It’s the professor’s birthday, this weekend, and each year I try to make him a decent meal to celebrate his being one year older than me. He’s actually seven-months-and-five-days older, but I prefer to round. Up.
For the last few years I believe his birthday dinner – of choice – has been squash ravioli and either creme brulee or the turtle cake (recipe) from Cafe Latte in St. Paul, Minnesota. So this year, when I saw a recipe for squash lasagne on Pinterest (evil time sucking vortex and source of all my misguided ideas) I decided to try it.
Roasted, pureed squash and sweet potato. Mascarpone, mozzarella and parmesan. Sage. All combined in a hot-from-the-oven lasagne. Thank you.
What could go wrong (save the clogging of arteries from saturated fat)?
The funny thing is, years ago, when it was just the two of us, we’d go out to dinner for birthdays. To restaurants. At a time when I probably could have slaved in a messy kitchen for an entire day. With little consequence save a long clean-up.
Now, when I don’t have the time, or the counterspace, and three somewhat demanding people running over my feet, I choose – somewhat delusionally – to slave in the kitchen, thinking it will be ‘no problem at all’ to whip up a complicated meal.
It’s a strange kind of optimism that I’m afflicted with. I will think the worst about a lot of things but somehow, when it comes to how long things take or how difficult they might be, I will always err. On the wrong side of ‘short’ and ‘easy’.
Like two weeks ago, when I offered to prepare dinner for ten of the professor’s starchitect-friends. Convinced it would be easy-breezy to squeeze shopping, cleaning and cooking for ten (eleven) into a mere eight hours. Even writing that, I still can’t believe it wasn’t enough time.
It wasn’t. Well, in the strictest sense, perhaps it was. I did manage to make the Costco and Superstore runs. And clean the house. And cook the food. To buy ice and chill the beer (I was pretty impressed with myself for remembering those two things.) But I did not manage to feed my children any actual food. And I did not manage to retain my sense of humor about the affair.
And I was up till 1.30 doing dishes.
But this was supposed to be about yesterday’s squash lasagne and turtle cake.
I started with the cake, which I’ve made a thousand times before. But, this time, I decided to mix it up a bit. Instead of using the frosting recipe, I made a chocolate ganache, because, frankly, I’ve never loved that frosting recipe. It’s too sweet or grainy or something. And given my advancing age and declining tastebuds, I prefer richer slightly less-sweet things. And then, since I was already upping the ante, I decided to make salted caramel sauce instead of reverting to the usual storebought Hersey’s in the brown squeeze bottle.
Caramel and I don’t really get along. Recipes will say things like ‘caramel will cook in 6-8 minutes’ and twenty minutes later, I will still be standing in front of the stove, squinting at the bubbling sugar, trying to figure out if, indeed, the bubbles are slightly darker than they were just a minute ago. How about now? Now? Nnnnnow?
And then I’ll inevitably decide to run away and check email ‘just for a minute’ and, when I finally remember about the boiling sugar on the stove, I will come back to some sort of black treacle in a pan.
Yeah, those ‘do not leave unattended even for a minute’ warnings included in caramel sauce recipes are for people like me.
But this time, I stuck it out and I bided my time and I ended up with actual (delicious!) salted caramel sauce. Then I tackled the squash lasagne. I roasted the vegetables. I browned the butter and (burned) the garlic. I added it to the mascarpone and sage. I grated mozzarella and parmesan. I assembled it. And slid the pan in the oven.
And, just after 7pm, at a time when most other children are preparing for bed, the five (starving) Johnsons sat down to dinner. The Hen began to cry about the lasagne before he’d even tried a bite. The Gort said encouraging things like: ‘I like all of it except the crunchy bits.’
I sulkily bit into mine and it was true. Those ‘no-cook’ noodles? Hadn’t cooked at all. I mean there’s ‘al dente’ and then there’s ‘al uncooked’. Apparently the moisture content of the squash-sweet potato-mascarpone trio was not sufficient to soften my noodles.
Even after forty-five minutes in the oven.
It was disappointing, to say the least, to spend all that time on a dinner that’s not entirely palatable. Though I will say the sage scented squash and cheese combination was delicious, and convinced me to try the recipe again. Sans burnt garlic. And with fully cooked noodles.
The cake, I’m happy to report, was perfection. Well, except for the fact that one layer was decimated when I tried to remove it from the cake pan. And the other was ‘dented’ by a two year old sweet monger who thought it would be acceptable to scoop a chunk from the unfrosted top with his bare hands.
It was not.