I never understood why anyone would need a recipe for lasagna. It is just a layered pasta casserole with sauce, cheese and noodles. I don't remember when I began making lasagna, but back in college, I could make a delicious cheese lasagna in less than 15 minutes. The most time consuming part of my preparation was boiling the lasagna noodles ("no-boil" lasagna noodles were not yet invented). All I needed was a box of Ronzoni lasagna noodles, a jar of Prego marinara sauce, a large container of Polly-O ricotta, a bag of Kraft shredded mozzarella and Kraft grated Parmesan cheese. I would take the one 9 X 13 Pyrex dish that I owned, and just begin to layer....sauce, noodles, cheese, noodles, cheese, sauce, etc. Sometimes I would add in some crushed red pepper, sometimes some dried basil or dried oregano. I would serve it with garlic bread, a tossed salad and some brownies, and I felt like a rock star. Everyone would rave about my amazing "Italian cooking". This was my go-to meal for the next decade.
Fast forward a few years, and I had collected an insane amount of cookbooks. I noticed that many of them contained recipes for lasagna. Why would anyone need a recipe for such a simple dish? It's like, do you really need a recipe for scrambled eggs. I was curious, and decided to look over the recipes. None of the recipes were like mine. First of all, most of them contained some kind of meat. Weird. Somtimes the fillings were even better than just meat.... eggplant, spinach, roasted vegetables, mixted cheeses.... They all added egg to the ricotta cheese filling. It seemed like everyone made their own marinara sauce. There were ingredients like fresh herbs, nutmeg, onions and garlic. Hmmmm....am I missing out on something? Could my lasagna be even better? I think I better try these recipes out.
So I began to test out recipes. Mushroom Lasagna, Turkey Lasagna, Veggie Lasagna, White Sauce Lasagna, Matzo Lasagna (for Passover...not recommended), Mexican Lasagna, No-Bake Lasagna, Overnight Lasagna, Pesto Lasagna....I could go on and on. Some were great successes (Artichoke-Spinach Lasagna) and some went right in the garbage (Skillet Lasagna).
I decided that I really love a good, old fashioned, classic lasagna like the one I could order from La Parma II on Jericho Turnpike on Long Island Italian restaurant. I needed to have a delicious classic lasagna that I could make when I wanted to prepare an old-fashioned Italian meal. I have many fabulous Italian cookbooks, and I tried almost every classic lasagna recipe listed, but this is the version that won me and my family over. It is a meat lasagna but the meat can be interchanged for ground turkey, ground chicken, veggie crumbles, portobello mushrooms, or even just left out. The lasagna is creamy, flavorful and hearty. It is a little extra work over my old lasagna, but it is totally worth it. In addition, it can be made as far in advance as you need it, because it freezes beautifully. Serve with a green salad, garlic bread and homemade brownies, and you have an inexpensive, quick meal that will serve a dozen guests.
Classic Italian Lasagna (adapted from Giada's Family Dinners)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus 2T. for top of lasagna
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk at room temperature
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce
Salt and white pepper
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound Italian sausage or ground chuck beef
Salt and pepper
1 1/2 pounds ricotta cheese
3 large eggs
1 box pre-boiled lasagna noodles
2 packages (10 ounces each) frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed dry
3 cups shredded mozzarella
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined and check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
In a saute pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. When almost smoking, add the sausage or beef and season with salt and pepper. Brown meat, breaking any large lumps, until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat and drain any excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
In a medium sized bowl, thoroughly mix the ricotta and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Into the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish, spread 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the bottom of the baking dish. Evenly spread a layer of all the ricotta mixture and then a layer of all the spinach. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread the meat on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella cheese on top of the meat. Spread another 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining bechamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 1/4-inch cubes and top lasagna.
Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place lasagna dish on top, cover and put on the middle rack of the oven and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for about 15 minutes.