Auntie's Fireman's Surprise
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Recipe courtesy of Leslie Antonoff

Auntie Karen’s Fireman Surprise

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  • Level: Intermediate
  • Total: 1 hr 10 min
  • Active: 45 min
  • Yield: 8 to 10 servings
There aren’t any Italian roots in my family lineage as far as I know, but you wouldn’t know it if you stopped by our house when the whole family gets together. I have 32 cousins and 8 or 9 aunts and uncles (I’m certain I’m forgetting someone), plus my immediate family is a party of five. Needless to say, there are A LOT of us. One thing we all know is that pasta can go a long way and feed many. Fireman surprise, one of my Aunt Karen’s signature dishes, is really a variation on lasagna. She doesn't use a standard flat, long noodle blanket but instead opts for penne to ensure every piece of pasta is covered in her herby tomato sauce. My absolute favorite part is the ricotta that she dollops in layers underneath the mozzarella. Seasoned with sage, thyme and rosemary from her garden, the herbaceousness of this dish is something I can never get enough of.



  1. Fill a pot with water, add 2 teaspoons salt and set it to boil over medium-high heat. To make the spice mixture, in a small bowl, stir to combine the garlic powder, onion powder, Italian seasoning, dried parsley and bouillon. Set aside.
  2. Add the penne to the boiling water and cook until al dente according to the package instructions. Drain the pasta and return it to the pot off of the heat. Add 1 1/2 teaspoons of the olive oil, 2 teaspoons of the spice mixture and a pinch of salt. Set aside.
  3. In a large pan over medium to medium-high heat, add the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and once shimmering, add the meat to the pan with 1 tablespoon of the spice mixture. Stir in the onions and garlic and saute until the meat is browned and the onions are translucent, about 8 minutes.
  4. Add the tomato sauce and crushed tomatoes to the meat mixture. Stir in the remaining seasoning mixture, 2 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1 1/2 teaspoons pepper. Season with 1 tablespoon of the fresh thyme, sage and rosemary. Cover and cook until the tomatoes have fully broken down, 8 to 10 minutes.
  5. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
  6. In a medium bowl, whisk to combine the ricotta, egg and some salt and pepper. Season with the remaining 1 tablespoon fresh thyme, sage and rosemary. Mix until combined.
  7. In a 9-by-13-inch casserole dish, begin by adding one spoonful of meat sauce on the bottom. Next add some of the pasta, then some of the mozzarella and dollops of the ricotta mixture. Continue this pattern until the dish is full. Then dollop the remaining ricotta mixture on the top sporadically all over. Finish by adding the remaining mozzarella to the top.
  8. Bake until the cheese is melted and slightly browned on top, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve with garlic bread.