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Edmondo “Papa” Zacchini made a name for himself with his human cannonball circus act, but he is also the reason why Wayne Wright of Normal, Ill., can’t eat out at Italian restaurants anymore.
Wright met Zacchini back in the ’70s when Wright, who was a circus performer for most of his life, worked as an “honorary Zacchini” and was shot out of the cannon. Zacchini loved cooking as a hobby, and he would make dinner for those he worked with, Wright said.
Those around Zacchini picked up a lot from those informal cooking lessons, but no dish stands out for Wright as much as Papa’s lasagna — a recipe that came about by chance.
“We were in Puerto Rico for a month, and [Zacchini] was in the mood for lasagna, so we went shopping and could not find Italian cheeses anywhere,” Wright said. “So we picked up some Gouda and some Philadelphia cream cheese.”
Now, lasagna without ricotta might sound blasphemous, but it’s been nearly 50 years since Wright first tried this recipe, and he said he hasn’t made lasagna any other way since.
After making a fresh pot of tomato sauce, Wright pulls out a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish and starts building the layers of sauce, noodles, Gouda and cream cheese before topping it with a five-cheese blend that becomes the crispy, browned top layer.
Any tomato sauce will do, Wright said, adding that putting the cream cheese in the freezer for a bit beforehand makes it easier to slice into layering pieces.
Wright and his wife, Jennifer, usually have salad, red wine and crusty bread on the table, where the lasagna takes center stage.
Every time he makes it, Wright said he thinks back to those days of being shot out of a cannon and the memories he shared with Zacchini.
Over the years, the lasagna has become a part of the holidays, the Wrights said. And they’ve shared the recipe with friends and family.
“Wayne’s son and daughter-in-law have incorporated it into their family traditions,” Jennifer said. “And we actually used it for our rehearsal dinner. Before we got married, we had all of our wedding party over for special lasagna.”
And if you don’t have a wedding party to feed, don’t worry. The lasagna freezes well, Wright said, so even one person can make and enjoy Papa’s recipe.
Recipe submitted by Wayne and Jennifer Wright
- red tomato sauce (homemade or whatever your favorite sauce is)
- lasagna noodles (pre-boiled or no-boil)
- Gouda cheese (sliced thin or grated)
- block of cream cheese (frozen slightly so it can be sliced thin)
- Italian cheese blend, shredded
Note: Ingredient amounts will depend on the size pan you choose.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Spray 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.
In the bottom of the pan, spread a layer of red sauce.
Alternate layers until the pan is full: sauce, cooked noodles, cream cheese, sauce, cooked noodles, Gouda, sauce, noodles, sauce, Italian cheese blend.
Bake until bubbling and golden brown, about 40 minutes maximum.
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