Since July 29th is National Lasagna Day in the United States, I thought it timely to pay tribute this wonderfully satisfying Italian comfort food. I’ll start by paraphrasing Elizabeth Barrett Browning: “Lasagna, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways …”. I think you get the point; there are probably as many variations for making lasagna as there are Italian immigrants.
Lasagna is very a versatile dish with recipes ranging from what may be thought of as traditional lasagna, vegetarian lasagna or seafood lasagna. These may contain tomato sauce, béchamel sauce or both. Meat lovers will find various meat combinations. For vegetarians, the variety of produce that can be included is limited only by their imagination. Seafood lovers will find variations loaded with shrimp, scallops and crab. Then, all these wonderful fillings may be combined with various cheeses and sauces, layered between tender sheets of pasta and baked to all come together as a sumptuous, soul-satisfying whole.
While the exact origin of lasagna is not clear, it’s believed that the term “lasagna” can be traced back to the Greek word laganon, which was a flat sheet of dough cut into strips. Then, there is also the Greek word lasanon, which refers to a sort of ancient crock-pot. The Romans seem to have borrowed this word and turned it into lasanum, which also means a sort of cooking pot. Therefore, the original meaning of lasagna is seemingly believed to refer to a dish named after the pot it was cooked in.
More recently, both Italians and English have claimed to be the first to make lasagna. It seems that English researchers studying medieval cookbooks found a recipe called “Loseyn” (pronounced lasan) prepared by chefs for King Richard II in 1390. The recipe is similar to lasagna in name and that its ingredients are layered between sheets of pasta. This led to them to conclude that Lasagna is of English origin and this “fact” was proudly proclaimed throughout England. However, the Italian embassy in London immediately issued a denial to this by providing ample documentation from Italian medieval historians pointing to records dated before 1390, including cookbooks such as Libro di Cucina, which mentions lasagna by name and provides a recipe. They also produced records from 1316 that mentioned a lasagna maker called Maria Borgogno. Whatever or wherever the origin of this wonderful dish may be, today it cannot be denied that lasagna is inextricably tied to Italian cuisine; and, anyone who has visited Italy knows that depending on where you are in Italy, the interpretation for what is lasagna changes.
For example, in Emilia Romagna, and in particular Bologna, you find Lasagna Bolognese in which there is no ricotta or mozzarella. In fact the original recipe uses the classic Bolognese Ragù, made with several types of meat, and a rich béchamel sauce made with butter, plenty of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and fresh whole milk. Lasagna Bolognese began to appear in the restaurants of Bologna at the beginning of the 20th century; and, the original recipe for Lasagna Bolognese is so important to the region that the Accademia Italiana della Cucina deposited it with the Bologna Chamber of Commerce on July 4, 2003.
In the Marche the dish is known as “Vincisgrassi” and is found as far back as 1784 in a cookbook “Il Cuoco Maceratese” written by Antonio Nebbia. Vincisgrassi is traditionally made with ground pork and with ground chicken giblets, liver, kidneys and hearts; along with mushrooms and béchamel sauce made with copious amounts of Parmigiano Reggiano.
In Campania, the recipe for Lasagna Napoletana includes a rich filling made with ricotta, eggs and grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese. The sheets or squares of egg pasta are layered with a rich tomato sauce, ricotta filling and other ingredients that vary depending on what the cook has available. These ingredients might include sliced hard boiled eggs, sliced salami, tiny meatballs and chunks of sausage. So whether you find yourself in Emilia-Romagna, Marche, Campania or any other region of Italy, you will find a local version of lasagna.
As far back as I can remember in my family, as with most other Italian-American families here in the United States, lasagna was often served. We would have it at home on Sundays, it was made for extended family get-togethers on holidays, and we would even bring it to picnics.
When lasagna was made for the extended family it was always a group effort since so many had to be made. My dad’s aunt, Zia Clarice who was the matriarch of the family, was always leading the effort with help from her daughter, nieces and my mother. My family is from the Abruzzo region and that’s where Zia Clarice learned to make lasagna from her mother. Zia Clarice didn’t have a specific written recipe for making her lasagna, and since there were so many elements involved: the sauce, the pasta sheets, the cheese mixture and polpettini, which are mini-meatballs that are so often used in Abruzzese cuisine, it would have been tedious for her to write one. “You don’t need a recipe,” she would say, “you make the lasagna like this”. So anyone in the family who was interested had to learn to make her lasagna by helping her make it.
They would start early in the morning to make the tomato sauce. Then they would make the pasta and let it rest. After the pasta, the polpettini were made and put aside until needed. Afterwards, the cheeses were grated and the cheese mixture made and also set aside. Then it was back to the pasta to get it rolled out into long sheets and boiled before finally assembling the lasagna. Again, all this was all done without recipes. Zia Clarice knew what she was doing, and everyone else pretty much learned through osmosis. Since I was a child at the time, you may think that my memory is spotty and that I’m giving a romanticized description of the process. But refer to the following photo below from Christmas 1958. From right to left there is: Zia Clarice, my cousin Jackie, my mother Leda, and my cousin Nina. They’re putting together several lasagne (plural for lasagna) exactly as I described. I’m told that I’m also in the picture, as a two year-old child under the table getting in everyone’s way.
As an Abruzzese too, my mother also made lasagna like Zia Clarice’s, and up until the time I left home this was the only kind I knew. And even then, I wasn’t inclined to order lasagna when dining in an Italian-American restaurant. After all, I could get it better at home when I visited.
After I married, my wife Judy introduced me to different lasagna styles and since then I’ve learned to enjoy the variety she makes, though I still won’t order lasagna when eating out; some habits just die hard. Through the years, Judy has made lasagna like Zia Clarice’s, but has also made it with ground meat and sausage, with spinach, with mixed vegetables, and with seafood. She often makes her own fresh lasagna pasta sheets, but at times also uses dried lasagna pasta sheets. In both cases the lasagna sheets are boiled before assembly. She has also used dried no-boil lasagna sheets with good results.
For today’s lasagna shown in the photo, Judy made fresh pasta sheets, which I prefer since they are thinner and finer than the typical commercial dried ribbon lasagna sheets, thus producing a moist, tender lasagna. I find the commercial ribbon sheets to be too thick and chewy for my taste. Or, instead of making your own pasta sheets, you can also buy fresh pasta sheets at your local Italian specialty store or they often can be found in your local supermarket. I also don’t mind the no-boil lasagna sheets as they need to be made thin since they have to readily absorb liquid while baking and this produces lasagna that closely mimics one made with fresh pasta, but keep in mind to use a more liquid tomato sauce.
To make the cheese mixture, Judy prefers whole milk ricotta to the part-skim ricotta. It seems that the part-skim ricotta has less taste and releases much more liquid than whole milk ricotta. This results in thin, tasteless, watery lasagna. Likewise, Judy prefers un-grated whole milk mozzarella to part-skim. When Judy makes lasagna, I like to grate the mozzarella myself since pre-grated cheeses contain additives to keep from clumping. So, while the cheese doesn’t clump together, the additives also dry-out the shredded cheese and prevents it from melting into a nice creamy consistency. This is also true for Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. And, not only doesn’t freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano contain additives, it also has a much fresher, more pungent taste. To complete the mixture, Judy combines the ricotta, mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses with and egg, salt, black pepper, and fresh chopped parsley.
Judy’s meat sauce includes bulk Italian sausage, ground pork and ground beef. The ratio may vary with what she has on hand, but in equal proportion is a good rule of thumb. She browns the meat with onions and garlic then adds red wine, deglazing the bottom of the saucepan or pot, and reduces the wine to about ½ the original volume. She then adds crushed tomatoes, parsley, basil and other Italian seasonings and slowly simmers the sauce until she deems it finished.
Finally, Judy assembles the lasagna in a 9×13-baking pan by starting with a layer of meat sauce on the bottom, then three alternating layers of pasta, cheese mixture, and meat sauce finishing with a fourth and final layer of pasta. On the top of the last layer of pasta she adds more meat sauce a copious layer of grated mozzarella; and then bakes the lasagna for about 50 minutes until it’s hot and bubbly.
Like Zia Clarice and my mother, Judy didn’t use a written recipe to make today’s lasagna, so I’m putting one together using her ingredients and process. Give it a try and let us know if you like it. Also, feel free to use your discretion to make any changes or additions; remember, there isn’t a “right” way to make lasagna. Finally, you’re welcome to share your lasagna ideas and recipes with us. We love to learn and try different things!
- Lasagna sheets
- Prepare enough lasagna sheets for 4 pasta layers. Use homemade, fresh store-bought or dried no-boil lasagna sheets, as you prefer. Boil the homemade or fresh store-bought sheets in batches and immediately rinse each batch in a colander with cold water to stop cooking and to prevent sticking. Use the dried no-boil lasagna sheets per the package directions.
- Meat sauce
- Olive oil
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 4-5 cloves of garlic, minced
- 1 lb total, bulk Italian sausage, ground pork and ground beef. Use ⅓ lb each or your preferred proportion.
- 1 cup red wine
- 2 28 oz cans of crushed tomatoes
- 1 cup water, or more as needed
- Pinch of black pepper
- Salt to taste
- Parsley, basil and Italian seasoning to taste
- Cheese mixture
- 2 lbs. ricotta
- 1 lb block mozzarella, use ⅔ for the cheese mixture and reserve ⅓ for topping
- 1 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano
- 1 egg, whole and beaten
- 3 tbs fresh chopped parsley, or more to taste
- Salt and pepper to taste, keep in mind the Parmigiano-Reggiano is salty.
- Prepare lasagna sheets as described above
- Preheat oven to 350° F
- In a 4 or 5-quart saucepot, add enough olive oil to cover the bottom. Add chopped onion and cook to soften, about 4 minutes. Add minced garlic and cook for another minute or two. Don’t burn the onions!
- Add the ground meats to the saucepot and brown, being sure to break up the ground sausage as much as possible.
- Add the red wine and deglaze the saucepot and reduce to ½ the original volume.
- Add the crushed tomatoes and water to the browned meat and mix well. Add the parsley, basil and Italian seasonings and mix again. Bring to a boil and reduce the meat sauce to a slow simmer. Simmer until done to your taste, about 1 to 1.5 hours. If the sauce becomes to condensed add more water to achieve your desired consistency. If you’re using no-boil pasta sheets you want the sauce to be more liquid.
- Combine all the ingredients for the cheese mixture in a bowl and mix well.
- In a 9x13 glass baking pan, assemble the lasagna by first adding a layer of the meat sauce to the bottom of the pan. Add a layer of pasta sheets on top of the meat sauce. Add ⅓ of cheese mixture on top of the pasta sheets and then a layer of meat sauce on top of the cheese mixture. Repeat for two more layers. Finally add the fourth layer of pasta sheets on top. Then cover the pasta sheets with more meat sauce and the remaining mozzarella cheese. You may need more mozzarella to form a nice cheese layer similar to pizza; it’s up to your discretion.
- Bake for 50 minutes until hot and bubbly and the mozzarella is nicely melted and lightly browned.
- Remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes then cut into 4x4 squares and serve.