Everyone has his own rituals for fall Sunday afternoons. Some guys sit around and watch football; for me it takes only about a quarter before I need a nap. Others feel inspired to take up household projects; the less said about my ability with a hammer the better.
Instead, I cook. Well, I cook all year round, but when the days start to cool and the light turns golden, I get more ambitious. Rather than 30 minutes at the grill, I throw myself into hours-long kitchen projects. This year, it's been lasagna.
It started in late September. I had just gotten back from the farmers market when I heard that Marcella Hazan had died. I looked over everything that I had bought and in her honor immediately started making dough for fresh pasta. And peeling and seeding tomatoes and turning them into sauce. And making a Parmesan-enriched white sauce. And blanching, chopping and sauteing beet greens. And then putting it all together. All of a sudden it was dinner time.
There's nothing like lasagna from scratch to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon.
It's habit-forming. I've made lasagna every weekend since. Not all have been so involved, of course. One weekend I made Hazan's wild mushroom and ham version. Another time I experimented with spicy tomato sauce and basil-flecked ricotta. Once you've mastered the basics of lasagna, it really is a most adaptable construct.
And I've learned there are places you can compromise to make the project easier. Canned tomatoes work just fine for most sauces. Not all lasagnas call for both ragu and besciamella. Spread out the work, taking one step at a time and making time for a break in between. Lasagna is forgiving that way.
One place I don't compromise is on fresh pasta. The fresh-versus-dried pasta debate is an old and tired one and, in the end, pointless. Each type of pasta has its purposes. Think of them as types of cloth: Fresh pasta is silk and dried is wool. But while I will grant that there are very good lasagnas made with dried pasta, the simultaneous delicacy and luxuriousness of fresh is what really makes the dish in most cases.
When it comes to building the lasagna, remember the importance of the pasta. The dish should be as much about the noodles as it is about the filling. Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the pan, then a layer of pasta. Spread a thin layer of filling, then another layer of pasta, repeating until you've either filled the pan or used up all the ingredients, finishing with a layer of sauce. Then just sprinkle with cheese and bake.
You'll want to let the lasagna settle for 10 minutes or so after it comes out of the oven. It'll be hard to resist the smell, but just keep reminding yourself that it's too hot to eat anyway. And besides, when you do finally cut into it, the lasagna will taste just that much better.
It's a lot more work than throwing a steak on the barbecue, no doubt. But what else are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon?
Fresh pasta tips
I have gone through periods of excess when it comes to fresh pasta. When I first started making it many years ago, I got so carried away that I'd make fettuccine for dinner every night when I got home from work. It wasn't very good fettuccine, mind you -- fresh pasta needs time to relax before rolling -- but it was a whole lotta fettuccine.
Lately, I have found myself tipping back over that cliff again, making fresh pasta over and over. Here are some tips.
Pick up a pasta roller attachment for a stand mixer. It makes the job so much easier, eliminating the "third hand" problem of the manual versions entirely (one hand to feed the dough through the roller, one hand to turn the crank and somehow a third hand to catch the rolled-out sheet on the other side).
I also find it easier to make the dough in a food processor. I realize that in theory it's simple enough to mound the dough on a work table, beat in the eggs and knead. But it's messy. I made the two methods side by side. The food processor dough was much easier to work and just as fine in result.
Pulse just until the flour and egg mixture starts to clump together, then knead it by hand to make a cohesive dough.
Wrap the kneaded dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour to rest. You'll know it's ready to roll when you poke an indentation with your finger and it doesn't immediately spring back.
Start the rolling process by kneading the dough again with the machine. Flatten it, fold it in thirds as you would a letter and feed it through the rollers on the widest setting. Repeat until the dough feels satiny smooth. Then start thinning, using progressively thinner settings.
When rolling out the dough, flour it lightly but frequently, whenever it starts to feel moist. I usually lightly dust the dough with flour a couple of times during the machine kneading, and then again midway through the thinning. But if the dough is moist, you may need to do it more often.
If the sheet of dough becomes too long for you to handle comfortably, cut it in half and work with smaller portions. Keep the remainder lightly covered with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.
Once the dough is rolled and cut, you can cook it immediately and save it, stretched out on kitchen towels, until you're ready to assemble the lasagna. Be sure to give it a good rinse as soon as it's done cooking to get rid of the excess starch, and then squeegee the sheets between your fingers to get rid of any extra water.