As I mentioned in Part I, every DeAnn birthday dinner involves a themed toast. This is a practice I highly recommend. Themed toasts are like a more jovial version of the table question (thought- or story-provoking questions that everyone at a table has to answer). My college friends always came up with table questions during dinner (and still do)—for example: What was your least favorite vacation ever, and why?; How do you fit or contradict birth-order stereotypes?; When have you most feared for your life?; Who would you eat first if we were all stuck on a mountain top?; etc. Just kidding on that last one. Maybe. Anyway, table questions and themed toast stories could have the terrible vibe of unwanted, forced games (the worst), but they shouldn’t. If they do, you’re probably eating with people who aren’t fun or who are bad at telling stories; in which case you should really take some time to think about how you got here. Table questions and toasts are good ways to maintain one conversation in a larger group and you learn funny or interesting things about your friends that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise.
This year for DeAnn’s birthday a smallish group of us drank wine to the tune of “You may not believe this, but…” which was as entertaining as you might imagine. There were fights, brushes with glory, and weird fun facts. I love being surprised by my friends’ past lives. We were all laughing and telling stories for so long that we ended up sitting at the dinner table all night—which is a clear sign of a good time.
When hosting birthday dinners I am often torn between making something exciting, labor-intensive, and new because it’s a special occasion and making something dependable and low-maintenance for the same reason. On the one hand, the event calls for something extravagant, but on the other, you want to spend time with the birthday person and your guests more than you want to spend time in the kitchen. I think that my lasagna recipe is a pretty good compromise. It’s special and semi-indulgent, but it takes care of itself and you can even make it a day early, which cuts your prep- and clean-up-time in half on the day of the party. So that’s what I made for DeAnn’s birthday.
We had lasagna, a simple green salad, Wendy made garlic bread, and everyone else covered the wine. My dining room is small, so once you sit down you’re kind of trapped. It was nice to have a simple, family-style meal with everything on the table so people didn’t need to try extracting themselves very often.
I made the lasagna the night before DeAnn’s party, so all I had to do when I got home from work was turn on the oven, set the table, and throw a salad together. I highly recommend this strategy because I at least make a gigantic mess when putting the lasagna together. You have to cook noodles, brown Italian sausage, drain spinach, use way too many spoons, and, you know, generally make a mess.
I came up with this recipe by tweaking my mom’s classic lasagna. She keeps it simple with ground beef, sauce, and cheese. I pile on the flavor and texture by using Italian sausage and adding vegetables. Several people have asked for the recipe, which in my book means it’s a little famous. So, all rights reserved, etc.
- one package of your favorite lasagna noodles
- two (24 oz.) jars of your favorite pasta sauce
- 1/2 C red wine
- 5-6 Italian sausages (I prefer spicy, but sweet would work)
- 4 C grated mozzarella cheese
- 15 oz. ricotta cheese
- 16 oz. chopped frozen spinach (thawed and drained)
- one large onion
- one red pepper
- one yellow pepper
- a pinch of red pepper flakes
- Cook the noodles according to package directions, drain, and run under cold water so they don’t stick together. Do not overcook, because they will cook more in the oven.
- Remove the Italian sausages from their casings and brown in large skillet or dutch oven, then drain the fat.
- Add the 1/2 C wine and deglaze, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
- Add the pasta sauce and pinch of red pepper flakes, stir, and turn off the heat.
- Slice the onion and peppers as thinly as you possibly can.
- Spoon a thin layer of sauce in a 13×9 baking dish, then lasagna noodles. Spoon dollops of ricotta cheese evenly over the noodles, then spinach, sliced onion and peppers, mozzarella, sauce, noodles again, and repeat until the dish is almost overfilled. Be sure to top with a layer of the mozzarella cheese.
- Bake the lasagna on a cookie sheet at 350 for about 45 minutes (until the lasagna is hot and bubbling). If the cheese on top is browning too much, cover with foil until it’s finished.
This lasagna is seriously the best. It’s rich, just a tiny bit spicy, and has a great depth of flavor. It is hearty and filling, but also has a fresh crispness from the barely cooked peppers and onions.
DeAnn’s favorite dessert is cobbler, so we finished the night with a frighteningly delicious berry crisp with dark chocolate that the Dahms made and some vanilla ice cream.
The candles might have melted just a little in the hot crisp. It was probably worth it. Many happy returns, DeAnn.