Want to cause an argument? Especially with an Italian? Bring up the subject of Italian food, the ingredients, the cooking methodology and it is like releasing a instant verbal and emotional whirlwind. No Italian dish is as prone to this reaction as the lasagne. Every Italian momma has her own personal style, and throw into the mix regional variations, and you can quickly see why such ferocious debate to protect the honour of this exquisite dish is prevalent.
Lasagne, arguably, is a troublesome priest. Even with some assistance from modern kitchen appliances, you are looking at about 3 hours from shopping basket to table, so it is not a dish really suited to school nights. While one can store leftover lasagne in the refrigerator for 24 hours, longer term storage quickly becomes a problem. The normal method of freezing it is fine, until one night you discover all you have in the house is a portion of frozen lasagne in a plastic tub. You can’t put that in the oven, and trying to extricate frozen lasagne from a food-safe plastic container is a lesson in humility. It will almost always beat you, and if you do manage to extract the aforementioned pasta from the dish, the amount of force required to eject it will have caused the hardened, frozen block to shoot under the cooker, behind the refrigerator or out the kitchen door towards the distant hinterland of dining room carpet. Quite probably, the storage container will be written off in the process as well. We reuse plastic takeaway containers, which if treated with respect, will last a considerable time. They do not, however, like being dropped on the floor or prised with even a blunt spatula, as they suffer from stress cracks when frozen.
So the humble lasagne requires either defrosting beforehand, or storage in tinfoil containers to facilitate cooking from frozen in the oven. Even then, the difference in quality between the freshly cooked dish and the reheated one is very noticeable. A dried out lump of pasta and meat is not the same succulent dish as to emerge, glistening with oil, blistering hot, from the oven. Sadly, no matter how much care you take reheating it, it will just not be the same. You can cover it with foil, reheat in a regular oven until the core reaches at least 75C, remove the foil, top with some fresh grated cheese, and reheat until bubbling. This risks dried-out pasta. Or you could steam it in a steamer, which lovingly reconstitutes the moist pasta, but forgoes the crispiness that some automatically associate with the dish. For “As close to the real thing” experience, I would then be tempted to top it with grated cheese and stick under the grill until bubbling. A lot of trouble and washing up just for a reheated, week-night meal. You could microwave it, but to be honest, I have never tried doing this from frozen. The disappointing results I have achieved even with a chilled lasagne, haven’t encouraged me to experiment. That is why I hold my “Fresh Lasagne” nights in such precious regard. A time for family and friends to get stuck into a dish from heaven, and the fewer leftovers, the better. Saying that, a home-made frozen lasagne is still better than no lasagne, or worse still, a supermarket lasagne. Some of these creations are truly atrocious, but you probably know that already. All members of the Rookwood household are unequivocal on one thing – Home made lasagne is unbeatable. I make no apologies for sharing this recipe based around two essential time-saving devices, the pressure cooker and the food processor. Without them, lasagne would be a less frequent guest at our supper table.
So, in much fear and trembling, I will now share my secrets, gained over 40 years of cooking, on how to make lasagne. I dare not hint this is the best lasagne ever, nor suggest that it closely follows the traditional Italian methodology. Strangely enough, during my extended time working in Italy, I didn’t sample lasagne. There were far too many other interesting dishes to entice me, and to be honest, I don’t actually recall seeing it on a menu anywhere. Maybe the family restaurants I patronised didn’t want to offend any Italian momma’s.
Do’s and Don’ts (Probably more Don’t than Do to be honest)
Right. Abandon all hope ye who enter here. From this section onward, I realise I am standing on hallowed ground, while wearing extremely mucky Wellington boots. Forgive me. While I adore and respect Italian food, I don’t think I have any Italian ancestry. That is my Mea Culpa and I’m sticking to it. A lame excuse, I know, but it is the best you are going to get. Any rotten tomatoes should be thrown at the compost pile, rather than the author.
First off, let us start with the most basic component of lasagne, the pasta. We are immediately faced with a number of choices, fresh or dried, par-boiled or uncooked, hand-made or shop bought. The answer, as to many things in life, is complicated. While fresh pasta is undoubtedly the best, it is time consuming to make from hand and requires a pasta machine. Yes, you could conceivably use a rolling pin, but you will need a lot of space to do that and also space to leave your pasta to dry out slightly before par-boiling. You are looking at adding at least another hour onto the cooking time, and while I love fresh hand-made pasta, the rest of the Rookwood clan (undoubtedly a bunch of unregenerates on this specific matter), swear they prefer the packet variety. I suspect the real reason is down to a strict “I cook, you wash up policy” in our household. Irrespective of such post-mastication laziness, there is clearly a noticeable difference in texture. Fresh pasta is softer, more delicate, whereas the dried variety (and indeed some of the fresh supermarket brands), tends to be more Al dente and firmer. Apart from the texture though, there is also the absorbency of the pasta to accommodate. Fresh pasta demands a thicker, less runny meat sauce, whereas dried lasagne sheets will be tough and crispy if insufficient liquid is present to cook them properly. If you want a complete disaster rather than lasagne, par-boil the dried sheets and try to keep them separate. This will be just another fools errand on the journey to a ruined lasagne.
American style lasagne is based around this model, and they use long, rippled noodles which apparently require this step, rather than the flat sheets we are used to in Europe. Thankfully, I have not seen this variety available here, and my one attempt par-boiling flat pasta sheets was more trouble than benefit. The only big downside of the rectangular pasta sheets (apart from texture), is they cannot be easily cut and shaped to fit many dishes used for cooking lasagne. This was the curse of my elderly and faithful “Rectangular” Pyrex oven dish, the bottom and the sides being somewhat curved. While there is no shame in overlaying pasta sheets slightly to get decent coverage, I don’t like subterranean “Holes” in my pasta layers. This can be avoided by breaking up the pasta and filling in the gaps, but involves a great amount of trial and error. Dried pasta rarely fractures the way you want it to. My life has been revolutionised with the recent purchase of a dedicated lasagne dish, courtesy of IKEA. This supports a decent 3 layer lasagne, and consumes almost a box of pasta sheets in the process without trimming. Giving 8 reasonable servings, it has transformed my lasagne assembly technique. While there is very slight sheet overlap, this is far more acceptable a solution. I am currently on the prowl for a deeper dish that will allow for 4 layers of pasta. Determined that before they take me away, I cook a beautiful, multi-layered lasagne, the type that adorns many an Instagram post, I am either bewitched with such structural beauty, or plain greedy. I’ll leave it up to you to decide. So dried pasta it is then, with a slightly runny sauce.
Now onto, possibly, the most variable and contentious issue, the meat sauce. Yes, I know there is such a dish as a vegetarian lasagne, but in the hallowed portals of the Rookwood kitchen, I would not even dare contemplate such a travesty unless we had many vegetarian guests coming for dinner. Apart from the fact my daughter would probably lynch me if I dared serve such a concoction, we only have two vegetarian friends, and we don’t see very much of them. So that is that subject firmly settled. The next one, is what meat to use, the proportion of meat to the veg, and what vegetables are acceptable? Starting in reverse order, the Italian holy trinity of onion, carrot and celery is pretty much mandatory. Soffritto (Battuto in Italian), is the standard vegetable base for numerous French, Spanish and Italian dishes. I am not willing to debate this point for generations of chefs, far more talented than I, are biting at my heels. It would also be completely pointless, as I’d lose. This savoury mix is the culinary equivalent of strawberries and cream, hot toast and butter, bacon and eggs. Don’t be put off by the celery, once fried off and reduced, the flavour is completely different from the raw stuff, which I must admit is not exactly the most appealing taste.
Placing my foot firmly on the next mine in the field, I am convinced that copious amounts of garlic is required as well. This is very much a regional factor, acceptable to some, but the quantity I generally use would be considered excessive. I throw in at least a small Chinese sized bulb, and also add some garlic powder and maybe some paste from a tube. Garlic powder added to a Béchamel is divine. This is about the only time I would be happy using the jarred or tube variety, which tends to be a bit acidic and vinegary. You need a little bit of astringency to balance the meat sauce, not too much though. The addition of Balsamic vinegar is also a good touch, but if you are using a large amount of jarred garlic, I would definitely omit it. Don’t use it in the Béchamel though.
Sadly, my favourite long-standing lasagne recipe has been curtailed somewhat down to “Fussy” dinner guests. I love to add some finely chopped mushrooms and mixed peppers, but certain individuals would then refuse to eat it. If you are going to add them, white or Cremini mushrooms are fine, I would avoid the more exotic varieties, such as Porcini, as the mushrooms are mainly to “Bulk out” the dish and add some liquid, rather than mushroom flavour per se. I would also chop them into unrecognisable bits, as there is something disturbing about sliced mushrooms in an Italian meat sauce. Maybe it is just my guilty conscience. Other acceptable vegetables include small pieces of leek, some chopped courgette or maybe some finely chopped fennel, but not too much so as not to overpower or taint the dish. What we want to do is to add a little “Something”, fennel and pork being a marriage made in heaven. Tomatoes I’ll come into in a minute, as they are really a fruit (like the peppers), they don’t come into this category. That’s about it for the vegetables, anything else would be a travesty, in the same vein as pineapple on a pizza. It is crucial though, that irrespective of the vegetables used, they are cooked down sufficiently to dissolve into the sauce. Identifiable lumps of organic matter are not welcome here.
The primary ingredient of the meat sauce also varies considerably. With the Americans getting in on the lasagne act, we get everything from beef and veal to Italian sausage removed from their casings. Some recipes call for good quality stewing beef, others, meatballs. My essential and secret ingredient is a pack of smoked, streaky, bacon. This delivers a beautiful smokey background taste, and is an excellent substitute for Guanciale, which is generally not readily available here. While many dishes demand a mixture of minced beef and veal, the latter meat is not that common in the UK either. Personally, I find a mix of minced beef, pork and smoked bacon is ideal, and provided the streaky bacon is decent quality and quantity, you can omit the pork if it is not available and just increase the quantity of beef. If you can get hold of decent quality pork sausages, these can be substituted for the pork. Just remove the casings and break up with the minced beef. Some also add minced lamb, and this would definitely add extra depth if included. Using a mixture of meats really does make the dish, and if you have not tried it, I would definitely recommend it.
Next, is the fruit component, the tomatoes. I have tried all varieties from expensive imported tomatoes from Italy, to the bogoff unbranded cans. The latter, especially the pulped rather than whole variety, are watery, colourless, tasteless and insipid. The former, while delicious, are ridiculously expensive for the little additional taste they bring to the party. I tend to use supermarket brand plum tomatoes, supplemented with a few secret ingredients as a compromise. The only care one should take is to ensure the woody “Stalk” end of the tomatoes are removed, this can be achieved either by cutting the green pieces out or blitzing the plum tomatoes a couple of times in a food processor. You do not want to liquidise the tomatoes completely though. Some people prefer to use passata or a jar of tomato sauce, but this will make the sauce very thick, something that is better suited to fresh pasta. It is also a lot more expensive, and I would rather use my budget for flavour enhancement (Read: bacon), rather than viscosity.
On the topic of flavour enhancement, some chefs add milk or cream to the meat sauce to give extra richness. I am not convinced this is a good idea here, if you have sufficient Béchamel, combined with the cheese, I suspect this would be just too much dairy for the dish. I can understand this addition in a regular Bolognese served with plain pasta (in fact it is included in the official Italian definition for the dish), in a lasagne though? My chef senses suggest “Non c’è modo”. As always, your mileage may vary, but I would be wary of cooking with it in the pressure cooker as it may split or curdle, and you will not be able to easily control the temperature of the meat sauce during cooking.
Still with me? Excellent. We will now add further fuel to the fire while we discuss the white sauce and cheese components. I am a minimalist here, I just assemble a large pot of bog-standard Béchamel, and use a mixture of grated hard cheeses to lay on top. I don’t bother with fresh Mozzarella or Ricotta, although if I do have some grated Mozz lying around I will add it to the mix, as well as any Parmesan. The reason for this is that these soft cheeses end up very grainy and watery when cooked, and I don’t like the texture. This, again, is an American bastardisation, and some “Chefs” (I shudder to use that term in this context), dare use cottage cheese in lasagne. That, in my humble eyes, is unforgivable.
Some prefer to add the grated cheese to the white sauce, but I prefer to maintain the purity of the slightly garlicy sauce. I don’t even add nutmeg, a good garlic powder (Salisburys or Schwartz), some salt and ground black pepper is all you need. You will also be walking a tightrope trying to get the consistency absolutely right, potentially preventing the sauce from splitting, and there will always be the temptation to add some mustard just to bring some “Lift” to the cheese sauce. Such sacrilege doesn’t bear thinking about, if you must add heat to a lasagne, black pepper, cayenne and maybe some chilli flakes are the limit. Mustard, especially Colemans, would be a cross-cultural travesty.
If you are serious about cooking a lasagne quickly from scratch, you will need a food processor with a chopping blade and a grating attachment, and a pressure cooker, either an electric one or the old fashioned stove-top variety. Traditionally, the meat sauce is cooked over a day, but perfectly acceptable results can be achieved in a pressure cooker in an hour or so, excluding preparation and heating time. The food processor just takes away all of the major preparatory grunt work, the key here is that all the veg is chopped into very small dice, maybe a few millimetres square. This is a very time consuming process. Some recipes even demand that the veg should be grated. Either way, this is to allow the veg to dissolve invisibly into the sauce. You will also need a large pan for the Béchamel, and a giant lasagne dish. The final essential piece of kit is Bacofoil Non-stick tinfoil. Accept no substitutes, this will prevent the cheese layer from inadvertently sticking despite the application of copious quantities of oil. You can, of course, disregard these recommendations, but your prep and cooking time will be considerable.
Yet another Mea Culpa
In my last GP recipe, A truly cracking Biryani, I made the fundimental schoolboy error of recalling from memory the exact quantities used in the dish. Observant Puffins will have noticed that the measurement of 3 mugs of rice would be enough to feed approximately five thousand; it should have been approximately 3 rice measuring cups or roughly 1 regular mug. As always, my measurements are approximate, and you should go by taste, texture, consistency and common sense. I am a totally unrepentant “Pinch of this, dash of that”, type chef. My sincere apologies.
Ingredients (Serves 8 regular portions)
- 1kg of mixed minced meats (Beef, pork, lamb, sausages etc.)
- 1 large pack of smoked streaky bacon
- 3 large Spanish onions
- 1-2 large carrots
- 4 sticks of celery
- 1 red pepper
- A handful of mushrooms
- 1 bulb of garlic
- 125g butter
- 125g plain flour
- Approx 1 litre (2 pints) of full-fat milk enough to make a large pan of Béchamel
- 500g mixed hard cheese (Cheddar, Red Leicester, grated Mozzarella, Parmesan etc.)
- 2 400g tins plum tomatoes
- 1 box of lasagne sheets (any brand)
- A glass of red wine or Vermouth to deglaze (or stock at a push)
Herbs and spices
- Ground black pepper
- 2 stock cubes (Beef, chicken, ham or pork)
- 4 tablespoons tomato puree
- 1 tablespoon dried basil
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon dried thyme
- Pinch of cayenne pepper
- 2-3 bay leaves depending on size
Secret ingredients (Not to be shared with the Italians)
- 4 tablespoons tomato ketchup
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 1 tablespoon Lee Perrins
- 1 tablespoon garlic powder (for the Béchamel)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground fennel (If pork is used in the mixed meat. Can be replaced with a small amount of fresh, finely chopped fennel)
- Olive oil for frying
- Pressure cooker
- Food processor with chopping blade and grating attachment
- Large saucepan with lid
- Lasagne dish and tray (To catch any overspill)
- Bacofoil non-stick foil
- Large bowls (3)
Mise en Place
Peel onions and cut into quarters. Peel carrots, celery and cut into 5cm chunks. Wash and trim the mushrooms. Peel garlic. Cut bacon into 4 chunks. Dissolve stock cubes in a little boiling water. Finely chop all veg and garlic in food processor, decant to bowl. Finely chop / shred bacon in food processor, decant to other bowl. Add remaining meat to bacon, mix and break up, season well with salt and pepper. Remove stalks from tomatoes (or gently blitz in food processor and clean afterwards). Change food processor attachment and grate cheeses, decant to bowl.
Add a 3-4 tablespoons of olive oil to pressure cooker, heat to a shimmer and fry off the mixed meats and bacon until browned and all water has evaporated. Decant to bowl. Add chopped vegetables, adding a little oil if pan is too dry, then fry until softened but not browned. Deglaze with the wine, ensuring no fond remains on the bottom of the pan to burn. Add meat and any accumulated juices, the herbs and spices, the secret ingredients (except the garlic powder), the tomatoes and the dissolved stock cubes. This should leave you with the milk, butter, flour, and garlic powder, pasta sheets and cheese. Stir well, bring to a boil, and pressure cook on high pressure for 1 hour.
Melt the butter in the saucepan, stir in the flour, and whisk until a roux forms. Add the cold milk about ¼ of a pint at a time, heating and whisking until the sauce thickens to the desired consistency. Add garlic powder, salt and pepper to taste. The resulting sauce should have a hint of garlic and be well seasoned. You want the Béchamel thick, but not too thick. It should coat the back of a spoon well when hot, and be the consistency of a very thick condensed soup when cool. Cover and remove from heat. The Béchamel will naturally thicken as it cools. Pre-heat oven to 180C fan.
After 1 hour, place the lasagne dish on the drip tray. Release the pressure quickly from the pressure cooker, give the sauce a good stir, remove the bay leaves. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper as required. The sauce should be very slightly liquid, not too thick. If anything, it will possibly be too liquid, so reduce slightly on a high heat if it is too watery.
Add a spoonful or two of meat sauce to the bottom of the lasagne dish. Add a layer of pasta sheets, a layer of meat sauce, a few spoonfuls of Béchamel (discarding any skin), followed by a sprinkling of grated cheese. Retaining sufficient Béchamel and cheese to cover a complete layer of pasta, repeat the process with the lasagne sheets placed at 90 degrees to the previous layer to give the dish extra rigidity. The final layer should comprise of any remaining meat sauce, 100% Béchamel coverage, 100% cheese coverage. Add a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and cover with non-stick Bacofoil, ensuring the non-shiny side faces the cheese. Tightly fold around the side of the lasagne dish, but do not press down or allow the foil to touch the cheese / sauce mixture if at all possible.
Bake in the oven, covered, for 45 minutes. Remove the foil, and bake for a further 15-20 minutes until the cheese reaches your desired level of melted and browned goodness. Let the lasagne rest for 15 minutes, cut and serve.
You are now about to enter food heaven.
© Rookwood 2021