Mums always make the best lasagne. It’s such a comfort food, all rich and soft and savoury. My favourite is my Mum’s, obviously, though my mother-in-law’s comes in a close second. I’m sure my husband would rank them the other way round. Of course this means I never make it. If someone else makes a dish better than I can, I’ll leave them to it and look forward to it as a special treat when I visit. Otherwise I’d spend the whole meal thinking about how much better it could be, and that’s no way to spend your time. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.
My perfect lasagne is defined as being so good that I use torn off pieces of bread to scrape out every last bit of creamy ragu from the bottom of the baking dish. It is rich and meaty, with plenty of wine in the ragu and enough cheese to turn crispy around the edges, but not so much that you feel like you need a heart bypass before you’ll even be able to move from the table. It’s the kind of dish that grownups make, grownups who can cook balanced family meals and never get so drunk they forget to brush their teeth before they go to bed. I am not that kind of grownup, so I leave it to my mother.
Then a couple of months ago the Guardian ran a ‘perfect lasagne’ recipe, complete with lots of pictures, and I was unable to get the thought out of my head for weeks. Eventually I caved and spent the afternoon simmering ragu, stirring béchamel and layering it all up. The result was disappointingly underwhelming. It tasted like a ready meal, or something you’d get in a pub. Which amounts to the same thing really. It was nice enough, in the way that pasta always is, but not worth the hours or money I’d spent on it. Even with the ‘best’ recipe my lasagne coudn’t even touch my Mum’s. So once again I resolved to leave it to the experts.
And then last week Smitten Kitchen posted a recipe for lasagne bolognese and those cravings, they started up again. I am nothing if not a slave to every whim of a craving that passes through my head (my future pregnancy will be a joy), and Deb at Smitten Kitchen has never, ever disappointed me. So I bought the beef and the wine and got to work on my day off. And this time it was magnificent. I will never need another bolognese or lasagne recipe again because this is perfect. It tastes just like my Mum’s. The carrot, onion and celery that make the mirepoix (or soffritto in Italian) are cooked for longer, almost until you think it will burn, which gives a deep, rich flavour that carries right through the dish. Similarly the beef is cooked until well browned, the wine is added with enthusiasm and plenty of tomato puree rather than chopped tomatoes make it taste like it’s been cooking for much longer than three hours. The garlic is added both with the mirepoix and in the béchamel (which is creamy, not gloopy) at the end, which means you get the mellow flavour of slow cooked garlic and also the fragrant bite of it too. And if a giant pile of grated parmesan doesn’t make you weak at the knees I’m really not sure what you’re doing reading this.
I’m telling you, my flat has rarely smelled more fantastic in it’s short life. The only change I made to the recipe was to use dried lasagne sheets instead of making my own. We made this while spring cleaning the flat, and I spent far too much time trying to convince my husband that cleaning the skirting boards is necessary and I am not in fact insane to worry about whether I had rolled my pasta thin enough. Maybe next time. While the entire dish does take a while (you’ll need to set aside at least five hours) it’s not difficult. If you can chop and stir then you can make this easily. And honestly, with a big salad, bread and a bottle of wine, this is the best meal we’ve shared with friends in a long time. By the end we were all ‘tidying up’ the baking dish with hunks of bread, or in my weird sister’s case with lettuce leaves.
Lasagne Bolognese at Smitten Kitchen (you’ll be hearing a lot more about Smitten, if I haven’t already bored the pants of you with my giant crush on Deb)
Note: Don’t worry if you don’t have a food processor, a sharp knife and a little patience work just as well. As does a husband bribed with the promise of lasagne.