Lasagne are to many Italians the ultimate comfort food, bringing distant memories of grandmas layering together thin hand-made pasta, slowly cooked meat ragout, white sauce and cheese to come up with a work of art both horribly hot and incredibly good.
As many Italian dishes, there is nothing hard in making lasagne, apart from some dedication and a lot of patience: a proper meat sauce needs no less than 4-5 hours on the stove, and that’s only part of the story as home-made pasta and white sauce will take their toll as well. The good news is the reward you get for the effort: apart from being great food in itself, lasagne are extremely flexible for a dinner with friends, as you can get everything ready in advance and whack it in the oven while having a chat over some wine. Unlike almost every pasta, if you’re so lucky to have any leftovers, you can freeze and reheat them in the busy days and, finally, if you like optimization like I do, when you cook the meat sauce you can make hefty quantities of it and store it for some good “pasta bolognaise” (by the way, you might want to know that no Italian will ever name what we call “pasta al ragÃ¹” as “bolognaise”: personally, I would run away from any Italian restaurant using that horrible term, but then again I’d run away from every Italian restaurant abroad so you might not want to quote me on that).
On to the recipe: the key in making good lasagne is the meat sauce, which is really not difficult to make once get to grips with the time it will take for the sauce to slowly simmer. As it might get as long as six hours, don’t choose a busy day to cook this kind of stuff; on the other hand, know that the hard work will be done in 30-45 minutes, and all you need for the remaining five hours or so is a casual eye to avoid burning, while your house fills up with flavours and you’re reading a book or surfing the Net. Get everything ready first: if you want to cook a lot of sauce, good for two or three meals, grab 600g of minced beef (assuming you trust your butcher, that is, or mince it yourself as I do), 100g of pancetta or lard in very small cubes and no less than 1.5kg of ripe tomatoes.
Start with tomatoes first: since it’s winter, and we don’t get nice small and sweet tomatoes, some work is in order to get rid of some acidity. Get a pan with boiling water and a bowl with cold/iced water, cut a cross over the tomatoes, and poach them in the boiling water for no more than a minute. Throw them in the cold water and watch the skin fall apart. Peel the tomatoes, cut them in four and throw the seeds away. Sprinkle some salt on the clean tomato quarters and put them in a drainer for twenty minutes. You will be amazed to see how much water the tomatoes will lose: know that this passage is paramount for a proper tomato sauce, unless we’re talking about fresh small cherry tomatoes coming straight from the garden.
While the tomatoes are draining, put a pan on the fire and prepare some soffritto (you can read here how to cook it, use a large onion, a carrot, a stalk of celery and a touch of garlic), unless you happen to have some frozen stuff which will shave some time from your cooking day: once it’s ready, take it away, roughly clean the pan, pour no less than three spoonfuls of olive oil on high heat and throw the minced meat/pancetta in. Let everything toast and brown, add the soffritto back with a couple of glasses of white wine which will need to fully evaporate (unless you use the de-alcoholyizing trick we’ve been trough before) and finally let the drained tomatoes join the pan, together with a nice cup of beef stock. Let everything get to the boiling point, then lower the fire to the minimum possible heat and grab that book as it’s now time to wait. Don’t – ever – put a lid on. Stop by the pan every twenty minutes or so for a good stir and, after a couple of hours, add a good glass of milk as the perfect finishing touch to your meat sauce, which will be ready as soon as every single drop of water will be evaporated. Don’t rush, take your time, and the reward will be excellent.
A couple of hours before the meat sauce is ready, it’s time to think about pasta: make a dough with 400g of white flour, four eggs and a good pinch of salt, then use the rolling pin or a pasta machine to end up with thin, large, squares which if at all possible should be the size as the pan they’ll be ending up in a short while (this pasta shape is what we call lasagne, by the way). Let the pasta sit for a while, and bring some salted water to boil. While you wait for the water to heat, get on with the white sauce, using 60g of butter and a good spoonful of white flour to make some roux, then add roughly a liter of milk and keep on stirring until it thickens (don’t let it boil!), seasoning with some salt and pepper to taste. Grate a good quantity of parmesan cheese (no less than four-five handfuls) and get ready for the assembly phase.
Get a bowl with cold water and bring it near the stove. Add a drizzle of oil to the boiling water, and poach no more than two lasagne at the same time, or they will horribly stick together no matter the oil. Let them cook for a little more than a minute, then throw the lasagne in the cold water bowl to stop them from overcooking. Grab an oven pan and make a first lasagne layer on the bottom. Add a spoonful of meat sauce, a spoonful of white sauce and a good sprinkle of grated parmesan, then move on to the next layer repeating the poach/cool/arrange/season drill until you run out of pan space or lasagne. Finish your pan with the two sauces and a very generous handful of parmesan which will melt and form a great crust. Some 30 minutes before you want to eat, turn the oven on to 180Â°C and whack everything in. Finish with some grill and warn your friends before heating, as the lasagne will be as hot as a lava, but also as good as food can be.