Lasagna with Basil and Fennel

When I was in high school, I harbored an unhealthy obsession for lasagna. I loved the stuff. I would order it at any restaurant that would make it and revel in the gooeyness. And having leftovers to bring home was the icing on the cake -- however, I would usually open the fridge the next day to find that someone had absconded with my food. This person was always my little sister, who also loved to eat lasagna.

So the last time I was home, she asked Daniel and I to make one. We decided to go with this recipe, because it's not often you see basil and fennel paired with lasagna. And boy, it was a good choice. We made a 9 x 13" pan of it and the three of us managed to polish it off by the next day. The herbs really add great depth of flavor to the dish, and almost takes away the heaviness that lasagna can sometimes have. The no-boil noodles are also a genius idea -- they're so much easier to work with than the traditional noodles, and they soak up the sauce with delectable results.

Basil can be a little hard to find in the winter, but please don't skimp. 2 cups does sound like a prodigious amount, but the baking does dull the flavor slightly. If you can't find fresh basil, you might have some luck with the frozen kind you can get in little cubes at TJ's -- we used about 2/3 of a tray once with great results (just add it to the sauce). But whatever you do, don't use the dried stuff.

Lasagna with Basil and Fennel

1 lb mozarella cheese, grated
1 15-oz container ricotta cheese
1 large egg
1 1/2 cups grated parmesan cheese
3 tbsp olive oil
2 cups chopped onions
1 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
1 1/2 lbs ground turkey
2 tsp oregano
2 tsp thyme
12 oz button mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 28-oz can crushed tomatoes with added puree
1 cup chicken broth
1/2 cup dry white wine

9 no-boil lasagna noodles
2 packed cups fresh basil leaves

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix 1 cup mozarella cheese, ricotta cheese, egg and 1/2 cup parmesan cheese in a medium bowl. Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the onions and fennel seeds; saute 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms; saute 3 minutes. Add the turkey; saute 10 minutes. Mix in the oregano and thyme, then the tomatoes, broth and wine. Cover and simmer 8 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spoon 1 cup of sauce over the bottom of a 13 x 9 x 2" glass baking dish. Place 3 noodles over the sauce. Drop half of the ricotta cheese mixture by tablespoons evenly over. Top with half of the basil leaves, 1 cup mozarella cheese, 1/2 cup of parmesan cheese. Spoon 1 cup of sauce over the cheese, and layer with more noodles. Spoon over 1 cup of sauce, the remaining ricotta mixture, the remaining basil, 1 cup mozarella cheese and the remaining 1/2 cup parmesan cheese. Finish with 3 noodles, 2 cups of sauce and remaining mozarella cheese. Cover with foil and place on the baking rack.

Bake until heated through, about 1 hour. Uncover the lasagna about 45 minutes in to brown the cheese. Let stand for 15 minutes after you remove the lasagna from the oven before serving.

Serves 8.

Adapted from Bon App├ętit, March 2001.

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Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns were a childhood favorite of mine. These don't quite match the softness of the ones I used to get at the supermarket, but they're a good deal tastier! The recipe comes from Feast by Nigella Lawson, and it differs slightly from the traditional variety, as it calls for cardamom and ginger. The spices add a nice touch of warmth and spiciness, I think. If you don't have ground ginger on hand, a problem that I ran into, just cut a few slices off a ginger root and steep that in milk with the cardamom pods.

Hot Cross Buns

For the dough:
2/3 cup milk
1/2 stick butter
zest of 1 orange
1 clove
2 cardamom pods
3 cups bread flour
1 package active dry yeast (1/4 oz)
3/4 cup mixed dried fruits
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1 egg

For the egg wash:
1 egg, beaten with a little milk

For the crosses on the buns:
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tbsp superfine sugar
2 tablespoons water

For the sugar glaze:
1 tbsp superfine sugar
1 tbsp boiling water

Heat the milk, butter, orange zest, clove and cardamom pods in a saucepan until the butter melts, then leave to infuse.

Measure the flour, yeast and dried fruit into a bowl and add the spices. When the infused milk has reached blood temperature take out the clove and cardamom pods, and beat in the egg. Pour this into the bowl of dry ingredients.

Knead the dough until silky and elastic -- if needed, add a little more warm milk or water. Form into a ball and place in a buttered bowl covered with plastic wrap. Leave to rise overnight in the fridge, or on the counter for about two hours.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Take the dough out of the fridge and let it come to room temperature.

Punch the dough down, and knead it again until it is smooth and elastic. Divide into 16 balls and shape into smooth round buns.

Sit the buns on a parchment paper or Silpat-lined baking sheet. Make sure they are quite snug together but not touching. Using the back of an ordinary eating knife, score the tops of the buns with the imprint of a cross. Cover with a kitchen towel, and leave to prove again for about 45 minutes -- they should have risen and almost joined up.

Brush the buns with the egg wash, and then mix the flour, sugar and water into a smooth, thick paste. Using a teaspoon, dribble two lines over the buns in the indent of the cross, and then bake in the oven for 15 - 20 minutes. (I found the easiest way of doing this was to pick up a little paste along the side of the teaspoon, and drizzle that into the indent by sliding the side of the spoon along the dough. You'll get rather undigified globs if you load a lot of paste on the spoon)

When the hot cross buns come out of the oven, mix the sugar and boiling water together for the glaze, and brush each hot bun to make them sweet and shiny.

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Icebox Shortbread Cookies

Icebox cookies are a treat to have around; you simply keep them frozen in logs, and when your next cookie craving hits, it's a simple job to take them out of the freezer, slice them into round and pop them into the oven. This recipe isn't too traditional (most shortbread recipes call for flour, butter and sugar -- almost never do eggs enter the equation), but it makes for a nice crisp cookie. Don't be afraid to add the kosher salt, either -- the grains of salt make for a great contrast with the sweetness of the cookie.

Just before baking, you can press each cookie round into sugar, or a mixture of other spices. Ming Tsai recommends five spice, caramel and macadamia nuts, or chocolate and ginger.

Butter Shortbread Cookies

1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temp
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 tsp kosher salt
3 egg yolks
2 tbsp vanilla extract
Interior scrapings of 1/2 split vanilla bean
3 3/4 cups all purpose flour

In the bowl of a mixer, combine butter, sugar and salt. Cream on medium speed until blended, about 2 minutes. One by one, add the egg yolks, mixing until incorporated. Add the vanilla extract and the scrapings of the vanilla bean. Scrape down the bowl.

Turn the mixer off and add the butter. Turn the machine to low and mix until the flour is completely incorporated. Remove the dough from the bowl. Working on parchment or wax paper, form dough into 4 logs, 10 inches long and 1 1/4 inches in diameter; wrap and chill.

Slice each log into about 20 rounds. Dip one side of each round into turbinado sugar. Arrange rounds on a parchment-covered baking sheet, about 3" apart. Bake in a 325 degree oven for 15 - 20 minutes. Cool on racks.

from Simply Ming.

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