Friday, March 27, 2009

Mar 27: Daring Bakers Challenge - Lasagne

This month's Daring Baker Challenge is Lasagne.
Yes, you heard correctly. But isn't this a baking group? Yes, it is.
For this challenge we do make a dough, pasta dough, and we bake the results which to me is good enough. Besides I'm here to learn something new and have fun! :)

The new logo for the Daring Bakers!

Decisions! Decisions! Which logo do I like?


Onward to the Challenge!

Thanks to the Hostesses for working out this month's Challenge:
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.

With the three hosts living on three continents, this is truly an intercontinental effort.
Mary (Beans and Caviar) from North America - Canada [Wonderful, eh?]
Melinda (Melbourne Larder) from Australia [Bonzer!]
Enza (Io Da Grande) from Europe - Italy [Magnifico!]

[I bet you all didn't know I was multilingual! lol!]

With spring around the corner in the northern hemisphere, and autumn descending in the southern hemisphere, the March challenge is a rich dish that we hope will be suitable fare for Daring Bakers around the world and not cause too much heat or stress in the kitchen!

Lasagne is a dish that has successfully transcended borders and is today made around the world, albeit with many variations from the Italian original. Even within Italy, there are many variations and each region has its own lasagne tradition. But, as Lynne explains in her introduction to the recipe –and Enza, as our Italian expert for this dish, also agrees - the dish should always be a “vivid expression of the ‘less is more’ philosophy of cooking. Mere films of béchamel sauce and meat ragu coat the sheerest sheets of spinach pasta. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese dusts each layer. There is nothing more; no ricotta, no piling on of meats, vegetables or cheese; little tomato, and no hot spice. Baking performs the final marriage of flavours. The results are splendid.”

[Being in the US, the common philosophy is more is better. :) Lasagna with thick layers of sauce, filling, ricotta is very common. I've been fortunate to have coworkers direct from Italy. Talking to them about Lasagna and cooking, in general, becomes a discussion about their passion and love of food. It is one of the common grounds/a universal language I have with my Italian counterparts. Also, I believe how people cook their food and present it offers an insight into their culture.]

Requirements for this Challenge:
1/Make the Spinach-Egg pasta recipe as given: Hand-making your own pasta is the main challenge for this month.
2/Use a white (béchamel) sauce.
3/Use a ragu sauce that is part of the finished lasagne.

Recipe Source: All recipes below from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper (published by William Morrow and Company Inc., 1992).
Author's Link: The Splendid Table

Recipe Overview
Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
(Serves 8 to 10 as a first course, 6 to 8 as a main dish)

Preparation Time: 15 minutes to assemble and 40 minutes cooking time

10 quarts (9 litres) salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta cut for lasagna (recipe follows)#1
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)#2
1 recipe Country Style Ragu (recipe follows)#3
1 cup (4 ounces/125g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Working Ahead:
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking. The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature (20 degrees Celsius/68 degrees Fahrenheit) about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

[I'm all for working ahead on this recipe, especially the meat sauce.
Ragu? Isn't that the bottled stuff sold in the supermarkets? :-)
No, sireee! Ragu is a rich meat sauce.]

The ragu can be made 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. It also freezes well for up to 1 month. Skim the fat from the ragu before using it.

Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (45 mL)
2 ounces/60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
4 ounces/125g boneless veal shoulder or round
4 ounces/125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 4 ounces/125g mild Italian sausage (made without fennel)
8 ounces/250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut (in order of preference)
1 ounce/30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
2/3 cup (5 ounces/160ml) dry red wine
1 &1/2 cups (12 ounces/375ml) chicken or beef stock (homemade if possible)
2 cups (16 ounces/500ml) milk
3 canned plum tomatoes, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Browning the Ragu Base:
Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.

[Browning the aromatics and the home ground meats.]

Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.

Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.

[When I read the recipe, it called for milk! Here's the milk being added to the slowly cooked ground meat. I used a 2% milk]

Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

[The finished Ragu. Vastly superior to the jarred stuff. The sauce has a rich meaty flavor like a beef stew. In fact, at this point I can see this dish going many ways. Add potatoes, carrots and celery you have a hearty beef stew. Add ground chile pods, you have a tasty bowl of Texas Red.]

[A basic be-camel sauce. I didn't take any pictures for this step. Surprised?]
Preparation Time: 15 minutes

4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
4 tablespoons (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour, organic stone ground preferred
2&2/3 cups (approx 570ml) milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste

Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and stir 3 to 4 minutes, or until the sauce thickens. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

[On to the "hard" stuff... I've never made pasta from scratch. I've seen it made in a demo. There was no hands-on training. However, the concept is pretty straight forward and very similar to making a yeast dough. Knead to develop the gluten. Feel for the texture change from coarse and crumbly to smooth and silky.

Also, for this challenge, I wanted to go rustic and make the pasta by hand - hand mix, hand knead and hand roll.]

Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
Preparation: 45 minutes

Makes enough for 6 to 8 first course servings or 4 to 6 main course servings, equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.

2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)[I had large eggs so I weighed out 120 grams of beaten egg].
10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry [I used a 10 ounce package of frozen spinach. Defrosting and squeezing out the liquid, the end weight was 4.5 ounces. ]
3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

* A roomy work surface, 24 to 30 inches deep by 30 to 36 inches (60cm to 77cm deep by 60cm to 92cm). Any smooth surface will do, but marble cools dough slightly, making it less flexible than desired.
* A pastry scraper and a small wooden spoon for blending the dough. [No pastry scraper for me. I used a Chinese cleaver.]

* A wooden dowel-style rolling pin. In Italy, pasta makers use one about 35 inches long and 2 inches thick (89cm long and 5cm thick). The shorter American-style pin with handles at either end can be used, but the longer it is, the easier it is to roll the pasta.
Note: although it is not traditional, Enza has successfully made pasta with a marble rolling pin, and this can be substituted for the wooden pin, if you have one.

Plastic wrap to wrap the resting dough and to cover rolled-out pasta waiting to be filled. It protects the pasta from drying out too quickly.

A sharp chef’s knife for cutting pasta sheets.

Cloth-covered chair backs, broom handles, or specially designed pasta racks found in cookware shops for draping the pasta.

Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

[Optional: Buzz the spinach and egg together. I did this to puree the spinach a little to color the a shade of green.]

[Slowly mix the flour into the spinach.]

[Okay... I'm a little apprehensive that this will come together. It looks dry and crumbly, but keeping the faith I continue on.]

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

[The kneading worked... The dough ball was wrapped with cling wrap and allowed to rest for about an hour. Afterwards, the ball was divided into Fourths, since I was using a rolling pin. The pasta dough is silky smooth.]

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.

[Instead of using the handles on the end, I pressed down with my palms and rolled.]

Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.

Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Note: Enza says that transparency is a crucial element of lasagne pasta and the dough should be rolled as thinly as possible. She says this is why her housekeeper has such strong arms!

[I tried to roll the pasta as thin as possible. Using my calibrated fingers, I estimate the pasta thickness is about 2 to 3 sheets of paper]

Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag.

Cooking the Pasta:
Bring the salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Ingredients:
Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit (180 degrees Celsius). Oil or butter a 3 quart (approx 3 litre) shallow baking dish.

Assembling the Lasagne:
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel.

[Start with a layer of bechamel on the bottom of the baking dish before laying down the first layer of pasta.]

Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about 1&1/2 tablespoons of the béchamel and about 1/3 cup of the cheese.

[This shot shows the thin layer of bechamel, followed by a thin layer of ragu, topped with Parmesan. Not shown is another thin layer of bechamel before repeating the process with another sheet of pasta.]

Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce and topping with a generous dusting of cheese.

[Final layer: bechamel and Parmesan]

Baking and Serving the Lasagne:
Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the center (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out very warm, the dish is ready). Take care not to brown the cheese topping. It should be melted, creamy looking and barely tinged with a little gold. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve. This is not a solid lasagne, but a moist one that slips a bit when it is cut and served.

[Right out of the oven...
Note: An American style pasta we would top with mozzarella and allow the cheese to brown. Yum! Crispy layer of cheese]

Looking between the layers:
[A delicious lasagne. The noodles are the center of the dish and the ragu, bechamel and parmasean offer a nice supporting role.]

[As I tried to take a final shot, the little bites disappeared and the "centerpiece" became smaller]


Arlene Delloro said...

A great-looking final product and I'm sure it tasted delicious as well. While I personally am not a big fan of ricotta, I don't think you can lay the lasagna we're familiar with in the US totally on Americans. There are many versions of lasagna even in Italy. I don't think any one is superior to another, just different, reflecting the different tastes of the makers. It's like pizza. A Neopolitan would blanch at the gooey, stringy cheese that so many of us covet.

Again, wonderful lasagna.

Lisa said...

Oh man, I LOVE your serving size!! Your lasagne looks scrumptious and decadent! Nicely executed, John, and *again* great photos!

Rosa's Yummy Yums said...

Very well done! Your lasagne look really appetizing and beautiful!



Jo said...

Great job on your challenge and your lasagne looks really delicious, oozing with the sauce and cheeses. Love your step-by-step pictorials as well.

Anonymous said...

This certainly was a fun dish to make and I learned a lot from doing it too. I love your photos!

Audax said...

Great job on the photos as usual and the end result in worth it. Good to see that you got your sheet so thin. Bravo on such a great effort.

Aparna Balasubramanian said...

Looks very, very nice.
I used an eggless recipe and got to make the dough in the processor, but hand rolled the sheets.:)

I agree, I liked the "less is more" approach, personally.

raquel said...

those are really thin sheets! excellent job!

Lauren said...

Mmm, your lasagne looks amazing!!

Ruth said...

Your lasagna looks delicious. Your photos look great and makes me want to have a bite.

ice tea: sugar high said...

your lasagna is gorgeous and mouth watering! I guess it only a matter of taste. I also change the recipe to the lasagna i grew up with. I guess there's no right or wrong, just a matter of personal taste =)

Teenie said...

Love the color your pasta noodles turned out and the paper-thinness. I should've used a food processor to blend the spinach and egg together to achieve better color. Your lasagne turned out beautiful - liked how your centerpiece got smaller as you were photographing!

JMom said...

I love your step by step photos and that ragu just looks sooo delicious!

I wanted to make more of this lasagna for Easter but I ran out of time :( Plus, with all the other cooking I did, I didn't think my arms could take any more punishment. lol! I really have to get a pasta press if I want to keep making this dish.