The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

September 27, 2013

Bethlehem cook's loaded lasagna weighs in for Allentown Fair blue ribbon

By Diane W. Stoneback
Associated Press

— Judging by the looks and taste of Debra Lilly's Weekend Special Lasagna, you'd swear her family's roots could be traced to Italy.

"I don't have a drop of Italian blood, absolutely zero," she says, when asked about the blue-ribbon recipe she prepared for the Allentown Fair 's Clover Hill Winery Cooking Contest.

Nevertheless, her heritage figures into everything she makes, thanks to the loving lessons taught by her German grandmother.

"We were very poor when I was growing up," Lilly says. "My father died when I was 5. We lived with my grandmother, who had the amazing ability to make something wonderful out of nothing. If we caught fish, she made fish cakes. We even liked them for breakfast with fried potatoes.

"She let me cut the dough she rolled out for homemade noodles and use the cookie cutters to make cut-out cookies, no matter how much of a mess I made. I treasure the time we spent in the kitchen. She was the love of my life."

Today, Lilly would rather be in her kitchen than any other room of her Bethlehem home. In her grandmother's style, she also prepares everything from scratch, from stocks and soups to sauces. "I hate food processors," she says, and always slices, chops and dices the ingredients she needs by hand.

It adds time to all that she makes, especially the lasagna, but the nurse who works long hours shrugs off the extra effort. "I do a lot of my cooking on weekends," she says. In the case of the lasagna, she makes the red sauce a day in advance because "it tastes better the second day," and because it cuts the prep time the next day when she is finishing the recipe and baking it.

"Even with the red sauce already made, it takes me a minimum of 45 minutes to assemble the rest of the lasagna's ingredients and grate cheese," she says.

She says, "Make sure your 9-by-13-inch pan has sides at least 3 or 4 inches high" so it can handle this fully loaded version of lasagna, which easily serves eight.

You won't need all of the red sauce for layering with the pasta, cheese and bechamel sauce. "I always serve some extra sauce in a bowl, for anyone who wants more on their serving of lasagna. I freeze the rest to use when we're having spaghetti or another dish requiring red sauce," she says.

Along with the time spent making the red sauce a day in advance, an additional 45 minutes of prep time and the lasagna's 80-minute baking time (covered for 40 minutes, uncovered for 20 minutes more and 20 minutes for the mozzarella cheese to melt all over the top), the finished dish should not be cut for another 30 minutes. "It'll stay together better when you slice it, if you observe the 30-minute waiting time," she says.

It definitely qualifies as a slow food, but is it worth all the time? Clover Hill's Kari Skrip, one of the contest's judges, says, "It was a very good-tasting traditional lasagna, good enough for me to try making myself."

Lilly used Clover Hill's Vidal Blanc in the lasagna's bechamel sauce but also poured another surprise ingredient in the red sauce. "Usually, I add a little sugar to the red sauce. This time, I substituted Clover Hill's concord wine instead and it worked really well," she says.

he cook initially planned to enter a new butternut squash lasagna with bechamel sauce she created, but changed her mind two days before the contest. "I'd been watching the judges of the other special culinary contests and realized their tastes were more conventional."

She turned to her favorite lasagna recipe, adding ground pork along with her standard ground beef and using the concord grape wine for sweetness.

"I like the excitement of the big contests on the culinary stage, but I love entering the old-fashioned fair contests for cookies, cakes and breads that win you ribbons and $2 or $3 prizes," Lilly says.


"They're judged by baking pros who know the finer points and technicalities to look for, like the 'crumb,' moistness, doneness and finished color."

Although Lilly worked her regular schedule during fair week, she managed to make the blue-ribbon lasagna and win blue ribbons for her pumpkin bread and cranberry banana muffins. She ran out of time before she could complete her bread and butter pickles and assorted jams for more of the agricultural contests.