Chopped challenge #5: Tiramisu Trifles

Course: dessert

Ingredients: chocolate wafer cookies, cream cheese, espresso powder, balsamic vinegar

When I quizzed her about this set of ingredients, my mom (it’s her birthday today; happy birthday, Mommy!) immediately said cheesecake, and as I think about it, that makes a lot of sense. The wafers and espresso get pulverized into a caffeinated crust, the balsamic becomes some sort of glaze or syrup for drizzling, and the cream cheese is allow to stay pristine and tangy in the center.

But as soon as I heard the espresso powder component of this quartet, my mind went to tiramisu, that famous Italian dessert of soaked ladyfingers piled with rich custard. The best tiramisu I’ve ever had was in a lovely little restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, now sadly defunct. Our server, overwhelmed by the busyness of the evening, brought us a free slice in an effort, I’ve always thought, to get us to stay a little longer so she wouldn’t immediately be hit with another new table of guests. It was so good – the custard silky and thick, the cookies melting after their marsala and coffee bath, and just the right dusting of completely unsweetened cocoa powder across the top to contrast the sweetness of the dessert and enhance the coffee flavors.

Mine would obviously be a little different. The chocolate wafers, in all their Styrofoam-textured glory, would clearly take the place of the ladyfingers (confession: I love these terrible cookies. I love their waffled surface design and their overly sweet filling and their fake, near tasteless exteriors. We had to hide the package while I planned this recipe out because I was going through them at least two at a time every time I walked past them). They would be soaked in espresso, and the cream cheese would be folded into the custard as a replacement for some of the traditional mascarpone.

The sticking point was the balsamic vinegar. After some consideration, I determined I would add some to the espresso to soak the cookies (and spent an entertaining few minutes tasting the wafers with some vinegar dribbled on and deeming them “weird but not terrible” – this is what I do for you). That didn’t seem like quite enough, though, until I thought about strawberries as a bridge: they are great with chocolate, they go well with cream cheese, and they pair beautifully with balsamic vinegar. Clearly what I needed to do was top the dessert with slices of strawberries, then boil down some of the balsamic into a syrup to drizzle over the fruit.

This was sounding further and further from the beautiful slice of tiramisu that we fought over in Ashland, which was served simply in a square portion with a little powdered sugar on the plate. The combination of cookie, custard, and fruit made me think of a trifle, and I determined I would serve these not as plated slices cut from a large cake, but in pretty cocktail glasses, with layers of each component to add visual appeal.

The result was terrifically rich, and while I’m not sure espresso, balsamic vinegar, and chocolate wafer cookies truly belong together, we did enjoy them. The real stand-out to the dessert, though, was the custard. At my first few spoonfuls, I was bowled over by a tartness I thought was the balsamic vinegar. The next day, though, when I allowed myself another serving, I realized the tanginess I was tasting came from the cream cheese. Mascarpone, the traditional thickener for the custard component, lacks this slight sourness (especially prominent in the Philadelphia brand); it is much more mild, almost like overwhipped cream just before it becomes butter. But the tangy flavor in the custard was reminiscent of cheesecake, which in my book is never a bad thing, and it kept the whole dessert from being overly sweet.

One note: you do have to watch the balsamic vinegar closely as it reduces, if you decide to go with the syrup option. In the space of about ten seconds, it goes from a lovely thick drizzle to an over-reduced sludge that hardens into a sticky caramel my fillings are still quivering about. Pull it off the heat a little before it seems reduced enough; it will continue to thicken as it cools.

These looked fantastic in my cocktail glasses, as you can see, but they were tremendously large and we ended up sharing just one to avoid overload. Smaller glasses, or even little jars, would be good for more, and less gluttonous, servings.

Tiramisu Trifles with Balsamic Drizzle
Makes 2 enormous or 4 small trifles, with custard left over
Minimum of about 3 hours, including chilling time (though chilling overnight is even better)
3 egg yolks
⅜ cups + 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
⅜ cups whole milk
4 ounces mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
6 ounces full fat cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup boiling water
1 tablespoon espresso powder
½ cup + 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, divided
2 tablespoons rum, brandy, or marsala, optional
~ 12 chocolate wafer cookies, chopped or crumbled
4-6 fresh strawberries, sliced

 

  • Fill a large bowl about halfway with ice cubes and water. Use another small bowl and small pot to create a double boiler: bring a cup or two of water to a simmer in the pot, then set the small bowl atop it, being sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the simmering water. Add the egg yolks and ⅜ cups of sugar to the bowl, then whisk until the sugar dissolves – you will no longer feel rough sugar granules against the whisk and the bowl.
  • Whisk in the ⅜ cups milk and then cook, whisking slowly and constantly, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 170F. This should take 10-15 minutes; look for the custard to become light and foamy, and thicken slightly.
  • Once the mixture hits its target temperature, remove the small bowl from the heat and place it gently into the larger bowl of ice water. Whisk for at least a minute until the mixture cools, taking care not to allow any ice water to slop into the custard.
  • In a medium bowl, use a spatula to firmly mix together the room temperature mascarpone and cream cheese. Then fold in the cooled custard just until fully incorporated and smooth. Top the bowl with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge until the other components are ready.
  • Now, add the espresso powder, 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, and the 2 tablespoons alcohol, if using, to the boiling water in a small pot or bowl. Stir to combine, then set aside to cool (I got impatient and shoved mine into the freezer for a few minutes).
  • When the espresso mixture has cooled, you are ready to assemble. First, soak the chopped or crumbled chocolate wafers in the espresso liquid for a few seconds. You want the liquid to permeate but you don’t want the cookie to sog into nothing. In cocktail glasses or dessert goblets, carefully add a layer of soaked cookie pieces. Top that with a layer of the cooled custard – it will still be fairly thin – then repeat: another layer of cookies, another layer of custard. You want at least two layers of each.
  • If it’s possible without disturbing the dessert layers, top each glass with plastic wrap and stow in the fridge again for at least 2 hours, but ideally longer – overnight is best.
  • About 20 minutes before you are ready for dessert, slice the strawberries. In a small pot, combine the remaining ½ cup of balsamic vinegar with the final 2 tablespoons sugar. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the vinegar and sugar bubble down into a syrup; aim for the thickness of maple syrup, which will cool into something more like molasses. This will probably take anywhere from 5-10 minutes, depending on your stove and your pot.
  • Rescue your trifles from the fridge and for each, place a layer of strawberry slices in some artful design over the top. Drizzle on a few teaspoons of the balsamic syrup just before serving.

Stone fruit and herb sangria

Summer is here. All that stands between me and falling deeply, fully, thankfully into it is one class of final essays and a little bit of paperwork. And then! It’s all soaking up sun and aimless wandering on the beach and all the vacation I can stomach. No, wait, that’s someone else’s life. For me it’s gardening and finalizing an article and planning a class and, well, okay, vacationing. But more on that later…

In celebration of the summer hanging just out of reach, I thought a nice little beverage might fit the bill. The inspiration for this one came a couple of Sundays ago, as we had lunch with M., a friend from graduate school who happened to be in town for an extended birthday voyage. We decided the occasion merited drinks with lunch, and I had a sangria that, oddly, is NOT the direct inspiration of this one. Rather, as we clinked forks and glasses, M. told me about her favorite way of making the drink in question, which involved stone fruit and herbs – her preference is sage; here I’ve used thyme as I tend to find sage a mite strong, but you could easily do both. This drink is easy to play with.

Typically sangria involves wine, fruit, and something a touch stronger to fortify it like brandy or liqueur. It gets lightly sweetened, and the fruit is allowed to steep a while to soak up some of the liquid. M. replaces the typical apples and oranges with stone fruit, and rather than the usual simple syrup she uses a spoon or two of apricot preserves, which very cleverly reinforces the stone fruit flavor while sweetening the drink.

Between the preserves and the fruit pieces, which break down a little bit as they sit in the wine, this isn’t a crystal clear brew. But it is crystal clear that it deserves to be drunk. It is bright and light – a perfect aperitif – and would pair well with almost any snack you can think of: flatbread, crostini, savory cheeses, maybe some cold salmon, and definitely the wine-soaked fruit at the bottom of your glass. As my sister noted when I sent her a preview photo, “Looks delightful. A+ Would drink.” Some people like to top up their sangria with sparkling water or lemonade. I do not, but you can if you want to. This is, after all, your summer.

* a note for serving: I used a champagne glass here for presentation purposes and loved the look of it, but once loaded with fruit, it held an unsatisfying quantity of actual drink. I’d suggest a wine glass or even a tumbler. Additionally, while the slices of peach looked very pretty, smaller chunks are a little easier to navigate both while pouring and in the glass itself.

 

Stone Fruit and Herb Sangria
I wouldn’t dare estimate how many people you like to serve out of one bottle of white wine…
At least 2½ hours (mostly time chilling), but could be prepared as much as a day in advance
750ml bottle crisp white wine (I used a vinho verde from Portugal, which was slightly effervescent)
2 tablespoons peach or apricot preserves
3-4 large sprigs of thyme or sage
3 ripe peaches or other stone fruit, pitted but not skinned, cut into thin slices or chunks as you desire
½ a lemon, thinly sliced or cut into chunks
optional: ¼ cup orange liqueur or limoncello
ice plus extra herb sprigs to serve
sparkling water or lemonade to serve, if desired

 

  • In a small pot, combine the preserves with about ¼ cup of the wine and the thyme or sage. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the preserves melt down and emulsify, so to speak, into the wine.
  • While this mixture is simmering, put the peaches and lemons into a large pitcher or punch bowl, then add the hot wine and preserves mixture, including the herb sprigs. Add the remaining wine and the liqueur, if using.
  • Refrigerate until cold; at least two hours is enough, but overnight is even better to let flavors mingle.
  • Serve over ice, being sure to get some of the fruit into your glass. Add an extra sprig of thyme or sage if desired, and top up with sparkling water or lemonade if that’s your thing.

Tempura Salmon Tacos

As I mentioned not long ago, I’ve completely caught N’s obsession with tacos and now I want them all the time. In past years I thought the concept of “Taco Tuesday” was a bit silly and boring, but now it seems brilliant, because of course you wouldn’t do the same old ground beef and shredded cheddar every week; you would change it up and have charred vegetable tacos one week, slow cooked carnitas with pickled onions another week, and of course you would need fish tacos in there at least once a month.

Fish tacos tend to come in two camps: grilled and fried. When grilled, the fish is flaky and barely smoky and feels righteously healthy (at least as healthy as a taco can be), especially since it’s usually topped with confetti of cabbage, maybe a minute dice of tomatoes and, if you’re me, some paper thin slices of radish for a little peppery crunch. A spicy creamy drizzle and a generous dollop of guacamole are requirements.

But if I have to choose, I’m sure it will come as no surprise to you that I’m almost always going to go with fried. Encased in batter, sometimes cornmeal, sometimes flour, sometimes with beer, the fish stays molten hot and so juicy, and the batter is (ideally) crisp and crunchy and thus adds perfect texture even to a soft tortilla. Of course, many people’s objection to this format will likely be that it is unnecessarily heavy or fatty, and they are right: the wrong batter can be gloppy and greasy and excessive. Luckily, I have a solution to that: tempura.

Light and crisp and golden and melt-in-your-mouth-barely-there, tempura is, of course, that perfectly crunchy deep-fried coating for seafood and vegetables so common in Japanese restaurants. Its lightness is frequently achieved through the use of seltzer water as the liquid component in the batter, and sometimes rice flour, which fries up lighter and crispier than wheat flour.

The big problem with tempura, though, and what makes it a pain to do at home, is the deep-frying part. For a simple fish taco dinner, heating up a vat of oil is not high on my priority list. So I wondered if you could achieve satisfying tempura results with a shallow fry, not unlike old-fashioned fried chicken in a cast iron skillet. A few experiments later, I can definitively report that, although you have to be a touch more careful with the batter sticking to the pan, shallow-fried tempura is a completely viable option. Less oil means less time, less waste, and less of that fried smell in your kitchen (although it’s worth noting that an open window and a few votive candles lit for an hour or two can clear out most of that). My tempura batter takes the best of both worlds of fried fish, combining rice flour and baking powder not with the traditional seltzer, but with beer for a little extra flavor along with the requisite fizz.

Fish tacos are usually made with white fleshed fish of some kind – cod or halibut or mahi – but I love salmon, and have had some stellar fish and chips platters using this dense, meaty, pink option, so here I’m using it in lieu of more traditional options. You can certainly change out the type of fish you use, but I can’t speak for the cooking time of other fish since I’ve only tested the salmon with this method.

Of course half the fun of a fish taco is adorning it with various toppings, so here I’ve got two on offer for you: a red cabbage slaw bright with lime and cilantro, and a smash of avocado and corn to make up just before serving. We thought they needed nothing more, but if you like that creamy spicy sauce, I suggest whisking a few drops of sriracha into some buttermilk for a tangy kick to drizzle on.

Tempura Salmon Tacos
Serves 4
About ½ hour, if you are quite organized
For red cabbage slaw:
¼ head of red cabbage, grated or shredded or very finely slices (you can use green cabbage here too; I just like the unexpected bright color of the red)
¼-½ cup chopped cilantro, leaves and tender upper stalks
zest of 1 lime
juice of ½ lime
½ teaspoon salt
optional: 1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise or wasabi mayonnaise, if you like your slaw creamy
For tempura salmon:
1 pound salmon, cut into 1×3-4 inch strips (approximately)
⅔ cups rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
6-8 ounces beer (go with a pale ale or lighter; this is not a place for a deep roasty stout. Save that for waffles)
2-3 cups vegetable oil
For corn avocado smash:
1 ripe avocado (I like haas)
½ cup fresh or defrosted corn kernels
2 tablespoons thinly sliced green onion tops (dark green parts only)
¼ teaspoon salt or to taste
¼ teaspoon black pepper or to taste
lime juice to taste
To serve:
Tortillas (we like crunchy corn shells for this, but soft or blistered corn, or even flour, would also be tasty)
Optional garnishes: radish slices, crema, buttermilk and sriracha, sour cream, additional cilantro, green onion, or lime

 

  • First, make the cabbage slaw. Toss together the cabbage, cilantro, lime zest and juice, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside for at least 10 minutes to let the salt and lime juice permeate. If you like a creamy slaw, toss in 1-2 tablespoons regular or wasabi mayonnaise just before serving.
  • With the slaw done, turn your attention to the fish. In a cast iron or other large, heavy skillet, heat enough vegetable oil to come about 1 inch up the sides. While the oil heats, prep a warming tray: place a wire cooling rack over a baking sheet and place in the oven. Heat the oven to 300F.
  • Next, slice the fish into 1×3-4 inch strips or “fingers.” You can alter the size if you prefer, but this size cooks quickly and fits well into a taco shell.
  • When the oil reaches a temperature between 350-375F, whisk together the rice flour, baking powder, and salt in a large bowl. If you prefer a very light batter, add 8 ounces of beer, whisking constantly as you pour it in. If you prefer a more substantial batter, add only 6 ounces of beer.
  • Now you are ready to fry. Add 5-6 strips of the fish to the tempura batter, submerge to ensure they are fully coated, then gently add them to the oil one at a time (it will sizzle aggressively), being sure they are separate from one another in the skillet. Cook 1-2 minutes per side, until the batter is lightly golden and the fish is barely cooked through (this doesn’t take long; you’ll be surprised how fast it is). Remove the fish to the warming rack in the oven. Continue to fry the fish in batches until it is all cooked.
  • Either in between, or just after the last batch of fish goes into the oven to keep warm, make the corn avocado smash. Halve, pit, and cube up the avocado into a small bowl (I like this method) Use a fork or the back of a spoon against the side of the bowl to lightly smash the cubes of avocado to your desired texture. I like it fairly chunky. Add the corn, green onion tops, salt, pepper, and lime juice, and gently stir to combine.
  • To serve, add a few fish strips to a warmed, grilled, or toasted tortilla, then top with the slaw and the smash in your desired order and quantity. Eat immediately.

Chopped Challenge #3: Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline

Course: dessert

Ingredients: Hawaiian rolls, chocolate syrup, bourbon, sea salt.

For my first foray into dessert, N. gave me a list of ingredients that, at least in two cases, were deviously chosen with ulterior motives. As he’s currently training for a marathon (twenty-six miles and change! My brain can’t even fathom how long that is!), he is consistently hungry, and always looking for protein-laden snacks. He goes through chicken thighs, hard-boiled eggs, and toasted tempeh at alarming rates. Recently, he decided chocolate milk would be a fantastic mid-afternoon pick-me-up indulgence, and thus the chocolate syrup was assigned. As for the Hawaiian sweet rolls, he let me know in no uncertain terms that the leftovers would be “great for pulled pork!” so, of course, that was also added to our menu for the week…

I have to admit that this quartet stumped me for a while, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. In fact, as soon as N. handed me the post-it note on which he’d written his choices, I had an answer in mind: this screamed bread pudding. The rolls could be toasted, and would be perfect for absorbing a bourbon-spiked custard mixture. The chocolate would make it extra indulgent, and the sea salt could get sprinkled on top, as with my favorite cookies, for a briny unexpected crunch.

But I couldn’t make bread pudding. I couldn’t. As easy as it would be, and as well as the ingredients lent themselves to it, doing so would make me a hypocrite. As N. (or anyone who has had the misfortune to watch the show with me) can attest, bread pudding is one of the dessert choices contestants make that instantly evokes bellows of protest from me. “DON’T MAKE BREAD PUDDING!” I yell. “YOU DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME!” And they usually don’t! Their custards don’t set, their bread isn’t properly soaked, and they usually wind up with runny undercooked messes. I say other things about their choices too, which are even less nice. But we don’t have to talk about that here.

So even though I am not restricting myself to a time frame, I just don’t think I can get away with making bread pudding – not with as rude as I’ve been to the television about it. Neither can I make French toast, nor panna cotta, nor crepes (though this last one is less about not having enough time, and more about me explaining, tiredly, over and over, as if they can hear me, that “of COURSE your first couple are going to be disasters; that’s what crepes DO! Try again!). I had to go with something I don’t, from the safety and anonymity of my living room, routinely take contestants to task for, as natural as the choice might be.

I’m not sure what made me come around to ice cream, but from that point I realized the small size of the Hawaiian rolls might make the dessert a play on sliders. The scoop of ice cream, spiked with bourbon and browned with chocolate, would stand in for the burger patty. There would need to be something bright and acidic to break up the richness, so smashed raspberries might make a fun alternative for a slice or tomato or a slick of ketchup.

As for the sea salt, the only thing I could think of was salted caramel, and this dessert didn’t really need another creamy, drippy, sweet component. I was stumped until I remembered an episode of The Great British Baking Show in which the contestants made hazelnut dacquoise, an elevated meringue cake sweetened by praline, essentially toasted hazelnuts encased in hard caramel that had been reduced to a powder. That would be the perfect place to put the salt and another glug or two of the bourbon, and the powder could be rolled around the edges of the ice cream, like a more sophisticated sprinkle lining to an ice cream sandwich.

So here’s how it went: the ice cream was without question the best component. I’m using here a version of a recipe I’ve played with before – a no-churn, egg-free miracle from Nigella Lawson that, sure, takes about six hours to freeze up and requires one specialty ingredient, but hey, with chocolate and bourbon in there, and since I’ve always been able to find that specialty item at Whole Foods, was no big deal, really. I’d just make the ice cream the day before.

The praline was delicious and surprisingly successful. As I was making the caramel, using bourbon rater than water to help the sugar dissolve, things start to crystallize a bit, but rather than dumping the mess out and starting again, I added about a tablespoon of water, stirred it up, and magically the crystals dissolved and a gorgeous caramel the color of maple syrup bubbled its way into being. With no added dairy, it solidified into a sheet of colored glass around the hazelnuts, and the powder turned out to be equally delightful paired with the ice cream as it was an indulgent sweetener for oatmeal a morning or two later.

As for the Hawaiian rolls, while they made a reasonable vehicle for getting the other ingredients to our anxious mouths, I couldn’t help but feel as though they weren’t really needed. This could just as easily have been an ice cream sundae: smooth, luscious scoops dollops with smashed raspberries, generously sprinkled with praline, then topped with freshly whipped cream. And the rolls… well, since they had to be included, perhaps I could have toasted them, ground them up, and mixed them into the praline.

A project for another month, perhaps. Regardless, my judge says I am “on to the next round,” and now that I’ve done one of each course, April’s challenge is unknown. N. might give me an entrée, or an appetizer, or he might drop another dessert in my lap, considering he’s got twenty-six miles to run and a continually growling void in place of a stomach. We’ll just have to wait and see…

 

Bourbon chocolate ice cream “sliders” with spiked, salted praline
Ice cream adapted from Nigella Lawson
At least 6½ hours, counting time for ice cream to chill and harden
Makes generous 1 pint ice cream and approx. 1 cup praline
For bourbon chocolate ice cream:
⅔ cups sweetened condensed milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
6 ounces double cream (I found mine at Whole Foods)
2 tablespoons bourbon
¼ cup chocolate syrup
For spiked, salted praline:
¾ cup whole hazelnuts
½ cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons bourbon
1-2 tablespoons water, if needed
¾ teaspoon sea salt
For serving:
Split Hawaiian sweet rolls, one per person
1 pint raspberries (or fewer, depending on how many are enjoying), smashed with a fork (add a sprinkle of sugar if you want, but the rest of the dessert is pretty sweet)
Additional chocolate syrup, if desired, to decorate the plate

 

  • To make the ice cream, add sweetened condensed milk, whipping cream, double cream, 2 tablespoons bourbon, and ¼ cup chocolate syrup to the bowl of a stand mixer. You could do this in a regular mixing bowl with a hand-held mixer too.
  • Using the whisk attachment (or regular beaters), whip on medium speed until soft peaks form. For me, this took only 3-4 minutes. It may take more or less time for you depending on the speed of your mixer.
  • Using a rubber spatula, scrape the fluffy clouds into a freezer friendly container – I used a clean empty Greek yogurt tub – and freeze for at least 6 hours to let the mixture harden up.
  • While the ice cream chills, make the praline. Roast the ¾ cup of hazelnuts 10-12 minutes in a 350F oven, until they are slightly darker in color and have begun to release their oils. If you wish, dump them into a clean kitchen towel and rub vigorously to help remove their skins.
  • When the hazelnuts are roasted (and skinned, if desired), stir together the granulated sugar and the bourbon in a small pan or skillet. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is the color of dark maple syrup and almost smoking. If the mixture seems to seize up and crystalize while the sugar is dissolving, stir 1-2 tablespoons water. I found this eliminated the crystals handily.
  • Remove from heat, stir in the sea salt and the hazelnuts, then spread onto a piece of parchment paper and let cool for at least 1 hour.
  • Break up the solidified mixture into smaller pieces and whiz them into a powder in a food processor. Don’t go too far, though; since the nuts contain fat, if you continue processing eventually the powder will turn into a paste.
  • When the ice cream is set and the praline is ready, assemble your “sliders”: place a scoop of ice cream on the bottom of one of the split Hawaiian rolls. Sprinkle it generously with praline on all sides. Spread a dollop of smashed raspberries on the top half of your split Hawaiian roll, then smash together over the ice cream. If you wish, decorate the plate with additional chocolate syrup and maybe some whole raspberries, and eat immediately.

Lamb and Ricotta Baked Rigatoni

I didn’t have much experience with baked pastas growing up. Mom made tetrazzini occasionally to use up Thanksgiving turkey, and had a macaroni and cheese favorite, but lasagna was too much trouble, with noodles that had to be boiled ahead of time, and layered, and stacked, and then sold to her two lasagna-disinclined children (R. was picky and suspicious of casserole-type meals, and I was solidly against tomato sauce). I never even heard of baked ziti or stuffed shells until I was an adult.

How I’ve missed out! The beauty of baked pasta, if you remain uninitiated, is the contrast of textures – creamy and tender below, but bronzed and crisp on top, not to mention the opportunity to consume wicked quantities of bread crumbs and/or cheese. The edges of the pasta pieces that protrude above whatever final layer you’ve assigned the dish – cheese or crumb or sauce – toast and sizzle and become pleasingly dark and crunchy; they are the part everyone you feed will fight over.

No real story exists for how this pasta dish came to be, aside from as a way of using up a container of ricotta cheese and a few handfuls of mushrooms languishing in the back of the fridge. It came together as a “what if” sort of creature, with aggressively seasoned ground lamb and a tomato sauce bolstered by red wine and some parmesan rinds I found in my freezer, and it was so satisfying I dubbed it “blog-worthy” by my third bite.

Digging in, you get the richness of sauce soaked into the thick tubes of pasta, and the chew of the lamb, and the interspersed delight of great pockets of ricotta, since we aren’t mixing it in, but adding it in a series of large dollops, a years-old idea from Smitten Kitchen that simmered back to the surface as I faced a too-full skillet and wondered how to get everything combined and into the casserole dish I’d prepared.

This does take a little extra time and effort: the mushrooms roast separately, the sauce is better the longer it cooks, and then of course you have to boil and then bake the pasta. But listen, you probably have an afternoon coming up that could stand to have a cooking project added to it, and besides, each of these component parts needs minimal babysitting once you’ve gotten it started. It is, I would posit, a very good dinner party dish in that you can do the whole thing relatively in advance, shoving it in to bake just as your guests arrive so you are free to greet them, and, if you’re like me, fitting in time to tidy up a little during the preliminary steps: sweep up the dining area while the mushrooms roast. Do a round of dishes and set the table while the sauce simmers. Then gloat as your home fills with the aroma of melting cheese and simmering wine and earthy herbs and you have nothing else to do besides sip a little wine and relax while you nibble whatever your guests brought, because of course you’ve assigned them appetizers, right?

Baked Lamb and Ricotta Rigatoni
Serves 6-8
Approximately 90 minutes (or more, if you want your sauce to simmer longer)
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided (3 for each)
2 cups chopped onion, from 1 large or 2 small onions
5-6 cloves garlic, finely minced
¾–1 pound ground lamb
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
1½ cups red wine
28 ounce can whole peeled tomatoes
2 bay leaves
parmesan rinds, if you have any
1 pound crimini mushrooms, stalks removed, caps quartered
12 ounces rigatoni
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
16 ounces whole milk ricotta cheese
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
Additional dill, or fresh parsley or oregano, if desired

 

  • Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat while you chop the onions and garlic. Sweat the onions and garlic in the oil until softened and fragrant but not browned, 8-10 minutes.
  • Add the lamb, basil, oregano, red pepper flakes, allspice, salt, and black pepper to the skillet, and work with a wooden spatula to break up the lamb and distribute the spices and vegetables. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the crumbled pieces of lamb are no longer pink in the center.
  • Next, add the red wine and simmer for about 10 minutes, to reduce slightly, cook out some of the alcohol, and mellow the flavor, then add the whole peeled tomatoes, the 2 bay leaves, and the parmesan rinds, if you have any available. Simmer, using your wooden spatula to break up the tomatoes as they cook, for at least 30 minutes (though you can cook it longer if you want).
  • While the sauce is simmering, you can attend to the mushrooms: preheat the oven to 400F and toss the quartered mushroom caps with the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Roast 20-25 minutes, stirring once at around the halfway mark. When finished, remove from the oven and turn the oven temperature down to 375F.
  • As the sauce simmers, boil salted water and cook the rigatoni about a minute less than the package directions indicate; it will soak up sauce and continue to cook as we bake it.
  • When the mushrooms and pasta are done and the sauce has simmered at least half an hour, remove the bay leaves and parmesan rinds, then stir the dill, the mushrooms, and the pasta into the sauce.
  • In a large baking dish (something in the 9×13” range fits everything in), add the pasta and sauce mixture in small batches, interspersed with large spoonfuls of the ricotta cheese. The idea is to have pockets of the cheese throughout. Once the pasta, sauce, and ricotta are loaded into the dish, top with an even layer of the grated parmesan cheese, then bake at 375F for about 30 minutes. The sauce will bubble and the parmesan cheese will melt and brown over the top. The whole thing will be molten hot; you might want to wait 5-10 minutes before serving to let it barely cool.
  • If desired, serve with a few tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs scattered over the top.