Lasagne alla bolognese has to be without a doubt one of the most popular dishes in the western world, it is so good! Simple ingredients, a meat ragu, lasagna noodles, béchamel sauce, some grated cheese, ricotta… ok, this is the list of key ingredients for successful deliciousness right here! But let’s not oversimplify or underestimate. I find this dish challenging yet fun to make, here’s my post on lasagne making, hope you enjoy it!
If you’ve never cooked lasagna before, don’t be fooled by its comfort food appearance. Put down that box of lasagna noodles and take a step back. Lasagna, although not a complicated dish, requires understanding of how long it takes to make and how the components are cooked. The whole process can take a couple of hours if using a pressure cooker to speed up the meat ragu preparation and up to 5 hours if going old school. Bolognese sauce can be made days ahead (which actually helps the sauce develop better flavor) and this could make this enterprise less time consuming. I’ve broken down the lasagna components into 4 for easier understanding:
1. Bolognese sauce
2. Béchamel sauce
3. Ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan top layer (or in between layers, up to you)
4. Lasagna noodles themselves!
I’m not going to pretend I know how to make this sauce in the true italian spirit, the variations are probably endless too and every cook has their own take. I have my own recipe which I adapted from Maria Pia’s cookbook. She owned…. now closed (the restaurant business is brutal anywhere in the world) a wonderful italian trattoria in Wellington, New Zealand, and was kind enough to sign and dedicate a copy of it for my mom years ago. My mom never read it so I stole it back!
I used pork and beef (skipping the chicken) in equal parts. 1 lb. ground pork, 1 lb. ground beef. I also used about 2 ounces of bacon (small dice). Pancetta is hard to find and if I find it, it is more expensive. I’ve used them both in different opportunities, I like them both in different ways. Anyway, that’s the meat!
Brown the meat. At least I do. I love getting the meat really caramelized. That will eventually impart great flavor to the sauce. I mix the beef and pork before browning. Then I add them to a hot vessel like my pressure cooker pot. You can use a heavy pan or a dutch oven. Add enough olive oil or vegetable oil to cover the bottom of the cooking surface. Heat up until barely smoking and sear the meat in batches. Overcrowding the pan will cause the meat juices (mostly water) to flood the bottom and you’ll end up boiling the meat. If this happens, you can be patient and allow the water evaporate, eventually searing will occur, but it is not ideal, plus your meat has gone drier… avoid the headache and work in batches would be my recommendation.
Once the meat is nice and golden, remove from the pan, add the bacon/pancetta to the pan until golden. To flavor the meat, I like to add vegetables to the sauce, a simple mirepoix, some diced carrots, celery and onion, the quantities can vary from recipe to recipe, this time I used a medium size carrot, 2 celery stalks and half a large onion. Sweat this veggies in the same pot you used to cook the meat. Pinch of salt. This might take about 6-8 minutes, some caramelization is a good thing, but don’t go to far. Add some tomato sauce, about a 2/3 cup, and cook with the veggies. The tomato sauce should turn darker and browner, about 5 mins. Return the meat to the pan, cook for a new more minutes, taste, adjust salt, add some pepper. I added rosemary spring, one bay leaf and some fresh oregano (just the leaves). Add a cup of nice dry red wine. If using a pressure cooker, add water to barely cover the meat and cook at 15 psi for 1 hour. Otherwise, cook over the stove or in the oven for 2 to 3 hours. Once ready, depressurize under cold tab water, cook until water has reduced and the sauce is creamy and has consistency. We don’t want too watery a sauce here. Let the sauce rest. Drain any excess fat, there will probably be more fat than you really want in the final sauce. Finish with some milk, about half a cup.
The béchamel sauce is a fun one to make. Equal parts butter and flour. I used a scale to measure these. Half a stick of butter will yield enough béchamel sauce for this recipe and more. I used a whole stick and I’m still trying to figure out what to do with the left overs. In a sauce pan, melt the butter, add the flour and cook stirring continuously for about 10 minutes, this is called a roux and it a basic thickener, the longer you cook it, the darker it gets, the less thickening power it has. You’re looking for a blond roux, just slightly golden. Warm up some milk, because you don’t want to add cold milk to the roux, it will probably splatter all over the place and you could burn yourself, so warm up the milk first. Warm about 2 cups of milk, and start adding them to the roux slowly, whisking as you go. You will notice how the mix turns into a creamy sauce, add more milk if you want it less thick. You are looking for a pourable consistency, like a light batter. Season with a pinch of nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste. And do taste and adjust as needed. Careful, this sauce likes to stay hot hot hot.
The topping. For this recipe I used ricotta and grated parmesan cheese equal parts. Used a little pasta water to thin the ricotta and get a nice creamy consistency. Made enough to spread a layer of this over the entire lasagna. This is step is easy. No cooking required to get this one done, finally something straight forward! Phew!
The lasagna noodles. Straight forward again. Salty boiling water. Add noodles, and cook until slightly undercooked, they will finish cooking in the oven when the lasagna is baked so keep that in mind. Once the noodles are ready. Strain, reserve some of that pasta water, you might need it. Allow the noodles to cool down. I didn’t and it was extremely difficult to handle them, they are slippery, and if hot, you can imagine how fun this can be. You want to use your hands to handle them. They will break less than if using tongs. Keep that in mind too!
The layering. This is where things can get really creative. I have layered my lasagna very simply. Using a deep baking pan, I have this pyrex glass ones I really love. I oiled the interior a lightly. And then covered the bottom with a couple of noodle sheets side by side. I like having this base for the lasagna, easier to scoop out once ready. Trim any excess pasta as needed to keep the lasagna shape in check. Ok, some people mix the béchamel and the bolognese sauce which is fine too. I keep them separate and layer them over over beds of noodles, I like the color contrasts. Up to you. I layer noodles, meat sauce, béchamel sauce and another layer of noodles. I don’t add cheese between the layers, nor do I add butter. But go nuts, it’s time to get creative anyways. Finish with a layer of noodles and the topping sauce. The baking pan should feel heavy, as in full of goodness!
Bake for about 20 minutes at 420 ºF, make sure you preheat the oven at least half hour in advance. I used my broiler as well just to help the topping brown a bit. I felt the lasagna had been baking for long enough and the topping still needed a bit of help. Depends on how you top your lasagna you might need to adjust how you finish it in the oven. Take out of the oven and let rest for about 20 minutes before serving. If you serve right away, the lasagna will fall apart too easily. Lasagna is a messy fun dish, but it doesn’t have to be messier than needed. Plus you don’t want your guests getting burned. Béchamel, cheese, and fatty meat sauces can retain heat very efficiently. They can also remain yummy in the memories of anyone that devours them.
Another lengthy post! And no recipe. I’m truly getting lazy this summer. But I’m finding writing posts like this more informative than a recipe. I try to share some of what I find to be useful information and not just list quantities and a limited set of instructions. It’s hard to be concise with cooking! so many little details! 🙂 Let me know, I am willing to adjust the presentation in up coming posts but hope you enjoyed this one regardless! Take care!