Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Angela's Lasagna

Is there anything more comforting than warm pasta, tomatoes, cheese and meat?

A few days ago on Instagram, I teased that another historical doll had joined our ranks. Many of my followers guessed correctly that the mystery girl was indeed Angela Terlizzi, friend of Maryellen Larkin! She’s the first “Best Friend” character whose Italian heritage is a major part of her story, and since American Girl’s official best friend dolls are a thing of the past, I decided to take matters into my own hands to bring this character to life. 

I mean, any excuse to delve into the rich history of Italian American cuisine sounds good, right? It’s pretty much the definition of comfort food no matter what shape or size it comes in.

We first meet Angela in what should be Maryellen Learns a Lesson, but is actually about 1/3 of the way through her first book The One and Only, a Maryellen Classic. Angela is a recent immigrant to the United States and in Maryellen’s class. She doesn’t speak much English, and Maryellen’s other friends – both named Karen – don’t like her because she’s different and because one of the Karens lost an uncle during World War II while fighting in Italy. This drives a wedge between Maryellen and her old friends, as she quickly learns that Angela is really nice and super fun to hang out with. Eventually the girls reconcile and Karen realizes it’s not fair to blame Angela for her uncle’s death, and Angela becomes a part of their friend group. 

Maryellen also gets to meet Angela’s grandma and try out some of her delicious homemade recipes. That scene got me thinking about my own Italian relatives and their incredible talent in the kitchen! 

My mom’s mom is Italian American. My great-grandpa was born in Italy and immigrated to the US twice. The first time, his dad decided to return home with the money they’d made in America to live wealthily in Italy, but then the fascists came to power and he rushed to get all his kids out as quickly as possible. My great-grandpa, who had forgotten all the English he’d learned, came over with his brother, who remembered how to speak English, but was deaf. They’d go to job interviews together and somehow manage to interpret for each other. 

My great-grandma was the daughter of immigrants, and her mom died when she was very young. She had to drop out of school to take care of her siblings when she was about twelve, and was well known in our family as a really fantastic cook. I want to get my mom to teach me how to make her recipe for pasta fagoli, which is a lot better than any version of it you’re going to get in a restaurant.

Another reason why Angela felt like a good addition to my crew is my wife has started a nice little herb (and radish) garden on our balcony, and my great-grandparents were very talented gardeners. My great-grandpa probably thought of himself as something of an urban farmer, and even raised chickens and beagles. They grew tomatoes and other veggies in their sprawling back yard, which I got to play in quite a lot when I was a kid because they lived in a two family home with my grandparents. When we showed my mom pictures of the garden, she commented on how I was making Great Grandpa Henry proud. 

Italian American food is pretty much just straight up comfort food, and lasagna is one of the best examples of this. Lasagne (the proper plural spelling of the dish) is a dish with a long history, with the long, flat noodles perhaps originating in ancient Greece or Rome. These would have been topped with cheese and other morsels and served more like a flatbread than a lasagne. The ancestor of our modern lasagne was popular with Christians during the 14th century. These layered pasta and cheese dishes were popular during Lent as they were filling and lacked meat. 

The first recorded recipe for the dish appeared in Liber de Coquina, a cookbook of slightly mysterious authorship and origin, in that we just don’t know that much about who wrote it beyond that they might have been from Naples. Now, this wasn’t anything close to a modern lasagna, as it was actually a flattened, fermented dough rather than pasta and there were no tomatoes or meat to be seen, but it’s still the forebear to the hearty dish we know and love today. Historical lasagne can also bear a certain resemblance to our baked macaroni and cheese dishes. 

The dish had evolved into something we’d be familiar with around the 1820’s, when ground meats and tomato sauce were added to the pasta and cheese. This dish was brought over to the United States with immigrants from Italy, and has established itself as one of the most recognizable Italian dishes to most Americans. 

I actually don’t really have a family recipe for this, so I shopped around a bit for one that would meet my two biggest needs these days when it comes to making dinner: it’s pretty quick to throw it together, and it’s going to make a lot of leftovers. I finally settled on Delish’s Classic Lasagna recipe, and dove right in by preparing about 3/4 of a box of lasagna noodles. The recipe recommends cooking them for about two minutes less than what your pasta box says so they’ll stay firm enough to support the layers in the oven.

It also recommended tossing the noodles with some olive oil and setting them aside on a baking tray lined with parchment paper so they don’t stick together and congeal in the pan or bowl while you prepare the other ingredients. This worked really well – none of my noodles stuck together! 

Next came time to prepare your meat sauce. Lasagnas (I’m dropping the official plural, sue me) can have a variety of meats in them – beef, pork, veal, sausage, or a combination of different meats, or even chicken if you’re looking for something different. Jessi doesn’t like most pork dishes, so we decided to go for all beef this round, cooking about a pound of it with a little olive oil until the meat was fully browned. 

The recipe recommended draining the beef before moving on to the next step, and I’m glad I did. Lasagna is greasy enough without extra beef fat, and it didn’t take a ton of time or cause a lot of mess. I returned the beef to the pan, seasoned with salt, pepper, and a generous amount of oregano, along with two diced garlic cloves. Finally, I added my marinara sauce, which is a completely different recipe that we’ll be saving for another post!

For the next step, we got to use some of our home grown parsley! 

We mixed it together with 16 ounces of whole milk ricotta, 1/4 of a cup of grated parmesan cheese, and plenty of salt and pepper for flavoring. This helps stop your filling from being bland.

And now for the layering! First, a layer of your meat sauce, then noodles, then cheese. Don’t forget your slices of mozzarella cheese. 

Repeat until your baking dish is full, then top with the remainder of your sauce, mozzarella, and some additional parmesan cheese. 

This bakes in the oven at 375 degrees and covered with foil for about fifteen minutes, then turn the temperature up to 400 degrees and bake for an additional twenty minutes.

It came out looking pretty delicious, if I do say so myself. 

(We also maybe went a little over the top with the parmesan cheese because the baking dish we were using was big enough to gobble up the pasta sauce pretty quickly…)

Slice a square, sprinkle with some extra parsley, and you’re good to go!

Although this recipe is probably a little basic and not fussy, it was really, really tasty. It also made a ton of leftovers, which we’ve been enjoying over the course of the past several days, so again, this fit the bill of what makes a good entrée to make in basically every way. Not to mention, what’s not to love about pasta, cheese and tomatoes? 

I hope you enjoyed this peek into lasagna’s interesting evolution from flatbread to delicious layers of cheese and pasta. I’m excited to delve into some other recipes Angela would have enjoyed sharing with her new friends or learned from her grandmother!

And find some more recipes from my great-grandma to share!


  1. Angela is so cute! I love her dress. I also love the idea of making your own historical best friends. It's more fun to collect for a specific historical world with two dolls involved!

    Alas, I haven't had lasagna in ages because of food allergies, but it looks so good! My favorite pasta is ravioli, though.

    1. I've really enjoyed the ones I've added to my collection! They round out displays very nicely. :)