Cucina di mia madrina: Eileen’s Lasagne

Choosing my favourite food is about as easy is growing money on the apple tree in my back garden. Who has the time to think about such things?

I eat everything pretty much.

But if there’s one meal that always gets me weeping with gratitude every time, it is lasagne. To me it sums up comfort food. The sight and sound of bubbling cheese. The rich savouriness and creaminess beneath the crispy top and velvety sheets of pasta (especially if it’s verdi)….it’s rare that I’ve had a bad one….maybe a ready meal but then they’re all shit if you ask me. Pardon my French.

And I don’t think I’ve ever met one person who doesn’t like it. There’s versions for vegetarians, versions for lactose-intolerant, low-fat, even low-carb and gluten free. Everyone can enjoy lasagne. Except perhaps Calgary Avansino or any of that lot. But if you’re on this blog you shouldn’t care for those delusional stick insects’ food fascism anyway.

I feel there’s no need to explain lasagne (though interestingly the American spelling ‘lasagna’ means single pasta sheet’ whilst the way us Brits spell it is the plural form) but it originated in Naples.

The northern Emilia-Romagna region (also famous for being the home of Ferrari,, Pagani, Maserati and Lamborghini)’s intensive farming economy resulted in plentiful dairy and meat products, and their commonality in regional cooking – more so than the olive oil found in southern regions of Italy. Pastas from Emilia-Romagna and its capital, Bologna, are almost always served with a ragù, (hence why it’s called a bolognese sauce) a thick sauce made from ingredients such as onions, carrots, finely ground pork and beef, celery, butter, and tomatoes.

I have numerous ways of approaching this simple baked pasta dish, from various sources – my way which is essentially similar to how my mother made it; I’ve also once made a chilli con carne lasagne (I had leftover chilli and was looking to extend it) in a surprisingly effective example of fusion food done good – the heat and earthy pungency of the chilli matched up pretty damn well to the rich bechamel sauce.  The Calabrian take, as published by Nigella Lawson is another regular on my repertoire, and it dispenses with the bechamel altogether and uses sliced ham and eggs between the layers along with finely cut mozzarella cheese.

So why am I sharing a recipe for something most people know? Simple, the amount of pre-made and heinous ‘lasagne dinner kits’ available now infuriate me and it’s frankly not a complicated dish to put together – never equate difficult with time-consuming. It was one of the first ‘proper dinners’ I made sure I knew how to cook before going to university as it ages well and can last a good 2-3 days so even if you live alone, you can still make it yourself.

The recipe I’m sharing here however, comes from my maternal aunt and godmother Eileen Maturi, and as I understand it, came via her father in law who was Italian. I will put up my own version in due course should anyone have a burning desire to make it.

I remember having this as a child numerous times whenever we visited hers, and it was literally a case of seeing ricotta, one of the ingredients,  on the supermarket shelf a few years back and being suddenly hit with a flashback to this and subsequently reaching out to my mother to contact my aunt (whom I since have on Facebook and will tag in this post) for her recipe to see if I could recreate it.

The ingredients as prepared. I am unashamed in the obvious austerity present - as Jack Monroe rightly says, the value-brand items are mere building blocks of a finished dish. it's how you put them together that counts.
The ingredients as prepared. I am unashamed in the obvious austerity present – as Jack Monroe rightly says, the value-brand items are mere building blocks of a finished dish. it’s how you put them together that counts.

I tend to make lasagne somewhat on the wet side just for fear of dryness but if you want it to come out in picture-perfect slabs, reduce the ragu for longer or use less liquid.  You will want enough there for the pasta sheets to absorb and cook in, so try not to make it too dry.  Another way, as shown in the abysmal third photo below, is to allow it to rest for 15 minutes-half an hour if you have stronger willpower than me, as this will make it a bit easier to cut clean and retain its characteristic layers.

A final note, if the mince you’re using is pretty fatty (especially on top of the fat from the bacon and the cooking oil for the vegetables) then pour off any excess, but because you’re twice-cooking the meat I recommend not bothering, as the fat will keep the mince moist as the lasagne bakes and it won’t make it greasy.

This is the order in which you build the layers - ragu, a blob of ricotta-egg mix in each corner and a scattering of chalkily stringy mozzarella. You don't need to drown it in béchamel either, just 1-2 serving spoonfuls trailed across will suffice.
This is the order in which you build the layers – ragu, a blob of ricotta-egg mix in each corner and a scattering of chalkily stringy mozzarella atop that before the white sauce. You don’t need to drown it in béchamel either, just 1-2 serving spoonfuls trailed across will suffice.
IMG_2051
Be sure to alternate the direction of the sheets – for example, for the following layer to this, place the vertical sheet on the right hand side as opposite to the left as shown here. Overlapping is desirable as it helps with the structure.
An appalling image of the served-up result. I was too hungry to wait. Ideally you want to allow a cooked lasagne to rest a while (like a roast joint it improves upon standing) as this makes it easier to cut clean if aesthetics are of importance. Patience is not a virtue I was blessed with unfortunately so initial serving was somewhat imperfect and wet. Once cooled for the following day it will slice like a dream for that better Instagram shot.
An appalling image of the served-up result. I was too hungry to wait. Ideally you want to allow a cooked lasagne to rest a while (like a roast joint it improves upon standing) as this makes it easier to cut clean if aesthetics are of importance.
Patience is not a virtue I was blessed with unfortunately so initial serving was somewhat imperfect and wet, because I dished up very soon after it left the oven so naturally the distinct layers were lost.. Once cooled for the following day, however,  it will slice like a dream and retain said layers better for that better Instagram shot.

Eileen’s Lasagne

IMG_2052

Serves: 4-6

For the ragu:
8oz /250g minced beef
3 large mushrooms (finely chopped) or around 200g regular size, sliced
1 regular onion, chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
2 rashers streaky bacon, roughly diced, or 1 small pack pancetta cubes or lardons
1 large carrot, diced
Half a pint/280ml beef stock
3 tbsp tomato puree
Bay leaf
Dried basil, to taste
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
Red wine, to taste

For the béchamel:
4tbsp butter
4tbsp plain flour
500ml milk
Around 50g grated cheddar (optional)

For assembling lasagne:
1 x 250g tub of ricotta cheese
1 x 250g pack grated mozzarella cheese
Lasagne sheets

1. Sweat chopped onion, celery, carrot and bacon in 2tbsp oil until soft .

2. Add mince and cook until raw red colour disappears.

3. Pour in tinned tomatoes, basil and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. Mix the tomato puree in with the stock and pour in, if necessary use this to swill out tomato tin. I recommend keeping a bit of the stock back in case you need to add more later. Bring to boil.

4. Simmer for about 20 minutes.

5. Add wine to taste and a little bit of sugar if needed if it’s a bit too acidic. Continue simmer and reduce for about 20 minutes more, but do not let it go too dry. If necessary slacken with any remaining stock or just add some water. Once it’s reduced sufficiently, remove from heat and set aside. Preheat oven to 180 degrees C.

6. To make the béchamel, first, heat the milk in the microwave or on the stovetop (this will stop lumps forming in the sauce) and set aside. Melt the butter in a pan over medium heat and add the flour, whisking to make a roux.

7. Pour in milk and stir constantly with a whisk to stop lumps until sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season well with salt, pepper and nutmeg. You can add grated cheddar cheese if you want to.

8. Whisk egg into the ricotta cheese with a fork to make a smooth, droppable consistence, and then place an ovenproof dish on a baking sheet and get ready for the grand assembly.

9 .Place a bit of white sauce in the bottom of your dish, put Lasagne sheets on top. (don’t worry if there’s overlapping) .For the bottom layer add some (about 1-2 ladles) of meat sauce, put a little ricotta on ( I usually blob a bit in each corner)followed by a handful of the mozzarella, then pour a little white sauce over. Cover with more lasagne sheets.

10. Repeat (about 2 or 3 more times) until the ragu and ricotta are used up – which is why I haven’t given a specific weight for the lasagne as it depends on the size of your dish – be sure to leave some mozzarella for the top . It’s a good idea to alternate the direction of sheets to help it stay together.

11. Put a layer of sheets on top of the final ragu layer, pour the rest of white sauce over, and the remaining mozzarella cheese.

12. Bake for 45mins – or until golden and bubbling on the top and cooked through (easy way to test is stab the centre with a knife and if it slides down easy, all the pasta has cooked). Rest for a few minutes before cutting into fat slabs.

ENJOY
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