Editor’s note – This lasagna recipe was taken from Michael Ruhlman’s From Scratch cookbook, which was reviewed recently by Lindsey Menard. To read her review click here.
The thing people often forget about lasagna is that while the end result is one beautiful bite of pasta, the lead up to that result is three to five individual, time consuming recipes that are all layered together to create that bite. There is no reason that you can’t skip some of those steps by buying dried pasta and fresh mozzarella, using store bought bolognese (gasp!), or substituting the bechamel for a blend of cheeses that will melt down to mimic the flavor, but there is definitely something satisfying about going through the motions of creating each of those components yourself from scratch. Taking a bite of lasagna, any lasagna, simply means more, becomes more special once you have made it once from scratch, as you learn how to decipher the different parts that have been layered together and acknowledge the hard work of the person serving it to you.
For our purposes we set out to make our lasagna mostly from scratch in that we wanted to use the shredded mozzarella we already had on hand rather than wait until we could seek out the ingredients (citric acid, rennet) that were missing from our pantry. We opted to make ricotta instead to balance the need for a creamier cheese to top our lasagna. We made the ricotta first because it’s one of the few steps you can’t hurry along by turning up the heat if you get impatient.
Making pasta from scratch is one of the most rewarding things you can do, and is also something that gets far easier the more you do it. There are no real tricks to making pasta, you just have to take your lead from the ingredients you’re using and work at it until you learn the feel for what is correct and what needs adjusted. Having a pasta machine helps but isn’t necessary- the only thing that’s necessary is having the time and patience to work your dough until it’s done.
Lessons learned from making pasta: Always make more than you think you’ll need because there is absolutely no downside to having fresh pasta stored in your freezer for later on in the week.
Next come the sauces. Yes- sauces, plural. The first step, one you can absolutely skip if pressed for time but definitely enhances your feeling of accomplishment at the end is making your own tomato sauce as a base for the bolognese. This step is not complicated- it merely requires sauteing onions in olive oil (or butter) and then simmering them in pureed tomatoes over low heat for about an hour. If you’re using high quality canned tomatoes, you can definitely skip this step (and you can do so even if you aren’t) but embracing it lends a depth of sweetness and flavor to your bolognese that makes the added time worth it.
Once that tomato sauce has simmered, or while it’s simmering if you have enough functional burners to run two things simultaneously, start to work on the Bolognese. Again, there’s nothing fancy here- Bolognese is simply a pot of chopped vegetables cooked for a long time with alternating choices of liquids starting with milk and wine, and ending with your beautiful tomato sauce. The most important thing about cooking the Bolognese is patience- let the individual pieces cook as long as they need to before moving on to the next step- there are few benefits to rushing them.
The final component to make before you get to stacking is the Bechamel. Making Bechamel is basically an intricate dance of applying heat and creating motion so as not to let it become too hot. As I’ve said many times (twice) the two main ingredients of Bechamel are milk and a spoon.
The next and final step is arguably the most fun. Take all of these delicious ingredients you’ve made and start stacking them together. Tomato sauce first, noodle second, bolognese and bechamel third, and repeat until your dish is nearly full and then sprinkle as much cheese as you can possibly fit on top. The lasagna needs to bake for an hour and then sit for forty-five minutes before it’s ready to serve so that it holds its shape which gives you plenty of time to let your mouth water over the sight and smell of a perfectly browned lasagna.
Lessons from making lasagna: Make sure you carve out enough time and space to make all the components. Many of them can be made days in advance and can be reheated to assemble when you’re ready. You never need as many noodles as you think to build your lasagna but leftover lasagna noodles make a great maltagliati later in the week. There are very few ways to irreparably ruin a lasagna.