Even if you don’t make your own pasta, cook the two sauces from scratch for a perfect lasagne.
Lasagne is an utterly blogger-unfriendly dish as it’s impossible to photograph nicely: when it’s whole in the pan you can’t see a damn thing. When it’s cut, it looks a right mess. Unless you cheat and photograph cold lasagna, but that’s not me. I shoot what I eat.
It’s quite an undertaking: the white sauce, the meat ragù, the assembly and the bake. That’s why when I embark on the lasagne project, I make absolute bucketloads of it – four trays, one to eat, one to freeze and two to give away.
Though I might think again before I make a batch for takeaway. Last time I offered it to Alice and Mouse, they asked incredulously how come the pasta sheets were not homemade. They weren’t; I don’t make pasta myself because I’m not very good at it, all right?
Thinking about it now though, it is actually an easy dish to cheat at. Get a jar of so called ‘bolognese sauce’ from the supermarket, another of the white or cheese or béchamel; build it all in a dish and presto! A not exactly homemade lasagne but home assembled. A DIY lasagne. An IKEA lasagne.
In my version only the pasta is shop bought, for reasons outlined above. The rest is properly artisan. Except I don’t mince meat myself. Oh damn! What a fine line between homemade and half-ready made! Who would have thought!
Joking aside, it’s still absolutely gorgeous, even with shop-bought pasta sheets. Talking about which: do not preboil or soak them. There is completely no need to do that as that’s precisely what the white sauce is for: you’ll notice it disappears in the baked lasagna because it has been absorbed by the pasta. To cook it. Soaking is just messy.
The two sauces for lasagne
The white sauce, béchamel or cheese sauce (depending how you want to call it and what calorie content you allow it) is fairly easy to make though time-consuming so I usually put the meat sauce on first and start the white one while the ragù is simmering away.
It’s not hard, only a little boring. You make the roux which is flour cooked in the same amount of butter, then add the milk to it stirring a lot. And it is like cooking risotto: wait till the sauce comes up to a simmer before adding the next glug of milk.
The finishing touches that make it really good are an optional spoonful of cream, an optional handful of grated cheese and an obligatory five-to-ten-minute simmer before it’s taken off the hob. That is to make it really saucy, velvety and smooth.
The ragù, or meat sauce, isn’t difficult either because the whole secret is the longer you cook it, the better it tastes. Anybody (I’m guessing) can bash up a bolognese sauce, cook the mince, add the tomatoes and Bob’s your uncle. But a really tasty meat sauce simmers and bubbles, sputters and percolates for at least two hours. Only then the tomato merges beautifully with the meat creating SAUCE rather than bits of mince floating in tomato soup.
Even if you buy a special dish to match the size of your pasta sheets they still won’t fit well. Plus, annoyingly, the gratin dishes usually used for lasagne are wider at the top. So whatever way, you’ll need to trim the pasta sheets which is a recipe for a spectacular mess if you use them dried as I tell you to. Scissors produce a fountain of shards showering all over the kitchen and breaking by hand just doesn’t work. But worry not, I’ll let you in for a secret: poultry scissors work like a dream. Okay, you’ll still end up with shards and crumbs but at least you’ll be able to line the dish with lasagne the size and shape you want.
Three or four layers?
There are different schools on lasagne assembly line, but I like to start with the sauce – that way I guarantee the first pasta layer doesn’t stick to the tray. The final topping is the sauce too, so the top layer of lasagne cooks in it. I don’t add cheese to the layers – heaven knows it’s a calorie bomb as it is – but I do sprinkle some Parmesan at the end of the baking.
Lasagna or lasagne?
And finally – the spelling. You can’t enjoy the dish fully if you don’t know how to spell it, right? In Italian the former word is singular, ie. a single lasagna sheet, and the latter is plural, as well as the name of the dish. In the UK we spell it ‘lasagne’ and in North America they use an ‘a’ at the end. Seeing as it’s pronounced identically, it’s not such a huge issue. But as I say, you gotta know what you eat! Buon apetito!