My Grandma’s Unconventional Golden Rule for Making Legendary Lasagna

published Mar 13, 2024
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someone is lifting a square of lasagna from the tray
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Anna Stockwell

My grandma Adele was famous in our family for her Italian cooking — particularly her lasagna recipe. My oldest sister, Kelly, being the planner that she is, smartly “interviewed” my grandma about her recipes before she passed, making sure to write down every detail she remembered on index cards for us to later reference. Some dishes are easier to recreate than others (especially when you just don’t have grandma’s touch) — but lasagna was my grandma’s thing, so she offered up pretty prescriptive advice. Her one rule that you must never break: Sweeten the ricotta mixture with cinnamon and sugar. (I know.)

Credit: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

If you’ve never heard of adding cinnamon and sugar to lasagna before, it might sound odd. In fact, it might be our family’s biggest secret. I mentioned this article to my dad who sincerely asked, “Lin, are you sure this should be on the internet?” I assured him it was fine and an essential trick we could provide for all lasagna lovers — because it really works so well. It feels kinda reminiscent of making a classic bechamel sauce, which often calls for a little freshly grated nutmeg to add warmth. While making the ricotta layer (an otherwise classic mixture of ricotta, Parmesan, egg, and salt) you stir in a hefty dose — I’m talking about 1 teaspoon — of ground cinnamon and a big pinch of sugar. The warm spice adds a depth of flavor that’s unmatched by anything else, and the sugar sweetens things up a little. I was staying at an Airbnb a few years ago and made lasagna for a group of friends without cinnamon (the rental wasn’t stocked with spices and I opted to skip buying some at the store) and it had all the delicious cheesy elements but was missing that secret something that took each bite to the next level. I vowed to never skip the cinnamon-sugar again.

It’s not a hard-and-fast science on how much of each ingredient to add. Grandma Adele of course eyeballed both and then adjusted the amounts based on how she knew her lasagna needed to taste. Every year for Christmas, this is the one family recipe we must make without fail. And so the same scene transpires year after year in my parents’ kitchen: My dad busily preps the lasagna (leave him alone — or else!) and then a volunteer taster (typically me) helps him decide whether grandma would approve of the cinnamon-sugar-laced ricotta mixture. Some years we claim she would definitely add a smidge more; other years it’s just right. Regardless, we’re always chasing her trade secret — batch by batch.