Sunday, March 29, 2009

Daring Bakers March '09 - Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna

I was ready to roll up my sleeves for this month's DB challenge. I'd never made lasagne before (aside from the lasagne that you can get frozen from the supermarket :P) so this challenge was going to be interesting. I'd been stressed out for most of this month because I had to complete a 25 page paper for my Pediatric Nursing course and also work on a group project for Nursing Research! AAAHHH!! Thankfully, baking and cooking helps me de-stress so this challenge was great. I made the different components (the sauce, meat and pasta) on 3 separate days, so I had three days of decreased stress which I was so thankful for. The best de-stressing part of the challenge was kneading and stretching the dough... perhaps I should have saved a piece of the dough so that I could pound and mash it whenever I need to take my frustration out on something :P Anyways, on with the 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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

Preparation: 45 minutes

- 2 jumbo eggs (2 ounces/60g or more)
- 10 ounces (300g) fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 6 ounces (170g) frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
- 3&1/2 cups (14 ounces/400g) all purpose unbleached (plain) flour (organic stone ground preferred)

Working by Hand:
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.

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.

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.

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!

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

#2 Bechamel

Preparation Time: 15 minutes

- 4 tbsp (2 ounces/60g) unsalted butter
- 4 tbsp (2 ounces/60g) all purpose unbleached 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.

#3 Country Style Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta)

Preparation Time: Ingredient Preparation Time 30 minutes and Cooking time 2 hours

- 3 tbsp 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

Working Ahead:
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.

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.

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.

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 craziest things about this challenge?? Well, first off I'm so not a cook... baking is my thing. So when it came to buying the meat I was so totally lost, I simply brought the recipe to the market and asked around for help. Dude... it's so embarassing :P Also, I'd never bought so much meat in my life. The pancetta, prosciutto, beef, pork and italian sausage!!! Ai Carambe!! Although the sauce was very tasty, I tried not to think of all the meat that was in it. Perhaps I'll substitute mushrooms or some other veggies for 1/2 the meat next time, if there is a next time.
Secondly, I didn't have a meat grinder or food processor, so I had to manually mince all of the meat with my handy-dandy cleaver. Woah, was that ever back-braking labor. At first it was sort of difficult trying to make the pieces as small as possible, but once the pieces began to resemble minced chunks I had the most fun "hacking away" at the puddle of meat sitting on my chopping board.
Thirdly, my arms were totally dead after pulling and stretching that crazy dough. I ended up making nice and thin pasta, but woah was I super tired after. Also, my kitchen was looking green all over... notice my above pics with the lasagne pastas draped over the kitchen faucet and the handle of my non-stick skillet :P

This challenge was a lot of fun, and the lasagne turned out beautifully. I was very happy that the slices were actually intact upon their removal from the baking pan. Yeah! Whenever we buy the frozen lasagne from the supermarket, bake it and dish it onto plates it always ends up as an oozing puddle of messy pasta, sauce and cheese... but this recipe was brilliant. The lasagne was easy to cut with a knife, easy to remove and looked lovely on our plates. My mom and dad were really impressed that I could make pasta, and my sisters gobbled it up... spinach-pasta and all. Hmm.... it's a sneaky way to get kids to eat their veggies! I think I'll definitely make the pasta again, that was really fun. But maybe I'll try making other dishes with the dough, maybe cannelloni or some stuffed pasta shells?? or maybe dumplings or something... who knows? We daring bakers are crazy and creative when we need to be :P


DJ Karma said...

If I still ate meat and dairy, this would be the ultimate lasagna! Great job!

anjelikuh said...

lol, i also used this challenge to de-stress myself from my exams, great job!

Shelly said...

Yours turned out great! You sure did get a heck of a workout :). I'm glad I had a pasta machine, or I would've been in the same boat.