Halfway through the parboiling of the pasta, thoughts rise up, like wisps of steam from the pot of hot water over which I am hovering as I work to corral slippery lasagna sheets onto a skimmer and into a bowl of ice water. The sheets keep sliding back into the pot, causing hot water to splash.
Those thoughts are: Why am I doing this? Is it worth the considerable time and effort, not to mention the inevitable mess, required to make lasagna from scratch? In addition to making, rolling out, cutting and precooking the fresh pasta, there is the making of the sauce — or sauces, since the particular lasagna I’m making calls for both meat sauce and a bechamel — plus the prepping of other filling ingredients, and the assembly of the thing. Also, the cleanup. Don’t I have better things to do with my time?
Fair questions. After all, we live in the age of the Instant Pot. Meals that once took hours to prepare can now be ready in minutes, including lasagna. Yes, there are recipes for Instant Pot lasagna; just open a box of no-boil noodles, a jar of sauce and a container of ricotta cheese, layer them in your high-tech vessel, lock the lid into place and cook. Simplicity rules in the kitchen these days. Social media continuously points us toward “the best recipe” for this, or “the only recipe you’ll ever need” for that. The hard work is done, the tweaks have been made, the guesswork taken out. Just follow the link to achieve home-cooking perfection.
I get it. Like any working person, I rely on one-pot meals and simple recipes that deliver a lot for minimal effort to get me through the week. And yet, I hope we haven’t completely lost the desire to challenge ourselves in the kitchen, to tackle recipes like homemade lasagna that take time and effort and a certain amount of learned skill. These recipes provide us with a vital connection to the cooking process, and mastering them bestows upon the cook a real sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, the long way is the right way.
Real lasagna is a culinary marvel, if you think about it. It combines the richest of ingredients — egg pasta, hearty sauce, cheese — in multiple layers (generally between six and 12) that are then fused together in a hot oven. The delicate, paper-thin layers are sandwiched with a judicious amount of sumptuous filling so that the pasta and filling get equal billing. When you slice into it, your fork glides through the layers with hardly any effort. In your mouth, that bite of that lasagna is airy, almost weightless, a complete contradiction to what you know its components to be. It bears little resemblance to those shortcut lasagnas that are mostly meat and sauce and cheese separated by a few layers of dense frilly-edged noodles from a box.
I don’t make lasagna every day, or even once a month. Lasagna is not a weeknight dish, nor was it ever meant to be. Even in Italy, lasagna is special-occasion fare, something you might make to ring in the New Year or celebrate Carnival, or for a loved one’s birthday or anniversary.
I grew up on my mom's lasagna alla Bolognese, composed of emerald green spinach noodles layered with robust ground meat sauce and creamy bechamel. To many Italian food lovers, this is the ideal against which all others are measured. But the world of lasagna is wide and diverse, and over the years I've expanded my repertoire. I have a soft spot for classic "southern Italian" lasagna, that over-the-top concoction that combines meat sauce, sausage or mini meatballs (or both), ricotta and mozzarella. I also love lasagna alla Genovese, a pared-down affair, with pesto taking the place of ragù. Some years ago, in search of a hearty vegetarian lasagna, I came up with a version that alternates roasted mushrooms, sauteed greens and cheese.
Lasagna can be traditional, contemporary, regional, seasonal, whimsical, plain or fancy. Its appeal is not in question. The issue is how to make it manageable. A recipe for from-scratch lasagna might be three recipes in one — the pasta, the sauce and the lasagna itself. But just because it’s challenging doesn’t mean it’s inaccessible or not worth the effort. Just break it down into steps and pace yourself:
●Start with the sauce, and make your own, which will always be better than anything you buy. Making sauce is easy, but it takes time, especially if it's a long-simmered meat sauce. You can do this a couple of days ahead of assembling the lasagna and refrigerate it, or weeks ahead and store it in the freezer.
●Make the pasta. Mix the dough in the food processor and use a hand-crank pasta machine or the pasta rolling attachment of your mixer to roll out the sheets. Cut the lasagna strips and let them sit out for an hour or two to partially dry, then stack them and store them in the freezer. I don't recommend leaving lasagna sheets out to dry completely, as they are prone to curling, cracking and breaking.
Is store-bought pasta an option? Marcella Hazan, the grande dame of Italian cooking, wrote that lasagna “is never, but simply never, made with anything but homemade pasta dough.” I agree with her, but you may not. The answer is, sure you can use commercial pasta, but the finished lasagna won’t be as delicate without those fine sheets. Option 1: Look for fresh egg pasta sheets in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. These will be closest to homemade. Option 2: Use good-quality dried lasagna sheets. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for parboiling, and make fewer layers than if using your own homemade pasta. Option 3: No-boil noodles are a last resort, in my opinion. When baked, they have a flabby consistency and no flavor.
●Assemble. The only onerous part of this step is the parboiling of the pasta, which has to be briefly cooked, plunged into ice water, then laid out. It's messy and tedious, and it's the only point at which I question whether I am wasting my time. There is an ongoing debate as to whether the pasta sheets — whether fresh or store-bought — need to be boiled at all, because they will soften and cook in the oven by absorbing sauce. It depends, of course, on how saucy your sauce is. For example, the no-cook method would not work with Genovese lasagna, which has very little liquid. Beyond that, I find that parboiling helps to set the texture of the pasta by cooking it evenly, and prevents it from becoming sticky when baked.
Once the pasta has been parboiled and all the components are laid out and ready, it’s just a matter of layering them in a baking dish. The key here is not to overload; lasagna is a balance between pasta, sauce and fillings.
●Freeze it. I recommend you get all the work done ahead of time and freeze the unbaked lasagna so you have only to defrost and bake it for New Year's or whatever your special occasion. Bake it until you can hear it bubbling inside, and until the top is browned, the corners are curled up and slightly crunchy.
Finally, slice it, serve it and enjoy it with your guests knowing that, yes, your effort was worth it.
Marchetti is the author of, most recently, "Preserving Italy: Canning, Curing, Infusing, and Bottling Italian Flavors and Traditions" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016). She'll join Wednesday's live chat with readers at noon, at live.washingtonpost.com.
8 to 10 servings
MAKE AHEAD: The pesto and bechamel sauce can be refrigerated a day or two in advance. The pasta should be made the same day it is used. The assembled, unbaked lasagna can be wrapped (in its baking dish) in plastic wrap and then in aluminum foil, and frozen for up to 1 month. Defrost at room temperature or overnight in the refrigerator. Remember to remove the plastic wrap and re-cover with foil before baking.
Recipes from cookbook author Domenica Marchetti.
For the pesto Genovese
5 tablespoons pine nuts
3 cups packed fresh basil leaves, preferably young and tender
2 cloves garlic, cut into a few pieces
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for covering the pesto
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheeses, or a mix
For the lasagna
1 pound Fresh Spinach Pasta for Lasagna (may substitute Fresh Egg Pasta for Lasagna; see related recipes)
3 cups Bechamel Sauce, warmed (see related recipe)
12 ounces fresh, whole-milk ricotta cheese, well drained
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
½ cup freshly grated pecorino Romano cheese
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, at room temperature, for the pan
Salt, for the pasta cooking water
For the pesto Genovese: Place the pine nuts in a small, dry skillet and toast over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, shaking the pan often, until nuts are lightly browned. Let cool. Reserve 2 tablespoons to garnish the lasagna.
Pack the basil in a food processor, then add the garlic, 3 tablespoons of the toasted pine nuts and the coarse sea salt. Pulse until coarsely chopped. Gradually pour in the oil; puree to form a paste. Scrape the pesto into a bowl, then stir in the cheese. Press a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the surface of the pesto. The yield is 1 packed cup.
For the lasagna: Spread a clean tablecloth on a table or clean, flat surface near the stove. Have ready the uncooked pasta, bechamel, pesto and cheeses.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly grease a 9-by-13-inch lasagna or baking dish (or 2 smaller baking dishes) with the butter.
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and salt generously (as in, 3 or 4 pinches of salt). Set a large bowl of ice water near the stove for briefly immersing the cooked parboiled lasagna noodles.
Carefully drop in 4 or 5 lasagna noodles at a time, taking care not to crowd the pot. Boil for about 1 minute; the noodles cook quickly and should be slightly underdone. Use a large skimmer to transfer them to the ice-water bath. Swish them around, then use the skimmer to transfer them to the tablecloth, where you will spread them out flat. Continue until you have cooked all the noodles. Stir a little of the hot pasta water into the pesto to loosen it to a spreading consistency.
Spread a thin layer of the bechamel in the bottom of the lasagna dish. Arrange a single layer of noodles over the sauce. Spread a second layer of bechamel over the noodles, and top with about one-fifth of the thinned pesto. Dollop one-fifth of the ricotta on top of the pesto and use a spoon to spread it out a bit (it doesn’t have to cover the entire surface). Sprinkle about one-sixth of the Parmigiano and/or pecorino on top. Gently press a second layer of noodles on top, followed by more bechamel, pesto, ricotta and grated cheeses. Continue with three more layers of noodles, bechamel, pesto and grated cheese. Make a final (sixth) layer of noodles and top with the remaining bechamel. Sprinkle the remaining cheeses on top, then scatter the reserved 2 tablespoons of pine nuts on top of the lasagna.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake (middle rack) for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more; the lasagna should be heated through with a nicely browned top. Let sit for 5 minutes before serving.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 10): 440 calories, 16 g protein, 24 g carbohydrates, 31 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 80 mg cholesterol, 820 mg sodium, 1 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
1 serving pound (enough for 1 large 9-by-13-inch lasagna or 2 smaller pans)
A pasta rolling machine is helpful here; the author uses a hand-cranked Marcato Atlas machine.
MAKE AHEAD: The pasta dough needs to rest for 20 to 30 minutes. The pasta is best used the same day it is made.
2 to 2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon semolina flour, plus more for dusting
½ teaspoon fine salt
3 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Combine 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, 1 tablespoon of the semolina flour and the salt in a food processor; pulse to incorporate. Pour in the eggs and 1 tablespoon of the oil. Pulse just long enough for the mixture to resemble small curds. Pinch together a bit of the mixture; it should form a soft ball. If it seems dry, add the remaining tablespoon of oil and pulse briefly to incorporate. If the dough seems sticky, add more flour, a tablespoon at a time, and pulse to incorporate.
Sprinkle a little of the remaining all-purpose flour on a clean work surface and turn the dough mixture out onto it. Bring it together to form a rough mass and knead for several minutes, until smooth, incorporating only as much flour as necessary to form a firm, smooth ball. Wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes.
Set up a pasta-rolling machine or a mixer with a pasta-roller attachment, with the rollers on the widest setting. Dust the work surface around the machine with semolina and keep more on hand for sprinkling on the dough as needed.
Cut the dough into 4 equal quarters and rewrap three. Flatten the remaining piece of dough and feed it through the machine. Lay it on the work surface and fold it in thirds, like a business letter. Sprinkle with a little semolina and feed it through the rollers again. Continue to fold and feed the dough through the widest setting two more times. Move the roller setting to the next narrower notch and feed the dough through this setting twice. Continue to pass the dough through the rollers twice on each setting until you have a strip that is about 28 inches long and about 1/16 -inch thick — setting #6 on a Marcato Atlas hand-cranked machine. You should be able to see the shadow of your hand through the sheet.
Sprinkle a little semolina flour on a baking sheet and lay the pasta sheets there as you work.
To cook the pasta, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil over high heat and salt generously (as in, 3 or 4 pinches of salt). Set a large bowl of ice water near the stove for briefly immersing the cooked parboiled lasagna noodles. Spread a clean tablecloth on a table or clean, flat surface near the stove.
Carefully drop in 4 or 5 lasagna noodles at a time, taking care not to crowd the pot. Boil for about 1 minute; the noodles cook quickly and should be slightly underdone. Use a large skimmer to transfer them to the ice-water bath. Swish them around, then use the skimmer to transfer them to the tablecloth, where you will spread them out flat. Continue until you have cooked all the noodles. Use right away.
Nutrition | Per two-ounce serving: 170 calories, 6 g protein, 25 g carbohydrates, 5 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 90 mg cholesterol, 170 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Makes 3 cups
MAKE AHEAD: The sauce can be refrigerated for up to three days in advance. Reheat it in a saucepan over low heat, adding milk if needed to loosen it to a pouring consistency.
3 cups whole or low-fat milk (2 percent)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup flour
1 teaspoon fine salt
Freshly ground white or black pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Bring the milk just to a boil in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then remove from the heat.
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring vigorously, for two minutes. Gradually add the hot milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps and scorching (the mixture will break apart at first but will eventually turn smooth). Cook the sauce for 10 to 13 minutes, stirring often, until thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste and season lightly with the salt and pepper and the nutmeg, then remove from the heat.
Use right away, or cool, transfer to a container and refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Nutrition | Per cup: 300 calories, 9 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 20 g fat, 13 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 960 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
Recipes tested by Domenica Marchetti; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
More from Food: