This, this is my culinary Mount Everest. This twenty-layer striation of noodles, ragu, béchamel and cheese, repeated four times and then some took me more than five years to conquer. To be honest, six years ago I didn’t know what it was. Sure, I had heard of lasagna but I wasn’t terribly fond of it because I don’t much care for the texture of ricotta once it has baked. (Ricotta, I’d argue, is best rich, fresh, and cold on toast.) But I was galloping through a post on an Italian food blog and I stumbled upon a parenthesised side-thought that stopped me dead in my tracks. It said something along the lines of “I don’t know whose idea it was to put ricotta in lasagna but… shudder.” And I thought, but wait! What’s supposed to go in lasagna? But there was no answer, so I set out to find one.
Lasagna alla Bolognese is an epic dish. Oh sure, it looks like an ordinary broiled mass of cheese, pasta and meaty tomato sauce but it’s so much more. To make it as I dreamed from that day forward I wanted to, everything gets a lot of love and time. The ragu is cooked for hours. The béchamel (ahem, besciamella), although the simplest of the five “Mother Sauces,” is still a set of ingredients that must be cooked separately, and in a prescribed order. The pasta doesn’t have to be fresh, but I figured if I was going to do this, I was going to really, really do this and I wanted fresh, delicious sheets of pasta to support the other cast members I’d so lovingly craft. And the cheese? There’s just one, Parmesan, and it doesn’t overwhelm.
So why did it take the better part of six years to conquer? First, I had to find the ragu of my dreams. I realize that most people have a bolognese they like — maybe it has milk or a mix of meats, not just beef (mine doesn’t), maybe it goes easy on the wine (mine doesn’t), maybe it can’t be cooked for less than six hours (mine can) and maybe it just has a slip of tomatoes inside (mine doesn’t). I sometimes think that there are as many interpretations of bolognese as there are people who make it; it’s totally cool to use your favorite. But if you’re still bolognese-hunting, oh, I do love Anne Burrell’s above all else. You could forgo the pasta, the white sauce and the cheese and enjoy it straight from a bowl. But today, we won’t.
Even once I found my ragu nirvana, it took a couple rounds to get the lasagna right. The first time I made the noodles, I rolled them too thin and put them on towels, where they proceeded to stick. Miserably. The dish was intended for a 2 p.m. lunch in New Jersey; at 3, Alex was running to a bodega in Manhattan to buy a box of dried pasta. On the plus side, we’re still talking to each other. On the minus, we had “lunch” at almost 8 that night. I had a few other mishaps; recipes I found seemed out of balance or evasive in directions. One béchamel was too thin. And I kept ending up with too much ragu, too little white sauce, too many noodles, not enough directions, too little time. It was until this week that I finally got the recipe exactly as I’d always dreamed of it, with I hope a level of detail that will make it replicable for anyone at home. Even if you, like me, got to the final inning and realized you were out of cheese, requiring a run to the bodega to pick up I don’t want to even talk about it variety of so-called Parmesan. Yes, even for people like me.
Now here’s the part where I know you’re not going to believe me, but I implore you to consider it: This lasagna, it feels light, almost ethereal, or as close as a decidedly hearty dish can. Maybe it’s the absence of ricotta and mozzarella, or the thinness of the homemade noodles but something about it feels utterly decadent, mindbogglingly delicious, completely warming but not … gutting. It needn’t immediately lead to a nap on the sofa. It’s a miracle. A miracle in twenty parts. Let’s get started.
How about some dessert? Making this for your love this week? How about a dead-simple red wine chocolate cake to finish up the meal (and that pesky open bottle)? Or some brownies or sorbet. Or silky, decadent, old-school chocolate mousse. More chocolate here, in case you needed encouragement.
Don’t eat meat? My second favorite lasagna on earth is Ina Garten’s Mushroom Lasagna. It is also ricotta-free and astoundingly light. I dream about it.
One year ago: Meaball Subs with Caramelized Onions and Blood Orange Olive Oil Cake
Two years ago: Chana Masala, Walnut Jam Cake and Ginger Fried Rice
Three years ago: Chocolate Whiskey and Beer Cupcakes, Crisp Black Bean Tacos with Feta and Slaw and Whole Lemon Tart
Four years ago: Matzo Ball Soup, Dulce de Leche Cheesecake Squares and Seven-Yolk Pasta Dough
Five years ago: Artichoke, Asparagus and Shiitake Risotto and Miniature Soft Pretzels
Ragu adapted from Anne Burrell, everything else from trial and error
Serves 12 (in hearty portions) to 15 (in generous 3-inch squares). You will have double the bolognese sauce that you need because I cannot in good conscience let you spend several hours simmering a sauce that will only yield 4-ish cups of sauce. Trust me, you’ll want extra.
This is a beast of a dish, and worth every second you put into it. I recommend making the meat sauce a day or longer before you need it; then, do everything else on the second day. My advice is to give yourself way more time than you could possibly need on the second day, so that you can make the dish from a place of leisure and love, and not one that is frenzied and not particularly fun. You’ll be glad you did. This is a perfect project for a lazy winter weekend, something two people could then eat dreamily all week.
A note on authenticity: This is the kind of dish that gets, ahem, passionate cooks out in droves. I’ve been told that you cannot call it bolognese if you simmer it for less than __ hours or that it can/can’t have tomato/milk/wine/only beef in it. Others will pfft over the lack of color on the crust (I had a word with my dinky oven about it). I absolutely love this about cooking — the way we care so deeply about the way our food is made, and how much I’m lucky enough to learn about the different ways people approach the same dish. But, my other favorite part about cooking is that it’s just you in the kitchen and you can make your food the way you alone like it. Feel free to tweak this to your taste by replacing portions of the beef with other meats, using less tomato paste or wine if desired or replacing some wine with milk.
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped (1-inch pieces are fine)
1 large or 2 slim carrots, coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds ground chuck, brisket or round or combination
1 1/4 cups tomato paste (from 2 6-ounce cans)
2 cups red wine, preferably hearty but really, anything you like to drink
Water as needed
2 bay leaves
A few sprigs thyme, tied in a bundle
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 to 2 tablespoons water, if needed
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon table salt
1 clove minced garlic
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
1 2/3 cups grated Parmesan cheese
Day 1: Make the bolognese sauce: In a food processor, pulse onion, carrots, celery, and garlic until finely chopped. Heat a moderate-sized Dutch oven (4 to 5 quarts) over medium-high heat. Once hot, coat the bottom of the pan with two to three tablespoons of oil. Once it is hot, add the chopped vegetables and season them generously with salt and pepper. Cook the vegetables until they are evenly brown, stirring frequently, about 15 minutes.
I’m going to insert my favorite Burrell-ism here: Brown food tastes good! Don’t skimp on the cooking times as this creates the big flavors the will carry right through to your plated lasagna. And now I’m going to insert my own-ism: Don’t worry about sticking bits of food or uneven pieces or anything. It’s all going to work out in the end.
Add the ground beef and seasoning again with salt and pepper. Brown the beef well and again, don’t rush this step. Cook for another 15 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the red wine, using it to scrape up any stuck bits in the pan. Cook the wine until it has reduced by half, about 5 more minutes. Add water to the pan until the water is about 1 inch above the meat. Toss in the bay leaves and the bundle of thyme and stir to combine everything, bringing it to a low simmer.
Here’s how the next 3 to 4 hours will go: You’ll keep a pitcher of water near the stove. You’ll stir the sauce from time to time. As the water in the sauce cooks off, you’ll want to add more but you don’t want to add more than 1 to 2 cups at a time or you’ll have boiled meat sauce (bleh) rather than something thick and robust with flavor. Taste it from time to time and add more seasoning if needed. Simmer for 3 to 4 hours.
You’ll have about 8 to 8 1/2 cups of sauce but will only need 4 for the lasagna. Discard the thyme and bay leaves and put half in the fridge for lasagna assembly tomorrow and the other half in the freezer for up to a couple months. Ours was still as good as day one after 6 weeks.
Day 2: Make your pasta: Combine all of the pasta ingredients in a food processor. Run the machine until the mixture begins to form a ball. You’re looking for a dough that is firm but not sticky. If needed, add water a drop at a time until it comes together. Place ball of dough on a lightly floured surface and invert a bowl over it. Let it rest for an hour. (You’ll have about 10 ounces or a little less than 2/3 pound of fresh pasta dough.)
Get your work area ready; I like to line a large tray with waxed paper. Dust the waxed paper with flour. Keep more waxed paper and flour nearby.
Working with a quarter of the dough at a time, run in through your pasta roller on the widest setting (usually “0″), then repeat this process with the roller set increasingly smaller (1, 2, 3) until the pasta is very thin. My Atlas machine goes to 9 but I almost always stop at 8 because this stetting makes for thin, delicate pasta that’s not so fragile that I’m pulling my hair out with frustration trying to move it around.
If you find your dough sticking, lightly flour it. If it gets too big to handle, cut it in half. If the piece gets too wide for the machine or becomes annoyingly irregularly shaped, I re-”fold” the dough by folding the sides of the dough into the middle, like an envelope, and press it flat. Then, run the piece back through the machine with the open sides up and down on the widest setting again (0) working your way thinner. This allows the machine to “press” any trapped air out.
Lay your pasta on the floured waxed paper in a single layer, trying to keep the pieces from touching. Flour the tops of them and place another sheet of floured wax paper on top. Repeat this process with the remaining dough and as many layers of pasta you need.
Next, cook your pasta: Cut your pasta lengths into square-ish shapes. The fun thing about making fresh pasta for lasagna is that the shape doesn’t much matter; you’re going to tile together whatever you have and nobody will care if it took 9 or 16 bits to patch the layer together. Bring a large pot of water to boil. Have ready a skimmer, a large bowl of ice water and a large tray or platter that you’ve drizzled or spritzed with oil. Boil several of squares of noodle at a time for 1 to 2 minutes each (1 minute if you, indeed, went to the thinnest setting on your machine; 2 if you, like me, stopped one shy of thinnest). Scoop them out with your skimmer, swish them in the ice water and lay them out (still wet is fine) on the oiled platter. Repeat with remaining pasta. It’s okay to have your noodles touch; they shouldn’t stick together in the short period of time until you begin assembling but if you’re nervous, you can drizzle or spritz each layer very lightly with more oil.
Make your béchamel: Melt your butter in the bottom of a medium-to-large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, add your flour and stir it into the butter until smooth. Cook the mixture together for a minute, stirring constantly. Pour in a small drizzle of your milk*, whisking constantly into the butter-flour mixture until smooth. Continue to drizzle a very small amount at a time, whisking constantly. Once you’ve added a little over half of your milk, you’ll find that you have more of a thick sauce or batter, and you can start adding the milk in larger splashes, being sure to keep mixing. Once all of the milk is added, add the salt, garlic, nutmeg (if using) and few grinds of black pepper, and bring the mixture to a lower simmer and cook it, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
* Yes, cold is fine. I divert from the proper béchamel method here as I’ve found that as long as you add your milk slowly, you do not need to heat it separately first. Hooray for fewer steps and pots!
At last, you may assemble your dish: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 9×13-inch or equivalent rectangular baking dish, spread a generous 1/4 cup of the béchamel. I mostly use this to keep the noodles from sticking. Add your first layer of cooked noodles, patching and slightly overlapping them however is needed to form a single layer. Ladle 1 cup bolognese sauce over the noodles, spreading it evenly. Drizzle 1/2 cup béchamel over the bolognese; don’t worry about getting it perfectly smooth or even. Sprinkle the layer with 1/3 cup parmesan cheese. Repeat this process — pasta + 1 cup bolognese + 1/2 cup béchamel + 1/3 cup parmesan — three more times, then add one more layer of pasta. You’ll use 5 layers of pasta total.
There are two ways to finish the dish. You can simply sprinkle the top layer of pasta with your remaining parmesan before baking. This makes the crunchiest lid. I like a semi-crunchy lid and first spread 1/4 cup béchamel over the top layer of pasta before sprinkling it with the remaining cheese. It still gets crunchy — and has corners that are worth fighting over — but never unpleasantly so.
Bake your lasagna for 30 to 45 minutes, until bubbly all over and browned on top. You should do absolutely nothing but put your feet up and drink a glass of wine while you do; you’ve earned it. When it comes out of the oven, I like to let it rest for 10 minutes before serving it.
Do ahead: Lasagna can be prepared right up until the baking point a day in advance, and kept wrapped in plastic in the fridge. Theoretically, you could also freeze it at this point but I haven’t tried this. I’ll update this to say “go for it” if many people respond in the comments that they’ve done so successfully. Lasagna will also reheat well for up to three days, possibly longer but in my apartment, we’ve never had the chance to find out.