A Family Cookbook: Lasagna
To eat good food is to be close to God.
Primo, Big Night
I think it started sometime when I was eleven, when in addition to leaving me home alone my mom started to trust me with the charge of making dinner from time to time. Now “dinner”, for someone my age, was a fluid concept. More often than not it was one of those tin-foil bake lasagnas, the kind you leave on the counter to defrost, bake for an hour and set on the table as soon as your parents get home so you can beam in that childlike-kind-of-pride one gets out of simplified accomplishments. It made me feel the way an easy-bake oven might have, had I had one.
But the pride that comes from good lasagna, beloved lasagna, the kind that only comes out of a family cookbook and will be different for every lasagna lover depending on who makes it for them, is incomparable. I got a little taste of that this past Sunday when Robb’s nona Maria decided to hand over she’s been making for his family for over thirty years.
A few weeks earlier at a birthday dinner, she’d taken me out to her garden to point out how well her tomatoes were growing—an accomplishment in the season the fruit’s been having this year. And to tell me this: “I teach you how to make the lasagna,” she said.
Oh man. Here goes.
I should start by saying this is more a picture-book recipe than a step-by-step, and there will be close to no measurements. Nona Maria didn’t give me any. And yet somehow, it was easier to follow that way—just use the size of your pan as a guide to how much of each element you’ll need.
And speaking of elements, there’s really only four to this: a bolognese sauce, besciamella sauce, boiled sheets of pasta and grated cheese. Oh, and two to three spare hours to dick around in a kitchen.
Technically, this is one of two sauces you’ll be making for this dish. Why I call it the sauce? No clue. Most family recipes call for some sort of bolognese, and that’s what Nona Maria uses here, but that’s not to say a veggie version can’t be made or that you can’t use whatever type of tomato-based sauce you’re comfortable with. This isn’t the Ten Commandments of Lasagna.
The sauce was already waiting for us when we got to her place: a simple, simmered bolognese. Soften some onions in a butter/olive oil mix(“Brown, no,” Nona says, “gold is good”) and add a package of ground veal. Toss in some minced garlic once it’s rendered a bit (ten minutes?), and just before the garlic cooks through (four minutes?) add crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper and a bay leaf or two. Simmer for an hour and a half, set aside. Definitely a make-ahead, and keeps for a couple of days in the fridge. Or do it like Nigella and use the best stuff you can find out of a jar. I won’t tell.
When Robb’s dad was growing up, he says he remembers Nona Maria always making her pasta from scratch. For the past while though, she’s been making pretty bloody amazing lasagna from the dry stuff, but swears by Pirro, some Italian brand that she insists uses the most eggs. I’ve never seen it outside of Italian convenience stores, but may try a Highland Farms or Longo’s. Or go with what works for you.
Either way, boil up a lot of water. A lot a lot. And then salt it. I should point out here that this was the only time I’d ever been truly scared for my well-being in a kitchen. Nona Maria is a badass when it comes to this, and goes full-steam: that pot you’re looking you’re looking at in the picture? Was rumbling like a motherfucker, and burping out hot shots of water. I had to approach the thing like a rabid animal any time I went to stir the pasta.
Depending on the size and thickness of your pasta squares, you’ll want to adjust your boiling time. Nona Maria likes her pasta soft, and goes in for 20 minutes. Sounds unreasonably long I know, but trust her. It holds up well in the baking. In the last ten minutes or so, add just enough olive oil to bring down the bubbling.
Or as it’s better-known, béchamel, the mother of all sauces. I don’t know how much of an argument this is in Italy, but some will tell you that lasagna made without this is not really lasagna. Others, like Robb’s Nona Gianetta, see it as perfectly fine to make it without the ivory elixir and will add spinach, making what’s otherwise known as lasagna verde. Either way, this is easy stuff, people. Melt your butter (I used close to 3/4 of a cup), whisk in your flour (two handfuls for me) and once you’ve got that smoothed out, whisk in your milk, and fast. Or, at least, if you’re cooking at the breakneck temperatures Nona Maria does. Like I said, she cooks like a badass.
If you’re looking to give yourself a heart attack, you can at this point add cheese and make it a Mornay sauce. But don’t. Add some nutmeg instead.
Easiest part of the whole deal: grate a shitload of parmigiana-reggiano. You’ll need a block or two of good mozzarella too, but don’t grate it just yet: if you’re using a good moist type, pre-grating it will only make it extremely difficult to spread on the pasta when layering. Them shits clump together and don’t come apart! Better to grate it directly over the pan as you go.
It’s really up to you how much work you want to give yourself here. Once the pasta’s boiled, Nona Maria sets out each individual pasta sheet on a clean tablecloth to dry a little (“The sauce, it go better,” she says), and nimbly lifts each sheet up as she needs them for layering. I ripped a couple on my first tries, but it’s no big deal: the cheese will get to it anyway. Start with a few smears of bolognese on the bottom to keep shit from sticking, put your first sheet of pasta, and start alternating layers: two scoops of besciamella, two scoops of bolognese, an even coat each of mozzarella and parmigiana. Stop maybe a centimetre from the top of your pan, and make sure your last layer is the mozzarella: parm has a habit of burning.
Cover with tin foil and bake at 350 °C for thirty minutes. Remove foil, bake ten to fifteen minutes more, until the cheese is gold, bubbly, and looks so goddamn delicious you almost forget to put on your oven mitts to take the thing out of the oven. Not that I did this or anything, I’m just warning you.
It’ll make a regular Garfield out of any of you. Promise. But as a note, keep an lighter hand with the cheese than I did. I don’t want to be responsible for any cardiac-type incidents as a result.