It took me a long time to come up with my ‘perfect’ lasagna recipe, but I’m happy to say I think I’ve finally found it. Some people don’t like using ricotta cheese in lasagna because they’re not a fan of the texture – like cottage cheese, I feel like it’s very often a love it or hate it kind of thing. Personally, I’d rather have ricotta than cottage cheese, but the reason why I love using it in my lasagna recipe is because it’s one of the only ways I’ve been able to get the creamy consistency to the sauce that I so love with such a rich flavour. Ever since I went to Bologna last year (the birthplace of Bolognese sauce!), I’ve also much preferred making lasagna with the green, spinach-based lasagna leaves.
In Bologna, lasagna is almost always made with the green pasta – sheets of fresh egg pasta and spinach, thus the greenish hue – and it actually tastes much better than the regular ‘yellow’ sheets seen on most lasagnas around the rest of the world (go figure – it is a Bolognese dish after all, so of course they’d know best!). I also don’t really care how fattening it might be, because while I like eating healthy most of the time, sometimes you just need to indulge in something fatteningly delicious… and this is one of those dishes I’d happily have a ‘fat day’ for. Authentic or not, I’m happy with my current ‘final recipe’ and I humbly think it tastes really good – I can attest to this by the fact that the last time I made it, the 8-person serving that I’d made was wolfed down by 3 people within about 15 minutes. I’d say that’s a pretty good record for proving that it was good, wouldn’t you? :)
- 1 medium onion, diced into tiny cubes (I use golden onions but red ones are fine)
- Ground beef, about 0.7kg
- Readymade Bolognese sauce, or if you prefer to make it from scratch, I like making a tomato-basil sauce with cooked chopped carrots in it
- One tub (around 250g) fresh Ricotta cheese
- A generous splash of milk, about 1/4 to 1/2 a cup
- 200-250g grated sharp cheddar
- Cherry tomatoes (one punnet), halved
- Olive oil
- Seasoning: Salt, freshly ground black pepper, herbs to taste (I like using oregano but thyme works well too), and a large pinch of cinnamon (at least half a teaspoon)
- Optional: Bacon, cooked until crisp and crumbled (or chopped into small pieces)
1. Preheat oven to 200C.
2. Cook the diced onion with a splash of olive oil until soft and golden brown. Add in ground beef, stirring with wooden spoon until cooked, adding in herbs, salt, pepper, and a pinch each of cinnamon and nutmeg. Cinnamon and nutmeg are my secret ingredient for cooking ground beef – it makes it taste (and smell) a million times better, and while it may seem weird adding them to meat when they are so often used in sweet dishes, trust me – a large pinch of cinnamon and a small pinch of nutmeg in cooked ground beef will still leave it savoury, it’ll just taste a million times better!
3. Add in cherry tomatoes, stirring in with beef, and cook until tomatoes are going soft and the beef is nice and browned and cooked. If you want to add in bacon, now is the time! Set aside.
4. Warm the ricotta in a small saucepan on low heat, continuously stirring until it’s smooth and melted. Little by little, drop in small handfuls of the grated cheddar cheese, stirring immediately afterwards each time vigorously so the cheddar cheese is melted and absorbed into the ricotta and so the mixture doesn’t burn by sitting still. You can keep tasting while stirring and adding the cheddar in, stopping if you feel it’s flavourful enough or adding more if you feel there isn’t enough – just keep in mind the taste will deepen during the baking process later! Keep doing this until all of the grated cheddar has been absorbed into the mixture, then grind some freshly grated black pepper into the mixture, stirring until mixed. Ta-dah! You have your bechamel sauce.
5. Now, you’re ready to assemble your lasagna. I like to use a big rectangular glass baking dish, partly because I like being able to see the layers as I add them in (and it helps me see how it’s cooking along when I peek at it to check if it’s done), but also partly because I just feel like it cooks really well in the glass dishes. First, spread a layer of plain tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish. This doesn’t need to be a super thick layer, just enough so that the base layer of your pasta doesn’t burn or become too crunchy – you want to add just enough so it cooks and softens the base layer of pasta from the bottom. Next, layer the pasta on top. I like to make sure the pasta sheets or ‘leaves’ overlay a little, so if they curl up and shrink a little as they cook there won’t be a big gap anywhere. Next, layer the Bolognese tomato-meat sauce on top of the pasta, following that with a layer of the bechamel sauce. To even out these sauces, I use the flat back of a wide spoon. There’s your first layer done! Repeat, with a layer of pasta, layer of the Bolognese sauce, layer of the bechamel sauce, and another layer of the pasta. I usually find that I have enough room for two or three layers (I like a generous layer in between the pasta sheets!) but there’s no hard rule about this. When you have reached your final layer, make sure the very top layer is made up of just the bare sheets of pasta covering the rest. Then, spoon some plain tomato sauce over that, topping with a final layer of just bechamel sauce – so your top layer of pasta is topped just with tomato sauce and bechamel, no meat sauce.
6. Pop it in the oven, and bake at 200C for 20 minutes. For me, these are the perfect temperature and time ratios – the lasagna leaves on the top get a tiny bit crispy underneath the smooth, melty sauce, and the insides are perfectly warmed with the pasta sheets just al dente. I do use an oven with a fan to make it though, so if you don’t have a fan in your oven or aren’t baking it on that setting I’d suggest either kicking up the temperature a notch to 225C, or just baking it for a bit longer. I then take it out, put the entire tray on a cooling rack, then cool for 10 minutes before serving.
If you want to make a vegetarian version, I just substitute the ground beef for sliced, sauteed zucchini (aka courgette) and portobello mushrooms, and swap the cinnamon and nutmeg for a pinch of garlic powder. It’s also really good (sometimes I even prefer it to the beef version) and you can also combine the beef and veggie filling… the combinations are endless, it’s one of the things I love about lasagna.
I like serving it with a simple insalata mista on the side – arugula and some pretty purple leaves tossed in olive oil and some tasty balsamic vinegar. You can also add some crusty fresh bread if you want, but while I adore bread in this case I’d rather give it a miss so I have more room for pasta. Yum indeed :)