Growing up in an Italian-American household, as I did, meant that our Sundays revolved around cooking, culminating in a long, relaxed family supper. Homemade pasta was the star of the show, and I loved watching my mother roll out the sheets of fresh dough while a big pot of simmering red sauce perfumed the house. On the best Sundays, she would chop the meat from her sauce and layer it between the thin pasta sheets, along with creamy ricotta and mozzarella, to make her signature lasagne. She’d pull it hot and bubbling from the oven, and my brothers and I would scramble around the kitchen table, waiting for the dish to cool so we could cut into it. The first bite was always a delicious reminder of just how satisfying homemade lasagne is—sweet from the tomatoes, savory from the cheeses, and tender from the handmade pasta.
The success of the dish depends on using very thin, freshly made sheets of pasta. The thinness of the pasta lets the flavors of the sauce and cheese marry to create a lasagne that’s light and truly special. It cannot be duplicated with thicker store-bought noodles.
Here, I’ll walk you through the steps to making fresh pasta just like my mother’s. I’ll also show you how to make a sauce from canned tomatoes that tastes amazingly fresh. Then all you have to do is layer everything together with cheese and bake it.
As much as I love classic tomato and cheese lasagne, I’ve had a lot of fun over the years creating new flavor combinations that show off the delicate yet firm texture of fresh lasagne noodles. The Braised Beef Short Rib with Porcini Lasagne and the Roasted Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese Lasagne are two delicious examples.
I won’t pretend that making lasagne from scratch is easy, but if you follow my lead, the rewards will be well worth the effort.
Make a silky pasta dough
Step 1 Cracks may open in the well as you’re mixing the flour into the eggs. If that happens, push flour into the cracks to close them. Continue mixing in flour, a bit at a time, until the soft, wet dough holds together enough that you can work it with your hands.
Step 2 Knead until the pasta dough is smooth, elastic, and barely tacky. You can dust the dough with more flour if it’s too sticky, but try not to add too much additional flour or the pasta will be tough.
Roll the dough until thin and supple
Step 3 Repeatedly folding the dough into thirds, like a letter, and passing it through the widest setting of the machine helps form gluten in the pasta, which gives it its firm texture.
Step 4 Passing the dough through consecutively narrower settings on the pasta machine stretches and thins it to the proper thickness, which is about 1/16 inch thick.
Cook the pasta until just al dente
Step 5 Boil the noodles in batches so they cook evenly and don’t stick together. Let the water return to a boil after each batch and cook until just barely al dente; the noodles will cook more as they bake.
Step 6 Rinsing the cooked noodles under cold running water removes excess starch. This step keeps them from sticking to the kitchen towels, which could lead to tearing when they’re later removed from the towels.
Make the sauce
Step 7 Browning garlic in olive oil infuses the oil with its punchy flavor, but it’s best to discard the garlic before adding the tomatoes so it doesn’t overwhelm the sauce.
Step 8 Canned whole tomatoes are less processed than crushed or puréed tomatoes. To break them down to a saucy consistency, vigorously whisk them in the pot.
Layer the noodles, sauce, and cheese, then bake
Step 9 Layer the noodles so they overlap by about 1 inch. Cut the pasta sheets with kitchen scissors as necessary to fill in any holes.
Step 10 Mixing the ricotta with the tomato sauce saves you the step of layering them individually. The bottom of a spoon is perfect for spreading the mixture over the noodles.
Step 11 Sprinkle the cheese mixture right to the edges of the dish so the lasagne isn’t thicker in the center than at the edges. The grated cheese will melt evenly and meld with the other ingredients.
Step 12 Spread the remaining tomato sauce over the top layer of noodles and sprinkle with Parmigiano. The baked, uncut lasagne won’t appear as cheesy as you may be used to, but there’s plenty of cheese inside.
Some shortcuts are OK
I can’t stress enough how delicious lasagne is when made entirely from scratch. But I also know that sometimes shortcuts are necessary. Here are a few that you can take without sacrificing too much flavor and texture.
The Pasta: Instead of making your own, buy fresh pasta sheets from a gourmet grocery store or Italian market. Or substitute 1 lb. dried lasagne noodles from the supermarket and cook according to package directions; thicker store-bought noodles will make the lasagne heavier, so use only four layers of pasta during assembly (instead of the five called for in the recipe). Please don’t use “no-boil” noodles; their dense texture will overwhelm the other ingredients.
The Sauce: You can use canned crushed tomatoes instead of whole tomatoes—they’ll save you the step of breaking the tomatoes down in the sauce. But avoid jarred sauces. Most have too much sugar, salt, and preservatives, which means you have no control over the seasoning.
The Cheese: Grated cheeses melt quickly and evenly; a food processor with a shredding disk will shred the fresh mozzarella and fontina in seconds. Pre-shredded mozzarella and pre-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano don’t work here because they’re too dry and will affect the texture of the finished dish.
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