For most Americans (if I can speak for most Americans), lasagne is synonymous with lots of ooey-gooey melted cheese, bubbling on the top, oozing from the middle, and burning onto the pan. So it might have you scratching your head when I tell you that some of my favorite lasagnes are devoid of cheese—okay, maybe a sprinkling of parmesan, but not flowing rivers of those people-pleasing melters, ricotta and mozzarella.
The classic lasagne Bolognese uses béchamel as a creamy flavor-carrier, amid all those noodles (which are often green, from the inclusion of spinach) and meaty sauce. I remember a mind-blowing lasagne that chef Odette Fada made back when I worked at San Domenico in New York City. The lasagne itself was in hues of white and green—I seem to remember lots of fresh basil, and some asparagus—and had a flame-orange sauce made from red peppers ladled on top. It was so unlike lasagne as most people know it—and one of the best ones I’ve ever eaten.
But this is the other one. My grandmother put no cheese in at all—she was a cheese hater, to tell the truth. And though I am the opposite of a cheese hater, I would have it no other way. In this lasagne, the thinnest fresh homemade noodles and the sauce are the stars. And without all that oozing going on, you get a crisp top noodle that only gets more bewitching on each reheat. I know my homemade tomato puree is more watery than your average can of tomatoes, and that melds well with the fresh noodles; so if you find yourself making this from canned tomatoes, just make sure to get some more liquid in there (perhaps an extra few splashes of wine in the sauce?) to make up for it.
Lasagne with Nonna’s ragu
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional for kneading and rolling
5 large eggs
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
4 1/2 cups sauce
On a very large work surface (preferably wood), heap the flour into a very wide mound, and make a well in the center. Crack the eggs into the well and add the olive oil and alt. Very carefully begin to beat the eggs with a fork, being careful not to break the wall of the flour well (keep a bench-scraper handy to stop any leaks—the wall breaks every time). Once the eggs are beaten, slowly start whisking a tiny amount of the flour into the eggs with the fork, still being careful to preserve the wall. Work your way around the perimeter of the well, slowly incorporating flour into egg. Once you can’t work the dough with the fork any longer, switch to the bench scraper and begin to knead the dough.
Knead the dough until it is slightly stick and elastic, 3 to 5 minutes, sprinkling with additional flour if it is too sticky to work with. Knead the dough until it is very smooth and elastic, 10 to 20 minutes more (truth be told: I switch to the stand mixer with the dough hook at this point. I just don’t have the upper body strength—it would take me about 40 minutes to get the right consistency). Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Cut off a small hunk of the dough (about 1/10th of it). Spread clean, dry kitchen towels over a work surface to arrange the dough. On a pasta machine, set the rollers on the widest opening. Flatten 1 of the pieces of dough and dust both sides generously with flour. Feed the dough through the machine. Fold it into thirds, turn it a quarter turn, and feed it through again. Do this once more, then adjust the rollers to be two settings thinner. Feed the dough through once, then fold in half, turn it a quarter turn, and feed through again. Repeat this process, (no more folding beyond this point) until the dough is as thin as your machine can get it, preferably thin enough to see colors or shapes through. Set the noodles aside on the clean towels. Cut into very large rectangles, around 8 by 3 or 4 inches. Continue with the remaining dough.
Fill a large bowl with ice water. In a large pot of boiling salted water, add about 6 pieces of lasagna and cook just shy of al dente (they will continue cooking in the oven), about 2 minutes. Remove the noodles from the water with a skimmer or slotted spoon, and submerge them in the ice bath. Rinse each noodle under cold running water, rubbing slightly with your thumbs, then shake off excess water and arrange the noodles on the towels to dry.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub half of the butter over the bottom of a 13 by 9 inch pan, then spread the noodles over it, overlapping the pieces slightly. Spread about 1 1/2 cups sauce on top and sprinkle with a third of the cheese. Repeat, with another layer of noodles, sauce, and cheese; and another of noodles, sauce, cheese. Finish with noodles. Spread smear and dot the remaining butter over the top, and cover the baking pan with foil. Cook 25 minutes, then remove foil and cook another 15 minutes. Let sit 5 minutes before serving.