This is my culinary Mount Everest. It took me five years to master this twenty-layer striation consisting of noodles, ragu, and bechamel, followed by four layers of cheese. Six years ago, I had no idea what lasagna was. Although I’d heard of lasagna, I wouldn’t say I liked it much because of the texture of the ricotta after it’s been baked. (Ricotta is, I would argue, best fresh, cold, and rich on toast. While cruising through an Italian food blog, I encountered a side thought in parentheses that made me stop dead in my track. It was like, “I don’t know who thought it up to put ricotta into lasagna, but… shudder.” I thought, but wait! What is supposed to be in lasagna? There was no answer.
Lasagna alla Bolognese has a lot of flavor. It may look like a simple mass of pasta, cheese, and tomato sauce, but there’s much more to it. Everything gets lots of love and patience to make it the way I dreamed. The ragu takes hours to cook. Although the bechamel is the easiest of the five “Mother Sauces,” it still requires several ingredients to be cooked in a specific order and separately. It’s unnecessary to use fresh pasta, but I thought that if I were going to do it, I would make it and wanted to have delicious, new sheets of pasta for the cast members I had so lovingly crafted. What about the cheese? Parmesan is the only cheese that I use. It’s not overwhelming.
Why did it take six years for me to conquer? I first had to find my dream ragu. I know everyone has their favorite bolognese — mine doesn’t have milk, or it may be a mixture of meats and not just beef. It’s cool to make your bolognese. I recommend Anne Burrell’s if you are still looking for a bolognese. You can enjoy this straight out of a bowl, without the pasta or white sauce. Today, however, we will not. [Note: I will add 2020 a new recipe for bolognese to the website.]
It took me a few tries to perfect the lasagna, even after I had found my ragu. I rolled the noodles too thinly and placed them on towels where they stuck. I failed miserably. This dish was meant for lunch at 2 pm in New Jersey, but Alex had to run to a Manhattan bodega to get a box of dried pasta. We’re still in touch. We had “lunch” almost at 8 pm that night. Other mishaps occurred; my recipes seemed out of balance or had unclear directions. One bechamel I made was too thin. The ragu was too thick, the white sauce too narrow, and there were too many noodles and insufficient instructions. This week, I got my recipe just as I had envisioned. I also hope that the level of detail will allow anyone to replicate it at home. You can still make it, even if, like me, you realized that you ran out of cheese in the last inning and had to run to a bodega for, I won’t talk about it, type of so-called Parmesan, even for me.
Here’s where you won’t believe me, but please consider this: This lasagna feels light, almost airy, or as close to a hearty dish as possible. It could be the lack of ricotta or mozzarella or even the thinness and lightness of the homemade pasta, but it has a decadent feel. It’s delicious but not overwhelming. You don’t have to take a nap immediately after eating. It’s miraculous. It’s a miracle. Let’s get started.
It is worth every minute you spend on it. Make the meat sauce at least a day before using it. Then, prepare the rest of the dish on the second day. It would be best to give yourself more time on the second day than you need. This way, you can enjoy the process and make the dish with love and leisure rather than rushing and having the wrong time. You’ll be happy you did. It’s an excellent project for a winter weekend. Two people can then enjoy this dish all week. The bolognese will be double what you need because I can’t in good conscience allow you to spend hours simmering sauce for only one lasagna. You can either freeze the excess or make another lasagna.
Note on authenticity: This dish brings out passionate chefs in large numbers. I’ve been told that you cannot call it bolognese if you simmer it for less than __ hours or that it can/can’t have tomato/milk/wine/only beef. Some will ignore the lack of color in the crust. (I spoke to my tiny oven about this). It’s incredible how we all care about our food and the many different ways that people prepare the same dish. My other favorite thing about cooking is that you are the only one in the kitchen and can cook your food exactly how you like it. You can adjust this recipe to suit your tastes by substituting some beef for other meats or using less wine or tomato paste.
2020 I will add a new recipe for bolognese to the website. Nowadays, I make lasagna instead. It uses less white wine than red and a lot less of it. There’s also a bit more milk and no thyme. Here, you will use all the bolognese.
One medium onion, roughly chopped (one-inch pieces are fine).
Chop coarsely 1 or 2 carrots (large or slim)
Celery, two ribs, coarsely chopped
Three cloves of garlic, coarsely chopped
Olive oil, 2 to 3 tablespoons
Freshly ground black Pepper
You can use 2 pounds of ground beef or 1 pound of each meat and pork if you like.
1 1/4 cups tomato puree (from two 6-ounce cans).
Red wine is best, but you can drink anything.
Water when needed
2 Bay Leaves
Few sprigs of thyme tied into a bundle
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Two large eggs
Half a teaspoon of acceptable sea salt or table salt
If needed, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water.
Unsalted Butter, 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons),
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups of whole milk
Table salt or acceptable sea salt, one teaspoon
One clove of minced garlic
Nutmeg freshly grated to taste
Freshly ground black Pepper