Given my love of Italian food and because I’ve been writing this blog for over nine years now, it’s a bit surprising that I haven’t given a recipe for a traditional Lasagna al Forno before. I’ve given a vegetable version and have talked about making – and eating! – lasagna, but have not given an actual recipe.
Lasagna is what I think of as one of those wonderfully comforting meals that bring so much pleasure, and it’s certainly a favourite with my family – hence making it for Sunday’s family meal. However, writing about it is fraught with pitfalls if you want to claim any authenticity in the Italian food genre. So … I’ve been doing a bit of research and much to my surprise found that lasagna’s origins actually stem from Ancient Greece. The name lasagna derives from the Greek word laganon, which was the first known pasta. Then the Romans made lagana, sheets of a mixture much like pasta. On into the Middle Ages, we find a friar from Parma, Fra’ Salimbene da Parma, writing in 1284 about a chubby friar eating lasagna: ‘I’ve never seen anyone stuffing himself on lasagna with cheese so pleasurably’ and this is the first reference to cheese in the recipe.
Tomato was added in the 1880s in Naples and certainly my version uses a ragù that contains a lot of tomato, making it more of a Ragù Neopolitan than a Ragù Bolognese. The layered lasagna that we know today does however hail from Bologna, developed by Francesco Zambrini, and contains egg pasta, ragù, béchamel and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Even this varies slightly from what most of us would guess as a traditional lasagna’s ingredients because the specific use of a spinach pasta is deemed more authentic and this version has even been registered as authentic with the Chamber of Commerce of Bologna by the Academia Italiana di Cucina (Italian Kitchen Academy).
When I was in Bologna back in 2014 I was very careful not to mention, let alone ask for, ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’. One of the things I love about Italians is their passion for food – and for getting things right. ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’ is not an Italian dish but really American, or more correctly, made by Italian immigrants in America in the early 20th century, who found the meat much cheaper than in Italy, so added more to their dishes. In Bologna you will find a Bolognese ragù served with pasta but it’s always tagliatelle, not spaghetti, because the Italians don’t consider the shape of spaghetti correct for a ragù sauce. Italians have so many different shaped pastas because they like to match the sauce – what it contains, its thickness, etc. – to the pasta shape. Knowing this, I didn’t know where that left lasagna while I was in Bologna. But I did have a Lasagna alla Bolognese for lunch on my last day.
It was very good, though in all honesty nothing remarkable, but it did lead me to find out that Lasagna alla Bolognese is indeed a dish from Bologna. I have though been careful to call my recipe here ‘Lasagna al Forno’, lasagna cooked in the oven. I make no claim to authenticity! As said above, my ragù is really of the kind found in Naples with lots of tomatoes (in Bologna there’d be very little tomato and maybe not any); I happened to have a new pack of white lasagna sheets and didn’t go in search of green (spinach) ones. I’ve put it all together in the way I’ve done for so many years I’ve lost count. I’m giving a basic recipe but it’s a moveable dish: exact measurements aren’t necessary; I always add mushrooms to my ragù, a hangover from I don’t know when but they do add a lovely extra depth of flavour, though you can leave them out if you prefer; you could put less tomato in and a different herb seasoning; some recipes use white rather than red wine. Experiment and see what you like best.
But before we get on to the actual recipe, let’s pause a moment to consider béchamel sauce. I’ve always made mine with cold milk, adding it slowly and beating well with each addition (if it goes lumpy, just take it from the heat and beat hard and it will go smooth again). In recent years though, people have suggested adding hot milk. I did a bit of research on this too, especially after seeing Mary Berry recommend hot milk on TV the other night, but remembering Michel Roux Jr saying it was important to use cold milk. There seems to be no definitive answer as there are arguments for both from well respected corners. The argument for cold is that it gives time for the roux (the butter and flour) to cook through properly, making it smoother, less grainy. As for me, I’m sticking with what’s always worked … and taking the cold side along with Michel.
Here’s my version of Lasagna al Forno. I made more ragù than needed as I wanted some extra to freeze in single portions for a quick supper another day (I got three portions).
Lasagna al Forno
- about 12 sheets of lasagna
- plenty of Parmesan
- extra virgin olive oil
- 1 large onion, finely diced
- 2-3 carrots, finely diced
- 1 large stick celery, finely diced
- 800g best quality beef mince
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 6 chestnut mushrooms, finely sliced
- 1 x 20cl bottle red wine (small one-serving size)
- 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
- 1 x 500g passata
- 1 level teaspoon dried oregano
- 75g butter
- 75g plain flour
- 600ml milk
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- a little grating nutmeg
To make the ragù: put about 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large pan with the onion, carrots and celery. Cook over a medium heat, stirring frequently, until they start to soften and colour without going brown (about 5 minutes). Add the beef mince and season with salt and pepper. Stir over a fairly high heat, turning the meat until most of it is coloured.
Add the mushrooms and cook for another couple of minutes.
Add the wine and mix in well. Leave the mixture to bubble gently over a low-medium heat until most of the wine is absorbed. Now add the tinned tomatoes, passata and oregano. Turn up the heat and as soon as the mixture starts bubbling, turn the heat right down to very low and put a lid on.
Leave to simmer for about two hours, stirring occasionally, until well reduced and nicely thickened.
To make the béchamel sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan. Add the flour and mix well to form a smooth roux. Slowly add the milk, a little at a time, and beating well with each addition. If at any time it goes lumpy, remove from heat, beat well and then return to the heat. Once all the milk is added you should have a lovely, fairly thick, smooth sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste and a grating of nutmeg. Let it bubble gently for a couple of minutes then remove from the heat.
I like to soak lasagna sheets briefly in some boiling water to soften them a bit before layering up the lasagna. Most dried lasagna sheets you buy these days say it doesn’t need pre-cooking but I think it’s better for a little soaking and this also makes it easier to shape in and cut any bits that are too large.
To layer up the lasagna: use a large shallow dish (mine is about 24 x 24 xm). Grease it with a little oil or butter. I soak about 4 sheets of lasagna in hot water as I go, bringing the 4 out onto a chopping board and putting 4 more in. While they soak, fit the first ones into the first layer, covering the bottom of the dish and cutting to size if needed. The number of sheets you need for each layer will depend not only on your pasta size but the size of your dish.
Add enough béchamel sauce to cover the first layer of pasta, just thick enough so you don’t see through it. Now add a few spoonfuls of the ragù, spreading it out across the béchamel carefully. Grate over a little Parmesan and then add another layer of pasta.
I usually do 3 layers of pasta to 2 layers of ragù and 3 layers of béchamel, finishing with a thick layer of béchamel on the top. Grate over a good amount of Parmesan. I like a good cheese flavour on the top and also a nice crispy Parmesan topping.
I made the lasagna earlier in the day ready to take round to my son’s late afternoon for an early supper. It’s a brilliant dish for advanced planning as once I arrived at my son’s it only needed to go into the oven for about 45 minutes at 200C/Fan 180/Gas 6, until beautifully brown on top. It’s a good idea to let it stand and settle for about 5 minutes before serving.
Doesn’t it look wonderfully inviting! It’s a great family dish, something the little grandsons (5¾ and nearly 3) were very happy to eat too. I served it with a green salad and the grown-ups enjoyed some nice Italian red wine with it.
You can make all kinds of lasagna with different fillings instead of the ragù, but for me, there really is nothing like the traditional combination (even if it’s not quite authentic enough to please the Italian Academy!