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Lasagna alla Bolognese

This classic lasagna is built from a hearty slow-cooked meat sauce, a creamy white sauce, fresh pasta and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The elements are layered in the pan, but their flavors come together as the lasagna bakes. This dish is surprisingly delicate when made with fresh spinach pasta. 

Ingredients:

For the Bolognese sauce:

  • 2 Tbs. unsalted butter 
  • 2 small carrots, chopped 
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped 
  • 1 yellow onion, chopped 
  • 2 oz. thick-cut pancetta, chopped 
  • 1/2 lb. ground pork 
  • 1/2 lb. ground beef chuck 
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine such as Barbera 
  • 1 cup drained, chopped canned plum tomatoes 
  • 1 to 2 Tbs. tomato paste 
  • 2 cups beef broth, plus more as needed  
  • 1 cup milk 
  • 1 tsp. sea salt 
  • 1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper 
  • 1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg 
  •   

For the white sauce:

  • 3 cups milk 
  • 6 Tbs. (3/4 stick) unsalted butter 
  • 6 Tbs. all-purpose flour 
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt 
  •   
  • 18 oz. fresh spinach pasta dough (see related recipe at left)
  • 1 1/2 cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese 

Directions:

To make the Bolognese sauce, in a Dutch oven or other large, heavy pot over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Add the carrots, celery, onion and pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients are tender and rich golden brown, about 30 minutes. If the ingredients are beginning to brown too much, reduce the heat slightly and stir in a spoonful or two of warm water.

Add the ground pork and beef to the pot and stir well. Raise the heat to medium and cook, stirring often and breaking up the meats with a wooden spoon, until they are lightly browned and crumbly and their juices have evaporated, about 20 minutes.

Add the wine and deglaze the pot, scraping up the browned bits from the pot bottom. Cook until the wine evaporates, about 2 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes, 1 Tbs. of the tomato paste, the 2 cups broth, the milk, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Heat the mixture until it just begins to simmer, then reduce the heat to very low and continue to cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour. If the sauce seems to be getting too thick or it threatens to scorch, add a little more broth.

Partially cover the pot and continue cooking the sauce on the lowest heat setting until it is thick and dark brown, 1 to 1 1/2 hours more. When the sauce is ready, use a large spoon to skim off and discard any fat floating on the surface.

Use the Bolognese sauce immediately, or let cool, cover and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 5 days or freeze for up to 2 months.

To make the white sauce, in a saucepan over medium heat, heat the milk until small bubbles appear around the edges of the pan, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Meanwhile, in a heavy nonstick saucepan over medium-low heat, melt the butter. Using a wooden spoon, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until a thick, smooth paste forms, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Slowly drizzle 1 to 2 Tbs. of the hot milk into the flour paste while whisking constantly. The mixture will immediately become thick and lumpy. Continuing to whisk vigorously, add the milk about 2 Tbs. at a time. The sauce will gradually become smooth. After adding about 1/2 cup of the milk, slowly add the remaining milk in a thin, steady stream while whisking constantly.

Stir in the salt, return the pan to medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce is smooth and thick enough to coat the back of the spoon, about 1 minute.

Use immediately, or let cool, cover and refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 2 days. Reheat over low heat, stirring constantly and adding a little hot water or milk to thin, if necessary.

Lightly flour a rimmed baking sheet.

Make the pasta dough according to the recipe, then divide and roll out each piece into a sheet 1/16 inch thick, as directed in the related tip at left. Lay the pasta sheet on a lightly floured work surface and, using a knife or pastry wheel, cut into sections about 12 inches long (they will lengthen slightly as they cook). Layer the sections on the prepared baking sheet, spacing them so they don’t touch and separating each layer with a lightly floured kitchen towel.

Preheat an oven to 375°F. Butter a 10-by-13-by-2-inch baking dish. Set aside 1/2 cup of the white sauce and 1/4 cup of the cheese.

Layer pasta sheets in the bottom of the pan, overlapping the pieces slightly. Spread with a thin layer of white sauce and top with a layer of Bolognese sauce. Sprinkle with about 1/4 cup of the cheese. Repeat the layering, creating as many layers as you can and ending with a pasta layer. Spread the top pasta layer with the reserved white sauce and sprinkle with the reserved cheese. The dish can be assembled up to this point, covered and refrigerated for up to 24 hours before baking.

Bake the lasagna for 40 minutes, then check it. If the top is browning too rapidly, cover the pan loosely with aluminum foil. Continue to bake until the sauce is bubbling around the edges and a knife inserted in the center comes out warm to the touch, about 15 minutes longer. If the dish has been refrigerated, you may need to add up to 30 minutes to the cooking time. Remove the dish from the oven, place on a wire rack, and let rest for 15 minutes before serving. Serves 8 to 10.

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Italian by Michele Scicolone (Oxmoor House, 2007).