There are many types of lasagna dishes in Italian cookery, and in each is wonderful in its own way. But to my mind there are two “Ur-lasagne“, each typifying the northern and southern poles of Italian cuisine: lasagne di carnevale from Campania—the lasagne that nonna Angelina made—and lasagne alla bolognese, from Emilia-Romagna or, more precisely, Bologna. Both combine creamy and savory layers between large sheets of pasta, but the results, both delicious, are very different.
Today let’s look at lasagne alla bolognese. At its most essential, it is actually a rather simple dish: ragù, béchamel, parmesan cheese and pasta are layered in a baking dish and baked until a light crust forms on top. But, of course, the reality is not quite that quick and easy, as each component (other than the cheese) requires its own preparation before the dish is assembled and baked. In fact, it is best to budget several hours, over two days, to make this classic dish.
Step 1: Make the ragù: This is the real ‘heart’ of the dish that gives the dish its savor. Since it takes several hours to make, and benefits from an overnight ‘rest’, better to make your ragù the day before. The recipe is posted below.
Step 2: Make the pasta: Make fresh egg pasta dough and roll it out into thin sheets following the usual method. Then cut the sheets into lengths about as long (or wide) as the baking dish in which you plan to bake your lasagne. Take care, as the pasta will expand when it is cooked, so cut them just a bit shorter than the actual length or breadth of the pan. Since the pasta is not cut into strips as for fettuccine or taglierini, you need not dry the pasta if you’re ready to make the lasagne right away. (NB: The true ‘doc’ version of lasagne alla bolognese is made with spinach pasta. Will post on this soon.)
Step 3: Make the béchamel: You want to make a rather loose béchamel sauce as follows: melt a stick of butter (100g, 4 oz.) in a saucepan, then add six spoonfuls (50g, 2 oz.) of flour and simmer the resulting roux over medium low heat for a few minutes, taking care not to allow the roux to darken, and remove from the heat. In a separate saucepan, bring a liter (one quart) of milk just barely to a boil, then immediately pour the milk into the pan with the roux. Taking a whisk, whip the roux and milk together vigorously, then put the saucepan back on the heat and bring it up to the boil. It will thicken considerably when it gets to the boiling point. Immediately lower the heat to low and simmer for about 5-10 minutes, seasoning well with salt and a bit of nutmeg to taste. Remember that the sauce will cook and reduce further in the oven, and will be absorbed by the pasta, so you want a rather loose consistency, just a bit thicken than heavy cream. If the sauce thickens too much, whisk in a bit more milk. The sauce will also thicken up as it cools, so bring it back up to heat and/or add more milk to thin it out. (NB: You may not need this much bechamel, but better to have too much than too little. There are lots of uses for leftovers.)
Step 4: Cook the pasta and assemble the dish: Take your pasta sheets and simmer them, only one or two at a time, in well-salted water for just a minute or two, depending on just how thinly you’ve rolled out your pasta, and how long the pasta has been drying.
As each pasta sheet is done, fish it out of the water with a slotted spoon (the larger the better) and place it on a towel. With another towel, pat it dry. Then place the pasta sheets at the bottom of a greased baking dish, covering the entire bottom of the dish. It’s OK to overlap the sheets a bit, but if there’s too much overlap or the sheets are too big for the dish, you can always trim the cooked sheets to size.
Then add a thin layer of béchamel over the pasta, making sure to cover the entire surface of the pasta with a spatula. Lay over some of the ragù, then a generous dusting of grated parmesan cheese. (NB: Since all the components—pasta, ragu and béchamel—should be well seasoned, there should normally be no reason to season the dish as you assemble it.)
Repeat until you have run out of ingredients, or the baking dish is nearly full, or you’ve reached about four layers, ending with a layer of béchamel, sprinkled with parmesan cheese and dotted with butter. (More than that and the lasagne will not cook properly.)
Step 5: Baking the lasagne: Bake in a moderate oven (180°C, 350°F) for about 30 minutes, or until the top is just slightly browned on top (see top photo). Allow to rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.
NOTES: Although strictly speaking lasagne alla bolognese is a primo, or first course to be followed by a meat dish, from reading the recipe you will readily realize that a healthy portion is a meal unto itself, perfect as a piatto unico for all but the heartiest appetites.
You will see this dish made with a deep, golden brown crust on the top. I cannot say which method is more authentic, but personally I find that the crust takes away from the delicate flavor of the béchamel and cheese, and makes the dish a bit awkward to eat. The lasagne tends to spread apart when you press down with your fork and the top crust ‘resists’ the pressure. But anyway, different strokes and all that…
Similarly, these lasagne is best when it can rest for a while before eating. Right out of the oven, the béchamel and ragù are still very loose and the lasagne will tend to fall apart as you cut into it, depending on how much sauce you have layered in. I usually let it rest 15 or even 30 minutes, which gives it time to compose itself and firm up enough to cut it. In fact, if you allow the lasagne (or any baked pasta dish, for that mattter) to cool off, and then reheat it gently, it will have an entirely different, solid texture, almost like a cake. Many people like it better that way.
The thickness of the pasta will also influence the ultimate outcome. For this kind of lasagne, I tend to like to roll the pasta out quite thinly, which produces a more delicate dish, at setting “5″ or thinner on my KitchenAid pasta roller.
There are various ways to cut down on the work involved in making this dish, the most common being buying the pasta rather than making it yourself, which you can certainly do. Just be careful since much of the so-called lasagne available commercially, even the ‘fresh’ kind (in the US at least) is not really fit for making this kind of lasagne. Look for thin sheets, not made from durum wheat flour, if you can find it. There also exist ‘no-cook’ lasagne, which supposedly don’t need pre-simmering and can be placed raw into the baking dish. Personally, I have never been satisfied with the resulting texture. But one short-cut is, to my mind, inexcusable: jarred, commercially made ragù, or ‘bolognese sauce’ as it is sometimes called in English. It’s a travesty to be avoided at all costs. As mentioned above, the ragù is the heart of this dish, and frankly if you need to cut corners there, you might as well just make something else that requires less time to make. And in Italy, you can even buy pre-made béchamel, but this, too, should be avoided. It tastes like glue!
Measurements: The outcome of the lasagne will very much depend on how much ragù and especially béchamel you layer in between the pasta sheets. Too little and the dish will come out rather dry and not very savory, too much and the dish will be ‘slippery’ and rather stodgy at the same time. But between these two extremes, I’ve had lasagne made all different ways, each has its fine points. I would experiment with different ratios until you find the consistency you like best. Any easy to remember rule of thumb: Marcella Hazan recommends using about 2 cups each of ragù and béchamel for pasta made from 2 eggs. As for myself, I usually make more than enough of both sauces and then use my eye and instinct. The leftover sauces can be used various ways, including mixing them with rigatoni to make a simple pasta al forno during the week.
Although this dish is from Bologna, it (or some variation) typifies the lasagne that will be found on tables more or less all over central and northern Italy. Although Rome is, in many ways, a southern city, it is this version of lasagne that you will most likely find in restaurants and on home tables. there Further south, béchamel sauce gives way to ricotta mixed with eggs and cheese, and ragù alla napoletana replaces ragù alla bolognese, and bits of sausage and tiny meatballs, sometimes even slices of hard boiled egg, elaborate the dish. It was this southern version, known as lasagne di carnevale, that nonna Angelina would make on Sundays. But that is a story for another day…