My nonna Paolina was best known in the family for two pasta dishes – her gnocchi and her lasagne. When eating either, you were never in any doubt who had created the meal. She always told us her secret ingredient was love, but I suspect it was skill.
Jaclyn says…Nonna Paolina used to serve her lasagne in the kitchen and bring it out to the table on plates. She knew who among us loved the crunchy corner pieces and who preferred the pillowy soft middle. She knew some of us loved the crunchy top, so she would always cook extra pasta pieces to crispy perfection so there were plenty of them. She loved doing this for us. We loved that she did this for us. There was so much love in that lasagne.
Nonna’s lasagne was always 18 to 20 layers high, made of the thinnest pasta sheets imaginable. A light covering of ragu, bechamel and parmigiano blanketed each layer. Cutting through that mound of paper-thin pasta and sauce and cheese was a highlight of my childhood.
Lasagne is one of the most time-consuming pasta dishes to make, so it was usually made on special occasions such as Christmas, Easter and birthdays. Accepting that it will take a bit of time and involve a few different components allows you to relax into the process. One of my favourite things about making lasagne is that, despite my best efforts, I usually create a truly epic mess of my kitchen. Part of its magic is that, while it’s cooking, I can restore order to what felt like chaos. By the time I’m pulling that heavy, rich, multi-layered, beautiful meal from the oven, the chaos is but a distant memory.
80ml olive oil
2 onions, diced
150g pancetta, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 celery sticks, diced
500g ground beef
400g ground pork
2 bay leaves
150ml white wine
800g passata di pomodoro (jar washed out with water)
800g Tipo 00 flour
Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
To make the Ragu
In a large heavy-based pan, warm the olive oil and gently soften the onions, pancetta, carrots and celery. Add a pinch of salt. Add the meat and raise the heat to high. Cook until the meat is evenly browned. Add the bay leaves and wine and cook for one minute. Add the passata and some salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan and cook for two hours, stirring occasionally. Season if needed.
To make the Bechamel
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour and stir constantly. It will smell nutty and start to bubble in about 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually add the milk, stirring constantly. Increase the heat and cook until it thickens – about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and season with salt and nutmeg to taste. Allow to cool and, if not using immediately, cover with plastic wrap so a skin doesn’t form.
To make the Pasta
Tip the flour onto a wooden board or into a bowl (I encourage the bowl option for beginners). Make a well in the centre. Break the eggs into the well. With a fork, break the yolks, beat the eggs and add the salt. Once the eggs are beaten, start to incorporate the flour. Work slowly to avoid the egg breaking out of the well (if you are using a bowl, there is no risk of this). Keep incorporating the flour until the egg portion is thick enough to stay in place instead of flowing away. Use a dough scraper to break up the dough and incorporate any remaining flour. As it comes together and is no longer sticky, start to knead the dough. Stretch it as you knead it. You want a soft, smooth dough. Knead for at least 10 minutes. Place the dough under an upturned bowl and leave it to rest for 30 minutes.
Cut the dough into quarters and work on one piece at a time, keeping the rest covered. Lightly roll the piece flat with a rolling pin or your hands, and then roll it through the pasta machine on the widest setting. Roll it through a second time. Fold the dough in half and roll it through again or into three and roll it through again. Do this a couple of times. When the pasta sheet is looking smooth, it’s time to start reducing the width of the rollers and rolling it incrementally thinner. I love my lasagne sheets as thin as possible.
Freshly made lasagne sheets should be pre-cooked. This means boiling them for a minute in well-salted boiling water and then plunging them into iced water. Don’t cook your lasagne sheets all at once. Do 4 or 5 at a time, so as not to overcrowd the pot. Dry them on tea towels before constructing your lasagne.
To build the Lasagne
Butter or oil a large dish. Spread a thin layer of ragu on the base. Drape the first sheets of pasta over the base and up and over the four edges of the dish with half of the sheet inside the dish and half hanging over the edge. Spread a small amount of ragu on the pasta on the base of the dish followed by some bechamel and a sprinkle of parmigiano and mozzarella. Repeat with pasta cut to the size of the dish until you reach the top or run out of pasta, whichever happens first. Wrap the draped pasta sheets over the very top of the lasagne, enclosing it snugly but with an open middle section. This outer pasta is left sauce-less so it goes particularly crunchy, a delightful contrast to the pillowy soft layers it enfolds. The very middle section of the top of the lasagne reveals the promise of the sugo and cheese contained within. Pierce the lasagne with a knife several times before baking it at 180°C for 45 minutes – 30 minutes covered in aluminium foil, and then 15 minutes without, for the top to get crunchy. The wrapped, sauce-less pasta top means the tinfoil does not stick to the roof of the lasagne.
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Published in ed#699