The Origins of Lasagna, and All That It Entails

    When children reach a certain age, they become curious... about what they are having for dinner.  Their bodies begin to change, in particular, their stomachs begin to rumble.  This is the time when many children ask the difficult question: "Mommy, where does lasagna come from?".  You may yourself not know.

    Lasagna is not delivered by a stork.  Lasagna is not what happens when "Mommy and Daddy love each other very much..." (although sometimes really good lasagna helps with that).  Lasagna is an Italian baked pasta created by alternately layering sauce, cheese, pasta, and other delicious foodstuffs.  Everyone seems to make lasagna a little bit differently.  In the north of Italy, many people enjoy Lasagna Bolognese, utilizing bolognese meat sauce and a bechamel (white) sauce with parmesan cheese.  In Sicily, lasagna seems to be made with rich ricotta cheese.  Growing up in Wisconsin, some people believed in a lasagna with cottage cheese.   Vegan folks might prefer to utilize tofu, in an effort to reduce harm to the environment or animals or whatever.  No one way is necessarily more correct than another, except the one with cottage cheese.  You shouldn't ever make lasagna with cottage cheese.  Likewise, there are a number of effective sauces across a spectrum of regions and palette preferences.  Traditionally, lasagne are made with a red, tomato based sauce.  Some modern sauce variations include pesto or perhaps cream based sauces.  Finally, all lasagne includes pasta.  It should always be flat, but here too there are variables.  I prefer fresh house made pasta, cooked in the lasagna itself.  There are also commercially available pastas which can be cooked with boiling water, some require no precooking at all.

    Lasagna, by it's nature, is a saucy creature.  The sauce is traditionally made from tomatoes, and ground meat.  It's seductive, drawing you in with bright colour and savory acidic aroma.  It wraps around your tongue, your taste buds exploding with joy, the flavours lingering on your palette, tempting you to have another slice.  You can use your favourite tomato sauce to make a lasagna.  It is however important to consider your other ingredients when choosing a sauce.  If you are going to use dried pasta or ricotta, you might consider using a stronger flavoured, less viscous sauce.  This could help more appropriately compliment the textures of your chosen pasta or cheese filling.  Using a bechamel I would recommend a thicker further reduced sauce.  Too much liquid and your lasagna will be a strange sort of gloppy layered soup.

    When selecting ingredients for your sauce, keep in mind: Tomatoes can be used fresh or canned.  If you use fresh tomatoes, you will have to chop and skin them, this will take extra time.  You could also roast the tomatoes in the oven to deepen their flavor.  I have recently been using heirloom tomatoes canned here at Willow, but store bought whole canned tomatoes will still make a tasty sauce.  Save the excess liquid from the can, it can be used to make soups, bread, or beverages.
    This is not a traditional Bolognese sauce.  It's a little simpler, and a little saucier.  The bright tomato flavour will complement a bechamel sauce (reduce a little further), or ricotta cheese if you prefer.  It's also fantastic with your favourite fresh or dried herbs added.  Simply put, it's hard to mess up.  I made a very similar sauce about 5 years ago and my former roomie still hasn't shut up about it.

1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
4qt. canned tomatoes
2 White or Yellow Onions, diced
2 Carrots, finely diced
2 Ribs Celery, finely diced
4 Cloves Garlic, finely diced
Salt, Cracked Pepper.
1t red pepper flakes (optional)
2 1/2 pounds ground beef, cooked.
In a heavy bottomed pot, heat the oil on medium heat until shimmering. Add Garlic and Onion, season with Salt and Pepper and cook until garlic begins to brown and onions are translucent, add carrots and celery.  Cook until carrots and celery have begun to soften.  Add tomatoes (you may want to remove the seeds with a food mill or sieve) and simmer until reduced to your liking.  Add beef, correct seasoning, WIN.

Stuff this in yer lasagna... and eat it:  The sauce recipe above calls for beef.  Some folks prefer sausage(usually pork based), veal (delicious baby cows) or a mixture of meats (some bolognese sauces call for bacon!).  Use whatever animal you prefer to eat, lasagna is freedom.  If you're really not stoked about eating any meat at all, leave the meat out of the above recipe and substitute additional layers of pasta, cheese and spinach.

    Lasagne is full of cheese.  I really cannot think of a way around it.  Mozzarella, parmesan, and ricotta can all play a role.  Cottage Cheese is not invited.  Think of cheese as the glue that holds the lasagna together.  Literally a layer of melted mozzarella  holds everything inside, like skin.  Inside other cheeses are at work, binding the flavours of the lasagna. 

    Inside the lasagna, cheese makes up one or more of the layers.  It glues the tomato sauce to the pasta.  My preference is to use a from scratch cheese bechamel sauce, in a 2/1 ratio of tomato sauce to bechamel.  Other people prefer ricotta for it's dryer texture and exceptionally mild flavour.  I have sometimes, preparing lasagna with ricotta, added small diced fontina cheese, giving it a somewhat denser texture and sharper flavour.

    To top the lasagna, Mozzarella is the cheese of choice.  There really isn't much t discuss.  I sometimes prefer to use slices of mozzarella as opposed to shreds.  this is for two reasons:  I feel that slices sometimes melt more evenly than the shreds, and store bought shredded cheese is very often cheese of leftover or inferior quality.  Any way you slice (or shred) it, be sure to cover the top of your lasagna in cheese.

For the Bechamel:  Bechamel is one of the French "Mother Sauces".  This one is technically a Mornay, or Bechamel with cheese.  Regardless of your views on international sauce politics, it tastes really good.  This basic recipe can be applied to just about any part of your life that needs some saucing up.
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup Flour
about 2 cups Milk
1/2 cup Parmesan Cheese, grated
white pepper
Melt butter in a medium temperature sauce pan.  Add flour and cook for 2 or so minutes, if it browns, you're doing in wrong.  After 2 minutes, begin to add milk, stirring constantly to prevent lumps.  Season to taste, add cheese and stir to incorporate.

A few notes with regards to cheese:  If you should choose to use ricotta instead of the bechamel, I recommend seasoning it with a little bit of salt and parsley.  It's just my personal preference.  Also, I sometimes vary the top cheese, adding provolone to shredded mozzarella

    Every lasagna must have pasta.  In modern times, there are three major options to satisfy this requirement: fresh pasta, dried pasta, and the pasta that is apparently somewhere in between.  The operative difference being that fresh pasta is made with time and effort and dried pasta is made with boiling water.  The "somewhere in between" pasta is apparently made with magic and fairy dust, as it requires no effort/time or boiling water.

      My preference for flavour and texture is to roll out sheets of fresh pasta.  This tends to take a little longer, be somewhat more difficult, and make a considerable mess.  The difference however is incredible.  Fresh pasta baked in a lasagna is perfectly tender, cannot be over or under boiled, and never burns your fingers in the assembly process.

    In a pinch I have used dried 'boil and build' pastas to some degree of success.  My biggest objections to dried pasta are the ridiculous patterns, ridges, waved edges, perforations, and zippers that are prominent in many commercial pastas.  If you decide to use dried pasta, leave the frills and lacy edges to your undergarments and choose a flat pasta.  Many dried pastas also seem to be be extra thick and dense.  This is a desirable characteristic of toilet paper, maybe not so much of pasta. 

    I recently tried, for the first time, using some of the magical 'in between' pasta.  It was quicker than making fresh pasta and exhibited a better texture than the dried pasta.  Except any exposed areas.  Any part of this 'magic pasta' that was not covered in sauce became extremely hard, with sharp edges, a generally dangerous eating experience.  Additionally, the pasta came in brittle sheets, awkwardly not the correct size for any of my baking pans.  Still, bearing these things in mind I would prefer the no-boil pasta to lace trimmed, too thick dried noodles.

Making fresh pasta:  Making fresh pasta at home is not especially difficult.  You don't need a pasta machine or fancy chef's hat.  Unless you want to look cool while you make pasta, then you need the hat.  Use this basic pasta recipe for any of your flat pasta needs.  Remember that if you're using it outside of a lasagna, fresh pasta cooks much faster than dried.
2 cups All Purpose Flour
3 Large Eggs
pinch of salt
Stir salt into flour and mound on a large board.  Depress the center of the mount and crack eggs into the center one by one, slowly incorporating with a fork.  Once eggs are incorporated, knead dough by hand until it's elastic and begins to stiffen.  Cover for about 30 minutes, then roll out into sheets.

    That's where Lasagna comes from.  What you tell your children is up to you, but remember, lasagna happens one layer at a time.  Some day your child may have a lasagna of their own.  No age is too young for a frank discussion of lasagna.

1 comment:

  1. I had the most amazing bolognese and bechamel lasagna at a restaurant once and I have never been able to duplicate it or find it elsewhere.

    I love, love bechamel sauce but I just cannot make it. No matter what I do it always ends up lumpy or curdled. My homemade mac and cheese is gross. Which is depressing because I am usually a very good cook!

    Anyway, this was a great and informative post! I'll try your recipe, it sounds great!