I love making pasta. I love swirling the eggs together in a pocket of flour before incorporating everything into a sticky dough. I love kneading the dough, working in an extra spoonful of flour here or there, and feeling it transform from a wet mess into a smooth, elastic sphere that just hints at the deliciousness to come.
It’s not just pasta actually. There’s something about the process of making dough that I deeply enjoy. Must be the primal chemist in me.
That’s probably why I enjoyed this week’s test recipe so much. Kneading dough is my happy place.
Last night, I tried my hand at lasagna alla bolognese al forno. I was raised on Italian-American lasagna that’s loaded with mozzarella, ricotta, and tomato sauce. I have vivid memories of my aunt layering flat noodles with store-bought sauce and dollops of ricotta from a plastic tub. Lasagna was her special recipe, one she made every so often from a wrinkled magazine clipping. It was one of the few Americanized foods we ate at home on a regular basis.
Though this version of lasagna can be delicious, it has received rough treatment from institutional kitchens. School cafeterias and hospitals use bland ingredients, churning out trays of mushy pasta, soaked in a sad flavorless sauce. When I told Jay we were having lasagna, he said the only lasagna he’d ever eaten was on a trans-continental flight. Needless to say, it did not leave him craving seconds.
Lasagna just wasn’t on our (predominantly Asian) culinary radar.
That all changed last night with this lasagna bolognese. Picture this: spinach-infused egg pasta, layered with slow-cooked ragù and béchamel sauce, topped with grated parmesan. It has all the things we like about Italian food (fresh pasta with the perfect amount of bite, complex umami flavors) and none of the things we don’t like (excessive, bland tomato sauce).
From start to finish, this recipe took me 4.5 hours. I started with the meat sauce: beef, pork, and veal in a buttery mix of carrots, onion, and celery. The sauce has just a hint of tomato, a few tablespoons of paste worked into the meat before adding the wine and stock. The whole thing cooks down for 2-3 hours until almost all the liquid is gone.
While the sauce simmered, I made the pasta. The bright color comes from blanched, pureed spinach, mixed into the eggs before working in the flour. The dough rests for 30 minutes before rolling, a great opportunity to wash the dishes that accumulated in the previous steps. I also started a pot of salted water boiling at this point. When the water was ready, I made the noodles one at a time: roll a small handful of dough into a flat sheet, boil for two minutes, dunk in ice water, brush with olive oil. I made a stack of noodles as I went along. When I was done, I trimmed the uneven edges to fit perfectly into my 8×8 baking dish.
Next, I whipped together the béchamel sauce from butter, flour, and milk. I’m going to level with you here: It doesn’t really matter if the sauce is perfectly smooth. It should be mostly smooth. It certainly shouldn’t be pasty. But it’s all going in the oven together. The flavors will meld and little clumps will dissolve. Everything will be fine.
Last but not least, assemble the lasagna while wondering, “Am I doing this right? Is this going to work? Am I running out of sauce?” (Mostly, yes, and no.) Bake for 30 minutes or until browned and bubbling. Rest before serving. Gorge yourself, then fall asleep. Repeat until the entire dish is empty.
Note: I halved the ragu recipe and made 1lb of pasta for an 8×8 dish of lasagna.