daring bakers: lasagne of emilia romagna

as you know, it’s daring bakers time again! the march 2009 challenge is hosted by mary of beans and caviar, melinda of melbourne larder and enza of io da grande. they have chosen lasagne of emilia-romagna from the splendid table by lynne rossetto kasper as the challenge.

i was thrilled to see another savoury challenge and very happy to have the opportunity to try a different ragu as well as use homemade spinach pasta in my lasagne.

so, how did i get on?

spinach pasta – the pasta dough was a bit tricky to work with. i’m not sure if this was due to the addition of spinach, which produced a lovely mottled effect, or the fact that i only let me dough rest for the minimum time recommended as we had lunch guests due! whatever the reason i wasn’t able to create sheets of pasta thin enough to see though, as specified in the recipe. i used my pasta machine to roll out the dough and it was easy enough until i tried the finest setting. still, it was much finer than the dried lasagne sheets which i usually use and i used nine layers of pasta which is double what i’d normally do for a lasagne of this size! the recipe specifies to pre-cook the pasta before assembling the pasta – i didn’t and had no problems as a result, probably because it was so thin.

ragu – the ragu varied from my usual recipe in a number of ways. it calls for a mix of meats – i used beef and pork – and for this to be minced at home – i hand-chopped mine. it also uses a very small amount of tomatoes and quite a lot of milk. the milk wasn’t too surprising as i know from my own recipe that it helps tenderise the meat, however, a lack of tomatoes was more worrying as i love the tomatoeyness of my ragu. surprisingly the overall taste wasn’t that different to what i’d usually make although i did miss the gentle smoky undertone that i normally get from the addition of a bay leaf. the change of texture – slightly mnore chunky and rustic – which resulted from the hand-cut meat was great.

béchamel sauce – easy peasy, no problems here!

assembling the lasagne also resulted in differences – the many layers of pasta are separated by very thin layers of both béchamel and ragu plus a sprinkling of parmesan whereas i usually restrict my white sauce (or my cheat’s equivalent of crème fraiche!) and cheese to the final layer.

the final verdict:

  • would i have tried this recipe if it hadn't been part of the daring bakers challenge? yes, i love lasagne and making my own pasta.
  • would i try this recipe again in the future? no. i will definitely use handcut meat again but that’s all. i really missed the contrast between layers that i results from a thicker lasagne and thicker/separate ragu and sauce layers. this dish wasn’t heavy but it was a bit stodgy. it was almost like someone had made lasagne for a small child and just stirred all the different components up so every mouthful had the same taste and texture, which is just dull.

lasagne of emilia-romagna* (lasagne verdi al forno) (serves 6 to 8** as a main dish)

1 recipe spinach pasta cut for lasagne - recipe follows

1 recipe bechamel sauce - recipe follows

1 recipe country style ragu - recipe follows

125g freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

working ahead: the raguand the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. the ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. the pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. the assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature for about 1 hour before baking. do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the centre is hot.

assembling the ingredients: have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. preheat the oven to 180c. oil or butter a 3 litre shallow baking dish.

cooking the pasta: bring the salted water to a boil. drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. cook about 2 minutes. if you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. the pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. when cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

assembling the lasagne: spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. arrange a layer of slightly overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. sprinkle with a tablespoon of the cheese. repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

baking and serving the lasagne: cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the centre (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). take care not to brown the cheese topping. it should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. then serve. this is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

spinach egg pasta (pasta verde)

2 jumbo eggs, each weighing 60g or more (my eggs weighed 60g and i used 3)

300g fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 170g frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry

400g plain flour (i used a mix of 00 flour and plain flour)

mixing the dough (this is my method which is less messy than the original!): mix together the flour and spinach in a large bowl. make a well in the centre and add the eggs. gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. you may need extra liquid (i used an extra egg) in order to incorporate all the flour into quite a stuff dough. don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

kneading: on a floured surface, start kneading the dough. once it becomes a cohesive mass, use a scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. knead the dough for about 3 minutes. its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. if it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. it will feel alive under your hands. do not shortcut this step. wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

stretching and thinning (i used a pasta machine to roll my dough): if using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. with a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. the idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. as it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the centre and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the centre of the pin outward. unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. do twice more.

stretch and even out the centre of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. the goal is a sheet of even thickness. for lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. cut into rectangles about 10x20cm. dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.


60g unsalted butter

60g plain flour

570ml milk

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

freshly grated nutmeg to taste

using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

country style ragu’ (ragu alla contadina)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

60g pancetta, finely chopped

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 medium stalk celery with leaves, finely chopped

1 small carrot, fnely chopped

125g boneless veal shoulder or round

125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 125g mild italian sausage (made without fennel)

250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)

30g thinly sliced prosciutto di parma

160ml dry red wine

375ml chicken or beef stock

500ml milk

3 canned plum tomatoes, drained (i used a 350g tin of chopped tomatoes)

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

browning the ragu base (this is my simplified method which means you only need 1 pan): heat the olive oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. add the pancetta and vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, for 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to colour. coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, or finely chop it. stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. first the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. cook for 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown.

reducing and simmering: add the wine to the pan, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, scraping up the brown glaze on the bottom of the pan as the wine bubbles. stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. repeat with another ½ cup stock. stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. stir frequently to check for sticking. add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. season with salt and pepper

*all recipes below from the splendid table: recipes from emilia-romagna, the heartland of northern italian food by lynne rossetto kasper (published by william morrow and company inc., 1992).

** six of us ate this and i thought the portions were on the small side so i’d increase quantities if you are cooking for eight.