Thursday, October 8, 2009

Classic Cheese Lasagna

This incarnation of cheese lasagna was the product of fatigue and desperation. Husband and I were having company over, and that company included children. I had decided cheese lasagna would be a good and kid-friendly entree. The problem: I couldn’t find any ricotta at Trader Joe’s, and I utterly lacked the energy to make the trip to another store.

One thing they did have was more-than-ample quantities of cottage cheese. I’ve had plenty of lasagna with cottage cheese instead of ricotta, but it's always been a bit curd-y for my taste. Lasagna shouldn't squeak when you chew it. If I had to stoop to cottage cheese, I wanted to augment it somehow. Enter the secret spotlight ingredient: mascarpone. I’d never had lasagna with mascarpone before, but I had a hunch that anything so decadent and fattening could only add flavor.

I’m still not sure how to pronounce the word “mascarpone.” My huband and I had a minor spat over it once; I had been pronouncing it phonetically, with a silent “e,” and husband had heard that it was pronounced “marshapown,” which I correctly deduced had more to do with his yankee antecedents than with actual Italians’ pronunciation. Apparently, it's something like like “mascar-pony,” but I’m too lazy to check the dictionary to be sure I haven’t whiffed it again.

Anyway, I made the lasagna with a mix of cottage cheese, mascarpone, egg, and mozzarella, and it was really great – so good that I decided to make it my go-to cheese lasagna recipe. Naturally, next time I wanted to make it, I spied ricotta, no problem, but mascarpone was nowhere to be found. The Kafka-esque nightmares never end around here.

I make my own tomato sauce, but you could certainly use jarred. Making lasagna is a bit time-consuming, even with no-boil noodles.

Classic Cheese Lasagna

1 16-oz. container cottage cheese (2% or 4% milk fat)
1 8-oz. tub mascarpone cheese, room temp
1 egg
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
salt and pepper to taste
2 c. shredded mozzarella or 4-cheese Italian blend cheese
¼ c. parmesan cheese (honestly, I just use the stuff that comes in a green cylinder here… it’s baked in with everything else, so if you want to use the nice, freshly-grated kind, feel free – but I’m both cheap and lazy)
12 no-boil lasagna noodles
Tomato Sauce (recipe follows)

Preheat oven to 375. For better texture, run the cottage cheese through a food processor until smooth, then dump into a medium mixing bowl. Add mascarpone, egg, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste, 1 ¼ cups of the shredded mozzarella, and ¼ c. parmesan cheese. Mix well – be sure that the mascarpone is well-incorporated and lump-free.

Ladle tomato sauce into bottom of a 9 x 13” pan. Spread 4 noodles over the sauce. Spread ½ of cheese mixture on top of noodles. Ladle more sauce over top, then add 4 more lasagna noodles, following with the remaining half of cheese and more sauce. Lay remaining 4 noodles over top, pour over remaining tomato sauce, and sprinkle ¾ cup remaining mozzarella over this.

Cover tightly with foil and bake for 55 minutes. Remove foil and bake another 10 minutes, until cheese is melted and bubbly.

This lasagna avoids what I consider the twin pitfalls of cheese lasagna. Cottage-cheese based lasagnas are often a bit squeaky and redolent of Midwestern pot-lucks. Ricotta-based lasagnas seem more right somehow, but I often find ricotta-based lasagna a bit grainy and dry. This version is most, rich, and flavorful. It’s slightly different from other cheese lasagnas in a good way – like how I always imagined it ought to taste but never quite did before I stumbled upon this variation.

Tomato Sauce

2-3 tablespoons olive oil
½ white onion, finely chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
spices to taste: basil, oregano, cumin, thyme – fresh if you have them. If using dried, go for 1 teaspoon basil, ½ teaspoon oregano, ½ teaspoon cumin, and ¼ teaspoon thyme. Maybe. Roughly. I really do just eyeball these things.
1 tablespoon/a good splash of cheap vodka
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 28-oz. can plum tomatoes in juice (with basil is fine)
1 14-oz. can tomato sauce

Preheat oil in large skillet over medium-low to medium heat. Sauté onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Add red pepper, spices, and vodka.

Chop plum tomatoes into ½ cm cubes. Add tomatoes, juice, tomato sauce, and brown sugar. Simmer over medium-low heat for at least 10-15 minutes to allow flavors to marry. Makes maybe 4-6 cups of sauce.

If you prefer a greater sauce-to-pasta ratio in your lasagna, you could make this as directed above but with a 28-oz can of crushed tomatoes, a 14-oz. can tomato sauce, and a 14-oz. can of petite diced tomatoes. Seasonings should be adjusted upward accordingly.

I find that the splash of vodka gives the sauce a little bit of zest that’s otherwise missing. The cheap stuff is more than fine, though. I dislike vodka and only buy it to cook with (honest!). As a result, I buy the very cheapest vodka I can find and always feel vaguely ashamed at checkout … especially when I’m also stocking up on wine-in-a-box.

We are fancy people, I tell you. Fancy, fancy people.
It still looks appetizing as 2-day-old leftovers

Printable recipe here.


  1. I am having 6 couples for dinner, I promised 2 kinds of Lasagna, traditional and chicken alfredo (my own creation) For the traditional I wanted something really good, because I know that they have all had it before, I thought, I wonder if it would be good with Mascarpone, which I always have on hand, mixed with the Ricotta cheese, I found your recipe on google and it sounded great. I am going to try it and get back to you. Hope its good, my reputation is at stake here for being a fabulous cook. :) Thanks for the tips.

  2. I hope it works for you as well as it has for me!