Sometimes I imagine myself in long-ago Italy, in some dark, earth-toned kitchen with a big stone hearth and lots of wood on the fire for baking bread among the embers in terra cotta baking pans. I imagine an older woman teaching me, with her long gray hair in a bun on the back of her head and a long cotton dress with an apron tied around her waist and reaching all the way to the floor, how to bake her kind of bread and make her kind of lasagna as she speaks to me in her broken English, struggling to make the silly American woman understand what she knows instinctively.
When I open my eyes, I’m back in my bright little yellow and white kitchen with dark wood floors. I love it here, but I miss the Italy I’ve never really been to. Yet.
And she’s not here; Lucia or Sophia or whatever the lovely old woman’s name might be. So I reach beyond my little world out in the country on our three little acres in East Texas by opening up my laptop, the very laptop I’m writing these paragraphs on for you, and try to discover whispers of her voice: “This is a way to make lasagna….”
I quickly found that there are many, many recipes for lasagna on various websites. As a matter of fact, when I Googled “lasagna recipe,” in .20 of a second, I received links to 1,460,000 results! Wow, Google, I don’t have that kind of time.
I went to the Food Network, and Giada DeLaurentis, she of gigantic smile and often inappropriate cooking attire, but of Italian descent, had a recipe for “classic Italian lasagna,” which included a bechamel sauce. I zeroed in on this, as I just learned how to make a good bechamel sauce in cooking class from Chef Jackson at Edom Bakery.
In this recipe, you make your own tomato sauce from vegetables (carrots, celery, onion, and garlic) which you saute in olive oil, then add to it 30 oz. of crushed tomatoes, and simmer it all for over an hour. I loved it. I was excited to make my own tomato sauce, bechamel sauce, and put together a real lasagna. (I confess here and now that my family likes a Stouffer’s Meat Lasagna, so I buy those on occasion. I’ve always thought them too sweet, however, and wanted to make my own.)
As I began working through Giada’s recipe, I noticed that there were things missing that I thought should be included. Like herbs! Sheesh, Giada. No oregano, no basil, nothing? I thought you were Italian? 😉
So let me give you the recipe that Giada, Lucia or Sophia or whatever her name might be, and I came up with together. I thought it was really delicious, in the end, though I’ll probably continue to tweak it as time goes by to make it my version of perfect. That’s something different to everyone, isnt’ it?
The MamaSteph Lasagna
a variation of Giada’s recipe, which can be found here.
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk at room temperature
- Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and white pepper
In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. Do not allow butter to brown. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and a bit of salt, to taste. Stir until well combined. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
Yes, I see the lumps. We came to an agreement and they left.
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 pound ground pork or beef, 1/2 to 1 pound ground Italian sausage (if you have no Italian sausage but like the flavor of it, sprinkle in some fennel seed. That’s what gives Italian sausage its unique flavor.)
- Salt and pepper
Brown the meat in heated olive oil, season with salt and pepper to taste, and set aside.
- 1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese
- 3 large eggs
- 1 cup grated parmesan
Thoroughly mix ricotta, eggs, and parmesan together in a mixing bowl. Set aside.
Simple tomato sauce:
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 1 stalk celery, chopped
- 1 carrot, chopped
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 (32-ounce) cans crushed tomatoes (no one seems to sell 32 oz cans. I think they’re really 28 oz or so.)
- 2 dried bay leaves
- Italian seasoning, or oregano, basil, etc., dried or fresh
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional
In a large soup pot or Dutch oven, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and bay leaves and simmer uncovered on low heat for 1 hour or until thick. Use Italian seasoning, or, individually, dried or fresh basil and oregano, and stir into sauce. (saving them until near the end of cooking time keeps them from becoming bitter.) Remove bay leaves and check for seasoning. If sauce still tastes acidic, add unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavors.
Add 1/2 the tomato sauce into the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Continue with remaining tomato sauce.
If not using all the sauce, allow it to cool completely and pour 1 to 2 cup portions into freezer plastic bags. This will freeze up to 6 months. It’s entirely up to you how much sauce you end up using. Some families prefer really saucy dishes, others don’t.
Oh, and let’s not forget the pasta! Giada uses lasagna sheets that you boil before using. I thought, if I’m going to be using all these burners to make these different sauces, I’m not going to have a spare one to boil water for pasta. I decided to try out Skinner’s Oven-Ready pasta sheets. They worked great! I shall never boil lasagna sheets again. I used one 8 oz box, I believe it was.
Combine the bechamel sauce and pureed tomato sauce. (Giada only adds 1 1/2 cups of tomato sauce. I added several cups. You do it your way!) It becomes a lovely pink color. Taste it to make sure you’re happy. If not, add what you think it needs.
Pull out a nice, deep 9×13 pan to bake in. You can layer this, really, any way that you want to. I did the following:
Layer of tomato sauce mixture on bottom of pan.
Layer of pasta sheets.
Layer of ricotta mixture.
Layer of meat mixture.
Layer of mozzarella.
Repeat. Finish by topping with mozzarella, and some grated parmesan if you have some left over.