There are as many lasagna recipes as there are cooks in Italy, yet, with so much variation, there is one regional tradition that stands out among all the others: Bologna’s lasagna. It is the lasagna that all others aspire (and fail) to be. This particular incarnation of Italy’s famous recipe features sheets of spinach pasta layered with meat ragù and béchamel.
My version is straight out of Maestra Alessandra’s playbook and it’s a dish that graces her table—and mine—every time she invites an honored guest for Sunday lunch. I feel particularly protective of this recipe and it really bonds me to the maestra. In all the time Alessandra has had La Vecchia Scuola, she never let any student build her lasagna.
The dish is so sacred to her that even her daughter wasn’t allowed to touch it. One day, about three months into my tenure there, she nonchalantly asked me to roll out a sfoglia verde, then brought ragù, béchamel, and a pan over to my counter and said, “fai”—make it. It was one of the proudest days of my professional life.
Making lasagna requires several components, so be sure each is ready before you start the assembly. You’ll need a pot at least 16 in [40 cm] wide for blanching the pasta sheets. You can also halve the sheets crosswise and use a smaller pot at least 8 in [20 cm] wide.
by Danny Mena
Preheat the oven to 375°F [190°C].
Lightly grease a 15 by 9.5 in [38 by 24 cm] baking dish with unsalted butter.
Roll one dough ball to a thickness of 9 Post-it® Notes on a lightly floured surface. Using a sharp knife, cut the sfoglia into 3 pieces measuring about 16 by 8 in [40 by 20 cm]. Lightly flour another surface and set the pieces on it to dry, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, flipping midway through the drying time.
Reserve the scraps, which you may need to fill in any gaps when assembling the lasagna.
Meanwhile, repeat the process with the remaining dough ball.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Season the water with salt. When the salt dissolves, add 1 pasta sheet and blanch for 30 seconds. Using a spider, transfer the pasta to the prepared baking sheet to cool. Once the pasta is cool enough to handle, smooth it out. Repeat with the remaining 5 pasta sheets.
Spread about 1 cup [225 g] of ragù in the prepared baking dish, distributing it evenly. Spread 1/2 cup [112.5 g] of the besciamella over the ragù, distributing it evenly. Place one blanched pasta sheet over the sauce and besciamella layer. Spread about 1 cup [225 g] of ragù over the blanched pasta, distributing it evenly, followed by 1/2 cup [112.5 g] of the besciamella, distributing it evenly. Dust with about 1 cup [100 g] of Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Continue to layer the pasta with the remaining ragù, besciamella, and Parmigiano-Reggiano, ending with the Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Cover the baking dish with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.
Remove the foil and bake until the pasta is cooked through and the edges are crispy and browned, about 30 minutes more. Let the lasagna rest for 10 to 15 minutes to firm up before serving. Serve immediately with more Parmigiano-Reggiano on the side.
The cooked lasagna will keep, refrigerated and tightly covered, for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
SFOGLIA VERDE AGLI SPINACI - SPINACH DOUGH
Blanched spinach gives this dough, which is used for lasagna, balanzoni, and smeraldine, its vibrant green color. The first few times I worked with Spinach Dough, I found it very disorienting. I was accustomed to egg dough, which you can see through after rolling it past a certain point to assess how thick it is.
When rolling Spinach Dough, take your time and use your sense of touch. Once you get a sense of how it feels when it’s the correct thickness, aim for that every time. This knowledge comes with practice.
There’s no need here for fancy baby spinach—any type from your local supermarket will do. I even know a few home cooks in Bologna who use the precooked frozen stuff. If you’d like to do the same, defrost it, dry it very well, and substitute 65 g [2 1/4 oz] for the fresh spinach; no need to blanch it. Either way, process the spinach until very smooth so it doesn’t inhibit the dough’s gluten development.
Makes two 385 g [about 13.5 oz] pasta dough balls, serving 6
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Season the water with salt. When the salt dissolves, working in batches to avoid overcrowding, add the spinach.
Boil just until the stems soften, 30 to 40 seconds. Using a spider, remove the spinach and spread it on a tray.
Let cool for about 20 minutes. Return the water to a boil before adding the next batch. When all the spinach is cooked and cool enough to handle, wrap it in a clean, dry dish towel and squeeze out all the excess water. The spinach must be very dry.
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the spinach and eggs. Process on high speed until smooth and bright green, about 2 minutes.
MAKE THE PASTA DOUGH: Sift the flour onto your work surface and make an 8 in [20 cm] diameter well in the center. You should be able to see the work surface in the middle and the well’s walls should be high enough to contain the spinach mixture.
Pour the spinach mixture into the well. Working from the interior edge of the well, use a fork to incorporate a bit of the flour with the mixture.
Continue incorporating a bit of flour at a time until the interior edge of the well becomes thin and the dough is thick and has the consistency of pancake batter. Clean off any flour mixture stuck to the fork and add it to the dough.
Using a bench scraper, scrape any flour from the work surface into the dough. Working in a clockwise motion, cut the dough together as though you are making biscuits: scrape, fold, and cut.
Continue working the dough until a shaggy mass forms, 2 to 3 minutes.
Parts of the mass will be rather wet, while other parts will be floury.
Scrape any dough from the bench scraper into the mass.
KNEAD THE PASTA DOUGH: With both hands, pull the far end of the dough toward you quickly and energetically, fold it over itself, then push it away from you using the heels of your palms. Rotate the dough a quarter turn and repeat the kneading until the dough is a compact mass, 3 to 5 minutes.
The dough will be slightly tacky.
Transfer the dough to a clean part of your work surface.
Using the bench scraper, scrape any dry bits of dough from your work surface and discard.
Wash, but do not dry, your hands and continue kneading the dough as before until it is relatively smooth with a cellulite-like texture, an indication of gluten formation, 3 to 5 minutes more.
Wrap the dough tightly, seam-side up, in plastic wrap, smoothing out any air pockets. Set aside to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.
SHAPE THE PASTA DOUGH: Unwrap the dough. Halve it with a sharp knife, cutting in a sawing motion. On a lightly floured surface, knead one piece of dough energetically with both hands, anchoring the dough with your non-dominant hand as you pull the far end of the dough toward you, then press down, through, and away with your dominant hand. Turn the dough counterclockwise using your non-dominant hand, moving it in 1 to 2 in [2.5 to 5 cm] increments as you knead, like the hours on a clock.
If the dough feels too dry, spray it and your hands with water, a little at a time, until it has lost its dryness.
If you are closing the round ball and find the folded end (back door) is not sealing, spray that with a touch of water to help it along. Continue kneading until the dough is soft and smooth all the way around, 3 to 5 minutes. Repeat with the second piece of dough.
Place each dough ball in the middle of its own piece of plastic wrap measuring about 12 in [30.5 cm] square.
Working with one ball at a time, pull one corner of the plastic wrap up and lay it over the ball. Then, turning and rotating as you go, make 15 to 20 tiny pleated folds of plastic, almost like a candy wrapper, until it is fully and tightly sealed. The plastic wrap will follow the contour of the dough, which will create even pressure and support from all sides and prevent a flat surface or hard edge from developing when wrapping the dough. Set the dough balls aside to rest at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, or up to 24 hours in the refrigerator, before rolling.
The dough will keep, refrigerated and tightly wrapped in plastic wrap, for up to 2 days. Do not freeze. Before rolling, set the wrapped dough on the counter and let it come to room temperature, about 30 minutes. This is a must for refrigerated egg doughs.
RAGÙ DELLA VECCHIA SCUOLA
Ragù, long-simmered meat sauces, are now synonymous with Bologna and are well into their fifth century on the city’s tables. They rose to popularity during the Renaissance, when Italy’s nobility began to be heavily influenced by France’s spiced stews. And, though you’ll never get an Italian to admit it, each ragù is evidence of Francophilia dating back centuries.
Ragù della Vecchia Scuola, the maestra’s classic ragù bolognese, tastes of a specific place. The prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and vegetables all contribute the characteristics of their own terroir, so, technically, no one can actually recreate Alessandra’s ragù outside her city. That doesn’t mean I won’t try. An important thing to realize is that if you use products bought in America, or anywhere near you, it won’t taste exactly the same as it does in Bologna. But there are tricks to infuse those qualities of bolognese cooking into these dishes. I cook locally and I suggest you do, too.
Eighty percent of Italian cooking is about getting the best ingredients. The other 20 percent is about not fucking them up.
Buy the best local ingredients you can afford, but know there is no substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s the backbone of this dish and it’s irreplaceable. You can, however, forgo grinding the meat at home and have your butcher do it for you. You’ll have about 2.5 qt [10 cups] of extra sauce when you make this recipe, but trust me, you’ll be happy about that.
Serves 6; makes 4 qt/16 cups [3.2 kg] sauce
Using a meat grinder, or a grinder attachment, fitted with a large die, grind the beef into a large bowl. Without cleaning the grinder, grind the pork shoulder into the same bowl. Set aside. Without cleaning the grinder, grind the pancetta, prosciutto, and mortadella twice into a medium bowl. Set aside. Pass the celery, carrots, and onions through the grinder into another large bowl and set aside.
In a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat, melt the strutto. Add the ground prosciutto and pancetta and cook until the fat has rendered, about 4 minutes. Add the ground vegetables. Cook, stirring frequently, until they are golden brown and softened, about 15 minutes.
Add the ground beef and pork and generously season with salt and a small amount of pepper. Using a wooden spoon, gently mix the meat and vegetables, stirring from the bottom of the pot. Cook until the meat releases its juices, 6 to 8 minutes. Stir in the wine and cook until the contents of the pan begin to steam. Add the passata and brodo, stir to combine, and turn the heat to low.
Cook the sauce at a bare simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender and the sauce is concentrated, 5 to 7 hours. Begin tasting for tenderness and seasoning after 5 hours. (If you’re using grass-fed beef, it will take a lot more time to cook than conventionally raised beef.) The sauce will keep, refrigerated in an airtight container, for up to 5 days, or frozen for up to 6 months.
PASSATA DI POMODORO -TOMATO SAUCE
Each August, bolognese families gather to harvest, blanch, peel, and bottle tomatoes to use throughout the year. If you have your own preserved tomatoes, this would be a great place to use them. Otherwise, opt for a high quality canned version. I like the San Marzano variety for my passata and Bianco DiNapoli is my favorite domestic producer.
Makes about 3 qt [2.8 l]
Pass the tomatoes through a food mill into a large bowl. Alternatively, in the bowl of a food processor, pulse the tomatoes on high speed until very smooth, about 1 minute.
In a large pot over medium- low heat, heat the oil until it begins to shimmer. Add the garlic and marjoram and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and salt and cook until the tomatoes have lost their raw flavor and the sauce has reduced slightly, about 30 minutes.
The sauce will keep, refrigerated in an airtight container, for up to 5 days or frozen for up to 6 months.
BRODO DI CARNE - MEAT BROTH
Brodo di Carne is the backbone of so many recipes in this book. You’ll use it in the most traditional dish, Tortellini in Brodo, but also as a building block for many others. The simplicity of a great brodo speaks volumes. The one I make is the maestra’s—it’s how she makes it and how her family has for generations. Everyone’s brodo is their own, and small tweaks can make each unique. One family might use more carrots, another more onion. One might use beef neck, another shank. I go for a chicken and veal shank combo, because I want to evoke la bell’aria—“the smell of the air” in Bologna, the aromas that typifi ed my favorite versions eaten there. A by-product of Brodo di Carne is a lot of simmered meat that is often used as the basis for Lesso Ripassato, a sauce for strozzapreti.
Great brodo is achieved with patience and time. It takes a full 24 hours to develop the beautiful, round, fortifying fl avors. If you rush it, it will taste rushed. You must cook it overnight, so just make sure the area around the stove and the pot is clear and that the heat is very low.
The recipe yields much more brodo than you need for any single recipe in the book. This is one of those batch recipes that bolognesi make in abundance, and so do I, especially because it is the amount of brodo that results from simmering one whole chicken. Use any leftovers by making other recipes that call for Brodo di Carne, adding to soups, or freezing what you don’t need for future use.
Makes about 9 qt [8.6 l]
In a large heavy-bottomed pot over low heat, combine the chicken, veal shank, celery, carrot, and onion. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Decrease the heat as needed to maintain a bare simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 24 hours. The brodo can bubble occasionally, but do not boil, stir, or disturb it in any way.
After 24 hours, the brodo will be golden and translucent and taste savory. Using a ladle, skim off the scum from the top of the brodo and discard. One ladleful at a time, pass the brodo through a fi ne-mesh strainer or chinois into a large container or several smaller ones. Do not pour it—the force will push impurities through the strainer and contaminate the brodo. If you are not using the brodo now, cool it completely over an ice bath before storing. The brodo will keep, refrigerated in an airtight container, for up to 10 days or frozen for up to 3 months.
Made with butter, flour, and milk, béchamel is a classic white sauce that’s a staple in Italian and French cooking. Bologna’s lasagna wouldn’t be the same without it. To prevent the sauce from congealing, which would make it difficult to spread between the layers, prepare it last and time its completion to coincide with boiling the pasta sheets. You can also make it ahead and reheat it.
Makes about 5 cups [1.1 kg]
In a medium sauté pan or skillet over medium heat, melt the butter until frothy and golden. Whisking vigorously, slowly “rain in” the flour.
Once all the flour is added, whisk continuously for 3 minutes more. The mixture should appear crumbly, but smell sweet and toasted.
Still whisking continuously, add the milk in a steady stream, whisking until the mixture is very smooth.
Season with the salt and nutmeg and whisk to combine. Increase the heat to medium-high and cook the mixture until it is thick enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon, about 2½ minutes. Use now or refrigerate.
The béchamel will keep, refrigerated in an airtight container with plastic wrap laid over the surface, for up to 5 days. To reheat, transfer to a medium sauté pan or skillet and add warm water, as needed, whisking constantly to avoid clumping as the béchamel warms.
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