Not Your Mother’s Lasagna

March 28, 2009

Or maybe just not MY mother's lasagna

Or maybe just not MY mother's lasagna

I will admit to being slightly intimidated by this month’s Daring Bakers Challenge.
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.
This was not only  a break from what I grew up thinking was a traditional lasagna — multitudes of cheeses and mega-tomatoey sauce — it seemed almost miserly, using a simple white sauce, a meat sauce, and one measley, sparingly used cheese.   But get this:  the main part of the challenge was handmaking — and handrolling — the lasagna noodles.  Now that’s a challenge! 
Honestly, it wasn’t until  it came out of the oven and I tasted a bite that I saw how these sparse ingredients could come together to be exactly how it was described in the challenge:   a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. ”   In a word, it’s sublime. 
Here’s how it all went down:
This is what flour and egg look like on my counter...

This is what flour and egg look like on my counter...

I completely forgot to add the finely minced spinach to these noodles.  I ended up adding it to my ragu instead, with spectacular results. 
And then I stuck my fingers in it

And then I stuck my fingers in it

Homemade pasta was not nearly as difficult as I thought.  Mix the flour and egg, let it rest occasionally when it starts getting indignant on you, and roll, stretch, roll, stretch, roll.   I was really pleased with how thin I was able to get the noodles rolling them by hand.
The dough just as it came together

The dough just as it came together

The recipe says you’ll feel when the dough has been kneaded enough, and yeah, you just kind of do.  I don’t know if I would describe it as feeling “alive,” as we were told, but it definitely feels like it just belongs.  
Kneaded to what felt like the right point

Kneaded to what felt like the right point

I originally wanted to make really rustic, individual servings, so I didn’t care what the noodles looked like as I rolled them.  I also couldn’t take pictures of the rolling because it took two hands.

Pasta drying on my makeshift rack

Pasta drying on my makeshift rack

 It surprised me a little that we were invited to use our own recipes for the two required sauces.  I made a pretty simple, traditional bechamel, with a little garlic in it and probably a hint of lemon for some brightness.  But it was the ragu that got me.  Wholly cow was it amazing.  I loosely followed the sample recipe given, grinding some steak and pork chop together for the meat component and using a few strips of bacon instead of prosciutto or pancetta.  I did add a little tomato paste, which it didn’t call for and which I browned to within an inch of its life, and the canned tomatoes it did call for.  I also used half and half instead of milk, just because I had it.

 Let me tell you, I wanted to bathe in this stuff by the end.  I started out as white as cream gravy, but as it simmered it just turned browner and browner, and the minced spinach I added made it somehow taste like home. 

Maximum sauce, minimum cheese

Maximum sauce, minimum cheese

Cooked noodles ready for assembly

Cooked noodles ready for assembly

So, again in stark contrast to what I am used to in building a lasagna, the assembly began:  on an initial bed of sauce, I placed noodles, bechamel, and ragu, then dotted on a tiny bit more bechamel, a light dusting of cheese, and back to the noodles.  Even though I was trying to only use a spoonful or two of each sauce, I still feel like I might have been a little heavy handed.  Somehow I can live with that.
Assembling the last layer

Assembling the last layer

Because HI. 
Come to mama.

Right out of the oven

Right out of the oven

Twelve layers of rich, gooey goodness

Twelve layers of rich, gooey goodness

Oh, and I halved the recipes for everything.  As this recipe was trying to teach me,  a little goes a long way.

Thanks again to the Daring Bakers and our happy hosts for this suprising and fulfilling challenge.


From The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992).

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu  and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if  it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.


5 Responses to “Not Your Mother’s Lasagna”

  1. Beth Says:

    I’m so glad you were pleased with the final outcome, and I completely agree with you. This was one of the best lasagnas I’ve eaten.

    Your layers are perfect!

  2. Emily Says:

    Absolutely beautiful pasta! I can’t believe how thin it is. I love your drying rack technique as well! I will keep that in mind when I make pasta again 🙂

  3. christine Says:

    Wow, this looks incredible. Beautiful work, and your pasta looks amazing, it’s so thin!

  4. Maris Says:

    This looks unbelievable, and your instructions make it sound so simple!

  5. hazeleyes Says:

    It’s beautiful, looks delicious, and I wish I had some right now…and I’ve eaten lasagna Bolognese in Bologna, in my Bolognese friend’s house.

    One thing that I did learn experimenting with varieties of Bolognese-style sauces is that a little chicken liver adds immense flavor, as does the nutmeg that is mandatory in both ragu and bechamel. Subtle, but now I can’t do without them.

    Your rack is wonderful.

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