Layers of love: How lasagna steals our heart again and again
We think of lasagna as an Italian dish, but Anna Hezel, an editor at Taste and the author of a new book called, simply, “Lasagna,” says it‘s not that simple.
The word “lasagna” most likely comes from “laganon,” a Greek word for a dough that is cut into strips, but it‘s also connected to “lasana,” a pot in which the layers of pasta were baked.
Cooks have been baking these layered dishes for more than 2,000 years. In the first century A.D., Marcus Gavius Apicius included a lasagna recipe in “De Re Coquinaria” that called for layering fish and pancakes.
When most people think about lasagna nowadays, though, they probably imagine one made with curly-edged pasta and a heavy tomato-based bolognese. Because tomatoes didn‘t appear in Europe until the 1500s, early lasagnas certainly didn’t look like what‘s on the cover of a box of Stouffer’s.
With such a long history, it’s no wonder that cooks, including Hezel, are getting so creative with lasagna today.
Store-bought frozen lasagna has a special place in her heart, but for the book, Hezel wanted to come up with dozens of variations on homemade lasagna, using everything from no-boil noodles to homemade sheets of pasta.
“I grew up eating lasagna, and it’s one of those dishes that’s almost as American as it is Italian at this point,” she says.
Hezel loves a bechamel- or cream-based white lasagna, which tend to be a little lighter, but she also makes green lasagnas with pesto or sweet peas.
“It’s all about my mood,” she says. “Sometimes, I want to turn whatever weird leftovers I have in the fridge into lasagna, or sometimes I want something eggy or heavy with protein or maybe something bright and vibrant. It’s a nice contrast to a red, meaty lasagna.”
If you’re looking for other alternatives to a tomato sauce, consider using a butternut squash puree or maybe even one made with sweet corn. Another option is to use pesto made with flavorful greens, such as arugula or kale.
When it comes to using leftovers, Hezel considers the combination of flavors and textures as she proceeds. “If I have some drier ingredients, like roasted vegetables or even a roast pork shoulder, I’ll combine them with some slightly wetter ingredients, like ricotta, so it doesn’t turn into a dry brick.”
One of the biggest questions that home cooks have about lasagna is what kind of noodles to use. No-boil noodles hit the market about 20 years ago, and now you can find them on supermarket shelves everywhere.
With the advent of par-cooked no-boil noodles, some cooks insist that you don’t need to cook regular lasagna noodles if you have enough sauce in the pan because they‘ll cook in the sauce as it bakes.
Hezel knows this technique well, but she says she doesn’t often use it because there’s only a little room for error. Too much sauce and the lasagna will turn out soupy, but if you don’t have enough liquid, the noodles won’t cook.
If she’s not making her own lasagna pasta sheets from scratch, she uses traditional curly-edge noodles, cooked in a pot of salted boiling water, that are slightly thicker and chewier than the no-boil noodles, which are usually more delicate. In the book, she also suggests using wonton wrappers, but they are also drier, so be sure to add extra sauce if using them.
Hezel also likes traditional dried lasagna noodles because of the curly edges, which make taller layers. You’ll need only three or four layers with those traditional noodles; if you’re using pasta without that textured edge, you’ll need five or six layers to fill the baking dish.
Hezel occasionally makes lasagna in a slow cooker, but there’s one drawback. “Such a big part of the appeal of lasagna is the toasty cheese on top,” she says. You can put an individual slice under the broiler, though. “It’s a great way to get the toastiness on every single slice,” she says.
“Lasagna” includes a number of other baked pasta dishes, and she and recipe developer Grace Parisi even came up with a lasagna sandwich, which calls for leftover lasagna served on bread.
Lasagna feeds a lot of people, which is why my Aunt Leesa always makes it when there’s a big family gathering, and it freezes well, which is why it’s a common gift when someone moves into a new house or has a baby.
Hezel’s book is a good reminder that we can take this comfort food classic in so many directions if we think creatively about the ingredients used to make it and even the baking vessels. Hezel suggests using loaf pans or smaller casserole dishes if you’re cooking for only a few people, or you could make a large batch of lasagna, but spread it out between several small baking dishes or even cast iron skillets.
“I strongly believe that lasagna is something you can make no matter your kitchen setup,” she says, and let‘s be honest, lasagna is always worth sharing.
Creamy Spinach Lasagna
Oreilles d'Ânes, or “Donkey Ears,” is a spinach and bechamel lasagna hailing from the French Alps, and its name comes from the wild spinach originally used in this recipe. Gardeners (and cooks) know that the spinach leaves are ready to be picked when they’re the size and shape of donkey ears. These big leafy greens get stirred into a milky bechamel sauce, layered between crepes, topped generously with hard mountain cheese such as Gruyere or Tomme and baked to perfection. In modern versions of this recipe, lasagna sheets often replace the crepes, which I find convenient when I don’t have time to make a batch of crepes. The comforting effect of this dish remains the same: It’s utterly tender and creamy, with a crackling cheesy top.
— Audrey Le Goff
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
12 cups torn, raw spinach leaves
6 large sheets of lasagna, cooked
1 cup grated hard cheese (such as Gruyere), divided
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
For the bechamel sauce:
1/3 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 3/4 cups 2% or whole milk
1/3 cup grated hard cheese (such as Gruyere)
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
Melt 1 tablespoon of butter in a large pan over medium heat. Saute the spinach for 3 to 4 minutes until cooked. Set aside. When cool enough to handle, squeeze out most of the excess moisture from the spinach.
To make the bechamel sauce, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, and stir with a wooden spoon until combined. Switch to a whisk, and allow the butter and our mixture to cook for 1 minute. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking continuously to avoid lumps and until the consistency is creamy, about 1 minute. Whisk in the cheese until melted, about 1 minute. Then add the nutmeg, ground pepper and salt. Add the bechamel sauce to the spinach, and stir.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees, with a rack in the middle. Grease a 14-inch-by-9-inch rectangular baking dish with 1 tablespoon of butter. Lay two large lasagna sheets on the bottom. Cover with one-third of the bechamel-and-spinach mixture and 1/3 cup of grated cheese. Repeat this step twice to create three layers, with the last 1/3 cup of cheese on top. Sprinkle with ground pepper. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown on the edges. Serves 6 to 8.
— From “Rustic French Cooking Made Easy: Authentic, Regional Flavors from Provence, Brittany, Alsace and Beyond" by Audrey Le Goff (Page Street Publishing, $25)
Love lasagna? Then try this Indian-inspired version! This vegetarian lasagna has layers of paneer, spiced pasta sauce and, of course, cheese. Comfort food doesn’t get better than this.
— Manali Singh
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 large cloves garlic, chopped
1 green chili, chopped
1 small red pepper, chopped
1 medium tomato, chopped
3/4 teaspoon garam masala, divided
1/8 teaspoon turmeric powder
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
2 cups grated paneer
2 teaspoons fenugreek leaves, crushed, divided
1 (24-ounce) jar of traditional pasta sauce
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon cardamom powder
2 tablespoons heavy cream or half and half
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 to 4 ounces no-boil lasagna sheets
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Cilantro, for garnish
Lightly spray a 7-inch springform pan and set it aside.
Heat the oil in a medium pan over medium heat. When hot, add the onion, garlic and green chili and sauté for a minute or two, then add the red pepper and tomato. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, then stir in 1/4 teaspoon garam masala, turmeric powder, black pepper and salt. Mix well and then add the grated paneer. Stir until everything is well combined, then add 1 teaspoon of fenugreek leaves. Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside. (You may also do this step in your Instant Pot on the sauté mode.)
Put the pasta sauce in a small pan over medium heat. Add the cayenne pepper, 1/2 teaspoon garam masala, cardamom powder, heavy cream, butter and remaining fenugreek leaves. Stir and let it all heat for a minute or two. Remove pan from heat and set it aside.
Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the springform pan, then top with a layer of lasagna noodles (you will have to break them to fit into the pan), one-third of the paneer mixture and one-quarter of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat the same layers two more times: sauce, noodles, paneer mixture and cheese, pressing down each time to make sure it is compact. End with a thick layer of sauce and the last one-quarter of the mozzarella cheese.
Cover the springform pan with a sheet of aluminum foil, making sure to spray the foil with a little nonstick spray so that the cheese doesn’t stick to it. Pour 1 1/2 cups of water into the inner steel pot of the Instant Pot and then place the Instant Pot’s trivet inside. Make an aluminum foil sling — a long piece of foil folded twice or thrice lengthwise. Wrap the sling around the springform pan, then, using the sling, carefully lower the springform pan into the Instant Pot and place it on top of the trivet. Close the lid and then press the manual or pressure-cook button. Set the time to 20 minutes on high pressure, making sure the pressure valve is in the sealing position. Let the pressure release naturally.
Alternatively, you make bake the lasagna in a 350-degree oven for 40 minutes.
Open the pot and then remove the springform pan carefully from the pot using the sling. At this point, you may pop the pan into the oven to broil for 2 minutes. This is just to brown the cheese and is an optional step. Let the lasagna sit at room temperature for 10 minutes before serving. Top with fresh cilantro and serve. Serves 4.
— From “Vegetarian Indian Cooking with Your Instant Pot: 75 Traditional Recipes That Are Easier, Quicker and Healthier" by Manali Singh (Page Street Publishing, $21.99)
Spinach, Ricotta and Butternut Squash Lasagna
With rich ricotta and a butternut squash puree, this spinach lasagna knocks classic lasagna out of the park.
— Ben Lebus
1 large butternut squash
3 garlic cloves
14 ounces fresh spinach
No-boil lasagna sheets
1 cup ricotta cheese
About 3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Halve and de-seed the butternut squash. Bake for 50 minutes or until soft.
Make the spinach filling: Finely chop the garlic and throw it in a pan with some olive oil. Cook for 30 seconds, and then drop in the spinach. After about a minute, add 6 to 7 chopped sage leaves. Then, add 1/2 cup of ricotta and 1/2 cup of grated Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper, remove from the heat and set aside.
Take squash out of the oven, and remove and discard their skins. Place one half of the squash in a blender. Pulse, adding water, until it turns into a puree. Cube the other half into bite-sized pieces.
In a large bowl, place butternut puree, butternut cubes, another 1/2 cup of ricotta, Dijon mustard and some salt and some pepper. Mix it all together.
To assemble, first, grab a large baking dish. Start with a layer of butternut mixture. Then layer on some lasagna sheets. Then a spinach layer, topped with a good sprinkle of Parmesan. Then more lasagna sheets. Then more butternut squash filling. Then more lasagna sheets. Then, finally, spoon over the remainder of the butternut squash and spinach mixture to make the top layer. Cover with sliced mozzarella and sprinkle the rest of your grated Parmesan over the top.
Add a drizzle of olive oil, a good grinding of black pepper, and put into the hot oven for 45 minutes, or until golden brown on top.
Check the lasagna 15 to 20 minutes into cooking – if the top is browning too quickly, just put on some foil, and then remove it 5 minutes from the end. Serves 4 to 6.
— From “Mob Kitchen: Big Flavors on a Small Budget" by Ben Lebus (Pavilion, $19.95)
Part of the fun of spaghetti carbonara is that it combines all the best parts of breakfast (like eggs, ham and cheese) with the best parts of dinner (like pasta, and having time to actually eat a sit-down meal). This lasagna version of carbonara includes mild Fontina, pancetta-studded ricotta and eggs baked right in, toad-in-the-hole style. It’s as equally delicious served with a chilled bottle of Lambrusco on a Friday night, or for breakfast the next morning with cold brew.
— Anna Hezel
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for the dish
12 ounces thick-sliced pancetta, cut into 1/4-inch dice
2 medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced (about 1 cup)
1 pound ricotta cheese
4 ounces Fontina cheese, shredded (about 1 cup)
2 ounces freshly grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup)
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, removed from the stem
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon coarse kosher salt (preferably Diamond Crystal)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 recipe (12 sheets; about 12 ounces) Fresh Pasta Sheets (recipe follows), cooked
4 large eggs
Heat the oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the lower third. Lightly butter an 8-inch-by-11-inch glass or ceramic baking dish.
Make the cheese mixture: Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the fat is rendered and the pancetta is golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the shallots and cook over medium heat, stirring, until softened, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the shallots and pancetta to a bowl. Let cool slightly, then stir in the ricotta, Fontina and Parmesan.
Infuse the cream: Pour off the fat and return the skillet to medium-high heat. Stir in the thyme, then the heavy cream, scraping up the browned bits stuck to the pan. Bring just to a simmer and season with the salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
Assemble the lasagna: Cut the noodles to fit the dish and arrange a layer of two in the bottom, overlapping slightly. Dollop with one quarter of the cheese mixture and top with another layer of noodles. Repeat three more times with the remaining filling and noodles, ending with a layer of noodles (you will have several leftover). Pour the cream over the lasagna. Shake the dish gently to distribute. Press with a spatula to compact slightly.
Bake the lasagna: Bake the lasagna until golden, about 40 minutes. Crack the eggs into individual bowls. Press a 2-inch round cookie cutter into the lasagna, going about halfway down. Carefully remove the top layers of lasagna to create a well. Repeat to create three more. Gently drop 1 egg in each well and return to the oven. Cover with foil and bake until the egg whites are just set, 5 to 7 minutes longer. Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.
— From “Lasagna: A Baked Pasta Cookbook" by Anna Hezel (Clarkson Potter, $16.99)
Fresh Lasagna Pasta Sheets
Making fresh pasta from scratch will change how you think about lasagna. Your noodles will be thinner and more delicate than the dried kind, soaking up the flavor of the sauce without becoming gummy or slippery, and retaining a satisfying egg chew.
— Anna Hezel
2 cups all-purpose flour (9 1/2 ounces), plus more for rolling
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon coarse kosher salt (preferably Diamond Crystal), plus more for boiling
Place the flour, eggs, olive oil and salt in a food processor and pulse in 1-second intervals until the dough is moistened and comes together in small beads that resemble couscous. Don’t let the dough form a ball.
Turn the dough out onto a work surface and knead (without adding flour) until smooth and elastic, 2 to 3 minutes (the dough will be almost too stiff to knead). Wrap the dough in plastic and set aside at room temperature to rest for 30 minutes or up to an hour (the dough will soften and be easy to work with after sitting).
Arrange several clean kitchen towels on a work surface and dust them lightly with flour. Cut the dough into quarters and cover 3 pieces with a damp towel. Flatten 1 piece of the dough and dust it lightly with flour. Roll the dough through a pasta machine, starting on the lowest (widest) setting. Fold the rolled dough into thirds like a letter, then roll it through again, feeding the open, less wide end (the side where you can see the fold) through the machine first. Repeat three times, then start to roll the dough using thinner settings, folding it and putting it through the same setting two times before progressing to the next thinner setting, and flouring the dough as needed to keep it from sticking. Work your way through to the second to last setting (#6 on most machines, or the thickness of two playing cards). The completely rolled sheet should measure 4 to 5 inches wide and 22 to 24 inches long.
Cut into three 8-inch sheets and place them on the floured kitchen towels. Repeat with the other 3 pieces of dough. Turn the sheets on the kitchen towels occasionally so they dry slightly. They should be pliable but a bit leathery.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Boil the pasta in 2 batches, cooking just until the pasta is tender and the color changes from deep yellow to pale yellow, about 1 minute. Remove the sheets, drain and rinse briefly with cold water. Arrange the lasagna sheets on clean kitchen towels, pressing them slightly to flatten. Use immediately or keep covered at room temperature for up to an hour. Makes 1 pound of dough or about 12 sheets, enough for a large lasagna or two smaller ones.
— From “Lasagna: A Baked Pasta Cookbook" by Anna Hezel (Clarkson Potter, $16.99)