Growing up, if I visited a friend and that friend’s mother was cooking dinner, one word would make me run away screaming. That word was “lasagna.”
Theories for why this was the case: (1) I grew up in a non-lasagna household; (2) it was a non-lasagna household because (a) my dad hates cheese and (b) he grew up in a semi-kosher home where meat and cheese were never mixed. Therefore, not only was lasagna exotic to me, it was scary. If I did have to stay at a friend’s for dinner and lasagna was served, I’d do my best to peel it apart and to eat some of the noodles, some of the filling, but to mostly mush it around on my plate.
Fast forward 20 years and zoom in on me in my kitchen this past Sunday, concocting a lasagna for the ages. This was a recipe I’d filed away long ago, from Mario Batali’s “Molto Italiano” book. It’s a lasagna that requires three major cooking steps: the creation of a ragu Bolognese, the making of a Béchamel (or, as the Italians say, a “Besciamella”) and, finally, the rolling out of fresh pasta dough, made green by the addition of spinach.
I won’t lie: this takes work. And if, like me, you have limited pots and pans, you’ll have to do many, many dishes as you go—cleaning out the Béchamel pot so you can use it to boil the fresh pasta. All-in-all, it took me over four hours to make this lasagna. And you know what? It was totally worth it. The resulting lasagna had a certain lightness from the fresh pasta dough combined with the deep, robust flavor from the well-made ragu. It was certainly the best lasagna I’ve ever made and maybe even the best lasagna I’ve ever had (though the lasagna at iSodi in New York is a fierce rival). Even the 12 year-old me, if confronted with this lasagna, would collapse into a heap of lasagna-loving madness.
Here now is the recipe broken down for you in parts to make things easier. And keep in mind: you don’t have to do all these steps to make a great lasagna. If you want to skip the fresh pasta dough, you can use the dried stuff and it will still be good. It just won’t be The Ultimate.
Step One: Make The Ragu Bolognese
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
4 ribs celery, finely chopped
2 carrots, finely chopped
5 cloves garlic, sliced
1 pound ground veal
1 pound ground pork
4 ounces pancetta or slab bacon, run through the medium holes of the butcher’s grinder (I just chopped mine up really well with a knife)
One 6-ounce can tomato paste
1 cup whole milk
1 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
In a 6- to 8-quart heavy-bottomed pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat until hot. Add the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic and cook until the vegetables are translucent but not browned, about 5 minutes.(I sprinkled the veg with a little salt here too.)
Add the veal, pork, and pancetta, increase the heat to high, and brown the meat, stirring frequently.
[Note: a great deal of liquid will emerge during this step. After consulting folks on Twitter, I decided to let as much of it evaporate as possible before going to the next step. But, also, Mario’s instruction to “let the meat brown” is a bit unrealistic because of all the vegetables that are in there already, the amount of liquid in the pan, and the lack of surface area. I just cooked them until the meat was no longer pink and the liquid was mostly gone (some fat will remain).]
Add the tomato paste…
…milk, wine, and thyme and bring just to a boil…
…then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 1 to 1/2 hours. Season the ragu with salt and pepper, remove from the heat, and let cool.
Step Two: Make The Green Pasta Dough
1 cup packed fresh spinach
5 large eggs
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot and add 1 tablespoon salt. Set up an ice bath next to the stove. Blanch the spinach leaves in the boiling water for 45 seconds…
…then remove with tongs or a slotted spoon and immediately plunge into the ice bath to cool for 2 minutes. Drain the spinach and squeeze dry in a kitchen towel, removing as much moisture as possible. Chop the spinach very fine and combine with the eggs in a small bowl.
Stir well until as smooth as possible.
Mound the flour in the center of a large wooden board (I just used a very large bowl). Make a well in the center of the flour and add the eggs.
Using a fork, beat the eggs together and then begin to incorporate the flour, starting with the inner rim of the well. As you expand the well, keep pushing the flour up to retain the well shape (do not worry if it looks messy). When half of the flour is incorporated, the dough will begin to come together. Start kneading the dough, using primarily the palms of your hands. Once the dough is a cohesive mass, set the dough aside and scrape up and discard any dried bits of dough.
Lightly flour the board and continue kneading for 10 minutes, dusting the board with additional flour as necessary.
The dough should be elastic and a little sticky. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 30 minutes at room temperature before using.
Step Three: Make The Béchamel
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.
Add the flour and stir until smooth. Cook, stirring, until light golden brown, 6 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, in another medium saucepan, heat the milk to just under a boil.
Add the milk to the butter mixture about 1 cup at a time, whisking constantly until very smooth, and bring to a boil, whisking. Cook, whisking, until thickened, about 10 minutes; remove from the heat. Season with the salt and nutmeg (only use the fresh stuff!).
Transfer to a bowl and let cool.
Step Four: Roll Out The Pasta Dough
Divide the pasta dough into 4 portions:
Roll each one through a pasta machine, starting at the widest setting and working your way down to the thinnest setting, folding the pasta over itself once or twice towards the beginning to make a smooth sheet (don’t fold it over itself towards the end). Use the widest setting to work the spinach into the dough–you can’t put it through too many times in that early step–and it’ll also help the dough come together better. The process will look something like this:
You may need a helper to catch the dough as it comes out (see photo of Craig above).
After you put the dough through the thinnest setting, cut it into large 5-inch squares and dust with a healthy amount of flour so the squares don’t stick to one another. I stored them all on a parchment lined cookie sheet:
(I’m not kidding about the flour, though. You really don’t want those sheets to stick. A healthy light dusting will do the trick.)
Step Five: Cook The Pasta
This part’s easy. Bring a pot of water to a boil and season well with salt. Set up a large ice bath next to the stove and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to it so the pasta won’t stick when it goes in there.
Drop the pasta into the boiling water 5 to 6 sheets at a time and boil for one minute, just so they’re cooked-through but still al dente:
Lift with a spider into the ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Continue with the rest of the pasta until it’s all cooked and all in the ice water bath.
Step Six: Assemble and Bake Your Lasagna
At long last, it’s time to assemble your lasagna. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Bring all your components to a table and also grate about 1 cup of good Parmesan Cheese into a bowl. If your Béchamel has gotten too thick as it sat, you can add a drizzle of hot water and whisk it until it’s a little runnier but still thick. Here’s everything set up, ready to go:
In a large 9 X 13 baking dish, spread a layer of ragu on the bottom and sprinkle with some Parmesan:
Pat a few sheets of cooked pasta dry on paper towels (or a clean kitchen towel) and make a layer on top:
Add a layer of Béchamel and carefully spread it (I used an offset spatula):
Add another layer of ragu, more Parmesan, then more pasta:
And repeat the process until you run out of ragu, Béchamel or pasta dough. The final layer should be a layer of pasta topped with Béchamel and a sprinkling of Parmesan:
Into the oven it goes for 45 minutes “or until the edges are browned and the sauces are bubbling.”
Here she is in all her glory:
And here’s the first serving:
This lasagna is a thing of beauty. If you’re feeling brave and capable in the kitchen, give it a go. It may look hard but take each step one at a time and you can make it too.