Not eating cheese is just The Absolute Worst. I basically spend all my time counting the days until January is over (although, to be fair, I always count the days until January is over, because January is low on the list of Months I Enjoy), imagining the feel of a ripe Brie on my tongue, or envisioning the beautifully arranged cheese plate I'll treat myself to on February 1st. I've read that cheese is actually physically addictive, and now I know that to be true, because I am experiencing withdrawal.
However, like any imposed limitation, scarcity gets my creative juices flowing (anyone remember the MasterChef canned foods Mystery Box challenge?). When it becomes a real challenge is when I want to make a dish that's traditionally chock-full of cheese. If anyone can figure out a way to make cheese-free macaroni and cheese, I'm all ears (and no, making it with vegan soy cheese doesn't count). Americanized lasagnas are usually made with lots of ricotta (because this is America and WE LOVE CHEESE); traditionally, lasagna is made with bechamel, a milk-based (but generally cheeseless) sauce. I like it both ways; I make it both ways. But in No-Cheese January, I make it the no cheese way. DISCLAIMER: I still used freshly grated Parmagiano Reggiano for this recipe, because I know most of you are not on a cheese embargo. See?! Do you see the sacrifices I make for you guys?!
Honestly, when I took the first bite of this lasagna, I didn't miss the ricotta. I didn't miss the gooey mozzarella on top (okay, maybe I missed that a little). The creaminess of the pureed butternut squash and the richness of the bechamel come together to create a very simple, very satisfying lasagna that really honors the butternut squash and doesn't overpower it with dairy. The sage flavor is really allowed to sing here, too. The sausage makes for a nice textural variation and rounds out the dish, but you could leave it out and the lasagna would be just as good. Since this lasagna is really quite simple, take the extra time and make the pasta yourself–it really adds something here.
If any of you have gone on a January Cleanse of any kind, may the force be with you all. And, for the love of cheese, may February hasten its inevitable return. Happy cooking!
RECIPE: CREAMY ALMOST-CHEESELESS BUTTERNUT SQUASH LASAGNA
For the pasta dough:
- 2 cups all purpose or 00 semolina flour
- 3 eggs, preferably organic and free-range
- drizzle of olive oil
- pinch of kosher salt
For the sage bechamel:
- 1/2 stick of butter
- about 1/3 cup all purpose flour
- about 3 cups milk
- 7-8 sage leaves, chopped
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
For the butternut squash mix and sausage:
- 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeds removed, and sliced into semi-circles
- drizzle of oilve oil
- kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 egg
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup bechamel sauce
- 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- 4 good quality sweet Italian pork sausages, casings removed
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle the squash with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast till very tender, about 40 minutes. Remove from oven and set aside. Get a food processor ready to go.
2. While the squash is roasting, make the bechamel: melt the butter in a pot over medium-high heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for 2-3 minutes to get rid of the raw flour taste. Whisk in about 1/2 cup of the milk, whisking quickly to remove any lumps. Add salt and pepper. Whisk in the rest of the milk and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook till thickened, about 20 minutes.
3. Transfer the squash to a food processor. Add the egg, the bechamel, parmagiano, and butter. Process until smooth. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.
4. Heat a pan over medium high heat. Cook the sausage, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until cooked through. Drain any excess fat away and set aside.
5. Make the pasta dough: place your flour in a bowl and mix in the salt. Make a well in the center of the dough and add your eggs and oil. Use a fork to whisk the eggs, pulling in flour from the outside as you go. Mix until the dough starts to come together, then turn out onto a work surface and knead the dough, pressing it together if it's really shaggy. It will take 3-4 minutes to really come together into a ball. Keep kneading for 5-6 more minutes, until you have a smooth, uniform, dough that's not too sticky. Flour the board lightly as you go to prevent sticking. When the dough is done, cover it with plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 20 minutes. Don't skip the resting!
6. When you're ready to roll your pasta out, have a little flour nearby in case your pasta gets sticky. Cut the ball of pasta into 6 smaller pieces. Roll the first piece out with a rolling pin till it's about 1/4" thick. Set your pasta machine on the widest setting (the first setting) and run your dough through, repeating each setting twice, then turning to the following (thinner) setting. Repeat until you've used all your dough. Set aside on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with some semolina.
7. Begin to build your lasagna: spread some bechamel across the bottom of a baking dish. Add a layer of pasta dough (you do not need to par-boil your pasta if you are making the lasagna right away). Spread some squash mixture on top, then add some sausage and more bechamel. Grate some Parmesan over that, then add the next layer of pasta and repeat till you've used all your ingredients, reserving about a cup of the bechamel. Spread the remaining bechamel over the top of the final pasta layer, grate some Parmesan over it, and make it pretty with some whole sage leaves.
8. Bake at 375 for about 40-45 minutes, until the edges are bubbly. If the bechamel is getting too dark, cover it with foil until it's done baking.
9. Let cool for 15-20 minutes, then cut into squares to serve. Enjoy!