the cheeses that are sold commercially are usually white. Known for their delicate and gentle flavors, they come in two types: fresh and partly dried. Fresh cheese is semi-soft and is usually round and soaked in water, while the partly dried mozzarellas are more compact and dense and used for heat cooking. This cheese’s name however, unlike Parmesan, does not come from the place of origin but rather reflects how we prepare this dish – Italian verb “mozzare” which means “to cut.”
Ricotta is a white, grainy, creamy curd that is similar in appearance to cottage cheese. However, ricotta cheese is actually a cheese by-product. The name comes from the cooking process, “re-cooked.” The leftover whey of milk from making cheese is re-cooked and the proteins in the whey, albumin and globulin, solidify from the heat, forming the curds we call ricotta “cheese.” This cheese is believed to have originated in Sicily during the Arab-Sicilian era because another name for this cheese is “zammataru” which in Sicilian means “dairy farmer” but it is derived from an Arabic word “za’ama” which means “cow.” The first mention of “this tender cheese” is dated back to AD 170-230 by a Greek writer named Athenaeus, but there are other early stories of this cheese related to Sicily as well.
Shiitake Mushrooms, also called Pyogo Mushroom in Korea, are originally found in East Asia. These mushrooms have distinct aromas and flavors and they are also widely used throughout Asia for their medicinal purposes. It is a symbol of longevity and has been used in Chinese medicine for over 6,000 years, but now, their nutritional value is also recognized in the West, especially its high mineral and vitamin content. The cultivation of shiitake mushrooms did not happen in the United States until the 1970s because of a confusion that these mushrooms were of another strain that attacked railroad ties, but now these mushrooms are very popular, especially for their health benefits, meaty texture, and umami flavors. Although there is no specific answer as to why these mushrooms were used in the pasta dish, I believe it is because they were seasonally available at the time, and because the flavors of the shiitake mushrooms blend with the creamy, subtle flavors of the béchamel and cheese – both of which are rich in umami.
The first lasagna I ever made – April 5, 2015.
Throughout the world and within Italy, there are other dishes that are layered and reminiscent of lasagna, such as Eggplant Parmigiana, Moussaka, Vegetable Terrine, Pastelon, Pastitsio, and Timballo. The sweet counterparts would be desserts like Baklava, Cakes, and Tiramisu. All of these dishes, like lasagna, can be made personal by choosing what sort of fillings you want. Lasagna is an extremely versatile dish that’s easy to make and is delicious but beyond face value, there is deeper meaning to this ability of “incorporation.” My artifact dish reflects the transformation of cultures and the progressive nature of cuisine with each passing time. We have the ability to combine flavors from all over the world and display a blend of stories and unison amongst these ingredients via flavors. I hope you’ve been able to see and read how this simple dish has many stories within it, and that someday it will be a personal dish that you adore as much as I do.