Pure and Simple
When it comes to lasagna, I’m not to be trusted. I am at my most bigoted. I have not found any other lasagna acceptable but the lasagna of my people, and here I mean “my people” in the very strictest sense, namely, my mother’s people (not my father’s), and not just any of my mother’s people, but only the ones who emigrated to Brooklyn, for even the lone sister they left behind in the otherwise derelict village of Sacco has had her lasagna corrupted by that pestilence from the north, béchamel. (In general I pride myself on not withholding from you, Gentle Reader, even ugly truths. But here again I must not be trusted, for I will not acknowledge that the French learned how to make béchamel from Neapolitans. As the Apostle admonishes, Some things should not even be mentioned among you.)
Further impugning my chauvinism is the fact that lasagna is not, speaking factually, a food of my mother's people. Lasagna was unknown in the impoverished post-war Sacco where my mother grew up. It was my aunt Rose, the family pioneer first to emigrate to America by way of marriage to an Italian-American immigrant, who learned to make lasagna in the Italian diaspora of Brooklyn—in Canarsie, of all nieghborhoods!—and who ever after remained family maestra of the dish. Her lasagna was the true magnum opus of Thanksgiving dinner, the turkey being but our American totem to surround with sundry more savory Italian foods, including at least two other meat dishes and a half dozen vegetable accompaniments, to follow the lasagna as the first dish.
But once again, I don't see that the facts matter much. Although my mother's people did not invent lasagna, their recipe realizes its essence, and that's a much better reason for chauvinism, is it not? Now I am not indiscriminate in my rejection of every other lasagna save ours: I distinguish between partial corruption and complete abomination. “Corruption” results from the introduction of an alien element that obscures the nature of the thing, however without undermining its essence, whereas “abomination” renders the nature monstrous by way of essential degradation. In the case of lasagna, for example, whereas a meat sauce only overdoes it, a béchamel sauce positively undoes it; whereas peas are but perplexing, hard boiled eggs are repugnant; whereas oregano offends, nutmeg disgusts.
How do I know this? By grasping the essence. At the heart of every nature is its essence, the formative principle of the whole that marshals its complement of natural properties. What accords with a thing’s essence is good, true, and beautiful. What is repugnant to it, threatens its unity, its clarity, its harmony. If a human being is healthy, they glow from within. The glow failing, they reach for cosmetics; go to excess with those, and they even become ugly. A healthy nature is of the essence—nothing can substitute for that.
So, here it is: I say that the essence of lasagna is good ricotta. All else in the filling—the mozzarella, the grated cheese, the gravy sauce, the eggs, parsley and pepper—are in thrall to the ricotta. Ricotta rules. If your ricotta is not delicious, neither is your lasagna. If your ricotta is littered with alien matter, it is not delicious, and so neither is your lasagna. I have not made lasagna but a half-dozen times in my life, for in the lands of my exile I have rarely found ricotta worthy of my people’s lasagna. I have attempted to make lasagna with such commercial brands as Polly-O and Sorrento, and have even pleased Gentile guests with the confection, but their praise only turned my own undeluded consciousness into shame, and my shame gave way to diffidence.
But as sudden as sunrise, what should appear in this land of my exile but delicious ricotta! [Liuzzi Angeloni, at Giolitti] Brave new day! Granted, there is still a tinge of shame in the fact that this delicious ricotta comes imported from Connecticut rather than Brooklyn , but the consolation of its creaminess renders me oblivious, as the babe in her arms makes the joyful mother forget the pangs of its childbirth. Ricotta!, ricotta!, ricotta! delicious enough to lick from a spoon, not even bothering to spread it on crusty bread! A milky deliciousness that speaks to our sensorium’s first delight: tangy like mother’s milk; creamy, though not creamed; plain without plainness; substantive without heaviness; fresh, wet, pulpy, um—um—more, Mum, more.
Fresh ricotta is hard to get because it’s highly perishable. Back in the day, it was made from the leftover whey (as in Miss Muffet’s “curds and whey”) after making Pecorino Romano—which is to say from sheep’s milk, hence tangy, like pecorino cheese. This milky whey-water was acidulated and re-heated—hence ri-cotta—to make this fresh, lactose-rich cheese, to be eaten right away—a grace of the present moment. I don’t know how they make it these days, but I doubt there’s enough pecorino whey in the world to account for all the ricotta there is, and the commercial can often says “made from whole milk,” which I figure is cow’s milk. If you buy ricotta (or anything made with it, such as ravioli) from an authentic Brooklyn salumeria like Bari, Pastosa, or Queen Ann, you’re told it has to be consumed in a matter of days. I wonder how they preserve it for sale in Gentile markets around me with longer-term expiration dates?
In any case, you get the idea: you really, really want really fresh ricotta—and if you’re forced to use some commercial brand, for lack of an alternative, you’ll know to be disappointed and ashamed, even if it tastes really good to you and your Gentile friends.
Being noble, fresh ricotta consorts only with the noble, hence not only is a zesty marinara sauce out of the question in making lasagna, but even a refined passata sauce is not good enough (shame! shame! on my mother for descending to this in New Jersey), nor is a ragú or meat-sauce à la Bolognese right either. Next to ricotta, marinara’s zestiness seems frivolous; a passata’s subtlety boring; a ragu’s weightiness heavy. No, no, it has to be a sugo or “gravy sauce”, a sauce flavored by a variety of meats cooked in it (and reserved for a second course). Only a sugo can answer to ricotta’s depth of flavor and refinement of texture. In a well-made sugo, one gets an integration of ragu’s meaty flavor, a passata’s silky texture, and a marinara’s piquant overtone: it is full without being heavy, savory without being spicy, integrated without being homogenized—counterpoint at its finest.
(By the way, if you’re a vegetarian whose conscience is so delicate that, not only will you not eat meat, but even anything in contact with meat (e.g., sugo), then I submit that you should abjure lasagna as well; for if your conscience will not consort with any assault upon a sentient being, a fortiori it should not consort with corruption of an essence, being an assault upon Being Itself.)
Well, I won’t repeat here how to make a sugo or Sunday gravy—see my earlier blog. If you don’t feel up to doing all that I describe there, you can make a simple gravy-sauce by using only three meats on the bone—country-style pork ribs, beef short ribs, and chicken thighs. Of course, one advantage of having to make a gravy-sauce for your lasagna is that you have your main dish done as well, namely the meats you’ve cooked in the sauce, to be served after the lasagna with vegetable side dishes.
Yes, a second dish of meats is to be served after the lasagna. I feel sure, Gentle Reader, that you cannot have forgotten that pasta is never dinner. And if lasagna is pasta—which it is—then it cannot be dinner, can it? Lasagna is in fact very fancy pasta, and is made by my people only on high holidays, e.g., Christmas day, Easter day, or Thanksgiving (yes, on Thanksgiving, to be served before the turkey). I could adduce multiple courses as a reason not to dump your meat or vegetables into your lasagna, but such pragmatic considerations would trivialize the real reason for not doing so, namely, that it is an abomination (or else corruption) to do it.
I have seen Bolognese recipes for “lasagna” which call for layering a meat-sauce with a béchamel sauce (a cream sauce made from milk, flour, and butter), and no ricotta or mozzarella. I am at a loss why one would call that a lasagna. I’d call that a terrine. This brings us back to the question of the essence. The word “lasagna” can refer to the broad noodles used in the dish, and it is perhaps too easy to mistake the noodles as the essence of the dish, as though it mattered less what was layered in between the noodles. The modern naming of the dish after this Bolognese noodle inclines one to credit Bologna’s 14th century eponymous recipe as the original. But deeper emtymologico-metaphysical inquiry suggests another origin.
An alternative etymology of ‘lasagna’ ascribes the name of the noodle to an ancient Greek word for a flat sheet of pasta dough to be cut into strips, a lagnon. Now, if the lasagna noodle came to Italy from the Greeks, then it came to North Italy from South Italy, a.k.a., Magna Graecia. Alternatively, the Ancient Romans had a dish called lasanna, named for the pan in which it was cooked, and described by Marcus Gavius Apicius in De re coquinaria. I submit that naming the dish from the pan rather than the noodles accentuates what the pan is for, namely layering the noodles, bringing to the fore the reason for layering them, namely the filling that fills the layers. That’s the essence at issue, and I tell you, it’s ricotta—or at least ought to be. History cannot teach us the essence of lasagna. Only the light of nature can do that.
That their Frankish overlords should have compelled those poor Bolognesi to throw (no doubt rotten) chopped meat along with a smothering cream sauce into their lasagna pan is not a good reason for you to do so in these less barbarous times. Nor is there good reason for you to throw come-what-may into your lasagna pan for a “one-dish dinner”, as did your paleo forebears into their communal cauldron. No, let us rather take our bearings from the Romans who taught Italy and thence Europe how to cook and dine in due measure.
For lasagna, the due measure is : one-third as much freshly grated mozzarella as fresh ricotta, and half as much grated Pecorino-Romano as mozzarella—e.g., for a 3-pound can of ricotta, a one-pound block of mozzarella, and one cup of freshly grated (i.e., loosely mounded) Pecorino cheese. You also need an egg or two as a binder, the fresh scent of freshly chopped parsley, and sprightly grindings of black pepper. All this needs to be well mixed with folding motions of a wooden spoon, for an even combining (but not creaming) of the ingredients. Then taste, and if it’s not tasty, add more grated cheese.
By the way, you don’t want to use fresh mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella is meant to be eaten fresh, not cooked with. Unless you were to dry it out first, it will make your lasagna watery. Packaged mozzarella has been dried for purposes of cooking. Likewise, you would do well to dump your fresh ricotta into a fine sieve, when you get it home, and leave it in the refrigerator to shed excess liquid, until you’re ready to use it. And as for the aged grating cheese, you don’t want Parmigiano in lieu of Pecorino, since your ricotta and mozzarella need not more creaminess but rather zestiness.
Next we need to talk noodles. In Brooklyn, we only ever used the standard dried pasta you buy at the supermarket, with curly edges. Fresh pasta made with eggs, sliced into broad flat strips, was available at local pasta shops, but no one I knew ever opted to use it. In general, dried pasta offers more firmness and spring (amplified by the curly edges), whereas fresh pasta offers tenderness and delicate texture. Neither is valued above the other; rather, some sauces like the one kind better, some the other. I once made my people’s lasagna with fresh pasta when I was living in Rome, off Piazza Farnese, and it came out very delicious. These days, I certainly wouldn’t trouble myself to learn how to make fresh pasta for lasagna, but I’d buy it from a shop, if I trusted them to know how to make it right.
Making fresh pasta, like making pizza, is a thing my Brooklyn people leave to lifelong artisans. The late 20th century immigration of southern Italians into Bensonhurst, where I was ‘to the table born’, was more entrepreneurial than was possible for Italian immigrations earlier in that century. The Bensonhurst I grew up in was an Italian immigrant neighborhood bustling with food buying, selling, and innovating. A half dozen bread bakeries, pastry shops, pizzeria’s, and salumeria’s were within walking distance of my house, and everyone was loyal to their favorites and dismissive of all others. In such a milieu, where men and women who have dedicated their lives to it make pasta and pizza every day from dawn to dusk, and offer it at competitive prices to blue-collar consumers whose hard earned dollars are dispensed discerningly, you don’t presume to make pasta or pizza at home.
It took the likes of a solemnity like Easter day to merit my grandmother’s once a year making fresh pasta for the whole family. She would start the day before. In a huge pot she’d knead the huge mass of egg dough with her fists, until she knew it was right. She had a long thin wire that stayed safely tucked away until this day each year. She would wrap a little ball of the dough around the center of it, and then patiently roll it back and forth until it extended along the whole length of the wire, at which point she’d gently pull the wire out, lovingly lay the fusillo out on a table cloth, and drape it with a kitchen towel. She’d proceed to make the next one, and the next, one by one, until she had enough for the score of family coming Easter day, each to be served a dish half filled with grandma’s fusilli and half with big round ricotta-filled ravioli purchased at the pasta shop—both sauced, needless to say, with sugo.
That Easter morning, the living room furniture was stowed away in adjoining bedrooms so that a single long dining table could be cobbled together down the length of the room; elbow to elbow, young and old chattered away cacophonously as the long desired bowls of fusilli with ravioli were passed down until each had one, and then along with the descending of forks into bowls for the first taste, a sudden silence would likewise descend on the table, only to be broken as suddenly by moans of delight and exclamations of praise. Can that first bite really have been as stirringly delicious as I remember?
But I digress. Back to the question of lasagna noodles, because we’re not done yet. To further complicate the choice between dried and fresh, a novelty has come on the scene lately, namely lasagna noodles that don’t need to be boiled first—a remarkable convenience. As if par-boiling the pasta isn’t tedious enough, keeping the steamy lasagna strips from sticking to one another while you’re layering them in the pan is very troublesome indeed. The convenience of this new no-boiling lasagna made me all the more suspicious that the innovation could not but be a degradation.
But then one day I saw such lasagna noodles for sale at Trader Joe’s, and I got the curiouser when I noticed that they were made in Italy and made with eggs, had the right color, and were flat like fresh pasta, not curly-edged like dried. Figuring that Italians were less likely than Americans to trade off deliciousness for convenience, and wondering if eggs would make a noticeable difference in the texture of dried pasta, I decided to try them out. To my dismay, I liked them. Good thing that I hadn’t read the recipe on the side of the box at the store, which calls for dipping the noodles in a warm béchamel before layering it with a meat sauce, for I’d surely have spurned them on the spot. As it turned out, I redeemed them by dipping them in my warm sugo before layering them with my ricotta filling, and they took to it as happily as the prodigal to his father’s forgiving arms.
Okay, it’s about time we make this lasagna, no? Put a big pot of water to the boil for the noodles. Let’s make a small lasagna, in a rectangular pyrex pan 8x9x3 inches, for about 8 first-course servings. For that, let’s use 3 cups (1-½ lbs.) fresh ricotta to 1 cup (8 oz.) grated mozzarella to ½-cup (4 oz.) grated Pecorino Romano cheese. Grate the mozzarella on the largest holes of the grater for fat curls, and the Pecorino Romano on smaller holes for curly strings (but not the smallest holes, which make cheese powder)—you need to grate with long strokes, even pressure, and serenity, to produce the desired curls.
Scoop the ricotta, grated mozzarella, and grated pecorino into a large mixing bowl. Use a wooden spatula to press a little hole into the middle of the mound of cheeses and crack open a jumbo egg into it. Sprinkle the mound with a fistful of freshly chopped parsley and grindings of black pepper. Now use the wooden spatula to mix all these ingredients with folding motions: scoop what’s underneath over and on top, rotating the bowl, going round and round, occasionally plunging and parting down the middle, until the ingredients are well mixed, but well short of homogenized. Taste. If it seems plain, it probably needs more grated cheese. If you like the idea, you can add more parsley or black pepper.
By now, your pasta water is boiling (assuming you’re not trying the new no-boiling type). Add a big palmful of salt to the big pot of water and put in the lasagna strips one by one, staggering them this way and that. As they soften and slide into the boiling water, use a wooden spoon to move them about a bit, to keep them from sticking to one another, until they soften enough to roll around freely with the rapidly boiling water. You want to boil them distinctly short of al dente—chewable, but still too dense—because they will cook more in the oven with sauce.
When they’re ready, you need to drain them in a colander. Now the problem is how to keep them from sticking to each other while you’re layering. You don’t want them wet, because that will make your lasagna soupy. My mother just tries to work quickly, hanging some over the side of the pot as she goes. I bet a gourmet would add enough cold water to the pot to cool them down before draining, and then lay them out on towels. I can’t admit to dumping the drain pasta back into the pot and swirling them with soft wads of butter to keep them slippery, because butter with sugo is thing not to be mentioned among us.
Any way you do it, you need to work fast. Spread a ladleful of sugo evenly all over the bottom of the baking dish. Then cover with a first layer of overlapping lasagna strips. Spoon and spread about a third of the ricotta mix evenly over the pasta layer. Then ladle sauce all over the ricotta and sprinkle the sauce lightly with grated pecorino. In the same way, lay down a second layer of pasta and ricotta topped with sugo and pecorino, and then a third and final layer. Finish with a top layer of only pasta. Ladle sauce all over this pasta topper, and sprinkle generously with grated pecorino.
(If you’re trying the new no-boiling lasagna, you need to dip each pasta strip in sugo before laying it down, trying to take along as much sugo as will cling to it—for which reason you’ll need more sugo than for pre-cooked pasta; also, your lasagna will have to sit for a half-hour before going into the oven, to give the unboiled pasta time to absorb the sugo.)
You can assemble the lasagna in advance, and time it to bake for around 40 minuts at 350 to 400 degrees, and cool and congeal for another 20 minutes. Bake it loosely covered with aluminum foil, and as soon as you see any bubbling, remove the foil and let the top dry off a bit and firm up. Remove it and give it time enough to cool and congeal. If you don’t let it cool enough, not only will your lasagna slip and slide apart in the dish, it won’t taste as good either. You want it to settle down into a warm afterglow.
I was told in Rome that back when there were still no ovens in most homes, people brought their lasagna to the baker for baking and picked it up later that day and served lukewarm at home. Lasagna is slow food. You need half a day to make it, and you should take half a day to eat it, at a table long with family and friends, chatting cacophonously, clincking glasses and clanging dishes in a procession of courses as long as the afternoon, sowing memory and desire with graces of the present moment.