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.
Honest to God, it’s hard to know where to start. I joined the Daring Bakers to expand my horizons and this? This was my first challenge – spinach pasta with ragu and béchamel.
OK, first, I’ve never made pasta, ever. It has many components that have always intimidated me, like kneading, rolling and cutting. Second, my little experiences with béchamel have been…woeful. Woeful is a good word. Third, the closest I’ve come to a ragu is a few tries at bolognese and while they are moderately similar, they are not at all the same. Also, I was expecting something more along the lines of, say, dessert.
But a challenge is a challenge is a challenge, thus began my journey into two days of hard, hard work.
(entire recipe will be included at the bottom of this post.)
The first part to be tackled was the pasta itself.
I started my pasta the night before, just to give me a little breathing room. I am exceedingly grateful for my own sense of caution because this took forever. Part of the challenge was making the pasta, and I decided to really tackle the challenging by mixing, kneading and rolling it all by hand in the spirit of it all. I will not be so naive in the future, you can trust me there.
You start by making a well on a large surface with your flour – basically a big hill, and then dig an indention in the middle. Fill it with spinach and top with eggs, like a little edible volcano:
Next you want to beat your eggs, then beat the spinach into the eggs, then gradually add the flour from the sides, reshaping your well as you go. I did this with a wooden spoon and used my hand to hold the flour up.
Here’s where my first obstacle occured, and it’s such a shame because I was feeling so cocky about how it all looked. My flour/egg/spinach dough forming in the middle became way too dry. In my previous picture you’ll note I used three eggs when the recipe called for two – it’s because I couldn’t get a small package of jumbo eggs and I already had a dozen large eggs. At this step, I added another egg because, well, it just wasn’t coming together like it seemed it should. While it helped, I think I could have maybe used one or two more, because in order to get all that flour in, I spent the next 30 minutes squeezing, shaping, squeezing, shaping, and finally kneading, trying desperately to get everything worked in so that my ball of dough felt “alive” beneath my hands. Mostly it still felt like dough, but I finally got to the point where it was good enough. I wrapped it in saran wrap, chucked it on top of the coffee pot so my dog wouldn’t eat it, and let it rest until morning.
I should also note that I did this over Saturday night/all day Sunday so that my husband could watch over Grey, and I’m glad I did because it required virtually all of my concentration.
So Sunday morning I have my coffee, my breakfast, my sales ads, then I tackle the dreaded rolling. I can really see where a French rolling pin would be practical here because I had great difficulty with my standard rolling pin keeping the thickness to an even level.
The recipe stresses that your lasagne should be as thin as possible, like sheets of paper thin, and I found this extraordinarily difficult to do by hand. I had a lot of holy scraps that got chucked from the process of trying to get it that thin, and I didn’t have nearly the amount of layers as some of the other DBers squeezed out of their dough.
I did, at least, manage to get it thin enough to be transparent when backlit, so hey, that’s something. Rolling it all out and cutting it into sections (which were too small for my pan, should’ve made an 8×8 instead of 9 x 13) and draping it over chairbacks to dry probably took somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 hours. Let me just mention again that I’m 8 months pregnant and how much fun it is to be on my feet for long periods of time. On hardwood. Barefoot. Anyway, dried and stacked looks like this:
I’m not sure that’s precisely how they’re supposed to look, but that’s what mine looked like. I’m actually pretty pleased with how thin I managed to get them considering my potentially over-dry dough and my rolling inexperience.
Moving on, the next step for me (almost immediately following the pasta rolling) was the ragu. I stuck with the recipe that was included with the challenge, which was a ‘country’ ragu – a meat sauce made out of mirepoix, pancetta, proscuitto, veal, pork loin and skirt steak, with a bit of tomato and some cream.
Your proscuitto, veal, pork loin and skirt steak, as pictured in order above, get tossed into the food processor for a coarse grind. I’m not sure I’ve mentioned before how much I absolutely loathe handling meat so this was especially enjoyable, particularly the veal since I am not much of a fan of the flavor and in addition, it has one of the most disgusting textures I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing. Gross.
The pancetta, in turn, gets chopped along with celery, onions and carrots to go into mirepoix, which by the way has the most fabulous smell of just about anything you can chuck into hot oil.
I don’t know what it is about celery but the smell of it cooking just fills me with joy. I’m not sure it has anything at all to do with taste, but just the smell…man, I love things that smell good. You know, as opposed to things that smell terrible. Like giancuale. No, I still haven’t recovered from that and I will not let it go.
I deviated a tiny, tiny bit here and kept everything in a single pan – I deglazed and reduced the wine in my dutch oven while the browned meats were hanging out in the strainer instead of transferring it to a skillet. I don’t think it had any negative inpact. What DID have a negative impact was me getting impatient and not letting my dairy heat slowly, so it curdled when I added it into the sauce. It still tasted fine, but it looked revolting. Lucky for you I don’t have a picture.
The béchamel was relatively simple and I was actually really pleased with how it turned out, but I had a great deal of difficulty in terms of knowing how thick a béchamel should be. I still don’t know the answer, is it a thin sauce or a thick one? How do you determine when its done? I cooked mine long beyond the recipe’s given timeline, and it looked OK on the lasagne, tasted fine and I had enough, so I have no idea. Sauces are hard.
My husband went ahead and fed my son at this point, since it was close to 8 and we usually put him down for the night at 8, and the lasagne still had to be assembled and baked. The dried noodles are supposed to be cooked for a few minutes, then shocked in cold water to keep them from getting overcooked and too soft, and I failed to remember the shocking part until several noodles in. I also only barely had enough noodles for three full layers – I had to use some creative arranging techniques to accomplish that.
As you can see here though, it certainly looks OK. Though I think traditional American-style lasagne is more visually appealing (tomato sauce, browned cheese, om nom nom) this is definitely pretty. And when you slice into it, it gets even more lovely:
With the bechamel and the melted romano, and the green pasta and the tomato peeking out in the ragu, I think aesthetically it can compete with Americanized lasagne. Flavorwise, though, I think I have to go with ours. There is a delicacy of flavors here that I think is worth trying, but I found the veal overwhelming in the ragu. The bechamel is a great touch though, especially since I’m not a big ricotta/cottage cheese fan, and it may be worth giving that a shot in a good ol’ tomatoey-ground beef/sausage heart attack lasagne someday. Texturally it blends in a lovely way, the pasta itself was quite good, almost silky.
But for 16 hours of labor? Give me a Stouffer’s.
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).
Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)
Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time
10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
The ragu and 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 (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.
Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 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 about four 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 about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup 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 center (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.
#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
Preparation: 45 minutes
Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.
2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)
Working by Hand:
A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.
A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.
A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.
Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.
A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.
Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.
Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.
With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the 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:
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 center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.
Stretch and even out the center 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 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!
Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.
Preparation Time: 15 minutes
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 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.
#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.
Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. 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. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.
Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.
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.