I want to say that this is the best cheese lasagna recipe ever but I feel unqualified to make that judgement as I’m actually not a fan of lasagna. I find that it tends to be dry, bland and heavy–three of my least favorite food adjectives. But this lasagna is the exception and one that is already on repeat in my home (and at least one other that I’m aware of).
I tell people that I am a better recipe reader than I am skilled cook. Beginning with a recipe’s introduction, followed by a scan of the ingredients and a quick glance at the cooking technique, I can accurately assess the taste, texture and overall appeal of a dish. It is said that people taste food with first with their eyes, for me I would say that the first bite is with my mind. It was the magic of Julia Turshen’s explanation of “victories” in the recipe introduction for A Nice Lasagna from the cookbook, Small Victories that made me certain that this one would be different.
A key difference between this lasagna and all others is the high sauce-to-pasta ratio. The no-cook lasagna noodles (my choice, as an alternative to the recipe’s suggestion of making homemade pasta) absorb the sauce as the casserole bakes. An added bonus to eliminating the cumbersome task of boiling and detangling sheets of pasta, is that while the noodles cook to al dente in the sauce the resulting lasagna is more cohesive.
But the most unlikely twist (and in my opinion, the greatest victory) in this lasagna recipe is the elimination of ricotta cheese. According to Julia Turshen, the inclusion of ricotta is an American adaptation and one that I happily forgo. The ricotta is what weighs lasagna down, dries it out and dilutes the flavor, but I always figured that lasagna just wouldn’t be lasagna without the ricotta cheese. Turshen adds richness to the tomato sauce with the inclusion of creme fraiche. The layers of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese add texture and tang.
With these adaptations, what is the final result? You end up with A Nice Lasagna comprised of densely packed sheets of pasta layered with a rich, flavorful sauce and gooey cheese. It’s as easy as it is comforting as it is crowd-pleasing. Smiles all around. Enjoy!
- Two 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes
- 3 Tbls extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- kosher salt
- 1 c creme fraiche
- 1 box no-boil lasagna noodles (you may have a few leftover sheets)
- 1 c grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 c coarsely grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese
- 2 large handfuls fresh basil, torn into small pieces
- Preheat the oven to 400F.
- In a large bowl, crush the tomatoes with your hands 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 one minute.
- Add the tomatoes and one 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 creme fraiche into the sauce and season to taste with salt.
- Set the sauce aside to cool to room temperature.
- Ladle a thin layer of room-temperature sauce onto the bottom of a 9"x13" baking dish. Spread the sauce with a spoon to cover the surface of the dish.
- Add a layer of pasta.
- Spoon over just enough sauce to cover the pasta, then scatter over some Parmesan, mozzarella, and basil. Repeat the layering process until the dish is full (3 to 4 layers), ending with a layer of sauce and cheese (not naked pasta or basil, both which would burn if exposed).
- Bake the lasagna, uncovered, until it is gorgeously browned and the edges are bubbling, 35 to 40 minutes.
- Let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes before slicing and serving (this will allow the layers to bind so you don't end up with soupy slices).
- The last step of letting the lasagna rest for at least 15 minutes before slicing is crucial. Think of it as the way you allow a steak to rest to prevent the juices from flowing onto your cutting board.