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True Italian Lasagna

Beth Ribblett

Lasagna in Italy, not the cheesy, saucy stuff we make here in the US, is a very involved process.  It all starts with a soffritto, followed by a meat ragu and if you REALLY like the people you are cooking for, you make the pasta.  It is the only way to achieve the thin, thin layers that melt in your mouth and help give the lasagna its light texture.  But it is a labor of love that takes patience and proper timing.

The first time I had this amazing dish was in Tuscany last year on our wine and food tour.  Antonio's sister knows an Italian nonna who is in her 80's and makes the best lasagna you've ever eaten.  She made us two big pans that arrived at our villa still warm from the oven, and we served outside in the garden with some delicious Cortona red wines.  It takes her 2 days to make it, and now having done it myself, I know why.

I've been doing a series of posts on the recipes for the soffritto, the ragu, the pasta and the besciamella; now it's time to put it all together!  It's best to make this over a two day period....the links to the recipes are highlighted in orange below.

First Day
Step One:  Make the Soffritto
Like the Holy Trinity of New Orleans cuisine, a "soffritto" is the starting point for many Italian soups, sauces and stews. While locally we use equal parts onion, celery and green peppers, in Italy the base is usually a combination of carrots, onion and celery with the proportions of each depending on what you are cooking.

To begin to make the meat ragu, I first need the soffritto.  Using the recipe in Frances Mayes new Tuscan Sun cookbook, I began the long journey to tomorrow's lasagna!

First Day

Step Two:  Make the Ragu
Every cook in Italy has their own ragu recipe, variations on a theme of ground mixed meats, tomatoes, soffritto, herbs and spices.  But one thing that remains constant is the love and care that goes in to making the perfect ragu.  I don't claim to have achieved it yet, but I've learned a few tricks along the way that have helped me get a wonderfully flavorful sauce that can be used in many dishes.  I like to make a big pot, use some and freeze the rest for a quick tagliatelle on a busy day.

Second Day
Step Three:  Make the Dough
I have two pasta dough recipes that I use on a regular basis, one is from Lidia Bastianich, the other is from Francis Mayes.  I like them both equally as much, but when I made the lasagna I used Frances Mayes and I thought the texture and pliability of this dough was ideal for achieving the thin sheets needed for this dish.  The ingredients vary ever so slightly and the process is the same.  I use a kitchen aid mixer for the initial blending, kneed the dough by hand and after it has rested I use the pasta attachment for my mixer to roll the sheets. In this post I'll take you to the point where the dough is resting, before you roll it.

Second Day
Step Four:  Make the Besciamella
So your dough is currently resting and you have time to make your besciamella before we start assembling the dish.  Either of these recipes will give you the desired affect of adding a wonderful creaminess to your layers of lasagna, read through them both and decide what you have the energy for!

Step Five:  Assembling the Lasagana

Remaining Ingredients
-1 lb fresh egg pasta dough resting
-5 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated
-2-5 oz. balls of mozzarella
-a handful of fresh sage leaves
-olive oil

-Preheat you oven to 350 degrees F and butter a large baking dish. Put a big pot of salted water with a good glug of oil on the stove for the pasta.

-Reheat your  ragu and put keep your white sauce on the stove at a very low heat,  to keep it warm and make it easier to work with.

-Roll out your pasta dough
Rolling the dough with a pasta machine (I used the Kitchen Aid attachments). Cut the ball of dough into 6 equal pieces. Shape each piece into a rectangle about 5x3 inches. Lightly flour the pasta rectangles and cover them with a kitchen towel. Set the rollers of the pasta machine to the widest setting. Pass one of the pasta rectangles through the rollers long side first, then pass it though the rollers a second time. Keep the dough lightly floured-just enough to prevent if from sticking to the rollers. Reduce the width by one setting and pass the piece of dough through the rollers again. Support the dough with your hand as it comes through the rollers-don't pull it though, or the dough will shrink so it is narrower than the width of the rollers.

Continue working with the piece of dough and reducing the width one setting each time until the dough has been passed through to the proper setting. (Each pasta machine is different. I finish with the next to the thinnest one);You want to roll out strips of pasta that are about 3 x 10 inches depending on the size of your pan. I made mine a little longer and wider to accommodate the round shape of my pan.  Always keep the pieces of dough that aren't being rolled covered with a towel. If you find the dough is very elastic, let all pieces rest for 5 to 10 minutes before continuing.

When you have rolled one of your pieces of dough into the correct size, blanch 2 strips at a time in the boiling water and cover the bottom of the baking dish with pasta strips, letting them hang over the edges.  Put down a layer of meat sauce, then some white sauce and a sprinkling of fresh Parmesan.  Roll and blanch another piece of dough and continue to repeat the process until you run out of ragu. But keep back enough white sauce for a final layer on top.

Fold the over the pasta ends from the edges and top with the white remaining sauce. Sprinkle with Parmesan, tear the mozzarella over the top, scatter your sage leaves and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the preheated over for 45 minutes or so until golden.

Prepare to "wow" your friends and family...

All of this effort deserved a fine wine so we opened a gorgeous 2001 Castelgiocondo Brunello di Montalcino signed by the Marchesi di Frescobaldi himself when he was in the shop one day way back when...