Comfort food. That’s what I need right now. Lasagna definitely fits that category, and just about everybody likes a good lasagna. In Tuscany lasagna has been served at just about every family or neighborhood event I’ve ever attended, not only because it lends itself well to being made ahead of time, but also because lasagna is what you eat when you are relaxing and enjoying life with family and friends, homemade lasagna is food that is good, genuine, and comforting. Lasagna isn’t pretentious or fancy. It’s real. It is almost like the Italian version of chicken soup.
I grew up thinking lasagna was baked pasta filled with ricotta cheese, eggs, and a whole lotta mozzarella. Super heavy. When I moved to Tuscany I realized that their lasagna was nothing of the sort. Here it is not even called lasagna (except in restaurants) – here they call it pasta al forno meaning simply “baked pasta”. Here lasagna is based on pasta + beschamel + sauce… and it doesn’t have to be tomato sauce or ragù (I’ve never heard an Italian call meat ragù bolognese by the way), the sauce can be made of anything and everything, and the simpler the better. Think sautèed asparagus, thinly sliced fresh artichokes, mushrooms, or even seafood!
But if you just say pasta al forno you’ll probably be right if you guess it’s made with ragu. So when I decided to make lasagna with homemade pasta for the first time, I went for the traditional recipe.
If you don’t have the time to make homemade fresh pasta (I myself never did until the age of coronavirus!), you can use fresh egg pasta from the refrigerated-section of the supermarket (make sure it’s very thin), or you can use dried pasta, but that usually needs to be boiled in salted water before using it to make lasagna.
Preheat the oven to 180° C (350°F). Warm up your ragu sauce and add the cup of water or broth, as you want the sauce to be a bit more liquid than usual, as the pasta will soak up a lot of the liquid while cooking. Stir well. Prep the other ingredients.
In a large baking pan (I use one that is 10″ x 15″), drizzle the olive oil so it covers the bottom. Add a couple of spoonfulls of ragu and spread it over the bottom of the pan.
Next up comes a layer of pasta (usually 3 sheets covers this size pan), top this with about 3/4 cup of ragu spread all over the pasta, then add 3/4 cup of bechamel in dollops here and there, and then a sprinkling of cheese.
Repeat 2 more times – and then we get to the 4th and final layer, and here we preapare the top a little differently. Here you want to spread half of the remaining ragu, add the remaining bechamel and cheese, and then add the final bit of ragu on top. Why change it up for the top layer? Simply because it is nice to have a bubbly and slightly crisp top, but you don’t want the cheese and bechamel to burn (which is bitter), so adding a little bit of ragu on top takes care of that.
Bake until the top is slightly golden and bubbly, about 30 minutes. Let it settle for 5 minutes before serving.
This is a great dish to make ahead of time. You simply follow the intstructions above, but using a freezer-safe pan (like a disposable aluminum one) and only bake it for 15 minutes. Let it cool, cover and freeze. When you want to eat it you should take it out of the freezer in the morning, let it defrost during the day, and then bake for an additional 15-20 minutes.