From Scratch, With Love

The Hard Way Is So Worth It

with 2 comments

I’m going to share a secret with you.  Are you sitting down?  I love to cook.

Wow.  Shocking.  Okay, so a lot of people love to eat.  I love to eat as well.  However, most people cook as a means to an end – great food.  That’s why most people don’t make their own bread, pasta, salad dressing, etc – you can buy that stuff at the store and it’s not too expensive and the quality is there.  However, I get great pleasure from the process and while I do buy bread and pasta (but not salad dressing – cmon!), when I get a chance I make my own.  You know this.

So anyway, yesterday, John had this big race that took all day.  He left at 5am and got back at 10pm.  I did not go.  The few friends I have in the area were also out of town this weekend and I don’t have a car so I was basically stranded in my little town in New Jersey by myself.  I planned ahead.  I was really excited for my Saturday alone.  Guess what I planned?  Lasagna.  Not just any lasagna.  3.5 hour lasagna.

My coworker asked at lunch on Friday whether I had any plans for the weekend.  I said “I’m making a lasagna.  It’s going to take 4 hours.  It’s going to be awesome.”  Does that sound sad to you, weekend-plan-wise?  I’m okay with that.  It was awesome.

First, I did a little research and found a really wonderful-sounding recipe for spinach lasagna in The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (of Chez Panisse fame).  I didn’t really change it up much, except taking her advice on some variations.  I made sheets of spinach pasta for the lasagne noodles and used fresh (local – Alice would be proud) tomatoes and thinly sliced onions (my own addition) instead of sauce.  Also, Alice seemed to think the amount of paste the recipe made was enough for 7 layers.  False.  I made 4 layers.  The end result was delicious and surprisingly light for a lasagna.  It contains no meat and (surprisingly) no mozzarella, though Alice did recommend fresh mozzarella in one of her suggestions for a variation.  I also made béchamel (white sauce) for the first time and found it surprisingly easy.  I might use it in Mac and Cheese if I find myself with the time.  Lastly, I used some lightly sauteed spinach with garlic, drained, mixed with ricotta cheese.

Recommendations: I found it helpful to write out the whole recipe ahead of time so that I am familiar with all the steps.  The only part I had to actually look at the recipe for was the béchamel sauce.  Plan your time in advance or it will end up being a rather stressful 5-hour lasagna.  Keep in mind that you should let the ricotta drain before mixing it with the spinach, and that béchamel sauce is best used just after it is made, and that spinach will need to cool before it is mixed in with the pasta and with the ricotta.  Also keep in mind that the water will have to have time to come to a full boil before you cook the pasta in it, and that the pasta only needs a minute or two to cook al dente.  I find it helpful, while making a meal that uses a lot of dishes, to take some time in between steps to wash dishes and put away dry dishes so I’m not left with a sink full of dishes at the end, when I’m tired.  For this meal, when I finished eating, all I needed to wash were the dishes I used to serve and eat, for which I was very grateful.  I incorporated dish-washing into the recipe below.

I served the lasagna with some homemade bruschetta topped with garlic, fresh tomatoes, basil, and thinly sliced domestic prosciutto.  It was a very lovely meal.  It would have been nice to share it with someone, but it was also kind of satisfying to have a meal like that on my own, with a glass of wine and a nice table setting.  John has enjoyed some of the leftovers, which I haven’t tried yet.  He says it reheats well.

3.5 hour Spinach Lasagna (From The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)

Place 1 cup of part-skim ricotta cheese in a fine mesh sieve, perhaps lined with a layer of cheese cloth, over a medium bowl to drain in the fridge.  Cover with plastic wrap so it doesn’t absorb any funky smells your fridge may have.

Next, make the spinach pasta.  [Note: to make plain pasta, omit the spinach and use 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks.]  In a medium sauteé pan, heat up 1/4 cup of water over medium heat.  Once it starts to simmer, add 4 oz spinach (fresh or frozen).  Cook, stirring, until wilted.  Remove to a bowl to cool.  Once cool, squeeze dry and place in a blender with one egg and one egg yolk.  Puree.

In a large bowl, sift 1 3/4 cups of all-purpose flour (I used about 1/4 cup of whole-wheat flour in the place of some of the white flour because I’m like that.) with 1 teaspoon of salt. Make a well in the middle and pour in the spinach puree.  With a fork, stir the puree as if you’re whisking eggs for an omelet, slowly drawing the flour into the mixture.  Once the mixture becomes more dough-like, use your hands to incorporate the flour, adding water, if needed.  Once the dough cannot take anymore flour, pour any remaining flour onto a work surface and gently knead the dough until smooth.  Divide the dough into four pieces and let rest, covered with a damp paper towel.  Sift the remaining flour back onto the work surface to get rid of any dry pieces of dough that may have escaped.

Wash dishes.

While the pasta dough rests, prepare the spinach for the filling. Mince a clove of garlic.  Heat the same pan you used before over medium heat and add about a teaspoon of olive oil.  Add 8 oz of spinach (fresh or frozen) and a pinch of salt and cook, using tongs to make sure it cooks evenly, until ALMOST wilted.  Add the minced garlic and sauteé for another minute or so until the spinach is fully cooked.  Remove to a bowl to cool.  Once cooled, squeeze to drain the water and mince until uniform.  Add to the drained ricotta cheese and set aside.  You can taste it to see if it’s delicious – after all, this is a main flavor for your lasagna.  You can add herbs, pepper, salt, nutmeg, or whatever your heart desires.

Okay, so the pasta has rested.  Now it’s time to roll it out.  You can do this with a rolling pin or with a hand-crank pasta machine.  There are also stand-mixer attachments, but I don’t know anything about them.  I’ve never used a rolling pin either because John’s parents gave me a pasta machine for my birthday, right around when pasta making started to intrigue me.

I’ve described pasta making in the past, but allow me to do so again.  You want to start out with the rollers in the largest setting (number 7 on my machine).  In this setting you are basically kneading the dough until it becomes smooth.  First, flour the mound of dough in that bit of flour you had left, sifted, on the counter.  Next, pass it through the machine by turning the crank.  It will be rough and possibly sticky.  That’s ok.  If it’s sticky, add some more flour.  Fold the dough in half length-wise and pass it through again with the crease on one side.  Continue this process until the dough is smooth and satiny.

If making spinach pasta, the dough will be more uniformly green than it was when you started.

Now that it’s satiny, change the roller setting so that it’s slightly narrower (“6” on my machine).  Without folding the dough, pass it through the machine.  Continue to narrow the settings and pass it through until it is the thickness you desire.  I used the “3” setting.  You want the pasta smooth and without holes.  If you accidentally put a hole in it, just roll it up and start from the widest setting again.  When the pasta is the thickness you desire, coat it in flour and lay it on a drying rack.  I cut my pasta sheets in half so that they were about the length of the pan I was using.  Repeat the process for the rest of the dough.  If the sheets are well-floured, they won’t stick if you lay them of top of one another.  Fill a large pot halfway with water and put it over high heat.

Wash dishes and clean up the counter.

Okay, so you have the pasta and the ricotta cheese.  The only other components of the lasagna are the béchamel sauce and the sliced tomatoes and onion.  Now, the béchamel sauce takes about 30-40 minutes, but for the last 20-30 minutes, it just simmers and needs to be stirred every so often, so you can slice the vegetables during this time.

Measure out 3 tablespoons of white flour into a small bowl and 2 cups of milk into a measuring cup.  In a medium (not nonstick) saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons of butter over medium heat.  Whisk in the flour and continue whisking for about 3 minutes.  Slowly add the milk.  It will thicken very quickly at first but don’t worry.  Add the milk in small batches and it will eventually thin out and become a slightly thick sauce.  If it is lumpy, pass it through a mesh strainer to remove lumps and put back in the heat.  Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, then lower the heat until it is at a bare simmer.  Simmer for 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom.  A skin will develop on the top.  That’s okay, just stir it.

The pot of water should have come to a boil by now.  Add some salt.  Before you add the pasta, fill a large bowl with cold water.  If your water isn’t very cold, add a couple ice cubes.  Add the sheets of pasta carefully, one at a time, to the vigorously boiling water.  Cook for 1-2 minutes, until al dente.  The pasta should be undercooked – remember, it will be cooked further in the lasagna.  You just want it firm.  Drain the pasta and place it into the cold water to stop the cooking process.  Once chilled, drain it again and remove to a bowl.  Drizzle it with olive oil to prevent sticking.  It will probably stick anyway, so just be careful when you handle it.

(Remember to stir the sauce)

Wash any dishes you have incurred and slice 2 large tomatoes and 1 large yellow onion very thinly.  Grate about 1/4 cup of parmesan cheese.  Preheat the oven to 400 and lightly grease a 13 x 17 inch dish.  You could probably also make this in an 8 x 8 dish with more layers.  I’m not sure how cooking time would be affected.  If the béchamel sauce is almost done (taste it), add a pinch of salt and a grating of fresh nutmeg.  You can also add about a tablespoon of dry sherry.  Taste it to make sure the salt is right and it’s delicious.  Remove it from the heat and add the grated parmesan cheese.  Drizzle some of the freshly made sauce over the bottom of the dish.

Gently remove two strips of pasta from the bowl in which they have been resting and lay them on the bottom of the dish, trimming them to fit.  Spread a third of the ricotta mixture on top of the pasta and lay half the tomatoes and onions on top of that.  Lay down another layer of pasta. Spread half the remaining béchamel sauce on top of the pasta.  Lay down another layer (I recommend using the scraps you have cut from the other pasta for a layer, because you might not be left with enough whole strips and you want the top layer to be the prettiest).  Spread with half the remaining ricotta and the rest of the tomatoes and onions.  Lay down another layer of pasta and spread with the remaining white sauce and ricotta.  Lay down a final layer of pasta and drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Cover with aluminum foil and place in the upper half of the oven to bake for 20 minutes.  After 20 minutes, remove the foil and sprinkle some freshly grated parmesan on top and bake for another 15 minutes.  Let cool for 5 minutes before serving.

I found that the time it took for the lasagna to cook was exactly the right amount of time to prepare my bruschetta, wash any dishes, take the wine out of the fridge to warm up a little, and clean up.  I also set the table nicely for my dinner for one.  By the time the lasagna was ready for me, I was also ready for it.

I hope that some day in the near future you find yourself with the time and the desire to prepare a meal like this.  It’s incredibly satisfying to put the time and effort into a delicious meal, even if it’s just for yourself.  It really reminded me what it is I love about food and it was a wonderful way to spend a Saturday afternoon.


Written by poperatzii

August 1, 2010 at 3:00 pm

2 Responses

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  1. […] couple weekends ago, when John was at that ridiculous race and I was home alone, happily making four-hour lasagna, I also had the urge to make some dough.  It was 10 pm.  I knew that I would not stay up until 1 […]

  2. I made the spinach lasagna from ‘The Art of Simple Food’ this weekend, using a pasta recipe based on two cups of flour, four egg yolks, and two whole eggs. (I think that the recipe in ‘The Art of Simple Food’ makes a batch of about the same size.)

    I found that the recipe made enough pasta for 8 layers. I think Alice means for the pasta to be rolled more thinly. I rolled it to ’10,’ the thinnest setting on my machine (many people prefer the next-thinnest setting for lasagna). To me, the pleasure of homemade lasagna resides largely in the silky, translucent layers of fresh pasta, so I like to roll it out quite thin.


    February 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

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