Creating the meat component of a lasagne is similar, but not quite the same, as creating a bolognese sauce. You could probably quite happily use it on top of pasta and nobody would be any the wiser, but – when I cook it at least – it has slightly different components, and different final consistency. Here’s my method:
Here’s the cast of characters: basil, marjoram and oregano (dried is fine), chilli powder, minced garlic (as always, use two cloves of minced fresh garlic if you want), a small jar of tomato paste, a jar of diced tomatoes, a jar of passata sauce (we’ll only use about half), a brown onion, and hiding in the back there about a kilogram of mince.
What’s the vegemite doing there? I know I didn’t list it in the cast of characters, but that’s because this is a secret ingredient. I don’t tend to use salt in cooking, and Vegemite is a great way of enhancing the flavour of rich sauces like this. It’s salty, but it also adds that beefy oomph that this type of sauce can really benefit from. But ssssshhhhh! Don’t tell anyone!
Leave it to simmer, and let’s move on to Phase 2: Bechamel Sauce!
Bechamel sauce is a basic white sauce. I like to add cheese, pepper, and some herbs to it for lasagne, otherwise it just tastes, well … white. And that’s not much fun. It’s a little fiddly if you’re doing it from scratch, but not too difficult. It does require a lot of stirring, and you really can’t walk away from it at any point, though. Make sure you have a good twenty minutes up your sleeve before you start.
Here’s our cast: butter (I always use unsalted), plain flour, cracked pepper, reduced fat cheese (I’ll tell you why in a second), milk (any kind is fine. I’m using reduced fat) and some fresh herbs – parsley and chives.
The amount of sauce you end up with is dependent on the amount of butter you start with. I don’t measure anything (you’ve probably already noticed that), but this is about 100g. I would use more rather than less if you’re unsure.
Once the butter is completely melted, grab a heaped tablespoon full of flour. It pays to have your flour right next to the stove, you can stir with one hand and grab flour with the other. You do need to work reasonably quickly, at least to start with.
Quickly stir it all up. I tend to use a wooden spoon for this, so that I can get in to the edges of the saucepan, and make sure it all gets incorporated. Don’t worry about any lumps at this stage. We can worry about those in good time later on.
Getting thicker. By adding the flour incrementally, we can be sure to get the right proportion (see my earlier comment about not measuring things!). By stirring it smooth after each addition, we also end up with a lovely smooth roux. A smooth roux is the key for a smooth sauce.
Add another slosh of milk, stir it in, and keep stirring while it thickens. This will take longer and longer each time you add the milk. Make sure you add small quantities at a time (it’s very tempting to add a lot, but it will slow the whole process down significantly, because you need to heat the whole lot again).
This is still a bit thin, but if you have a heavy-bottomed saucepan, it will continue to thicken as we go through the next few steps. The price you pay for a smooth sauce is eternal vigilance: you’ll only get lumps if you let it sit on the heat without stirring it. But, if you do have lumps at this stage, never fear! Add a little extra milk, and get your balloon whisk out. Give it a really vigorous beat to get the lumps out, and it should come good.
Garlic bread is dead easy, it really is quite hard to stuff up. You can use virtually any kind of bread, and just about any herbs. This is my version:
Now move on to Phase 4: Assembly. We’re nearly done!
And now for the exciting part! Putting it all together, and cooking it into something truly wonderful!
You will need a good sized baking dish (corningware works the best if you have one. Otherwise, any solid ceramic dish should be fine). Put it either on top of a biscuit tray, or sit it inside a larger baking dish. This is to catch drips because, if you’re anything like me, you’re going to fill that dish right up. Give the baking dish a good spray with some oil to stop the lasagne from sticking.
Fresh lasagne sheets. I really can’t recommend using anything other than these. If you do feel the need to use dry sheets, then
slap yourself make sure you add extra liquid to the meat sauce, as they will suck it up. Nothing worse than dry lasagne.
There’s a knack to getting these lasagne sheets unstuck from each other without tearing them. Place the whole lot down on your board, and open each sheet as though it’s a page in a delicate book. Start at the top corner, and run your hand gently down the length, before peeling it back.
Then drizzle the rest of the bechamel over the top. Don’t put a layer of pasta on top of this one, though. If you have any lasagne sheets left, put them in a snap-lock bag and store them in the freezer. You can thaw them out on the bench and use them next time. Alternatively, you can slice them up into thin pieces, and use them as fettucine.
Whatever you do, don’t use pre-grated cheese for the top of the lasagne. It never melts properly. Get out whatever hard tasty cheese you have in the fridge (low fat is good, so that you don’t end up swimming in oil. I’ve used Colby here, though, as it’s what I had).
Very loosely put some foil over the top. If you put it on too tightly, then the cheese will end up sticking to the foil, and not on the top of the lasagne where we want it. Pop it in the oven at 180 degrees.
After 45 minutes to an hour, pull it out of the oven, and take the foil off. See the puddles of oil I have here? That’s because I used full-fat cheese on the top. You can use a paper towel to blot that off. Put it back in topless. Put the garlic bread in with it.
Any leftovers? Put the individual pieces in plastic containers and freeze for up to three months.