The best way to make lasagna

Classic Italian-American lasagna is made with meat sauce, Classic Italian-American lasagna is made with meat sauce, noodles and a mixture of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Photo Credit: Newsday / Erica Marcus

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Erica Marcus Erica Marcus (face disguised) is Newsday's food writer.

Marcus has covered food for Newsday since 1998.

What's the best way to make lasagna, and what's the deal with no-boil noodles?

There's a reason lasagna is such a popular celebration dish. It's perfect for a crowd. The smallest recipes serve eight. It's simple to eat but intricate in its appeal, satisfying the pasta note, the gooey cheese note, the savory sauce note.

All this celebrating comes at a price. No matter how you slice it, making lasagna is a big production.

Types of lasagna

There are two main types of lasagna seen around here, Bolognese and Italian-American. The former hails from Bologna, in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region, and is made with sheets of fresh egg pasta, Bolognese ragù (meat sauce lightened with milk and very little tomato), béchamel (white) sauce and grated Parmesan. The latter is usually made with packaged lasagna noodles (the ones with ruffled edges), tomato-meat sauce and a mixture of ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.

If you want a recipe for lasagna Bolognese you can do no better than the one in "Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking," by the late Marcella Hazan. Calling for homemade pasta, homemade ragù and homemade béchamel, it takes the better part of two days -- but it's one of the most delicious things you'll ever eat.

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An excellent Italian-American lasagna can be made in a matter of hours and entails four main steps: making the sauce, combining the cheeses, precooking the noodles and assembling the layers. (Using store-bought sauce will more than halve the prep time, but if you're going to go to the trouble of making a lasagna, don't stint on the sauce. Rather than buying jarred, pick up a few quarts at your local Italian specialty market.)

No-boil noodles to the rescue

On the noodle front, there's help for the weary. No-boil noodles have been around for a while, but a few years ago, Barilla introduced Oven-Ready Lasagne (made in Italy) that are a revelation. They're thinner than the typical ruffled-edge dried noodle and, like fresh Bolognese lasagne, they're made with egg. They cook right inside the lasagna.

I recently made lasagnas with three types of noodles: Barilla's no-boil Oven-Ready Lasagne, De Cecco dried and some fresh lasagna sheets. The Barilla cooked up thinner, lighter, tenderer than the dried. I could not tell them apart from the fresh.

No-boil noodles absorb moisture as they cook. For this reason, they work best in recipes where there's plenty of sauce. For most traditional lasagne this is no problem; just use them instead of precooked dried noodles. If you're making a sauce-less lasagna -- say, one with just vegetables and cheese -- I suggest you soak the noodles in hot water for about 20 minutes. They'll become pliable and gain about 1 / 2 inch in width and length.

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When you layer no-boil noodles in a lasagna, don't leave them exposed. Make sure they are completely covered in sauce and leave a margin between them and the pan (and between them and each other) so they can expand.

 

CLASSIC ITALIAN-AMERICAN LASAGNA

If you don't make your own meat sauce, substitute 6 cups of any meat (or vegetable-based) sauce. The best mozzarella to use here is not the fresh kind just made at the pork store (too wet) or the rubbery, low-moisture kind sold in the supermarket dairy aisle (too dry). Instead, use packaged "fresh mozzarella" or ask your pork store if they have any of yesterday's mozzarella left.

For the sauce

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-- 2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

-- 1 large onion, finely chopped (about 2 cups)

-- 1 large carrot, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

-- 2 ribs celery, finely chopped (about 1 cup)

-- 1/2 cup finely chopped parsley, divided

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-- 8 sprigs thyme

-- Salt

-- Pepper

-- 1 pound ground beef or pork sausage meat or combination

-- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced

-- 1/2 cup white wine (optional)

-- 2 1-pound, 12-ounce cans peeled tomatoes with juice (about 6 cups), crushed by hand

For the lasagna

-- 1 pound (2 cups) whole-milk ricotta

-- 2 eggs

-- 1/2 pound mozzarella, shredded or chopped

-- 1 cup grated Parmesan, divided

-- 12 sheets Barilla no-boil lasagna noodles (see note)

 

1. Make the meat sauce: Cover the bottom of a large, heavy Dutch oven with olive oil. Add onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme, 1 teaspoon salt and several grindings of pepper. Stir to combine, turn heat to medium and cover pan. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables have given up most of their moisture, 5 to 10 minutes. Turn heat to low and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until onions are translucent, carrots are soft, about 10 minutes more. You do not want vegetables to brown.

2. Add meat to pot and turn heat to medium. Using a wooden spatula, first break up the meat and combine with vegetables, then smear it against bottom of pot so that it doesn't clump. Continue to cook meat until it looses all its raw color, about 6 minutes. Add garlic and stir for a minute until you smell the garlic. If using wine, add it now, turn heat up to high and cook, stirring, until it evaporates. Add tomatoes and cook on high until sauce comes to a boil. Turn heat down so that sauce cooks at a very slow simmer. Cook, uncovered, for about 11 / 2 hours, until it has thickened slightly. Remove thyme sprigs. Taste for salt and pepper.

3. To assemble the lasagna: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine ricotta, eggs, mozzarella and 3 / 4 cup Parmesan. Grease a 13x9-inch pan, or line it with pan-lining paper or nonstick aluminum foil. You'll be making a four-layer lasagna, with five layers of sauce, and four each of noodles and the cheese mixture. Arrange the sauce, noodles and cheese around the prepared pan.

4. Measure a heaping cup of sauce onto the bottom of the pan and spread it evenly around. Lay 3 noodles crosswise on top of sauce. Spread one quarter of the cheese mixture over the noodles. Make 3 more sauce-noodle-cheese layers. Spread remaining sauce on the last cheese layer. Sprinkle the whole lasagna with remaining 1 / 4 cup of Parmesan. Cover pan with foil and bake until lasagna is bubbling around the edges, about 35 minutes. Plunge a sharp paring knife into the center of the pan then lay the blade (carefully) against your lip. If it is hot, the lasagna is cooked through. Remove foil, return pan to oven and cook a few minutes more, until top begins to brown. Let rest at least 30 minutes before serving.

Note: A 9-ounce box of Barilla no-boil lasagna contains 16 noodles. This recipe uses 12. To use up the remaining 4 noodles, break them into irregular pieces. You have just made malfatti. You can also substitute 12 dry noodles, cooked according to package directions.

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