January 28, 2014 • 05:48:02 p.m.

Lasagna for 12 million, please

By Caitlin Dewey - The Washington Post

John Chandlerís lasagna has reigned as the most popular recipe on AllRecipes.com for more than a decade; Chandler says he's "definitely not a "foodie" but he loves to cook. (Washington Post)

John Chandler has a secret, and he guards it carefully, lest yet another friend or co-worker ask him to make it for a dinner party.

Chandler is, by day, a 43-year-old salesman and father of two, a self-proclaimed “Southern boy” who lives outside Dallas and grew up on college football and barbecue. Online, Chandler’s fans know him differently: He is the creator of the World’s Best Lasagna, an artery-clogging tower of sweet Italian sausage, ground beef and ricotta cheese that has reigned as the most popular recipe on AllRecipes.com for more than a decade. It has earned 10,423 ratings and been “pinned” to Pinterest more than 25,000 times. AllRecipes estimates 12 million people viewed it in the past five years alone.

Given the wild popularity of AllRecipes.com – it averages 20 million visits each month, according to analytics firm SimilarWeb – it’s entirely possible Chandler’s lasagna is the most popular recipe on the English-speaking Internet.

“How are you calculating that?” asked a startled Chandler, who has posted only one other dish on AllRecipes since the day he submitted the lasagna in 2001. He still can’t believe the recipe’s popularity. Neither can his friends.

“Most of them didn’t know I had this recipe,” Chandler said. “It’s not something I go around beating my chest about. But it makes an interesting icebreaker, you know?”

Lasagna does seem out of character for Chandler, who grew up in Atlanta, moved to the Dallas suburbs a decade ago and describes his heritage as “entirely Anglo-Saxon.” He learned to cook from his mother – the lasagna is his version of her recipe – and began cooking in earnest as an underage college student, when he realized dinner parties made good proxies for nights spent out on the town.

In 2001, his then-girlfriend, an avid AllRecipes user, urged him to put the lasagna recipe online, where others could make and review it. The dish quickly earned a string of five-star reviews and climbed to the top of AllRecipes’ rankings. Her own submissions, meanwhile, never quite caught on.

“We ended it soon after that,” Chandler jokes.

AllRecipes users tend toward the harried and middle-aged, people who enjoy cooking for their families but are hustling to get a quick Tuesday dinner on the table. As a result, AllRecipes’ best-loved dishes – the ones that bubble to the top of millions of Google searches, spiral around Pinterest and end up, eventually, on countless kitchen tables – tend to be classic and easy, verging on unsophisticated. Just behind Chandler’s lasagna are a basic pancake, banana bread and sugar cookie, each made with seven ingredients.

Chandler’s lasagna is the exception. It takes 2˝ hours to cook, excluding prep time, and its 20 ingredients cost about $40. After an hour and a half on the stove, the sauce tastes good the way a jar of Bertoli sauce tastes good: bright and acidic, but not particularly nuanced. And the ricotta filling, which Chandler makes with cheese, one egg and a bit of parsley, seems flat next to, say, the bechamel sauce that’s traditional in parts of Italy, or the nutmeg- and mint-tinged varieties that exist elsewhere on AllRecipes.

Chandler’s advice for cooks who want to make his lasagna: Let it sit in the fridge overnight; it’s better the next day. And be careful whom you cook it for, because you could end up making it regularly. Chandler takes the dish to events 12 to 15 times a year, often at the request of someone who discovers it’s the “world’s best.” Although he generally doesn’t let on about his Internet fame, it comes up from time to time – such as when he wrote on Facebook about his interview with The Post.

Chandler since has changed his profile picture to an illustration of a mustachioed Italian chef – facetiously, it turns out, because true to his Georgia roots, Chandler’s favorite things to cook are steak, barbecue and “anything else that can go on a grill.”

“I’m definitely not a foodie,” said Chandler, a man who has probably taught Americans as much about lasagna as Mario Batali has. “I don’t have aspirations to be on ‘MasterChef’ or anything. But I love to cook.”

World’s Best Lasagna (Tweaked)

12 servings

1 pound sweet Italian sausage, casings removed

12 ounces lean ground beef

1/2 cup minced white or yellow onion

2 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped or minced

28 ounces canned, no-salt-added crushed tomatoes and their juices

12 ounces canned, no-salt-added plain tomato paste

13 ounces canned, no-salt-added plain tomato sauce

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons ground dried basil

1/2 teaspoon fennel seed

1 teaspoon Italian seasoning blend

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more for the cooking water

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus more for garnish

12 pieces dried lasagna pasta (each 2 1/2 to 3 inches wide and about 13 inches long)

1 pound part-skim ricotta cheese

1 large egg

12 ounces low-fat mozzarella cheese, sliced

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for optional garnish

Heat the sausage in a large Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Cook for 4 to 6 minutes, using a spatula to break up any large clumps, until the meat is browned with no trace of pink. If desired, drain and discard the fat. Add the ground beef, onion and garlic, stirring to combine; cook until the beef is thoroughly browned and the onion has softened, breaking up any clumps as needed.

Stir in the crushed tomatoes and their juices, tomato paste, tomato sauce and water, then add the sugar, basil, fennel seed, Italian seasoning blend, 1 1/2 teaspoons of the salt, the pepper and half of the parsley, stirring to incorporate. Cover and cook for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally. The yield is about 6 1/2 cups.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt and then the lasagna. Cook not quite as long as the package directions indicate, so the noodles are al dente. Drain and rinse under cool water; separate them and lay them on a clean surface.

Combine the ricotta, egg, the remaining parsley and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt in a mixing bowl until well incorporated.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have a 9-by-13-inch baking dish at hand.

Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce evenly over the bottom of the baking dish, then arrange half of the cooked lasagna noodles lengthwise so they completely cover the sauce, overlapping them a bit. Use an offset spatula to spread half of the ricotta mixture over the noodles, then use half of the mozzarella slices to completely cover the ricotta layer. Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce over the mozzarella, then scatter half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly over the sauce.

Next, repeat the layers using the remaining lasagna noodles, the remaining ricotta mixture and the remaining mozzarella slices. Top with 11/2 cups of the sauce, spreading it to cover the mozzarella, then scatter the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese evenly over the sauce.

Use cooking oil spray to coat the underside of a piece of aluminum foil large enough to cover the lasagna; seal the foil tightly around the edges of the baking dish. Bake for 25 minutes, then remove the foil and bake for 25 minutes so the lasagna’s top layer of cheese is nicely browned on top.

Cool for 15 minutes before serving. If desired, garnish with parsley and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.

Nutrition per serving: 530 calories, 33 g protein, 63 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 100 mg cholesterol, 760 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 9 g sugar.


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