Victories, Large and Small

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I hope that Julia Turshen is the future of home cooking. There are a few voices in the crowd of people talking about food that are worth listening to–Julia’s is one of those voices. I would describe her, in lazy shorthand—the kind used to pitch a new television series, as Ina Garten with a sense of humor (she is the queen of #dadjokes) and a political conscience. This basically describes my ideal food writer. Full-disclosure, I also consider Julia a friend, but I think that only influences my judgment in positive ways. I can testify that she is authentic. Additional evidence for her greatness is the mountain of praise she has received in the weeks leading up to the release of her new cookbook.

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After collaborating on several successful cookbooks as a writer, Julia recently published her first solo effort, Small Victories. I tested some recipes for the book last summer and have been cooking from the real thing for the past few weeks. Everything has been successful, from a boozy peach milkshake to her famous Caesar salad dressing (which is truly the only Caesar salad dressing we need). The book is full of recipes that you want to cook, for parties, for weeknight meals–for everything. But more than any other recipe I have fallen deeply in love with her lasagna. It is weird! As Julia said to me, it kinda feels like it won’t work. It works. You make the pasta yourself, but the recipe is so simple that it feels easier than boiling noodles. (Also, SMALL VICTORY: You get to use that pasta maker you bought on a whim or received as a wedding present (thanks, Emily and Aaron!).) You make a simple tomato sauce, using canned tomatoes, and then stir a cup of creme fraiche in at the end which turns the sauce into one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. Like, spoonfuls are missing before the lasagna is assembled. (SMALL VICTORY: I haven’t tested this but the sauce could definitely be pureed into a soup. (Right, Julia?)). The only other ingredients are mozzarella, Parmesan, and basil. There isn’t any ricotta or vegetables or anything else.  It works so well that it is kind of the only thing I want to cook anymore. I recently made it for friends (SMALL VICTORY: It can be made in advance, making it the perfect dinner party recipe) and we all silently (in reverence!) devoured the entire lasagna in like 10 minutes. My friend Tini, who is a connoisseur of carbohydrates and cheese said: It is like some fancy restaurant shit. And it is. It will make you proud and then make you take a nap. I got permission to share the recipe (exclusive!) below, so get into your kitchen and make this now.

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Julia is going on a book tour! You should all go meet her. She is coming to Chicago and I get to host an event at Local Foods. My friend Abra is cooking some recipes from the book. Julia and I will discuss food and dad jokes, and books will be available for purchase and signing. Best of all, it is FREE. But you have to RSVP. I hope we see you there. [It is worth noting that at Julia’s book party in Manhattan, Sofia Coppola was the host. Which leads to one very obvious conclusion: I am the Sofia Coppola of Chicago. FACT.]

Also, years ago Julia was featured on these very pages, check it out!

And order your copy of Small Victories here.

A Nice Lasagna (even the title of the recipe is rad), in Julia’s words:

SERVES 6 TO 8

The definition of a make-ahead dish, this lasagna is my absolute favorite thing to serve to a big group of friends. It is also one of my best friend Ivan’s favorite foods, and I like to gift it to him on his birthday (I assemble it in a disposable aluminum pan, wrap it up, and include instructions for baking it on the card). There are three small victories here. The first is using a food processor to make the pasta dough, which takes a lot of the fear out of homemade pasta (there’s no precarious mound of flour to navigate or work surface to scrub). The second victory is skipping both the American tradition of using ricotta (which can get watery and even tough when baked) and the Italian tradition of adding béchamel (who wants to dirty another pot and worry about lumps?) and go straight for crème fraîche. It gives you the requisite creaminess that all great lasagnas need to have, but without any effort. I mix it right into the tomato sauce rather than layering it on separately, because the whole point is for them to combine anyway. The third small victory is a high sauce-to-pasta ratio, the ticket to baking lasagna without boiling the noodles first. This way, the pasta absorbs the sauce and gets full of flavor and you get to skip a whole lot of labor. You can skip making homemade pasta (but try it sometime—it’s fun!) and use store-bought pasta sheets or a box of no-cook lasagna noodles.

SAUCE

  • Two  28-oz [794-g] cans whole peeled tomatoes
  • 3 Tbsp  extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • Kosher salt
  • 1 cup [230 g] crème fraîche

PASTA DOUGH

  • 2¼ cups [270 g] all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

 

  • 1 cup [100g] finely grated Parmesan Cheese
  • 1 cup [100g] coarsely grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese
  • 2 large handfuls fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces if large

TO MAKE THE SAUCE:

In a large bowl, crush the tomatoes with your hands (this is a messy but fun job—it’s a very good one for children) until they are in bite-size pieces.

In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil, add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer, stirring every so often, until it is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes.

Whisk the crème fraîche into the sauce and season to taste with salt. Set the sauce aside to cool to room temperature while you conquer the pasta.

TO MAKE THE PASTA DOUGH:

In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, eggs and salt and run the machine until a firm ball of dough forms around the blade, cleans the side of the processor bowl, and doesn’t stick to your fingers when you touch it. If the dough is too dry, add a little water, 1 tsp at a time, until the dough comes together. If, on the other hand, it’s sticky when you touch it, add a little flour, 1 tsp at a time, until the dough comes together. (The exact amount of moisture in the dough depends on how you measured your flour, how large your eggs are, even the humidity in the air.) Once your dough is good to go, dust it lightly with flour and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Let it rest at room temperature for 1 hour.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and have more parchment paper at hand.

Cut the rested dough into six pieces. Working with one piece at a time (keep the rest covered with plastic), lightly dust the dough with flour and press it down with the heel of your hand. Run the dough through your pasta machine, starting on the widest setting and working your way through the narrower settings, rolling it through each setting twice, until it is very thin but not too thin. I usually stop at 6, but your machine might be different from mine, so I’ll just say that the final pasta should be the thickness of an envelope—which is to say thin, but not at all transparent. You don’t want it to disappear into the finished lasagna. If the dough sticks during the rolling, simply dust it with a little flour. Lay the rolled-out pasta on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough, keeping the rolled pieces separated with parchment paper.

Preheat your oven to 400°F [200°C].

Ladle a thin layer of room-temperature sauce onto the bottom of a 9-by-13-in [23-by-33-cm] baking dish. Spread the sauce with a spoon to cover the surface of the dish. Add a layer of pasta (brush off any excess flour), cutting the pasta and arranging it as needed to form an even single layer. Spoon over just enough tomato sauce to cover the pasta and then scatter over some of the Parmesan, mozzarella, and basil. Repeat the layering process until you’ve used up all of your components, ending with sauce and cheese (not naked pasta or basil, both of which would burn if exposed).

Bake the lasagna, uncovered, until it’s gorgeously browned and the edges are bubbling, 35 to 40 minutes. Let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes, just like you would a steak, before slicing and serving. This lets the pasta fully absorb all of the bubbling sauce, so you don’t end up with soupy slices.

Reprinted with permission from Small Victories by Julia Turshen, photographs by Gentl + Hyers, Chronicle Books (2016)

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33 comments to “Victories, Large and Small”

  1. Omg that’s how my mom talks! “I made you a nice salad.” Love love love. Can’t wait to try this.

  2. This cookbook looks like it was made for me (i.e. I would love to have more small victories in the kitchen). :)

  3. This looks fabulous, and like a lasagna with my favourite things (I love making pasta, and lashings of mozzarella), and without any of the things I don’t like or can’t eat.

    Will be making this for dinner this week, with a view of ordering the book.

  4. I was ready to buy this book before I saw this recipe. Now it’s imperative I have it!

  5. This cookbook is everything! Making the Green Beans with Pork, Ginger and Red Chile this evening. Hoping to make it on the 14th. Is it a faux pas to bring the book you already bought to be signed?

  6. Can’t wait to read through this books…sounds wonderful!

  7. I bought her book, and already made her chocolate cake, which was divine. I highly recommend refrigerating it as she suggested, and I made the vanilla variation on the frosting for the filling and use the chocolate to frost the cake.

    I don’t have a pasta maker – would you recommend lasagna if I had to use store-bought noodles? Thank you!

  8. Hi Sally! If you are feeling brave, I would try rolling out the dough with a rolling pin. I think it will be okay and I think it will be easy enough to get thin. Use the minimum flour required to prevent sticking and then dust off excess flour. You don’t want it too thin anyway, because it will sort of dissolve into sauce. I think I’d rather you try that than store-bought noodles.

  9. This sounds like a very, very nice lasagna. Any recommendation from Lottie and Doof is a sure thing for me. Creme fraiche is a miracle ingredient in my house.
    To Rockin Arugula- personally, if I were a cookbook writer, I would be thrilled if someone brought in an already purchased book to be signed. I would consider it a high compliment- more so if the book was stained-up, page wrinkled, bookmarked and evident of frequent use. Cheers to you!

  10. Rockin Arugula- Not at all, bring the book for sure. Just be sure to RSVP because it looks like it might “sell-out”.

  11. I am so excited to cook from this book! So glad you suggested the rolling pin approach above, because I was about to be that bought-a-pasta-maker-on-a-whim person. My tiny kitchen thanks you.

  12. I think I NEED this cookbook … now! I know I NEED this lasagne tonight… YUM. Thanks for sharing x

  13. This book looks great. I was able to “look inside it” online. I’m planning to order it. Do you happen to have a suggestion between the book book or the Kindle edition? The two things about having cookbooks on my Kindle is I can open them on the iPad I keep upright on my kitchen counter, and I have them with me when I travel. I always find this decision a tough call.

  14. Hi Victoria, I haven’t been able to make the transition to digital cookbooks yet. So, I might not be the right person to ask. But I really like the physical experience of this book. There are lots of sidebars and little notes (as well as beautiful photos) that maybe won’t be the same digitally. But I like your reasoning and get why it might be useful. Tough call that I did not make any easier. ; )

  15. A multi-part comment, bear with me….

    1. To Tim, I just love you. I can’t wait for Chicago. Until then, I will just keep re-reading this post over and over. In the crowd of voices, yours is one I always look forward to and trust.
    2. Judi: yay! I love how your mom talks!
    3. Sally: I see so many small victories in your future!
    4. Rachel: So glad!!!
    5. whatfoodimade: terrific!
    6. Rockin Arugula: yes please bring the book!! Will be my honor to sign it!
    7. italian girl cooks: yay! thank you!
    8. Sally: I’m so glad you enjoyed the cake! I totally agree with Tim’s advice. The lasagna will also work with store-bought fresh pasta sheets and, in a pinch, totally works with those dry no-boil lasagna noodles that come in a box.
    9. Jenny: I couldn’t agree more about any recommendation from Lottie and Doof and about bringing a really well-used book to a signing!
    10. Emily: ha!
    11. Dani: yay, thanks!
    12. Victoria: I am so glad you had a look! I’m all for print because I find it easier to use (and I purposely had the pages be not too shiny so that you can take your own notes on them if you want)….but if Kindle works for you, Kindle it is!

  16. Thanks for your response. Based on what you said, I’m ordering the book book. With regard to Kindle cookbooks, if a book sends you back and forth from one recipe to another, it’s pretty darn handy to hit the link. Also, if the Kindle edition is well-done, the pictures are fantastic. I assume some books have videos embedded in them, but I have not come across one yet.

  17. I’ll be making this recipe very soon. I was really pleased with “The Hot Bread Kitchen”, and look forward to adding this book.
    While it’s very handy to hit links to find things with Kindle editions, I think I actually miss things because I don’t flip through electronic pages the same way I do with a book. So, a month from now when I want to make a recipe I saw, I just don’t remember where I saw it. That’s probably just the way my mind works. :-( I did computer networking and large databases for a living, so I’m not computer disfunctional.

  18. Made this last night! It was SO good! Definitely the best lasagna I’ve ever made. Stirring creme fraiche into the sauce is brilliant. It mellows out the sauce and gives it a lovely richness. I can’t wait to reheat a square for lunch today…

  19. Katie! So glad you like it, too! I am really jealous of your lunch.

  20. This made me so glad I got that pasta roller for Christmas! Now I cannot wait to use it.

    I also love that Lottie and Doof and Smitten Kitchen are both singing the praises of Julia Turshen. My two favorite food bloggers recommending the same book? ‘Scuse me one sec while I open Amazon in another tab!

    Many thanks!

  21. Wow. Julia. A *very* nice lasagna.
    For the record, I used a rolling pin and it worked beautifully. Far and away my most successful home-pasta-making experience.
    My creme fraiche experiment was a little less rewarding: 1 C heavy cream + 1 tbsp buttermilk + overnight on counter = room temperature cream that smelled a little off. Over the course of the next 24 hours, ended up adding another couple tbsp buttermilk and even some fresh lemon juice to try to get a good culture started. Eventually thickened slightly and ended up tasting delicious, but certainly fell on the side of crema and not sour cream in terms of consistency. Pasteurization to blame, I suspect.

    Thank you!

  22. Great recipe! I made it tonight and even though my pasta machine died halfway through and we had to hand roll it was very forgiving. The pasta was delicious even if it looked imperfect to start. I think next time I will do 1/2 c of creme fraiche as it was just a bit too rich. Not hard to make at all!

  23. This looks absolutely wonderful and something I would make immediately if anyone else (besides myself) would eat cheese in this Godforsaken house. I appreciate your recommendations on many things so I’m heading out ASAP to buy this book. Thanks!

  24. Ok. It’s decided, I’m purchasing. Sounds dope, and it’s hard to resist a cookbook that looks like a cute gingham cloth. Oh and off topic but I see you love fleabag too! ISN’T IT THE BEST. I’m obsessing. Like, in this very hard year to be a human on earth, depressing/oppressing news everywhere it is EXACTLY the show I needed. Too bad there’s only 6 episodes….

  25. Oh I love Julia! Used to love listening to her when she hosted the Cherry Bombe podcast (just don’t find it the same without her :/). Am looking forward to getting her book!

    Congrats on your Saveur nomination, Tim! Your writing is really refreshing and I admire how you’ve combined your passion for politics/culture with food (it’s not like they should be separate, and it really adds a much needed depth to a platform that can be a bit lacking in that department). I’m a food blogger from Melbourne with a background in fine art too, and reading some of your writing has really been really inspiring. Thanks! Liberty | homespuncapers.com

  26. I’m beyond excited that the stars have aligned and I will be in Chicago the weekend of this event! Can’t wait to meet both you and Julia in person. I’ve been reading the book cover to cover and can already tell it’s a classic that wil show up in many of my friends’ Christmas stockings this year. The tip to add a few drops of water and steam fried eggs is brilliant and worked like a charm. It’s so fun to cook eggs the same way for 20 years and then suddenly have the method improved overnight. It made for a giddy Friday morning breakfast as my family looked on with amusement.

  27. Made this yesterday. It is delicious, the richest, most robustly flavored lasagna I’ve ever eaten. Gave some to friends. They are raving about how good it was. Could not be any better. Thank you, Julia!

  28. Making this in advance! Tell me more: do I cook it completely, then reheat it? Parbake it? Assemble then refrigerate raw?

  29. I’m dying to make this and need to make ahead of time for a dinner later this week. Would it be better for me to bake it the night before and reheat, or assemble the night before, and bake when needed? I really want to make the fresh pasta, and I just wouldn’t have time the day of…

  30. Lasagna friends! Feel free to assemble the day before and then cook a few minutes longer.

  31. reporting back to say that I LOVED the lasagna. the creme fraiche is genius. I used a rolling pin for the pasta – it was delicious but I’m getting a pasta roller for my birthday! My 10 year old had thirds, as did my husband…

  32. I certainly need to get a copy of this book. Not only do the recipes look and sound brilliant, it appears the author is awesome. A winning combo.

  33. How about preparing more than a day ahead? Want to serve Monday night but would need to prepare on Saturday. Have made this and eaten immediately – it’s fabulous!

What do you think?