Last Meal Worthy: Lasagna Bolognese (Plus How To Make Fresh Pasta Without a Roller!)

I hate lasagna. Seriously, I love ricotta, but not like that. Not all clumpy, and stringy, and tasteless. Blech. But then I saw this and I realized there are others out there like me. Smitten Kitchen’s lasagna just looked so delicate, and yet simultaneously so hearty, it got stuck in my head and starting plaguing me for weeks. And then I signed my first real grown up lease and I thought: it is time to treat yourself.

Warning: this is an all day affair.  The original recipe recommends doing this over the course of two days. I’m MAD and I say it’s doable in one, but I wouldn’t do what I did and laze around all morning and finally get started at 1 pm, unless you want to have a very hungry man grumping about asking when dinner will be ready. I know this looks incredibly labor intensive, and it kind of is, but so, so worth it. This lasagna is a real contender for the last meal I want to have on Earth (up there with one perfectly ripe tomato with salt and pepper, a perfectly crisped duck, and coq au vin made by Julia Child herself). It supposedly serves 12-15, but we’ve already eaten half of it between two people in under 24 hours. By the way, this bolognese sauce will shatter your conceptions of what bolognese can be, so feel free to use it for all other kinds of pasta or, you know, just eat it with a spoon.

Lasagna Decadence
Step One: The Best Bolognese You’ll Ever Have
Adapted from Smitten Kitchen
1 medium onion, quartered then halved (I guess that makes it eighthed? that sounds weird)
2 medium carrots, coarsely chopped (you just need pieces small enough to throw in a food processor, don’t worry about getting them even)
2 medium celery ribs, coarsely chopped (see above)
3 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (see above)
2 lbs. ground beef
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups red wine (something hearty and dry is best, or whatever you have on hand)
2 6 oz. cans of tomato paste (1 1/2 cups)
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A few sprigs of thyme tied together in a bundle (I used regular cotton string because I didn’t have kitchen twine. I’ve heard wire works well, too. If you don’t have fresh thyme on hand, throw in two bay leaves. Hell, do both if you want)
Water as needed

Pulse onion, carrots, celery, and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped. Want to impress somebody and sound like you know more than you do about cooking? Refer to this veggie puree as your mirepoix (meer-pwa). Heat a dutch oven or large (4-5 quart) sauce pan over medium-high heat. Once hot, add olive oil, then vegetables. Season generously with salt and pepper, and cook until well browned, stirring occasionally.

Apparently Deb of Smitten Kitchen and I are both big fans of Anne Burrell, so I’m going to repeat the same advice that she gives: Brown food tastes good! Be patient while browning your veggies, wait until they are an even brown color throughout. And don’t worry if things begin to stick, scrape up what you can but never fear: wine is on the way! Browning should take about 15-20 minutes.

Add your ground beef, breaking it up and stirring to combine with veggies. Season again with salt and pepper, and cook until meat is thoroughly browned (see advice above), another 15-20 minutes. Add tomato paste, stir to combine, cook for another 5ish minutes. This is your last chance to make sure everything is nice and brooooown before we add liquid.

Add the red wine. Now is a good time to scrape up any stubborn pieces of food that are stuck to the bottom of the pan, this is called deglazing. The stuck pieces of food are fond. See, we’re making lasagna and having a vocab lesson all at the same time. Cook the wine until it’s reduced by half, about 5-7 minutes. Add water to the pan until it is about 3/4 of inch about the meat. Throw in your thyme, bay leaves, or any other aromatic you want to use and bring it down to a simmer.

Simmer for three to four hours, adding a little water whenever it starts to look dry. I mean a little water, no more than 1/2-1 cup at a time, or you will boil your meat which is totally disgusting. Stir and taste occasionally, adjust seasonings (I think you’ll find this totally unnecessary because it tastes freaking awesome). And now, on to step two…

Step Two: Forays in Insanity and Beyond, OR, Making Fresh Pasta Without a Machine

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

To the sane among you: go out to the store, buy some dry pasta and skip ahead to step three. That’s what I almost did since I do not own a pasta roller, but then I thought what if… Smitten Kitchen’s pictures looked so perfect, and her pasta is so thin and delicate, and I got a crazy idea. I mean, in days of yore Italian women did not have handy dandy pasta rollers to do all the work for them…

Making pasta by hand is not difficult per se, it’s just time consuming. It took me about three hours; I did it while my sauce was simmering. If you really want fresh pasta but don’t feel like making it, some specialty Italian food stores will make it to order if you call in advance (I would ask for it extra thin). If you want to make fresh pasta and you are lucky enough to own a roller, check out the original recipe for instructions. I have to say: I found the homemade pasta totally worth it, despite all the extra effort. It made the whole thing extra special, it was so delicate and perfectly crispy. That said, this recipe is awesome enough that I think you could get away with using dry pasta. But if you have a whole day to kill…

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

Water as needed

Clean your food processor and trade out the blade for the baker’s blade (the plastic thing that’s shaped like a blade, but uh… plastic. I have no idea what it’s actually called. Mixing paddle?). Add the flour, eggs, and salt and run the machine until your dough begins to form a large ball. You’ll need to stop and scrape the sides occasionally to shake loose any flour that’s getting pushed aside. If it’s looking a little too dry and the flour won’t combine properly add a little water, but no more than a drop or two at a time. You want dough that is firm, but not sticky. A little stickiness is ok, especially if you’re rolling by hand, but you don’t want it to be a goopy mess. Basically, if you prod it with your finger it should grip a little bit as you pull away, but you shouldn’t have clumps of dough stuck to your hand. Once the dough has come together into a single mass, pull it out and shape it a bit with your hands, pulling it apart and meshing it together, roll it into a ball, just to make sure everything is fully combined. Place on a floured surface and cover with an inverted bowl, allow to stand for one hour.

Flour your work station. You really want flour everywhere: your hands, countertop, your rolling pin (or, if you’re like me, your old vodka bottle filled with water because you don’t own a rolling pin). Take out a large baking sheet and line with wax/parchment paper, dust this with flour too. Break your dough into three equalish pieces. Put two pieces back underneath the inverted bowl, cover the third with flour and place on your work surface. First, using your hands, stretch your dough into a disk. Get it as thin as you can by stretching and hammering, don’t worry about whether or not it’s even throughout.

Now, with a rolling pin (or old vodka bottle), begin to roll the dough disk out as thin as you can get it. Start with your rolling pin at the center of the disk and work your way outward. You want to be shifting, and lifting, and flipping your disk fairly regularly to prevent sticking. Add more flour any time you feel like it’s starting to stick to the rolling pin, the counter, or your hands. If you’re really short like me it might help to get some height over the dough by kneeling on a chair or something, that way you can get more downward pressure. Roll it out in all directions until you feel you can’t go on anymore. Remember that the dough will expand to almost double thickness when cooked, so you want it reeeeaaalllly thin. I mean, that’s why you decided to make your own pasta in the first place, so you might as well make it worth the while.

When you feel like you could not possibly roll that dough out any more, take a sharp knife and cut your flatten disk into strips about 3-4 inches wide (you know, about the same thickness as the sheets of dry lasagna you buy in a box). Move all but one of those strips to the side.

Now continue to roll out the one strip you have left. Working with the smaller piece you should be able to get it at least twice as thin as it was before. Ideally it would be about the same thickness throughout, but also remember that this is homemade pasta and it doesn’t need to be absolutely 100% perfect because rustic things are nice when they’re handmade. Still continue to lift and shift and re-flour. Of course, be careful not to rip the dough because at this point if you do rip it, you’ll probably cry. A good way to tell if your dough is thin enough is to lift it up with your hand behind it. If you can almost kind of see the silhouette of your hand through the dough, you’re in good shape. Move this strip to your floured baking sheet, and start on the next. Repeat with the rest of the dough strips. When laying out your finished strips on the baking sheet, try to keep them from touching. Once you run out of room, dust the tops of your first layer with flour, then add a new sheet of wax paper, then another dusting of flour, and begin to layer again.

Once you finish all the strips from your first disk of dough you’ll feel a moment of euphoria, a kind of “Wow! I did it!” And then you’ll remember that you have two more lumps of dough waiting for you underneath that inverted bowl. And then you might cry. Don’t cry over the dough, you don’t really want to get it wet. Repeat the steps from the section above with dough balls 2 and 3. Continue to layer wax paper and flour on your baking sheet to lay your pasta strips out flat without touching. And on to step three…

Step Three: Béchamel

1 stick butter

1/2 cup all purpose flour

4 cups whole milk

1 teaspoon table salt (or 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt)

1 clove minced garlic (about 1/2 – 1 teaspoon)

Pinch nutmeg (optional)

Freshly ground black pepper

Melt butter in a medium saucepan on medium-low heat. Once melted, add the flour, stirring to combine. Cook together for a minute, stirring constantly. Seriously, do not stop stirring. This is called a roux and it burns easily. I find it most effective to do this with a whisk.

Now there are basically two schools of thought on this next step. Traditionally you’re supposed to heat your milk before adding it in a very slow, thin stream, whisking constantly as you go. This brings the milk up to temperature so that it combines with the roux and thickens faster. However, it also means you need to use another pot to heat the milk, and this recipe already calls for an absurd amount of dishes. I added my milk cold, but if you’re going to do this you have to go even slower pouring it in. Seriously, just do a thin splash at a time, whisking constantly. Allow that splash to combine and warm up a little, then add another and another and another. You’re working with 4 cups of milk here, so it’s going to take a little while. Once you’re about halfway it should look like a thick batter, and once that happens you can add the milk more quickly. This did not happen to me. I added my milk much too quickly and once it was all poured into the pan it looked like… milk. A lot of milk. A lot of cold milk. I had a minor panic attack and nearly threw the whole thing out (I’d been in the kitchen for nearly 5 hours at this point). But I decided to wait a minute and let the milk come to a simmer, at which point it began to thicken and I calmed down. Still continue to stir without stopping, take extra care to scrape at the bottom of the pan (you don’t want any flour accumulating down there). Once it’s simmering nicely (but not too aggressively, watch your heat), add the garlic, salt, nutmeg and pepper. Allow to simmer for about ten minutes, or until it is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Taste and adjust seasonings, remove from heat. We’re about to move on to the fourth and final step, assembling the lasagna, but it’s important not to forget about your béchamel. Until you’re ready to use it you have to continue to stir it if not constantly then fairly frequently, elsewise it will stick and solidify, and you’ll have to start over. In fact, if there’s anyone else home it might be a good idea to hand them a whisk and put them in charge of stirring the béchamel. It’ll make them feel important.

Step Four: Assemblage! You’re Almost There!

Bolognese sauce

Pasta

Béchamel sauce

Approximately 2 cups parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400. Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. On the counter next to the boiling pot, fill a large mixing bowl with ice water (or just really cold water if, like me, you don’t have ice; we’re nothing if not accommodating [and a little ghetto] here at the purplest house). Next to the ice bath you’ll want a large baking sheet or platter drizzled with a thin coating of olive oil. Don’t forget to stir the béchamel.

Working with just two or three pieces at a time, par boil your pasta. Cook each sheet for about 2-3 minutes, then fish it out with the slotted spoon and dump it in the ice bath for just a second (this arrests the cooking process and keeps your pasta from turning to mush). Some people will tell you that cooking fresh pasta before putting it in the oven is completely unnecessary, but Smitten Kitchen says this prevents the dough from turning slimy in the oven. And I would jump off a cliff if Smitten Kitchen said it would make my food taste better. Remove from ice bath and lay out on the oiled baking sheet. Repeat with all of your pasta strips. Once you run out space on the baking sheet, drizzle a little oil on top of the first layer of pasta and then continue to layer more boiled pasta on top. Don’t forget to stir the béchamel.

Pour a thin layer of béchamel into a large baking dish. It should be about 1/4 inch thick, spread it out with a large spoon or baker’s spatula to get it semi-even throughout. Now add your first layer of pasta. Lay the strips out flat over the béchamel, patching and overlapping as needed to create a single layer. If your pasta tears a little, don’t worry! It doesn’t matter how many pieces you use to get a single layer across, and if you tear a small piece off one strip you can use it to patch any oddly shaped holes that might occur. Again: this is homemade, and nobody will even be able to tell if it’s not completely perfect.

Once you’ve got a single layer of noodles, add your meat. Smitten Kitchen says to use about a cup per layer, but I found this to be insufficient. Maybe my baking dish is bigger? Exact quantities are unimportant; you decide how thick you want your meat layer to be and spread it out as evenly as you can, trying not to lift up any noodles in the process (it will happen anyway, but try to avoid it). Next add another layer of béchamel, I would guess about 1/4-1/3 cup. Again, you should be able to eyeball this. You just want a thin even layer. Now top with a thin coating of parmesan cheese. Repeat: layer pasta, layer meat, thin coat of béchamel, spread evenly, top with parm. Continue to do this until you only have enough pasta left for one more layer. I think I ended up with either 4 or 5 layers of meat. You’ll probably have some bolognese leftover to save for another recipe, which is a really good thing.

Add your last layer of pasta, then do an extra thin coat of béchamel and top with cheese. Pop into the oven for 30-45 minutes, then let stand for 10-15 minutes before serving. And cue swooning… now. I think my eyes actually crossed like a cartoon character when I took the first bite. If you’re serving this to anyone else and they don’t applaud, feel free to just not speak to them for the rest of the night.

PS: Big thanks to The Boy for all his patience, for not grousing too much about eating dinner at 9:30, and for only teasing me a little when I got flour all over his freshly-Swiffered floor. Thanks for being my recipe guinea pig. Oh, and for taking all the pictures.

 

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