I may not be Italian, but I know a good lasagna. As beloved as this dish is, why is it so darn difficult to find that perfect, yet elusive, recipe and to make it yourself? For 25 years or so, I have tried to find it, and it’s about like finding that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I started with the recipe of my childhood, which featured dried noodles and jarred sauce. Fortunately, I was not lured into the (extremely wrong) path of substituting cottage cheese for ricotta — if you’re one of those, stop it. Stopitrightnow!
I tried Ina’s (too sweet with a weird goat cheese addition); I tried vegetable (just . . . not what I wanted); I tried lasagna with béchamel (not bad, but again, not what I was going for), and a myriad of recipes in between. It was starting to feel like looking for the perfect boyfriend: I knew it was out there, and what I’d tried was okay, but it wasn’t THE ONE.
I tried Julia Turshen’s recipe, which she appropriately calls “A Nice Lasagna” (Small Victories, available from Amazon). So straightforward and just what I was looking for. A perfect balance of cheese (which surprisingly, is not a lot), meat (a blend of ground beef and spicy Italian sausage), sauce that you can make ahead of time, and homemade noodles.
My dear friend Thais says that you HAVE to make the noodles from scratch, and I balked because, well, that’s a lot of work. But Julia’s recipe had me making those noodles, and oh. my. goodness. Yes . . . .
I can’t go back. I will always make noodles myself, and yes, it’s some work, but so so worth it.
As you’ll see, I don’t fuss with whether the noodles are a consistent size, or even in what direction I lay them. (You don’t see that when the dish is assembled anyway.) I also don’t worry if I have an extra layer on half — because I want to use every last bit of my ingredients.
Only thing is, this lasagna loses something if you freeze it. But don’t worry. It’ll be gone before you even consider doing that.
A Nice Lasagna (Small Victories, by Julia Turshen)
- 2 28-oz cans whole peeled tomatoes (I like San Marzano)
- 3 tablespoons EVOO
- 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 cup creme fraiche
- 2 1/4 cups all purpose flour (plus more, if needed)
- 3 eggs
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
- 1 cup coarsely grated mozzarella cheese
- 2 large handfuls fresh basil leaves, torn into small pieces
Optional meat addition:
- 8 ounces ground beef
- 8 ounces spicy Italian sausage
To make the sauce:
In a large bowl, crush the tomatoes with your hands into bite-sized pieces. In large saucepan over medium-high heat, warm the olive oil, add the garlic, and cook, stirring, until it begins to sizzle, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and 1 tsp salt and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let the sauce simmer, stirring every so often, until it is slightly reduced, about 30 minutes. Whisk the creme fraiche into the sauce and season to taste with the salt. If making a meat sauce, add the cooked beef and sausage. Set sauce aside to cool to room temperature while you conquer the pasta.
To make the pasta dough:
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the flour, eggs, and salt and run the machine until a firm ball of dough forms around the blade, cleans the side of the processor bowl, and doesn’t stick to your fingers when you touch it. If the dough is too dry, add a little water, 1 tsp at a time, until the dough comes together. If, on the other hand, it’s sticky when you touch it, add a little flour, 1 tsp at a time, until the dough comes together. (The exact amount of moisture in the dough depends on how you measured your flour, how large your eggs are, even the humidity in the air.) Once your dough is good to go, dust it lightly with flour and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap. Let it rest at room temperature for one hour.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and have more parchment paper at hand.
Cut the rested dough into six pieces. Working with one piece at a time (keep the rest covered in plastic), lightly dust the dough with flour and press it down with the heel of your hand. Run the dough through your pasta machine, starting on the widest setting and working your way through the narrower settings, rolling to through each setting twice, until it is very thin, but not too thin. I usually stop at 6, but your machine might be different from mine (Atlas) , so I’ll just say that the final pasta should be the thickness of an envelope — which is to say thin, but not at all transparent. You don’t want it to disappear into the finished lasagna. If the dough sticks during the rolling, simply dust it with a little flour. Lay the rolled-out pasta on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat the process with the rest of the dough, keeping the rolled pieces separated with parchment paper.
Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
Ladle a thin layer of room-temperature sauce onto the bottom of a 9×12” baking dish. Spread the sauce with a spoon to cover the surface of the dish. Add a layer of pasta (brush off any excess flour), cutting the pasta and arranging it as needed to form an even single layer. Spoon over just enough tomato sauce to cover the pasta and then scatter over some of the cheese mixture. Repeat the layering process until you’ve used up all of your components, ending with sauce and cheese (not naked pasta or basil, both of which will burn if exposed).
Bake the lasagna uncovered until it’s gorgeously browned and the edges are bubbling, 35-40 minutes. Let it rest at room temperature for 15 minutes, just like you would a steak, before slicing and serving. This lets the pasta fully absorb all of the bubbling sauce, so you don’t end up with soupy slices.