My first encounter with Lasagna in Italy was similar to a conversion experience. I swear I heard the refrain from that famous hymn, no turning back...no turning back. When I put the first bite in my mouth, it actually melted. I just sat there thinking where did it go? You see there is a HUGE difference between using those dried lasagna noodles that turn kind of rubbery when cooked and fresh past sheets. Fresh pasta just melts in your mouth. I will never go back to old way of living using rubbery lasagna noodles, I am a new person!
In addition to fresh pasta, in real Bolognese Lasagna (lasagna originally comes from Bologna, Italy) you use beciamella sauce which is creamy velvet texture unlike that the ricotta which many recipes in the States use. Another difference is that like all Italian pasta dishes, the pasta is the star. So that means you use lots of layers of fresh pasta with thin layers of sauce and cheese rather than the other way around.
Don't let the length of this post scare you. All you really need is fresh pasta sheets which are really easy to make or if you live in a city like Portland, Oregon there are stores called Pasta Works that can help you out. I won't give the recipe for making the fresh pasta as I of course buy it for a couple of euro's at my local casa della pasta. Then you need a good Bolognese meat sauce, beciamella and mozzerella for the top. I suggest making the meat sauce the day before then it doesn't seem so difficult to put it all together.
One batch Bolognese Ragu' (see below for recipe)
Besciamella (recipe below)
2 balls fresh Mozzerella Cheese for the top (if you don't have fresh then about a cup and a half of grated to sprinkle on top)
2 cups grated (fresh) parmesan cheese
Bolognese Ragu' (meat sauce, NOT associated with the American brand name Ragu)
This is from my friend Tricia who is currently living in Bologna, so it is the real thing. Her Italian neighbor assures her that instead of chicken livers, they use pancetta (a type of bacon) so don't feel any pressure to go the traditional route. I use various types of meat sauce so if you have a favorite use it instead.
1 onion, finely chopped
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 stalk of celery, finely chopped
These should be minced very fine.
1 Tbsp. butter
8 oz. ground lean pork
8 oz. ground lean beef
2 chicken livers, finely chopped, or 100 grams of pancetta, finely chopped
1 cup dry red wine
13 oz. or 400 grams canned tomatoes, chopped
salt and pepper to taste (at least 2 tsp. salt and 1/2 tsp. pepper)
Saute the minced vegetables in butter for 5-7 minutes, until very tender. Add the pork, beef and chicken livers or pancetta, saute for 2-3 minutes, until redness is gone (from livers). Slowly add the wine to moisten and cook until it has evaporated. Stir in the tomatoes, salt and pepper. Cover and leave to simmer gently for at least one hour, stirring frequently. Do not allow the sauce to stick to the bottom of the pan. If sauce is too soupy after one hour, continue to cook longer. If too dry, add a little water 1/4 cup at a time, until the right consistency is reached. Best if cooked 4 hours.
I would make extra and freeze it for tossing on Tagliatelle pasta, or spooning on top of Polenta which are other traditional ways to serve this meat sauce.
After you have the Meat sauce you need the Beciamella.
Beciamella (White Sauce):
1 liter milk
a sprig of fresh parsley
a pinch of nutmeg
1/2 an onion, peeled and sliced
6 black peppercorns
80 grams or 2 3/4 oz butter
65 grams or 2 1/4 oz flour
150 g freshly grated parmesan cheese
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the milk, parsley, nutmeg, onion and black peppercorns into a pan and bring gently to a boil. Melt the butter in a second pan and add the flour. Mix well, then strain the hot milk and add it a ladleful at a time, whisking well until you have a thick smooth white sauce. Simmer for a couple of minutes while stirring then take off the heat, add the parmesan and season well.
Now that you have the pasta, meat sauce and beciamella sauce you are ready to assemble the lasagna. Start with a little extra virgin olive oil drizzled in the pan, 1 or more sheets of fresh pasta to cover the pan to the edges, then a layer of meat ragu (see the bolognese sauce recipe below), then white sauce (besciamella, also below), then a sprinkling of Parmesan and repeat until you run out of room in your pan and have around 5 to 7 layers. Keep back enough white sauce for a final layer, then top with white sauce and mozzerella, (fresh mozzerella if possible). Sprinkle chopped fresh sage on top and drizzle with olive oil. Bake in the center of the oven for 30-35 minutes or until it is brown on top and all the cheese is melted.