A letter from our publisher.
My mother made the best lasagna in the world. I know every Italian son probably says this, but, in my case, it’s true. Nothing comes close.
You could cut it with a fork and all 14 layers of it melted in your mouth. My mother’s secret was very thin pasta noodles. As my sister-in-law once observed, “It was thin enough that if you put it on the back of your hand, you could see through it.”
My mother would take two days to prepare this dish, making the dough the day prior and getting up early in the morning to roll out the noodles. Up until recently, I had always been too intimidated to try it myself. I love to cook and make a pretty damn good version of her meatballs and eggplant parmigiana. But the thought of replicating her noodles freaked me out.
My brother Enrico and his wife Cheryl took over the tradition for a while and did a pretty good job, but (and he is going to kill me for saying this), his son Marc has mastered the dish, making it the closest to my mom’s version.
So, I recently asked Marc to come over and teach me how to make it. My sister and niece also came over to help out. We joked that what my mother did all on her own now took an army to replicate.
We made two versions, meat and vegetarian. Be warned, it’s a very long tedious task to make great lasagna. But, trust me, it’s worth it. Try this recipe and if you think you (or your Italian mother) can make it better, send me a note. I love challenges.
Pasta dough: I generally make two portions, which gets you anywhere from 3-6 medium lasagnas with 7-10 layers.
- 3 cups of tipo ‘oo’ flour
- 2 tbps extra virgin olive oil
- 6 eggs
- Whisk the eggs and the olive oil in a bowl.
- Put 2-2 1/4 cups of flour on a flat surface and create a well in the middle.
- Pour wet ingredients into the center of the well, and with a fork begin to bring the dough together from the inside.
- Once combined, start to knead dough, rolling away from you, folding back on itself, turning 90 degrees and repeating. Add more flour gradually, until the dough isn’t sticking to your fingers and work surface. This will generally take 10-15 minutes to come together and get to the right consistency. You want it to feel silky and smooth. Dough should spring back to place when you push down into it with your finger.
- Wrap in cling film followed by a damp cloth. Place in the fridge overnight and let rest.
Take the dough out of the fridge at least 30-45 minutes before rolling, and let it come to room temperature.
- Connect pasta attachment to stand mixer; or use a hand crank roller. Flour rollers to prevent sticking.
- Lay out table cloth on the table to rest rolled pasta out, and let dry a bit.
- Cut off a 2-3-inch piece of dough, dust it and the exposed end of the dough ball, with flour to prevent from drying too much.
- Shape the piece of dough into more of a rectangle.
- Set roller to position 1 and roll dough through it.
- Optional: To improve texture, you can laminate the dough by folding one end to the middle of the piece and the other end over top of it. Run through the roller on the same setting a few times until dough combines.
- Work dough through roller, increasing setting each pass, until you get to setting 9 (or as high as you can get without dough breaking). Finished sheet should be see-through enough that you can see your hand behind it.
- Lay on tablecloth to allow to dry a bit.
Don’t really follow a measured recipe. Go by look, texture and taste, like Nonna used to!
- Large can (~106oz) San Marzano Tomatoes
- 6 in 1 Ground Tomatoes – canned
- Tomato paste
- Onion – diced
- Garlic – diced
- Large bag of Basil (84g or so)
- Chilli flakes (optional)
- Olive oil
- Red wine (optional – adds some depth of flavor)
Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to large pot. Add diced onions and sweat down until soft and translucent (3-5 mins). Add garlic (and chilli flakes to taste if you’d like) and saute for for 1-2 minutes. Then add about a tablespoon of tomato paste, stirring constantly for 1-2 minutes, until flavour mellows a bit. Pour in about a cup of red wine if you want, and cook off alcohol.
Meanwhile, in a big bowl, add san marzano tomatoes and hand crush them until there are no longer large chunks. Once done, add to pot, along with ground tomatoes, and some passata, to achieve right consistency (don’t want it watery or super thick).
Simmer for an hour so tomatoes break down and acidic tomato flavour cooks away. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir occasionally to ensure bottom of pot is clean and doesn’t burn.
Pick basil leaves off stem and add entire bag to sauce or as much as you’d like. Basil will shrink and adds an unmistakable but not overpowering sweetness to the sauce. Simmer for another 30-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Note: If sauce seems too acidic, you can mellow it out with some sugar or butter.
For a meat lasagna, I usually make the meatballs separately, cooked slowly in a tomato sauce. Use whatever meatball recipe you prefer, as I am not prepared to share my meatball recipe, which I consider proprietary!
Building the lasagna:
When it’s time to start putting the lasagna together, you’ll want to set up an assembly line. You’ll need:
– a large pasta pot
– a medium bowl with cold water
– baking dishes
– pasta sauce
– bowls for both cheeses
– optional: a bowl with crumbled-up meatballs
First, bring the large pasta pot, half full with water, to a boil and salt generously. Set up the bowl with cold water beside the pasta pot. This will be used to stop the pasta from cooking when you take it out. Line up the pasta sauce, cheeses and crumbled meatballs if using. Place the baking dish in front of all of the above. It’s time to start putting the lasagnas together!
1) Drop 3-4 sheets of pasta into the boiling water. Cool for 60-90s. When done, drop them into the cold water to stop the cooking.
2) Spoon a light layer of sauce into the bottom of the baking dish. This prevents the first layer of pasta from sticking.
3) Take a lasagna sheet out of the cold water, and scrape the excess water off the sheet by pinching the sheet with your thumb and index finger. This ensures there isn’t excess water in the lasagna that makes it soupy. Lay sheets out, cut to size, until the bottom is covered.
4) Lightly sauce the top of the pasta. Don’t oversauce, otherwise the final lasagna will be soupy.
5) If using meatballs, lightly sprinkle on top of the sauce. Next, lightly sprinkle the cheeses.
6) Repeat steps 1-5 until desired number of layers achieved. We aim for 7-10 layers.
The sauce recipe doesn’t have clear measurements, but that’s why it takes so long! It’s a recipe full of love and feeling, just the way my mother made it.