Sara Jenkins' Lasagna
This lasagna is a signature dish at Porsena, the pasta-centric trattoria in New York City where Chef Sara Jenkins draws on memories of her Tuscan and Roman childhood. She says that this is the traditional way of making lasagna in central Italy—a many-layered dish that’s rich and creamy with béchamel sauce rather than with ricotta or mozzarella cheese. When making the ragu, some Bolognese cooks like to add a couple of chopped chicken livers along with the ground meats. As you stir the meats, use your fork to crush the livers into the mix. At the restaurant, the chef prepares the lasagna in individual terra-cotta bakers, but the recipe works equally well in a standard baking dish.
The recipe includes three components (pasta, ragu, and béchamel), some of which can be made ahead of time. Although the lasagna is labor intensive, it’s the perfect dish for a party because once you’ve assembled it, all you need to do is cook and serve. The lasagna can be assembled a day in advance and refrigerated, then baked the next day. To save time, use store-bought lasagna noodles, cooking them according to the package instructions, instead of making them from scratch.
For the meat ragu:
- 1/4 cup (2 fl. oz./60 ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbs. unsalted butter
- 3/4 cup (4 1/2 oz./140 g) finely minced yellow onion
- 1/2 cup (2 1/2 oz./75 g) finely minced carrot
- 1/2 cup (3 oz./90 g) finely minced celery (use the darkest green stalks)
- 1/2 lb. (250 g) ground lean pork
- 1/2 lb. (250 g) ground lean beef
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 2 slices pancetta, very finely minced
- 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml) dry red wine
- 2 Tbs. double-concentrated tomato paste
- 1 can (28 oz./875 g) imported plum tomatoes, preferably San Marzano, with juices
- Boiling water, beef stock or chicken stock as needed
- 1 cup (8 fl. oz./250 ml) milk
For the béchamel:
- 6 cups (48 fl. oz./1.5 l) milk
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and halved
- 1 leek, split lengthwise, cleaned and cut into 2-inch (5-cm) chunks
- 2 or 3 bay leaves
- 1 tsp. peppercorns
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
- 3 or 4 fresh thyme sprigs
- 2 celery stalks, cut into 4-inch (10-cm) pieces
- Several fresh flat-leaf parsley sprigs
- 4 Tbs. (1/2 stick) (2 oz./60 g) unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup (1 1/2 oz./45 g) all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup (3 oz./90 g) grated Parmesan cheese
- Sea salt
- Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
2 1/2 lb. (1.25 kg) fresh pasta dough (see related recipe at left)
- All-purpose flour for dusting
- Sea salt
- 3 1/4 cups (13 oz./410 g) grated Parmesan cheese
- Freshly ground pepper
- 1 Tbs. unsalted butter, cut into bits
To make the ragu, in a large pot over low heat, combine the olive oil and butter and heat until the butter has melted. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook very gently, stirring with a wooden spoon from time to time, until the vegetables have melted into the fat and are beginning to caramelize and brown. This may take as long as 40 minutes but it’s essential to the final flavors.
Stir in the ground pork and beef and cook, stirring and breaking up the meats with a fork, until they have changed color. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the pancetta and cook until the pancetta bits have dissolved. Add the wine and increase the heat a little, continuing to stir the ingredients. Let the wine bubble and reduce, cooking off the alcohol.
Stir in the tomato paste (if the paste is very thick, dilute it in about 1/4 cup/2 fl. oz./60 ml) hot water before adding to the pan). Add the tomatoes and their juices, breaking up the tomatoes with your hands. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and cook very gently, uncovered, for 3 hours. From time to time, as the juices cook down, add a little boiling water or stock to the pan. At the end of the cooking time, add the milk and cook for 15 to 20 minutes more. The sauce will have lost its bright red tomato essence and will smell (and taste) richly of meat. This makes about 4 cups (32 oz./1 kg) ragu; you will need 3 cups (24 oz./750 g) for the lasagna.
Meanwhile, make the béchamel: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the milk, onion, leek, bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, thyme, celery and parsley. Bring just to a simmer, then remove from the heat, cover and let stand for at least 1 hour while the milk absorbs the aromatic flavors. Strain the milk, discarding the solids. Measure out 5 cups (40 fl. oz./1.25 l) milk, return it to the pan and heat just to a simmer. Remove from the heat but keep the milk warm while you finish making the béchamel.
In a separate saucepan large enough to hold all of the milk, melt the butter over medium heat and stir in the flour with a wooden spoon, stirring constantly and smoothing out any lumps. Cook until you no longer smell raw flour, about 3 minutes. Now start adding the hot milk about 1/2 cup (4 fl. oz./125 ml) at a time, stirring after each addition to thoroughly combine the milk with the flour-butter paste before adding more. At a certain point, it will be easier to use a whisk instead of the spoon. Keep adding the milk and stirring until all of it has been added. Stir in the cheese, a pinch of salt and several gratings of nutmeg.
Continue cooking and stirring until the sauce has thickened to the desired consistency, about 5 minutes. The sauce should be smooth and velvety in texture. If not using the sauce immediately, remove it from the heat but keep it warm and place a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the top of the sauce to keep a skin from forming. You will need all of the béchamel for the lasagna.
Pull off a workable-size piece of fresh pasta dough (about one-sixth of the dough), keeping the rest covered. Lightly dust the piece of dough and a work surface with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll into a rectangle about 12 by 18 inches (30 by 45 cm), then trim to 10 1/2 by 17 inches (26.5 by 43 cm). Lay the pasta sheet flat and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Repeat with the remaining pieces, covering each with a towel as you go. Alternatively, use a pasta machine: roll out the dough on the widest setting 3 to 5 times, dredging the dough in flour and folding it into thirds each time.
Preheat an oven to 375°F (190°C).
Bring a large saucepan of generously salted water to a boil over high heat. Fill a large bowl with ice and water. Add 1 pasta sheet to the boiling water (if you used a pasta machine to roll the sheets, you can add several at a time), cover and cook for 1 minute. Transfer the sheet to the ice water for 30 seconds, then place it flat on a kitchen towel. Repeat with the remaining pasta sheets, covering each with a towel as you go.
To assemble the lasagna, spread 1/3 cup (3 fl. oz./80 ml) béchamel and 1/4 cup (2 oz./60 g) ragu over the bottom of a 9-by-13-inch (23-by-33-cm) glass or ceramic baking dish, spreading them together. Top with 1 pasta sheet or with a layer of lasagna noodles. Top the pasta with 2/3 cup (5 fl. oz./160 ml) béchamel and 1/2 cup (4 oz./125 g) ragu, spreading them together evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup (1 oz./30 g) of the cheese and season with pepper. Repeat the layering with the remaining ingredients until the last sheet of pasta is in the pan. Top with the remaining 1 1/3 cups (11 fl. oz./345 ml) béchamel, 1/4 cup (2 oz./60 g) ragu and 1/2 cup (2 oz./60 g) cheese. Trim the edges just a bit, if needed. Dot with the butter.
Bake until golden brown and bubbly, about 45 minutes. Let the lasagna rest for 20 minutes before cutting and serving. Serves 8.
Adapted from a recipe by Sara Jenkins, Chef/Owner, Porsena, New York City