Don’t get me wrong; I love tradition. But, I don’t let myself be trapped by it. Some people do the same exact tradition every year and that is great for them. But I let myself change my plans based on what is happening that year. Sometimes, we are having family or friends at Christmas. Sometimes there are lots of people, sometimes there is a small group. This year, we are having a solo Christmas with just hubs, me and our 120 pound dog, Tuba. Our older dog passed away right after Thanksgiving and we have ill family members this year. So, I’m making an easy Christmas dinner menu this year to suit our mood.Sometimes, I love getting the house decorated and spending days on an elegant Christmas dinner when I am going all out. But this year, my focus is on my immediate family and making a comforting, yet delicious, easy Christmas dinner menu. I’m not even making my usual Christmas menu. This year feels to me like a pan of homemade, traditional lasagna and a bottle of Amarone vino. With some great appetizers, champagne and dessert, of course. It is Christmas!
While the ragu sauce may change slightly from one area to another, the dish is always a vivid expression of the “less is more” philosophy of cooking. Mere films of bechamel sauce and meat ragu cover the sheerest pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheeses; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavors. The results are splendid.” – The Splendid Table
I ALWAYS make my own pasta. I read a recipe from another food blogger who was bragging about her ‘authentic lasagna’ and she used no boil noodles! Not in my house. If you’ve ever had lasagna made with homemade pasta, you will understand why I insist on the best product. It truly makes a big difference and pasta, especially if you are just making sheets for lasagna, is super easy. Read my blog post and watch my video on how to make pasta to learn!
How to make my easy Christmas dinner menuSo, I can break this up and make it easy on myself. I’ll make the ragu alla bolognese anytime up to a week in advance. It actually tastes better if you make it at least a few days ahead of time. There is just something that happens to the melding of flavors after it cooks and sits in the refrigerator getting happy. I’ll make the pasta up to one day ahead of time. When I lived on the east coast in higher humidity, I could make pasta earlier than in California. But the lack of humidity usually drives me making pasta closer to the time I will use it or it breaks while drying.
Ragu alla Bolognese
A classic sauce from Bologna for pasta and lasagna.
- 1-1.5 pound chuck roast (ground beef can be used if you do not have a home grinder)
- 1 large carrot or 2 small
- 1 large stalk celery or 2 small
- 1 medium white onion
- 1 28 oz can San Marzano tomatoes, core removed
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 1-2 cups white or red wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
- Step 1 Grind chuck roast in food grinder and set aside.
- Step 2 Finely mince carrot, onion and celery.
- Step 3 Saute over medium low heat until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes.
- Step 4 Add beef and cook until red is gone, but do not brown.
- Step 5 Add tomato paste and let mixture cook off all juices.
- Step 6 Add wine and bay leaves and turn up heat until bubbly and wine is cooked off.
- Step 7 Turn down heat to low and add tomatoes.
- Step 8 Add 1 teaspoon salt, but taste for individual salt level preferred during cooking.
- Step 9 Let cook 3 hours on very low heat (simmer) with cover slightly ajar.
- Step 10 If using same day, cover and turn off and leave on stove. If using in future, place in non-metal bowl in refrigerator for up to 5 days or freeze.
- Step 11 When ready to add to pasta, add cream at very end to ragu just to warm.
- Step 12 Remove bay leaves before adding to pasta or lasagna.
The lasagna can also be assembled 1-2 days ahead of time. Again, just like the bolognese sauce, it actually tastes better if you let it sit. You will need to make the bechamel and cook the pasta right before assembly. (Bechamel is simply 4 tablespoons of flour and 4 tablespoons of butter, cooked to smooth, about 3 minutes. Then whisk in 2 and 2/3 cup whole milk, cook about 8 minutes. Sprinkle with grated nutmeg and salt.) To assemble the lasagna, spread a thin layer of bechamel on the bottom of the pan. Arrange pasta over the bechamel, then spread a thin layer of bechamel and equally thin layer of ragu (about 3-4 spoonfuls). Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons of parmesan. Top with pasta and repeat the process. Top with bechamel and cheese only. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes covered with foil; bake 10 minutes uncovered; let set for at least 10 minutes. The assembly takes the longest, so prepare to do it on a day when you are not stressed for time and/or have a cooking buddy! For the record, I do not consider my dog, Tuba, a cooking buddy. Even though he loves sitting in the kitchen with me while I cook, he once stole several lasagna noodles off the kitchen island. This forced my sous chefs (my Mom and Dad) and I to make another batch of pasta in order to complete our dish. Bad dog! (but I do love him…)
To complete the dinner, I’ll make some amazing appetizers that we can munch on with bubbly beforehand. I love these gougeres with bacon, pickled onion and arugula. I’ll also make my husband’s favorite focaccia from Liguria Bakery in San Francisco. We’ll pop open a bottle of Veronese Amarone, also another favorite in our home. The grapes are dried on mats before being crushed. They raisin, yet the wine is still dry. It’s one of the best wines on the planet.
I’ll also make a cake. I always have lemons and oranges from our home at Christmas, so it will be a toss up as we get closer if I make a lemon or orange cake. But what an amazing dinner that is relaxing, comforting, delicious and evokes tons of memories for both of us. So, if you are a rebel like me, just let yourself go with the flow of the year. Stick with tradition if that comforts you, but don’t be afraid to make changes if something different suits you. Or, apply tradition to your menu and not the flow of your day. And be kind and patient to others who may not feel like celebrating the way you’ve always done things. Wishing you and whoever you are celebrating with a peaceful and happy Christmas!