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.
I can taste it!
It’s the new WordPress taste-o-vision plug in! Ken
Wow. Ya’ll have done it again. The butternut squash lasagna (lasagne) I made last fall uses a béchamel, but I’ll have to try the pesto addition to that recipe and to try this one, too.
Thanks, Gwynne. Someone else recently mentioned a squash-pesto combination to me – think it sounds good. I’m going to have to keep it in mind the next time I make squash soup, especially the pistachio version. Ken
Gosh, I wish I’d read this before I embarked on my disastrous ravioli the other day! I’m new to pasta making so it’s something of a steep learning curve. I love the idea of this lasagne – I’m definitely going to give it a go with my home-made pesto (something I have, thankfully, mastered). Thanks for another lovely post.
In my experience one’s pasta making skills suck–until they don’t. Suddenly. It’s as though you wake up one morning and you know intuitively, perhaps from gumming up the works so often, exactly how the dough is supposed to feel. And everything works the way it should, and then you start trusting yourself: “I don’t care what this recipe says, this needs a little more water.” Pasta and sourdough bread were exactly that way for me. Bad bad bad bad GREAT GREAT GREAT. You’ll get it, believe me. Ken
Thanks! Appreciate the encouragement. Come to think of it the sourdough could use a little practice too …
Wow! Can’t wait to give this a try. Loved the history lesson too, per usual. Would an American hear any difference in the pronunciation of lasange and lasagna? And, as you know, Lia is such a cutie!
Hey, Guys–You will like this. Lia IS a cutie, but even more important in our family–she’s a wiseass. Ken
What a wonderful lasagne! I love the idea of pistachio’s in pesto, actually prefer them over pine nuts. I have read (meticulously studied) Jessica Theroux’s book. I found a copy at the library last year and ended up paying a late fine because I didn’t want to give it back. I certainly enjoy all of your posts and I felt as though I was standing right there watching and listening to a Puccini opera.
Pistachios have a little more kick–and they’re not as expensive—without “going to the dark side,” in the way that walnuts do. (I like walnut pesto, by the way, but it’s more of a winter flavor combo for me.) Glad you could hear the Puccini in the background. We try to play it at a level just below we’re-irritating-the-neighbors-again-darling. Ken
Love every single ingredient, but would never have thought to combine them in this. Great idea!
Thanks, Kiki. Pesto lasagna was a revelation to me too. My first thought (and this was 25 years ago): “Is this legal? Are the food police going to arrest us for breaking some lasagna rule?” Ken
I can’t wait for a bumper-crop of basil. I would make this dish and eat it for a whole week! It’s a perfect lasagna. :-)
Hi, Shanna–That’s exactly what our life waslike–eating lasagna for a week. Our daughter may swear off the stuff for awhile. While were blogging today she occupied the other half of our tiny kitchen pickling vegetables. Ken
What a beautiful blog. So inspiring. Stunning photography. I love this recipe. Can’t wait to try this lasagne at home. The perfect comfort food. I look forward to reading more of your posts. Emma xx
Hi, Emma–Thanks for stopping by. Glad you like the pictures. They’re intended to help. :-) Ken
Reblogged this on A FRESH START.
Hey, Maryam! How’s the flyfishing these days? Thanks for the reblog! Ken
The line about capturing a Cretan bull made me laugh out loud.
I’ve avoided lasagne in restaurants because of anticipatory fatigue, and also to avoid greasy, badly made bechamel. But I recently made bechamel for the first time, for Gorgonzola mac and cheese, and am now willing to consider it in other dishes – especially if it comes with pistachio pesto! Gorgeous photos, love the sensual pasta dough / sheet shots.
I put that line in there specifically for you, but you can laugh at the Augean stables too, if you like. Gogonzola mac ‘n cheese, with a crispy layer on top? Last meal food (that’s a compliment), with a red Burgundy that we can no longer afford to drink to go with it? Yes! Thanks about the photos. The photo with the pasta sheet and Jody’s hand was serendipity. When I begin selling poster size reproductions for people’s kitchens I’ll lead with that one. Ken
I did, laugh at both. Yes, mac and cheese with panko (because that’s what we had) and decent cheddar on top. Not everyday food!
We’ve been meaning to try the no-boiling lasagne thing—so glad to know it works. I’m not a big red sauce fan and always liked the bechamel versions I’ve tried before. (I remember a winter squash and chard one we made once during a CSA overload.) This sounds particularly delicious. I’m worried about my beloved pistachios though. Seems everybody has suddenly gone pistachio crazy and I fear a tulip mania-type rise in prices!
You’re another voice mentioning the squash thing–now I’m tempted to try one with sage or chard. You know, we have a couple of other recipes with pistachio pesto, including an asparagus and strawberry salad. Regarding the tulip market, it did eventually collapse–I’m sure Thomas Picketty’s book references “pistachio capital” someplace. :-) Ken
Ah, I wish I could visit your test kitchen when you test out your recipes. Love your lasagne explanation! My favorite white lasagna ever was in Cinque Terre, made with basil pesto that we watched an Italian woman make by hand first. She would probably not approve of the pistachios, but I do, for what that’s worth. I have loved every variation of pesto I’ve ever made. They all serve a lovely purpose! I will definitely make this lasagne!!!
I could probably eat cold porridge in Cinque Terre and think it was ambrosia as long as I could grate a bit of cheese on top. You’re almost certainly right about the Italian objection to pistachio. The issue is that so many traditional things (e.g. lasagna) have moved way beyond their origins and are now more often regarded as templates to which different ingredients can be applied, rather than classics that by definition hew to a certain formula. I wish there were another word for pesto, but “basil-nut-cheese paste” just doesn’t cut it. :-) Ken
I like the word template. I’ve had many a heated discussion about authentic vs. traditional, and the crime involved with altering ancient recipes. The Italians are especially snobby about this approach, but I don’t think there’s one recipe in one village that every Italian would agree on as authentic. Personally, I just like whatever tastes good. And after cooking for a family for so long, it’s also about using what you have. It’s the smart way to cook in any case!!!
Epic post, the pair of you. This is really beautiful. I feel a bit redundant planning prawns and pasta with pesto this evening. BTW, I do listen to Puccini while cooking. Tosca has such great highlights (if you can call the poor girl throwing herself off the walls a highlight) but the one that brings me to tears is La Boheme.
Not redundant, Conor, just keeping the beat. Great minds think alike. Very funny about Tosca: well, yes, there is the suicide… La Boheme is indeed great. When Jody’s cooking by herself–and not concerned about the photographer–she cranks it to is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex volume. Ken
What a beautiful recipe. Most recipes that people here in the US consider “classic” Italian are hardly classic at all. Bechamel, however, seems to always be a classic part of a true Italian lasagna.
Hi, Lesley–I agree with you about certain “classic” Italian recipes not having their origins in Italy, but I’ve somewhat mollified my views about them after reading WE CALLED IT MACARONI by Nancy Verde Barr about Italian immigrant cooking in the US, specifically Providence, RI. In Barr’s view governmental and social pressures came to bear on immigrants, essentially fusin together distinct regional identities that never saw themselves as “Italian,” in Europe, but found themselves lumped together by a country that neither understood nor welcomed their style of cooking. The drive by government settlement workers to wean these new arrivals off diets centered around vegetable gardens, olive oil and small amounts of meat to more “American” fare of large portions of meat and potatoes is both heartbreaking and fascinating, as is the story of intermarriage between disparate regional cultures that then goes on to produce a kind of cuisine never seen on the Apennine Peninsula. Very interesting story with some great background on food that we often take as clichéd today. Anyway, this is a fun alternative to the usual take on lasagna (wherever it comes from)–and I’m sure your garden has lots of goodies for variations, including one I once tasted (and really liked) with an arugula pesto. :-) Ken
Arugula pesto is a favorite of mine..I love all things arugula! :) I always find the background of food and its history fascinating. Though I’ve heard of We Called it Macaroni, I’ve never read it. Now, I may have to. I love to read almost as much as I love to eat and it sounds like a great read. I am all about playing with the classics and making it your own. People get terribly caught up on what’s right and wrong in cooking sometimes, though the classics certainly have their place in the scheme of things. Thanks for the reply…now, I have a new book to read.
This really looks wonderful. What a great, lighter alternative to the heavy red. So elegant and complex with the pesto. I love the way you describe the feeling of being “up to” eating a heavy lasagne. Thanks for the interesting history too. I really want to check out the book Jody mentions. Her cousin’s daughter is too cute! Lucky girl that she gets to eat so well! Beautifully shot as always.
Good book, Amanda. I think you’ll enjoy it (and this recipe). Lia is a sweetie and a smart kid with a great sense of humor. Thanks. Ken
recette fantastique ! avec les pistaches, c’est une très bonne idée ! :)
Merci, Lydia. C’est une solution à cette vielle probleme: “Et quant aux pistaches, que faire?” Ken
Typically lasagne is one of my least favourite pasta dishes pretty much for the same reason that you touched on to begin with – too filling and frankly lardy, but I am rather taken with this lighter version and the fact that you have made your own pasta. Over the last week I too have been making fresh pasta to make tagliatelle with homemade wild garlic pesto and as I have some wild garlic pesto left over I might try using it in your version of lasagne by adding parma ham and mozzarella as well. Great idea. I like the sound of the cookbook too. Best Torie ps: what a sweet little helper ;o)
Thanks, Torie. This is great–we’re doing a post about ramps next week! Now you’ve giving me an idea about how to use them instead of just adding them directly to pasta (they’re beautiful). Lasagna with wild garlic pesto! (You win–I wish we’d thought of THAT.) Lia had fun, and was fun to hang around with–she seemed to really enjoy playing the role of restaurant kid too, if only for a few days. Ken
Ihr trefft aber sowas genau mein Faforit Gericht. Und in dieser Version zum hineinlegen . . . your matai
Danke. Du bist süß. Ken
I love ‘anticipatory fatigue’ – I feel that often. With lasagna and life in general. But no more with your lovely green, light version. The green somehow makes it all okay. Sophie
I’m sorry I can’t ship you one. But be of good cheer–spring and, eventually, summer will appear. Ken
Pingback: A writing process blog frolic, and a favourites list | Saucy gander