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IN THE KITCHEN

Goosh, No; Lasagna, Yes

March 23, 1995|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES DEPUTY FOOD EDITOR

Most people think of lasagna as a mountain of goosh-- good goosh.

My wife's version is an exemplar of this school: layers of ricotta, mozzarella, tomato sauce and noodles, heated until blistering. (Does anything retain heat better than lasagna? It seems as if two hours after it's baked, it can still sear the roof of your mouth.)

This style of lasagna is rich, mouth-filling and savory. But essentially, it's an American lasagna, and like many other Americanized noodle dishes it is a statement in excess (think of spaghetti with meatballs, for example). It's important to remember that, though it is a good lasagna, it is not the only lasagna.

In fact, in the more adventurous Italian restaurants, lasagne (the singular refers to the noodle, the plural to the dish) has been deconstructed to the point that it more closely resembles a plate of fettuccine than that molten lump we so love. I remember a seafood lasagne just outside Pisa that was three broad flat egg noodles, dipped in a seafood cream sauce and draped casually and elegantly over bits of poached shellfish. Che raffinato!

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What lasagne like this does is pull the focus of the dish back on taste rather than goosh. With less cheese, all of a sudden you can taste the filling. Heck, you can even taste the noodles.

Mushrooms make a particularly good filling for this type of lasagne. If you can't find dried morels, use dried boletes (cepes, porcini). If you can't find those, use brown crimini mushrooms. Failing that, it'll still be pretty good with regular old white buttons.

The trick here is in the cooking. If you saute fresh mushrooms over high heat, both the flavor and the texture are improved. High heat seems to intensify the woodsiness of even the tamest 'shroom. And cooked this way they retain their firm bite, coming out almost chewy.

Because the heat has to be high (on my rickety old home stove, I turn the burner up as far as it will go, then leave the pan on to heat for a good minute before putting anything in to cook), reverse the normal process of sauteing--cook the mushrooms, then add any seasoning: chopped garlic, parsley, etc. Adding it at the beginning would result in mushrooms flavored with bitter, burned, brown bits.

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While shopping for this recipe, I spotted in the cheese section a jar labeled "Mexican cream" and thought I'd give it a try. It was thicker than regular whipping cream, with a rich, nutty taste.

When the recipe was tested in The Times Test Kitchen, we used a different brand and its taste and texture were different. Intrigued, I compared a half-dozen or so different Mexican creams and found that they vary so widely that the name is almost meaningless. I found Mexican creams that were as thick as soft cream cheese and others that were almost as thin as half-and-half. The tastes ranged from blandly creamy through rich and nutty to tangy and slightly fermented.

My best advice is to sample widely, find a brand you like and stick with it. My favorite was a slightly sour, smooth, thick one sold as crema ranchera at several shops in downtown Los Angeles' Grand Central Market. If you don't happen to have a major Mexican grocery next door, you might consider the cream I use at home; it is the El Mexicano brand casera crema fresca , and I bought it at a run-of-the-mill neighborhood supermarket.

WILD MUSHROOM LASAGNE

3 to 4 eggs

Flour

Salt

1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon butter

1/2 onion, minced

2 cups milk

1 bay leaf

1 ounce dried morels, soaked in warm water to cover

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 (15-ounce) jar Mexican cream

2 (8-ounce) packages mushrooms, trimmed and quartered

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons Cognac

1 cup tomato puree

1/2 pound mozzarella, shredded

2 ounces Parmigiano- Reggiano, grated

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Combine 3 eggs, 2 1/4 cups flour and 1 teaspoon salt in work bowl of food processor. Pulse until dough ball forms and rides around on top of blade. If mixture does not come together, add 1 more egg, bit at time, until ball forms. Dough should be barely sticky to touch. If too moist, add more flour, 1 tablespoon at time, until texture is right. Wrap dough in plastic wrap. Set aside to relax until ready to use.

Place 3 tablespoons butter in medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Add minced onion and cook, stirring, until onion becomes clear, about 5 minutes. Add 3 tablespoons flour and cook, stirring, until flour turns light golden, about 3 minutes. Add milk and bay leaf and cook until sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. Add 1/4 cup soaking liquid from morels, fresh thyme and all but 1/4 cup Mexican cream. Season to taste with salt. Reduce heat as low as possible and continue cooking, stirring occasionally to keep from sticking.

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