When it comes to holidays, I somehow always manage to romanticize my ability at crafting. In reality, though, the closest thing to crafting that I’ve ever (successfully) done is read Amy Sedaris’, “Simple Times” front to back, a half-dozen times.
Easter is particularly problematic at it seems to light up the part of my brain that believes I’m a crafter, rattling awake after a long post-Christmas dormancy period. One Easter, a couple of years ago, I was hell-bent on making homemade marshmallows, imagining all of the neat thematic shapes I would make (Chicks! Baby bunnies! Oh, how marvelous and squishy they will be!). I looked up recipes, bought a candy thermometer, and kept an eye out for bunny-shaped cookie cutters. Thankfully, I have enough Anglo-Saxon pragmatism coursing through my veins (thanks, Dad) to set me straight, reminding me that DIY projects involving boiling candy can unleash a Pandora’s box of nightmarish mishaps, especially for the uninitiated. So while my soft side was under the spell of an ambrosial marshmallow haze, my sensible side was there to remind me that getting burned by the candy thermometer and smearing of sticky, gelatinous blobs onto everything in sight, including my hair, was probably not all that great.
Notwithstanding the voice of reason, my fantasy of becoming craft-lady extraordinaire still manages to inject itself into plans that are supposed to be easy, lovely and stress-free…
…like that time I decided to make a giant piñata.
This year, right around Easter, it was my goddaughter’s 5th birthday – an occasion for which I was asked to make a piñata for the kids’ party. Being a godmother is a role I take fairly seriously, but if I’m being perfectly honest, it has never extended beyond reading a few stories, making abstract finger-paintings and letting her stay up past her bedtime. I’ve maybe braided her hair. Once. All in all, though, it’s been a pretty laid-back gig. Making her birthday-piñata felt like the next step in my godmother duties. Perhaps not as elaborate as making a horse-drawn carriage and ball gown appear out of thin air, but still.
Now, it goes without saying that I’m the furthest thing from a piñata/papier mâché expert. My mental Roladex is pretty sparse in that department. But I did my homework, consulting Youtube and Pinterest and noting down suggestions made by friends. I bought taffy and ribbon and crêpe paper and a ginormous balloon. THIS GODMOTHER WAS GOING TO MAKE THE BEST EASTER EGG-BIRTHDAY PIÑATA EVER. But I was also recovering from shoulder surgery and could barely tie my shoes. (Clearly, my Anglo-Saxon pragmatism was on holiday. Probably off on a beach, sipping a margarita.)
The details of the piñata-demise are not particularly thrilling, but long story short, the balloon deflated before all the layers had dried and the papier-mâché shell collapsed into a pathetic pile at the bottom of the bathtub. In a sorry attempt to revive it, I slipped in a second balloon and blew it up as quickly as I could. It was like trying to douse a beached whale with little sandcastle-pails filled with water – desperate and ultimately useless (to indulge in some schadenfreude, you can find a photo of it in the slideshow further below). Not wanting to flake on a promise I had made to a 5-year-old, I rushed to the party supply store 20 minutes before closing and bought a dubious-looking, ruffly paper cow with crooked eyes, made in China. Anglo-Saxon pragmatism restored, but craft-romanticism crushed.
Luckily, there was Easter dinner the next day to distract me from the wreckage and restore faith in my ability to make things – at least of the culinary variety. While my brother, dad and I were in charge of salads and sides, mom was at the helm constructing a handsome lasagna, several frilly layers high. While it’s not something we typically have at Easter, the lamb seemed quite pleased to be curled up against that hot mess of béchamel and noodles.
You may want to do the same.
Mamma’s Easter Lasagna
1 package oven ready lasagna pasta (375 grams or 3/4 lb)
1 cup water
1 cup grated mozzarella
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3 tablespoons extra virgin oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 lb minced veal
1/2 lb. minced pork
1/4 cup tomato paste
handful chopped Italian parsley
6 cups canned tomatoes (or better: Nonna’s tomatoes)
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the chopped onions and cook for about 4 minutes. Add the remaining vegetables and half of the chopped garlic. Continue to cook until golden. Stir in the pork, veal, parsley and the remaining chopped garlic. Cook the meat until it is no longer pink and the juices are absorbed, about 10-12 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste. Pour in the tomatoes and simmer until the sauce thickens (40-60 minutes).
1 bunch fresh spinach
1 container of ricotta (1 1/2 cups)
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (the other 1/4 cup will be used later to sprinkle throughout the layers of lasagna)
Cook the spinach. Drain and wring out as much moisture as possible. Chop the spinach and set aside to cool.
In a bowl, whisk together the ricotta, egg, parmesan, and 1 teaspoon salt. Whisk in the chopped spinach and set aside.
3 cups hot milk
6 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
1 bay leaf
pinch of nutmeg
salt to taste
In a medium saucepan, melt 6 tablespoons of butter until foamy and stir in the flour with a whisk (you are making a roux). Continue to stir and allow the flour to cook for about 2 minutes. Gradually pour the hot milk into the roux while continuing to whisk, taking care to stir out any lumps. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and continue to whisk continuously until the sauce is very smooth. Cook for 3 minutes and remove from the heat.
Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in middle.
Spread a layer of meat sauce to cover the surface of the 9×13 inch baking pan or casserole dish. Pour in 1/2 cup of water (if using the oven ready lasagna). Lay some sheets of lasagne over the sauce; add a layer of meat sauce and a sprinkling of parmesan and mozzarella.
Place a second layer of pasta sheets. Spread some of the spinach-ricotta mixture on top of the noodles. Then add a layer of béchamel sauce.
Repeat with one more layer of pasta/meat sauce and one more layer of pasta/ricotta mixture and finish with a generous layer of béchamel and some grated parmesan. Cover pan with foil and bake 50-60 minutes. Uncover and continue to bake to allow the béchamel to become golden.