Lasagne alla bolognese

As much as I love Rome, my top Italian city is not the home of the Coliseum and Piazza Navona, but rather the land of tortellini, portici, and le due torri, the city all the way up North also known as Bologna. I know, I know -- Bologna may not boast the history and grandeur of Rome, but it is undoubtedly my citta' nel cuore, or the city in my heart, a place that holds immeasurable sentimental value for me. I spent my junior year of college (that's the third year, for you non-Americans) in Bologna nearly a decade (!!!) ago. I lived in a homestay, was a student at the Università di Bologna, and traveled not only in Italy but also Europe; I really learned Italian, in that way that is possible only once you leave the classroom and go to the country; I met wonderful people who became wonderful friends I still have all this time later. It was a lovely, exciting time in my life, one where I was navigating a city for the first time, was living off on my own as an adult (though without the worries of paying bills, working, or paying rent -- ahh, student life!), and was meeting not only Italians but people from all over the world who taught me so much. Every day was an adventure, and I loved it. See for yourself:

But wait, there's more! Bologna also gave me an incredibly rich culinary education, teaching me all about not only food in Italy but also la cucina bologneseIn Bologna, I ate tortellini the size of my thumb nail, served in an ultra flavorful broth; I fell in love with piadine, or flatbread with the filling of your choice; I learned about crescentine and tigelle, gramigna and tagliatelle; and then, most importantly of all: lasagne alla bolognese.

A bit about lasagne -- there's more than one way to make it in Italy. In Liguria, it's made with basil pesto; in Naples, there's a crazy rich version made around Carnevale, complete with meatballs, ragù, hard-boiled eggs, and ricotta. In Bologna, lasagne consists of sheets of homemade pasta layered with ragù, béchamel, and Parmesan cheese, and it's the very, very best one that I know, one that I fell madly in love with during my time there. The emphasis here is not so much on the cheese but rather on the ragù, which is a whole different story in itself -- every bolognese cook has a different idea of what ragù should be like, and the recipe for this can vary greatly. Some are heavier on the tomato than others, some are made with milk, some use beef while others use a combination of beef, pork, veal, or even pancetta; there are recipes that use white wine, while others opt for red, and in short, everyone thinks their recipe is the best and right one.

So! Just in time for Christmas, here's my recipe for lasagne alla bolognese, the primo piatto served at my house every 25th of December. It's a dish that is comfy and familiar but still manages to be festive and special at the same time; here we've got layer up on layer of pasta tucked amongst a rich, meaty rag
ù, silky bechamel, and lots of sharp flavorful Parmesan, and the whole thing is a dream to eat. Preparing this is quite possibly my favorite holiday ritual (move aside, gingerbread men!) and though I don't live in Bologna anymore, a bite of this brings me right back to my blissful days there as a student. And wait just a second! If the recipe feels a bit lengthy to you, well, it is, but fear not – none of this is difficult. The ragù is just a matter of chopping, mixing, and simmering, the béchamel comes together in a snap, and then all that remains is a little layering and baking. The hardest part will be waiting for the lasagna to be cool enough to eat. And coming to terms with the fact that leftovers are unlikely, of course. 

A couple of notes: Feel free to use all beef here instead of pork and veal, if you'd like. The milk in the sauce may sound weird, but it's something my cooking teacher in Bologna used to do; it tenderizes the meat and breaks it down. That being said, if it seems too odd to you, feel free to leave it out. I used no-boil noodles here to keep things simple -- and I happen to also really like them -- which is what we all need around the holidays, but feel free to use your own homemade pasta or the noodles that you boil first, if you prefer. Finally, this recipe will serve about 6-8, but feel free to up the quantities as I do if you're feeding a crowd at Christmas. 

Looking for other cozy pasta dishes? I've got this cacio e pepe, this butternut squash lasagne, pasta e ceci, this pasta with tomato, butter, and onion sauce, and this pici with sausage ragu'.


Ingredients for Ragù:
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery rib, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
8 ounces (224 grams) ground veal

8 ounces (224 grams) ground pork
8 ounces (224 grams) ground beef
3/4 cup (102 grams or 185 mL) whole milk
1 1/2 cups (375 mL) red wine

1 can crushed tomatoes (28-32 ounces)

Ingredients for Béchamel:
3 tablespoons (32 grams) of butter
3 tablespoons (24 grams) of flour
3 cups (750 mL) whole milk

A pinch of salt

To assemble:

15 sheets no-boil lasagna noodles
2 cups (240 grams) freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Over medium heat, heat enough olive oil to generously coat the bottom of a large saucepan and sauté the carrot, celery, and onion until softened but not browned. Add the pork, veal, and beef and cook, breaking the meat up as much as you can with a wooden spoon until lightly browned -- season with a little salt and pepper. Add the wine and let it cook down and evaporate for 10 or so minutes. Next, lower the heat on the stove and add the milk, and let the beginnings of your sauce simmer for 35-40 minutes. After this, stir in the crushed tomatoes and bring the ragù to a bubble, then reduce the heat cook until sauce is thickened, about 40 minutes, stirring to make sure the sauce doesn’t cook too much on the bottom. Season to taste with salt and pepper if needed. Transfer the sauce to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.

While the meat sauce cools, melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat and whisk the flour. Let the flour and butter cook for a minute or so, then whisk in the milk and bring it to a bubble. Add the salt and let the milk mixture cook a few minutes more, or until the béchamel is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.  

Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees F. Mix a generous ladle-ful of béchamel into the ragù until thoroughly combined.

Spread a little of the ragù over the bottom of the baking dish. Place 3 pasta sheets in a single layer on top of sauce, positioning them to fit the pan. Spread about 1 cup meat sauce evenly over the pasta (a ladle-ful plus a bit more) and drizzle with some béchamel, about 1/3 cup. Sprinkle some Parmesan over the béchamel, about 1/3-1/2 cup. Repeat this layering of the pasta, ragù, bechamel, and Parmesan cheese 3 more times. Place final 3 pasta sheets on top of the lasagna, and cover completely with remaining béchamel and Parmesan. Note that you may not use all of the ragù, so just serve along side your lasagne if you'd like.
Cover the lasagne with aluminum foil and bake until bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove the aluminum foil and continue to bake the lasagna until the parmesan and béchamel have browned, about 10-15 minutes. Let the lasagna cool a bit before slicing and serving. Enjoy!

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