Author Notes: This classic Emilian lasagne involves the staples of the region's cuisine: fresh egg pasta (plain or green pasta made with spinach, known as lasagne verdi), full-flavoured beef and pork ragu, bechamel sauce and the region's favourite cheese, Parmesan, layered in a casserole dish and baked.
Slowly, and particularly after the Second World War, it became more common to see lasagne in regions all over the Italian peninsula, where regional touches were added, creating variations that have become specialties, strongly linked to those places.
In the south, mozzarella or provola might replace or be added to the Parmesan. In Sicily and Naples, you'll find fresh ricotta substitutes the bechamel and the ragu might be plumped up with the addition of hard boiled eggs, meatballs, sausage, fried vegetables like eggplant, salumi or more cheese. In Liguria, the home of pesto, a vegetarian version has pesto replacing the ragu and sliced, boiled potatoes substituting the bechamel.
Le Marche and Umbria have the unique vincisgrassi. Their hearty ragu of beef and pork usually includes an array of offal (chicken gibblets, crests or calf brains, for example) or even local truffles and the handmade pasta dough is often spiked with marsala.
Lasagne is also known in some households as pasticcio, a charming name which also means “mess”. Whatever it's called and however it's made, lasagne is a dish made to satisfy and comfort. A homely but hearty dish, often made for family gatherings and special occasions like Christmas. To paraphrase Elizabeth David in Italian Food, all you can manage (and all you need) after a meal of lasagne is perhaps some salad and fruit.
This classic way to prepare lasagne as is traditional in Emilia-Romagna involves preparing a loose bechamel sauce and a beef and pork ragu. Some add dabs of butter in between the layers as well. If you're really keen you can even make the pasta yourself (take a look here - http://food52.com/blog/8498-how-to-make-fresh-pasta). If you're time-strapped, leave that part out and go with pre-made, store-bought pasta. Whether you're using store-bought, homemade, dried or fresh pasta, it is usually best to cook the pasta in boiling, salted water before layering – it results in a better consistency.
A handy tip – let the lasagne rest 10-15 after you take it out of the oven and before serving. During this time, the pasta will absorb some of the excess liquid from the ragu, which means cutting will be easier and the filling in portions will be more even. - Emiko
Makes 4 generous portions
For the ragu:
- 1 pound (500 gr) total of mince beef and pork
- 2 slices of rigatino or pancetta, chopped
- 1/2 carrot, finely chopped
- 1/2 celery stalk, finely chopped
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- a handful of parsley, leaves and stalks finely chopped
- 2-3 pinches salt
- white wine to cover (about half a bottle)
- 8 ounces (250 ml) of tomato puree
- Brown the meat in a hot pan with some olive oil. Don't overcrowd the pan – if you don't have a large pan, do it in two batches. This is to avoid the meat losing too much liquid and boiling in it instead of searing.
- Remove the meat when browned, turn down the heat to low and add the pancetta. Once the pancetta begins to melt, add the carrot, celery, onion and parsley. Season with a pinch of salt then let sweat and cook until the vegetables are soft.
- Return the meat to the pan, season with another pinch of salt and add the wine to cover.
- When the wine has reduced, add the tomato and a splash or two of water. Cover and cook slowly until you have a thick, glossy, tasty ragu. The longer you cook it, the tastier it will be -- at least two hours as an indication (or, if you're going by Marcella Hazan's instructions, no less than three!). If the liquid reduces too quickly, add water or stock and continue cooking.
For the bechamel and assembly:
- 3 1/2 tablespoons (50 gr) butter
- 1/2 cup (50 gr) flour
- 2 cups (500 ml) cold milk
- 3 1/2 ounces finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 pound (500 gr) pasta sheets (fresh, dried or homemade)
- Make the bechamel sauce: melt butter in pan. Before it begins to colour, add flour and stir with a wooden spoon, cooking the flour for a few minutes. Add the milk, stir until smooth. Cook until it just coats the back of the spoon. It should be just a little looser than usual for lasagne.
- To assemble the lasagne once the ragu and bechamel are ready, blanch the pasta sheets in plenty of boiling, salted water for 1 minute, making sure they don't stick together. Drain, pass through cold water and drain again. Lay them flat on clean tea towels.
- Use a rectangular or square casserole dish (such as an 8x8 inch pan) – keeping in mind that a larger one will produce less layers and a smaller one will produce more. Begin with a dollop of ragu on the bottom, roughly spreading to all edges. Lay down your pasta sheets; a little overlapping is fine. A layer of ragu - just enough to cover - followed by a layer (or several dollops) of bechamel and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Continue layering this way until you finish with ragu, bechamel and a final heavier layer of Parmesan cheese.
- Bake at 350ºF for about 30-45 minutes, depending on the thickness, depth and size of your lasagne. It should be golden brown on top and you should see sauce bubbling at the edges. Let rest for 10-15 minutes before cutting and serving.