California Cook: Lasagna: A delicious project for a Sunday afternoon

Fresh pasta can give a simultaneous delicacy and luxuriousness of fresh compared with dried pasta.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

We all have our own rituals for fall Sunday afternoons. Some guys sit around and watch football; for me it takes only about a quarter before I need a nap. Others feel inspired to take up household projects; the less said about my ability with a hammer the better.

Instead, I cook. Well, I cook all year round, but when the days start to cool and the light turns golden, I get more ambitious. Rather than 30 minutes at the grill, I throw myself into hours-long kitchen projects. This year, it’s been lasagna.

It started in late September. I had just gotten back from the farmers market when I heard that Marcella Hazan had died. I looked over everything that I had bought and in her honor immediately started making dough for fresh pasta. And peeling and seeding tomatoes and turning them into sauce. And making a Parmesan-enriched white sauce. And blanching, chopping and sauteing beet greens. And then putting it all together. All of a sudden it was dinner time.

There’s nothing like lasagna from scratch to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon.

It’s habit-forming. I’ve made lasagna every weekend since. Not all have been so involved, of course. One weekend I made Hazan’s wild mushroom and ham version. Another time I experimented with spicy tomato sauce and basil-flecked ricotta. Once you’ve mastered the basics of lasagna, it really is a most adaptable construct.


And I’ve learned there are places you can compromise to make the project easier. Canned tomatoes work just fine for most sauces. Not all lasagnas call for both ragù and besciamella. Spread out the work, taking one step at a time and making time for a break in between. Lasagna is forgiving that way.

One place I don’t compromise is on fresh pasta. The fresh-versus-dried pasta debate is an old and tired one and, in the end, pointless. Each type of pasta has its purposes. Think of them as types of cloth: Fresh pasta is silk and dried is wool. But while I will grant that there are very good lasagnas made with dried pasta, the simultaneous delicacy and luxuriousness of fresh is what really makes the dish in most cases.

When it comes to building the lasagna, remember the importance of the pasta. The dish should be as much about the noodles as it is about the filling. Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the pan, then a layer of pasta. Spread a thin layer of filling, then another layer of pasta, repeating until you’ve either filled the pan or used up all the ingredients, finishing with a layer of sauce. Then just sprinkle with cheese and bake.

You’ll want to let the lasagna settle for 10 minutes or so after it comes out of the oven. It’ll be hard to resist the smell, but just keep reminding yourself that it’s too hot to eat anyway. And besides, when you do finally cut into it, the lasagna will taste just that much better.

It’s a lot more work than throwing a steak on the barbecue, no doubt. But what else are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon?