Ah, lasagna, the ultimate comfort food that brings warmth and richness to the table. Let me wax rhapsodic about this Italian classic.
We all have layers. That first outer layer, if you grew up in The Rocks where I did, is usually hard and crusty. We've learned to not allow much to penetrate that first layer. It's like an armor if you will. We rarely reveal what's inside.
But if you're lucky enough, which may take a while, you will find underneath the hard crust are layers of soft and gooey loveliness just waiting for you.
Don't mess with us though. You might dive in too quickly and bite into a clove of garlic that will send you skyrocketing. And guess what, we bite back. Sometimes.
But it's only because we've been conditioned to keep are hard layer rather close to those soft delicious layers.
A comfort food you'll yearn for after you've experienced it. Sometimes served with spicy sauce-- other times a complex thick meat sauce. Always, in my experience a warm and savory cream sauce with some kick thanks to fresh garlic and red chili pepper flakes and even more freshness thanks to fresh basil.
Sometimes a surprise awaits you and you are blown away. It's exactly what you've been waiting for all of your life. And the icing on the proverbial lasagna cake, the saltiness of pecorino and parmigiana cheese-- because you can't be all gooey and soft with sweetness all the time. That saltiness sometimes gets you in trouble, and sometimes it makes people love you even more.
Behold the layers of tender pasta sheets, bathed in a sumptuous tomato sauce, generously interlaced with meaty pockets of beef or savory sausage, and smothered in a velvety blanket of melted mozzarella cheese is a person who worked tirelessly and put love into every component.
With each bite, with each layer, one experiences a symphony of flavors and textures - the subtle tanginess of the tomato sauce, the meaty umami (if you don't go the vegetarian route), the creamy goodness of melted cheese, and the satisfyingly firm yet tender bite of each layer.
If you grew up in The Rocks, your lasagna recipe and/or your social disposition is probably rather similar to mine.
Most of what we eat of lasagna today is thanks to Italian cuisine. But did you know that the layers of goodness actually originated in Greece?
Its origins can be traced back to Ancient Greece where a dish called laganon was made. This dish consisted of layers of pasta, cheese, and sauce, and was similar in many ways to modern-day lasagna.
The Romans, who conquered Greece, were also known to have a similar dish called lasanum, which was a type of flatbread that was used to make a layered dish with cheese and meat.
It wasn't until the Middle Ages, however, that lasagna as we know it today began to take shape. In Italy, a dish called "pasticcio" was popular, which consisted of layers of pasta, cheese, and sauce baked together in a dish. This dish was often served at banquets and special occasions.
As pasta became more widely available in Italy in the 16th century, lasagna began to spread in popularity. The first written recipe for lasagna dates back to the 14th century, but it wasn't until the 19th century that it became a truly popular dish in Italy and beyond.
One of the reasons for lasagna's popularity was its versatility. It could be made with a variety of different sauces, meats, and cheeses, and could be adapted to suit different tastes and preferences. It was also a filling and hearty meal, making it popular with working-class families.
In the United States, lasagna became popular in the early 20th century, thanks in part to Italian immigrants who brought their culinary traditions with them.
Today, lasagna is a staple of Italian cuisine and can be found in restaurants and homes around the world.
It has evolved over the centuries into the beloved dish we know today, and its popularity shows no signs of slowing down. Whether enjoyed in Italy or abroad, lasagna remains a delicious and satisfying meal that is sure to please even the grittiest of us all.
Let's get cooking.
Cooking Class with Carol
Things to Consider
Lasagna is a labor of love. That is to say it takes several seperate components to be assembled and come together as one dish.
Each component is equally important. Don't skimp on freshness or quality to make the process quicker. It's just not a quick process.
Making the pasta sheets takes about as much time as it does to boil, drain, and oil dry pasta sheets. I use a hand cranked pasta machine to roll at the dough to the desired thickness (or thinness in this instance) Amazon has a great variety of pasta machines to choose from. I purchased one about 20 years ago for $49. I do not think the prices have changed much.
I use all-purpose flour for the pasta sheets for lasagna. Why is that you ask? Why not semolina flour? Well-- semolina flour is dense, harder, and used for noodles that will allow sauce to adhere to it when finished. Especially short noodles like penne or rigatoni. Egg noodles for spaghetti or like the noodles I made for the Maccheroni all chitarra BLOG are not as smooth and that allows the sauce to grab onto the texture and coat the noodle more perfectly.
These sheets are being baked and soaking up all of the moisture from the cheese and sauce. It will yield a very tender and fluffy lasagna noodle that will feel light and airy when you take a bite of it. You will see that the lasagna has souffle-like properties when it cooks. It will plump up and then settle down. You want a light airy 7 layers of ooey gooey goodness-- not limp, heavy and lead-ballish noodles.
Lasagnas can be made vegetarian, with just a cheese and sauce layer, or adding a meat layer. Change the red tomato sauce for a pesto-based layer and the whole vibe changes. Possibilities are endless!
If you go the meat route, we will be making a Bolognese style meat sauce. I like the "meat loaf mix" packaged ground meat find at my local grocery store. If not, the mixture ratio should be 2:1:1.
For example, 3 pound of meat I would buy 2 pounds of ground beef (80/20) and 1/2 pound each of pork and veal.
The more layers you have in your lasagna, the tastier it will be. It doesn't seem to make much sense, but it just is that way. I believe it has to do with the ratio of cheese, sauce, and noodles assembled so delicately that brings out the laborious task and love it takes to make lasagna. You don't just make it for anyone. Its tedious process is a labor of love. If someone makes you a lasagna, damnit they really care about you.
There are four complete separate layers that need to be made before assembling lasagna.
Each layer must be created separately before assembling the lasagna and baking.
Allowing the lasagna to "rest" at least one hour before cutting is so important. This time allows for the components to cool down and return to the semi-solid state. Ooey gooey goodness is achieved after resting period. Cut it too early and all of the components will slide right out from between the sheets. Don't worry about the temperature; the lasagna will still be very warm after waiting the hour to cut it. You will be grateful that you did.
What to Do
1. Cindy Litterini's Marinara Sauce
3 cans whole plum tomatoes (San Marzano* or San Marzano style*)
3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 C. fresh basil**** chiffonade (I’ll explain below- save the dried basil for meatballs)
1 C. Pecorino Romano** cheese, grated
2T. Extra Virgin Olive Oil*** •Salt to taste
1-2 teaspoons red pepper flakes
What to Do
Check out the blog "The Walks that Started it All" about directions to making the marinara sauce.
I double this recipe so I have enough sauce to dress the lasagna once it is done and ready to serve.
2. Ricotta Cheese Layer
46 oz. container whole milk ricotta cheese
3 eggs, beaten.
1 tablespoon fresh garlic, minced.
1 tablespoon fresh parsley finely chopped.
1/2 cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated.
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1-2 cups Italian shredded cheeses, like mozzarella or provolone or a combination of your favorites. This will be for when we assemble the lasagna.
What to Do
in a strainer, place ricotta cheese and allow to drain for 15-20 minutes. You want a ricotta cheese that is sans of liquid. This will make for a less-watery finished product.
In a large mixing bowl, add all ingredients and stir until well incorporated. Taste for seasoning. Adjust as needed. Set aside.
3. Meat Layer
3 pounds ground meat, a mixture of beef, pork and veal. Or the "meatloaf mix" from your local butcher.
1/2 cup carrots, diced.
1/2 cup onion, diced.
1 tablespoon garlic, minced.
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg, finely ground
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
What to Do
In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown meat. Add carrots and onions, cooking until translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add nutmeg. Add extra virgin olive oil if meat is too lean and not a lot of fat has been rendered from the meat while cooking.
4. Handmade Pasta
For this recipe I made eight (8) batches at once.
That was enough pasta to cover a hotel pan sized 12" x 19" x 3"
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
2 large eggs pls 1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon olive oil
What to Do
Using the well method, measure out flour. Hollow out the center of the flour to make "the well". This is where all of the ingredients will go in order to incorporate into the flour.
You may not use all of the flour measured out-- especially on the outer perimeter, depending on the moisture in the air and the time of year you are making the lasagna. It's easier to add flour than to remove it-- and adding more liquid just messing up the ratios of the noodle.
Incorporate all of the ingredients by whisking with a fork grabbing flour from the interior wall until dough begins the resemble a more solid mass. Continue to into a smooth ball and allow to rest 30-1 hour in the refrigerator.
Once all of the components of the lasagna are made, it's time to begin the process of making the lasagna.
I used a disposable hotel pan for easier cleanup for the Easter 2023 Holiday, put find that it wasn't much easier, and the corrugated sides made it a little harder for making the layers smooth.
Add a layer of sauce to the bottom of the pan.
Roll out 1/8 of the dough, for the first layer of lasagna, on the pasta machine. Sprinkle dough lightly with flour and pass it through pasta machine. Start with the widest setting (#1). Pass the dough through and then narrow the openings by one notch, dusting with flour each time if needed. (I go up to #5 of 6) You may have to pass dough through each width more than once to get desired consistency.
Add a thin layer of cheese on top of the noodles, spreading evenly on the overlapping noodles.
At this point, you will add your meat layer with sauce, or just the sauce if making vegetarian. I sprinkled a layer of shredded "Italian" cheeses in the sauce- mozzarella and provolone.
Begin the process again, making noodles, adding cheese layer and sauce. Repeat until desired number of layers is achieved. I got 7 layers in the disposable hotel pan-- I'm certain I could've gotten one more if I used a stainless steel 3" deep hotel pan.
Once assembled, cover with parchment and then foil and bake in a 350 degree oven for 1 1/2 - 2 hours. About 30 minutes before cooking time is complete, uncover and cook the remaining amount of time. Insert a thermometer to read internal temperature. Usually done at 140 degrees.
Remove from oven and allow to rest, UNDISTRUBED for at least one hour. The longer the better to allow the components to calm down and return to a partially solidified state.
The first piece is the hardest to remove. That doesn't always come out very pretty, so that one is saved for the cook.
I made this lasagna without meat for vegetarians I love and added meatballs as an accompaniment to the lasagna for the meat lovers in my life.