Lasagna Bolognese

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Last year I made Lasagna Bolognese without much drama, and we ate it on the couch by the glow of the Christmas tree, watching James Bond. This year, same lasagna, same time of year, but I was doubling the recipe to make two lasagnas, enough for a dinner party of 14, plus another lasagna with a vegetarian chickpea bolognese. While I browned meat for the ragu sauce, Danny strung up lights around the trunks of the trees in our backyard (!!!) and in between batches, I ran out to help pass the lights around the thick branches so he could loop them around. Him in the towering mango tree, me on a wobbly ladder.

Except for the salad, I wanted to get everything done the day before our friends came over. There were three parts to this lasagna: (1) the Bolognese sauce (2) the béchamel sauce (3) the fresh pasta dough. The day was getting late, but it hadn’t gotten away from me yet. I’d found a rhythm in our kitchen. Things left to do, still: roll out the pasta dough, cut it into strips, briefly boil the fresh pasta, assemble the lasagnas, grate cheese for the lasagnas, make dessert (though that could wait until tomorrow).

I’d tripled the dough recipe, whew, and when it was good and rested we quartered the first ball of dough. Danny pushed the dough through the top of our pasta maker, cranking it through with one hand. We were in the final stretch…

Except, when he tried to pass the first piece of dough through the machine again, it spit the dough right back out the wrong end. He tried again. Again. Again. Nothing changed, as you might suspect, but I prayed it would. And then it did, but not in the way I’d imagined. A piece of the machine broke off.

It was about midnight. My fingers were crusted in dried pasta dough, making my hands look like I’d broken free from a cast. Puffs of flour found their way into my hair, streaking it white. Like the countertops of our kitchen, I was a mess.

Our pasta maker was broken, and maybe I was, too.

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“Whyyyy do we do this to ourselves, Danny?” I wailed. Why did we decide to have a big dinner party two months before our wedding in our new place and leave the lasagna to the last minute and insist it be done with homemade dough. Why am I doing this when I should be addressing wedding invitations. What do I do now with these three balls of homemade fresh pasta dough. It’s so late. Now what. This was the worst time for the pasta maker to give up on us. My mind and my hands, numb. He grabbed his keys and headed for a 24-hour Wal-Mart to buy lasagna noodles.

I washed my hands and my face, and then I Googled: fresh lasagna rolled by hand? Is this possible? Reasonable? A couple clicks led me to my kitchen fairy godmother, Lynne Rossetto Kasper of The Splendid Table, who said not only can I roll out this pasta by hand, it’ll taste better if I do. Duh. It was so obvious once I read it — of course people made lasagna and rolled out pasta with their own hands. There was life and there was lasagna before pasta machines. I just needed my hands, my rolling pin, and my patience. And Danny.

Here’s Lynne, by the way: “Okay, this is being picky, but there’s not quite like hand rolled pasta. That rolling pin embeds a pebbly texture into the dough. Sauces collect in those tiny pits and crevasses achieving what Italians see as a saintly marriage of sauce to pasta. Pasta machines give a smooth finish, which is fine, but if you’re going as far as to make your own pasta, why not go all the way?”

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DIY Honeycomb Shelves

So we tucked away the boxes of pasta, and we rolled. And rolled and rolled. Soon, what seemed like not nearly enough dough for three lasagnas became a mound of yellow strips that never seemed to end as I dropped them into a pot of boiling water, only to snatch the blanched noodles back out a few seconds later.

Noodles. Bolognese. Béchamel. Parmesan. Repeat. I was a midnight pasta machine, filling the baking dishes until they were heavy with lasagna. And then I tucked myself into bed.
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The next day, the house looked softer in morning light. The prints and pictures we’d rushed to hang on the walls (finally) made our place seem cozier. The honeycomb shelves Danny built looked so good on the dining room wall. Our table was clean and set with many borrowed plates and glasses. We switched the twinkly lights on at the front and back of the house. Hours later, the prepared lasagna went into the oven, bubbling and puffing up until the cheese melted and the edges were crisp and golden. Soon we were sitting down to eat this year’s Christmas lasagna with a table full of friends and bottles of wine, and it was, without a doubt, better than last year’s lasagna. My little sis, Lila, recently and astutely observed something about Danny. She said, “Come on! You know Danny always goes big. He never goes home.” I just about died laughing, but she was right.

And so was Lynne — going all the way for this lasagna dinner party was worth it.

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lasagna bolognese

I love love love this lasagna recipe. It requires a lot of steps, but it is not difficult to make, and if you’re smart with your time you can make everything ahead and divide up the tasks over a few days. It’s foolproof, I think, and totally delicious and worth the effort. People will ooh and ahh when you bring it to the table. You can also easily double this recipe for a big crowd. I even tripled the pasta dough recipe to make a third vegetarian Bolognese with chickpeas (recipe below) with great results. I recommend browning the meat in batches so that the meat truly browns. If too much meat is crowded in the pot, it will steam instead and not have quite as much flavor.

Serves 8.

For the sauce:
1 large onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium carrot, peeled, coarsely chopped
1 celery stalk, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground beef chuck
1 pound ground pork
4 ounces pancetta (Italian bacon), finely chopped
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup dry white wine (last year I used red wine)
1 cup whole milk
1 14.5-ounce can crushed tomatoes
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth, divided

For the fresh pasta:
½ teaspoon kosher salt
3 cups all-purpose flour plus more
4 large eggs, room temperature

For the béchamel sauce:
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, warmed
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
Kosher salt

For assembly:
Kosher salt
Unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups finely grated Parmesan cheese

To make the Bolognese sauce, pulse onion, carrot, and celery in a food processor until finely chopped.

Heat oil in a large heavy pot over medium heat. Add beef, pork, pancetta, and vegetables; cook, breaking up meat with a spoon, until moisture is almost completely evaporated and meat is well browned, 25 to 30 minutes; season with salt and pepper. I like to add the meat in batches to ensure actual browning of the meat. The cooked meat goes into a bowl until I’m ready to add it back in to the pot.

Add wine to pot and bring to a boil, scraping up browned bits from bottom of pot, about 2 minutes. Add milk; bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer until moisture is almost completely evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and 2 cups broth; bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, adding water by ½-cupfuls if sauce looks dry, until flavors meld and sauce thickens, 2½ to 3 hours.

Let sauce cool, then cover and chill at least 12 hours or up to 2 days. (Letting the sauce sit will give it a deeper, richer flavor.)

Note: Sauce can be made 2 days ahead. Cover and chill.

To make the pasta, whisk salt and 3 cups flour in a large bowl, make a well in the center, and crack eggs into well. Mix eggs with a fork, then slowly mix in flour until a shaggy dough forms. Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead, dusting lightly with flour if sticky, until smooth, about 5 minutes (it will be fairly stiff). Wrap in plastic; let sit until dough holds an indentation when pressed, 1 to 2 hours.

Set pasta maker to thickest setting; dust lightly with flour. Divide dough into 4 pieces. Working with 1 piece at a time and keeping remaining dough wrapped in plastic as you work, flatten dough into a narrow rectangle (no wider than mouth of machine); pass through rollers. Fold dough as needed to fit and run through again. Repeat without folding, adjusting machine to thinner settings after every pass and dusting with flour if sticky, until pasta sheet is 1/16-inch thick (setting 8 on most machines). Place pasta sheets on a lightly floured surface and cut crosswise into 16 8-inch-long noodles. But don’t sweat it – the length of the noodles doesn’t have to be so exact.

Note: Dough can be made 1 day ahead; chill. Bring to room temperature before rolling out, about 1 hour. Noodles can be made 1 day ahead. Stack on a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper between each layer. Cover with plastic wrap and chill.

To make the béchamel sauce, heat butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat until foaming. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, 1 minute. Whisk in warm milk, ½-cupful at a time. Bring sauce to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer, whisking often, until the consistency of cream, 8 to 10 minutes; add nutmeg and season with salt. Remove from heat, transfer to a medium bowl, and press plastic wrap directly onto surface; let cool slightly.

Note: Béchamel can be made 1 day ahead. Keep covered and chilled.

To assemble the lasagna, reheat the sauces. Combine Bolognese sauce and remaining 1 cup broth in a large saucepan over medium heat, and heat until sauce is warmed through.

Meanwhile, if you made the béchamel ahead of time, heat in a medium saucepan over low heat just until warmed through (you don’t want to let it boil).

Working in batches, cook fresh lasagna noodles in a large pot of boiling salted water until just softened, about 10 seconds. Remove carefully with tongs and transfer to a large bowl of ice water; let cool. Drain noodles and stack on a baking sheet, making sure noodles don’t touch (they’ll stick together).

Preheat oven to 350°F. Coat a 13-by-9-inch baking dish with butter.

Spread ¼ cup béchamel in the prepared baking dish. Top with a layer of noodles, spread over a scant ¾ cup Bolognese sauce, then ½ cup béchamel, and top with ¼ cup Parmesan. Repeat process 7 more times, starting with noodles and ending with Parmesan, for a total of 8 layers. Place baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake lasagna until bubbling and beginning to brown on top, 50 to 60 minutes. Let lasagna sit 45 minutes before serving.

Note: Lasagna can be assembled 12 hours ahead. Cover and chill. Let sit at room temperature 2 hours before baking. Cook, covered with foil until the last 20 minutes, then finish cooking uncovered.

(Recipe from Bon Appetit.)
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Chickpea Bolognese

chickpea bolognese

The porcini mushroom broth made for this sauce is so smart. It adds such fragrance and flavor and the most difficult step in the process is acquiring the mushrooms. After that, it’s so easy. I left out the pancetta because I was making a Chickpea Bolognese Lasagna for a vegetarian friend coming over for dinner. It was delicious even without the added benefit of Italian bacon.

Serves about 6.

1/4 cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 cup boiling water
1 medium onion, roughly chopped
2 stalks celery, roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
3 ounces pancetta (or bacon), chopped (leave out for a vegetarian sauce)
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
3 cups cooked chickpeas, or two 15-ounce cans, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes
One 28-ounce can San Marzano tomatoes (or another good plum tomato)
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup heavy cream or half and half
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A handful of fresh basil leaves, torn
1 heaping cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 pound fresh or dried lasagna noodles or spaghetti

Pour the cup of boiling water over the porcini and let steep for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, place the onion, celery, carrot, garlic, and pancetta, if using, in the bowl of a food processor and process until not quite smooth. You want a little texture here.

Heat the 4 tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven and add the chickpeas. Sauté over medium heat for a few minutes, making sure the chickpeas are coated with the oil.

Add the processed mixture and continue to sauté until the vegetables soften and become fragrant. Add the basil, oregano, and crushed red pepper flakes and continue to sauté another minute or two. Remove the porcini mushrooms from the soaking liquid and chop finely. Add them to the pot. Strain and reserve the liquid.

With your clean hands, crush the tomatoes and add them to the pot along with the wine and the porcini soaking liquid. Bring up to a simmer and simmer, partially covered, for about an hour. Stir occasionally.

After an hour, use an immersion blender to break down about half of the chickpeas. Add the light cream and bring back up to a gentle simmer. Taste and adjust for salt and pepper. Off the heat, stir in the torn basil leaves. Layer sauce in between lasagna noodles, alternating with grated Parmesan cheese, as you would for regular Lasagna Bolognese. Bake at 350°F in an 8-by-8-inch baking dish, covered with foil, for 45 minutes. Remove foil for last 15 to 20 minutes and cook uncovered. Alternatively, you can serve this Chickpea Bolognese sauce over cooked spaghetti or other pasta.

(Recipe adapted slightly from Pat Kallio via Food52.)

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