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Lasagna da Nonna Tina

Ok. I’m taking a big risk here. This is a secret family recipe going back to the end of the 19th century. And being of Italian descent with family still in Brooklyn, I could find myself “talking to the fishes” on this one. But this is absolutely the most amazing lasagna ever! I make it with homemade pasta using a hand-cranked pasta machine. It can also be made with fresh pasta sheets from your local Italian specialties shop. Avoid dry lasagna pasta from the supermarket. No matter how long you boil it, it turns out rubbery and often burns on the edges and is way too thick. In short, it sucks.

This recipe comes from my grandmother, Tina Mistruzzi. She was born in a town called Montova between the Italian cities of Verona and Parma (the home of the finest prosciutto and parmigiana) in 1898. She eventually moved to Bologna – which gives her lasagna a certain Bolognese flair. She met my grandfather – then a young professor – while in school in Florence. They fell in love, got married (I’d like to say it was because of this lasagna recipe – but that would be taking way too much creative license) and traveled throughout Europe. They had three daughters – one being my mother. They survived the Allied bombing of WWII and they lived well into their eighties. My grandmother passed the recipe down to my mother, and she passed it down to me. It’s been part of our yearly Holiday traditions and whenever it’s served becomes a special event. I hope it becomes a tradition in your home too. Enjoy.

What you’ll need:

There are four parts to this lasagna. And to do it right will take anywhere from four to five hours. The sauce can be prepared a day in advance to split the time. The four parts are: A Bolognese sauce, homemade pasta, A Bechamel sauce, and three Italian cheeses.

Step 1: The Sauce.

Ingredients:

3 cloves garlic – finely chopped
1 onion – finely chopped
2-3 carrots – chopped
2-3 celery stalks – chopped
1 bay leaf
1 tsp basil – fresh chopped or dried
salt & pepper
1lb lean ground beef
1/4 lb ground pork
1/4 lb ground veal
1/2 Italian sausage ring – chopped
I large can peeled tomatoes
1 8oz can tomato puree
1 small can tomato paste
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup milk
olive oil

In a large sauce pot, heat up a tablespoon of olive oil. Add the carrots, celery, garlic and onion and sauté until soft. Add the pork & sausage and cook for 5 minutes, then add the beef and veal and cook until you no longer see any pink color to the meat. At that point add the wine and raise the heat to evaporate the wine. Once the wine is almost evaporated, lower the heat and add the milk and stir until the white disappears. Crush the peeled tomatoes (I use a bowl and crush them with my hands – the way they used to do it in the old days) and add to the pot along with the remaining tomato puree, tomato paste, bay leaf and nutmeg. Stir well and low simmer, covered for 2-3 hours. Stir every so often to prevent burning. While the sauce simmers, you have time to make the pasta – if you have a pasta machine. If not, have a glass of wine and relax for a couple of hours.

Step 2: The Pasta

If you have a pasta machine, then you probably already know how to make pasta dough. It’s really simple. The original recipe uses semolina flour – but regular white flower works just as well.

Ingredients:

3 cups semolina flour
3 whole eggs
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil

Combine ingredients in a mixing bowl and mix thoroughly. This process is a “feel” thing – meaning the dough needs to be uniform but not too sticky. If you find the pasta too stick, add some flour in your hands and knead the dough until it pulls cleanly away from your fingers. Place it in a covered bowl and refrigerate for 10 minutes. In the meantime, set up your pasta machine and make sure you have an unused kitchen table available for at least an hour. Cover the table with a clean tablecloth and have a bunch of clean kitchen towels (or wax paper) available. Also have a cup of flour handy to keep the pasta from sticking to the machine. Tear away a golf ball-sized handful of dough and roll firmly in your floured hand. Push through pasta machine at a medium setting. Repeat a couple of times, folding the pasta each time to create a rectangular shape. Then step down the settings and repeat until the pasta is thin enough. On classic hand-cranked machines you should end at setting #2. If the sheet rips, don’t be discouraged, you can always re-ball it up in your hand, sprinkle a little water on it and try again. After passing it through the final setting lay the sheet on the clean tablecloth and sprinkle with a little four or corn meal. Once the table is covered yo can lay kitchen towels or wax paper over them and create a new layer. The next step after making the pasta is very important. You need to wash your hands thoroughly and then pour yourself a nice glass of wine and relax until the meat sauce is finished simmering.

Step 3: The Bechamel Sauce

This sauce is of French origin. In France, it is one of the four basic sauces called “meres” or “mother sauces” from which all other sauces derive. It is also known as “white sauce”. It;s a smooth, white sauce made from a roux made from flour, heated milk and butter. My grandmother’s version adds a little heavy cream.

Ingredients:

2.5 tablespoons of butter (about 1.5 inches cut from a stick of butter)
1.5 tablespoons of flour
Milk & heavy cream

In a small pot heat about a cup of milk to just before boiling. Set aside. In a sauce pan melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Keep whisking while adding milk one tablespoon at a time over low heat until the sauce is thick but creamy – like the consistency of pancake batter. Set aside. You will add about a quarter cup of heavy cream just prior to building the lasagna…which is the next step.

Step 4: Preparing the Lasagna

Boil water in a large pot. Fill a large bowl with cold water and dissolve 1-2 tablespoons of salt in the water. You will need the following ingredients to build the lasagna:

Ingredients:

The meat sauce
The pasta
The Bechamel sauce
1 lb shredded mozzarella
24oz container Ricotta
8oz grated parmigiano

Spread a ladle-full of the meat sauce on the bottom over the bottom of a large lasagna pan. Boil a few sheets of pasta for about a minute – then transfer to the cold salted water. Lay the pasta in the pan, moving it around a little to create wrinkles, bumps and valleys. Spread another ladle-full of the sauce over the pasta and spread evenly – making sure to get sauce in all the corners and edges. Next, sprinkle a tablespoon or two of the Bechamel sauce (doing your best Jackson Pollock imitation). Add 2-3 heaping tablespoons of Ricotta – you don’t need to spread it, just drop a dollop here and there. Sprinkle a handful of Mozzarella and dust with a couple of tablespoons of Parmigiano. Now add your next layer of pasta and repeat the process. Once you have 5-6 layers (depending on the depth of your pan) finish off the top with a layer of meat sauce, Mozzarella and Parmigiano. Cover with foil and bake at 325 degrees for 60-75 minutes, depending on your oven – removing the foil after the first half hour.

And there you have it.

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