From Anik’s Kitchen: Lasagna

Every kitchen has a holy cow. A signature food, if you will. In my kitchen, that is lasagna, which I first prepared as a teenager after my first stay in Italy. My approach to the dish has changed over the years, but it’s still most likely what family and friends would answer if asked what they wanted me to cook them for lunch.

Over the years, I have prepared lasagna with different ragù sauces, with ricotta cheese and without, with a sour cream top layer, with laurel in the bechamel or without proper bechamel at all… and with lumpy bechamel, too (though that was unintentional) I think I made my first lasagna about twenty years ago. A few years ago, I have arrived at the following recipe, to which I am sticking. For now, anyway. Ask me again in a decade!

Lasagna takes some time. You need to simmer a proper sugo al ragù, you need to prepare bechamel sauce, you need to count in half an hour of oven time, which is all the more reason to add the 20-30 minutes it takes to make your own lasagna pasta. It’s no that much more work and it tastes infinitely better.

That said, there are a few kitchen machines that make this recipe a lot less strenuous, although it takes away from the physical satisfaction of chopping and kneading and rolling, which is just about the best thing about cooking (that, and eating the result): if you own one of those big kitchen machines that kneads doughs and whips cream, check. Also, one of those small kitchen machines wit a cutting blade (usally an accessory to immersion blenders) that chop vegetables and herbs. A microwave is useful, too. And, of course, a trusty pasta machine. Mine is mechanical, more than a decade old and cost me roughly $25. But you don’t need any of this, I’ve done lasagna for years with nothing but my hands, a knife and a rolling pin.

Lasagna takes some planning ahead. You need five components: 1) pasta sheets (30 min.), 2) sauce bechamel (10 min.) l, 3) ricotta (1 min.), 4) parmigiano cheese (2 min.) and 5) a proper sugo al ragù (4h). That last one is the trickiest part since the sugo should have simmered about three hours. Then again, you can prepare that sauce a day in advance, or you can even prepare it weeks earlier, freeze it, and then defrost it for this dish. Still, the only work it actually takes is about 30 minutes of chopping and sautéeing, the rest is stirring occasionally and checking the taste.

Okay, so this will be a little long in writing. But it’s entirely manageable. And it’s so, so worth it.

Lasagna

Ingredients (5-6 rations, I always prepare large amounts and freeze the leftovers):

for the Sugo al ragù:

  • 4 tbsp. olive oil
  • 2 medium-sized onions
  • 2 medium-sized carrots
  • 1 slice (or stem) of celery – I usually use root celery since I tend to by a whole knob, peel it, grate it in the kitchen machine and then freeze it und use up spoonfuls as I need it (for this recipe, about 2-3 tbsp. frozen, depending on whether you like celery). Regular celery (stems) works just as well. Just don’t skip the celery since it adds to much to the flavor of the sauce.
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • about 600g ground beef or beef/pork blend (I usually end up with the latter since it’s generally cheaper)
  • 2 tbsp. of tomato paste
  • 200ml passata di pomodoro – the thin tomato purée often sold in tetra bricks of half a litre
  • 1 large can (800ml) of peeled tomatoes, loosely drained. I know you can buy them chopped, but peeled is cheaper, and breaking them up in the sauce is fun.
  • 150-200ml vegetable broth (can be from instant)
  • a small shot of white wine or alcohol-free white wine (can be omitted entirely)
  • 2 tbsp. chopped parsley, fresh or frozen
  • 1/2 tbsp. Italian herbs (dried), take at least twice that amount if you use fresh herbs – thyme, basil, rosemary, sage, oregano.
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper
  • You can easily double this recipe (safe for the broth, 250ml would be enough) for leftovers, pasta al ragù or future lasagne. The sauce freezes easily!

for the Sauce Bechamel:

  • 700ml milk (whole or 1,5% – not that 0,3% gray water)
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tbsp. flour (regular)
  • freshy ground nutmeg
  • 1 bay leaf
  • salt, freshly ground black pepper

for the Pasta:

  • Skip this step if you buy your lasagne plates. (and if you buy it, just please don’t buy Barilla. There are queer-friendly alternatives!) Otherwise, you need:
  • 3 eggs
  • regular flour, between 210g and 300g – depending on the size of the eggs: for small eggs, 70g of flour for each egg, for medium sized eggs, take 85g of flour, for large eggs, take 100g of flour for each.
  • If you have access to semolina (di grano duro), half the aount of flour given above and replace it with semolina – so 35g semolina and 35g flour for a small egg, etc.
  • 2-3 dashes of salt

…and then you also need:

  • 250g ricotta cheese
  • a few tbsp. of lukewarm tab water
  • 75g Parmigiano cheese

Instructions:

for the Sugo al ragù:

  • Let’s do the sugo first, since it takes the longest to prep and simmer.
  • Peel and finely dice (by hand or kitchen machine – the latter saves a lot of time if you do the double amount of sauce) the onions, carrots and celery.
  • In a large pot or pan (with the amounts I make at a time, I tend to use my biggest cooking pot), heat 2 tbsp. of olive oil. Add the vegetables, press the clove of garlic into it for good measure (if you don’t have a garlic press: chopped will do) and sauté for 5-10 minutes on medium heat until the onion turns translucent. Be careful not to brown. What you’re making right now is called a soffrito, a fragrant marvel and secret base of many Italian and Spanish dishes.
  • Remove the vegetables from the pot and set aside in a dish or bowl. Turn up the heat and add the remaining 2 tbsp. of olive oil. Add the ground meat. This one, you my brown a bit. Continuously break up bigger cunks with a cooking spatula. Continue until there are no more red spots on the meat.
  • Move the meat to one side. Add the vegetables again. Add the tomato pasta and parsley. Stir for a minute. Tomato paste is allowed to brown a little, too.
  • Then, add the broth and white wine.
  • Reduce the heat to medium, add tomato purée (passata) and the lightly drained can of tomatoes.
  • Season with salt, pepper and the Italian herbs. Add a pinch of pimentón or paprika if you feel like it.
  • Reduce temperature to a simmer. There needs to me movement and a little bubbliness, but very little.
  • Simmer, uncovered, for 3 hours. Now and then, stir and break up whole tomatoes into pieces with the spatula. Over time, it will turn into a thick sugo with a denser, creamy texture.

for the Sauce Bechamel:

  • In a medium-sized non-stick pot, heat up the 2 tbsp. of olive oil.
  • In the microwave (if you have), heat the milk to about 70°C. (This is trick #1 towards a smooth bechamel and take it from me, since I used to be the Empress of severly lumpy and runny bechamel for years).
  • When the oil is sizzling, stir in the flour with a wooden spoon. Reduce temperature to medium. Stir for a minute. It should be a pasty, yellowish substance, not burnt, not too liquid, and not runny.
  • Then, bit by bit, stir in the milk. And really, BIT BY BIT. If you dump it in at once because you are in a hurry, you’re just asking for lumps. I’ve done that a lot, and it did not end well. For stirring – this is trick #2 – now switch to a wire whisk. Before adding in any new milk, always make sure that you have a thick, even sauce without lumps, every time. You can reduce the heat some more for this. You need light, leisurely bubbling, not wild cooking.
  • Keep stirring, stirring and stirring with the wire whisk until all the milk has been added in. If the consistency is once more smooth and creamy, season with the nutmeg andadd the bay leaf, and with a bit of salt and pepper.
  • Reduce the heat to a simmer and leave uncovered for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning.
  • Remove from heat. Remove the bay leaf. Set aside to cool, stirring now and then to prevent skin from forming on top of the sauce.

for the Pasta:

  • This step (and the muscle power in takes) depends largely on whether you have a kitchen machine and a pasta machine. Let’s assume you have neither. Pour the flour (and semolina, if you’re using it) into a bowl and stir in the salt. Make a dent in the flour, a bit like a volcano crater, and crack the eggs into it.
  • With a fork, start stirring the egg into the flour as far as it goes, then take over with the hands and knead into an even dough. (If you don’t want to go the fork route, you can use the kneading pegs of a blender and then take over with your hands)
  • Once you have an even dough – it should be dense and a little sticky -, knead it for about 10 minutes: stretch, and foold. Stretch, and fold. It gets progressively harder. Douse your hands and the work surface with flour now and then, but don’t work too much additional flour into the pasta. Curse in Italian at will.
  • If you have a kitchen machine, just put the flour (and semolina) into its bowl, stir in the salt, crack the eggs into your flour volcano and hook it up for about 10 minutes.
  • Once you’re done, set up your pasta machine. If you don’t have a pasta machine, split the dough in three parts and start rolling out each of them until about 3mm thin. Be prepared for a royal arm workout and more cursing in Italian. At the end of it, cut the pasta sheets into lasagne rectangles and be really, really proud of yourself.
  • If you have a pasta machine, set the general drum to 1 (mine comes with a breadth indicator from 1 (broadest) to 9 (paper-thin). With lasagna sheets, I usually end up at 5. 6 may already be too thin. 4 is definitely too thick. Adjsut your measurements accordingly!).
  • Split the dough into three parts. Start with one and roll int through the drum. Keep your hands and the surface lightly doused with flour and also douse the dough a little if it sticks to the machine. Now and then, scrape of dough rests at the bottom of the machine.
  • Catch the line of dough as it comes out of the machine (so it doesn’t stick together) and lay it out lengthwise in fron of you.
  • Fold it up from both sides until you almost have a square. Press down on it with your hands to squeeze out any access air. Then, return the dough to the drum (still set on 1) with the open seam side facing down and thus going in first.
  • Repeat the same procedure. Repeat it until you have done a total of 8-10 rolls, folds, and renewed rolls.
  • Only then, set the drum to “2”. Roll through once, again catching the dough with one hand as you roll it through with the other. (it’s entirely manageable on one’s own, but it can be easier if you have an additional pair of hands to help) As of here, no more folding. Just rolling!
  • Repeat the motion with the drum set to “3”, then top “4”.
  • At this point, the pasta sheet you’re looking at will be rather long already, and it will become difficult to handle, especially if you’re working alone. Cut it in half with a sharp knife. Then, roll each of the halves through the drum set to “5”. Set those two pasta sheets aside and start working on the next of your three lumps of dough, doing exactly the same as you did with lump #1.
  • Once you’re done and you have six lengtly sheets of pasta in front of you, set water to boil in an ample pot. Add salt to it. Next to the stove, place a second bowl with cold water.
  • Meanwhile, cut thefirst two pasta sheets. Start with the ones you’ve rolled out first. They’ll already be a little drier by now and easier to cut.
  • Cut the pasta sheets into lasagna-sheet-wide stripes. Once the water is boiling, place the lasagna sheets into it, one by one, so that they won’t stick together. You don’t need oil in the water to prevent any sticking, just enough water.
  • Boil the pasta (water should be bubbling) between 60-90 seconds. Push the pasta underwater with the slotted spoon you’ll need in a minute if there is a piece that is constantly sticking out of the water. Some people advertise boiling the lasagna sheets in milk. I’ve tried it, but I was unimpressed, didn’t notice much taste diffrence – and the slight difference I tasted, I didn’t like – so I was basically sorry for wasting more than a litre of milk and went back to water. Go ahead if you want to give the Cleopatra-style a try!
  • After a minute (or minute and a a half) remove the sheets with a slotted spoon (you can remove more than one sheet at a time, they won’t stick together now) and immediately dump them into the cold water (with the milk method, the cold liquid is also water, not more milk) for another minute or two.
  • Remove the cooked lasagna sheets from the cold water, drain them, and spread them in a single layer (just to be on the safe side – if your kitchen is small: don’t worry, I tend to put them out in heaps and they barely every stick together) across your workspace. Be careful to keep the uncooked pasta separate form the wet cooked one: ocne you get water onto the uncooked pasta, it becomes tough to handle. Mostly, the dough becomes soggy, doubles over itself and forms irreparable goooey lumps. And especially when you’ve put half an hour of an arm workout into make this pasta in the first place, this is the point where you will start to cry. So please be careful.
  • Turn your attention to sheets #3 and #4 of pasta. Cut, cook, remove, cool and spread them out like the first two.
  • Repeat the same with sheets #5 and #6. If you can already see that you have a enough lasagna plates after sheet #4 or sheet #5 (happens with large eggs, usually), simply take the pasta sheets as they are and push them through the tagliatelle or spaghetti drum in the end, cook them immediately (same here: first boiling water (2 minutes) then cold water) and set them aside in a container to cool. That way, you have a nice plate of pasta for tomorrow.

…and then you also need:

  • There’s just one more thing to do: Put the ricotta into a bowl and straighten it out with a few tbsp. of water until its a smooth, creamy pasta you can easily spoon up.

…finally, there is the grand assembly:

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F.
  • Keep everything at the ready: cooked lasagna sheets, bechamel sauce, sugo al ragù/meat sauce, the creamy ricotta and the Parmigiano cheese. And the casserole dish.
  • Start with lasagna sheets. Cover the ground of the dish with them. This way, it’s much easier to remove slices of lasagna after baking without dripping sauce all over the table.
  • Next, pour two ladles of meat sauce on top.
  • Continue with a ladle of bechamel sauce.
  • Continue with 2-3 tbsp. of blended ricotta. Sprinkle with a tbsp. of Parmigiano cheese. It will look at bit like this:
  • Add the next layer of lasagna sheets. Don’t leave empty spots. Overlapping (if not too much) won’t hurt.
  • Once more: meat sauce, bechamel, ricotta, cheese.
  • More lasagna sheets.
  • Once more: meat sauce, bechamel, ricotta, cheese.
  • Cover with a final layer of lasagna sheets. (some people prefer to do only two layers in total, I usually do three because I like some pasta with my sauces. Do as you like.)
  • Now – important – you need to have enough bechamel sauce left to cover the top layer of lasagna sheets completely.
  • Sprinkle with a few butter flakes. And yes, I know, some people cut up an entire ball of mozzarella on top or use more cheese on the top layer – I find that it upsets the sauce balance, but if you are the extra cheese kind of person, knock yourself out.
  • Maneuver the dish into the oven (second position from the bottom, usually) and bake for 30 minutes.
  • Allow to settle for a minute or five after removing it from the oven (if you can wait that long) and then serve.
  • If hosting guests: be prepared for marriage proposals.

Et voilà, have a slice (usually, it looks a lot less pristine, instead surrounded by a healthy pool of tomato sauce, but the photos of that didn’t turn out so well):

(Leftovers – if there are any – can be stored in the fridge for 2-3 days or be frozen for a couple of months)

8 thoughts on “From Anik’s Kitchen: Lasagna”

  1. Leftovers? you must be joking! And have you considered a career as a cookery photographer? Stunning – and making me drool as much as some of your other photographic contributions.

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  2. miam, looks delicious. lasagne was also the first dish I learned to prepare myself. but never got any marriage proposals so far – must try your recipe next then 😉

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  3. Thank you, you’re too kind. I own but a very generic camera and have no deeper knowledge of photography, I just got lucky with the light here. And my lasagna hasn’t – at least to my knowledge – brought ruin to Valencia (which is more of a paella place, anyway), although that was less Calatrava’s than Camps’ doing…

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    1. So… Bechamel Soße. Wer hätte gedacht, dass 1 1/2 Esslöffel Mehl soviele Klumpen produzieren können -.- (Glücklicherweise wohne ich ja nicht mehr zu hause, sonst hätte meine Mutter mich vermutlich auch um nen Kopf kürzer gemacht als mir das Ganze auch noch übergekocht ist.)
      Aufgrund dessen wie ich das Rezept ausgedruckt habe… habe ich glatt überlesen, dass man die selbstgemachten Nudelplatten vorkochen soll. Upps, jetzt ist alles etwas fester.
      Aber geschmacklich ist es super geworden :D.

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      1. Hauptsache, es hat geschmeckt! 🙂 Und Bechamel ist immer ein Risiko – bei mir klappt sie erst, seit ich die Schneebesen/Mikrowelle-Kombi mache.

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        1. Ja, geschmacklich sehr gelungen 😀 Aber den Rest muss ich noch mal üben. Ich habe jetzt von diversen Leuten Tipps bekommen wie ich es denn machen könnte, das probier ich dann mal :D.

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