To my extended family, not many sights are as welcome as a bubbling pan of lasagna emerging from the oven. We used to enjoy cheese-laden lasagna the way many folks do, but after trying a version that traded the mozzarella and ricotta for a creamy bechamel and just a hint of parmigiano reggiano, there is no turning back for us. In this iteration, the bechamel lends a light, velvety creaminess to handmade pasta and bolognese, resulting in possibly the most luxurious lasagna that has ever passed your lips.
This dish, my friends, is not quick weeknight cooking. It is a labor of love, something you cook on a snowbound weekend or for a special occasion. It’s leisurely yet involved, forgiving yet demanding, and totally worth every last second you put into it. You can choose to make one large lasagna or a few small ones. For assembly, I don’t give set amounts on how much of the bolognese and bechamel to use in each layer as the pan size will dictate that; just keep in mind that you want enough liquid for the pasta to absorb and have a bit left over between the layers, but not so much that your finished dish will be swimming in sauce.
For the bolognese:
3 tablespoons butter
3 medium carrots, peeled and minced
One half of a large, softball-sized onion, minced
2 stalks celery, minced
3 fat cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork
1 heaping cup tomato paste
2 1/2 cups dry red wine
Several cups of homemade chicken stock
For the pasta:
2 cups all-purpose flour
Several pinches salt
Water, as needed
For the bechamel:
4 tablespoons butter
6 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly grated nutmeg
Additionally, a few cups of freshly shredded Parmigiano Reggiano cheese (use the good stuff, please)
Day 1: Make the Bolognese
1. In a large, heavy bottomed pot, melt the butter over medium high heat. Add the carrots, onion, celery, garlic, black pepper, and several heavy pinches of salt and cook until golden brown.
2. Add the beef and pork to the pot and brown the meat thoroughly. Add the tomato paste and cook for 5 minutes more, stirring occasionally, then add the wine and stir. If the wine doesn’t cover the meat, add enough chicken stock to the pot so that the meat is just covered, then bring to a simmer.
3. For the next two and a half hours, you won’t have much to do other than to keep an eye on the liquid level and maintain it at just above the meat by adding more stock as needed. Stir the sauce occasionally, and taste it along the way. It’s fun to taste how the flavor changes and deepens as the sauce cooks. Taste how the raw wine flavor cooks off and the wine turns rich, how the vegetables turn slightly sweet, and how everything melds together as the bolognese cooks.
4. Once the sauce is done, taste and add salt as needed. It will need a fair amount before it is right. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for three days, or for several months in the freezer.
Day 2: Finish the Lasagna
Make the pasta dough:
1. On a clean working surface, pile the flour into a mound and make a well in the center. Sprinkle the salt over the flour. Crack the eggs into the well and, using a fork, briefly beat the eggs. Now, get messy: slowly work the flour into the eggs, using the fork to gradually pull more flour into the center well as you beat the eggs. Once about half of the flour is worked in and the dough is thick enough to work with your hands, put down the fork and use your hands to knead the rest of the flour in.
2. Once all the flour is incorporated, knead the dough for ten minutes or until the dough is soft, supple, smooth, and elastic. You may need to add a water to the dough if it is too dry, a tablespoon at a time. Alternatively, if the dough is too sticky, add small amounts of flour as needed. Flatten the dough into a disc, wrap tightly in plastic wrap, and let sit on the counter at room temperature for an hour.
Roll and cut the pasta:
1. Once the dough has rested for an hour, place a large pot of salted water on the stove over high heat and line a sheet pan with wax paper. Unwrap the dough and place it on a floured work surface. Cut the disc in half and set one half aside.
2. Using a rolling pin, roll the other half of the disc into a thin sheet. If it sticks to the counter or rolling pin, don’t fret- just add a bit more flour where necessary and continue rolling. You want to roll the dough as thin as you can roll it while still being able to pick it up and handle it without much difficulty. It should be bordering on translucent, but not quite there. Using a sharp knife, cut the pasta into rectangles or squares, then transfer one at a time to the wax paper- lined sheet pan, leaving space between each piece. Once you have a single layer of pasta, place another sheet of wax paper on top of it and transfer the rest of the pasta. Repeat with the remaining half disc of dough.
Boil the pasta:
1. For this next step, I like to grab the whole stack of wax paper and pasta and remove it from the sheet pan, bringing it to the closest free counter space to the pot of water. Wipe a thin layer of oil on the sheet pan, then grab a large bowl full of ice water and place it beside the sheet pan. Have a mesh strainer with a handle ready to use.
2. Working with 4-6 pieces at a time, place the pasta in the pot of boiling water and cook for 1 1/2-2 minutes. Using the mesh strainer, remove the pasta reform the water and dump into the ice bath. Use the handle of the strainer to give it the pasta a quick stir and let it sit for a few seconds (while the pasta is cooling in the ice bath, you can add more pasta to the pot and let it start cooking, then pat yourself on the back for your time management skills). Remove the pasta from the ice bath, drain, and then place the pasta on the oiled sheet pan with the same idea as before: single layer, space between each, stacking the single layers of pasta with wax paper between them.
Make the bechemel:
1. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat and then add the flour, whisking to combine. Continue whisking until you have a smooth paste, then cook for a couple minutes more (this helps remove the raw flour taste). Start adding the milk, a couple tablespoons at a time, whisking constantly. Once about half of the milk is added, you can add the rest in a steady stream while whisking with the other hand. Add the salt and several rasps of fresh nutmeg (use a microplane grater or the fine shredding holes on a cheese grater), then lower the heat to just below a simmer and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring frequently, making sure you are scraping the bottom of the pan with the spoon to discourage any scorching. You should end up with a sauce that has nice body to it and can coat the back of a wooden spoon fairly thickly, but can still be easily drizzled from a spoon.
Assemble the lasagna:
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Spread a small amount of bechamel on the bottom of your pan (use either a 9×13 pan or variously sized smaller pans), just enough to moisten it, then place pasta in a single layer over the bechamel. Don’t worry if there is a bit of overlapping or if you have to cut the pasta to make it fit- no one is going to see that in the finished lasagna. Spoon some bolognese over the pasta (see head note about this), then bechamel, then a moderate handful of cheese. Repeat this as much as your pan size will allow, ending with a layer of pasta. To finish the lasagna, spread an even layer of bechamel over the top layer of pasta, followed by a generous layer of cheese. Bake until golden brown and bubbling. Timing on this will be determined by pan size and the starting temperature of your ingredients, but my 2 quart pan usually takes 30 minutes and my 9×13″ pan can take about 45 minutes. Once the lasagna finishes cooking, remove it from the oven and let it stand for 20 minutes before serving.