You could almost hear a communal sigh of relief as the lecture hall on the first floor of the University of Belgrade’s Philology Department emptied and a river of exhausted freshmen flooded the hallways. It was the last class of the day that started at 8 o’clock in the morning, with breaks no longer than twenty or thirty minutes, barely enough to get a pastry from the bakery a couple of doors down and a cup of plain yogurt. At 7:oo in the evening, when the professor of linguistics magnanimously let us leave the stuffy room to have a drink of water and stretch our stiff legs, we were a pitiful bunch of whiney, raccoon-eyed newbies, ill-equipped to handle the challenges of the university life.

We were just embarking on the second week of the semester. Very few people knew each other, and we mostly stood alone, not able to garner the energy to start up a conversation. I found a perfect little spot on the windowsill just wide enough to allow me to recline and rest my head against the pane. I lit a  Marlboro and closed my eyes, drifting off for a moment.

“Do you want an apple?” I woke up out of my reverie and gazed at the girl standing in front of me, holding a piece of fruit, a bright smile deepening her beautiful dimples. For a second I thought that this could not be happening, not in the twentieth century, not in a city as jaded as Belgrade, and particularly not to me. I took the offering and scooted aside, making room for her. I immediately brought out my pack of cigarettes, shook one loose for her, and we sat there, smoking and crunching on the juicy apples. When we went back to class, we sat together and spent the remaining time whispering and chuckling, waiting for the “Piggy” to finally release us from the torture of his lecture.

This was the first time I met Vesna who would become my friend for life. I do not want to think what would have happened had she not had an extra apple. Most of our classes we had together, because she was also a double major in English and Italian. She was from Montenegro and her father was a CEO of a very prominent company. I introduced her to my cousin Maja and brought her home to meet my Aunt and Uncle. I met her Montenegrian roommates, and accompanied her after school to the café of the Hotel Moskva where her compatriots had been meeting since Father attended the University. As our friendship grew, we expanded our horizons and learned many things that were fascinatingly exotic and intriguing about each other, our families, and our friends ( why would it even surprise me to find out that most of the good-looking guys in designer jeans and leather jackets carried a gun tucked into their waistbands? That should have been obvious, for they came from her hometown of Cetinje, a small, but very old and distinguished place, once a capital of Montenegro, which is hugged by the rugged mountains on all sides).

We studied together, we went to the parties together, we explored the city together. I spent a winter break in their house in Montenegro, where I ate eel, freshly caught from the nearby lake and some of the best lamb I have ever tasted that Vesna’s mother lovingly prepared for us. They took me all around their beautiful town, and I felt as if I belonged. In turn she and her boyfriend (and now husband) Jovica came to Father’s chalet in the mountains and skied with us winter after winter. They became like family.

We both applied for a Foreign Exchange program in the U.S.  in the summer between our junior and senior year and were accepted. That June was beyond stressful. We studied for hours, trying to pass as maiy exams as we could before our adventurous trip across the ocean. Sleeping was not an option, but we ran on this particular energy that only highly ambitious, motivated college students can recognize. We could not go back to our hometowns to recuperate and prepare for the coming trip. June 25th loomed ahead of us, enormous and terrifyingly exciting.

On the day when all the finals were over, we met our friends at out favorite outside café downtown, just a few minutes walk from the University. The Belgrade heat made the asphalt sizzle, but all we could feel was pure exhilaration. While we were sipping our Ice caffès and smoking our Marlboros, we were unable to contain our excitement about the impending trip. We were all starving, and feeling delightfully empowered. Vesna suggested we go to a a new Italian restaurant, not too far away, that served more than the ubiquitous pizza. Ravenous for more than food, we boarded the tram that took us close to the Danube. The restaurant was small, but new and brightly lit. It did not take a long time for all of us to order the combination pasta platters, which offered ravioli, tortellini, spaghetti alla Bolognese and lasagna. With Toto Cutugno’s soft voice in the background, I tasted my first lasagna. It might have been really lousy. It might have been an abomination to the lasagna matrons of Italy. It might have been the worst lasagna on Earth. I did not know. I did not care. I polished off everything on my plate, following the example of my friends.

When we left the restaurant, the sun was still blazing and the concrete was pulsating from the heat. We were exuberantly happy and satiated with the meal. The future held innumerable promises, and we felt empowered to tackle any challenge that life would throw our way. Standing in front of the restaurant, on the riverside, we felt the seductive pull of the unknown. We parted, only to meet at the airport several days later.

I have had many lasagne since then, in restaurants, at potlucks, at friends’ houses. I have been on the quest to make the one that would bring me back to those days, but those were the days of pure emotion and adrenalin, and the quality of food had so little to contribute. Anya loves lasagna, and for her I make it often. This time I decided to break out of the routine and make Giada’s Classic Lasagna.

It was prettier than my usual recipe. The spinach was just chopped on top of the bechamel, and not incorporated. There was no call for garlic and Italian herbs in the ricotta filling. But when I served it, bubbling hot from the oven, the cheese gloriously browned on top, everybody loved it.

This was not the lasagna I remember from Belgrade. To get that taste right I would have to be twenty-one again. I wish! But every time I make another rendition of lasagna, I think of Vesna and our friendship. We are just a keyboard away, and we are still friends. Our oldest daughters were born six months apart. The College Kritter is slowly making the streets of Berkeley her own, while Vesna’s Anita is doing the same with the streets of Milano, Italy, where she is attending the prestigious Politechnic School of Architecture. And all because of an apple.

CLASSIC ITALIAN LASAGNA (adapted from Giada De Laurentiis)

Ingredients:

Bechamel Sauce:

  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2 tablespoons for the lasagna
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 cups whole milk at room temperature
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato sauce, recipe follows
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper

Lasagna:

  • 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef (we have our butcher grind our own)
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese (I make my own, recipe to follow soon)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 pound lasagna sheets (I use no-cook lasagna sheets)
  • 300gr (1 package) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
  • 3 cups shredded mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Directions:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined and check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a saute pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. When almost smoking, add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Brown meat, breaking any large lumps, until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat and drain any excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool completely.

In a medium sized bowl, thoroughly mix the ricotta and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

Into the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish spread 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the bottom of the baking dish. Evenly spread a layer of all the ricotta mixture and then a layer of all the spinach. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread all the ground beef on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella cheese on top of the beef. Spread another 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining bechamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 1/4-inch cubes and top lasagna.

Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place lasagna dish on top, cover and put on the middle rack of the oven and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for about 15 minutes.

Simple Tomato Sauce:

  • 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional

In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and bay leaves and simmer uncovered on low heat for 1 hour or until thick. Remove bay leaves and check for seasoning. If sauce still tastes acidic, add unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavors.

Add 1/2 the tomato sauce into the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Continue with remaining tomato sauce (I use the blender, because I still do not have a food processor!).

If not using all the sauce, allow it to cool completely and pour 1 to 2 cup portions into freezer plastic bags. This will freeze up to 6 months.