The best Lasagna outside of Italy
I have to say, I haven't met many people who don't enjoy a well-made lasagne (or lasagna depending on where you hail from). It's a hallmark of home cooking, if you can make lasagne then you can cook!
But many people don't really know where to start, there's hundreds of ready-meal lasagne's out there (sickly sweet and frankly disgusting) and even those that are 'homemade' often make use of pre-bottled sauces and spice mixes.
The greatest part about making your own, truly making your own, is that it's completely customisable. Fancy spicing things up? Throw in a few chilies and some cayenne pepper. Cheesier? Easily done with a little extra cheddar and some Parmigiano-Reggiano. Vegetarian? No problem, just sub the mince/ground beef for some quorn or mushrooms. There's no need to buy a cheaply made, sugar encrusted microwave meal when you probably already have everything you need to make a top-notch, tongue teasing dish of hearty Italian goodness.
- 3 per desired layer Lasagne sheets
- 400g Minced or ground Beef
- 1 Onion
- 400ml Tomato Passata or Chopped Tomatoes
- 500ml Whole milk
- 5 Cherry tomatoes
- 5 Spring onions/Shallots
- 50g White plain flour
- 50g Butter (the real stuff, nothing in a tub!)
- 400g Grated Cheese
- 1 tbsp Olive Oil
- 4-5 medium Mushrooms
- 1/2 Bell Pepper
- To Taste Paprika
- To Taste Balsamic Vinegar
- To Taste Salt
- To Taste Black Pepper
- To Taste Oregano
- To Taste Basil
- To Taste Garlic
- Pinch Sugar
- 1 tbsp Tomato Puree
Gather your equipment
And the rest...
Where to begin
I always begin by turning up the heat, set your oven to 200 degrees C (390 F or gas mark 6). We'll prep everything while it warms up. Also, you might have noticed the candles in the picture above; not just for decoration, these really do have a purpose in my kitchen (and if you choose to use them too then any candle will do, they don't need to be multicolored and smell like a bakery).
Onions and aromatics
THIS is what the candles are for. I'm terrible for crying like a baby the second you break through an onions skin so this is the solution. The candles somehow stop the crying chemical from reaching your eyes and voila!
After onion chopping
So chop your onions how you like them and heat a bit of olive oil in a large frying pan (or skillet, whatever you like). Don't let the oil smoke! if it's smoking it's too hot and your burning away your antioxidants.
Some people like to chop garlic and shallots and add them in here too, it's probably more traditional. Personally, I've always added the shallots/spring onions in with the other veg and I use powdered garlic because I tend to leave the fresh stuff in the cupboard so long it loses it's kick (plus have you ever tried to clean a garlic press? so many tiny holes!).
Add the chopped onion and garlic/garlic powder to the pan, turn it down to medium and leave them to soften, stir every so often to stop things from burning. This is the point where I'll chop the rest of the veg.
You can add any veg you like. I've chosen mushrooms, red bell pepper, spring onions/shallots and cherry tomatoes but it's really just personal taste, some people like to add spinach, carrots, even broccoli.
Cut them according to your own preference, Mine are pretty small but others might prefer a chunkier sauce.
Throw them in the pan then grab your meat! (Veggies skip the next step!)
Once your vegetables are in the pan, stir them round with the onions and garlic. Add your beef and break it up. Cook until all the beef is brown (or grey, suppose it's not really brown).
Now add your tomato passata. Passata is just diluted tomato puree, I think. I used to use chopped tomatoes like the rest of the world but I always found it a bit too liquidy. Tomato soup works well too but it's all down to taste. You might like to add stock at this point, about a cup (or roughly 250ml) I didn't have any on hand this time! One thing to note is that if you do use stock then cut down on the amount of salt you use, stock's full of it and I don't fancy brine lasagna.
Personally I go by eye (tongue?) when it comes to seasonings. If your new to this try adding a teaspoon at a time and taste it often. The pan in the picture has balsamic vinegar (the dark liquid at the bottom) to balance the acids, salt and sugar (both white powders), the salt's for taste, the sugar on the other hand is to balance the bitterness from the tomato (and red pepper) I finally discovered this trick after years of wondering what was missing in my lasagne. Make sure you use it sparingly or you'll end up with tomato syrup.
The herbs are basil (under the salt) and oregano (big green bit in the middle). The red powder under the sugar is paprika, not necessary just a personal favourite. You can see the black pepper at the top and if you look closely you can see the tomato puree under some oregano.
It probably won't be right first time so start small, taste and if you need to then add more. It's a nightmare trying to get seasoning out once you've put it in so exercise a bit of caution.
Once you've got everything stirred into the meat sauce, turn it to low and let it reduce. It doesn't need much attention, maybe a quick stir every now and then which is good because the bechemel sauce requires 24/7 care!
But first, let's grate some cheese.
Cheese grated and put to one side? Great!
Now grab a set of scales, a pan, a wooden spoon and a jug of slightly warm milk. The real works about to begin.
Bechemel sauce is used inbetween the meat and pasta. It's rich, creamy and when made right is to die for. Warm the milk in a pan, add a few cloves and a bay leaf and leave it til the flavours infuse, remove the leaf and cloves and voila! You've got bechemel milk.
(confession, I forgot to do this so the pictures you're about to see just use normal, standard milk. Still delicious but may be a bit boring it you leave the cheese out).
So first weigh yourself out 50g (3.5 tbsp) of butter and melt it on a low heat in the pan. Then add 50g of flour and mix them together. Well done, you've made a roux!
This bit requires a LOT of patience and it can go wrong pretty easily. Make sure the milk is warm as it will help it to blend (microwave can help) and only add a TINY bit at a time, especially in the first few stages.
Add some milk (little bit, little bit) and mix it into the roux. It's not going to go in instantly.
If you think it's not working DON'T PANIC! Just get out your pocket guide and realise that the milk is mostly harmless.
Seriously though, just keep mixing, if you need to whisk it then it's not the end of the world and there's nothing stopping you using a colander to strain out any lumps.
But once you've had a bit of practice then lumps won't be a problem. Just keep adding little bits of milk until it looks a little like this.
This is technically white sauce because I didn't infuse the milk, but look how smooth it is!
Not too much flavour yet though... hmmm what can we add here....
Cheese, a cow's answer to everything.
Mix it in until it's all melted and the sauce is smooth again. But don't forget, you need cheese for the top as well!
Once you're done, you should end up with two sauces a bit like this.
So now it's time to start layering.
I like to use a 2-tier pasta layer so meat-white-pasta-meat-white-pasta-white-cheese but really you can do it however you want.
Try not to overlap the lasagne sheets, it's better to snap off the corners as overlapping can mean they won't cook properly.
I'm guessing your ovens been on for a while now, probably time to use it. Pop the lasagne into the oven and cook for 20 minutes to give the pasta a chance to soften and the cheese on top a chance to melt and get all bubbly.
While we're waiting, toss up a side salad and maybe throw in a bit of garlic bread. A basil, mozerella and tomato salad covered in pesto is delicious and keeps the Italian theme going, but it's all down to what you feel like serving.
- 20 minutes later -
There you have it! Tasty, rich, cheesy lasagne! It'll serve 4-6 depending on your appetites.
If you've got any questions or suggestions for an even better lasagne please let us know in the comments below.
Bon Appetit! or Buon Appetito I should say!