The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.
This challenge looked daunting. I was nervous! I have never made fresh pasta before, nor really made a from scratch meat sauce (ragu) or bechamel sauce! Just by reading through the recipe and instructions I was intimidated...and knew it was going to take me a long time to complete this recipe. BUT, I was up for the challenge (the whole point of joining this group!) and hoping to feel like an Italian Nonna (Grandmother) when I was done.
I started with the pasta. I immediately ran into problems. HA! The recipe calls for 2 eggs...I think it should have been more than that. I actually added 3 and still had to add some water (no time to measure, sorry!) before my dough would come together. I also was trying to do things by hand, but after a bit, I tossed it into the Kitchen Aid with the dough hook....it finally came together for me. It wasn't pretty though.
The next step was to roll the pasta out. I wimped out on this step and bought a pasta maker. It was hand crank, but still, I wasn't "rolling" it out by hand. It still wasn't easy! The sheets came out ok. I think they could have been a lot thinner, but the dough kept getting holes in it so I just gave up on it and figured it would have to do.
Next was the bechamel sauce - or white sauce. This was fairly quick and easy to make. The neat part about making this sauce was that I realized that my Grandma's famous gravy for biscuits and gravy was made the same way, only with a few different spices. I called her after I was done and told her that I think I was finally ready to attempt making her gravy now...though I still think she's hiding a secret twist from us...no one makes biscuit gravy like Grandma.
Stirring Bechamel Sauce
Back to the lasanga though. Once I had all the parts ready and it was time to assemble, I was exhausted! The pasta, ragu and bechamel had taken me about 6-7 hours to prepare...I know, crazy! Keep in mind this includes the "resting" time for the pasta and the "reducing" time for the ragu. I'm a slow chopper too...ha! BUT...even though it was now getting late, I decided to press on and assemble for baking!
I had enough pasta and ragu to make the suggested amounts of layers, but I forgot that I was supposed to end with a layer of bechamel sauce, so I ran out...with one layer to go. Since it was the easiest and quickest "part" to make, I quickly whipped up another batch so I would have enough. The pan looked great! Smelled fantastic and I was excited about putting it in the oven so I could try it!
SO...after almost 8 hours of kneading, mixing, rolling, stirring and the likes, I was able to taste my creation. I was good. I'm not saying great, the pasta was indeed a bit too thick for my liking, but the flavors were wonderful. I think if I were to ever have 8 hours to kill and was craving lasagne again, I'd break out this recipe again, but work on getting the pasta much thinner. The ragu is certainly a keeper and worth making for just plain pasta anytime thought...yummm. Alas, an Italian Nonna I am not destined to be...but hey...maybe I'll just work on being the pastry kind of Nonna, not the pasta kind....we'll see....(of course, I'd have to be Italian first...and have a husband....and kids....we'll stick to baking for now!).
Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)
10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce
1 recipe Country Style Ragu
1 cup (4 oz./125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Working ahead: The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20°C/68°F) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.
Assembling the ingredients: Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.
Cooking the pasta: Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.
Assembling the lasagne: Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.
Baking and serving the lasagne: Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.
Spinach Egg Pasta (pasta verde)
Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.
2 jumbo eggs (2 oz./60g or more)
10 oz. (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 oz. (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3 1/2 cups (14 oz./400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)
Working by hand you will need: A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired. A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough. A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta. Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly. A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets. Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.
Mixing the dough: Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.
Kneading: With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Stretching and thinning: If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more. Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time. Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm).
Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.
4 tbsps (2 oz./60g) unsalted butter
4 tbsps (2 oz./60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2 2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
nutmeg to taste, freshly grated
Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.
Country Style Ragu’ (ragu alla contadina)
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)
3 tbsps extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 oz./60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 oz./125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 oz./125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 oz./30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 oz./160ml) dry red wine
1 1/2 cups (12 oz./375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 oz./500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Working ahead: The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.
Browning the ragu base: Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.
Reducing and simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside. Stir 1/2 cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking. Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.
Enjoy with love,