NOTES ON MAKING LASAGNE
“When pasta is served in soup or broth, it is pasta in brodo. Served as a separate dish with a dressing, it is pasta asciutta. A third category, pasta al forno, comprises various baked dishes using plain or stuffed pasta.” Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food
Some, including Marcella Hazan, think lasagne should only be made with home-made noodles. In Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking she writes, “Properly made lasagne consists of several layers of delicate, nearly weightless pasta spaced by layers of savory, but not overbearing, filling made of meat or artichokes or mushrooms or other fine mixtures. The only pasta suitable for lasagne is paper-thin dough made freshly at home…. It might take a little more time to run the pasta dough through a machine than go to the market and buy a box of the ready-made kind, but there is nothing packed in a box that can lead to flavor of the lasagne you can produce in your kitchen. Using clunky, store-bought lasagne may save a little time, but you will be sadly shortchanged by the results.”
No doubt she’s right, but she’s down-playing the time needed to make fresh pasta at home. And not everyone has the space for a pasta machine and drying rack. So, some of us will, on occasion, not only use store-bought lasagne noodles, but we will also, if pressed, use “oven-ready” or “no-boil” noodles, a recent innovation that surely gave Marcella fits. According to Gourmet Magazine, “No-boil lasagne noodles are one of the miracles of the modern culinary world. They are thin, light and tender — remarkably like homemade pasta, in fact, especially if you choose a brand (such as Barilla) that contains egg.” Note that Barilla, my usual favorite pasta, makes a no-boil lasagne noodle that tastes good, but somehow disappears into the sauce. It is insubstantial. If that bothers you, try Ronzoni. You may wish to soak the noodles to make them pliable beforehand (4 minutes in very hot water) if you need to trim them to fit your pan, or if you are using a drier filling.
Not all Italian lasagnes are the same. The austere version Marcella describes above is typical of Emilia-Romagna, considered by some to be the pasta-making capitol of Italy. Further south, things change. In Molto Italiano, Mario Batali offers a recipe for Neopolitan lasagne prefaced by the comment that “The Neopolitans are much more dramatic than the Bolognese, a characteristic that is evident right down to their lasagne.” The lasagnes we are familiar with in the United States, the result of southern Italian immigration to this country, are of the southern variety, spilling forth sausage, meatballs, tomato sauce, and many cheeses. They are certainly not weightless and Marcella, I’m sure, would view them as overbearing at the very least.
When assembling a lasagne, always begin with a layer of sauce, so that the next layer, noodles, will have something to absorb, and measure out the sauce so that you aren’t caught short at the end. Continue layering measured amounts of filling, cheese, sauce and noodles, ending with something moist on top and a scattering of cheese to brown in the oven.
Lasagne should be allowed to rest after baking to collect its juices, improve taste and cut easier. It’s possible, for some recipes, to cook the lasagne a day ahead, let it cool and then refrigerate it. Reheat it, loosely covered with foil, in a 350* oven before serving.