Friday, March 27, 2009

Lasagne Verdi dell'Emilia Romagna - Daring Bakers Challenge

I have to say, I was pretty surprised when this month's challenge was revealed. I was expecting a dessert or perhaps something St. Patrick's Day themed, but lasagne? And not just any lasagne, but spinach lasagne! Lasagne verdi (green lasagne) as they're called in Italian*, served with ragù and beschamel (besciamella) in true Emilia Romagna style. Yum!!

You would think that with all my experience making and eating pasta, I would have made lasagne before, but the fact is I almost never even eat lasagne, let alone make them. There isn't really a good reason for this - it's just not something that ever occurs to me. I actually don't think I ate lasagne one single time during the whole year and a half I lived in Italy. Of the lasagne I've eaten in the U.S. though, I have to say this one was far and away the best. Why? High-quality, fresh ingredients (which of course are the secret to making anything taste wonderful), and thin thin layers of everything - super-thin pasta topped with just enough ragù, besciamella, and parmesan to cover it, and then layer upon layer upon layer of the stuff!

Despite their incredible tastiness, I don't think I'll be making these again anytime soon - at least not unless someone gives me a pasta machine! I spent a little over an hour rolling out 18 strips of dough, trying to make them as thin as I could, and while the end result was delicious, my arm muscles are not happy about it!! Also, I highly recommend making the pasta in advance and then leaving it wrapped up tightly in the refrigerator overnight - unless you have a whole afternoon free, you'll be eating your lasagne at midnight if you start them when you come home from work!

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

I'll give the recipe below, along with my notes. I didn't quite follow the proportions for the pasta, and I made slightly different versions of the ragù and the besciamella, making the ragù a sort of amalgamation of several recipes I looked at online. Whenever I make an Italian recipe that I haven't made before, I go search around all the Italian websites I can find, because generally Italian recipes written in Italian are a bit different from Italian recipes in English. The measurements are often less precise, the verbs for describing what you're supposed to do are different, they can be quite strict about which ingredients to use and so on...

So without further ado, the recipe for lasagne verdi! My notes in purple as always

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot. *As stated above, I highly recommend making most portions of this ahead of time. It definitely makes the actual lasagne-making night less stressful!

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish.*I spread ragù on the bottom instead - I saw recipes that had you do it both ways and also recipes that had the pasta on the bottom, but this was the way that appealed to me most. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. *I made sure to poke some holes in all the layers of pasta with a fork to let out the steam. Not sure how much difference it made, but I'm sure it didn't hurt. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Layer 1

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:

Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). *I let it bake a little less time with the foil and a little more time without it, because I don't like my lasagne to be too moist. Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)

Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)
*Added a spoonful of salt

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. *I mixed the salt in with the flour too. Add the eggs and spinach.*I steamed the spinach first, which most of the recipes I looked at recommended. I squoze them dry before using, although I think I squoze them a bit too dry, because I had to add a few spoonfuls of water to get the dough to the right consistency. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

*I don't know if I was able to get my lasagne quite that thin, but they were about as thin as I could make them without my arms falling off! Instead of using the method described above, I cut of small sections of the dough and rolled them with my hands into long thin cylinders. Then I rolled the cylinders into strips. I ended up with 18 strips in all, which was enough to make 6 layers in my baking dish.

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

Lasagne hanging out to dry

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
*I left out the pepper and nutmeg

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped *Used 100 g prosciutto cotto instead
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma *Used 350 g. ground beef instead of the above 4 meats - I don't suppose it matters much, but that was what I had and most recipes I saw called for a mixture of ground beef and ground pork/sausage
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible) *Left out
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk *Left out
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained *Used a can of tomatoes (about 6 or 7) with their juices, plus a little dollop of triple-concentrated tomato paste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper. *I basically did what this recipe says, except obviously I left out the stock and the milk. Instead I added the tomatoes + juice at this point, and I let everything simmer about 2 hours (while I was dealing with the pasta), then added a bit of salt and pepper. The ragù smelled incredible, and I'll definitely be making some more soon so that I can eat it with just some plain spaghetti!

A final note from me: these lasagne are fantastic, but you really shouldn't serve them without a good red wine to accompany them! Sangiovese or Lambrusco are my recommendations.

*Note that 'lasagne' is a plural form. The singular would be lasagna, but that would refer to one sheet of pasta instead of the whole thing. In Italian, different types of pasta are almost always plural (e.g., spaghetti, ravioli, gnocchi), and my feeling is that if you're going to use another language's word for something, you may as well use it correctly!


Namratha said...

Your lasagna looks good! And boy tell me about the rolling...but I think it was worth every strained muscle :D

Jacque said...

Mmm, yours looks yummy! and more "juicy" than the given recipe, it seems.

Do you have a Micael's craft store out there in CA? They have hand-crank pasta machines in the polymer clay aisle (pasta machines are used in polymer clay art). If you've got a 40% off coupon... it makes it pretty cheap, can't remember exactly but maybe $10-15. Well worth it for hand made pasta and saving your arms. That's what I used and I was thanking my lucky stars I had it.

Anyway, great job!

Zoe said...

Hmm, perhaps it is because I used a can of tomatoes + juice instead of just 3 tomatoes like the recipe said? I'm not sure, but anyways, there is a Michael's somewhere around here - if I end up making lasagne again, I'll definitely look into it - thanks for the tip!!

ice tea: sugar high said...

hahaha.. i think my hands are not totally recovered from the rolling. Great job on your lasagne!

rainbowbrown said...

Looks great - wonderfully done!

ice tea: sugar high said...

Hi Zoe,

Thanks for your comments. I used a combination of good quality mature aged cheddar and smoked cheddar. The smoked cheese gives the lasagna more oompfh, but it is only for serious cheese lover. =)

Zoe said...

Yum, that sounds delicious! I am definitely a serious cheese lover (could you tell by the title of my blog =)? ), so I will have to try this out!

oneordinaryday said...

You did great with the challenge. I love that you explained the spelling and definition of "lasagne" too. Great job.

Lisa Lou said...

Great looking lasagne, and fabulous instructions. I love your notes in purple. I love it when someone personal suggestions. It just really helps someone else replicate the recipe. I loved this challenge and I loved the homemade pasta. I'm going to make it again. I can always use a good arm workout! Way to go! Lisa

TeaLady said...

That looks so yummy. I love lasagna and any type of pasta and making it by hand was fun. Great job on this challenge.

Lauren said...

good job! the top of it looks amazing! i agree, have a glass of vino to go with it ;)