I seem to have been carrying a torch for the stuff of late. What can I say? There are few foods as comforting as a dense square of baked lasagna, running with piping hot sauce and rich with salty cheese. The waning winter seems to be a good time to be comforted, and I've told you many times that I am not about moderation. First there was my own lasagna, a dish very much representative of me. Then there was Mrs. DiLorenzo's manicotti: not lasagna per se, but ricotta filling baked in pasta nonetheless. Then came the Swiss chard won tons, which I created to salvage a delicious ricotta filling that was made for a different failed dish. And today it's the Daring Bakers and their March challenge: homemade lasagna.
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.
I know, I know. You're thinking, homemade lasagna? Daring BAKERS? Huh? I was a bit puzzled as well, as I certainly was not baking as I made my lasagna last night. But the point of the challenge was the homemade spinach egg lasagna noodles and inasmuch as dough-making can be considered baking, well, there you have it. It was nice to partake in a savory challenge, that's for sure. One that appeases my legendary salt-tooth.
The original recipe included a meat ragu, which I as a non-red-meat eater eschewed in favor of my chosen filling: "deconstructed pesto." At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I call it "deconstructed" because fully "constructed" pesto -- pesto that has been whirred with olive oil into a lovely green sauce in the Cuisinart -- really should not be subjected to prolonged high heat, which kills the verdant flavor and mouth-watering brightness. So instead I roughly chopped my pesto ingredients, minus the olive oil and butter, and sandwiched them between the layers of butter-rich bechamel and lovely mottled green spinach noodles. The result was even more delicious than I expected: cheesy, salty and herbaceous, punctuated by the yielding crunch of warmed, toasted walnuts.
I ate two pieces.
March, I have never loved you as I love you now. For you used to be all about random late-winter heavy snowstorms and deceivingly sunny-but-cold days. But now you are all about lasagna. This, dear March, is a significant improvement.
DECONSTRUCTED PESTO LASAGNA
Adapted from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
It is not necessary to have a pasta maker for this recipe, though I won't lie to you: it makes it a whole lot easier and quicker. Of course you could use the Kitchenaid pasta-making attachment, if you have it, but I have an old-fashioned hand-crank pasta maker and I love it.
For the spinach egg pasta:
2 jumbo eggs, lightly beaten
10 oz. frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3 1/2 c. all-purpose, unbleached flour
1/4 - 1/2 c. water, as needed
For the bechamel:
4 T. unsalted butter
4 T. all-purpose flour
2 2/3 c. milk
Kosher salt, to taste
Freshly-cracked black pepper, to taste
Freshly-ground nutmeg, to taste
For the deconstructed pesto filling:
2 c. fresh basil leaves, packed
1/2 c. fresh flat-leaf parsley, packed
1 cup walnuts, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 1/3 c. pecorino cheese, grated
2 oz. ricotta salata, crumbled
First, make the spinach egg pasta. Mound the flour on your work surface and make a well in the middle. In a small bowl, mix together the eggs and spinach. Pour the egg-spinach mixture into the well and, using a fork, gradually pull flour into the well, mixing it with the spinach and eggs. Keep pulling in flour and mixing until the dough is solid enough to begin working with your hands.
Begin to knead the dough together. Depending on the humidity in your kitchen, you will most likely need to add water to bring the dough together, anywhere from 1/4 c. to 1/2 c. Just keep adding the water, little by little, until the dough comes together into a ball. Be patient and don't be discouraged; it will take a few minutes of work to bring the dough together.
Once the dough has become a cohesive mass, use a bench scraper to clean any lumps of dough off the work surface -- these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it is satiny, smooth and elastic. The recipe states that the dough should feel "alive under your hands." I do not know what that means; I do know that you should continue kneading until the dough is a smooth ball. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let it rest at room temperature for 30 minutes to 3 hours.
While the dough rests, make the bechamel. Place the butter in a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat. Melt the butter, then sift the flour into the pan. Cook the butter and flour, whisking continuously, for about 4 minutes. Add the milk in a slow stream, whisking to incorporate into the flour and butter. Bring the sauce to a slow simmer and cook for 5-8 minutes, whisking frequently, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Remove from heat and set aside.
Next, make the deconstructed pesto filling. This is really a simple herb mixture. Place the basil, flat-leaf parsley, walnuts and garlic into a medium bowl. Mix to combine; set aside.
After the spinach egg pasta dough has rested, get busy making lasagna. If you're using a pasta maker, divide the dough into pieces a little larger than a golf ball. Place each piece of dough through the machine several times until it's about 1/8" thick. This took 5 passes through my machine for each dough ball, starting on the widest setting and moving sequentially through the next 4 settings. Each sheet of pasta will be approximately 10" to 13" long. Place the pasta sheets on a counter that's been lightly dusted with flour. Do not overlap the pieces of pasta: they will stick to each other and cause great gnashing of teeth and rending of garments.
If you do not have a pasta maker and choose to make the lasagna noodles by hand, follow these directions, which have been lovingly supplied by the Daring Bakers. Please note that I have not tried this method, so I cannot necessarily vouch for it. But if it works for the Daring Bakers....Roll out a quarter of the dough and keep the remaining 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 the dough into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter-turn. As the dough becomes thinner, start rolling the disc back on the rolling 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 rolling 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 rolling 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, about 1/8". When you have achieved the desired thickness, cut the dough into rectangles about 4" x 8" and let rest on a lightly-floured surface until ready to cook.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Oil the bottom of a 13" x 9" baking dish with about 2 T. of olive oil.
Next, cook the pasta. Spread a large counter space with a double thickness of paper towels and place a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and drop in the sheets of lasagna, about 5 at a time. Cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes (the pasta will continue to cook during baking, so make sure it is barely tender). Lift the pasta from the water with a skimmer or Chinese spider, drain and place into the bowl of cold water to stop the cooking. When cool, lift out of the cold water and allow the pasta to dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked. Turn over the sheets of pasta or gently blot them with a paper towel to dry them as much as possible.
Finally, assemble the lasagna. Spread a thin layer of bechamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of pasta over the bechamel, cutting the pieces of pasta if necessary to fit inside the dish. (Remember, though, that this is a layered dish and the pasta doesn't have to fit in perfectly; it will look gorgeous when you cut it regardless.) Spread a thin layer of bechamel, about 3 or 4 spoonfuls, over the pasta followed by a third of the deconstructed pesto filling. Sprinkle with 1/3 c. grated pecorino cheese.
Repeat the layers -- pasta, bechamel, pesto filling, pecorino -- until all the ingredients are used. Finish with a layer of pasta topped with bechamel, then sprinkled with pecorino and the crumbled ricotta salata.
Place a piece of aluminum foil over the baking dish, taking care to make sure that it doesn't touch the top of the lasagna. Place the lasagna on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes. Turn off the oven, prop open the oven door (I use the handle of a wooden spoon) and let the lasagna rest for 10 minutes.
Cut, and serve. Then cut and serve yourself another piece.