Ever since I was a student in England, all those years ago, I have made an annual pilgrimage to London. On one such trip, when I was young and still interested in trying to keep up with the latest, some friends and I went to a very trendy Italian restaurant, in a lower ground floor space with funky lighting and soigne staff. Our decidedly un-trendy band managed to settle ourselves on the knee-high white leather banquettes and red leather cubes, placed around a low acrylic table. This is not easy in high heels and a skirt, I can tell you. We clung to our uber-hip beverages and chose dinner from a surprisingly simple menu for such a place.
I ordered tortelloni with pumpkin and amaretti, because it was new to me, and I do love pumpkin. The soft pasta stuffed with amazingly flavorful filling, just dancing in a little pool of sage-infused brown butter was spectacular. I managed to eat every bite from the plate precariously balanced on my knee, and as I am wont to do, asked the server all the details of the dish. She even showed me some of the amaretti biscuits used in the filling, which they also serve with coffee. I knew I had to try and recreate this dish, so I took notes – totally destroying any chance my friends and I had of keeping up a hipster pretense. Well, that and me loudly sliding off the leather cube into a decidedly unlady-like heap.
So back at home I went to work. I discovered that butternut squash really produces the right texture and subtlety of this dish, plus I can find it more consistently than the right type of roasting pumpkin, and it’s easier to work with. I started by making this dish as tortellini, using wonton skins, or ravioli with fresh pasta sheets, served always with sage brown butter. And I must tell you, the dinner guests I served it to were mightily impressed, both with the flavor and with the effort of making all those little pasta packages. But it is a little fiddly, and does take the kind of last minute effort I try to avoid when I have a house full of guests. And then it occurred to me to try the filling as a lasagna, and I really think I improved on the original. It’s easier, can be made ahead and you actually get to enjoy more of the lovely filling.
Do not shy away from using the amaretti cookies. I promise, your lasagna will taste nothing like cookies, but have a great texture and a subtle hint of almond and amaretto and spice that will amaze – and leave your guests wondering what your secret is. I find the cookies at upscale markets, in the Italian section of well-stocked groceries, or my local Italian pasta maker. You are likely to have some left over from the package. Serve them with coffee, crumbled over ice cream, or in the topping of a fruit crumble.
Butternut and Sage Lasagna
This is truly my fall favorite. No-cook or oven ready lasagna sheets are readily available at the grocery. My local Italian pasta shop sells fresh sheets, which are great for this.
1 butternut squash, about 3-1/2 pounds
1 large bunch fresh sage
1/2 of a 7 ounce tub mascarpone
5 ounces amaretti cookies
Salt and pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter plus 2 tablespoons
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
9-ounce package oven-ready lasagne sheets
8 ounces fontina cheese, grated
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Place the whole squash on a piece of foil or sheet pan, to catch any drips, in the oven. Roast for about 2 hours until soft when you squeeze it (wearing oven mitts obviously).
Before the squash is ready (no more than an hour before use), heat the stick of butter in a small saucepan until foamy and beginning to brown. It will smell nutty. Watch carefully so it doesn’t burn. Remove from the heat and stir in one sprig (about 4 leaves) of the sage. Leave to infuse for about 10 minutes. Strain through a cheesecloth into a small bowl. If the butter starts to solidify before use, microwave at half power for a few seconds.
Right before the squash is ready, chop the remaining sage leaves (reserve 3 whole leaves for garnish) and set aside. Place the amaretti in a zip top bag and crush roughly. You can do this with your hands, they will pop apart. You should end up with 1 cup of crumbs.
When the squash is ready, remove from the oven and split open carefully. Holding the squash with a tea towel, scoop out the seeds and fiber strings and discard. Scoop the flesh into a bowl. It will come away from the skin easily. Break up with a fork. Add the chopped sage and the mascarpone and mash with the fork until smooth and soft (you can use more mascarpone if needed). You want a soft, almost spreadable consistentcy. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the amaretti crumbs. Set aside.
For the béchamel sauce: In a medium saucepan, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter. Whisk in the flour and continue whisking until smooth and incorporated, about 2 minutes. Do not let it brown. Whisk in the milk and continue cooking until thickened and smooth and the floury taste no longer lingers. Whisk in all but about two tablespoons of the sage browned butter, reserving the rest. Whisk in the nutmeg and a generous seasoning of salt. Set aside.
To assemble the lasagna, pour just enough (about 1 tablespoon) of the browned butter in the bottom of a 3 quart baking dish (mine is about 8" x 11"). Swirl to coat the dish. You want to prevent the noodles from sticking or drying out, but too much will make the bottom greasy. Cover the bottom with a layer of noodles. Spread half of the squash mixture evenly over the noodles. Add another layer of noodles. Sprinkle over three-quarters of the grated fontina. Add a layer of noodles. Spread over the remaining squash mixture. Top with one more layer of noodles. Spread over the béchamel sauce and sprinkle over the remaining fontina. Decorate with a line of sage leaves. Drizzle any remaining brown butter over the top. The lasagna can sit for several hours in the fridge before baking.
Bake at 400 degrees F. for 30 minutes or until hot through and bubbling. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving.
If you’d like, use the squash filling to make ravioli using packaged wonton wrappers. Boil until the ravioli float, drain and serve with the browned butter (you’ll want to double that recipe).
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