I married an Italian and lived in Italy for over 10 years, so I feel qualified to comment on what is considered to be good lasagne. Actually, lasagne is my signature dish as my friends and family will attest to and I am very proud of it. I make it to a very traditional recipe influenced by my wonderful Sicilian ex-mother-in-law, together with a very old recipe I found years ago.
Last Sunday evening I entertained seven friends and, since I was busy all day, I needed to prepare something in advance that I could heat/cook at the last minute. The beauty of lasagne is that you can prepare it well in advance and you don't have to slave away in the kitchen when your guests arrive.
The only non-Italian element of my dish was that I served it as the main course with a salad. "Not with a salad!", most Italians would say, as for them lasagne is the pasta course of a meal to be followed by the meat and salad/vegetable course. But lasagne is very rich and fattening so for those of us non-Italians it is a perfect main course and sits very well on a plate with a green salad.
I always make way too much food when I cook and lasagne is no exception but it freezes so well and given the time it takes to prepare, it's worth making loads extra. I made three dishes. Most guests had two helpings but there was still enough for everyone to take a large portion home with them (lasagne is divine the next day especially cold!).
My all-important lasagne tips
A must read before taking to the recipe!
- I use just regular egg lasagne that I buy in a supermarket in a box. Even if it says you don't need to boil it first, ignore that, ALWAYS boil it for a minute in salted water and lay it on a tea towel to drain.
- When making béchamel, always heat the milk first in a separate saucepan so it's scalding and add it all at one go.
- Don't add any weird things to your lasagne like mushrooms, chilli, garlic etc. The best lasagne is made with the most simple traditional ingredients.
- I always use the best quality tinned tomatoes (whole or chopped) that I pass through a mouli to get rid of the seeds etc. I enhance the sauce with tomato concentrate. These are way better than any of those exotic bottles/cartons of Passata di pomodoro or similar.
- Always let the lasagne rest for about 15 minutes when you remove it from the oven. Never try and cut it immediately as it needs time to rest so that the cheeses, béchamel and sauce can cling together. Also, lasagne tastes better when it is warm and not piping hot.
This recipe is sufficient for about 10 people with plenty to take home!
- Battuto of carrot, onion, celery and leek (a couple of each of these zapped in a food processor)
- Couple of little packets of pancetta
- 1 kg lean beef mince
- 1 kg lean pork mince
- 1 chicken neck, gizzard, heart, liver (optional)
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 7 tins (400g tins) plum or chopped tomatoes - passed through a mouli
- Tomato concentrate
- 1 tsp sugar (to counteract the acidity of the tomatoes)
- Salt and pepper
- Saute gently the battuto in olive oil and when the battuto is golden add the pancetta and chicken neck (etc) and the pork and beef mince.
- When the meats are browned thoroughly make sure any lumps of meat are broken up and add the wine and let evaporate
- Add the salt and good ground of pepper and then the tomatoes and tomato paste.
- Bring to boil and cover, lowering the heat and simmer for two hours.
- Remove chicken necks/gizzards (if using them) and taste the ragu for salt, adding if necessary.
- Simmer another hour to reduce the liquid
- 8 tbsp. unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup flour
- 4 cups milk
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
- 1/2 tsp salt
- freshly ground pepper
- Melt the butter over low heat and add the flour all at once. Stir rapidly with wire whisk until blended
- Heat milk to scalding and add it all at one to the butter/flour mixture stirring vigorously with a whisk. Continue cooking over medium heat stirring constantly until sauce has thickened and is smooth - about the consistency of a thin pudding.
- Add nutmeg, salt and few grinds of pepper
- Cool the sauce for about 15 minutes before using. It becomes firmer as it cools. You might have to add more milk once you start using it.
- Parmesan cheese - grated (as much as you want to add!)
- 1 kg Mozzarella - cut or grated thinly
Putting your lasagne together
- After the ragu is done and the béchamel is cooling, cut or grate the mozzarella.
- Bring a large saucepan of water to the boil and add 6 tsp salt. Drop the rectangles of lasagne in the salted water (I add 6 at a time) and leave them in the boiling water for 1 minute
- Take out with a perforated spoon and drain on a tea towel - don't stack as they stick together. Put in another 6 rectangles etc etc
- Ladle a thin layer of rag in the base of a large oven-proof dish (14" x 10" x 3" is a good size). Cover with pieces of pasta, a layer of sauce, some béchamel, sprinkle with parmesan and mozzarella
- Repeat the layering until the dish is nearly filled. Finish with a good layer of ragu, béchamel, parmesan and mozzarella which will give a nice crust.
- Bake in 350F oven for 30 minutes or more if needed.
- Cool for 15 minute before cutting so that the sauce and cheeses and béchamel cling together and the lasagne can be cut into slices.
Enjoy and don't forget to eat it cold for breakfast the following morning straight from the dish as that is the ultimate decadence!