What makes lasagne so good?
Updated: Nov 17, 2021
“Lasagna: the world's most perfect food!” 'Garfield' (Jim Davis)
Last night we had three of our grandchildren staying overnight and they helped me cook dinner - well they actually did most of the work. They had requested lasagne and here we are with the finished product, about to put it on the plate and see how it turned out. See below.
It's a different dish every time is it not? Because it tends to be a bit of a rubbish bin for leftover bits of this and that in your fridge. Last night's version was delicious, but I now realise that we did not pour cream over the top in lieu of the traditional béchamel, which I confess I gave up on years ago. Cream is an excellent substitute I have found. Although I have to say that last night's creamless version was also extremely tasty. And then I saw this comment from top Italian chef, Mario Batali
"I might use milk if I was using a touch of milk to make like a lasagna or a baked pasta. But cream? That is totally not the way they do it in Italy, and it's not a very good thing. It's kind of a blanket for flavor." Mario Batali
And you know he may be right. From accidents caused by memory loss, a new version is born.
Lasagne is very possibly the world's most popular food, but not, of course, the lasagne that I have written about before - the supposedly authentic version which requires hours of cooking of the ragù which makes up the main part of the dish, and the careful cooking of the béchamel. Dry or fresh lasagne sheets? Still an argument over that one.
And what we had last night was also not 'authentic'. It was made with minced beef, onions, grated carrot fried in the pan and then stewed with tinned tomatoes, tomato paste, fresh chopped oregano, garlic, red wine and a beef stock cube. Plus a little water. We did make fresh lasagne, with eggs and a little passata rolled through my genuine Italian pasta machine, which was layered with the meat sauce and topped with torn bocconcini and grated cheddar. As I said I would normally then pour over some cream, but not yesterday. I just forgot. Abby remarked that sometimes if they have leftover gravy that goes in too and I also do that, but yesterday I had none, although I could have added some of my watery leftover carrot soup.. I might have added some celery, or zucchini, or silver beet or spinach, but yesterday the extra vegetable content was merely carrot. Hero carrots. You couldn't actually taste them but I think they add an extra bit of flavour.
As I said, we used fresh pasta but there is a whole army of cooks and chefs out there who think that it should be dried. Though Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall thinks you should give fresh a go:
"I would encourage you to make your own once in a while - just follow the instructions in your Jamie Oliver book of choice. That's what we do." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Now there's a recommendation. I'm guessing that lasagne is probably the favourite frozen dinner from the supermarket, or indeed the favourite chilled dinner from the supermarket and apparently supplies of lasagne sheets disappeared rapidly from the supermarket shelves when we all went into lockdown. But then all pasta did. That's when we all turned to Jamie to find out how to make pasta. I think it might have been the very first thing he made in his Keep Cooking and Carry On program.
Why do we love lasagne so? Nigella even calls her latest version from Cook, Eat, Repeat Lasagne of love and rather sadly introduces it thus:
"This is what I make for my children’s birthday celebrations, for farewell suppers to send them off before they go away, and for the dinners to welcome them back when they come home again."
And it was interesting to find a couple of other quotes about lasagne that were very firmly connected to love.
“There's a million fine looking women in the world, dude. But, they don't all bring you lasagna at work. Most of 'em just cheat on you.” Silent Bob in 'Clerks' (1994)
"Lasagne is a labour of love. Whenever someone serves me one, I know that they've made a big effort." Lorraine Elliott - Not Quite Nigella
"I love pasta for the same reason families everywhere love it - it's the perfect get-out-of-jail-free card." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
Ok the last is not quite the same as he is talking about pasta in general, but still love is involved because he is trying to please the children. Never an easy thing to do. My three grandchildren ate a lot as you can see from the second picture, and indeed I think the half row was finished off too. Enough leftover for David and I another day though.
Let's face it you will probably only get an 'authentic' lasagne in a posh restaurant these days - not in an everyday Italian restaurant. Nobody makes an 'authentic' version at home. We all have our little tricks. Even Nigella admits to this:
"None of this is proper from a North Italian perspective, but the lasagne it yields is pleasure-giving and gratifyingly popular." Nigella Lawson
So when I read the following (I don't know who this guy is), I was a bit sad for him.
"For me to make lasagna would be a desecration of a great Italian dish. . . . I don't mess with sacred things." Mario Cuomo
What an opportunity lost for riffing on a theme, being creative with leftovers and giving massive pleasure to yourself, your family and friends.
These days there are endless variations on the theme of lasagne. You will find vegetable, vegan, fish versions, possibly even Asian influenced ones - yes there are lots of those. So I'm guessing Mexican and Middle-Eastern are around too. But today I was just going to present some of the common kind of variations on the original theme.
The easiest kind is to just use any old kind of pasta rather than lasagne whether fresh or dried, just mix it with your meat sauce however contrived, and top with cheese. Below are two examples of this approach - Lazy lasagne from Valerie's Kitchen (I have certainly made this kind of thing from time to time) and Thomasina Miers' Broken lasagne with cavalo nero, ricotta and tomato of which she says:
"a cheat’s lasagne, made all the more pleasing by the anarchic splintering of pasta sheets to strew willy-nilly across your baking dish."
I confess it is not a meat sauce though - this one is greens and ricotta, but I rather liked the idea of the broken bits of pasta.
A variation on the pasta bake theme is Yotam Ottolenghi's version of the Greek dish Pastitsio. It's Yotam Ottolenghi, so it's not that simple - here are two different pictures - one from Ottolenghi himself - who likes to make it in a around dish and slice it like a pie, and one from Stuart Heritage's article on lasagne in the Guardian.
And then there's Donna Hay and her Pork and fennel cheat's lasagne in which the cheat is to use the meat inside bought gourmet sausages, and then to layer with a mascarpone and parmesan mixture. Mascarpone.
But feed 'cheat's lasagne' into Google and you will be inundated with suggestions.
Our version was actually only marginally cheat worthy in that we didn't cook the meat sauce for hours and it wasn't comprised of authentic ingredients - well not completely, and we didn't layer with a béchamel sauce. And as I said I even forgot my cheating cream. But we loved it anyway.
“Once again, my life has been saved by the miracle of lasagna.” Garfield' (Jim Davis)