All Day Lasagna

Inspired by a recent post on Gothamist, Mike and I decided that we wanted a good, traditional-as-we-can-make-it lasagna… no clunky boxed noodles, no overly chunky fillings, no gobs of cheese, just clean, pure flavors and textures.

On Friday, we traveled to the Belmont neighborhood in the Bronx, an area with a large concentration of Italian immigrants, which is renowned for its handmade Italian specialties and imported goods. We came home with beautiful sheets of fresh pasta, cans of San Marzano tomatoes, and delicious creamy cheeses. On Saturday, we went to Ottomanelli's Meat Market in the East Village for ground beef and pork for the sauce. We had our ingredients, but if this was to be a truly flavorful lasagna, I was going to need a whole day to prepare it. This All-Day Lasagna would have to wait until Sunday.

Sunday morning came, rainy and cold. We were put slightly behind schedule by a leaking door frame and the ensuing wait for our landlord; however, the cooking got underway at around 1 p.m. While Mike went off to do laundry, I got to work on an adaptation of Marcella Hazan’s Bolognese sauce. I went the “beef and pork adaptation” route, using two parts ground chuck to one part ground pork, and I added double the quantity of tomatoes she calls for, but otherwise, I followed her recipe. About an hour after I started, the sauce was ready to simmer for the afternoon, and the apartment was beginning to smell absolutely amazing. I did a quick clean-up of the kitchen, and I was ready to start prepping the other ingredients.

I had refrigerated the fresh pasta sheets, so I removed them from the refrigerator to allow them to come to room temp before blanching them. I did the same with the cheeses, portioning out half a pound of ricotta and 1/4 pound of fresh unsalted mozzarella, cutting the latter into thin slices. I got out all of the pots I’d need, as well as our wonderful new Chantal earthenware baker, which I went ahead and buttered to keep the lasagna from sticking to it as it cooked. Finally, I finished my mise en place by measuring out all of the ingredients I’d need for the béchamel, arranging them on the counter within easy reach.

At around 6, it was time to finish my prep and begin to assemble the lasagna. I wasn’t really working from a recipe at this point, but I did consult my copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, as well as both Mario Batali’s and Giada De Laurentiis’ versions of the dish, for guidelines.

Using a pizza cutter, I cut the fresh pasta sheets to fit the baking dish (about 6x8). I had a large pot of salted water at a rolling boil, and dry towels laid out on the counter – the pasta sheets would have to be briefly cooked, removed from the pot and plunged into an ice bath, rinsed gently under running water, then laid out on the towels and patted dry to remove any starch before setting them aside.

I spread about a cup of Bolognese sauce into the bottom of the buttered baking dish, then put my first cooked and dried pasta sheet over it, pressing gently. On top of that, I added the ricotta, which I had blended with one egg, a sprinkling of freshly grated nutmeg, and a cup of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry. I placed another pasta sheet on top of that, and spread a cup of Bolognese over it.

At this point, I took a break from blanching pasta sheets and turned my attention to making a béchamel. I used four tablespoons of unsalted butter, which I melted in a pan, and to which I added three tablespoons of unbleached organic flour. Using a flexible plastic spatula, I combined these into a roux, being careful not to let it turn brown. Once the mixture was smooth, I slowly added two cups of whole milk, which had been brought to room temperature, a pinch of salt, and another tiny grating of fresh nutmeg. I stirred constantly until the mixture was smooth and lump-free, and was thickened to creaminess. I removed this from the heat and set it aside, then prepared two more sheets of pasta, placing one over the layer of Bolognese that I had last added. I spooned about a cup of béchamel over that layer, then added another layer of pasta. I added one more layer of Bolognese and pasta, then poured the remaining béchamel over the top, and studded it with my slices of fresh mozzarella.

This went, uncovered, into the oven, and cooked for about 45 minutes at 400 degrees – just until the lasagna was bubbling around the edges and the top was nicely browned.

The result was absolutely delicious. The pasta was so tender, the béchamel creamy and delicate, the Bolognese sauce rich and succulent… it was really a revelation, and far different from lasagnas we had tried in the past. I have to say I was very happy with the result, though I think I’d make one adjustment next time, and add some freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano over the béchamel before baking. All in all, though, it was a wonderful combination of fresh, quality ingredients, and no ingredient overpowered another. This All-Day Lasagna was time and labor intensive, but definitely worth it.

Posted by jenblossom on November 29, 2004 | TrackBack

Jen, that sounds gorgeous!
If you have a pasta roller, it's pretty easy to do the pasta sheets yourself, too. I refuse to make lasagne with boxed noodles after my first time with fresh. Call me a snob - but so much better, no?

Posted by: meriko on November 29, 2004 7:47 PM

Oh yeah, I have one of those old metal pasta rollers, and I used to make my own egg pasta, but that was also pre-fibro, and stuff like that, where I have to use my hands a lot, can be hard for me... I'm certainly never saying never, but this fresh pasta was so good that unless I'm feeling *really* ambitious, I think I'm happy to use it rather than making my own. :)

Posted by: jenblossom on November 30, 2004 4:53 AM

Oooh - right. Forgot about the fibro there for a minute. The Italian deli in the Mission (Lucca) has fresh pasta sheets. They're delish, too.

Posted by: meriko on November 30, 2004 7:47 AM

It's been an interesting thing to learn to adapt in the kitchen (if I could only get OXO to make a "good grips" type handle for my Wusthof knives, I'd be happy)...

I do feel like I've made compromises by not making my own bread and pasta anymore, but in the alternative, I've had fun seeking out really good producers of those things. It all works out in the end!

Posted by: jenblossom on November 30, 2004 8:38 AM
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