I was wondering what kind of challenge we’d be thrown this month for Daring Bakers. Last month was easy as they come, and I was cringing in anticipation of some ridiculously complicated, week-long project. Luckily it didn’t take me a week, just an afternoon/evening. It wasn’t particularly easy and it was a crazy day overall, but I was able to make it. And it was soooo delicious.
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.
I’d been reading from the first few people to complete the challenge that this made quite a bit of food. I have memories of my mom making lasagnas (typical American style with noodles, marinara and mozzarella…maybe a little spinach if I remembered to ask in advance) and the gigantic pan of leftovers being kept in the garage during the winter so they’d keep. So what do you do when you know you’ll be making entirely too much food?
You throw a lasagna party!
All right, it wasn’t a huge party…just two other people…but it was still a lasagna-filled good time. Even if I was in the kitchen for 6-8 hours. Not counting the late-night cleaning bender I went on before bed.
I thought about tweaking the recipe more than I did. Ultimately, though, the only thing I ended up changing was the meat ragu called for. Not only do I not eat meat, but that recipe also required the use of several different kinds of meat…I can fry great bacon and sear the perfect steak no problem, but I’m not prepared to mess with things like veal. Not to mention the price of that much meat. I just don’t know meat.
I decided to substitute a mushroom ragu instead, and found a recipe by Mario Batali that worked perfectly. I don’t know much about Chef Batali, but I figured he has to know what he’s doing, at least when it comes to Italian-ish stuff. And, obviously, the sauce was awesome. Fresh thyme = sooooo good.
I also had some trouble with the noodles. No problem rolling – I have an old (like, vintage, my grandmother owned it) pastry rolling pin and I love rolling things out, as long as it can be done somewhat haphazardly. But I couldn’t initially get the dough to come together. At. All. I ended up adding three extra eggs. I know. But I was freaking out…our friends were coming soon, I was trying to throw together sauces, get a loaf of bread in the oven, and the dough wasn’t a dough!
Luckily, I have an awesome boyfriend who has a neat little hobby – sculpting. With Sculpey. Which involves a lot of kneading to get to the right consistency. So I got my nice little green ball of dough!
And yeah, I did basically end up with spinach-y egg noodles since I added the extra eggs. But egg noodles are good, and chewy, and hey, they help replace the protein missing from the meat exclusion. Right?
A few tips:
Go easy on the bechamel when you’re putting the lasagna together. I noticed some other Bakers claimed to be short on the bechamel. Just remember that you’re also putting some cheese in all the layers, and dot it on as opposed to pouring or spreading it. I ended up with the perfect amount of everything. I also used a little tub of pre-grated parmesan. While I do have a wedge in the fridge for grating, I decided it would be worth the time and money saved on a tub of decent quality cheese.
Don’t panic if your noodles won’t roll out thin enough at first. Let them rest a few minutes and roll again. I was able to double the amount of noodles I had by doing this and they were still plenty thick.
Find someone who knows how to knead Sculpey or has made pasta before to bring your dough together. Seriously. I will totally make pasta again (recently found out my mom used to make it a lot but I was too young to remember; a request has been submitted for her to “teach me [her] noodly ways”) so I’ll learn it eventually but I was seriously freaking out. I guess I would have been more relaxed if I hadn’t invited people over.
Oh yeah, definitely invite people over. It’s great for sharing. Bake some bread for everyone to munch on while you finish up the lasagna. Cue up one of the greatest movies ever to watch while everyone eats. And make sure to save room for dessert.
The recipe below is what I did. It’s good – the noodles are chewier with the extra eggs but it went well with the overall flavor of the dish. The original recipe called for only two eggs in the noodles. If you can manage to squeeze the moisture needed to bring the noodles together from the spinach, don’t add all the eggs. Or add some water. Or do what I did anyway.
…This also assumes that you’ll be making this all at once. At the end I’ll provide notes for preparing things in advance.
Vegetarian Lasagna with Homemade Spinach Egg Noodles
First, Make the Dough:
10 oz. finely chopped fresh spinach
3 1/2 cups AP flour
Mount the flour in the center of a clean work surface. Make a well in the middle and add the (first two) eggs and spinach. Using a wooden spoon, beat the eggs and spinach together, then gradually incorporate the flour a little at a time, taking care to not let the “walls” of the flour mound collapse until you don’t have any liquid left that could potentially escape. If it’s too dry, add more eggs or some water. Knead it all together like clay until it forms a cohesive but shaggy dough. Knead until it’s elastic and sticky. If the dough is too sticky, add more flour. Remove any dry bits of dough from your work surface and continue to knead until the dough is satiny smooth and elastic (about 10 minutes). Form it into a ball, wrap in plastic and allow to rest anywhere between 30 minutes to 3 hours.
Now, Make the Sauces:
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Medium onion, cut in 1/4″ pieces
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
3 Tbsp chopped fresh thyme
1/2 finely grated medium carrot
28 oz. canned tomatoes
Pinch of coarse salt
In a 3 qt. saucepan or large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring often, until soft and golden brown, about 8-10 minutes, then add the thyme and carrot. Continue to cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrot is soft, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juice and crush them with your spoon. Bring the mixture to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until thickened (about 1o minutes). Season with salt. If you don’t like chunks in your sauce, allow to cool slightly, then run the whole thing through the blender for a bit until desired consistency is achieved. Set aside.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
12 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped (I used half button, half baby bella)
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 cup tomato sauce, or more if desired
1 Tbsp butter
Salt & pepper, to taste
In a saucepan or large pot, heat the oil over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until light golden brown, about 5 minutes. Add the mushrooms and cook until the juices are released and evaporate, about 10 minutes. Add the wine, tomato sauce and butter, and season with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat to medium and cook another 5 minutes or so, or until somewhat thickened. Set aside.
Now Make the Bechamel:
4 Tbsp butter
4 Tbsp flour
2 2/3 cups milk
Salt, pepper & nutmeg to taste
In a medium saucepan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Sift in the flour and whisk until smooth. Continue stirring 3-4 minutes, then gradually whisk in milk. Bring to a slow simmer, stirring for 3-5 minutes until thick. Season to taste and set aside.
To Cook the Noodles:
Divide the dough into fourths and remove one piece, keeping the rest of the dough wrapped until ready to roll out. Lightly flour your work surface and shape the quarter of dough into a ball, then flatten it into a circle. Roll it out evenly, turning by fourths as you go. Once it’s thin, allow it to rest for a few minutes, then stretch the dough by rolling one edge onto your rolling pin and pulling gently. Alternate rolling and pulling the dough until translucent, then cut into approximately 4×8″ rectangles. If you’re going to be finishing the recipe at a later time, you can hang the noodles to dry them and store them in a sealed airtight container or bag. If you’re going to be continuing with the recipe immediately, continue to the next step.
Prepare a large pot of boiling salted water, an ice water bath, and a place to set the noodles after cooking (a large plate with paper towels on it to soak up excess water is fine). Boil 4 noodles at a time for 2 minutes. Immediately place into ice water bath to stop cooking and set aside. Repeat with the rest of the noodles until all are cooked.
Assembling the Lasagna:
4.5 oz. shredded parmesan
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil or butter a 3 qt. baking dish. Reheat your sauces if they’ve gotten cold or have been made a while in advance – you want them warm, but not hot. Drizzle a thin layer of bechamel and spread it around a bit. Arrange a layer of noodles in the pan, then spread with thin layers of each sauce, plus a few extra dollops of bechamel and a sprinkling of parmesan. Add another layer of noodles and repeat until all the ingredients are used, finishing with a thick layer of parmesan on top. Cover with foil and bake for 40 minutes, then remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes. The cheese on top should be just golden but not browned. Turn off the oven, leaving the door ajar, and let the lasagna rest 10 minutes before serving.
If you’re going to be making the noodles a day or so ahead, hang them to dry after rolling them out. Store them in an airtight container or bag until ready to use. Boil for 4 minutes instead of 2. You can also assemble the lasagna beforehand and freeze it before baking. You’d need to bake it for a bit longer or just defrost it beforehand.
The original recipe also said that the lasagna would likely slide apart when cut, but I barely had any problems. It won’t taste any different but it will look nicer to have a neat, even square on the plate.
I was not expecting a savory challenge this month, but I really enjoyed it. I’ve been wanting to try making my own pasta for a while but just didn’t have a reason. This recipe was definitely worth the effort, though I don’t know if I’d do this exact recipe again unless I had a specific request. Lasagna just isn’t something I can eat more than once in a very long while. I’m excited to find out what next month will bring…and who I’ll be sharing it with!