‘Mama, I liked our dinners in Florence MUCH more than the ones here are home!’, says my daughter, 4 y.o., as I slave away in the kitchen making the fifth meal of the day.
I guess I should be happy that my kids are not fussy eaters when on the road, but I cannot deny that this kind of comment gets to me. The fact is: she is right. Florence spoiled us with amazing food and no matter how hard I try, it is difficult to replicate in my kitchen the flavours bursting with freshness we experienced during our Italian summer vacation.
Today, though, my family is in for a treat: I am making the one dish that I can confidently say it tastes as good here in Ireland as it did in Italy: my tried and tested delicious lasagna with homemade bolognese and bechamel sauce.
Lasagna (or lasagne, plural, as we called them in Italy) are one of those dishes that evoke Sunday lunches and festivities. While present in many restaurant menus, lasagne are mostly something we Italians eat at home: each region, each household I should say, has its own way of making them and if you ask locals where they tasted their favourite lasagne, the answer is like to be ‘at my granny’s’.
The reason behind these many variations is the history of this dish.
The very first mention of lasagne dates back to Roman times: they first appear in the recipe collection of Apicio, the famed cook from the I century a.D. who mentions them as a pastiche of layers of a flour and water dough and meat and, since then, they developed into a more complex and refined dish. In the middle ages, Italian poets mention lasagne as made with cheese and finally, between the XIV and the XVIII century, the two ingredients we now associate the most with lasagne took hold: egg-pasta (from Emilia) and tomato sauce (from Naples).
The version of lasagne that is better known abroad, and the one I personally make at home, comes for Bologna. I love them and I find them truly delicious: they are tasty, delicate and once you have mastered the art of these, then you can experiment with the variations: do you like cheese? Add ricotta or provolone. Do you prefer pesto? Then try lasagne al pesto from Liguria. Are you a vegetarian? Substitute meat with vegetables of your choice.
Here is my best real Italian lasagne recipe
Ingredients for the bolognese sauce (ragu):
- Olive oil to coat the pan
- 1 small/medium onion (about 60 gr)
- 1 carrot
- 1/4 celery stalk
- 250 gr minced lean beef
- 250 gr minced pork
- 1/2 small glass of white wine
- 250 ml Passata (sieved tomato sauce)
- Milk: about 50 ml
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Water, about 2 cups
Ingredients for the bechamel sauce:
- 100 gr butter
- 100 gr plain white flour
- 1L milk (room temperature)
- A dash of grated nutmeg (I personally prefer a bay leaf, but I suggest you experiment to see what works best for you)
- Grated Parmesan cheese: about 200 gr
- About 21 small sheets of lasagna (dried, you don’t need to make them from scratch)
Tools: you will need two pans (one for the sauce and one for the bechamel), one tray 20cm x 30cm, wooden spoons and whisk
Start preparing your bolognese sauce: Chop up your onion, carrot and celery stalk into very small pieces and mix well. In a non-stick pan, heat up some olive oil and toss in your vegetables: let them cook on slow heat, mixing often so that they cook evenly.
When soft, add into the same pan the beef and the pork. Mix well to make the meat seal: don’t worry if you see that the meat looks a little bit dry: the original bolognese sauce is not very watery and this is one of the reasons why it packs such a punch when it comes to flavour!
Once the meat is sealed, add the wine and mix well: make sure you let the whole of the wine evaporate and, once this is done, add you passata. Italian cuisine is not wasteful, so if you see that passata is sticking to the sides of your jar or carton, add some clean water to lift it up and add to your sauce. Add some more water, about one or two generous cups, mix well and let the sauce cook on low heat for at least two hours. While the sauce is cooking, check that it doesn’t dry out excessively: if it does, add water but make sure it has evaporated almost completely before you take your sauce off the heat.
Once your sauce is almost ready, you can start your bechamel. In a non-stick pan, on low heat, melt your butter and slowly add flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon so that the butter and the flour from a ball that ‘cleans’ the bottom of the pan. Then, add slowly your milk, mixing well with a wooden spoon or a whisk to avoid lumps. Add a sprinkle of grated nutmeg or a bay leaf (personally, I prefer the latter) and let the bechamel cook for a few minutes until it starts to solidify and becomes creamy in texture. Taste and adjust with salt.
Taste your tomato sauce, adjust with salt and pepper, add s small cup of milk and take off the heat.
The biggest part of your work is done! Now all you need to do is to assemble the dish: make sure you get your kids to help – layering the pasta is fun and give them great satisfaction to then see the final result!
In a small try, start layering up: one layer bechamel (spread well over the bottom of the tray), one of lasagna sheets, then again bechamel, bolognese sauce, parmesan and lasagna, in this order. Repeat the process until you use all the ingredients and all the lasagna sheets. With this kind of tray, you should get 6 layers: the top one will be made of bechamel and sauce.
Put the assembled lasagne in a pre- heated oven and let cook for about 20 minutes at 180 degrees C. For best results, I cover the lasagna tray with tin foil while cooking and, once ready, leave it to rest, cover, to allow flavours to settle. Lasagne can be eaten straight away but is also delicious the day after, making the perfect made-in-advance dish!