2011 January: Lasagna – Must Have?

Lasagna, much like pizza, is one of the most recognized and accepted names in the Italian culinary lexicon. Adults and children of all ages do not have to be convinced to order lasagna, but that easy sell can turn into a bad scene unless you get it right. So I am here to help you get it right.

First, let’s look at the basic components that make up lasagna: the noodles or lasagna sheets; cheese (ricotta, Parmesan, mozzarella) and sauce (marinara, Bolognese or in some instances, a white or besciamella sauce). Other possibilities include spinach as part of the lasagna, and I am including my famous lasagna recipe, one that incorporates it.

To assure that your lasagna is the best around, here are some things to watch for:

If the ricotta is too watery, it’s a bad start. Put the ricotta in a strainer to drain off excess water or buy ricotta that has a firmer curd (sometimes referred to as “country-style” or “old-fashioned”). I sometimes fold shredded mozzarella into the ricotta to bulk it up and assure some firmness. This helps keep it from falling apart once it is cut.

Go easy on the sauce as you layer the lasagna. This keeps the finished dish from becoming too mushy.

The secret to a perfect lasagna is balance among the components — namely the noodles, sauce and cheese.

Using sheets of no-boil lasagna makes the whole process go a lot easier.

Lasagna is one of those pasta dishes that tastes even better when reheated, so make several batches of lasagna, then cool, portion and wrap for cooler storage. To order, you can reheat, top with some shredded mozzarella, a dab or two of heated sauce, sprinkle with Parmesan and serve.

Lasagna is ready when an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center reads 160 F.

Do not attempt to cut and portion lasagna straight from the oven. It needs to sit for 15 to 20 minutes to firm up.

Here is a high-volume lasagna recipe for everyday use or on a buffet.  It can be made up to 2 days ahead — covered and put in the cooler — if necessary. A 10-ounce portion is a very generous serving, one that is quite adequate when listed as a main course.  You will need a lasagna or roasting pan that measures about 18-inches by 12-inches by 2½-inches.

High-volume Lasagna

Yield: 14 10-ounce servings
32 pieces standard-size dry lasagna noodles
2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach, cooked, drained, squeezed as dry as possible and chopped coarse
3 pounds ricotta cheese, drained of excess water if necessary
6 large eggs
8 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon pepper
11⁄2 pounds mozzarella cheese, grated

In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook the lasagna noodles (in batches if necessary), stirring occasionally, until flexible, but not tender (in other words, undercooked), about 7 minutes. Remove the noodles as they are cooked and plunge them into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking.

Lay the noodles out, one by one, separated on paper or cloth towels. Pat dry on both sides. This step can be done up to 2 hours ahead and held at room temperature.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the spinach, ricotta, eggs, Parmesan, salt and pepper. Stir to whip and combine. Set aside. Refrigerate, covered, if you will not be using it at once.

Spread a thin layer of sauce (meat or marinara) over the bottom of the baking pan. Trim the pasta with scissors, if necessary, to fit eight pieces (first layer) into the pan. Top the pasta with a thin layer of the ricotta mixture. Dab the top of the ricotta with some of the sauce (about a cup). Add another layer of pasta, another layer of ricotta, and more sauce. Continue in this fashion until all of the pasta is used up. You will have four layers of pasta. Top the last layer of pasta with a thin layer of sauce. Sprinkle the mozzarella evenly over the lasagna.

Cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil. Bake in a preheated 400 F oven for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 10 additional minutes, or until the cheese starts to show a light brown. Remove the lasagna from the oven and let it stand for 10 minutes before portioning.  Serve with additional sauce and Parmesan on the side.

If you want to make a classic lasagna Bolognese, use a meat sauce instead of the marinara.  Eliminate the spinach step. Use a besciamella sauce (recipe follows) as part of the layering process. Dab it on the ricotta along with the sauce.

The besciamella sauce can be made ahead and reheated (add a splash or two of milk to adjust the consistency if necessary). This will make enough sauce for the master recipe above.

Besciamella Sauce

4 tablespoons unsalted butter
7 tablespoons flour
Pinch salt
2 cups milk, scalded
½ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
Pinch white pepper

In a sauce pan, melt the butter. Add the flour and whisk constantly for a few minutes, careful not to burn it. Add a pinch of salt. Pour scalded milk into the flour mixture all at once and continue to whisk another 3 to 4 minutes until thickened. Add nutmeg and a bit of white pepper. Set aside. Cover with foil or plastic wrap if not using at once.

Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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