My Family Recipe

Grandma Jo’s Lasagna Wasn’t an Heirloom Until It Became Mine to Make

Why family traditions are sometimes yours to start.

December 24, 2019
Photo by Rocky Luten. Food stylist: Anna Billingskog. Prop stylist: SOPHIE STRANGIO.

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, writers share the stories of dishes that are meaningful to them and their loved ones.


My grandmother is a great cook.

This is something you’ve undoubtedly heard someone say before. You might even say it yourself. In fact, grandmas who cook well are so ubiquitous and beloved—it’s easily the most pitched topic at Food52—that many of them have found their way into this column. Like Grandma Helen and her outstanding Country Captain Chicken. Or Big Ma and her Peanut Butter Cookies. Grandmas who cook well are the premise of Anna Francese Gass’s Heirloom Kitchen, and the recent Pasta Grannies cookbook.

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So what makes these grandmothers so special? And what makes my grandma worth writing about?

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Top Comment:
“This recipe is as much a Christmas tradition in our home as the oldest ornament on the tree, one that I supposedly made long ago in elementary school that Grandma returned to me some years ago. My dear wife Ely, who's Filipino, learned how to make this recipe, including the crepes, first hand from my mother. After getting her seal of approval, you can be sure we'll enjoy making this wonder gift for years to come. Mangia! ”
— Mike S.
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Nothing, really. And, well, everything. Because I was lucky enough to grow up with two amazing grandmas who cooked for me, and who in turn taught me how to cook. And when you’re in your 30s, cooking for yourself and your own family, that means a whole lot. These are the recipes that have shaped my view of food and inform my own personal cooking tenets: Try everything, sit down to dinner together every night, tackle cooking projects on Sundays, spend on the good ingredients when it matters, substitute with what you have.

So calling my grandmas‚ really our grandmas, special, is kind of an understatement: They’re invaluable. Their recipes aren’t just dishes we crave every year; they contain within them stories about family and tradition, as well. And they carry on not only as things we cook, but also as lessons we learn, and legacies we keep.

Grandma Jo’s lasagna is one such recipe.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve eaten this lasagna on Christmas Day, a first course lead-up to an embarrassment of food. My grandmother would bring the biggest pan of it to my family’s house—enough to feed 25 people to our 10—wrapped in tin foil and swaddled in a thick white blanket to keep it hot. We’d barely make a dent, each taking a modest piece after a robust cocktail hour and ahead of a full-blown feast, saving it instead for the following days when the flavors would deepen and our appetites would restore themselves. It was always better then, anyway.

Grandma Jo’s lasagna is a meal in and of itself. Like traditional lasagna, it’s got layers of noodles, cheese, meat, and sauce. But unlike traditional lasagna, it uses fresh crepes in place of pasta, a detail Grandma and her girlfriend came up with some 40 years ago. The resulting casserole is a little fluffier and arguably more delicate, but cheesy lasagna all the same.

About nine years ago, after my grandfather passed away and my uncle and his family moved from New York down to Tampa, Grandma Jo stopped celebrating Christmas with us, opting to stay in sunnier Florida instead. And with her went the lasagna.

This was around the same time my only sibling, John, got married and he and his wife, Heather, started splitting the holidays between their families. It goes without saying that the version of Christmas I grew up with changed after that.

The years the five of us—me, my parents, John, and Heather—spent Christmas Day together were a little quieter and a little less festive than before. The years I spent Christmas Day with just my parents were, quite honestly, a little sad, though we made the best of it. And on top of it all was this bigger missing piece.

So one day I called Grandma Jo to get her lasagna recipe, pleading with her that I missed it and needed to make it myself. She recounted it to me from memory over the phone, and I took rigorous notes making sure not to miss any details.

“Use beef stock, not water, to thicken the tomato sauce,” she said. “And you can make the crepes ahead of time, cover them in wax paper, and wrap them tightly in foil.”

Four parts, lots of ingredients, and many steps later, it was finally mine, an unwritten recipe from my namesake. And one I had taken for granted. Because when I asked her if she’d gotten this recipe from her mother or grandmother, she told me she actually didn’t know how to cook until she got married and that she had to teach herself, mostly from cookbooks. It turns out, what I thought was a family heirloom was actually something she’d created herself, and one that would only become an heirloom with my having it.

I’ve made Grandma Jo’s lasagna many times since then, but never once for Christmas—it really deserves its own occasion. I’m sure one day, though, when the holiday is mine to host, I’ll make it, when my responsibility of having the recipe and keeping the tradition alive will really matter.

This Christmas Day I’ll be driving up to Canada with my husband and our puppy. We’ll probably have dinner at a rest stop while we fill up the gas tank; it certainly won’t be special or momentous. I’ll give Grandma Jo a call to wish her a merry Christmas and see how she’s doing, how the weather is in Florida, what she’s up to for New Year’s. I’ll ask her how the lasagna came out this year and if she made any good tweaks I should keep in mind for next time.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Mike S.
    Mike S.
  • carswell
    carswell
  • Eric Kim
    Eric Kim
  • HalfPint
    HalfPint
  • Joanna Sciarrino
    Joanna Sciarrino

7 Comments

Mike S. January 13, 2020
As the uncle that moved to Tampa, I can attest to how light and delicate the crepes make it, as opposed to the standard pasta noodle. This recipe is as much a Christmas tradition in our home as the oldest ornament on the tree, one that I supposedly made long ago in elementary school that Grandma returned to me some years ago. My dear wife Ely, who's Filipino, learned how to make this recipe, including the crepes, first hand from my mother. After getting her seal of approval, you can be sure we'll enjoy making this wonder gift for years to come. Mangia!
 
Author Comment
Joanna S. January 13, 2020
Uncle Michael! Thank you for reading this piece, and for attesting to the greatness of grandma's lasagna. So glad you all get to continue the tradition too :)
 
carswell December 25, 2019
That looks like a tasty recipe for lasagna and I imagine that the crepes give it a welcome lightness. The heaviness of standard lasagna noodles is one reason that I rarely made lasagna myself until I discovered the thin no pre-cook type. In addition to being easier to handle when layering ingredients they don’t overwhelm the final product with thick layers of pasta that become stodgier and more rubbery with every reheating.

And as you say, lasagna is always better in the days following its initial creation.
 
Author Comment
Joanna S. January 13, 2020
It's definitely a labor of love, but I promise you won't regret it!
 
Eric K. December 24, 2019
My paternal grandmother (the only one I knew) was a terrible cook, but I love reading about other people's grandmas. Because it makes me wonder, if I had gotten to meet my mom's mom (who, legend has it, was an incredible cook), all the things about Korean food I could've learned. I think, too, she would be living in Florida. Florida's nice.
 
HalfPint December 24, 2019
This is my kind of recipe. Created with a lot of love. The crepes in lieu of noodles just tickle my foodie bone. Thank you so much for sharing!
 
Author Comment
Joanna S. January 13, 2020
Thank you, HalfPint! I hope you make it some day :)