California Cook: Lasagna can be made so many ways
Everyone has his own rituals for fall Sunday afternoons. Some guys sit around and watch football; for me it takes only about a quarter before I need a nap. Others feel inspired to take up household projects; the less said about my ability with a hammer the better.
Instead, I cook. Well, I cook all year round, but when the days start to cool and the light turns golden, I get more ambitious. Rather than 30 minutes at the grill, I throw myself into hours-long kitchen projects. This year, it’s been lasagna.
It started in late September. I had just gotten back from the farmers market when I heard that Marcella Hazan had died. I looked over everything that I had bought and in her honor immediately started making dough for fresh pasta. And peeling and seeding tomatoes and turning them into sauce. And making a Parmesan-enriched white sauce. And blanching, chopping and sauteing beet greens. And then putting it all together. All of a sudden it was dinner time.
There’s nothing like lasagna from scratch to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon.
It’s habit-forming. I’ve made lasagna every weekend since. Not all have been so involved, of course. One weekend I made Hazan’s wild mushroom and ham version. Another time I experimented with spicy tomato sauce and basil-flecked ricotta. Once you’ve mastered the basics of lasagna, it really is a most adaptable construct.
And I’ve learned there are places you can compromise to make the project easier. Canned tomatoes work just fine for most sauces. Not all lasagnas call for both ragu and besciamella. Spread out the work, taking one step at a time and making time for a break in between. Lasagna is forgiving that way.
One place I don’t compromise is on fresh pasta. The fresh-versus-dried pasta debate is an old and tired one and, in the end, pointless. Each type of pasta has its purposes. Think of them as types of cloth: Fresh pasta is silk and dried is wool. But while I will grant that there are very good lasagnas made with dried pasta, the simultaneous delicacy and luxuriousness of fresh is what really makes the dish in most cases.
When it comes to building the lasagna, remember the importance of the pasta. The dish should be as much about the noodles as it is about the filling. Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the pan, then a layer of pasta. Spread a thin layer of filling, then another layer of pasta, repeating until you’ve either filled the pan or used up all the ingredients, finishing with a layer of sauce. Then just sprinkle with cheese and bake.
You’ll want to let the lasagna settle for 10 minutes or so after it comes out of the oven. It’ll be hard to resist the smell, but just keep reminding yourself that it’s too hot to eat anyway. And besides, when you do finally cut into it, the lasagna will taste just that much better.
It’s a lot more work than throwing a steak on the barbecue, no doubt. But what else are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon?
Fresh Pasta Tips
I have gone through periods of excess when it comes to fresh pasta. When I first started making it many years ago, I got so carried away that I’d make fettuccine for dinner every night when I got home from work. It wasn’t very good fettuccine, mind you – fresh pasta needs time to relax before rolling – but it was a whole lotta fettuccine.
Lately, I have found myself tipping back over that cliff again, making fresh pasta over and over. Here are some tips.
Pick up a pasta roller attachment for a stand mixer. It makes the job so much easier, eliminating the “third hand” problem of the manual versions entirely (one hand to feed the dough through the roller, one hand to turn the crank and somehow a third hand to catch the rolled-out sheet on the other side).
I also find it easier to make the dough in a food processor. I realize that in theory it’s simple enough to mound the dough on a work table, beat in the eggs and knead. But it’s messy. I made the two methods side by side. The food processor dough was much easier to work and just as fine in result.
Pulse just until the flour and egg mixture starts to clump together, then knead it by hand to make a cohesive dough.
Wrap the kneaded dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour to rest. You’ll know it’s ready to roll when you poke an indentation with your finger and it doesn’t immediately spring back.
Start the rolling process by kneading the dough again with the machine. Flatten it, fold it in thirds as you would a letter and feed it through the rollers on the widest setting. Repeat until the dough feels satiny smooth. Then start thinning, using progressively thinner settings.
When rolling out the dough, flour it lightly but frequently, whenever it starts to feel moist. I usually lightly dust the dough with flour a couple of times during the machine kneading, and then again midway through the thinning. But if the dough is moist, you may need to do it more often.
If the sheet of dough becomes too long for you to handle comfortably, cut it in half and work with smaller portions. Keep the remainder lightly covered with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.
Once the dough is rolled and cut, you can cook it immediately and save it stretched out on kitchen towels until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna. Be sure to give it a good rinse as soon as it’s done cooking to get rid of the excess starch, and then squeegee the sheets between your fingers to get rid of any extra water.
Mushroom and Ham Lasagna
2 hours, plus soaking time for the mushrooms and cooling time for the lasagna. Serves 12
1 2/3 cups unbleached flour, plus extra for rolling the dough
1. Place the flour in the bowl of a mixer or food processor. Add the eggs and mix until a dough starts to come together. The dough should feel like soft clay; if it feels moist, add a little more flour. Turn it out onto a well-floured work surface and knead until it forms a cohesive dough, 4 to 6 turns. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it to give it time to relax, at least an hour. You’ll know it’s ready when you poke an indentation with your fingertip and the dough does not spring back.
2. Line the counter with kitchen towels. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Take one piece (leaving the others under plastic wrap), flatten it slightly, flour it lightly and pass the dough through a pasta machine with the rollers adjusted to the widest setting. Fold in overlapping thirds as you would a letter and pass through again. Repeat until the dough feels silky smooth, 3 or 4 more turns.
3. Now start thinning the dough: Crank the machine two stops tighter and pass the dough through. Repeat, cranking the machine ever tighter until the sheet is thin enough that you can see your hand through it when held up to the light. This will be about setting No. 6. If the dough feels too moist, dust with a little more flour to keep it from sticking. Cut the finished dough sheet into roughly 12-inch lengths and arrange on the kitchen towels. Don’t let the cut sheets touch, as they may still be slightly sticky.
4. Repeat, kneading, rolling and cutting all the pasta dough.
5. Cook the pasta, 4 to 6 sheets at a time, in a large pot of generously salted boiling water. The pasta will be done when it floats to the surface, in less than 30 seconds.
6. Gently remove the pasta from the boiling water with a skimmer and transfer it to a large work bowl filled with cool water to stop the cooking. Carefully rinse each sheet under running water, then rub it with your fingers to remove any excess water. Spread it flat on a kitchen towel to dry until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna.
2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
3 tablespoons oil
¼ cup (½ stick) plus 3 tablespoons butter, divided, plus more for greasing
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1/3 cup chopped, peeled and seeded tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 ½ pounds button or cremini mushrooms, sliced approximately ¼-inch thick
Freshly ground black pepper
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
Scrapings of nutmeg
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided, plus more for the table
¾ pound thinly sliced unsmoked boiled ham (prosciutto cotto), cut into julienne strips
1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees and place a rack at the uppermost position. Cover the dried mushrooms with 3 cups of warm water and set aside to soften at least 15 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water (reserving the water), squeeze them dry and chop them finely. Strain the soaking water through a coffee filter to remove any dust.
2. Over medium heat, heat the oil, 3 tablespoons butter and the chopped onion in the largest saute pan you have, ideally one big enough to hold all the sliced mushrooms without crowding. Cook until the onion turns translucent, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the porcini mushrooms, the soaking water, chopped tomatoes and parsley, and continue cooking until the water has evaporated and the mixture is nearly dry, about 10 minutes.
4. Add the sliced fresh mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper, or to taste, and increase the heat to high. Cook, stirring frequently, until all the moisture released by the mushrooms has evaporated, 10 to 20 minutes, increasing the heat if needed for the liquid to evaporate more quickly. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
5. Make a white sauce: Heat one-fourth cup butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. When it has melted, whisk in the flour to make a smooth paste. Whisk in the milk about one-half cup at a time, cooking until each addition has thickened. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and a pinch of nutmeg, or to taste, and stir in two-thirds cup of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Remove from heat and hold in a warm place. (A skin will probably form on top of the sauce. Just stir it back in. Any small clumps will melt as the lasagna bakes.)
6. Generously butter a 12-by-9-inch baking dish and lightly coat the bottom with the white sauce. Line the bottom of the pan with a single layer of pasta strips, cutting them to fit the pan, edge to edge, allowing no more than one-fourth inch overlapping.
7. Stir all but about one-half cup of the remaining white sauce into the mushroom mixture. Spread a thin layer of the mushroom mixture on top of the pasta, then scatter a handful of ham strips over the top. Cover with another pasta layer and more mushrooms and ham, repeating until you’ve used all the mushrooms and ham, finishing with a layer of pasta. Ideally, you’ll have at least 6 layers of pasta. Spoon the reserved one-half cup of white sauce evenly over the top layer of pasta, and sprinkle over the remaining one-third cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. (The recipe can be prepared to this point and refrigerated tightly covered.)
8. If baking the lasagna immediately after assembling, place on the top rack and bake until a light golden crust forms on top, about 10 to 15 minutes. If the crust is slow to develop, turn up the oven to 450 or 475 degrees, but do not bake longer than 15 minutes altogether. If the lasagna was refrigerated, place on a rack in the center of the oven (for more even heating) and bake until it is warmed through and beginning to form a light golden crust, 25 to 35 minutes; place on the top rack after warming to form the crust more quickly if needed.
9. Remove from the oven and set aside to settle for about 10 minutes. Then serve with grated Parmesan on the side.
Protein: 13 grams
Carbohydrates: 22 grams
Fiber: 2 grams
Fat: 16 grams
Saturated fat: 7 grams
Cholesterol: 87 mg
Sugar: 4 grams
Sodium: 755 mg
NOTE: Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): LASAGNA