Weeks ago, a group of Tawn’s university friends conspired to hold their holiday dinner on Christmas Eve. “It’s a potluck,” they said. “Everyone should bring something!” For whatever reason, I decided a lasagna would be a nice addition to the eclectic mix of food. And as the party crept closer, I was possessed with the idea of making the lasagna from scratch.
My uncle’s mother-in-law makes the best lasagna, a recipe-less dish with a meaty sauce and lots of gooey mozzarella cheese. Since there is no recipe from which to work, I turned my attention to various online resources, settling (kind of) on a recipe from fxcuisine.com for Lasagna Bolognese.
The process was two-part: The first part was to make a hearty ragù in the traditional style of Bologna, Italy.
This recipe is based one one written by two legendary Bologna home chefs, sisters Margherita and Valeria Simili, from their book Sfida al Matterello. I found it presented in exacting detail on fxcuisine.com.
It uses both butter and oil, pancetta or parma ham, a mixture of beef and pork shoulder, puréed tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrot, celery, chicken livers, dry white wine, milk, chicken stock, and salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste. Reviewing my picture, you will notice that I made some substitutions. The meat is just ground pork and spicy Italian sausage (which I removed from the casing), instead of the beef and pork shoulder mixture. The chicken livers have been removed but I did substitute an anchovy fillet.
The first step after prepping all your vegetables and other ingredients, is to sauté the onions until soft but not browned. This is done in a mixture of oil and butter.
Add the carrots and celery and sauté further until they start to brown.
Add the pancetta. You can also use Parma ham or good quality dried bacon, finely diced.
In lieu of chicken livers, of which you use only one or two for a more meaty flavor, I diced one anchovy fillet and added it to the onion, carrot, celery, pancetta mixture. While I would have preferred to stick with the chicken liver as per the original recipe, one must accommodate one’s spouse’s preferences. This is the secret to a happy marriage.
After removing the aromatics to a bowl, I browned the ground pork and sausage in small batches. A key to browning meat is to not crowd the pan, otherwise you steam it more than brown it. As each batch finished browning, I added it to the bowl of aromatics.
Finally, after all the meat was browned, I deglazed the pan with a bit of white wine. This simply means I scraped down the pan as the wine was boiling in order to remove all the tasty little caramelized bits that were stuck to the bottom. After the alcohol burned off – the point at which it stops smelling like boiling wine – I added the liquid and caramelized bits to the bowl of meat and aromatics.
Switching cooking vessels, I placed the whole mixture in a large Dutch oven on medium heat and added the warmed milk. Actually, I used a combination of cream and milk, just for some additional richness since I used a leaner meat. The milk adds a sweetness that softens the “meatiness” of the ragù.
Once the meat mixture was boiling, I added some canned puréed tomatoes. In my book, canned tomatoes still count as scratch because the tomatoes you can find here in Thailand just aren’t as rich and sweet and tomatoey as canned ones. To this is added some chicken stock. I also cheated and used boxed stock since the amount was small and not worth the effort to make stock from scratch. After this comes to a boil, reduce it to a simmer, cover tightly, and then let simmer for three to four hours.
The result, after four hours, is a wonderful sauce. I let it cool and then refrigerated it for two nights before continuing with the second step of the process. For some reason, sauces, stews, and ragùs benefit from some time to rest. The flavors mingle and become much more than the sum of their parts.
The second stage of the lasagna-making process was to make the pasta and assemble the lasagna. I opted to use a semolina flour pasta, which is a little more stable than one made with all-purpose flour. While I have made pasta from scratch two or three times, I don’t have a lot of experience. “Pasta making is easy!” people will tell you. While that is true, it is also a bit of a process and tends to require a bit of cleaning up, at least when you are inexperienced. Maybe if I practice more, pasta making will be less of a production.
The ratio is easy: one large egg to every 100 grams of flour. I added a little pinch of salt and also a small splash of olive oil to make the dough a little more forgiving of me. In this case, I used six eggs and 600 grams of flour, which makes a lot of pasta!
I used the Kitchen Aid mixer to combine the dough, but it was pretty dry and my machine doesn’t have the strength necessary to knead it. Desirous of Popeye-like forearms, I kneaded the dough myself for about ten minutes, until it became silky. Well, silkier. Then I let it rest in a plastic bag, refrigerated, for thirty minutes.
While the pasta dough was snoozing, I made a Béchamel sauce. This is a really basic white sauce that is the foundation of macaroni and cheese. For this reason alone, everyone should learn how to make it. Here’s the formula: equal weights flour and butter. The process is equally simple: melt the butter, add the flour and whisk for a few minutes as the flour cooks. Then add the milk a little at a time, whisking until smooth and at the desired consistency.
There was probably no good reason to make the sauce this early, but I know that once you start with the pasta-making process you need to be undistracted.
I used discs of pasta dough about the size of a small lemon and passed them through the pasta roller until they reached the second-to-the-last setting, almost as thin as crèpes. Upon reflection, leaving them one setting thicker might have been better as lasagna is a hearty dish, calling for a hearty pasta.
Here is the result of my work, drying on a well wiped-down clothes rack. The problem is that the wires for the rack are too narrow, and my pasta sheets stuck to them. I had to be very careful when removing the pasta, lest they tear in half. You’ll notice the inconsistency in both sheet width and length, an illustration of how far I have to go before I am a pasta Jedi master.
In case it looks like a lot of pasta, it is. This is enough pasta for three full-size lasagna dishes!
Using a large pot of boiling salted water and a large tub of ice water, I cooked the pasta sheets one at a time for about 30 seconds. The idea isn’t to cook them to completion but to make them soft, flexible, and generally more stable to handle.
Before assembly, grate the high-quality Parmesan Reggiano cheese. No mozzarella in this recipe. I have to say, it is actually very nice without the mozzarella. I think Americans have learned to expect that their lasagna will be gooey. Time for mass re-education.
Okay, we’re ready to assemble. Pasta sheets are on tea towels, Béchamel sauce and ragù are warm but not bubbling, and the cheese is grated. One note on the ragù, you should taste it and adjust the seasoning at this time. Each component of the dish should taste good by itself if you expect the final dish to taste good.
Since my sheets of pasta were varying lengths, I just let them overlap and fold back on themselves as necessary, giving the dish a rustic, authentic look. Unlike what the original recipe said, I think there needs to be a layer of ragù under the first layer of noodles. Simply oiling the dish wasn’t enough to prevent the bottom layer of pasta from sticking. Add some ragù. Doing it again, I would also double the amount of ragù to make it meatier.
Then add the Béchamel sauce. The recipe stressed that this does not need to be incorporated into the ragù as they are meant to be two distinct layers. So I just poured it on and left it as is.
Sprinkle on some Parmesan Reggiano cheese, then continue with the alternating layers of pasta, ragù, Béchamel sauce, and cheese until the dish is full.
I made two single portion lasagnas, each with a single long noodle. Cute, huh? They freeze nicely, too.
These are covered tightly in foil (oil the piece that is touching the top so it doesn’t stick too badly) and then bake at 180 C / 375 F for about 50 minutes or until the lasagna is bubbling. Remove the foil and cook for another ten minutes until the top is lightly browned.
The end result. I removed the foil too early so the pasta edges are a little crisp, which is actually kind of nice. The party guests really enjoyed the lasagna and if pleasing a crowd is a measure of success, then this adventure was well worth the effort.
Lessons learned: homemade pasta makes a ton of difference, so I will make it again when doing lasagna. Over time, I’m sure it will be easier for me. Also, for a richer lasagna, I will double the proportion of ragù to Béchamel sauce.
Oh my! What a project! I would not mind flying over and try out your lasagna!
@CurryPuffy – There are leftovers, Gary. Why not grab a cheap fare on Air Asia and come over for dinner?
@christao408 – That sounds like an enticing proposition for a one day trip!
Looks great as usual. I am not sure I am ready to tackle the recipe.
OH my goodness and I thought MY Lasagna was complicated and time consuming!!! You make me feel VERY guilty for even CONSIDERING using those ready to use…no boil lasagna noodles…lol. It does look yummy…wish we had smell-a-vision on our computers to entice us further!!! Ruth Ann
That is one long process ! I’d not have the patience, but your finished dish does look delicious 🙂
@CurryPuffy – Seriously, Gary. You know that Jason (onmovement) and his boyfriend are here, too, right? Let’s have a Xanga meet-up!@Chatamanda – @Fatcat723 – Honestly, on the other side of having made this dish, I’m a little surprised at myself. It was a lot more work than I would normally give to a dish. But it was really good.@Redlegsix – Ruth Ann, I am shocked, just shocked I tell you, that you would use those pre-packaged noodles! Ha ha… just kidding! Making the noodles from scratch was quite a bit of extra effort.
@christao408 – I guess there’s that sense of ‘achievement’ too when it’s a ‘first attempt’ that comes out so well. 🙂
wow, that is a lot of work! the results look like they’re definitely worthwhile, though. i’ve never tried making pasta myself. perhaps when you are letting the sheets dry, you should put a little bit of (oiled?) wax paper over the wires of your clothes rack so the pasta won’t stick to it?i usually don’t consider canned tomatoes or premade stock to be cheating! yikes! and i’ve discovered the joy of no-boil lasagna noodles (although you really need a lot of sauce otherwise it doesn’t soften up enough).
Gotta give you props for being able to make that. Good stuff!
@christao408 – I KNEW your sensitive cooking soul would be wounded at the thought of those no boil lasagna noodles…lol. By the way do you have a maid to help you clean up after your cooking marathons??? I would DEMAND one if I were you….hehehehe
Dang! Good job and kudos to you for doing all the work!!! I’m glad you were able to get through it successfully!
@Redlegsix – We do have a maid who comes by twice a week for a few hours of cleaning, but I’m responsible for the messes I make in the kitchen! =D@Chatamanda – It certainly makes me appreciate good quality lasagna a whole lot more. Same way with the French macarons I have attempted a trio of times. Now I don’t feel so bad about paying their high price because I know what amount of effort has gone into them!@kunhuo42 – One of these days, Aaron, I’m going to buy some wooden dowels, flatten one side, and create something a bit more suitable for drying pasta. That would help. Or, if I hang them across two or three wires instead of just one, there may be a less pronounced crease. You should try making pasta some day, though. It is very different from dried.@Roadlesstaken – Yeah, it is one recipe you won’t see me regularly recreating!@kenpcho – You mean, you’re glad I didn’t surrender part-way through? =D
It is a hearty dish. hahah..but I can’t do it. Too much work! I may try it after I’m retired.
What a great guest you are! For potlucks, I am so lazy and try to think of the easiest thing to bring. LOL! But you on the other hand spend days! Bravo mister!
I’m impressed! Your lasagna looks so much better than any that I’ve had lately. I bet it tasted heavenly.
What do you mean by adding olive oil making it more forgiving?I’m going to make pasta from scratch now too! Or at least try to. Sugi got me a nice pasta roller for X’mas!Don’t have a Kitchen Aid mixer though. Although from this post, perhaps it’s not ideal for making pasta dough?
speechless….. chris. you never cease to amaze me… this is simply incredible!
Ummm… just the sight of the sauteed onion is enough to make me crave for your lasagna! Sure looks YUMMY!!!
@yang1815 – The olive oil seems to make it a little more pliable and a little less tacky when handling. Many recipes don’t use it but some of the “beginner” recipes do. You don’t need a mixer for the dough. I just use one because my pasta rollers attach to the mixer and are powered by it. You’ll just need to knead by hand, which is good for the forearms.@murisopsis – Thank you. It was pretty good. I would add a bit more salt to the Bechamel sauce and use more ragu in proportion to the Bechamel, but it sure tasted better than the average lasagna I’ve had at the restaurant.@brooklyn2028 – Well, when it is a gathering of friends who enjoy good food, I like to put some effort into it.@Sinful_Sundae – You’re too kind.
wow that’s amazing. i don’t have an oven in my apartment, so no old school western cooking for me. just the basic stuff. glad you had a great xmas 😉
wow that looks really yummy!
Looks so good, my mouth actually waters! Much as I would love to try it out, I know I am not capable of making something so complicated.
Hahaha! I didn’t think you would surrender, but it definitely is a lot of work and time! I feel like you can cook/create anything!
@kenpcho – @icepearlz – I think anyone can create anything. Just a matter of trying.@girl_smileyy – Lack of an oven would make lasagna much, much harder! That’s one reason I insisted on an oven when we remodeled our condo.@onmovement – Dinner Friday night, my place, lasagna. =D
grate your onions, carrots, and zest your garlic with microplan if u can. peel your celery skin and grate as well.make sure you keep all the juice from all ingredients that leaks out when you grate. that’s the good stuff. So instead of grating on a cutting board, i’d do it over a large container. Grate everything in there.sweat them all off with some butter and oil, and the juice should be enough to allow the veg to simmer on it’s own.saute your meat in ANOTHER pan on fairy high heat, never saute your meat in the same pan as the veg. U will never get enough heat to brown your meat properly, and or if you do, chances are your veggies are burnt. Add your herbs and spices into the meat when they start to brown half way, and then when your pan becomes hot enough, deglaze with wine. I prefer red. I see that you used wine. And add in your simmering grated veg. stir a bit and add in tomato puree. simmer for an hour or so and finish off with a touch of cream to thicken.
I didn’t really know it took that much work to make lasagna from scratch, and it’s one of my favorite dishes! I will now be forever disappointed with the frozen supermarket variety that I buy and just bake in the oven. 😦
You’re just so adventurous with your cooking. I remember briefly skimming this while my fever and body ache were just peaking. I was starving for some pasta / noodles. P.S. I’m kinda jealous that Jason will get to try it! I hope you have a video blog of it. Oh man, it’s almost 11:00 PM and I’m gonna have to raid the fridge.
@Made2Order – Thanks for the suggestions. Adding the cream at the end to thicken misses out on some of the benefits of cooking the meat in it, doesn’t it? I agree that veggies and meats should not be cooked together, though. That’s why I removed the veggies before cooking the meets, only to add together once everything was done.@AzureRecollections – Well, you can appreciate all the effort that went into making that supermarket lasagna! =D@ElusiveWords – Sadly, didn’t have the opportunity to feed Jason and Daniel. Will have to wait for the next visit.
@christao408 – u dont really cook the meat with cream.. the cream should just be added in the end and heated up quick.