With a crunchy top and a creamy center, Lasagna Bolognese is the king of baked pastas. Our version adds fontina cheese to the béchamel with adds to the earthy richness.
Greetings, rebel scum!
Before we get into this week’s recipe, I want to make a clarification about last week’s post: the chocolate babka. You might remember that one of us (okay, it was me) declared it to be an excellent treat for either Easter or Passover, whichever was your preference. We were inundated with literally several letters pointing out that the babka is yeasted, and a traditional Passover, one might say, tends to skew towards the unleavened. The Hebrews fleeing Egypt weren’t, after all, told “Take what you have and scarper, there’s no time to let your bread rise, oh, unless you’re making babka or something, that would be awesome, oh, good work on the pyramids btw”. So, my apologies for that slip, and please tell Uncle Mort it won’t happen again.
This week’s dish is so much recipe – very so much recipe, wow – we actually had to enlist the help of a third Nerd, our most excellent and game friend Heather, who stayed with us this weekend and whose initial idea it was to make lasagna. Now, I made lasagna at uni – I think we all did – and it’s the easiest thing imaginable, you buy your jar of Ragu and a good cheap packet of dried lasagna, bit of cheese of some kind, Double Gloucester probably, cheddar will do at a pinch, bit of milk, nutmeg, there you have it, one lasagna, lovely.
(That sound you hear is Emily retching and then fainting).
Yeah, but no. Lasagna bolognese from scratch. Like, making the pasta and everything. Oh, that changes the game a bit, not quite so cocky now, are we, Mr Lasagna Expert? Fortunately, a couple of years ago Emily and I had taken a pasta-making class with Jennifer Clair’s Home Cooking school when she was running classes here in Beacon, and lasagna noodles is basically the first thing you make (before you cut the dough down into strips for linguine or fettucine, or into ravioli squares, which we totally did, you guys).
As we often do, we turned to the wisdom of internet (specifically, Smitten Kitchen, Anne Burrell and Bon Appétit) for the recipe, taking the best parts of each, as well as simplifying and putting our own spin on it. That meant that we could spend at least part of the Easter weekend down at our local farm education center watching sheep in labor, and of course, scoffing chocolate, and not be chained to the hot oven.
The pasta dough is actually really easy – it’s just flour, salt, and eggs. (Speaking of eggs, there’ll be an update shortly on the hens and the beautiful eggs they’ve been laying for us.) You can do it by hand, but it’s easiest to mix it all up in a food processor and let it sit, covered, for an hour. Add a little water if you need to (a couple of tablespoons at most), to get the dough coming together, but don’t overdo it else you’ll need to add more flour to the dough afterwards.
So you make the pasta, you make the bolognese sauce, and you make a béchamel, and it all gets layered together. But can I just skip to the end and tell you that this was the best lasagna I’ve ever had? I’ve had quite a bit of lasagna in my time, so I do speak with some experience. It is a lot of work though, and if you’re going to skip a step, you should probably skip making the noodles, but if you want to give it a go you should because it’s enormous fun. You will, though, need about twenty hands (we had six, but it didn’t seem to be quite enough) to feed the pasta through and turn the handle and catch the pasta at the other end and hold the machine down because it seems to be walking its way across the countertop by itself, and shooing the dog away from licking up the flour that’s now cascading all over the floor because flour is not good for dogs and ARGH ARYA don’t lick that noodle, we’d probably better make a fresh one. (serious PSA though: please don’t let your dog eat flour or raw dough, it seriously is bad for them.)
- You’ll notice that this recipe (and all traditional Lasagna Bolognese recipes) contains no mozzarella or ricotta. It doesn’t need it because the béchamel is so rich and creamy, but we decided to throw out the rulebook (or really just set it aside for a minute) and add Fontina cheese to our béchamel. Fontina is an Italian cow’s milk cheese and it has a silky, rich funkiness that I love, especially when melted. It doesn’t take over but it adds a little extra creamy oomph (technical term) to the dish that we all went bananas for.
- Another controversial element of this recipe; we do not boil our fresh pasta noodles. We rolled them quite thin and there was enough moisture in the bolognese sauce to cook them while the lasagna bakes. This saves a major step since the noodles have to be boiled individually and then iced to keep them from over cooking, and then oiled to keep them from sticking together.
- Our bolognese is just a little bit more tomato-ey than some. This is in order to give the sauce extra liquid to help cook those noodles. The sauce shouldn’t be watery, but it won’t be just meat with a little tomato essence added.
- We made the entire lasagna bolognese in one day but it’s much easier to break it up into two. Make the bolognese on day 1. Let it sit overnight in the refrigerator. Then on day 2, make the pasta and béchamel, assemble and bake. You could also assemble the lasagna and refrigerate it for a day and bake it off when you’re ready.
Lasagna Bolognese with Fontina Béchamel
For the bolognese:
- 1 large onion roughly chopped
- 1 large carrot roughly chopped
- 2 sticks of celery roughly chopped
- 4 cloves garlic roughly chopped
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb ground beef chuck
- 1 lb ground pork
- 4 oz. pancetta or bacon finely chopped
- 1 14.5- oz. can crushed tomatoes
- 1 6 oz can tomato paste
- 1 cup red wine
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 2 bay leaves
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the pasta (if you're making from scratch)
- 3 cups all-purpose flour plus more
- 4 large eggs room temperature
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
For the fontina béchamel:
- 1 stick 8 tbsp unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- 2 cups Fontina grated (about 6oz)
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 clove minced garlic
- Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups parmesan grated
- A pasta maker/roller see link in text above
To make the bolognese:
- Combine the vegetables and garlic in a processor and mix until they’re finely chopped (just a few pulses should do it).
- Heat a large Dutch oven or saucepan on the stovetop, add the oil, and once hot, add the vegetables and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook until soft and starting to brown a bit. (10-15 minutes).
- Add the pork and beef (and pancetta or bacon, if using) and cook until brown. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a spoon as you stir if it's getting dark. (15 mins). Stir in the tomato paste and cook for another few minutes. Add the liquid ingredients - red wine first, allowing to reduce for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes, milk and stock. Add the bay leaves.
- Simmer the sauce, uncovered, for 2 - 3 hours, stirring occasionally. You may need to add more chicken stock (or water) if the sauce starts to get too dry. When it’s done, fish out the bay leaves and leave to cool for 20 minutes (refrigerate when cool if assembling lasagna the next day).
For the lasagna noodles (if you’re making it yourself).
- Combine the flour, eggs and salt in a food processor. (You can do this by hand if you’re feeling enthusiastic!). Mix until it starts to come together (test it with your hands). If it doesn’t stick, add a little water (just a couple of teaspoons at a time). Remove from the processor and work it into a ball on a floured surface. Let rest for an hour under a bowl or in cling wrap at room temperature.
- Once it’s rested, separate into several equal pieces (about 1/2 cup each) and run them through your pasta roller. Start with the widest setting, running through at least a couple of times, before moving to the next level.
- When starting out, it’s better to work the dough through a few times on the widest setting (0 or 1). Run it through once, then refold the dough, turn it 90 degrees, and run it through again. Repeat a few times, and then just run it through at this setting without folding. You should start to feel the dough turning “plastic” and smooth. Once you get to this stage, move the rollers together one level and run it through again. You can add a little flour if the strip is sticking to the roller too much.
- Repeat a couple of times at each level before moving down to the next. Don’t be tempted to skip levels! We stopped at level 6 (out of 9) but your preference, expertise, and machine may vary.
- Lay the rolled noodle onto your floured surface and cut to fit your lasagna dish (probably around 10 inches). You can be very approximate with noodle lengths, since you can easily cut pieces to fit into a layer (nobody will know!)
- Stack the noodles between floured wax paper when you’ve made more than you can fit on your countertop.
To make the béchamel sauce:
- On medium heat, melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add the flour, stir and cook for a minute. Add 1/4 cup of the milk in a slow drizzle, whisking constantly until smooth. Add another 1/4 cup and whisk until smooth. Then add the rest and whisk again.
- Add the salt, garlic, nutmeg and few grinds of black pepper, bring the mixture to a lower simmer and cook, stirring frequently, for 5 minutes.
- Turn off heat and stir in fontina, a handful at a time, until melted (if it doesn't fully melt, turn on low heat and stir until just melted and smooth). Taste and adjust seasonings if needed.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
- In a 9×13-inch rectangular baking dish, spread 1/4 cup of the béchamel (to keep noodles from sticking to the bottom). Add the first pasta layer, cutting pieces as needed to fill the dish. Ladle 1 generous cup bolognese sauce over the noodles, spreading it evenly. Drizzle 1/2 cup béchamel over the bolognese (don't worry about smoothing it out) . Sprinkle the layer with 1/3 cup parmesan cheese.
- Repeat this process (pasta, bolognese, béchamel, parmesan) until the dish is filled (you might get 4 or 5 layers) and end with a layer of pasta. Spread over a 1/4 cup of the béchamel(or whatever you have left) and sprinkle 1/3 cup parmesan.
- Bake for around 40 minutes until bubbly and browned on top. Let t sit for at least 10 minutes before cutting. Serve with salad straight out of a box because honestly, you’ll be too exhausted to make anything else. And wine. Lots of wine.