March 27, 2009

Homemade Lasagna with Spinach-Egg Pasta, Bechamel Sauce and Italian Sausage Ragu

Guess what!? Its time to reveal the Daring Baker challenge for the month of March. The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992) as the challenge. Our instructions included making homemade spinach-egg pasta, the challenge being rolling out the pasta by hand, preparing bechamel and if interested, making homemade Meat/Veg Ragu sauce.

I chose to do the Spinach-egg pasta, the bechamel and a Ragu sauce with fresh hot Italian Sausage. I wasnt very excited about doing this challenge, I almost didnt do it. The prospect of hand-rolling the pasta and lack of my previous experience in preparing any kind of lasagna played in my mind and I decided that most probably I wouldnt do it. But then my fellow Daring Bakers posted their succesful challenges in our forum and seeing their beautiful lasagnas encouraged me to do it. Still I wasnt too eager to try it out ......

My experience:

I decided to bake individual portions of lasagna so that I wouldnt have to take any chance that the lasagna would slip and get sloppy while cutting and serving.

I halved the recipe for the pasta, but still had to add 3 large eggs to make the dough. The initial dough was lumpy which turned smooth after a few minutes of kneading. The dough was left to rest for about 1 1/2 hours. The rolling-out part was a little tough, I finished mine by dividing the dough into quarters and rolling them out real thin on the counter. (Check out the picture).

Instead of cutting the pasta into long sheets, I cut them into 4" by 4" squares because of my idea to do individual portions. The pasta squares were dried at room temperature and kept in an air-tight container.

I prepared the bechamel sauce as per the instructions, but again halved the recipe. It was a very simple and quick recipe. I looooved the sauce, the taste and the color was perfect!! The addition of nutmeg really made a big difference in the taste of the sauce, it was amazing!!! I would love to try it out as a sauce for other dishes as well.

The meat ragu recipe given was a bit complicated with a lot of ingredients, I decided to go simple using just Fresh hot Italian Sausage (ground) for my meat ragu. Again, I halved the recipe and used about 9 1/2 oz. of ground sausage substituting it for all the other meats. Using minced onions, celery and carrots, I followed the recipe, using red cooking wine for deglazing. Actually when I browned the meat, no glaze was formed! ;-). I used one 14.5 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes and one 14.5 oz can of diced tomatoes for the ragu. In the end I felt that I could probably reduce the amount of tomatoes by a little amount. The ragu was also deeelicous!! I was sampling it by spoonfuls in between the cooking.

Last night, I cooked the pasta in salted boiling water and as per my decision to bake the lasagna in individual portions, I made three double lined foil boxes, based on the size of the 4" pasta squares. The lasagna was layered with two sheets of pasta interlaced with the sauces and grated Parmesan cheese. The layers were finished off with a final layer of bechamel sauce and a generous dusting of grated Parmesan cheese. I got two lasagnas with 4 layers each and one with three layers. ( I lost a few sheets to extreme boiling in the water ;-)). I also came up a little short of bechamel for the last portion of the lasagna.

The foil boxes were covered with foil and the lasagnas were baked at 350F for about 30 minutes. The foil cover was taken off and baked for about 5 minutes. The lasagna was allowed to rest for 10 minutes in the oven with the door slightly ajar.

Results of the Taste test :

I must say that we liked the lasagna. JM said that the lasagna was delicious and he was happy with his share. Although I liked the lasagna, I am not too crazy about it. For me, the taste didnt justify the amount of work that went into it. It sure was a very time-consuming challenge. Eventhough the individual components of the lasagna were outstanding, they didnt come together to the degree I expected. I expected an explosion of outstanding flavors, but I didnt get it. (Maybe it was my seasoning!). Anyway, I accomplished atleast part of what I set out to do - a few firsts in my culinary journey - my first ever lasagna, first homemade pasta, my first bechamel. I also gave JM a lovely homemade meal and proudly completed the requirements of the Daring Bakers challenge. Eventhough I doubt I will make this again, I am happy that I tried this out. It sure was a delicious and satisfying meal.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)
Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows) #1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows) #2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows) #3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano


Working Ahead:

The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Assembling the Ingredients:

Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Cooking the Pasta:

Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne:

Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:

Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

#1 Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
Preparation: 45 minutes
Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:


A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.

A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough.

A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:

Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.


With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:

If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

#2 Bechamel
Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes & Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Working Ahead:

The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu’ before using it.

Browning the Ragu Base:

Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

Reducing and Simmering:

Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Do check out the awesome "baked-masterpieces" of my fellow Daring Bakers. Check out my previous Daring Bakers Challenges here.

Entry to CLICK : March 2009

This picture of the lasagna is my entry to Click event of Jugalbandi for the theme Wood.


Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Beautiful Lasagne! You did a great job!



Sanghi said...

Mmm Excellent presentation and click..! Delicious delights..!:)

Anonymous said...

Nice job, JZ! I also incorporated sausage into the lasagne, but by itself :) Love the photos too!

Madhumathi said...

I'm stunned!You have done a 'GREAT' job..your lasagna looks gorgeous..
The pictures are awesome!

Zita said...

Nice plating, great job on the challenge :)

Rachel said...

Lovely presentation as always..Mine were sloppy as I sliced into it..shall bake individually to remedy that...Great job J.

Aparna said...

Looks really good, and the cntrepiece of a perfect dinner.

Asha said...

Slurp!! Looks so good, I am ready come over now! ;D

A_and_N said...

wow thats is some hard wor that you've put in JZ. And the pics...they look like a dining table at a gourmet restaurant :) Superb post :)

Rajitha said...

wow! what an entry and process huh!! the first pic and the great idea of making them in individual portions..this way nobody gets cheated on the sides..that is my fav btw!!

Sujatha said...

Awesome looking Lasagna! Want to have it right now :)

meeso said...

Wow, everybody who is making this is so brave :)) This is a lot of work! Looks great!

Candice said...

Looks really great, and I love all your photos!

JMom said...

Great idea to make individual portions. Your photos are just awesome!

Jo said...

Great job on your lasagne and it really, really looks delicious.

Nidhi said...

Great Pictures as usual! My sentiments exactly when it comes to the lasagne taste. It was a challenge baking which I liked but I doubt that I too will be making it again. I think I needed a little more spice in my lasagne. It was a little strange to see me sprinkle some chutney on my lasagne;-)

Lauren said...

Mmm, your lasagne looks amazing, yum =D!

Jenn said...

I had to add extra egg to mine too. I agree, tasty but not worth the effort.

ice tea: sugar high said...

Love your styling! Such a beautiful dinner. Great job on the challenge =)

Anonymous said...

I lurve your plating photo! I love everything about it. Great job! Congratulations for finishing this challenge so beautifully!

bee said...

that looks delicious!! thank you.

Rajee said...

Beautiful Lasagne with excellent presentation.