It's been a while since I had the time to post a Daring Baker's challenge, and for some reason I was still struggling with the whole make a vegan dip and cracker thing. However, there was no way I could pass up a lasagna challenge, and I was curious to see how it would measure up to my own ultimate recipe. 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. Lasagne is one of my favorite foods and I've traveled through this region of Italy and miss it incredibly. I was so looking forward to the memories I thought this would bring back.
Sadly, it was deeply disappointing. While my recipe may be less authentic, its layers of flavor are richer and more crowd pleasing. L and I agreed that while the meat ragu would have been fabulous on some pappardelle, its complexity was lost when mixed with the spinach of the noodles and the creaminess of the béchamel. Most surprising was how strikingly different it was from my usual version, even though I make my own fresh noodles and a béchamel in mine as well!
So my verdict is, if you want to experience the pleasures of slow cooking demanded by a traditional lasagne, give it a try. But for my time, it was not worth the 6 hours when 1 hour yields a better result!
Lasagne Verdi al Forno
Serves 8 to 10
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)
1 recipe Parmesan Herb Béchamel (recipe follows)
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 3 quart shallow baking dish.
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about two long 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.
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). Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve.
In my opinion - this was the least tasty part of the lasagna - I recommend using a plain fresh egg noodle recipe, like the one I have here, but cut for lasagna
3 large eggs
6 ounces frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry - btw, the easiest way to do this is to stab the plastic bag all over with a fork, then squeeze so the water goes out the perforations - mess free!
3 1/2 cups all purpose unbleached flour
I used a Kitchen Aid mixer to make the dough, and its pasta attachment to roll it - however, the spinach was not about to mix in, even though it was finely chopped. I had to take it for a whir in the food processor.
Even after that, the dough did not roll out nicely. As soon as it got thin, the small bits of spinach would cause it to develop small holes everywhere, and it looked very lacy. When it cooked up, it was not very tasty and the texture was offputting.
Parmesan Herb Bechamel - my version
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small shallot, minced fine
4 tablespoons all purpose unbleached flour
2 2/3 cups 1 % milk
3 Tbsp dried italian herbs
1/3 cup freshly grated parmaggiano reggiano
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat and quickly saute shallot until softened. Add 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, then add the herbs. 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 cheese, salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.
Ragu alla Contadina
This sauce was incredible on its own and would have been better if its flavors weren't masked by everything else. They called for grinding up the meat - but I left it in small 1/2 inch chunks and it braised to gorgeous melt-in-your-mouth pieces! I thought the slow addition of stock and the milk was odd, but it came out incredibly rich and flavorful because of it. This part I will definitely make again!
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces, finely chopped (a slice about 1/2 inch thick will do nicely)
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery, minced
1 large carrot, minced
8 ounces boneless veal shoulder
4 ounces beef skirt steak
2 ounces Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup dry red wine - I used Shiraz
2 & 1/2 cups chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups 1 % milk
1 can San Marzano crushed tomatoes
Italian herbs, Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Stir meats 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.
Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine, 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. Stir 3/4 cup stock and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another 3/4 cup stock. Stir in the last 1 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir occasionally to check for sticking.
Add the tomatoes and herbs. 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.
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 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) 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.