Lasagna can be a heavy cheese bomb. The comfort casserole dish of noodles layered with a tomato-based meat sauce, mozzarella, ricotta and liberal doses of Parmesan is a rich dish that takes time to make. It requires long-cooked meat sauce and, if you are ambitious, handmade pasta. It is good. And it is a project.
This story is not about that kind of lasagna, which has its origins in Naples. It is about lasagne, which is ubiquitous north of Rome. Note the difference in the last letter of the name. Lasagne is plural and refers to the noodles themselves, also plural. Lasagna is Italian American parlance and refers to the aforementioned cheesy composition, the dish in toto.
Lasagne-with-an-e is a multi-layered luxurious delivery system for flavor, made with thin egg noodles and bolstered by silken pools of the thickened buttery sauce known as besciamella in Italian, and béchamel in French. We call it white sauce.
Let’s add some history about béchamel to the story. The sauce originated in Tuscany during the Renaissance, and was brought to France by Catherine de Medici’s chefs. I like to think it was brought in lasagne. It’s milk thickened with a binder of briefly cooked butter and flour, called roux. Béchamel, which is one of the “mother sauces” of French cuisine, is used as a soufflé base, to nap various dishes as a sauce; it’s also the helpful, glorious glue that can hold baked dishes together.
The lasagne of this story is also made with no-boil noodles, which are thin, Italian-engineered noodles, rather than the more labor-intensive handmade kind — or the thick, curly-edged, dried noodles of your lasagna childhood. A note about the stuff in a box: We chefs are conditioned to think that convenience substitutes can’t be as good as the “real” made-from-scratch ingredients. But in this case, the thinness of the noodle is what matters, and the no-boil noodles — pre-cooked then dehydrated at the factory — allow the home cook to whip up a beautiful dish without the complication of a pasta-making project.
To these convenient noodles, add that béchamel sauce and you have a dish that you can assemble in minutes rather than hours — especially if you rely on seasonal ingredients as the “condimento,” or flavoring. It’s an elegant and simple way to use up any bits and pieces you have in the fridge. It’s a form of kitchen pragmatism — even optimism, which is maybe useful for the coming year.
I think most Americans grow up eating some version of a cheesy noodle casserole with tomato sauce. I know that I did. My mother and I would make a meat-based “spaghetti sauce” once a month, which we usually served atop spaghetti but on special occasions we layered it with all the cheeses and made it into the classic festive casserole. And when she didn’t want to cook, we’d go to Milano’s, then our local Italian restaurant on Hillhurst Avenue, and order it.
Milano’s is long gone, but it was my first experience with restaurant lasagna. Served in the heavy, shallow oval often known as a rarebit dish, it was a square portion, made with thick, wavy noodles that were layered with ricotta, mozzarella and meat sauce — then covered with more sauce and cheese. It was definitely good. But it wasn’t as good as the layers of thin pasta layered with whatever was on hand and laced with béchamel, barely inflected with nutmeg and smooth as silk.
An essential element of béchamel-based lasagne is its versatility. Lasagne is so much more than a meat dish, and I love how easily it takes center stage with a seasonal focus when béchamel is the base. Only have tomato sauce in the house? No problem. Simply layer it with béchamel and Parmesan. The same is true for pesto sauce. Lasagne is a pantry-driven, ever-changing canvas.
This time of year I make either a roasted butternut squash version, with a bit of additional fontina, or I sauté a pile of mushrooms and make them the main attraction. Ever wondered what to do with those beautiful bags of mixed wild mushrooms you see at the farmers markets? This is it: lasagne ai funghi, or mushroom lasagne, the béchamel edition.
So that’s what I give you as a New Year’s gift — not a dish that has a reputation for being heavy and time-consuming at a time when many folks are sharing the latest way to do penance for enjoying the holiday table, but rather lasagne that takes a fraction of the time as the meat-sauce version, and that eats like a dream.
Kleiman ran Angeli Caffe for 27 years. She’s the longtime host of KCRW-FM’s “Good Food” and a member of the James Beard Foundation’s Who’s Who of Food & Beverage in America.
In a heavy-bottom saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Add the flour and stir to form a smooth roux. Cook the roux over low heat until it turns a blonde color, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir and scrape the sides continually to keep the roux from burning.
Slowly add the milk, whisking it in with the roux. Increase the heat to a medium high and continue cooking at a gentle simmer, whisking frequently and scraping the sides and bottom of the pan.
Continue cooking until the sauce thickens and it loses the taste of raw flour, about 20 minutes. Season with the salt, pepper if you wish, and the nutmeg. This makes about 1 quart béchamel sauce. Set aside until cool and thick enough to dollop; the sauce can be made ahead and stored, covered and refrigerated, up to 1 day.
Remove any woody stems from the mushrooms and roughly chop them.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. Stir in the mushrooms and sauté until they soften and begin to color. Add the garlic and rosemary, stirring to combine well, then add the parsley, along with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper, or to taste. Remove from heat. Set the mushrooms aside until ready to assemble the lasagne.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. The lasagne will contain 4 layers of pasta. 3 have broth, béchamel, mushrooms and Parmesan, and the 4th is the top layer, containing only broth, béchamel and Parmesan. As you use the noodles, pass them briefly under cold water to moisten, before placing them in the pan.
Lightly oil a 13-inch by 9-inch baking dish with a paper towel dipped in olive oil.
Pour 1 cup of broth onto the bottom of the baking dish. Place a layer of moistened noodles on the bottom of the dish. Drizzle 2 to 4 tablespoons of broth over the noodles, enough to create a film, then cover with a thin, even layer of béchamel sauce. Using a soup spoon, dollop spoonfuls of béchamel over the first layer. Scatter a third of the sautéed mushrooms over the béchamel. Finish with grated Parmesan.
Make another layer of moistened noodles. Again, drizzle over 2 to 4 tablespoons of broth over the noodles, followed by a thin layer of béchamel and the dollops. Scatter half of the remaining mushrooms over the béchamel, followed by the grated Parmesan. Repeat to make 1 more layer.
Finish the lasagne with another layer of pasta filmed with broth and generously topped with a smooth layer of béchamel. Sprinkle over grated Parmesan.
Cover the lasagne with foil. At this point you can refrigerate the lasagne up to one day. To cook, place in the oven for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue to cook until the top is speckled with golden dots and the lasagne is heated all the way through, an additional 20 to 40 minutes.
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