I eat a tomato lasagna about twice a year. When it appears in caveman portions, as it usually does, the sight of it fills me with a kind of anticipatory fatigue. Oh, no… Am I really up for this? It doesn’t have to be this way. A Ligurian lasagna redolent of basil and pine nuts is seductively lighter, a Wilma Flintstone to Fred’s red version. No need to clean the Augean stables or capture the Cretan bull to work up an appetite before you can eat it. Ordinary hunger will do just fine for Lasagna with Pistachio Pesto and Prosciutto.
In Emilia-Romagna lasagne* is a simple dish of baked wide noodles layered with only three ingredients: tomato ragù, bechamel sauce (besciamella) and Parmigiano Reggiano. All the other stuff we tend to think of when we think of lasagna – ricotta, mozzarella, ground beef, sausages, etc. – comes from other Italian regional variations on the dish, or innovations that have happened since it arrived in this country. Always hearty fare, always with tomato sauce. But back in the 70’s, chefs began plucking lasagna out of its usual role as Sunday supper, post-game team feed and pot luck staple, and giving it an elegant makeover suitable to its new position on upscale menus. They slimmed it down (fewer layers, smaller portion size), privileged cream over tomato sauce, and replaced the meat with shellfish and veggies. Although lasagna with pesto may fit right in here, it’s hardly a newcomer. The first recorded pasta recipe (as versus isolated references to pasta) is a 5th-century lasagna dish. Tomatoes didn’t arrive in Italy until the 16th century, so they could hardly have been a lasagna ingredient before then. Pesto–recognizable with herbs, garlic, nuts and cheese–goes back to at least classical Rome; the Genoese added basil. Ergo, Ligurian lasagne may predate the red version. Not that this cuts any ice down at the VFW hall. Mainstream lasagna will likely always be the Big Red One, but nowadays it has a small pale sidekick, often clutching shrimp, the occasional crayfish tail, or fistful of basil leaves in its hands.
We tested this recipe three times, to make sure we worked out the kinks. Lasagna may seem like an arduous undertaking, but no more so than baking a cake (and considerably less stressful, in my experience). Each of the components is fairly simple to make. Some of you may wonder if you can substitute instant lasagna sheets for our fresh ones. We didn’t test those, but I’d bet they work. Jody made the recipe with fresh pasta because it results in a thinner cooked sheet, with a finer texture than the thicker noodle that results from instant sheets. You be the judge. Enjoy. Ken
*Lasagne–with an e at the end–is how Italians refer to the dish. Lasagna–with an a–is singular, the name of the wide flat pasta shape typically found in the dish that Americans call lasagna. If you own a restaurant with a lot of international visitors you eventually defer to the linguistic inclinations of the cuisine’s source. Plus you get tired of being laughed at for serving a dish whose name suggests it contains but a single noodle. Outside the restaurant, we still talk about lasagna, like everyone else.
Lasagna with Pistachio Pesto and Prosciutto
Adapted from Jessica Theroux’s recipe in Cooking with Italian Grandmothers
- 11 ounces all-purpose unbleached flour, about 2 cups, plus a little extra for rolling the dough
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 large eggs
- Semolina flour
Note: for a detailed photo sequence on making pasta dough by hand, go here and scroll down to the collage.
- TO MAKE THE PASTA BY HAND dump the flour with the salt in a mound on the counter. Make a well in the center with your fingers.
- Crack the eggs into a bowl and beat with a fork. Pour the eggs into the well. Stick your fingers into the eggs so they touch the counter. Start whisking your fingers around the edges of the well, slowly pulling the flour into the well. Continue until the eggs and flour have become a shaggy mass. At this point a bench scraper comes in handy to pull everything together. If the dough seems dry, add a tablespoon or so of water, on the other hand, if it is too wet, add a little semolina flour. At this point you can cover the dough with a plastic sheet and let it rest 10 minutes or so. This allows the flour to absorb the eggs and it makes it easier to knead.
- Using the heels of your hands, start kneading the dough. I like to use both my hands with a steady even rocking. Some people like to focus on one hand and use the second as a helper. Either way, work the dough until it’s smooth and elastic and there are tiny holes in the dough when you cut through the center with a knife. You will just have to be confident about figuring out the right texture, but rest assured, the dough is forgiving. This is going to take about 10 minutes, and you will have the double satisfaction of working your core while you knead.
- Cover the dough with a sheet of plastic and allow to rest 20 minutes, then go to Step 6. At this point the dough may also be covered and refrigerated overnight. Allow to come to room temperature before continuing.
- TO USE A STANDING MIXER, dump the flour with the salt in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook. Beat the eggs in a bowl with a fork. With the mixer running, add the beaten eggs in a steady stream. Process until the dough comes together and is smooth and elastic and forms a cohesive ball, about 8 minutes. If the dough seems sticky, add a little more flour, if too dry, add a little water. Cover the bowl with plastic. Let rest 20 minutes. At this point the dough may also be covered and refrigerated overnight. Allow to come to room temperature before continuing.
- Divide the dough into 2 pieces. Cover 1 of the pieces with plastic. Flatten the remaining piece of dough slightly with your hand, dust it the with flour and crank it through a manual or electric pasta machine with the rollers set at their maximum distance apart. Now fold the dough in thirds as though you were folding a letter. Run the dough through the machine again, feeding the narrow side into the rollers. Repeat the process of folding and rolling 8 or 10 more times. This process kneads the dough and prepares it for the next step of thinning it. Don’t hesitate to sprinkle the dough with semolina flour as you continue running it through the machine. You don’t want it to stick to the rollers. It is ready when it has a leathery texture.
- To thin the dough, begin passing the dough through the rollers again. Narrow the distance between the rollers with each pass of the dough. If the dough tears just patch it back together and roll it through the same setting again, a little slower this time. If the dough sticks to the rollers, sprinkle it with semolina. You will soon get the feel for the right speed and the proper level of moisture to keep the dough rolling efficiently. As each sheet begins to get unmanageably long, cut it in half and begin rolling each half individually. Roll the sheets down to the finest setting and then roll through again. You want the sheets to be as thin as possible. Stack them on top of each other, no more than 4 sheets in a stack, with plenty of semolina flour between them so they don’t stick together. Cover with a sheet of plastic to keep from drying out.
Makes about 4 cups
- 3 ounces unsalted butter
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- Kosher salt and freshly ground white or black pepper
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over low heat and cook until it starts to brown. Add the bay leaf and flour and cook, whisking constantly, until bubbly until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Whisk in 1 cup milk at a time, being sure there are no lumps before adding the next addition. Continue until the mixture thins out. Then add the remaining milk in a slow steady stream, season with salt and pepper, and cook at a low simmer for 15 minutes, whisking now and again to ensure it’s not sticking on the bottom. It should be the consistency of heavy cream. Cool. Remove the bay leaf.
Makes about 1½ cups
- 2½ ounces lightly toasted pistachio nuts
- 5 ounces basil leaves, about 6 cups
- ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3-4 cloves garlic, grated on a microplane, the number of cloves will depend on the size and your taste
- 1½ ounces freshly grated parmesan cheese, about 1 cup
- 1½ ounces freshly grated pecorino cheese, about 1 cup
- Put the nuts in a food processor and pulse until chopped. Transfer to a small bowl.
- Add the basil leaves to the food processor. With the machine running, add the oil in a thin steady stream and process until the basil is finely chopped, about 30 seconds. Add the garlic, all but 1 tablespoon of the nuts and the cheeses and pulse to combine.
- Season with salt and pepper. Transfer to a bowl.
- 3 4-ounce balls fresh mozzarella, ripped into small pieces, divided into 6 portions
- 4 ounces thinly sliced parma prosciutto, ripped into 1- x 2-inch pieces and divided into 6 portions
- 1½ ounces grated parmesan cheese, about 1 cup
- Preheat oven to 375ºF.
- Spread about 1/3 cup bechamel over the bottom of a 14″ x 10″ lasagna pan. Cover with pasta sheets. You will have to cut and fit the sheets, they shouldn’t overlap. Spread with about 1/3 cup bechamel and about 1/3 cup pesto. Sprinkle with about 2½ ounces mozzarella and 1/6th of the prosciutto. Top with a layer of pasta, spread with about 1/3 cup bechamel and about 1/3 cup pesto. Sprinkle with 2½ ounces mozzarella and 1/6 of the prosciutto. Top with a layer of pasta and repeat the layering process. You will have a total of 6 mozzarella-prosciutto layers. Finish with the last layer of pasta, brush with the remaining bechamel and sprinkle the top with the remaining pistachios and parmesan cheese. Cover lightly with parchment paper.
- Bake until bubbling, and the top sheet has puffed up a bit, about 40 minutes. Remove the parchment and run under the broiler to brown the top.
This is a recipe to make when you get a bumper crop of basil, or want something to do while listening to a new recording of your favorite Puccini opera. Open a bottle of wine and invite good friends who like hanging out in the kitchen to help. My cousin was visiting with her 11 year-old daughter, Lia, last week, and I needed to get this recipe tested for the blog. I asked Lia if she’d like to make it with me, saying it would be fun, hoping she wouldn’t mistake me for one of those adults who tried to trick kids into helping with projects that definitely weren’t fun. She said she was up for it. Her mom later assured me she’d had a good time.
I’ve always wanted to make a lasagna with fresh pasta–but without boiling the noodles first. When I came across just such a recipe in Jessica Theroux’s James Beard Award winning book, Cooking with Italian Grandmothers – Recipes and Stories from Tuscany to Sicily, I had to try it. I made some adjustments, used my own pesto recipe and added prosciutto. It was a hit on Easter paired with my mother’s roast leg of lamb.
You can make the recipe more manageable by making the dough, the bechamel and the pesto the day before. On the day of serving allow everything to come to room temperature while preheating the oven. Roll out the dough, then assemble and bake the lasagna.
Jessica’s cookbook is worth reading cover to cover. She spent a year traveling around Italy on an Arnold Fellowship from Brown University, beautifully documenting the experience in photographs and words. I wish I’d had Jessica’s smarts and applied for the same fellowship when I was at Brown 30+ years ago. What better way to get to know a country, a culture and its food than through the kitchens of wise grandmothers?
Note about salt: I generally don’t salt my pasta dough. It attracts moisture and causes the dough to oxidize more quickly. Most pasta gets as much salt as it needs when blanched in salted water. This dough isn’t blanched, and I found we missed the salt, so I added a little to this dough. But salt is a matter of taste. As you probably know by now, I love salt. There’s also salt in the prosciutto and in the hard cheeses, so keep that in mind when you are seasoning the bechamel and pesto. Feel free to skip the salt in the dough if you like.