This is a dish which is very close to my heart and embodies, in quite a lot of ways, my idea of pure comfort food. It reminds me of home and the smell and the taste evoke soothing childhood memories. There are, I suppose, different ways of tackling a lasagna. Much in the same way as pie, the filling can be varied to include meat, fish or vegetables (or, indeed, a combination of those). One think I will not stipulate on is, however, the presence of a solid and homemade béchamel sauce. It is so easy to make it only took me one go to learn how to prepare it and it beats those awful jars of pasty white sauce hands down. I particularly like the fact the recipe below does not require fancy herbs or sauces and it is indeed make with hearty ingredients which we can all find in our local supermarkets.
Also, if you can, try and use fresh lasagna sheets rather than the dried variety. The latter usually requires to be pre-cooked to be softened, which usually means either boiling it or soaking it water. The fresh lasagna sheets provide all of the comfort of the ready made pasta but with none of the fuss as they can be used straight away. The quantities below make a good size lasagna which can easily feed 8 (6 in my flat, were portions are a bit on the heavy side). You’ll also need a big roasting dish to accommodate it all and make sure your béchamel sauce is a bit on the runny side as this will help the filling cook with the lasagna sheets.
- 250g packet of fresh lasagna sheets (contains approximately 12)
- 500g minced pork
- 500g minced beef
- 500ml jar chunky tomato passata
- 100g pancetta slices
- 70g pancetta cubes
- 3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
- 2 leeks, washed and finely chopped
- 500ml beef stock
- 150ml full-bodied red wine + 1 glass
- 1L whole milk + 1 glass
- 100g unsalted butter
- 100g plain flour
- 200g Parmigiano Reggiano, grated
- 1 tsp nutmeg
- 2 tbsp tomato puree
- salt & pepper
- olive oil
- First of all, you need to start making your Bolognese sauce as the longer it cooks, the more flavoursome it will be. Ideally, you want to slow cook it for at least 2 hours, although 3 is definitely better.
- Start by preparing the so-called ‘soffritto’, that is by gently frying the chopped carrots, celery sticks and leeks in a dollop of olive oil. On lazy days, I just tumble the vegetables in the food processor and let it do the work for me. This also ensures the mixture is very fine, which is ideal for the sauce as you don’t want big pieces of carrots looking at you. Cook the vegetables over medium heat for approximately 5-10 minutes, until slightly golden and translucent.
- In the meantime, finely chop the pancetta slices and add them, together with the pancetta cubes and the two types of mince, to the vegetables. Cook for another 7 minutes over a medium-to-high heat. Pour in the 150ml wine, then let that bubble down over high heat and keep on stirring to ensure the meat is cooked and there is no residual water on the bottom of the pan.
- Add the chunky passata, a third of the stock and the tomato puree. Season with salt and pepper, turn the heat down to low and simmer gently with the lid almost fully on for 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Check your sauce regularly and slowly add the rest of the stock a ladleful at a time when the mixture looks a bit on the dry side.
- While your sauce cooks, you can make the béchamel sauce. Start by melting the butter in a saucepan over medium heat, then take it off the heat and add the flour all at once. Use a wooden spoon to mix the flour into the butter until fully combined, then put it back on the heat and gently cook the flour for a good 4 minutes.
- In the meantime, heat the 1L milk in another saucepan. When the flour and the butter mixture (called roux, by the way) is cooked, slowly add the milk, stirring constantly. At this point, I find it easier to switch to a balloon whisk, but if you prefer to use a wooden spoon, be my guest. Gently stir (or whisk) the mixture to get rid of any flour lumps, then keep on stirring over medium heat until the mixture slowly starts to thicken. You need to mix constantly otherwise it will catch on the bottom of the saucepan and getting rid of the lumps will be a big headache. Your sauce is ready when it covers the back of the wooden spoon, at which point remove it from the heat and stir in the nutmeg and some seasoning. Transfer to a jug or a flat container, cover the surface with clingfilm and leave it to cool at room temperature.
- About half an hour before your Bolognese sauce is ready to go, add the remaining glasses of milk and wine, then season generously. Let it bubble until the sauce is on the thick side and it tastes, well, delicious! When ready, remove from the heat and leave to cool ever so slightly before assembling the lasagna.
- To assemble the lasagna, start by buttering the oven dish you are going to use and by spooning about 2-3 ladlefuls of the Bolognese sauce on its bottom. You don’t want it tightly covered, but aim for a buffer layer which will prevent the lasagna sheets from sticking to the dish. Pre-heat the oven to 150C.
- Place a first layer of lasagna sheets on top of the sauce, then cover with plenty of béchamel sauce. You don’t need to drown the pasta sheets, but aim for a nice and even layer. Cover with a good layer of the Bolognese sauce, then scatter about a third of the Parmigiano Reggiano on top. Repeat with more pasta sheets, béchamel sauce, Bolognese sauce and Parmigiano. Cover with a last layer of pasta sheets. Combine about 2 ladlefuls of the remaining béchamel sauce with the remaining Bolognese sauce, then spread that on top of the dish, ensuring there are no gaps and the pasta sheets are fully covered. Scatter the leftover Parmigiano Reggiano on top.
- Bake for about 45-50 minutes. The lasagna is ready when the top layer is of a golden brown colour and the sauce has bubbled on the sides. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for about 15 minutes before eating. Enjoy on its own. A side salad would just be pure heresy.