Sunday, 8 March 2015

Lots Lasagne

It's just as easy to make three lasagnes as to make one, so this makes three, each serving 4-6 people, so you can eat one and freeze two, or invite an extra twelve friends around, or turn up to someone's move with enough lasagne to feed all the helpers for a couple of days.


I set myself the task of perfecting lasagne when I was about 17 and have tried all sorts of variations - including a faffy period of cooking the lasagne sheets in advance, handpeeling actual tomatoes instead of using a box or tin, etc. And then there's the great test of whether your lasagne will hold together when it's cut, without being dry, or be lovely and succulent but slop all over the pan every time you try to dish some up. Plus the mild anxiety every time of whether you'll run out of mince / white sauce / lasagne sheets while still having plenty of the other two. (I especially worry about running out of white sauce.) And cheese: add to every layer or only on top? (Only heathens would mix it with the white sauce.) As we're no longer faddling about pre-cooking the lasagne sheets, the liquid has to come from somewhere, so do you make the white sauce wetter, or the bolognese, or strive for equivalent wetness between the two, and exactly how wet?

So after some twenty years of speculation and experimentation, I hastily made a big batch of lasagnes for when my cousin was moving house, just before we set off for the two-hour drive to help them move, and miraculously hit the lasagne sweet spot. The Goldilocks zone. The habitable planet. Everything worked perfectly, from the perfect proportions of white sauce : bolognese : lasagne sheets to filling the pans exactly to holding together like a succulent dream. I dictated the quantities and exact layering approach to Will, as we drove, tormented by the rich smell of lasagne, and then three months later we managed to find the sheet of paper in the car, and here it is, with pictures below. (Most often I'd make lasagne with a magnificent bolognese I'd already made, and just add a bit of wine and tomato to the bolognese to make it wetter, but for a big batch, it's worth making the bolognese from scratch.) The only thing that even slightly deviates from perfection is that bread tins are as wide and long as 1.5 lasagne sheets, so you still have to be breaking lasagne sheets in half (a delicate art and error-filled process) but at least it's mathematically sound.

Quantities for Lots Lasagne

(This uses the Troll counting system, of one, two, many, lots; strictly speaking it makes Many lasagne, but I liked the aliteration too much.)

1.5 box of lasagne sheets
3 bread tins (the rectangular kind)
1 triangle of hard Italian cheese

Bolognese (45 mins simmering time)


1200 mince
3 onions
1 head of garlic
4 boxes tomatoes
½ bottle of red wine
1 punnet mushrooms
Some herbs (typically, oregano, marjoram, thyme, bay leaves)

White sauce

½ block butter
8 Tablespoons flour
1.2 litres milk

The layering

3 bread tins, well buttered
2 ladles of bolognese per layer
2 ladles of white sauce per layer
Bolognese & lasagne sheets on every layer
White sauce on every second layer, on top of the lasagne sheets, and to finish
Cheese only on the top
4 layers total

So the layering goes like this:
  • Layer 1: 2 ladles of bolognese, lasagne sheets
  • Layer 2: 2 ladles of bolognese, lasagne sheets, 2 ladles of white sauce
  • Layer 3: 2 ladles of bolognese, lasagne sheets
  • Layer 4: 2 ladles of bolognese, lasagne sheets, 2 ladles of white sauce, cheese
Only add the cheese on top if you're going to cook it immediately - if you're going to freeze it or drive to Wales with it, hold the cheese (tenderly, cradled in your arms, where it's easily accessible for the occasional gnaw) and grate it on just before you oven bake it. Cheese doesn't like being cooked twice and releases that puddle of oil if you do.

Oven-bake: 180 degrees, 45 mins - 1 hour (depending on your oven)

(In a second iteration, I did try out putting white sauce on every layer, but the lasagne fell apart greviously and was a bit sloppy-tasting as well as sloppy-looking.)

And now! In pictures!


All the lasagne ingredients, proudly reporting for duty


A fistful of herbs, about to become a quick string-bouquet-garni
I had rosemary, oregano, marjoram, and sage, so that's what's going in (not too much sage, it's quite strong)


Bouquet garni all trussed up!


A head of garlic, disassembled into cloves. Don't forget the garlic-peeling trick.


It's easiest to wash the garlic crusher immediately, before the garlic turns into superglue, and a washing-up brush is perfect to poke its bristles through the holes.


Garlic ready to go, in its ramekin.


Setting about the onions - don't forget the onion-chopping trick!


Also don't forget to put your hair up, if it's long. 


Freshly chopped onion, wooden board, white bowls, onion skin: I just love these colours.


A good large pot for this: I use my stock pot. You want a pot that takes at least 3 litres, preferably more so you're not up to the brim.


I'm using ghee - you could use butter - and while it melts, I'm grinding plenty of black pepper into it.


Onion & garlic at the ready, so as soon as the ghee has melted...


Throw in the garlic and stir it very briskly to break up the little clumps, then add...


...the onion, and turn the heat down nice and low so it can cook slowly for 10-20 minutes. (Slowly cooked onion adds a lovely richness and caramelised flavour.)


That means you've got time to wash up the dishes so far.


The onion's starting to go a lovely gold, but it could do with longer, so I've turned the heat to its very lowest, and I have time to pull apart the mince. (Wash hands first!)


I used to just hurtle the whole block of mince in and then try separate it by stabbing it with a spatula before it cooked together, but these days I gently tease it apart by hand, which is more peaceful. Sometimes I do this in the plastic containers, if they're big enough, but that can get fiddly, so...


...if you pop it all into a big bowl, you have space to play.


Scalding my hands after handling the raw meat.


The onions are looking good now, and it's been 15 minutes, so I'll throw in the meat.


Stir it briskly, turn the heat right back up, and keep stirring occasionally until it's all brown, but you do have a bit of time to wash the latest dishes:


All clean and drying nicely. There is no call to dry dishes by hand. They dry themselves.


The meat is still a bit reddish - I want it to be all brown. Meanwhile, I'll decapitate the boxes of tomato:


A terrible massacre. All beheaded now.


The meat is good and brown, so now I'll add...


all the tomato, plus


half a bottle of wine
(I'd often use a full bottle but this was for kids as well, so I went easy on it)
plus


a few bay leaves, and stir all well, and then


the bouquet garni, gently pushed under the surface.


This can sit and simmer on a smaller ring for the next 45 minutes. The white sauce will take me about half an hour, which means I have time...


For tea! The dishes are already washed :) (And I've rinsed out the tomato boxes.)

Twenty minutes before the bolognese is ready, it's time to tear up the mushrooms and throw them in.


This is quite satisfying and peaceful. I rip out the stalk first and crumble it in my fingers, then tear chunks. They don't need to be the exact size. Torn mushrooms are yummier than sliced; the sliced kind tend to go slimy.


It is even more satisfying and peaceful to do this while listening to a radio drama. Though I could've wished for something other than Hemingway. The bit where the male character was dying and explained to the female character that she had to live his life now particularly incensed me.


All the mushrooms: aren't they beautiful?


Stirred in; left to continue simmering for another 20 minutes. Better hop to it with the white sauce!
This is also a good point to pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees.


Milk, butter, flour. That's it. Though actually I'll add bay leaves and salt as well. And the quantities in this case are half a block of butter (125g), a cup of flour (125g = 8 Tablespoons), and 1.2 litres of milk.
The full details of how to make white sauce are here and, pleasingly, it's the exact same one I was making for this lasagne.


Once it's ready, I'm adding about a teaspoon of salt. Very much "about".


Hemingway is finally drawing to a close, the female character's life, presumably until now a kind of KhĂ´ra, is about to be helpfully filled with the male character's existence, and I'm more than ready for him to hurry up and die so we can get on to Open Book. Frankly, at this point, I'd look forward to Gardener's Question Time as an alternative.


The bouquet garni is removed and knocked free of meat, and now looks distinctly less magical, but it has served its excellent and flavourful purpose.


Buttering the pans - I save the paper from Butters Past for this, which is especially useful as they usually still have some butter stuck to them.


A couple of teaspoons of salt for the bolognese - probably more like 3 flat teaspoons, which may seem a lot until you remember it's for three lasagnes, so with the salt in the white sauce, that's 4 teaspoons across three lasagnes, which is 1.3 per lasagne, which is at most 1/3 teaspoon of salt per person.


Everything lined up, ladles at the ready (two different ladles so I don't have to dip the same one into the white sauce and meat alternately - it wouldn't do any harm, really, it's just neater), it's time to start layering!


Two ladles of bolognese first, at the bottom.


Cover with lasagne sheets, broken in half and patchworked as required. You can take this on as a personal challenge of perfectionism, if you're so inclined.
Then another layer of bolognese, then another layer of lasagne sheets.


The white sauce going onto the second layer of lasagne sheets - it's quite thick, so I'm smearing it into place with a spoon, trying not to unsettle the lasagne sheets.


More bolognese on top of the white sauce, and repeat from the beginning.


The final layer is white sauce, everything carefully hidden under its soft white blanket.

If any of these lasagnes were for immediate consumption, I'd put the cheese on top now. But they'll all be travelling, so I'm just going to par-cook them, without cheese, and then when they get properly cooked, I'll put the cheese on.

To cook completely: top with cheese, cook for 45-60 minutes at 180 degrees.
To par-cook: no cheese, 20 minutes at 180 degrees, then cool. (So if you're just eating the one, take the other two out after 20 minutes.)
To finish-cook after par-cooking: top with cheese, 30-40 minutes at 180 degrees.


All the par-cooked lasagnes, cooled down, wrapped in clingfilm, and labelled with the date. I've also written "lasagne" in case they get confused in the freezer with a moussaka.
(These aren't the actual lasagnes that got driven to Wales, as I was too busy cooking them that time to take photos!)

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