The Kernel of a Happy Memory
Lasagne alla bolognese
Today I would like to talk to you about a very important subject on which you may have already formed certain opinions: lasagne. And not just any lasagne, but lasagne alla bolognese, the archetype of the form. (Says I, a half-Italian who spends considerable amounts of time in Marche and learned to make said lasagne from a Bolognese cook, so take this with a grain of salt and know that I know full well that Campanians feel differently about things.)
I want to share with you what I know, not only because I believe this type of lasagne to be one of humankind’s greatest culinary inventions, but because it can be surprisingly difficult to find accurate representations of it outside of Emilia Romagna and perhaps Marche (where it is sometimes known as millefoglie, just to confuse things), let alone anywhere else. And because classic lasagne alla bolognese is such a delectable thing, I very much would like to spread the gospel of its deliciousness.
A truly, truly traditional lasagne alla bolognese is made with green (spinach) pasta sheets, meat sauce, béchamel and grated Parmesan cheese. Over time, the rules have relaxed somewhat to allow plain pasta sheets in this dish. But no other tweaks have ever been approved.
Yes, to achieve peak lasagne perfection, you must adhere to the rules of its preparation. Oh, I know that Italians may seem all easy going and dolce vita, but when it comes to food rules, they get as rigid as any thin-lipped northern European. Messing with this recipe because you think a bit of garlic or some slices of mozzarella might improve it will result in something that you absolutely cannot call lasagne alla bolognese and I think you should do your best to resist the urge. You do not want to incur Italian food scorn; it’s unparalleled. I’m sorry to be pedantic about things, but that’s the deal with mastering the art form of anything, isn’t it?
So, to start, a proper lasagne alla bolognese is made with four essential parts—long-cooked meat ragù, sheets of fresh egg pasta, béchamel sauce and Parmesan cheese. That is it. No mozzarella, no crème fraîche, no ricotta, no spinach, no hard-boiled eggs. Furthermore, do not flavor lasagne alla bolognese with any kind of herbs or spices. No fresh basil, no bay leaf, no nutmeg, no nothing. In this purity lies its appeal.
(Okay, fine, some people put nutmeg in their béchamel. My lasagne teacher, my dear friend Gabriella, one of the world’s greatest home cooks, has been teaching me how to cook delicious things for as long as I’ve known her. From tender octopus salad eaten on the rooftop terrace of her Milanese apartment to savory passatelli in brodo at her house in our village in Italy at Christmastime, from rich meat stuffings for poultry to cool fiordilatte ice cream spooned up on a hot summer’s night with mosquitoes nipping my legs, every meal in Gabriella’s home is the kernel of a happy memory of mine. Gabriella is adamant that the béchamel remain pure and the lasagne therefore unsullied by the flavor of nutmeg, so I do what she tells me.)
As may be slowly dawning on you (long-cooked ragù? homemade pasta?), a true lasagne alla bolognese is not for the faint of heart, nor is it a candidate for a random weeknight dinner. This is special occasion food, the kind of thing that takes the better part of a day to make, though much of the time is cooking time in which you are freed up to do other things. (Also, nota bene, once assembled but not yet baked, lasagne can be frozen for a few months. And I have it on good authority that frozen lasagne stashed away in an adult child’s freezer may be one of the best expressions of love a cooking-minded person can muster.)
It should go without saying that serious home cooks in Italy, like, for example, all the ladies in our little village in the Montefeltro hills, wouldn’t dream of buying dried pasta sheets for lasagne, because making fresh pasta is just sort of part of the rhythm of daily or weekly life, but I herewith give you permission to do so if your weekly life, like mine, does not currently have room for homemade pasta making. Your lasagne won’t be quite as silky and succulent as it would be with homemade pasta sheets, but it will still be very good.
I recommend approaching lasagne preparation methodically, one step at a time. Because lasagne is a bit of a production, I am going to give you a game plan to tuck away for your next dinner party or Sunday lunch or, no biggie, the next time you need to express your devotion to someone. I’m giving you the quantities for two full pans of lasagne below, because either you’ve invited that many people over or because if you’re going to go to the trouble of making one pan of lasagne, you might as well have a second for your freezer (lucky you if your freezer is big enough #mineisnt #europeanproblems). But you can easily halve the recipe if you want to make less lasagne.
Start by making the ragù, which must simmer gently for a minimum of five hours and up to seven. You can make the ragù at your leisure, a day or two before you plan to make the lasagne. You can make it weeks in advance and freeze it too. Just defrost completely before assembly.
The day you want to assemble the lasagne, you can tackle the pasta, if you’re making it yourself*. If you’re using no-boil pasta sheets, you can skip this. If you have dried pasta sheets that have to be boiled first, do that just before preparing the béchamel.
Just before assembling the lasagne, make the béchamel, so that it’s still warm when you start layering.
Purchase pre-grated Parmesan cheese or grate it yourself, but do so before assembling.
This weekend, for the first time in a long time, we had friends over for lunch, friends with little children. Complicating matters, Max and I had plans to spend Saturday night away, so anything I wanted to make for Sunday lunch would have to be prepped beforehand. Lasagne was the obvious choice: crowd-pleasing, straightforward, delicious.
I made ragù on Friday evening. On Saturday morning, I made the béchamel and assembled the lasagne. I refrigerated the pans and then we left to bring the boys to their various sleepovers and taking ourselves out to our much-needed night on the town. On Sunday, after a nice hotel breakfast, Max went to pick up the kids and I went home, dotted the tops of the lasagne with butter and, just before our guests arrived, popped the pans in the oven. I barely broke a sweat.
(For those wondering about the full menu, I made a big green salad to eat after the lasagne and a warm chocolate cake with sour cherries for dessert. Fruit salad would have been a better ending after the rich lasagne, I think, but just in case one of the kids hated lasagne, I figured they should have something else to look forward to.)
(For gluten-free lasagne: I found gluten-free lasagne sheets from Barilla at a local grocery store, so I made a tiny little pan of gluten-free lasagne for myself, using leftovers of the ragù and béchamel. Since I’m not celiac, I didn’t worry too much about the non gluten-free béchamel, but if you have celiac or are more sensitive than me, you can make gluten-free béchamel by using cornstarch in place of all-purpose flour. My baking pans aren’t quite 9x13 inches, so I had enough of the sauces to spare.)
Only one small warning before I leave you: Master this and you may ruin your family, lovers and friends for any other kind of lasagne for life. It arouses strong feelings and unwavering loyalty. I love how special it is, yet simple at the same time, and how happy it makes the people at my table. I hope you’ll love lasagne alla bolognese as much as I do and who knows, perhaps you’ll even become an evangelist and come to spread the gospel far and wide!
I hope I’ve managed to cover all the various questions you might have, but please leave a question in the comments below if you need clarification on anything.
Lasagne for a crowd
Makes two 9x13-inch (22x33-cm) pans
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium yellow onions, minced
3 large carrots, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
2-3 teaspoons salt, divided
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1.1 pounds (500 grams) ground beef
1.1 pounds (500 grams) ground pork
1 cup (250ml) red wine
2 bottles tomato passata
1/3 cup (80 grams) unsalted butter
Scant 2/3 cup (80 grams) all-purpose flour
4 cups (1 liter) whole milk
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
Approximately 1 1/2 boxes dried no-boil lasagne sheets (save leftover sheets for next time)
*for homemade pasta sheets:
4 3/4 cups (600 grams) Italian 00 flour, plus more if needed
7 ounces (200 grams) grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
First, make the ragù. Put the oil and butter in a large, heavy pot over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the minced onion and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often. Do not let it take on any color. Add the minced carrots and celery and season with a teaspoon of salt. Stir well and cook for another 5 minutes.
Add the ground meat, freshly ground black pepper and another teaspoon of salt to the pot and, using a wooden spoon, break up the meat as it cooks so that it breaks down into uniformly tiny pieces. Raise the heat to medium-high or high as you do this, which takes some effort. Keep stirring and cooking until the meat is no longer pink. There will be some liquid at the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until that liquid has reduced by about half.
Add the wine and stir well to combine. Cook until the wine has mostly evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the tomato passata, rinsing out the bottles with a bit of water and adding to the pot as well, and stir well to combine. As soon as the sauce comes to a simmer, turn the heat down as far as possible (using the small best burner possible), put a lid on the pot and let the sauce cook for at least five hours and up to seven, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning and adjust, adding more salt if necessary and stirring well. Set aside to cool completely. The sauce can be frozen or refrigerated until ready to use.
To make your own lasagne sheets: Place the flour in a mound on your work surface. Make a well in the middle. Crack the eggs into the well. Using a fork, gently break the yolks and start whisking the eggs, incorporating some of the flour as you whisk. As soon as the mixture starts to become paste-like, set aside the fork and continue with your hands. When the eggs and flour have come together completely, knead until the dough is smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes. Depending on the size of your eggs, you may not need all of the flour, or you may need a bit more than the amount called for.
When the dough is ready, divide it in half and, using a rolling pin, roll out half of the dough on a lightly floured surface until 1 mm thick. Cut the dough into rectangles to fit the baking dishes.
Bring a large pot of salted, boiling water to the boil. Prepare a large bowl of very cold water and set on the counter next to the stove. Line the work surface with clean dishtowels. Working one at a time, lower a sheet of pasta in the boiling water. Let cook for 1 minute, then, using two wooden spoons, gently remove the pasta from the boiling water and place in the cold water to cool completely. Remove the pasta from the cold water and spread out on the towel to dry. Repeat with the remaining pieces of pasta.
When you’re ready to assemble the lasagne, make the béchamel: First, melt the butter over medium heat in a large pot. Add the flour and whisk (preferably with a flat whisk) until the flour is completely absorbed by the butter. Cook, whisking, for a few minutes, until the mixture smells toasty and has taken on a very light color.
Pour in a quarter of the milk, whisking constantly to smooth out the sauce. The sauce will thicken almost immediately. Pour in another quarter of the milk and whisk until very smooth.
Cook the béchamel until it thickens again, whisking constantly, then pour in another quarter of milk and whisk again. Cook until the béchamel thickens, then add the remaining milk, whisking constantly, and one to two teaspoons of salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Cook until the béchamel has thickened and coats the back of a spoon. It should be somewhere between spoonable and pourable. Taste for seasoning and turn off the heat.
Assemble the lasagne: First, butter the baking dishes and spread a very small amount of ragù over the bottom. Place a layer of either the cooked homemade lasagne sheets or the uncooked store-bought ones at the bottom of the pans. Top with a few large spoonfuls of ragù and then a few of béchamel. Swirl to combine. Top with two to three tablespoons of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Repeat with the next layer of lasagne sheets, ragù, béchamel and grated cheese. In total, aim for five layers, ending with a generous top layer of ragù and béchamel and a very generous sprinkling of grated cheese.
At this point, the lasagne can be covered with foil and refrigerated or frozen. Refrigerated, they’ll keep for 2-3 days. Frozen, they’ll keep for up to three months. Defrost in the refrigerator completely before baking.
When you’re ready to bake the lasagne, heat the oven to 180°C/350°F. Remove the aluminum foil. Dot the top of the lasagne with small pieces of butter. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until a knife sinks into the lasagne easily and the top is starting to brown. Remove from the oven, let sit for 5 to 10 minutes, then serve.
Two fun conversations
I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Anne Diamond for Viking TV! We talked about visiting Berlin, German food and some of my favorite places in Berlin. If you’d like to watch, the recording is here.
In January, Adam Roberts had me on his Lunch Therapy podcast and we had a lovely talk about lunch, old-school blogging and a bunch of other things. If you’d like to listen, click here.
For more of my recipes from Italy, check out my food memoir My Berlin Kitchen.
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