I can't remember a Christmas dinner without a lasagna on the table. This is largely due, in part, to watery sauce with pasta and cheese sort of floating in it, but it's also just always been there (paired with an overcooked rib roast, of course). That meal, the last big holiday meal for many families, deserves better.
Photos by Sam Bithoney
Lasagna is a very touchy subject. People like it their way, and will fight to the death for it. I'm not going to sit here and lecture you on the worth of making a lasagna bolognese. Since this is a meal where lasagna is likely sharing tablespace with an expensive roast, focus your efforts toward a simple and delicious marinara sauce, better quality ingredients and a little trick that helps prevent lasagna soup.
A Good Sauce Is A Great Start
Free tomato paste is best tomato paste.
Your finished dish will only be as good as the ingredients you start with. Remember, we're only looking at three parts to the finished dish: sauce, cheese and pasta, so your sauce game needs to be on point. I've been using this sauce recipe for quite some time, and I've found it to be incredibly versatile -- almost anything you need a basic red sauce for, this is the one to throw at it. For a solid, all around red sauce you'll need:
- ½ cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 8 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 1 medium onion, diced small
- 1 can whole peeled tomatoes, crushed by hand
- 1 can tomato sauce
- 1 can tomato puree
- 1 small can (or 110g tube of double concentrated) tomato paste
- 1 cup of fresh basil
- 1 cup of fresh parsley
- 1 cup of marsala wine
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- Table salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a heavy bottomed pan. Add the onion and cook until translucent, then add the garlic and cook until fragrant.
Add the whole peeled tomatoes, followed by ½ a can of water. Bring to a simmer, and repeat with the sauce and puree. Add the tomato paste and cook until warmed through, then stir in the remaining ingredients. Reduce heat to a simmer for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally.
Now, you don't need to drop $7 on a can of whole peeled tomatoes. Sure, San Marzano are great - if that's what's actually in the can - but you can do fine with home brands too. And, since we're using 800g cans of sauce and puree here, you can just use plain ol' plum tomatoes.
As for tomato paste, the double concentrated varieties (the toothpaste tube kind) are less prone to scorching on the bottom of the pan. You will use the entire four ounce tube for this recipe, but you'll be glad you did. And while we're on the subject of paste -- keep an eye on the pan itself as well. As the sauce reduces, you'll have a ring of concentrated sauce on the side of your pan. This super-concentrated tomato stuff is, in essence, more tomato paste. Scrape this off with a spatula and stir it into your sauce for additional richness.
Also worth mentioning is the pan that you make it in. Since this is a longer cook time over low heat, I prefer an enameled dutch oven to hold that heat and, most importantly, slowly distribute it evenly through the pan. Stainless heats quicker, but you'll need to be more finicky with the heat to prevent a burnt sauce.
Don't Forget To Splurge On Cheese
It has FLAVOUR CRYSTALS.
Often overlooked in favour of what's on sale this week, real, quality cheese is the place to splurge. Good sauce is good, but merely good cheese isn't good enough. Mozzarella is available in a thousand varieties now, but pre-shredded cheeses won't ever hold a candle a whole block that you grate yourself. My grandmother would cut slices off of the block, which led to thick and only partially melted bites of cheese. Not great. Grate your own, and use more than you think you should. You can never have too much cheese.
If you don't plan on making your own mozzarella, grab a block of whole-milk. Whole Milk mozzarella melts into that gooey, stretchy goodness you remember having on pizza when you were a kid. It also browns beautifully on top, while it's skinny part-skim cousin just turns into rubbery strings that melt where you left them.
As for ricotta, you can easily make your own but look for the whole milk, full-fat version here too. Use ricotta. Do not use sour cream, and especially do not use cottage cheese. The distracting textures and tang work well in other dishes, but this is not the time or place.
And parmesan? Buy it fresh from the block. It's expensive but it's worth it. Real, honest-to-goodness parmesan cheese is strictly controlled, to the point where there was a Consortium established in 1934 to ensure even the dairy cows are fed a strict diet. You're not going to find cellulose here. This is peak cheese.
No-Boil pasta sheets vs Pro-Boil pasta sheets: The Eternal Argument
I've made the argument both for and against the use of no-boil pasta many times in the past. The honest truth is that no-boil sheets are just plain easier to work with, and give more consistent results.
If you must boil your pasta, don't just strain them and leave them in a colander. The heat and starch will work against you, and the sheets will quickly clump. Dump them back in the pan and toss them with enough sauce to coat, and they will unstick themselves molto pronto. You're covering them in sauce anyway, so getting a headstart is hardly a bad thing.
And heck, even if you only have pro-boil pasta on hand - you don't need to boil them. With enough hot sauce, they will par cook enough before they're even in the oven, and hold together just as well.
Assembly Is As Important As The Ingredients
We'll just paint a happy little marinara moat over here.
Some people love crunchy, crispy pasta. I am a godless heathen who says nay to this, and sauces the dickens out of my lasagna. A few ladles of sauce on the bottom of the pan ensures an easier lift out and unburnt pasta.
Grab yourself a deep 9x13-inch pan. While your noodles boil (or not), and your sauce is winding down on its simmer, mix 900g of ricotta with 3 cups of freshly shredded mozzarella, 3 large eggs, and ¾ cup of freshly grated parmesan.
Working from the sauced bottom of the pan, construct as follows: noodle, cheese mix, sauce, noodle. When you reach the limit of your pan's height, sauce the top and cover it with a healthy layer of the remaining mozzarella. Your lasagna is now built, but it's not ready for the oven just yet.
Chilling a lasagna overnight will not only allow the flavours to develop between the heavenly trio, it will also firm up considerably, and be much easier to get onto a plate without the towering layers sliding off of your lasagna server.
Both types of pasta work well here, but be sure to cover the top with a layer of plastic wrap and then aluminium foil, to prevent the circulating air from drying out everything. Thirty minutes prior to cooking, take the assembled lasagna out of the refrigerator and let it rest and warm up to room temperature. This will allow it to cook in a reasonable amount of time, and prevent thermal shock to your pan. And yes, remove the plastic wrap -- but leave the foil on top to prevent your pasta from drying out.
Finally Cook It, Then Wait Some More.
When you're ready and the lasagna has come up in temperature, preheat your oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Bake for 30 minutes -- or until bubbling -- then remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes. If you'd like a bit more browning on top, feel free to stick it under the broiler or give it a few licks from a torch.
Now the hardest part: let it rest. There is liquid hot cheese magma in there. If you've rested it overnight, there's no aesthetic reason to let it rest longer, but there is a safety concern. Sure, there are some relatives that bring up politics at the table whose mouths we'd all like to see burnt to an inoperable state, but holiday meals should be full of joy; you've made a lasagna so wonderful that they won't be able to summon words to describe it, let alone anything else.