Cooks treat the year-end holidays like recess. Time slows and rules evaporate. Experimentation increase. Role play moves creativity like water in a waterwheel. Family recipes are brought to life once more as recipe cards emerge from their tin coffins.
Home-made lasagna can take minutes to prepare and decades to perfect.
Food companies like Progresso or Barillo sell miles of pasta and oceans of sauce. The time laden steps of stewing meaty tomato sauce is replaced with a brightly decorated jar. The glory of weaving pasta out of flour and eggs is nothing more than straw colored roof tiles in a chipboard box.
Make no mistake. In the pressure-cooker of any given Wednesday, a quick lasagna ought to be made this way. Time is not an ally mid-week.
However the holidays and weekends offer the privilege of scratch cooking. And so we offer an examination of the classic Italian dish from the point of view of the pasta.
Looking into the history of lasagna, you will find a couple of camps. Those that believe that the dish earned it’s name from the Greek words “lasana” or “lasanon” which generally refer to the vessel.
Or the other camp who places emphasis on the Greek word “lasagnon” for flat sheets of pasta dough.
Either way, the lasagna which occupies our hearts came to the world from Greece to Sicily to Rome. It eventually found it’s place in the oldest documented cookbook from the U.K.
Regardless, the foundation to the castle begins with the pasta. Let’s explore spinach variety favored in Northern Italy.
Make well of flour and crack some eggs. Generally the portion is 1 cup flour for every egg.
Wilt spinach on the stove or in the microwave. Cooking method matters not. What’s required is transformation. From a pile of crunchy, dark green leaves, to a mound of nearly black spinach fibers. Nearly all of the moisture must be set free. So squeeze intently with your hands. We are looking for a stringy ball of midnight clay.
Chop and chop that ball until small spinach pebbles emerge. This seeds the color and taste for the spinach noodles.
Beat those eggs and spinach pellets together slowly incorporating the flour. Eventually the fork motion grinds to a halt. The dough will be too thick. Then the hand kneeding begins.
Smash and turn. Smash and turn. Smash and turn until all the ingredients are largely incorporated into a solid mass. A dough in which the gluten is awakened. A dough when pressed slightly springs back into place. It answers your call.
It is now time for the pasta crank. Separating the dough into smaller sections, run the material through the largest setting. Fold the thick sheet into thirds. Repeat.
Keep up this crank-and-fold process up until the dough emerges with a simple geometric shape. The edges are not ragged. The center of mass is not off-center. It is now pasta.
Shorten the space between the rolling pins by changing the thickness number. Step by step this dough will elongate and thin. Step by step, the spotted green dough turns into a single ribbon of Grinch-like color.
The pasta should be cut into the length of the casserole for best fit. It is then flash boiled. Maybe 30 seconds into the bubbling, salted water. We tend to cook each pasta sheet one at a time.
We have presided over too many of a pasta funeral where the sheets have become irreversibly stuck together. Please pay attention. One at a time with wax paper in between the layers of cooked pasta.
The sauce, well, can be what you want. The choice of ricotta or besciamella is yours. We like how Mario Batali cooks. Check out his Lasagna Bolognese recipe. It’s a classic Northern Italian style. The Southerners sing from a different hymnal. Regardless his sauce remains versatile and tasty.
Who doesn’t love the translation of ground pork, ground veal, milk, white wine and a can of tomato paste into a silky, densely flavored meat sauce?
Hint: the carrot-celery-onion mixture and the small amount of Italian bacon play an important role.
Layer by layer, build that sand-castle of Italian tradition. Infuse your own personality with a touch of your very own. Maybe it’s lemon zest in the ricotta. Maybe it’s fresh thyme in the sauce. Maybe it’s a layer of gooey mozzarella on top.
Maybe, when one of you guests arrives and plants a no-meat flag in your kitchen, you behave like a Marine: you adapt.
The one ingredient no one can steal is you. The precise number of smash-and-turns at the pasta stage. The zip of spice you added when no one was looking. The unique sequencing of layers in the lasagna.
Skip onto the playground. Let imagination flow into your fingers. And from your fingers into a dish worth talking about.
Let us celebrate your sense of whimsy. Personalize tradition. Make it your own.