Until last week, my lasagna record was clean. I might have eaten it, but I never made it. Why bother boiling noodles and simmering sauce and laboring over layers just to get a dish I associate with dining experiences at 30,000 feet?
But my curiosity got the better of me after total strangers started confessing that they saw lasagna as much more than a cheesy meal. The long process is just what appeals to them in these crazy times. Eating the stuff is not exactly stress-inducing, either. An Italian food for feast days has become as American as chili.
In the face of so much lasagna boosterism, so many hymns to the red, white and rich, I figured it was my duty to give it a try. How tough could it be? The recipe is right on the Ronzoni box.
For once there was no compulsion to measure up to restaurant standards. Lasagna is the quintessence of home cooking. Big-name chefs rarely get into a lather over it. Babbo serves it only as a special and always on the eve of the New York Marathon; Becco offers it as one of the three pastas on the lunch special. But more often the professionals leave lasagna to the pizzerias.
Even in Italy I have never eaten lasagna in a restaurant, except in Genoa. And there it is nothing like what Stouffer’s has sold Americans on. It’s just sheets of very thin fresh pasta, called silk handkerchiefs, draped on a plate and streaked with a vibrant pesto. That I could make.
But that would be cheating. My goal was a classic baked lasagna, one that was more than the usual ground beef, tomatoes and, literally, pounds of cheese, one in which the pasta mattered as much as the sauce. Unfortunately, most of my many cookbooks seemed to offer either that dreary formula or something completely different under the lasagna entry in the index. One duck lasagna turned out to be fried wonton wrappers layered with a shredded bird from Chinatown, like a nutty Napoleon. Another was actually a scary dessert, with dried and fresh fruit and a vanilla sauce.
Some were actually promising, like the lasagnas that used wild mushrooms instead of meat. But I wanted to start by scaling the highest heights in the land of lasagna, and I knew that every region of Italy had a different peak. In Emilia-Romagna, the birthplace of lasagne al forno, the dish is baked, the noodles are green and bechamel is essential. In the Marches, vincisgrassi lasagne uses chicken livers, calf’s brains, mushrooms and even cinnamon. The lasagnas of Naples and Sicily, though, seem to be most like what I was hoping for.
And the one that looked most challenging in all my Italian cookbooks was the Neapolitan lasagna for carnival, with meatballs and sausage, a meaty ragù and hard-cooked eggs tucked into the filling. It was the kind of dish so over the top that you would want to fast for 40 days after eating it.
I studied recipes for the carnival version from Tony May, the New York restaurateur, and Carlo Middione, the San Francisco chef, but in the end I decided to tackle the toughest one possible, Giuliano Bugialli’s.
Three days later, we sat down to eat.
On the first day, I shopped. The ragù alone called for pancetta, red onions, Italian tomato paste (Fairway), red wine (Gotham) and a two-pound rump roast (not a common cut in these steak-gorging days; I had to trek to Oppenheimer, my neighborhood butcher). The filling required good Italian sausages (Faicco’s, in Greenwich Village). I needed three kinds of cheese: mozzarella, Parmigiano-Reggiano and ricotta. The noodles, though, turned out to be the holy grail. I refuse to make my own pasta for the same reason I buy sausages: some things are better left to the experts.
But Fairway had only Ronzoni, which seemed alien to a dish so rigidly traditional. Zabar’s was out of the fresh pasta sheets I usually buy there, and of the dried kind, too. Faicco’s persuaded me to take a brand I had never tried, Gerardo di Nola Maccheronie Napoletani. As a backup, I stopped at the Greek market near my home and picked up the only noodles it carried, Barilla’s instant kind, paper-thin sheets in a tiny box that had the cashiers snickering (”It’s one serving,” one insisted).
On the second day, I made the sauce. It started with larding the rump roast with a paste of ground pancetta, parsley and garlic. Already I was psyched. This felt very French, not like my usual how-fast-can-we-make-dinner pasta. More pancetta, ground with red onions and garlic, went into the cast-iron pot with lard and then red wine, and then the meat. Many hours later I had a succulent pot roast that I was instructed to remove from the sauce and do with what I would. The sauce left behind was easily the best I had ever made, with just enough tomato flavor against the richness of the meat and red wine.
On the third day, I mixed up my little meatballs and deep-fried them in bubbling oil. I grated and sliced cheese, browned sausages and cooked eggs, and then boiled the ruffled noodles, which promptly unraveled in the water. In desperation, I tore open the Barilla box. Instant mashed potatoes would have been a better idea.
The rigid noodles teetered on the boulders of meat, making layering impossible. And even though I covered the pan with foil, against the great Bugialli’s instructions, they never absorbed the sauce to become pliant, or even lasagna. In the meantime, the fresh mozzarella, which I had assumed was more appropriate than good old oozy Polly-O, turned into that appalling white rubber you see on bad pizzas in overly ambitious restaurants. The whole dish was a sad sight, and a dry dinner.
Lasagna was not supposed to make me feel worse, was it? To calm down I seized on a recipe from a garlic grower in California that sounded like an Americanized version of the spectacular lasagna in Genoa. Pesto is mixed into a bechamel along with a surfeit of Parmigiano-Reggiano, then layered with noodles and two kinds of cheese, mozzarella and Monterey Jack. It sounded so simple that I got stupid. I opened another box of instant noodles, from Ronzoni.
My only wish was that we had had a loaf of good bread to scrape the filling onto. Once again, the noodles refused to soften up no matter how long I baked them. Chewing them was like gnawing on the box they came in. From then on, I was determined to take the extra half-hour to boil water and cook real pasta. And the second time I made the dish, with all-American Ronzoni’s regular noodles, it was just what it should be, a good balance between creamy rich sauce and al dente pasta, like macaroni and cheese with flair and flavor.
Delverde’s dried lasagna noodles worked even better in my next lasagna, one with porcini and regular mushrooms that took the better part of an afternoon but would be fit for company. A thick bechamel and a generous layering of prosciutto made the dish seem meatier than it was. Unlike most lasagnas, though, it had no shelf life. At lunch the next day it looked as sad as a fallen soufflé.
But it was good enough to inspire me to brave Olympus one more time. I took another look at ”Italian Immigrant Cooking” by Elodia Rigante, whose son thoughtfully published it in an oversize, heavily illustrated format that big-name chefs would kill for (First View Books, 1995). The headnote by the author said she had been advised by her family not to include the recipe because ”everybody knows how to make lasagna.” But this was the way her mother had taught her, she wrote, and she had taught her daughters and granddaughters.
Aside from adding eggs to the ricotta, and using pecorino Romano rather than Parmigiano, her recipe seemed to be the usual. But the sauce, which she labeled Brooklyn meat gravy, was tantalizing. There was just enough overlap with the Bugialli formula to be interesting, although she called for cooking meatballs and sausages in it rather than rump roast, and those same meats were then incorporated into the lasagna. I realized I could blend the two recipes to make something exceptional. I could leave out the dried oregano and basil and use all fresh parsley, Bugialli style. I could start with pancetta and red onions instead of white. I could make meatballs without bread crumbs for filler the way the Rigante recipe did. I could throw in tomatoes rather than just tomato paste, but I could also use red wine for that haunting undertone.
I could also cut corners, Rigante style: I simply fried the meatballs rather than squander a quart of oil and an extra hour deep-frying them. I mixed all the cheeses together to avoid the step of layering mozzarella on pecorino on ricotta. I started out with regular fresh lasagna sheets, which Zabar’s had back in stock on Friday, but discovered that they were not worth the time, trouble and heartache of watching them shred as I tried to lay them into the pan after softening them in boiling water. Instead I used the very thin sheets of Antica Pasteria fresh pasta I had bought as a backup. They needed no precooking but seemed perfect.
Just when I thought my story could not have a happy ending, I pulled the finished lasagna out of the oven and was very glad I had thought to call a friend with a healthy appetite to come share it with us. If there were central casting for casseroles, this one deserved the leading role. But its beauty was more than cheese deep. This was the best lasagna I had ever eaten. The sauce was intensely flavored, the cheeses melted into creaminess as if they were bechamel, the meat was just chunky enough, and the noodles put up no resistance to the fork. Most important, the balance of pasta and sauce was positively Italian.
At last I could understand why my neighbor Geoff had told me, as I dragged home more bags in our elevator, that all-day lasagna is the only kind worth making.
I might even do it again.
Time: About 4 hours
For the sauce:
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 medium red onions, finely diced
2 large cloves minced garlic
8 ounces pancetta, diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups good red wine, preferably Italian
2 28-ounce cans Italian plum tomatoes
3 tablespoons tomato paste
3/4 pound ground sirloin
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano
10 sprigs fresh parsley, leaves only, washed and dried
2 large whole cloves garlic
1/2 cup flour
1 pound Italian sausage, a mix of hot and sweet
For the lasagna:
1 15-ounce container ricotta cheese
2 extra-large eggs
2 cups freshly grated pecorino Romano
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 pound mozzarella, grated
16 sheets fresh lasagna noodles, preferably Antica Pasteria.
1. For the sauce, heat 1/2 cup oil in a large heavy Dutch oven or kettle over low heat. Add the onions, minced garlic and pancetta, and cook, stirring, for 10 minutes, until the onions are wilted. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Raise heat slightly, add the wine and cook until it is mostly reduced, about 20 minutes. Crush the tomatoes into the pan, and add their juice. Add the tomato paste and 2 cups lukewarm water. Simmer for 1 hour.
2. Combine the sirloin, cheese and eggs in a large bowl. Chop the parsley with the whole garlic until fine, then stir into the beef mixture. Season lavishly with salt and pepper. Using your hands, mix until all the ingredients are well blended. Shape into meatballs and set aside.
3. Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Dust the meatballs lightly with flour, shaking off excess, and lay into the hot oil. Brown the meatballs on all sides (do not cook through) and transfer to the sauce.
4. In a clean skillet, brown the sausages over medium-high heat. Transfer to the sauce. Simmer 1 1/2 hours.
5. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the ricotta, eggs, pecorino Romano, parsley and all but 1 cup of the mozzarella. Season well with salt and pepper. Mix thoroughly.
6. Remove the meatballs and sausage from the sauce, and set aside to cool slightly, then chop coarsely. Spoon a thick layer of sauce into the bottom of a 9-by-12-inch lasagna pan. Cover with a layer of noodles. Spoon more sauce on top, then add a third of the meat and a third of the cheese mixture. Repeat for 2 more layers, using all the meat and cheese. Top with a layer of noodles, and cover with the remaining sauce. Sprinkle reserved mozzarella evenly over the top. Bake 30 minutes. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 8 to 10 servings.
WILD MUSHROOM LASAGNA
Adapted from ”Good Friends, Great Dinners” by Susan Costner (Crown, 1987)
Time: About 1 1/2 hours
1 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
1/4 cup olive oil
15 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 pounds mushrooms, preferably cremini, cleaned and coarsely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 14 1/2-oz. can Italian plum tomatoes, drained and coarsely chopped
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1-pound box lasagna noodles
1/3 cup flour
4 cups milk
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
6 ounces thinly sliced prosciutto.
1. Soak the porcini mushrooms in 2 cups warm water for at least 30 minutes. Lift them out carefully, reserving the liquid. Rinse porcini well, and pat dry. Chop coarsely, and set aside. Strain the soaking liquid through a sieve lined with paper towel to remove the grit. Set aside.
2. Bring a large pot of water with 1 tablespoon salt to rolling boil.
3. Heat the oil and 4 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, and cook, stirring, until the liquid they release evaporates. Add the porcini and their liquid, along with the onion, tomatoes and parsley. Stir. Partly cover pan, and cook until liquid evaporates. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Lay the noodles into boiling water, bring to boil again, and cook 5 to 7 minutes. Drain immediately, rinse individually under cold running water, and lay flat on paper towels to dry.
5. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Melt 8 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Add the flour gradually, and cook, stirring, for 3 to 5 minutes until smooth. Gradually whisk in milk. Raise heat to medium, and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened and smooth, about 8 to 10 minutes. Season with nutmeg, and salt to taste.
6. Use 1 tablespoon butter to grease 8 1/2-by- 10 1/2-inch lasagna pan. Line the bottom with a slightly overlapping layer of noodles. Spread one-third of the mushroom mixture over the pasta. Top with a quarter of the white sauce and a sprinkling of cheese. Cover with slices of prosciutto. Repeat sequence 2 more times. Cover with one last layer of pasta, top with the remaining sauce and cheese, and dot with 2 tablespoons butter. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until the cheese is melted and golden brown on top. Let stand 10 minutes before serving.
Yield: 6 servings.
BAKED PESTO LASAGNA
Adapted from ”The California Farm Cookbook” by Kitty Morse (Pelican Publishing, 1994)
Time: About 1 1/2 hours
12 wide lasagna noodles (do not use instant)
1 bunch fresh basil, stems removed
1/3 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, washed and dried
8 to 10 cloves garlic
1/2 cup olive oil
Freshly ground white pepper to taste
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup flour
2 cups half-and-half or milk
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Butter as needed
8 ounces mozzarella, grated
8 ounces Monterey Jack, grated.
1. Boil the noodles in salted water according to package directions. Drain well, and lay all the strips out to dry on paper towels.
2. Wash basil leaves well in several changes of water. Blanch in boiling water just until limp. Using a slotted spoon, immediately plunge into ice water to cool. Drain again and squeeze dry. Place in blender with parsley, garlic and oil, and purée until smooth. Season with pepper to taste, and set aside.
3. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over low heat. Whisk in the flour until smooth and cook, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes. Slowly whisk in the half-and-half. Raise heat and cook, whisking, until thickened and smooth. Stir in the Parmigiano. Let cool slightly, then stir in the pesto until completely blended.
4. Heat the oven to 325 degrees. Liberally butter the bottom and sides of a 9-by-13-inch baking dish. Spoon a little of the pesto sauce over the bottom of the pan. Line with 3 strips of the noodles. With a rubber spatula, top each strip evenly with sauce. Sprinkle with about a quarter of the mozzarella and Monterey Jack. Repeat with three more layers, using all the noodles, and most of the sauce and cheese. Pour all the remaining sauce over, smoothing the top, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
5. Cover pan tightly with foil, and bake 20 minutes. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Yield: 8 servings.