The Best Lasagne: Marcella Hazan

Did you know lasagne could change your life? It's true. Lasagne has taught me a thing or two. It's taught me that some things are absolutely worth the time and extra effort. Some things in life are worth waiting for and savoring.  I've had Marcella Hazan's famous cookbook, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking for years, but somehow never got around to trying out any of her recipes. [a travesty I know!]  Many of her recipes are fairly daunting. I'm someone who loves to cook Italian because I find I can quickly pull together a great dish with simple ingredients, so the idea of having to put a lot of time and effort into an Italian meal just didn't appeal to me.  Until now.  In recent months, I've been reading through Hazan's cookbook, absorbing more of her cooking techniques and flavor combinations. For me, her book does for Italian cooking what Julia Child's book did for French cooking. Lasagne was requested as the meal of choice for a special occasion, and I knew this was the time for me to go for it and give her classic lasagne a try. 

What truly makes this the best lasagne is without a doubt the use of fresh pasta.  Boxed pasta, as delicious as it can be, doesn't hold a candle to the buttery layers of fresh pasta combined with her flavorful bolognese. Her method for preparing fresh pasta is different than what I was use to, but I'm convinced her technique made all the difference.  If you're hesitant to try the full on lasagne process, I recommend trying out the two sauces found in this recipe first and pairing it with your favorite pasta.  That way, you can master the sauces before diving into the full lasagne recipe. Bolognese and bechamel are two classic sauces that I think are essentials to any cook, so consider this as a delicious form of study.  Trust me when I say your friends and family will sing your praises! [warning: the recipes as a whole are lengthy, but I promise your patience will be rewarded with an impeccable meal!]

Marcella Hazan's Baked Lasagne with Meat Sauce, Bolognese Style

  • The full amount of Bolognese Meat Sauce [NYT provided the recipe here]
  • Bechamel Sauce, see recipe below
  • Homemade pasta dough, see recipe below
  • 1 TB salt
  • 2 TB butter plus more for greasing a 9x12x3" lasagne pan
  • 2/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

Preheat oven to 400F. Prepare the meat sauce [linked here] and set aside. Prepare the bechamel [see below], keeping it rather runny, somewhat like sour cream. When done, keep it warm in the upper half of a double boiler, with the heat turned to very low. If a film should form on top, just stir it when you are ready to use it. Make fresh pasta dough [see below], and cut them into 10-inch lengths. Set a bowl of cold water near the range, and lay some clean, dry cloth towels flat on work counter. Bring 4 quarts of water to a rapid boil, add 1 tablespoon salt and as the water returns to a boil, slip in 4 or 5 of the cut pasta strips. Cook very briefly, just seconds after the water returns to a boil after you dropped in the pasta. Retrieve the strips with a colander scoop or slotted spatula and plunge them into the bowl of cold water. Pick up the strips, one at a time, rinse them under cold running water, and rub them delicately as though you were doing fine hand laundry. [this sounds ridiculous but it's 100% A MUST DO STEP!] Squeeze each strip very gently in your hands, then spread it flat on the towel to dry. When all the pasta is cooked in this manner, pat it dry on top with another towel.

Thickly smear the bottom of a lasagne pan with butter and about 1 TB of bechamel. Line the bottom of the pan with a single layer of pasta strips, cutting them to fit the pan, edge to edge, allowing no more than 1/4 inch for overlapping. Combine the meat sauce and the bechamel and spread a thin coating of it on the pasta. Sprinkle on some grated Parmesan, then add another layer of pasta, cutting it to fit as you did before. Repeat the procedure of spreading the sauce and bechamel mixture, then sprinkling with parmesan. Use the trimmings of pasta dough to fill in gaps, if necessary. Build up to at least 6 layers of pasta. Leave yourself enough sauce to spread very thinly over the top most layer. Sprinkle with parmesan and dot with butter. [The lasagne may be completed up to two days in advance up to this point. Refrigerate under tightly sealing plastic wrap]

Bake on the upper most rack of the preheated oven until a light golden crust forms on top. It should take between 10 and 15 minutes. If after the first few minutes you don't see any sign of a crust beginning to form, turn up the oven another 50-75F. Do not bake longer than 15 minutes altogether. Remove from the oven and allow to settle for about 10 minutes, then serve at table directly from the pan.

[taken from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking]

Bechamel Sauce

  • 3 cups milk
  • 6 TB butter
  • 4.5 TB flour
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Put the milk in a saucepan, turn heat to medium low and bring the milk just to the verge of boiling, to the point when it begins to form a ring of small, pearly bubbles. While heating the milk, put the butter in a heavy-bottomed, 4-6c saucepan, and turn on the heat to low. When the butter has melted completely, add all the flour, stirring it in with a wooden spoon. Cook, while stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes. Do not allow the flour to become colored. Remove from heat.

Add the hot milk to the flour/butter mixture, no more than 2TB of it at a time. Stir steadily and throughly. As soon as the first 2 TB of milk have been incorporated into the mixture, add 2 more and continue to stir.  Repeat this procedure until you have added 1/2 cup milk; you can now put in the rest of the milk 1/2 cup at a time, stirring steadfastly, until all the milk has been smoothly amalgamated with the flour and butter.  Place the pan over low heat, add the salt, and cook, stirring without interruption, until the sauce is as dense as thick cream.

Fresh Pasta [using a machine]

  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 2 large eggs

Pour the flour onto a work surface, shape it into a mound, and scoop out a deep hollow in its center. Break the eggs into the hollow. Beat the eggs lightly with a fork for about 1 minute as though you were making an omelet. Draw some of the flour over the eggs, mixing it in with the fork a little at a time, until the eggs are no longer runny. Draw the sides of the mound together with your hands, but push some of the flour to one side, keeping it out of the way until you find you absolutely need it. Work the eggs and flour together, using your fingers and palms of your hands, until you have a smoothly integrated mixture. If it is still moist, work in more flour. When the mass feels good to you and you think it does not require anymore flour, wash your hands, dry them and run a simple test: press your thumb deep into the center of the mass; if it comes out clean, without any sticky matter on top, no more flour is needed. Put the egg and flour mass to one side, scrape the work surface absolutely clear of any loose or caked bits of flour and of any crumbs, and get ready to knead.

Return to the mass of flour and eggs. Push forward against it using the heel of your palm, keeping your fingers bent. Fold the mass in half, give it a half turn, press hard against it with the heel of your palm again, and repeat the operation. Make sure that you keep turning the ball of dough always in the same direction, either clockwise or counterclockwise, as you prefer. When you have kneaded it thus for 8 full minutes and the dough is as smooth as baby skin, it is ready for the machine. 

Cut each ball of dough made with 2 eggs into 6 equal parts. Spread clean, dry, cloth dish towels over a work counter near where you'll be using the machine. Set the pair of smooth cylinders, the thinning rollers, at their widest opening. Flatten one of the pieces of dough by pummeling it with your palm and run it through the machine. Fold the dough twice into a third of its length and feed it by its narrow end through the machine once again. Repeat the operation 2 or 3 times, then lay the flattened strip of pasta over a towel on the counter. [Flatten all your pieces, making sure when you lay them out not to allow them to touch as they will stick together!]

Close down the opening between the machine's rollers by one notch. Take the first pasta stripe you had flattened and run it once through the rollers, feeding it by its narrow end. Do not fold it, but spread it flat on the cloth towel, and move onto the next pasta stripe in the sequence. When all the pasta strips have gone through the narrower opening once, bring the rollers closer together by another notch, and run the strips of pasta through them once again, following the procedure described above. Continue thinning the strips in sequence, progressively closing down the opening between the rollers one notch at a time, until the pasta is as thin as you want it.