This is the second month in a row that the Daring Bakers challenge has been a recipe I’ve already made, but it was certainly one I was happy to revisit!
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.
If you’ve only ever had Italian-American style lasagna, this version is quite different. There is no ricotta and no mozzarella, and barely any tomato in the sauce. Instead, a rich meat sauce is layered with béchamel and a small amount of parmesan. I do like the gooey, cheesy tomatoey version, but I don’t think I exaggerate when I say this version is heavenly. Rarely have I tasted anything with such an intense meatiness. And the homemade spinach noodles added just a hint of vegetal flavor to keep the whole thing from being too one-dimensional. As Kasper puts it, the dish should always be a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. The results are splendid.”
The last time I made this recipe was about 3 years ago, and sadly, I think that is also the last time my pasta machine got used! I can’t recall which sauce recipe I used that time, but I think I used half venison and half pork for the meats and it was delicious. This time around, I stuck to the given recipe (veal, pork, beef, pancetta and prosciutto) with the exception of using pre-ground meat instead of grinding it myself. This was partially due to time constraints, and partially due to economy- the ground meat was much less expensive. (When I gave my shopping list to the butcher and told him what it was for, he said, “You’re going to grind these?” and steered me towards the already-ground meat.) I was a little disappointed not to get to use my meat grinder, but as it was, I was short on time. I had decided, since I was going to so much trouble, to have a few friends over for dinner to help me eat the lasagna. And, as is typical for me, I was rushing to get things done at the last minute!
Last time I made the spinach pasta, it came off without a hitch. This time, I used the food processor to mix the dough and I don’t know where I went wrong but it was a mess. When I added the flour, it turned into a crumbly mixture about the texture of cornmeal. I tried adding a little water and it still wasn’t coming together. Then I thought maybe if I put it in the stand mixer and used the dough hook I would have better luck. I added a smidgen of olive oil and then it turned pebbly but still wasn’t cohesive. I added a little more water, kept mixing, and FINALLY it started to resemble pasta dough. Luckily, my friend and former roommate Phil, who had stopped by to pick up some mail, offered to roll up his sleeves and help out by rolling out the pasta. If he hadn’t been there, I probably would have had to resort to using boxed pasta because the sauces had taken longer than I expected and I was running short on time. However, with his help I was able to have everything on the table just when I wanted to.
The dinner party went off without a hitch- everyone loved the lasagna and my friend Ian even said it was the best he’s ever had. It was a lot of work, but I was glad to be able to share it. For our first course, I made a carrot and avocado salad, and for dessert a blood orange sorbet, both of which I’ll post soon. For now though, I’ll share a “photo essay” of the making of the sauce and lasagna assembly.
To make the sauce, you start off by browning a mirepoix (the “holy trinity” of diced carrots, celery and onion) with some diced pancetta:
The next step is to brown the ground meats. It’s funny because even though I’ve smelled meat and onions browning hundreds of times, it still almost takes me aback how great it smells each time.
After the meat is browned, the recipe instructs to put it in a strainer and drain the excess fat. I did do this; however, nothing really drained off. Anyway, you have to remove the meats from the pan in order to deglaze the pan with the wine:
The recipe instructs to transfer everything to a saucepan at this point before the next step of adding the remaining ingredients.
First you add stock in 1/2 cup increments, cooking it off as you go. Next, you add 2 cups milk. I didn’t take any photos of this stage because frankly, it looked really unappetizing. Before the milk reduces, it gets kind of curdly and the color of the sauce looks… well, not like something you’d want to consume. After cooking for an hour, you add three plum tomatoes and cook for another 45 minutes. Fortunately at this point, everything looks much more appealing. I forgot to get a shot of the finished sauce, but you can kind of see it in the photo of the lasagna being assembled.
As for the pasta, I should have taken more photos but was discouraged and distracted by the fact that it took so much effort to get it to the right consistency. The way the pasta machine works is that you start by rolling it through on a fairly wide setting and then once it goes through that setting smoothly, you go up a setting and continue the process until the noodles are the desired thinness (we went up to setting 6; I think the machine goes up to 12).
In the photo above, you can see the dough tearing as it goes through the machine; you just have to keep putting it through until it goes easily before ratcheting it up to the next level. The photo of Phil holding the pasta shows what it looks like as it gets to the right thinness. Phil trimmed the noodles to fit into the 9 x 13 pan I was using, but we forgot to take into account the expansion of the noodles when cooking so they were a little long and I had to trim them when assembling.
The only deviation from the instructions on the assembly was accidental- the final layer was supposed to only be béchamel and parmesan, but I hadn’t paced it out right and still had a little meat sauce, so that went onto the top layer too. I think the main difference was aesthetic more than anything.
The only other slight deviation was that when serving the lasagna, I passed chopped fresh parsley at the table in addition to parmesan. I’m a firm believer in the addition of a little parsley to brighten such a rich, heavy dish; not alot, but just enough to perk up your palate.
I’ll finish things off with another photo of the happy diners (who, incidentally, supplied some very nice wine to complement the meal). Can’t wait til the next one, guys!