SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
The weather is cooling in much of the country. Doesn't that make you yearn for something cheesy and bubbly, like B.J. Leiderman, who writes our theme music? Well, if not him, why not lasagna? NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates talked with three lasagna experts about what goes into Italy's famous layered pasta. She starts with a pasta maestro.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: It's about 80 degrees in Venice, Calif., but inside Felix Trattoria is cool and quiet. The staff is starting dinner prep as chef Evan Funke rolls out pasta in a climate controlled glass box they call the pasta lab.
EVAN FUNKE: So I've got this round ball of dough. I've made a round disc. And I'm just going to make a round...
BATES: Chef Evan is rolling the dough out with a long wooden rod called a matterello. It looks like a broomstick handle made of birch. As he rolls, the pasta is covering more and more of the table.
It's thin enough that I can actually see the grain of the wood table underneath it.
BATES: For lasagna, that's the thickness of nine stacked Post-it notes. It's fair to say that Evan Funke is a perfectionist about his pasta so much so that he moved to Italy for several months and studied under Sfoglino, a maker of fresh pasta. His new book "American Sfoglino" instructs readers how to make all kinds of homemade pasta, including lasagna. Chef Evan is a purist about the dish most of us know as...
FUNKE: Lasagna Bolognese. It's bechemella, ragu Bolognese, Parmigiano-Reggiano and pasta. And that's it.
BATES: And he's not kidding. You can save your ricotta for another dish.
FUNKE: That's not to say that ricotta doesn't find its way into certain types of lasagna made in Emilia-Romagna. It's really all about what you have around you and what your familial tradition speaks to.
BATES: For Anna Hezel, the scent of lasagna is tradition.
ANNA HEZEL: It reminds me of, like, family gatherings on Christmas Eve, pulling out this big tray of lasagna that's just been reheated in the oven.
BATES: Hezel is a senior editor at the cooking blog Taste. She's also the author of "Lasagna: A Baked Pasta Cookbook." She believes lasagna is the bridge between grandmas and professional chefs and a lot of people's memories, she says, are wrapped around a pan of Stouffer's.
HEZEL: So many other people who grow up in America have that same exact frame of reference for how lasagna tastes. To me, the epitome of lasagna has cheese sauce and pasta.
BATES: Hezel has several lasagna variations in her book, including a spicy one that Ethiopians love. It's a fusion from their former Italian colonizers. It's full of ground beef, fiery berbere spice and scallions.
HEZEL: And cheddar cheese on top.
BATES: Instead of mozzarella. But no matter how you make it mild, spicy with pork or beef or maybe a variety of mushrooms, one element has to shine.
CASEY LANE: And at the end of the day, lasagna is a pasta dish, right?
BATES: Chef Casey Lane is beneath a roaring hood in the kitchen of his West Hollywood restaurant Viale dei Romani. He's become famous for lasagna that is comprised of 100 - yes, that's not a mistake - 100 layers of pasta, ragu and bechamel sauce. Chef Casey's bolognese has spices from his Franco Moroccan heritage.
LANE: Coriander, caraway, cumin, black pepper, cinnamon.
BATES: Gently toasted then stirred into a delicate veal based mixture. The finished product looks like a big taut about six inches high. After it's sliced and seared on one side for a little crunch, it's placed on a thin wash of tomato sauce and garnished with fragrant fried rosemary and a few buttery cloves of roasted garlic. Yum. When you get down to it, however it's cooked, lasagna is a plate of comfort. And right now, who couldn't use some of that? Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.
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