If I was pushed to admit to my favourite Italian recipe I think I would have to say Lasagne.
It doesn't sound particularly exciting or adventurous when there are Italian dishes such as Risotto alla Marinara, Fritto Misto (a close call for my number one) around, but for me Lasagne has it all.
I’m not talking about the sloppy bland stuff you buy in ready meal form, where it is more like mince with tomato flavoured gravy and some flat pasta. No, I’m talking about pasta sheets layered with meaty bolognese, topped with creamy bechemal and parmesan. It sounds simple as most Italian food is but the devil is in the detail.
In this recipe, there is no ricotta cheese (like in many traditional Italian recipes), no mushrooms, no cheddar and certainly no boiled eggs as in Lasagne Napoletana. Just good simple ingredients cooked and baked to perfection.
I have made lasagne many times with good quality mince and it has been fantastic, but often you buy beef mince which is too finely ground (mainly from supermarkets) and for me that just gives too sloppy a result for a good lasagne. So I remembered a few years ago I made chilli con carne with a piece of beef brisket courtesy of a Jamie Oliver recipe, which was excellent. So why wouldn't that work and give me the texture I wanted for my lasagne?
Normally when cooking mince bolognese it is made on the stove top and simmered for a couple of hours. The brisket version just goes in the oven for an hour or so longer but the taste and texture is more than worth the extra time.
The brisket is cooked long and slow with diced onion, carrot and celery (known as soffritto), meat stock and the usual suspects of pancetta, passata and wine. And once it cools it can be chopped or flaked to whatever texture you prefer. The meat is lovely and meltingly soft but gives the lasagne a texture that is a joy to eat.
BRISKET LASAGNE serves 6
75g plain flour
600ml whole milk (may need more)
9 sheets of dried egg lasagne (depends on size of dish)
100g finely grated parmesan
Cut the string off the rolled brisket and lay out flat on a chopping board.
Trim any fat from the brisket and cut into 4 pieces. Make sure it is nice and dry and season with salt and black pepper. (see pic)
Heat some olive oil in a heavy pan and fry the pieces of brisket for a few minutes until nicely browned all over. (you may have to do this in two batches). Remove and set aside. (see pic)
Add a little more olive oil, then the pancetta and cook for a minute or two. Add the soffritto and a finely chopped clove of garlic. Sauté for 5-10 minutes until slightly softened. Pour in the wine, cook for a minute then put in a squirt of tomato paste or ketchup. Add 400ml of passata, a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg and return the slabs of brisket, including their juices, back to the pan along with enough beef stock (about 500-600ml) to cover the meat.
Bring to a simmer and cover with a tight fitting lid. Place in a preheated 140°C fan oven for about 3 hours or until the brisket can be pulled apart. (see pic)
(You can do this the day before, then cool and refrigerate until needed. I prefer it this way - better taste).
You now have a robust and meaty bolognese sauce, ready to be transformed into the best lasagne you will have had for a while.
The brisket can also be done in a pressure cooker which will cut the time down to about 30 minutes but you may need a pressure cooker the size of The Large Hadron Collider depending on how much brisket you have.
When you start making the lasagne (whether the same day or the next) take the pieces of brisket out of the sauce and chop or shred to your liking. I use a combination of both, the shredded meat being nice and soft and the chopped meat giving a good texture to the bolognese sauce.
Return to the sauce and stir until well combined. If you feel it is a bit loose or watery, just drain through a sieve, reserving the meat and soffritto (you don't want the vegetables to go mushy), and reduce until slightly thicker and the consistency you want. Add everything back together and taste before seasoning. (see pic)
Add a pinch or two of sugar if your sauce needs it and I put in a splash of whole milk if the bolognese needs loosening up a bit as it gives the sauce a creamy edge.
To make the béchamel, melt the butter in a saucepan on a low to medium heat and whisk in the flour. Cook out for a couple of minutes, stirring often, to remove the raw flour smell, then gradually add the milk, whisking all the time. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 5 minutes until thickened. If it is too thick just whisk in a little more milk.
The thickness is down to personal preference but you need a sauce that will hold on top of the pasta sheets and not something that will run all over the dish.
Season to taste along with a pinch or two of freshly grated nutmeg.
I use dried egg pasta for my lasagne as I really can’t tell the difference between freshly made and the dried stuff. But I do blanch the pasta sheets first (just a minute in boiling salted water), drain, and dry them on a clean tea towel. This does make the pasta softer to eat and perfect for the lasagne. However, you can use ‘no pre-cook’ pasta sheets straight from the packet no problem although you may get the odd crispy edge here and there. And if you prefer that then go for it.
To assemble the lasagne, coat the bottom of your baking dish with a layer of bolognese sauce (about a third of what you have) followed by a covering of béchamel and then a sprinkling of parmesan, and a final layer of blanched pasta.
Repeat this process another two times topping the last pasta layer with sauce, then béchamel and finally parmesan.
Bake in a pre-heated 200°C/180°C fan oven for about 40 minutes or until golden and bubbling.
The lasagne (despite what your eyes and nose may be telling you) isn't quite ready to eat yet and will need to rest for about 20 minutes before serving. And it’s even better the next day when warmed up.