Sunday, March 29, 2009

Daring Bakers challenge: Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna

With spring just launched in the northern hemisphere, and autumn descending in the southern hemisphere, the March challenge is a rich dish that should be suitable fare for Daring Bakers around the world, regardless of the season.

After being a Daring Baker for nearly 12 months, I was excited to be invited by Mary from Beans and Caviar and Enza of Io da Grande to be a co-host for this challenge, which has global input as we live in three continents: Mary in Canada, Enza in Italy and me in Australia.

The recipe we chose for this month is Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992). Lasagne is a dish that has successfully transcended borders and is today made around the world, albeit with many variations from the Italian original. Even within Italy, there are many variations and each region has its own lasagne tradition. But, as Lynne explains in her introduction to the recipe – and Enza, as our Italian expert for this dish, also agrees - the dish should always be a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. The results are splendid.”

Before detailing the recipes, I would like to say a huge "thank-you" to Mary and Enza, particularly Mary for her guidance and willingness to experiment with alternatives (eg gluten-free or sweet lasagne) and Enza for her Italian expertise, and both for their diligence and patience in answering the many questions on the Daring Bakers forum. I would also like to thank Lynne for granting us permission to use her recipe.

Our requirement was that Daring Bakers should hand-make their own pasta, which was the main challenge for the month. Although we included Lynne's recipes for béchamel sauce and a meat ragu, participants were free to choose their own recipes, particularly if they had dietary requirements or didn’t eat meat.

To make the lasagna sheets, which were flavoured with spinach, plain flour was mounded onto a bench, with a well in the centre. I put the eggs and finely chopped spinach into this well and slowly mixed the ingredients to a rough, messy dough. I found it too dry, however, and needed to add about half a cup of water to make it malleable and kneadable. Lynne noted that the dough should "feel alive under your hands" as you kneaded it. Initially, my dough felt pretty lifeless and I worried that the water had altered the dough's properties but I kept kneading and it eventually felt correct.

Lynne included helpful, detailed notes about how to hand-roll the pasta but I confess that I didn’t follow them that closely. I used a long, thin, wooden rolling pin but I didn't turn the dough in precise quarter-turns as Lynne specified - I just kept turning it as needed to make sure it was rolling out evenly. The main specification was that the lasagna sheet should be so thin that you could clearly see your hand through it. Co-host Enza, our Italian expert for this dish, said that transparency is a crucial element of lasagna pasta, which is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

I rolled my pasta as thin as I could but I was pressed for time and probably wasn’t as fastidious about it as I should have been. My squares were rough-cut and didn’t have neat edges but, after cooking, I cut them to fit the dish, with no discernible side-effects. Rather than drying the pasta, I used it fresh and cooked it about 15 minutes after I made it.

Lynne’s recipe for country ragu looked divine but also very time-consuming. It involved hand-mincing your own meat and I just didn’t have the time to do this. So I used Stephanie Alexander’s bolognaise sauce from The Cook’s Companion and was extremely happy with the result. (I’ve recently revamped my bolognaise sauce method to ensure that the sauce cooks for at least an hour, preferably longer, as I’ve found long, slow cooking yields a deep, rich texture that belies the easiness of the preparation). I also used my own béchamel sauce recipe, which seems to be a universal one, as both Stephanie’s and Lynne’s versions were practically identical

As I finally put the lasagna into the oven to finish cooking, I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down for a rest. As much as I love lasagna, it is a time-consuming dish to put together (about 15 minutes on the béchamel; about 20 minutes to put together the meat sauce, although it needs to be watched while it cooks for an hour; about 30 minutes or so to prepare the lasagna sheets, not including resting time; and then 40 minutes in the oven to cook the assembled lasagna) and I decided that it would be easier in future to continue using commercial dry lasagna sheets because of the time-saving and the convenience.

But then we tasted the finished product and I changed my mind! This was a special dish. The lasagna sheets had a depth of flavour and texture not apparent in commercial dry pasta. Despite my haphazard rolling and cutting, the pasta was a success. It wasn’t too heavy or gluggy. The spinach gave the final dish an extra flavour dimension, which paired beautifully with the rich, sweet meat sauce. Adam, who has sampled many a fine lasagna in his time, declared it the best lasagna I’d ever made: “this is four-and-a-half stars [out of five] and possibly even five,” he said. I agree and I think I’ll make this dish again, although I’ll make sure I put aside an afternoon to do it.

I've included below the recipes that I used for this lasagne; Lynne's entire recipe, plus some gluten-free alternatives, is on the Beans and Caviar blog.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)

(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (see Beans and Caviar for Lynne's recipe; I've included my meat bolognese sauce recipe below)
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (see Beans and Caviar for Lynne's recipe; I've included my recipe below)
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano


Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the centre is hot.
Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

My note: I found that my lasagne was quite solid but I think that's because I used a different meat sauce. I also didn't cover the top with foil, as I quite like a golden-brown crispy top on my lasagne.

Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
(from Lynne Rossetto Kasper's The Splendid Table)

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:

A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the centre and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the centre of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the centre of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

Bolognese sauce
From The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander

1 onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
400g minced beef (or veal)
100g pancetta or smoked streaky bacon, chopped
2 teaspoons plain flour
1/2 cup dry white wine
freshly ground black pepper
freshy grated nutmeg
2 cups veal or chicken stock, or tomato juice
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or 1 x 400g can peeled tomatoes in juice, pureed
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 large sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
Saute onion, celery and garlic in oil in a large saucepan until softened. Add minced meat and pancetta and fry until meat breaks up into small lumps. Sprinkle in flour, then stir well. Add wine, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well, then increase heat and boil to evaporate liquid. Add stock, tomatoes, tomato paste and herbs. Reduce heat again and simmer for 1 hour, stirring from time to time. Taste for seasoning.

Bechamel sauce
(This is my recipe but is virtually identical to Stephanie Alexander's and Lynne Rossetto Kasper's recipes)

60g butter
60g plain flour
600ml milk
white pepper
freshly grated nutmeg

Heat milk to scalding point and set aside. Melt butter in a saucepan and stir in flour. Cook, stirring, until you have a smooth golden paste. Gradually work in the hot milk and stir until the sauce thickens and is very smooth. Continue stirring until the sauce boils, then cook for a further 10 minutes on a very gentle heat. Season to taste with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Da Grande. We have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.


enza said...

good morning Melinda I'm here having breakfast and reading your comment and enjoying your words and your dish.
They looks like the italian one and this is for me the best compliment.
We'll be waiting for you...kisses and hugs

ice tea: sugar high said...

Thank you so much for the tasty challenge this month. Your photos and lasagna looked amazing.

Anzj said...

At first I didn't quite get it: baking a lasagna for DB. And I was a bit disappointed because I was hoping for another overthetop birthday cake, but I have LOVED this ragú meat sauce and making lasagna together with my love has proven to be a lot of fun. Fine dining three (!) days in a row. So thanks a lot!

Andreas said...

Thank you for hosting this Challenge. It was a great learning experince and fun (if time consuming) to prepare.

Rebecca said...

Thanks for the challenge, Melinda. Your lasagne looks delicious!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a great challenge, this is a bit different from the lasagne I am used to but I am lookin forward to it!!!!

Faery said...

Thanks for this challenge and for this recipe the result was amazing and I learnt a lot.
Your lasagne looks delicious

Half Baked said...

Thanks for hosting! Loved the challenge:)

creampuff said...


The pleasure was all ours! It was a tremendous challenge and we're so grateful that you hosted with Mary and Enza! Thank you!

Me! said...

Great choice! Thanks for picking it. It was well worth the time (not to mention the arm and shoulder workout) that it took.

Melinda said...

Thanks everyone for your kind words. I'm glad you all enjoyed the challenge. I loved it too and will definitely be making this lasagne again.

TeaLady said...

Thanks for a gret challenge. It was fun making pasta for the first time and I will always make it for my pasta dishes.

Arlette said...

Thank you very much for bringing us a wonderful recipe for March Challenge... every DB enjoyed it

Anonymous said...

This was such an interesting and savory challenge! Thanks for everything!

jillian said...

Thanks for hosting this month! This lasagne was really delicious.

Cakelaw said...

Great looking lasagne Melinda. Thanks for being one of our hosts this month.

Sheltie Girl said...

You did a beautiful job on your lasagne! Thank for hosting a wonderful challenge this month. I thoroughly enjoy learning how to make pasta.

Natalie @ Gluten a Go Go

Debbie said...

Thank you for being part of a Hosting Team that inspired me to try what I may not ever have on my own. I will be making this lasagne again. It was worth every one of the many many minutes I put into it!

Melinda said...

Thanks everyone for your lovely comments. I'm so glad you enjoyed the challenge!