#83 lasagna

I first learned to prepare lasagna when I was pregnant with my first born.  I always knew it was no easy feat, but since I was at home and my husband came home for lunch everyday, I had the time & the energy to prepare this amazingly delicious & complex dish.  Then, life took over & I lost all courage to take the time to prepare it on a regular basis, and throughout the years, I must admit I even forgot it was even an option!

A couple of years ago I travelled with both girls to Honduras for the summer.  It was my cousin’s wedding, and not only were we beyond happy to be there…we were also delighted with all the wedding planning & bridal showers that took place.  One of my favorites included a night of Italian cooking at the local kitchen workshop Rojo Loft with a group of girlfriends, lots of ingredients, and even more wine & fun!  There, we learned how easy it could be make lasagne from scratch, along with other great tips for a delicious meal that the happy bride-to-be could learn to make in her kitchen.

Lasagne are a wide, flat-shaped pasta with lots of history; and several layers of lasagne sheets alternated with sauces & other ingredients make up the internationally-acclaimed dish known as lasagna.  Lasagne are traditionally ascribed to the city of Naples, where the first modern recipe was created long ago in the Middle Ages!  Today, lasagna comes in all shapes, flavors, & sizes…and in its many forms, the traditional ingredients are usually always the Italian staples, which include ragù, Bèchamel, Parmigiano-Reggiano, ricotta or mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, various meats, miscellaneous vegetables, and the typical flavors of wine, garlic, onion, oregano & basil.  In all cases, however, lasagna is always an oven-baked dish.

For the Lasagna

  • 1 recipe of Bèchamel sauce (see below)
  • 1 recipe of Bolognese sauce (see below)
  • 1 recipe of pasta dough (see below)
  • 1/2 pound (225g) of ricotta
  • 2 cups (450g) of spinach, cooked & drained
  • 1 cup (115g) of grated mozzarella
  • 1/4 cup (25g) of grated Parmesan cheese

In an attempt to make this as simplified as possible, I have listed the recipes for the different elements separately.  This basic ingredient list is for the final phase of putting together the lasagna dish before placing it in the oven, but the very first step starts with the dough to make our own handmade lasagne sheets!  It’s actually not as hard as one would imagine, but there has to be lots of love involved to venture into this quest, and you will need at least 4 hours of busy & strenuous kitchen time (which can be divided in the previous days if you wish to prepare the pasta & the sauces beforehand).

For the Pasta Dough

  • 2-3/4 cups (350g) of all-purpose flour
  • 3 eggs

Add the flour & eggs to a food processor and pulse just enough to combine.  You can also mound the flour on the countertop and make a well in the center, pour the eggs into the well and use a fork to mix the eggs with the flour.  You will slowly get a slightly dry & compact dough that will need lots & lots of work – I sure felt it the next day in my arms!  Kitchen pasta machines, or pasta makers, are popular with cooks and I totally see why now.  Knead the dough for what seems an eternity for it to become one big & smooth lump.  Keep kneading and working the dough with your hands to develop the gluten in the flour, otherwise the pasta will be flabby and soft when you cook it, instead of springy & al dente.  There’s no secret or right way to knead, just get in there and keep beating & squashing the dough…after a while, I promise it will start to look different.  It was definitely a workout!  Form the dough into a disc and wrap it in plastic film.  Set aside for at least 30 minutes before you use it.

Most dried pasta is commercially produced via an extrusion process…easy-peasy, huh?  Fresh homemade pasta was traditionally produced by hand…and I can tell you this: it can be done!  Just don’t expect it to look too pretty or to feed more than two!  It’s hard work.  Luckily, lasagne are large sheets of pasta, so with a rolling pin & lots of sweat you’ll be able to roll out the dough smoothly – eventually.  The secret is not to give up, you will get that big, thick mass of dough into playing card thickness at some point.  Then, you can use a pizza cutter to cut out squares of approximately 4″ x 8″ and throw them immediately into a large pot of water at the point of a rolling boil, but not boiling.  Cook until barely tender and remove from water directly onto the layering baking dish.

For the Bolognese Sauce

  • 1/2 cup (120ml) of olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon of chopped garlic
  • 1/2 cup (75g) of chopped white onion
  • 1 pound (450g) of ground beef
  • 2-1/2 cups (500g) of grated tomatoes
  • Fresh oregano
  • Fresh basil
  • 1 tablespoon of ground chili peppers
  • 1 tablespoon of ground paprika
  • Salt & pepper

This meat-based sauce originated in Bologna and is customarily used to dress tagliatelle al ragù and to prepare lasagne alla bolognese.  Genuine ragù alla bolognese is a slowly cooked sauce, and its preparation involves several very special techniques…outside Italy, the bolognese sauce we have come to known often refers to a tomato-based sauce to which minced meat has been added and eaten as part of the infamous dish spaghetti bolognese (in spite of complaints against it as one of the crimes against ragù on behalf of the Italian community).

This simple version works well for the lasagna, but it doesn’t represent the authentic bolognese sauce I will be preparing the near future with some delicious tagliatelle.  In a medium-sized skillet over medium heat, add olive oil and cook onions & garlic until fragrant & translucent.  Add the ground beef & cook through until brown.  Add the tomatoes, herbs, & spices and heat to a boil.  Reduce to a thick sauce that shows beef as the main ingredient with surprisingly little tomato.

For the Bèchamel Sauce

  • 2 cups (500ml) of whole milk
  • 2 tablespoons of butter
  • 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 1 twig of thyme
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground nutmeg
  • Salt & pepper

Bèchamel is just a fancy name for the all-purpose, good-for-everything white sauce.  Even though it first appeared in Italian cookbooks, constituting one of the simplest sauces of the Italian cuisine, it’s now considered one of the mother sauces of French cuisine.  Made from a white roux and milk, it’s used as the base for many other sauces.

In a saucepan, add the milk with half an onion, the thyme, & the bay leaves.  Bring to a boil on medium heat.  Strain the milk mixture and set aside.  To make the roux, melt the butter in a sauce pan and slowly add the flour, whisking constantly until the flour is incorporated and cooking until at least the point where a raw flour taste is no longer apparent but the color is still white.  Add the strained milk mixture and whisk constantly on medium heat until the mixture has thickened.  Add salt & pepper to taste.

Now to the easy part!  Time to layer our lasagne for our final stretch.  Grease a 13x9x2-inch lasagna dish with olive oil and place the first layer of lasagne (I worked with three sheets for each layer), overlapping the noodle sheets slightly.  Add half the bolognese sauce and spread evenly, reserve the other half for later.  Add an even layer with half the mozzarella and cover with another 3 sheets of lasagne. Add all the spinach you deem necessary and top with the ricotta, spreading evenly with a spatula.  Add another layer of lasagne and start all over, until you reach the top of the dish.  Add a great, big topping of Bèchamel sauce and Parmesan cheese.

Set the oven to 350°F (180°C).  Cover the lasagna dish loosely with aluminum foil and bake for 40 minutes, until bubbly.  Remove the foil and cook for an additional 10 minutes, until browned.  Let stand for about 15 minutes before serving.  Enjoy this absolutely delicious dish made from scratch with all the love it deserves!

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