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25 May 2013

Lasagna throwdown – As promised, here is my recap of the lasagna throwdown, which took place three weeks ago. The contest involved two lasagnas, one made by yours truly and the other made by Mason, a friend and fellow HUFS prof. Andy, another friend and fellow HUFS prof, along with his wife, provided a lovely bottle of wine and a tasty salad to go with all that meat and melted cheese. Today’s entry will focus primarily on my lasagna because I forgot all about my camera once the festivities began and we all sat down to dig in—I didn’t take any pictures until after we were all finished eating. I did, however, take a dozen and a half photos of the lasagna-making process, and those photos will form the bulk of today’s entry.

“It was a good dinner with good friends.”

We start with the ingredients, and here we have some Costco-bought ricotta cheese and the last of some very nice Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese we had picked up in New York during our last visit there. It was a fitting end to a good cheese.

These are some white peppercorns we brought back from Cambodia. The pepper there was a revelation, and I will write about it in more detail when I post my travel journal from the trip, but suffice it to say that it made me rethink the spice entirely. This white pepper is the fruit without the husk, and it has a sharp, almost citrus bite to it. I thought it would make a good addition to the cheese mixture.

Since we are on the pepper, here is the pepper I used for the meat sauce, a combination of red and black peppercorns (there are eight each—it should be pretty easy to tell which are the red and which are the black). I crushed both the white peppercorns and the black peppercorns by hand in this mortar (you can see some of the leftover white pepper here) before adding them to their respective components.

This is the cheese mixture with the white pepper and some dried parsley. I only used about 600 grams of the container in the first photo above, leaving 300 grams for something that was not part of the lasagna throwdown—I’ll touch on that briefly at the end of today’s entry.

Chopped onions on the left, minced garlic on the right. When I made the lasagna for Kevin and Tom last month, I pureed both of these because Kevin is deathly afraid of onions in solid form. He claims that he doesn’t like the texture, but I suspect something more sinister, like a traumatic childhood encounter with onions. Anyway, this time around I was free to use chopped onions in all their glory, and I took advantage of that.

This basil plant sits unsuspecting on the window ledge right behind the monitor I am currently staring at. Now, three weeks later, it has recovered beautifully, but the lasagna throwdown was a day of horror for my poor basil plant. This was not to be helped, as nothing beats fresh basil in a tomato sauce made from scratch.

And this is the tomato sauce. What you see floating on the top there is not the basil, but three dried bay leaves. After frying some of the the onions in olive oil until nicely caramelized, tossing in some of the garlic and browning that very quickly (you don’t want to fry garlic for very long at all, otherwise it will become bitter), I dumped in several cans of diced tomatoes, and then I dropped the bay leaves on top. Right after I took this picture, I stirred up the mixture and let it reduce while I went to work on the meat.

Here we have sage (on the left) and thyme (on the right). These herbs are for the meat mixture.

These button mushrooms are also for the meat mixture. Both Hyunjin and I really like mushrooms, and Hyunjin likes them in particular because they allow us to use slightly less meat and thus cut down on the fat (ever so slightly). Once again, this stage of the lasagna was different with Tom and Kevin, because Tom does not eat vegetables (again, I am assuming childhood trauma), but here I could mix them in freely with the meat.

And here at least is the completed meat mixture. I fried up the remaining onions and garlic, added the meat and then added the pre-cooked mushrooms once the meat was brown. The sage and thyme are in there as well, along with the red and black pepper.

This is the tomato sauce after reducing, ready to be combined with the meat mixture.

The marriage is complete! Two great tastes that taste great together!

With all the components ready, I boiled the lasagna noodles and began building the lasagna. I had a photo of the noodles boiling, but I’m sure you’ve all seen noodles boiling before, and these weren’t homemade noodles anyway, so here we are skipping to the last of three layers. First, the noodles...

Next, the cheese...

And then the sauce. I topped this off with some grated mozzarella, popped it in the oven, and...

Houston, we have lasagna.

I regret that I did not think to take photos of Mason’s lasagna, but once we started eating, all thoughts of photography went out the window. Both of the lasagnas were hits. Mason’s tasted a little sweeter than mine (I did not add any sugar or other sweeteners to my sauce), and he used spinach as an ingredient, which I thought was a nice touch. But even though they were both very recognizably lasagna and we used a lot of the same ingredients, I found it very difficult to compare them. Once everyone had had a piece of both lasagnas, Mason went back for seconds of mine, and I had some more of his. It seemed futile at that point to try to declare a winner—believe me, if I thought I deserved it, I would have had no problem claiming victory—so I suggested a “gentlemen’s draw” and Mason accepted. It was a good dinner with good friends, and that was really all that mattered.

Here we have, from left to right, Mason’s wife Eva (who was eating for two), Mason, Hyunjin, Andy’s wife So-young, and Andy (who has excellent posture). The bottle of wine in the rear, next to Hyunjin, was part of their contribution, and it was very good. Mason had also brought over a chocolate cake—a real chocolate cake, mind you, not those weird cakes that pretend to be chocolate but are disguising sinister non-chocolate ingredients (a sadly common occurrence in Korea)—and everyone enjoyed that as well. When the eating was done, I brought out a large bottle of Belgian beer (a tripel, for the curious) and we all had a glass. Then I suggested that we try some of the absinthe that we brought back from Cambodia (this will also be in my Cambodia travel journal). Rather than doing shots (which, at 69% ABV, seemed like a rather silly thing to even contemplate), I took a single shot of absinthe and diluted it with four shots of water. Then, as I had seen done in Cambodia, I poured some sugar into a spoon, poured some absinthe over that, and lit the concoction on fire.

As you can see, Hyunjin gave me a very large spoon (this is actually a tablespoon), because she thought it would be easier. When I saw it done in Cambodia, though, it was done with a much smaller spoon, and I think I realize why now—the smaller spoon allows excess absinthe to run off (into the cup or, in our case, glass teapot). With the larger spoon, though, I think I ended up drowning the sugar in alcohol, and as a result I don’t know if the sugar caramelized as much as it should have. Also, the second time (we had two shots in total) I added way too much absinthe, and the stuff kept burning and would not go out. For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to dump the flaming alcohol into the shot of absinthe (I guess I thought the alcohol would go out as it fell), but all I ended up doing was setting the entire teapot of absinthe on fire. I hastily added the water, which quenched the flames and saved the day. Amazingly enough, the little glass teapot did not shatter.

And since no visit from Mason is complete without a drink of Scotch, I brought out the Balvenie for Mason and me (everyone else, apparently, thought that three different types of alcohol in one sitting was enough). All in all, it was an enjoyable evening.

Before I go, I have one last picture to share with you: the photo that depicts what happened to the remaining 300 grams of ricotta...

That is a ricotta cheesecake, fresh out of the oven. I intend to do a separate entry on this cheesecake the next time I make one, so I won’t comment on it here, except to say that I’ve made it twice so far (with some tweaks between attempts), and it has been a big hit with everyone who’s tried it. Next time I will photograph the process from beginning to end and give you the full treatment.

So there it is: part two of the storm of posts to close out the month. I’m actually a day late with this one—I was planning on getting it done last night, but Hyunjin and I ended up going out for dinner and drinks with Andy and So-young. So I’m a tad behind schedule. I will try my best to get my third and final post online by next Wednesday afternoon at the latest—otherwise I will have run out of time. To be honest, though, my schedule is getting rather tight, and I’m not sure if I will have the time. I’ll give it the old college try, but I can’t make any guarantees.

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