Real lasagna is a culinary marvel worth every minute of your time


Lasagna can be traditional, contemporary, regional, seasonal, whimsical, plain or fancy. Its appeal is not in question. The issue is how to make it manageable. A recipe for from-scratch lasagna might be three recipes in one — the pasta, the sauce and the lasagna itself. But just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible or not worth the effort. Just break it down into steps and pace yourself:

Start with the sauce. Make your own, which will always be better than anything you buy. Making sauce is easy, but it takes time, especially if it’s a long-simmered meat sauce. You can do this a couple of days ahead of assembling the lasagna and refrigerate it, or weeks ahead and store it in the freezer.

Make the pasta. Mix the dough in the food processor and use a hand-crank pasta machine or the pasta rolling attachment of your mixer to roll out the sheets. Cut the lasagna strips and let them sit out for an hour or two to partially dry, then stack them and store them in the freezer. I don’t recommend leaving lasagna sheets out to dry completely, as they are prone to curling, cracking and breaking.

Is store-bought pasta an option? Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking, wrote that lasagna “is never, but simply never, made with anything but homemade pasta dough.” I agree with her, but you may not. The answer is, sure you can use commercial pasta, but the finished lasagna won’t be as delicate without those fine sheets. Option 1: Look for fresh egg pasta sheets in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. These will be closest to homemade. Option 2: Use good-quality dried lasagna sheets. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for parboiling, and make fewer layers than if using your own homemade pasta. Option 3: No-boil noodles are a last resort, in my opinion. When baked, they have a flabby consistency and no flavor.

Assemble. The only onerous part of this step is the parboiling of the pasta, which has to be briefly cooked, plunged into ice water, then laid out. It’s messy and tedious, and it’s the only point at which I question whether I am wasting my time. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the pasta sheets — whether fresh or store-bought — need to be boiled at all, because they will soften and cook in the oven by absorbing sauce. It depends, of course, on how saucy your sauce is. For example, the no-cook method would not work with Genovese lasagna, which has very little liquid. Beyond that, I find that parboiling helps to set the texture and flavor of the pasta by cooking it evenly, and prevents it from becoming sticky when baked.

Once the pasta has been parboiled and all the components are laid out and ready, it’s just a matter of layering them in a baking dish. The key here is not to overload; lasagna is a balance between pasta, sauce and fillings.

Freeze it. I recommend you get all the work done ahead of time and freeze the unbaked lasagna so you have only to defrost and bake it. Bake it until you can hear it bubbling inside, and until the top is browned, the corners are curled up and slightly crunchy.

Finally, slice it, serve it and enjoy it with your guests knowing that, yes, your effort was worth it.

Marchetti is the author of, most recently, “Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016).

Bechamel Sauce

Makes 3 cups

This is a good all-purpose white sauce.

MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to three days in advance. Reheat it in a saucepan over low heat, adding milk if needed to loosen it to a pouring consistency.

3 cups whole or low-fat milk (2 percent)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/4 cup flour

1 teaspoon fine salt

Freshly ground white or black pepper

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Bring the milk just to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then remove from the heat.

Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring vigorously, for two minutes. Gradually add the hot milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps and scorching (the mixture will break apart at first but will eventually turn smooth). Cook the sauce for 10 to 13 minutes, stirring often, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste and season lightly with the salt and pepper and the nutmeg, then remove from the heat.

Use right away, or cool, transfer to a container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

Fresh Egg Pasta for Lasagna

1 serving pound (enough for 1 large 9-by-13-inch lasagna or 2 smaller pans)

Here is Domenica Marchetti’s go-to, five-ingredient pasta recipe, not only for lasagna sheets, but for many other pasta shapes, including ravioli. Be sure to add the lesser amount of all-purpose flour (2 cups) to the food processor to mix the dough at the start; you can always knead in more as needed; it’s much easier to work in more flour than to add liquid if the dough is too stiff or dry.

A pasta rolling machine is helpful here; the author uses a hand-cranked Marcato Atlas machine.

MAKE AHEAD: The pasta dough needs to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. The pasta is best used the same day it is made.

2 to 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon semolina flour, plus more for dusting

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

3 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten

1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Combine 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, 1 Tbsp. of the semolina flour and the salt in a food processor; pulse to incorporate. Pour in the eggs and 1 Tbsp. of the oil. Pulse just long enough for the mixture to resemble small curds. Pinch together a bit of the mixture; it should form a soft ball. If it seems dry, add the remaining tablespoon of oil and pulse briefly to incorporate. If the dough seems sticky, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, and pulse to incorporate.

Sprinkle a little of the remaining all-purpose flour on a clean work surface and turn the dough mixture out onto it. Bring it together to form a rough mass and knead for several minutes, until smooth, incorporating only as much flour as necessary to form a firm, smooth ball. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.

Set up a pasta-rolling machine or a mixer with a pasta-roller attachment, with the rollers on the widest setting. Dust the work surface around the machine with semolina and keep more on hand for sprinkling on the dough as needed.

Cut the dough into 4 equal quarters and rewrap three. Flatten the remaining piece of dough and feed it through the machine. Lay it on the work surface and fold it in thirds, like a business letter. Sprinkle with a little semolina and feed it through the rollers again. Continue to fold and feed the dough through the widest setting two more times. Move the roller setting to the next narrower notch and feed the dough through this setting twice. Continue to pass the dough through the rollers twice on each setting until you have a strip that is about 28 inches long and about 1/16-inch thick — setting No. 6 on a Marcato Atlas hand-cranked machine. You should be able to see the shadow of your hand through the sheet.

Sprinkle a little semolina flour on a baking sheet and lay the pasta sheets there as you work.

To cook the pasta, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and salt generously (as in, 3 or 4 pinches of salt). Set a large bowl of ice water near the stove for briefly immersing the cooked parboiled lasagna noodles. Spread a clean tablecloth on a table or clean, flat surface near the stove.

Carefully drop in 4 or 5 lasagna noodles at a time, taking care not to crowd the pot. Boil for about 1 minute; the noodles cook quickly and should be slightly underdone. Use a large skimmer to transfer them to the ice-water bath. Swish them around, then use the skimmer to transfer them to the tablecloth, where you will spread them out flat. Continue until you have cooked all the noodles. Use right away.

Abruzzese-Style Lasagna With Meat Sauce and Mini Meatballs

8 to 10 servings

This is a hearty meat-based lasagna done in the classic “southern” Italian tradition with a tomato-based sauce, and ricotta and oozy mozzarella in the filling.

The tiny veal meatballs are optional; there’s plenty of meat in the sauce already. But no respectable Abruzzese cook would leave them out.

MAKE AHEAD: The meat sauce can be refrigerated up to 3 days in advance (or freeze for up to 6 months); reheat before using. You will have a tender mix of the chuck, pork shoulder and lamb shoulder left over, which can be used for sandwiches. The meatballs can be refrigerated in a tightly lidded container for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 3 months.

From cookbook author Domenica Marchetti.

For the meat sauce:

8-ounce beef chuck roast

8-ounce pork shoulder

8-ounce lamb shoulder

Fine salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons vegetable oil, preferably sunflower

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 carrot, scrubbed well and finely chopped

1 rib celery, finely chopped

1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2 cup dry white wine

7 cups tomato puree (passata di pomodoro)

Water (optional)

For the meatballs (optional):

12 ounces ground veal

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

1 egg, lightly beaten

Vegetable oil, for frying

For the lasagna:

1 pound Fresh Egg Pasta for Lasagna (see related recipe)

1 pound well-drained fresh whole-milk ricotta cheese

1 pound whole-milk mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced or diced

1 1/2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/2 cup shredded fresh basil leaves

Olive oil

Salt, for the pasta cooking water

For the meat sauce: Pat the meats dry and season both sides of each piece with a little salt and pepper. Heat the vegetable oil in a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the meat and brown for 3 to 4 minutes, then turn and brown the other side, another 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a deep plate or bowl.

Reduce the heat to medium-low; add the extra-virgin olive oil. Stir in the carrot, celery, onion, garlic and parsley. Cook for about 5 minutes, until the vegetables begin to soften. Increase the heat to medium-high; pour in the wine and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Return the meat to the pot, along with the tomato puree. Once the mixture begins to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low or low, partially cover and cook for 2 to 3 hours, stirring and turning the meat over occasionally, until the meat is fall-apart tender and the sauce is thick. Add a little water if the sauce thickens too much before the meat is done. Taste and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed. Turn off the heat; use a skimmer to transfer the meat to a cutting board. Chop or shred a little of it — about 1 cup — and then return it to the pot. (Save the remaining meat to eat separately; it makes a good submarine sandwich filling.)

If not using right away, transfer the sauce to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 6 months. Reheat the sauce over medium-low heat before assembling the lasagna.

For the optional meatballs: Line a tray with wax paper and place it near a mixing bowl. Combine the veal, salt, nutmeg and egg in the bowl; use your clean hands to thoroughly incorporate. Pinch off a small pieces of the mixture and roll them into marble-size balls (smaller, if you are patient), placing them on the tray as you work.

Line a plate with paper towels. Pour enough vegetable oil to a depth of 1/4 inch in a skillet and set over medium-high heat. Have a plate lined with paper towels nearby for draining the fried meatballs. Once the oil shimmers, carefully add the meatballs, working in batches to avoid crowding. Fry, rolling them around in the pan to prevent burning or sticking, until lightly browned. Transfer them to the paper towel-lined plate to drain and cool. If not using them right away, refrigerate the meatballs in a tightly lidded container for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 3 months.

For the lasagna: Spread a clean tablecloth on a table or clean flat surface near the stove. Have ready the uncooked pasta, meat sauce, meatballs, cheeses and basil.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch lasagna or baking dish (or 2 smaller baking dishes) with olive oil.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and salt generously (as in, 3 or 4 pinches of salt). Set a large bowl of ice water near the stove for briefly immersing the parboiled lasagna noodles.

Carefully drop in 4 or 5 lasagna noodles at a time, taking care not to crowd the pot. Boil for about 1 minute; the noodles cook quickly and should be slightly underdone. Use a large skimmer to transfer them to the ice-water bath. Swish them around, then use the skimmer to transfer them to the tablecloth, where you will spread them out flat.

To assemble the lasagna, spread a thin layer of the meat sauce in the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a single layer of lasagna noodles over the sauce. Dot with one-quarter of the ricotta and one-quarter of the mozzarella. Scatter one-quarter of the meatballs on top and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and a big pinch of the shredded basil leaves.

Make a second layer of sauce and noodles. Again, in separate layers, top with ricotta, mozzarella, meatballs, Parmigiano cheese and basil. Make a third and fourth layer in the same way, then cover with a thin layer of sauce. Make a final layer of noodles and spread more sauce on top, to cover them completely. Sprinkle the remaining Parmigiano cheese on top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for 20 minutes more, until it is bubbling inside and browned on top. Let it rest for 5 minutes before serving.

Roasted Mushroom and Swiss Chard Lasagna

8-10 servings

Lasagna doesn’t need to contain meat to be hearty. This one is layered with roasted mushrooms, sauteed Swiss chard and four cheeses. It’s a great main dish to serve to company (vegetarians and carnivores alike) on a cold winter night.

MAKE AHEAD: The roasted mushrooms and sauteed chard can be refrigerated (separately) a day in advance. The tomato sauce can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 6 months. Reheat thoroughly before assembling the lasagna. The assembled, unbaked lasagna can be wrapped (in its baking dish) in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil, and frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Remember to remove the plastic wrap and re-cover with foil before baking.

Recipe from cookbook author Domenica Marchetti.

Ingredients

For the mushrooms:

1 1/2 pounds mixed mushrooms, such as cremini, chanterelle, portobello and shiitake

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 teaspoon fine salt, or more as needed

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoons minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

For the chard:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 cloves garlic, sliced paper-thin

1 pound Swiss chard, well washed and trimmed of tough stems, and sliced crosswise into ribbons

1/2 teaspoon fine salt

For the tomato sauce:

1 clove garlic, lightly crushed

4 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Two 28-ounce cans diced tomatoes, with their juices

Fine salt

5 large fresh basil leaves

For the lasagna:

1 pound Fresh Egg Pasta for Lasagna (see related recipe)

One 8-ounce ball whole-milk mozzarella, cut into small cubes

2 cups well-drained fresh, whole-milk ricotta cheese

1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

4 ounces Italian fontina cheese, shredded

Extra-virgin olive oil, for the baking dish

Salt, for the pasta cooking water

For the mushrooms: Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Toss the mushrooms with the oil in a large bowl, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Spread them out on a large rimmed baking sheet. Roast (middle rack) for 15 minutes, then toss with a spatula. Roast for 10 minutes more or until they are tender and browned. Transfer the mushrooms to the bowl and toss with the minced parsley. Store, covered, in the refrigerator, until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.

For the chard: Heat the oil and garlic in a large, high-sided skillet set on medium-low heat. Cook 3 minutes, until the garlic is softened and fragrant but not browned. Add the chard by the handful, using tongs to coat it with the oil. Cover and cook, stirring from time to time, for 15 minutes, or until the greens are wilted. Uncover and season with the salt. Cook 5 minutes more, until most of the liquid has evaporated. Transfer the greens to a bowl to cool. Cover and refrigerate until you are ready to assemble the lasagna.

For the tomato sauce: Warm the garlic in the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Press down on the garlic with a wooden spoon or spatula to release the garlic flavor. Cook for 2 minutes, until it sizzles, but don’t let it brown. Carefully pour in the tomatoes and their juice (the oil will spatter). Season with 1 tsp. salt and raise the heat to medium-high. Bring the sauce to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook gently, stirring now and again, for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the sauce has thickened and the oil is pooling on the surface.

Remove from the heat and stir in the basil. If not using right away, transfer the sauce to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate for up to 3 days or freeze for up to 6 months. Reheat the sauce to a simmer before assembling the lasagna.

For the lasagna: Spread a clean tablecloth on a table or clean flat surface near the stove. Have ready the uncooked pasta, tomato sauce, chard, mushrooms and cheeses.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly coat a 9-by-13-inch lasagna or baking dish (or 2 smaller baking dishes) with the olive oil.

Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and salt generously (as in, 3 or 4 pinches of salt). Set a large bowl of ice water near the stove for briefly immersing the parboiled lasagna noodles.

Carefully drop in 4 or 5 lasagna noodles at a time, taking care not to crowd the pot. Boil for about 1 minute; the noodles cook quickly and should be slightly underdone. Use a large skimmer to transfer them to the ice-water bath. Swish them around, then use the skimmer to transfer them to the tablecloth, where you will spread them out flat.

To assemble the lasagna, spread a thin layer of tomato sauce in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Arrange a single layer of lasagna noodles over the sauce. Spread half the chard over the noodles and dot with half the mozzarella and 1/2 cup ricotta. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Make a second layer of sauce and noodles. Spread half the roasted mushrooms over the pasta, then dot with 1/2 cup ricotta and sprinkle with half the Fontina and 1 tablespoon Parm.

Make a third layer of sauce and noodles. Spread the remaining greens over the pasta and dot with the remaining mozzarella and 1/2 cup of the ricotta. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon Parm. Cover with a fourth layer of sauce and noodles. Then spread the remaining mushrooms on top and dot with the rest of the ricotta. Top with the remaining Fontina and 1 tablespoon Parm.

Make one more layer of sauce and noodles. Spread a final layer of sauce over them and sprinkle the remaining Parm on top. Cover with aluminum foil and bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for 20 minutes more, until it is bubbling inside and browned on top. Let rest for 5 minutes before serving.



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