And when I want real comfort — deep down, rich, winter night snuggling comfort — I want noodles and cheese. Now that is a romantic combination. How to pare them for this special dinner, however, requires some thought. A basic mac and cheese could be a little too pedestrian (particularly if your partner is hoping for at least a little pizzazz). And most red sauce pasta dishes rely on that great killer of romance — garlic.
I liked the idea of lasagna, but a giant baking dish of lasagna tends to radiate "potluck" more than "intimate dinner." So I decided to downsize this meal, using individual springform pans to create personal lasagnas. They are easy to assemble, cook faster than a whole lasagna and look great on the plate.
For dessert, keep it simple. In a small saucepan, stir together a few tablespoons of strawberry jam with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a bit of black pepper. Heat until just warm, then drizzle over vanilla or chocolate ice cream. Crumble almond biscotti over the top and call it a night.
SAUSAGE AND BUTTERNUT SQUASH PERSONAL LASAGNAS
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)
2 cups cubed butternut squash
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
6 ounces loose Italian sausage
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3/4 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup heavy cream
6 ounces fresh pasta sheets (three 6-by-8 1/2-inch sheets)
1/2 cup grated mozzarella cheese
Heat the oven to 375 F. Line a baking sheet with foil, then mist it with cooking spray. Also mist the bottoms and sides of two 4-inch round springform pans.
Arrange the squash on the prepared baking sheet in a single layer. Mist with cooking spray, then season with salt and pepper. Roast the squash until lightly browned and tender, about 25 minutes. Set aside to cool for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, combine the sausage and onion. Saute until the sausage is cooked and the onion is tender and lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix together the ricotta, egg, Parmesan, basil and oregano. Set aside.
Transfer the cooled squash to a blender, then add the cream. Puree until smooth, then taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside.
Use a round biscuit cutter that fits just inside the springform pans to cut 8 rounds from the sheets of pasta.
Spoon about 2 teaspoons of the pureed squash evenly over the bottom of each springform pan. Set 1 pasta round over the squash in each pan. Spread 2 tablespoons of the ricotta mixture over the pasta, then spoon 3 tablespoons of the sausage mixture over it. Sprinkle with mozzarella cheese, then top with another round of pasta.
Repeat the layering process until both pans are full. Finish each lasagna with a final round of pasta, a generous amount of squash puree and a liberal sprinkle of mozzarella.
Set the pans on a rimmed baking sheet, then bake on the oven's middle shelf for 40 minutes, or until lightly browned and bubbling. Cool for 10 minutes before setting each lasagna on a serving plate and removing the sides of the pans.
Nutrition information per serving: 1,010 calories; 620 calories from fat (61 per cent of total calories); 68 g fat (35 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 340 mg cholesterol; 54 g carbohydrate; 6 g fiber; 8 g sugar; 46 g protein; 1,250 mg sodium.
J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He blogs at http://www.LunchBoxBlues.com and tweets at http://twitter.com/JM_Hirsch . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org