Sometimes from failure comes inspiration. The lasagna in the photo above, for example, was never supposed to be lasagna. It was supposed to be ravioli: butternut squash and walnut ravioli in a sage brown-butter sauce, to be exact. I'd roasted a gorgeous butternut squash, pureed it and mixed it with toasted walnuts, and it was standing by to be sealed up into silky hand-made pasta envelopes.
But then I made a batch of pasta dough that wanted nothing to do with this plan. Maybe the semolina flour in my cupboard was old and dry, or maybe I didn't mix enough egg or water into it, or maybe my pasta stars just weren't aligned. Whatever the reason, the clay-like lump of dough fought me tooth and nail.
Kneading it was like trying to knead a slightly softened cinderblock. My pasta machine groaned as I tried to press the stubborn stuff through its wheels, and spat it out in shreds instead of sheets. Frustrated, I did something I almost never do in the kitchen: I gave up. I wrapped the rock of dough in plastic wrap, stuck it in the back of the fridge, and ordered takeout. Which left that healthy portion of butternut squash sitting unused.
My girlfriend Karol found it in my fridge the following weekend. "What're you going to do with that?" she asked. I wasn't feeling very motivated for another try at ravioli, and she foresaw a slow, sad end in store for that delicious farm-fresh squash. "Why don't you let me do something with it," she offered.
Her idea was to layer it in a vegetarian lasagna. The other layers: a mushroom and sage-infused béchamel for an autumn-y richness, and fresh ricotta to add some bulk without making the dish heavy. The lasagna noodles, I was glad to note, were not homemade - they came from a box.
The fragrance while it baked was amazing, and it lingered in my apartment afterward like the smell of autumn leaves fallen in the woods. It somehow tasted both hearty and light at the same time. I've written up the lasagna recipe for this dish on my blog. Hats off to Karol for a delicious victory snatched from the jaws of defeat!
- 1 medium-sized butternut squash
- ½ cup coarsely chopped walnut pieces
- 1 tsp salt
- freshly ground pepper
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 small onion, minced
- 8 oz mushrooms, sliced
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 3 cups milk
- ½ cup chopped fresh sage
- salt and freshly ground pepper
- 8 oz ricotta, stirred until smooth.
- 2/3 cup freshly grated parmesan
- 12 no-boil lasagna noodles
Slice the butternut squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out the strings and seeds. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake in a 350° oven until the neck of the squash can be poked easily with a fork, approximately 45 minutes. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
Heat a medium-sized heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add walnut pieces and toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until browned and fragrant, 10 - 12 minutes. Remove from heat.
Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add onion and sauté until soft, 2 to 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring occasionally, 8 to 10 minutes.
Reduce heat to medium-low. Add remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and stir until melted. Add flour and cook, stirring, until flour is lightly toasted, approximately 5 minutes. Slowly pour in milk, stirring to evenly incorporate milk into mushroom mixture. Continue stirring until mixture thickens and just begins to boil lightly. Stir in chopped sage leaves and flavor with salt and pepper. Remove from heat.
Scoop the squash flesh from the skin and place into a food processor. Pulse in food processor until completely smooth, scraping down the sides of the processor bowl to ensure all pieces are pureed. Add toasted walnut pieces, 1 teaspoon salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Pulse once or twice briefly to evenly mix in walnut pieces. Do not over-process: mixture should remain chunky.
Lightly oil a 13" x 9" x 2" baking pan. Spread bottom and sides of pan with a layer of the mushroom sauce. Lay three of the lasagna sheets in a single layer atop the sauce in the bottom of the pan. Spread 1/4 of the remaining mushroom sauce evenly across the noodles. Place 1/3 of the squash mixture on top of the sauce in small dollops and spread evenly. Spread 1/3 of the ricotta on top of the squash.
Lay three more pasta sheets in a layer on top of the ricotta and repeat the above process two more times. Place final three pasta sheets on top and spread with remaining sauce. Cover with shredded parmesan. Bake in 350° oven until filling is bubbly and top is browned, approximately 35 - 45 minutes. Remove from oven to a cooling rack and allow to set for 15 minutes before cutting.
By David Klopfenstein
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