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How-To

Lasagne: the Real Deal

Learn how to make classic Italian meat lasagne and then adapt it for a vegetarian twist

Fine Cooking Issue 82
Featured in our 2017 Christmas Guide
Photos: Scott Phillips
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I can’t say I make lasagne every week (I admit it’s a bit of a production), but when my family requests it, I’m a pushover. For us, it’s both a homey comfort food and a special occasion meal, perfect for a birthday party or a celebration with friends. It takes a little planning on my part—organizing the shopping, making fresh pasta, preparing the filling, and then setting aside a block of time to assemble the final dish—but the results are well worth the time spent in the kitchen. My beef and pork ragù lasagne is soft, rich, and oozing with deep flavors, and everyone always hopes there will be leftovers to take home.

Three essential components

My technique for making meat lasagne follows the classic northern-Italian approach, which relies on fresh egg pasta, homemade meat sauce, and besciamella (Italian for cream sauce).

Fresh egg pasta makes all the difference. Homemade lasagne noodles are thinner and more delicate than any store-bought pasta, and I like how they almost “float” and meld with the sauces. If you’ve never made your own pasta before, I encourage you to give it a try—it’s not as hard as you might think. I enjoy the meditative ritual of making the dough and folding and rolling silky sheets of pasta through my hand-cranked machine. But if time is short, you can buy fresh pasta sheets at a good pasta shop or use good-quality dried noodles instead. The results will still be excellent, if a little less ethereal.

Homemade ragù ensures satisfyingly rich lasagne. I make a beef and pork ragù that’s very close to the classic long-simmering Bolognese sauce. Although ground meat is convenient, I prefer to dice boneless chuck and pork shoulder myself because it gives the sauce a rustic feel, and I prefer its texture.

Besciamella keeps it soft and smooth. I soften the ragù’s density with homemade cream sauce, which adds richness and helps give lasagne a smooth, creamy texture. I don’t use ricotta or mozzarella in my meat lasagne because I find that the besciamella provides all the richness I need yet keeps the lasagne light.

Sometimes I go vegetarian, replacing the meat sauce with a spinach and ricotta filling. And, because this combination is rather mild, I add a flavorful tomato sauce that’s relatively quick to make. It provides both sweetness and an acidic element that brings the dish together.

Spread out the cooking

Start to finish, my lasagne takes five or six hours to put together, but you don’t have to do it all at once. I make the ragù up to four days ahead and refrigerate it in an airtight container. In fact, I often prepare a double batch and freeze half for a pasta supper. I make the pasta noodles one day, and the next day I cook the noodles, make the cream sauce (while I wait for the pasta water to boil), and assemble the lasagne, which doesn’t take more than 30 minutes. Once it’s assembled, you can bake the dish right away, refrigerate it overnight, or freeze it.

How to cook fresh lasagne noodles

Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Slip the noodles, two or three at a time, into a big pot of boiling salted water and cook them until they’re tender and pale, 3 to 5 minutes (thinner noodles will cook more quickly). To make sure they’re done, taste a small piece. If it’s still tough, it needs a little more cooking (fresh pasta is not cooked al dente like dried pasta). Carefully scoop the noodles out with a large wire skimmer and slide them into the ice water to stop the cooking. When they’re cool, layer them between clean dish towels until you’re ready to assemble the lasagne.

An ice bath halts the cooking. Fresh pasta noodles can overcook easily, so have a bowl of ice water ready to cool them quickly.
Towels prevent sticking. Layering the noodles between towels dries them and keeps them separate. They’ll keep this way for up to 2 hours.

Layering is quick

After all the lasagne components are prepared and the noodles are cooked, the final assembly is fast and gratifying. Start by clearing a good-size space on the counter to lay out all the components.

If one noodle doesn’t cover the whole dish, cut a second noodle to fit, overlapping it slightly with the previous noodle.
Spread the ragù over each layer of noodles, followed by the cream sauce and a sprinkle of Parmigiano.

Bake, refrigerate, or freeze

You can bake your assembled lasagne right away or refrigerate it for later. It will keep for at least a day in the fridge. Alternatively, you can freeze it for up to four months (make sure you wrap the dish tightly with plastic). Thaw the lasagne in the fridge and bring it to room temperature before baking.

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