Friday, May 17, 2013

Lasagna Apocalypse

I have made, to date, 2 full lasagnas in my life. 2. What a horribly disappointing figure.

I have made plenty other varieties of pastas with meat sauces - some topped, some stuffed, even some that were rolled - but the ancient art of layering meat sauce, cheese and flat noodles is not something I have experimented with excessively.

I came to this realization yesterday as I was in the middle of layering my second lasagna, and it occurred to me that I was unsure of the appropriate way to layer! Was it noodles first, or sauce? And should the ricotta have its own layer, or go directly on top of the meat? And where did the grated cheese come in? Just on the very top? And if so, should it sit atop a last layer of meat, or of noodles?

Maybe I think too hard.

BUT, just in case these musings do have some catastrophic consequences down the road, I decided I needed to figure out the answers. (Seriously, what if there's a lasagna apocalypse, and the only thing that can save the earth is the creation of the perfect lasagna? We need to know these answers!) (Okay, I really do think too hard.)

Of course, the way to answer any question regarding appropriate method is to try all the methods and, using a panel of experts, decide the winning approach. That sounds like it would take up a lot of time. And money - cheese ain't cheap. So I took the next best road: Facebook polls. I asked my friends, "What's the best order for assembling a lasagna?" And how did my friends help?? First with cheeky comments actually ("I like the imperative: 'Assemble the lasagna now!'" - Plus some wise cracks about Ikea...), but once they got that all (mostly) out of their systems, I heard the masses weigh in on their long-tested, family-favorite methods. And the verdict? It doesn't really matter.

WHAT?!?! That's like telling me that there is no spoon!! There MUST be a perfect way!

But the reality is, preference plays a heavy role, and so do ingredients.

There were references to putting your spinach on your ricotta - Spinach? Cooked? No thanks. We'll just skip that part.
Noodles on the bottom help the general structure - but you should never put noodles on the bottom if you're not pre-cooking your noodles... unless of course you're doing the hot water assemble method. Then definitely noodles on the bottom.
And you should definitely have noodles as your top layer. Unless, again, if you're doing the no-boil method. Or if you want extra sauciness.
And the type of cheese you use is very important - but you can use any type you like.


Turns out, whatever I did wouldn't really ruin my lasagna, within reason. So what does one do when the doors are left so wide open? Wing it.
Which is good, cause I probably would have ended up doing that anyway...

So here's the layering method I used last night (bottom-up): Sauce, ricotta, noodles, cheese, sauce, ricotta, noodles, cheese, sauce, noodles, cheese - and more cheese. 3 layers of noodles, 3 of sauce, 2 of ricotta, 3 of cheese. What changes would I make? Mostly, I'd just keep one layer of ricotta for a more concentrated cheesiness. But otherwise I found it held together well, and it tasted fine.

What ingredients should one use? This I have a bit stronger of an opinion on... but so does everyone else (and their grandmas, too). The best lasagnas in my opinion have a bit of a sweetness to them. I found out a couple years ago that the meat plays a big role in this. For my two lasagnas, both times I've used 1 kg ground beef and 1/2 kg ground pork. The pork adds a lot of the sweetness. But after eating my lasagna last night I decided that while I was headed in the right direction, I hadn't quite nailed it. It needed more meaty-sweetness. How do you get sweeter than pork? Pork sausage. The high fat content actually really increases the sweet factor of a dish - however, you don't want too much fat in an assembled pasta dish; sauces would separate, things wouldn't hold together, it would be a mess (literally). So, my plan of attack for next time is 1 kg ground beef, 1/2 kg ground pork and 1/4 kg pork sausage - you can opt for a spicy sausage, but I'll likely go mild. Oh, and for all you non-Canadians reading, that works out to roughly 2 lbs ground beef, 1 lbs ground pork and 1/2 lbs pork sausage.
What should go in the sauce? I always make my own for lasagna or stuffed pasta. Start with some olive oil, heat up some chopped sweet onion and add some crushed garlic - about 3 cloves and heat it just long enough to release the flavor. Add the meat at this point and cook it up well. Next, add in the sauciness. I use 1 large can of crushed tomatoes, plus one can of tomato paste - however, I like my sauce quite thick (makes for a tidier lasagna). Some people however prefer much more sauce, in which case you could get away with even another full can of crushed tomatoes, or mix it up with a can of diced tomatoes. Crushed tomatoes make for a thicker sauce, Diced make for a chunkier, but thinner sauce in general. The tomato paste helps to thicken even more while adding more tomato flavor. After my tomatoes I add any vegetables and then the spices and herbs. I always add at least a bit of chili powder to my tomato sauces. Honestly, I usually add more than 'a bit' - I'd say closer to a tsp than not. Oh, and did I mention I never measure herbs and spices? So this next bit will all be estimates. Next I throw in some dried oregano and basil - I used fresh basil yesterday but the flavor doesn't carry through as well. If you want to use fresh herbs, throw them in your ricotta mix. I also add a bay leaf and about a 1/2 tbsp brown sugar. Then cover and cook to let the flavors marry. Make sure you take out that bay leaf before you layer though!
What about veggies? Well, as I indicated above, I am not a fan of cooked spinach. But I love the ease of 'hiding' veggies in lasagna. My preferred way is with grated carrot. I typically add a whole carrot, grated on a fine grater, directly into the meat sauce. This adds more texture, can be used as a substitute or filler for meat, and no one will ever notice. Finely diced pepper works well in the same way, however it does alter the taste more. Zucchini is another popular veggie add-in, but not one I am inclined towards.
And Cheese? What of that? Traditionally people make their lasagna with mozzarella, but that isn't the only thing you are allowed to use. Last night I made mine with cheddar, and while it would have been nice to have some mozzarella too, I actually prefer a top layer of cheddar at least. Layers of ricotta or cottage cheese are also popular; last night I used ricotta, into which I mixed an egg, pepper and grated parmesan. The egg helps bind, the pepper flavor carries better in the cheese than the sauce, and parmesan makes it more melty and stringy. And remember: throw fresh herbs into this layer. While it is nice to use ricotta, I'm considering going back to cottage cheese - it costs about half as much (sometimes less) and actually has a nicer presentation at the end (the ricotta tends to look more grainy), but remember the additional whey in cottage cheese will add more moisture to the layers. And moisture = messy. I also like to throw more parmesan on top for a nice, crisp finish. Look for cheeses that melt well, and mix it up depending on the flavours you like - you can even finish it with a blue cheese crumble if you are so inclined.
And lastly, what about the noodles? Well, I opted to go the traditional, pre-boiled route. Why? Because that's the type of noodle I had in my house. Typically if you are not pre-cooking your noodles, you ought to buy the specific noodles made for that purpose. I've heard tell of a method using normal noodles where you don't need to pre-cook, but I'm not clear on the details and I have not tried it myself. Attempt at your own risk. In any event, if you are not pre-cooking, sauce must be on every side of every noodle. That means sauce on bottom and sauce on top. And if you like a more saucy lasagna, that means it will be messier.

As a finishing note, bake covered at 350 for an hour and remove the foil for another half hour to help crisp the top. And for goodness sake, let the stupid thing sit at least 5 minutes before you serve it! It will set up more and be easier to serve.

So what's the resounding message of this post? There isn't really one perfect lasagna recipe. Someone may claim to have the world's best chocolate chip cookie recipe, or the world's best hamburger patty, but it seems like everyone's favorite lasagna is often the old family recipe, and how can you compete with tradition? What I've posted above is what I like in a lasagna, but heaven help us if there ever is a lasagna apocalypse and we become reliant on the world's best lasagna recipe - it'd be the global cook-off to end all cook-offs.

Mrs. VanderLeek ;)

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