On Writing, Tech, and Other Loquacities

The collected works of Lana Brindley: writer, speaker, blogger

Lasagne

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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.

Chop the onion in half and lop the top off. Peel back the skin and use your paring knife to slice it lengthways. No need to cut it too finely, just dice it up into squares.

Grab your chef’s knife to finish the job.

Heat some extra virgin olive oil in your saucepan, and throw the onion in.

Add the herbs and the garlic.

Stir it all around until the herbs start to smell good.

Push the onion out to the edges of the pan, and throw the mince in to the hole you’ve made in the middle. This is to make sure that the mince hits the pan and cooks before the onions start to burn.

Stab the mince with the end of your spatula to break it all up.

Then stir it all around to brown.

Once the mince is cooked, throw in the jar of tomato paste.

And slurp in about half the bottle of passata.

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!

Dig out a good teaspoonful of the stuff.

And stick the spoon like that straight into the simmering mixture.

Leave it a second, and then pull the spoon out again. Gone! Magic! Give it a good stir around.

Then pop the lid on (or, if your saucepan doesn’t have a lid like mine, use some foil), and turn the heat way down low.

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.

Put the saucepan over a very low heat, and chop the butter up a little to help it melt. Stir it around so that it melts evenly, you don’t want it to start bubbling if you can help it.

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.

Dump the flour into the butter.

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.

Once the flour is all incorporated, the sauce should go smooth, and start to thicken almost immediately.

Get another spoonful of flour ready, and dump it in.

Stir it all in. Keep going on this process until all the melted butter has been completely incorporated, and the mixture is stiff.

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.

Like this! This took about four heaped tablespoons of flour. Now to make it liquid again …

Slosh in some milk …

And stir it all around. It will thicken up quite quickly, so move fast.

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.

If your sauce is thick enough already, or if you have a heavy-based saucepan, turn the heat off. Then grab your herbs and those trusty scissors, and start snipping.

Don’t forget to keep stirring it, because it will continue to cook for a little while yet.

Dump in a good amount of grated cheese. I use low-fat so that the lasagne doesn’t end up swimming in grease when it’s cooked.

Add in a good dose of pepper, mix it all around, and then let it sit uncovered while you get started on Phase 3: Garlic Bread.

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:

This is a Turkish loaf. And a gratuitous knife shot.

Use your bread knife to chop it into thick slices.

Then cut each slice in half along the length.

Here’s some butter that has been in the fridge.

I put this in the microwave for twenty seconds. The idea is to only half melt it.

Chop up some chives.

And chop up some parsley.

Add a huge dollop of garlic (or as many cloves as you could be bothered peeling and crushing).

Then stir it all up together. Because we didn’t completely melt the butter, it should be at a nice spreadable texture now.

Smear it all over the inside of the bread. Use it all up, you can’t have too much.

Reassemble the loaf on top of a good amount of foil, with the shiny side up.

Sprinkle some more chopped parsley over the top, then give it a good spray with whatever oil you have in a can. I used canola.

Wrap the short ends over the bread, they should only just meet in the middle.

Grab each long end, and roll them in towards the loaf.

The bread should just be peeping out from between the foil.

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.

Rinse and repeat.

And then on to the other side.

It should now be pretty trivial to pull each sheet off the pile as you go.

Put a third of the mince in the bottom of the dish.

It should just cover the entire base. Feel free to use a little extra here if you need it. Use your spoon to push it right into the corners.

Put a sheet of lasagne on top, and use your set square to work out how how to fill up the rest.

Cut out any bits you need.

And then place them on top too. Try not to overlap them too much, but it’s important not to leave gaps.

Dribble a third of the bechamel over the top of the pasta. See how the corners are starting to curl up a little? That’s because of the heat in the meat.

Smear the bechamel all around, and push those curly edges back down. Make sure you don’t leave any holes.

Sprinkle some grated cheese over the sauce.

And add another layer of pasta.

Now for the second lot of meat.

Another layer of pasta.

Some more bechamel and cheese. Top this with another layer of pasta.

Then put the last of the meat on. Don’t stress if this layer is a bit short, just smear it around as evenly as you can. Top it with another sheet of pasta.

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).

Be liberal, and completely cover the bechamel sauce with the grated cheese.

Sprinkle some more parsley on for some colour. You can also use cracked pepper, paprika, or just about any fresh herb here.

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.

And after another thirty minutes … it’s ready!

The garlic bread should be nice and brown now too.

Pull open the foil and put it on the table.

And serve up the lasagne. Stand back and watch people make fools of themselves as they scramble for the plates.

Any leftovers? Put the individual pieces in plastic containers and freeze for up to three months.

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