Lasagne or Lasagna
Lasagna was for centuries considered by Italians a ‘rich’ dish, thanks to the variety and the quality of the ingredients, and because it was made and enjoyed at special family occasions and festivities. It is also ‘rich’ in the meaning that it is physically filling and emotionally comforting and satisfying.
This dish has become a favorite in many countries and has morphed in many ways. The English language has appropriated its name in the singular, while the Italian language uses it in the plural. There are also variations in the ingredients people in different regions or countries use in this dish, according to local traditions and most common products. The following recipe is from my region, Emilia Romagna, but I will mention other versions that I learned as an adult.
My father was in the restaurant business for many years, and as I was growing up he was co-owner of a renowned restaurant in my home town called the “Bella Romagna,” where the cook made really scrumptious lasagna, famous for its creaminess due to the abundance and richness of béchamel sauce. That is one of my favorite memories of this dish.
The Classic version of Emilia Romagna:
There are four main parts to this recipe: the lasagna pasta, the meat sauce, the Béchamel or white sauce and the Parmesan cheese.
Traditionally the pasta was homemade, with chopped spinach mixed with the flour and the eggs to make the dough, which was cut in strips once it became a thin sheet. Today the pasta is mainly bought and can be with or without spinach. The best way to cook the long and wide strips of lasagna pasta is to dump a few strips (four to six) at a time in a big pot of salted boiling water and cook them for 10 to 15 minutes until tender, but not overcooked. After taking the strips out of the boiling water, I usually pour cold water on them, drain them, and separate them, so they don’t stick together. They are now ready to be layered with the other ingredients.
The meat sauce is a Bolognese meat sauce, preferably made with ground beef or a mixture of ground beef and pork, tomato sauce or paste and an initial base of finely chopped onion, carrot and celery. The only spices that my family ever used for this sauce were salt, pepper and at times basil. For better lasagna the meat sauce should be fairly runny.
The Béchamel sauce is made with 4-6 tbsp. of melted butter, 2-3 tbsp. of white flour well mixed together (I use a whisk), before pouring a quart or more of milk into the mixture and stirring continuously until reaching a boil. This was always the most ‘boring’ part of making this dish and my least favorite. (The secret to a good white sauce is to avoid clumps of flour so persevere and you will be rewarded!) Grate half a teaspoon of nutmeg, a teaspoon (or more) of salt and one of pepper into the mixture. When the sauce comes to a boil let it thicken a bit and then remove from heat.
The Parmesan cheese should be of good quality and grated finely to be sprinkled on top of each layer.
When all four parts are ready, I assemble them as such:
Bake the lasagna at 350F for 20 to 30 minutes and it is ready to eat, after 10 to 15 minutes of cooling off.
You can also cool it off completely and freeze it until needed.
The vegetarian version:
Instead of a meat sauce, use tomato sauce and make layers of cooked and sliced zucchini, mushroom and/or eggplant with the sauces and the Parmesan cheese.
The Southern Italian version:
Uses mozzarella cheese with or without any Béchamel sauce and little, or no Parmesan cheese.