Classic Lasagne al forno with Bolognese.
Le lasagne alla Bolognese
Lasagne al forno with Bolognese sauce is probably one of the best known and most popular Italian pasta dishes, alongside its cousin tagliatelle bolognese. Nowadays, there are many different kinds of baked lasagne recipes. These include with seafood, vegetarian versions and what Italians call ‘bianco’, without tomatoes. In fact, the original lasagne al forno was made without tomatoes because tomatoes didn’t exist in Italy until 18th century.
A little lasagne al forno history
The origins of baked lasagna actually date back to the times of Ancient Rome and Greece. The Greek word ‘laganon’ and the Latin word ‘laganum’ were used to describe square or rectangular sheets of ‘pasta’ made from wheat flour. These were baked in the oven or on the fire and stuffed with meat.
The Roman ‘cookbook’ Apicius (a collection of Roman recipes compiled in 1st century AD) includes a ‘lagana’ formed by thin sheets of dough stuffed with meat and cooked in the oven. But, of course this only vaguely resembled the lasagne al forno we know today.
Although lasagne pasta was popular in the Middle Ages, it wasn’t made with eggs until the invention of egg pasta in Northern Italy in the Renaissance period. Béchamel sauce was also not invented until the Renaissance and tomato sauce didn’t enter the equation until the 18th century. So, it was only then that lasagne al forno started to look like the much-loved dish of today.
Different Italian versions.
Here in Italy, two regions claim the invention of baked lasagna, Emilia-Romagna and Campania (Naples). However the Neapolitan version includes ingredients such as meatballs, sausage, hard boiled eggs and ricotta cheese rather than béchamel, as well as other cheeses like provola and pecorino. The lasagne pasta also usually has ruffled or wavy edges (lasagne ricce). Because it’s such a rich dish, Neapolitan lasagna is mostly made on special occasions, especially at Carnival time. This dish was traditionally served on Mardi Gras as a kind of last blow out before Lent, as it was filled with many ingredients that were banned during Lent.
Green lasagne al forno in Emilia.
Neapolitan lasagne al forno is magnificient, but the dish most non-Italians call baked lasagna or just lasagna is the one from Emilia-Romagna. This recipes is made with Bolognese ragu, béchamel sauce and normal lasagne sheets which are often homemade, but can also be bought fresh or dried. For this recipe I used fresh pasta sheets and didn’t precook them. Dried lasagne sheets need to be half-cooked before assembling the final dish.
Interestingly, the official recipe for this lasagne al forno from the Italian Academy of Cuisine is made with green pasta sheets made with spinach. (on my to-do list!)
From pesto to vincisgrassi.
Lasagne al forno is made in other Italian regions too. However, they each add a local touch to the dish. In some mountain areas, for example, the meat sauce is often replaced by mushrooms. In Liguria, they make baked lasagna with pesto. Here in Veneto they use red radicchio from Treviso. Whilst in Umbria and Marche there is a particular version called vincisgrassi. For this they enrich the meat sauce the meat sauce with chicken or pork giblets.
The meat sauce is replaced by porcini mushrooms, truffles and pecorino cheese in the Apennine mountains. In Sicily, there is also an ‘alla Norma’ version, with eggplant. And last but not least, there’s the excellent Sardinian lasagna made with carasau bread.
Homemade is best!
You too can make your own version of lasagne al forno. However, this classic recipe is divine and well-worth following. For best results I’d recommend making your own lasagne pasta sheets, béchamel sauce and Bolognese ragu. But, I know not everyone has time for that. So, cutting corners with store bought pasta and ready-made béchamel will still ensure your lasagne al forno is delicious. However, I’d definitely recommend making homemade Bolognese!
If you make this baked lasagna recipe, I’d love to hear how it turns out and if you liked it. Please leave a comment here on the blog or on The Pasta Project Facebook page.
Looking forward to hearing from you!
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Lasagne al forno with bolognese ragu
- 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
- 1 onion peeled and finely chopped
- 2 carrots washed and finely chopped
- 2 celery stalks washed and finely chopped
- 300 g minced beef (10oz)
- 300 g minced pork (10oz)
- 100 ml white or red wine ( I used white) (3.5floz)
- 200 ml fresh whole milk (6floz)
- 200 ml beef or chicken stock (6floz)
- 400 g fresh tomatoes or tomato passata (I like to use half and half) (14oz)
- salt to taste
- pepper to taste
For the béchamel (white sauce)
- 100 g all purpose flour (3.5oz) sifted
- 100 g butter (3.5oz)
- 1 lt fresh milk (33floz)
- 1 pinch salt
- 1/2 tsp grated nutmeg
For the finished dish
- 500g lasagne sheets (1.1lbs)
- 90 g Parmesan cheese (3oz) grated
Make the bolognese (this takes 2-3 hours)
- Fry the vegetables in a little olive oil until they soften. (Some Italian chefs insist that the meat and vegetables be fried separately as they require different levels of heat)
- In a separate pan fry the minced meat in heated olive oil over a medium heat until it begins to brown and then add the vegetables. (you can also cook the meat with the veg)
- Add the wine and continue stirring. When the alcohol has evaporated, add the tomatoes and/or passata and the stock.
- Lower the heat and leave to simmer partially covered for at least 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally.
- Add salt and pepper to taste.
- Add the milk, stir and continue to let the sauce simmer for another 30 minutes.
- If you think the sauce is too liquidy you can remove the cover completely till it reduces. But if you are using fresh or uncooked pasta the sauce needs to be a little liquidy.
Make the béchamel (white sauce)
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat, incorporate the sifted flour and mix everything with a wooden spoon or whisk until you have a paste (roux)
- Cook the roux until it is golden, and at this point add the milk a little at a time, plus a pinch of salt and a ½ teaspoon of grated nutmeg. Continue to stir until the sauce reaches the consistency you want.
Cook the pasta
- If you are using dried pasta sheets partly cook them in boiling salted water. You may want to add a little olive oil to the water so they don't stick together or cook them one at a time!
Finish the dish
- Then butter a rectangular baking dish and spread a little sauce on the bottom. Make a layer of lasagne sheets, cover them with a layer of sauce, some béchamel and a sprinkling of grated cheese.
- Then put another layer of pasta, then bolognese sauce, béchamel and cheese and so on until the ingredients are used up, leaving some béchamel for the final layer.
- Cover the last layer with béchamel sauce, grated parmesan and some butter flakes.
- Bake your lasagne al forno in a preheated oven at 170-180 °c (338-356°F)for about thirty minutes. When the surface is golden and the pasta is cooked (check using a fork) remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5-10 minutes before serving. If using uncooked pasta it's a good idea to cover the dish with aluminium foil for the first 15 minutes as otherwise the top may get golden before the pasta is cooked.
- Allow the lasagne al forno to sit for 5-10 minutes before serving.