Making lasagne has a lot in common with leather plaiting, quilting or origami—there’s no easy way to the end, it’s just meticulous attention to detail culminating in a crowd-pleasing finale.
Lasagne is, in fact, a lot of little dishes in one. The end result depends entirely on the effort that goes into each stage, including a question that no decent Italian would bother asking: have you made the pasta by hand, or have you taken the easy route, via aisle 23 of the local supermarket?
Fact is, I’ve done it both ways, and, there is really no comparison between the home-made and the store-bought versions. In The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (Macmillan, 1992) the wonder woman at describing the essence of Italian cooking, Marcella Hazan, notes: “The only pasta suitable for lasagne is paper-thin dough freshly made at home…Using clunky, store-bought lasagne (sheets) may save a little time, but you will be sadly short-changed with the result.”
There is no dispute with Ms Hazan’s thesis for those with the time to seek excellence; life, as we know it (particularly in this era, 25 years after those words were written) is one compromise after another. The multiple components of this classic—cooking the spinach, making the bechamel (or should we say, balsamella), making a quality passata, making the pasta, and bringing it all together—all require time and energy. Some of the processes are assisted by the Thermomix, but not even the Thermomix can do the prep, and the layering, and the baking, and the caring. What’s required is a full-time cook to have the dish steaming on the table when you roll in the front door. Ms Hazan may have had that at the end of her marvellous career as a writer and interpreter of the beauty of Italian cuisine, but I (we?) sure don’t.
What is great about this recipe is that each of the components can be used in multiple ways; the tomato sauce forms much of the basis of the spaghetti puttanesca, (page 108), and a million other dishes, the spinach puree can be used as a simple vegetable; in a pie; through pasta; the bechamel, although not as commonly used as it once was, is a very good base for mac’n’cheese, or savoury souffles, or cannelloni. And the pasta? There is not enough paper in the world to list the potential uses of home-made and rolled pasta.
What follows is a vegetarian lasagne, but switching the spinach and tomato and ricotta layers for the mince (page 126) makes it the more traditional, but heavier meaty marvel. We chose the vegetarian option as it is lighter, and, to our sense, has more fun flavours and colours. We also chose the simple option, betraying the spirit of Ms Hazan, and our own inner feelings: we plumped for the instant pasta from aisle 23 (mea culpa, mea culpa).