If there was a temple for lasagne, I would worship there as a devotee on a regular basis. (You can read more about my devotion to it here).
It is one of the most comforting of all foods, in my opinion. I dare not make it too often. It is a long, long process. And my lack of discipline when it comes to its consumption usually renders me unmovable for a day or two.
There is no prescription to a perfect lasagne and what follows is merely a suggestion. You can substitute most of the ingredients (except for the pasta, for which you should use the kind which does not need cooking in advance). All I ask is that you set aside an appropriate amount of time, try it, then try it again, and again, and again… until it is your own.
Now… take a deep breath, and begin.
For the ragu
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- A wedge of pancetta, chopped
- A couple (or more) cloves of chopped garlic
- 2 lb of minced meat (I like half beef and half pork)
- ½ lb chicken livers
- A couple of tins of chopped tomatoes
- ½ cup of tomato paste
- Red wine
- Fresh herbs (lots of basil, perhaps some oregano, flat-leaf parsley, maybe even a bit of thyme)
For the white sauce
- 2 ½ pints of whole milk
- 6 oz butter
- 4 oz flour
- Fresh nutmeg
For the lasagne
- Parmesan (Reggiano please!)
- A box of lasagne sheets
- Your largest skillet
- A big casserole
- An appropriate baking dish
- Heat your skillet and sweat the onions in a tablespoon or so of olive oil. You want them nice and translucent but not brown (about 10 minutes to achieve this). Keep an eye on them and stir from time to time.
- If you have some pancetta (or, in the absence of this, some good streaky bacon) add this to the onion along with some garlic. (The smell at this point is one I wouldn’t mind being my last, by the way.)
- Once the pancetta is nicely cooked (around 5 to 10 minutes), empty the contents into a holding vessel (which could be the big casserole you intend to use for the meat sauce) and brown your meats. You want a good heat under your skillet to ensure you fry rather than steam your meat. Don’t over-pack the skillet. Brown the meat in batches and add them to the casserole as you go. (If your meat has a high fat content and you are concerned about your arteries, by all means allow some of the fat to drip through a colander before transferring to the casserole.)
- If you are using chicken livers in your recipe, which I strongly advise, save these till last.
- Once all the meat has been combined with the onion and bacon mix in the casserole, work the whole lot with a very big fork, breaking down the big chunks of meat into smaller, more manageable bites. I have a pair of giant chopsticks that are great for this job.
- Add the tomatoes, the tomato paste, a glass or two of red wine and season well.
- Bring everything to a simmer and add the herbs.
- Now you have a choice. Seal the casserole and either leave it on top of the stove above a low heat or place it in an oven at about 300°F and let it bubble away for about 3 hours or so.
- Check it from time to time. Most of the liquid should have been absorbed or evaporated. You want a thick, wonderful stew of flavors. Taste, adjust the seasoning and add some more herbs if you think it needs it.
- To make the sauce, combine the butter, flour and milk in a pan and heat gently, whisking all the way. When it is just about to boil, lower the heat to almost nothing and let it cook through for about 10 minutes. Season and, if you like, grate in a good pinch of fresh nutmeg. (For extra creaminess, you can whisk in half a cup or so of cream at the end of the cooking process.)
- How you construct the lasagne should really be up to you. I like it with a layer of meat sauce, followed by a layer of cream sauce, dotted with little chunks of mozzarella then covered over with the lasagne sheets, filling as many gaps as possible (this takes a little surgery on the pasta). I repeat this process. On top of the final sheet of pasta, I cover with whatever cream sauce I have left (having made sure enough remained for a good coating). Finally I sprinkle over the whole dish a generous amount of Parmesan.
- It needs around 45 minutes at 350°F to cook, 10 minutes to cool and about 90 seconds to eat!
What you should know
You can make the ragu in advance (it benefits, I think from an extra day of rest, but it is by no means essential).
You must taste the ragu for flavor. If it lacks something, throw something in… some Worcestershire sauce for instance, more tomato paste, some dried herbs, perhaps some grated nutmeg… whatever you think will work.
If you have an oven with one of those see-through doors, sit on the floor watching it cook. It browns, it bubbles, it calls your name. Close your eyes for a moment, cross your legs and do that thumb-finger-touchy thing. You are at the altar of the Temple of Lasagne. Ohm.