It may not be considered the most exciting meal these days, but lasagne will forever be a dish close to my heart.
Believe it or not I was a painfully fussy eater when I was a child and lasagne was one of the few dishes I really enjoyed. Fuelled by an unhealthy affinity with Garfield the Cat, my youthful appetite for lasagne was as insatiable as that of the grumpy ginger feline himself! Whenever my mother asked what I wanted to have for a special occasion the answer was always the same: lasagne, lasagne, lasagne!
In a world obsessed with carb-cutting, the humble lasagne has become somewhat of a relic of family style cooking – a dish that your good old mum would make because she doesn’t know any better or hasn’t bought a new cookbook since 1985. A crying shame really, as this oven-baked Italian classic is a victim of its own popularity. Much like the equally misunderstood and shamelessly corrupted Spaghetti Bolognese, lasagne is in fact a dish of noble proportion and should be appreciated as such. Made well and with love, lasagne is truly a paragon of pasta perfection.
Rich and layered, lasagne is to food what a hot water bottle is to a winter’s bed: the ultimate comfort. To build the perfect lasagne each layer must be generous and distinct, a balanced ménage à trois of punchy ragu (meat sauce), cheesy béchamel sauce and silky pasta.
Lasagne also needs time to rest before serving. Allowing it to cool down will afford each layer the opportunity to solidify its presence in the overall dish and not be overwhelmed by the molten maelstrom of flavour that is a lasagne immediately after it’s taken out of the oven. At least half an hour is needed for everything to cool down although a couple of hours would be better, but overnight in the fridge would be ideal.
Lasagne reheats wonderfully in the microwave in just a few minutes or in an oven (covered in foil) at 180°C for about 15 minutes.
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Lasagne: Serves 6
- 250g packet of dried lasagne pasta sheets
- Dried oregano
- Fresh basil to garnish
For the Ragu (meat sauce):
- 2 tbsp. olive oil
- 500g minced beef, not too lean
- 100g unsmoked pancetta, lardon or bacon, very finely diced
- 75g carrot, finely grated
- 75g celery, very finely chopped
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- 50g tomato purée
- 1/2 glass red or white wine
- 180ml fresh milk
- Salt & pepper
For the Béchamel Sauce:
- 50g butter
- 50g plain flour
- 900ml full-fat milk
- Salt & pepper
- A pinch of nutmeg
- 100g mozzarella cheese, grated
Method for Ragu:
- Fry the pancetta/bacon gently in the olive oil until it starts to release its fat. Be careful not to let it burn.
- Add the carrots, celery and onions. Sauté until the onions are transparent and the vegetables are soft.
- Add the beef and cook until it is lightly browned.
- Add the tomato puree and then the wine. Cook until the wine evaporates completely.
- Add the milk, little by little until it is completely absorbed.
- Season with salt and pepper, cover and cook very slowly for at least an hour but preferably two.
- Stir occasionally and if it looks like drying out, add a little more milk
- Spoon off any excess oil that may rise to the surface
Method for Béchamel Sauce:
- In a medium sized saucepan, melt the butter over a medium heat
- Once the butter has melted completely, add the flour and stir for a couple of minutes until the flour cooks through
- Add a splash of milk and whisk to combine. Continue to add the milk a little at a time, making sure that the milk and flour amalgamate completely before adding more. Whisk thoroughly to prevent any lumps
- Once all the milk has been added, season with salt and pepper as well as a pinch of nutmeg
- Add the grated mozzarella and continue to whisk over a medium heat until the sauce coats the back of a wooden spoon
Assembling the Lasagne:
- Preheat the oven to 180°C
- In a deep rectangle oven dish, spread a quarter of the ragu
- Top with a quarter of the béchamel sauce and then layer with the pasta sheets
- Continue to build lasagne in this order until you have laid the third layer of pasta sheets
- Cover with the final quarter of ragu and finish with béchamel sauce
- Make sure that the final layers completely cover all the sheets of pasta
- Sprinkle the top of the lasagne with the dried oregano and an extra crack of fresh black pepper
- Bake in the oven for 20 minutes
- Take the cooked lasagne out of the oven and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes before serving
- Garnish with fresh basil and serve with a side salad or, if you are so inclined, chips