My husband, James, and I were an internet romance long before Twitter, Facebook, and match.com came along. Way back then, meeting someone on the internet was un-charted territory and a unique experience. Introduced to each other as the result of a project we were both working on, there was a connection we felt from the start.
Business emails morphed into emails sent throughout the day via personal accounts. As we gradually got to know each other, we found we had much in common; in particular both of us were healing from a previous serious relationship that had gone terribly wrong. On top of that, I had lost both of my parents a short while earlier, and James’ mom was quickly nearing the end of her battle with cancer. As emails turned into nightly phone calls, the boy from Boston and the girl from The Coal Region grew closer.
The affection we felt for each other was undeniable; it became clear it was time to meet in person. Panic set in — what if the relationship did not survive the meeting? Things can quickly change in a face-to-face situation! Plans were made for James to leave work early on a Friday afternoon. His drive from Massachusetts to Schuylkill County would be six hours. The intention was for him to return to Massachusetts late Sunday evening.
James had suggested we go out to eat at my favorite restaurant, but I wanted to surprise him and have dinner ready upon his arrival. We had had long talks about my years in the kitchen, my love of cooking, and the connection my favorite comfort foods had to family and fond memories. He shared much of the same, his mom having been a cook at their local Howard Johnson’s for years and who had also hosted large family celebrations.
My quandary was, what should I make? I had a ready library of favorite recipes but was concerned James might not be ready to sample Coal Region comfort foods or PA Dutch delights like shoofly pie, halusky, or liver and onions. Remembering his best friend throughout childhood was from a very traditional Italian family with whom he often ate dinner, I decided on making a pan of lasagna.
I loved lasagna and had a spot in my memories dedicated to Christmas Eve dinners with relatives that featured the classic dish served at a cousin’s home in Hazleton (PA). I always scanned diner and restaurant menus for it and enjoyed trying the many versions I came across through the years. I could make it ahead and bake it off the evening James arrived.
The day of our meeting, I fretted over everything. Would he like the cologne I was wearing? Did the dining room table have the perfect balance between functionality and romance? Was my hair frizzy? Would he actually ever get here?
At 6:15 pm, I heard a car turn into my drive way. He was here. As I stepped out onto the porch to greet him, he got out of his car and walked toward me looking as nervous as I felt. In his hands, he carried a tan teddy bear. As he handed me the bear, we fell into each others arms in an embrace that went on for several minutes; neither wanting to break away.
What was to be a Sunday departure turned into a Tuesday afternoon one. With no hesitation, James’ departing words were, “See you again Friday night!” And see me again, he did. Every Friday night after that, James would leave Massachusetts to come be with me for the weekend.
One weekend, as we sat down to dinner, he looked up at me with a crooked grin on his face. “You know,” he said, “I love your cooking. I mean, I really love it all, but I’m marrying you for your lasagna.” As his words sunk in, I stammered “M-m-marrying?” “Yep, marrying”, he said, “If you’ll have me.”
For a couple more months, James continued to make the long drive to be with me, never skipping a week. The final trip came on a warm sunny day as he pulled into the drive with a fully-loaded trailer stacked with his belongings. Six months later, I married the love of my life in a beautiful lake-side ceremony at a cabin in Pittsburg, NH.
James became my biggest fan of my efforts in the kitchen. Throughout the years, he often stood by my side chopping, stirring, and canning the many foods we loved. I turned him into an honorary “Dutchie” and he fully embraced my Coal Region roots and comfort foods. His encouragement and appreciation of my cooking led, in part, to my starting my blog, “A Coalcracker In The Kitchen.”
Throughout our nearly 25 years together, I often made this lasagna for our anniversary, but would never allow him to help. A labor of love, my lasagna was meant as a gift to him in appreciation of the gift he was to me by being in my life.
When our anniversary rolled around in 2020, we were both a bit under the weather and I did not make the lasagna thinking I would make it next year. I now regret that because a short four months later the love of my life left this world unexpectedly,. Broken-hearted, my grief rises up throughout each day and the tears flow like a waterfall.
My wedding anniversary to James David Fogg is, and will always be, September 27th. Although no longer by my side, he is forever in my heart. “I’ll see you again in another place.”
I found out during our earliest conversations the lasagna James was familiar with from dinners at his friend’s house was a Bolognese style — ricotta and mozarella were replaced with bechamel (creamy white sauce) and a hearty meat-laden red sauce.
Though this recipe calls for no boil (aka “oven ready”) lasagna noodles, I always soak them in hot water for 10 minutes before using. I highly recommend you do not skip this step. Soaking allows the pasta to cook better, releases some starch, and helps to hold the structure of the lasagna. My brand of choice is Barilla, but you can use whatever brand of no-boil/”oven ready” lasagna you choose.
For baking, use a deep (13 x 9 by at least 3-inch) casserole or lasagna pan. I love the USA Pan brand, specifically because of their crisp, straight corners. My go-to pan from them is the deep dish lasagna pan with lid, but it is also available without the lid. If you want to minimize cleanup, choose a disposable aluminum pan for baking.
Both the bolognese and bechamel sauce need to be slightly warm when assembling the lasagna; if you prepare the sauces ahead, lightly warm them before using. (Do not allow either to boil again.)
The bolognese sauce is perfect to make the day ahead, both to save time and allow its flavors to develop. If the sauce thickens excessively after being refrigerated, you can add a little water to it to thin it out, but heat it first before making that judgement.
You can skip adding the fresh basil to the lasagna if it is not to your taste.
Marry Me LasagnaCourse: Holidays, Main Dishes, RecipesCuisine: Italian, Coal regionDifficulty: Intermediate
- General Ingredients
1 9-ounce box no-boil lasagna noodles (15 sheets)
Bolognese sauce (recipe included here)
Bechamel sauce (recipe included here)
- Bolognese Sauce
1 medium carrot, peeled
1 medium rib celery
1/2 medium sweet onion
1 (28 ounce) can authentic San Marzano whole tomatoes with juice
1 Tablespoons unsalted butter
1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound ground beef, at least 90% lean
1/2 pound sweet (aka “mild”) Italian sausage
1 1/2 cups white wine
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon salt or to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper or to taste
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
3/4 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
10 – 12 large fresh basil leaves, torn into several pieces
- Bolognese (meat sauce)
- Cut carrot, celery, and onion into 1 inch pieces then pulse in food processor until finely chopped, remove to small bowl to set aside. Place tomatoes with juice in processor bowl and pulse until pureed.
- Heat 1 Tablespoons butter with 1 tablespoon olive oil in Dutch oven over medium heat; add carrot, celery, and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened and nicely caramelized but not burned, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove to bowl leaving any oil in pot. Turn up heat to get Dutch oven hot then add ground beef and Italian sausage and cook, breaking meat into small pieces with spoon or spatula. Cook and stir until meat is very well browned and moisture has cooked off. (Don’t skip browning the meats!)
- Add wine and bring to simmer; cook, stirring occasionally and continuing to break up meat, until most liquid has evaporated, 20 to 30 minutes. Stir in tomato paste, cook 2 minutes, stirring, then add cooked vegetable mixture back to pot along with pureed tomatoes, salt, and pepper. Bring to simmer, reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 – 40 minutes. Adjust seasonings. You need 6 cups bolognese sauce for the lasagna. Remove from heat and allow to cool about 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming; add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until thoroughly combined, about 2 minutes; roux should not brown. Gradually whisk in milk and bring to full boil, whisking constantly. Add salt, reduce heat, and simmer 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally scraping bottom and corners of saucepan. Remove from heat, stir in nutmeg. You need 3 1/3 cups bechamel. Allow to cool slightly.
- To assemble
- Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F. Place dry lasagna sheets in the deep 13- by 9-inch baking dish and cover with very hot tap water; soak 10 minutes, moving sheets occasionally to prevent them from sticking together. Remove noodles from water, place in single layer on clean lint-free kitchen towels, and pat dry. Dry out baking dish and spray lightly with nonstick cooking spray or olive oil.
- Mix 3/4 cup warm bechamel into 6 cups of warm bolognese sauce, stirring to blend well. (This mixed sauce will be referred to simply as the bolonese sauce in remaining directions.)
- Spread 1 cup bolognese evenly on bottom of greased baking dish. Place three noodles in single layer on top of sauce in center of pan; whether or not they cover the entire bottom will depend on your baking pan and the brand of oven ready sheets you are using. If they do not, they will expand during baking.. Spread 1 1/4 cups bolognese sauce evenly over noodles, spreading sauce to edge of noodles to cover pasta itself. Drizzle 1/3 cup bechamel evenly over meat sauce. Sprinkle on some of the torn basil leaves. Sprinkle 1/3 cup Parmesan evenly over bechamel. Repeat layering of noodles, bolognese, basil, bechamel, and cheese 3 more times. Place final 3 noodles on top and cover completely with remaining bechamel, spreading it to allow it to spill over the edges of the lasagna stack if necessary, covering the surface of the pasta completely (uncovered edges will get hard). Sprinkle evenly with remaining Parmesan.
Spray large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover dish tightly; bake until bubbling, about 35 to 40 minutes. Remove foil, increase heat to 425 degrees, and continue to bake until surface cheese is browned, about 10 minutes. Cool a minimum of 15 to 20 minutes; cut into pieces and serve.
- For assembly, both the meat sauce and the bechamel should be just warm to the touch, not piping hot. Both sauces can be made, cooled, and refrigerated up to 2 days ahead, then gently reheated until warm.