What’s the most romantic food? Mass produced strawberries dipped in chocolate arranged like the finest rose bouquet? Spaghetti and meatballs served to you and your loved one in an ally accompanied by two old Italian men singing? Probably neither of those. For me, I say it’s lasagna and here’s why.
Lasagna is no small feat. It’s not an easy weeknight dinner you can just throw together. At least mine isn’t. This layered, decadent treat takes planning, multitasking and easily a full day if not longer. It’s a labor of love that requires the thought,” I’m going to make lasagna as a special meal for a special person.” It’s like making an intricate birthday cake but instead it’s savory and creamy and fills your home with a loving, familiar scent. Italians have taken tomatoes, cheese and carbs to new heights, but no other variation can top the end result that is cutting into layers of lasagna baked to perfection. I decided to make this for Valentine’s Day, but just like how you show love on Valentine’s Day, it’s appropriate for any time of the year.
Now this particular recipe from my great grandma’s recipe box still remains a mystery. As mentioned in the mysterious meat sauce that makes up one third of this lasagna recipe, no one knows who wrote this recipe and how it ended up in the box. My grandma tells me that all the recipes in the box were either written by my great grandma or my grandma assisting her. The only other potential scribe would be one of my great grandma’s friends, but unfortunately it’s impossible to track down that information now. What I know for certain based on the pin holes in this worn piece of loose leaf is that this recipe was well loved by previous owners. There’s no doubt.
While many people make lasagna with a cheese only layer, this recipe calls upon béchamel to achieve even, creamy layers to hold the lasagna together. Upon doing some research, this is common for lasagna from the Emilia Romagna region (you know, the Italian region that has given humanity absolute hits like parmigiano reggiano, balsamic vinegar and Massimo Bottura). While béchamel is really one of the French mother sauces, it’s used widely as the base for only the creamiest dishes. If you’ve had a home made mac and cheese that blows the blue box away, you can probably thank béchamel.
While this recipe clearly outlines how to make the bolognese sauce and the béchamel sauce, as well as how to order the layers (bolognese, grated parmigiano reggiano, and béchamel), it leaves out how to cook the noodles and for how long and at what temperature to bake the assembled dish. Some people cook the noodles fully before assembling, some people don’t even bother to cook the noodles at all, but since this recipe does not use the otherwise popular mozzarella and ricotta mixture in the assembly, I knew I had to do my research. And as luck would have it, Chris Morocco from the Bon Appetit test kitchen uploaded a whole video on Bon Appetit’s Best Lasagna, and by luck, once again, his version uses bolognese and béchamel sauces. Bingo. Therefore this recipe combines the translated Italian recipe found worn and well-loved in my great grandma’s recipe box with the technique approved by the Bon Appetit test kitchen. After all, it’s probably a good sign that the two are so similar.
For the mysterious meat sauce
4 tbsp. butter
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 medium onion, diced
1 pound ground beef
1 – 28 oz can or jar of tomatoes (I like to use passata or pureed tomatoes)
Salt & pepper
- Melt the olive oil and butter in a 4 qt Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot.
- Once the butter is melted, add the carrot, celery and onion and salt. Cook the vegetables until soft, then add the beef. Cook everything, breaking up the ground beef and stirring until the beef is cooked, and everything is combined.
- Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cook for about an hour until the crumbled beef and diced vegetables are thoroughly mixed and the sauce is at your desired consistency.
For the béchamel sauce
4 tbsp. butter
4-5 tbsp. all purpose flour
1 liter of milk
Salt and pepper to taste
- In a saucepan melt butter.
- Add 4 tablespoons of flour to start and whisk together. For a thicker sauce, add one additional tablespoon. Stir the flour and butter continuously, careful to not let it take on too much color.
- Add milk in small quantities while whisking.
- Stir while allowing the mixture to cook for about 10 minutes or until it’s thick enough to coat a spoon.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
For the noodles
1-lb box of lasagna noodles
- Boil a pot of water as if about to make pasta, but add olive oil. Adding olive oil will prevent the noodles from sticking together while cooking and after if making them ahead of assembling your lasagna.
- Boil 2-3 sheets of lasagna noodles at a time. Like in the Bon Appetit recipe, they should be far under al dente, “until just starting to soften but still snap in half rather than bend when folded.”
- Once to desired consistency either place them directly on the lasagna in a full layer, or drizzle with more olive oil and let cool on a baking sheet.
- Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the whole box is made.
For the assembly
- Pre-heat the oven to 325 F.
- Add one layer of bolognese sauce to the bottom of the casserole dish. This should be 1 to 1-1/2 cups of sauce.
- Layer the sheets of lasagna noodles over the sauce. It’s okay if the noodles don’t cover every square inch because they will expand but be sure to fill as much space as possible. This may mean cutting noodles and filling spaces with tiny bits.
- Continue the assembly in this order until the final layer: bolognese, shredded parmigiano reggiano, béchamel, and noodles.
- Once you reach the top of the casserole dish (or you run out of noodles), finish the top of the lasagna with a final layer of béchamel and shredded parmigiano reggiano. Top with fresh black pepper.
- Loosely cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. This will prevent the dish from drying out. After an hour, increase the temperature to 425 F and bake uncovered for 10-15 minutes or until it is browned to your liking.
- THIS IS IMPORTANT: let the lasagna cool for at least 10 minutes before cutting and enjoying. The layers need to settle down so you get nice and clean slices.