My mom learned to cook with an Italian family. So in my childhood, many of the everyday dishes were Italian – like pasta, gnocchi or risotto. Lasagna being – as it is rather labor intensive – a treat for special occasions. Plus, 25 years ago in Germany, there simply weren’t any lasagna sheets to buy in the supermarkets. So my mom also made the pasta sheets from scratch.
And this is what the perfect lasagna looks like – at least in my opinion: 5 to 6 layers of pasta, thick beef sugo, a savoury Béchamel sauce and a thick, cheesy crust. No 1000 layers of dough, no ham slices and no pools of aurora sauce. But maybe that’s just me…
1 large onion
2-3 garlic cloves
3 tablespoons olive oil
500 g / 1 pound ground beef
a sprig of rosemary
2 bay leaves
dried chili flakes
1 tube / 200 g / 7 oz tomato paste
250 ml / 1 cup red wine
salt and pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup green olives, sliced
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
50 g / 1/2 stick butter
50 g / 1,75 oz flour
750 ml / 3 cups milk
salt and pepper
dash of lemon juice
lasagna pasta, fresh if possible
200 g / 7 oz cheese, grated (I took Gouda)
Roughly chop up the onion and the garlic. I like thick garlic slices, so you will have some short bursts of roasted garlic flavor in your dish. And people who don’t like garlic can easily sort them out.
Heat up a large pan (non-stick if you have) on high, then pour in the olive oil and put in the ground beef and let it brown and cook through. Add the onions, the garlic and the spices and fry that a little bit more so that the onions also will get some color.
Add the tomato paste, let that also fry for a little bit (so that some sugars in it caramelize) and then pour on the red wine and enough water to cover. Stir until all the tomato paste and the brown bits on the bottom of the pan have dissolved. Add the rest of the condiments and the olives and let that continue to cook on low while you make the Béchamel sauce. Give it a taste once in a while.
And before assembling the lasagna, fish out the bay leaves and the rosemary sprig. They taste terrible in a lasagna. Trust me, I tried…
For the Béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a smaller pot on medium heat. Put in all the flour at once and stir with a whisk until you cannot see any more dry flour. Continue stirring and frying until the flour and butter have taken a light golden color. That takes about 2 minutes.
Now add about 1/2 cup of milk and stir until the mixture becomes quite thick (it will feel like soft play dough), then add a little more milk and continue stirring. Always add a little more milk until you feel the sauce thickening. Use up all the milk and if you find it too thick you can still add some water. Season with salt, pepper, fresh nutmeg and a dash of lemon juice and let it cook for some more minutes.
This is a very basic Béchamel sauce, but you can make it more elaborate by first frying some shallots in the butter before adding the flour. Or by using half cream and half stock to build the sauce. Just remember to take the same amount of butter and flour, cooking that unitl it gets golden and then adding a cold liquid.
That’s another basic rule for using flour / starch to thicken liquids: Always have one cold and the other hot or you will end up having lumps and a starchy flavor. Vice versa, this also is true for thickening a hot sauce with a slurry – which always has to be cold.
Oh, and please do me the favor and ALWAYS add some lemon juice or vinegar to your Béchamel sauces. Yes, that will make the sauce a lot thinner, but the taste without the lemony zing is just flat.
Now, to assemble the lasagna: First of all, preheat your oven to 180°C / 350°F. Then take you favorite casserole – glass, ceramics or metal doesn’t matter. This is a rather small casserole, about 20 by 15 cm.
Most important step of all: Put a rather thick layer of Béchamel sauce on the bottom of the casserole. This saves you buttering the dish and prevents the bottom pasta sheet from becoming a leathery and uncuttable layer.
Then, lay on one sheet of lasagna pasta – these were store-bought fresh ones. You can also use the pre-cooked hard ones, but then you should add some more water to both sauces before building the lasagna as they will need more cooking liquid.
Then spread on a big spoonful of the sugo and some dollops of Béchamel sauce. Then again pasta, sugo and Béchamel until you have used up the sugo or you have reached the top of your baking dish. Make sure you have some Béchamel left.
The last and top layer will be a pasta sheet topped with the (generous) rest of your Béchamel and lots of cheese.
As much as I love Parmesan – do not use it here or at least not as the sole cheese. It was aged for so long, it is rather dry and will burn very quickly. Also, I’m a fan of a thick, gooey cheese crust, so I stay with Gouda.
At this point, you could freeze the lasagna and then bake it some other time.
Put the lasagna it the oven and bake it for about 30-45 minutes – depending on how crusty you like your cheese. And let it stand for some minutes.
Cut out some rectangular pieces and have a glass of red wine with it.