Freshly rolled out, yolk-rich pasta sheets, ragout and bechamel. Three elements make up one of Italy’s most celebrated and replicated dishes: lasagna alla bolognese. But the recipe had to be perfected over many centuries to become what it is today.
History of lasagna alla bolognese
Lasagna is no spring chicken, ancient Romans were making a distant relative of it thousands of years ago. The Greek term laganon and the Latin laganum indicated square or rectangular thin leaves of dough made with wheat flour mixed with water. These were baked in the oven and stuffed with meat. Cheese was a later addition, as per a 14th century recipe recorded in the Liber de Coquina recipe manual of the Anjou court in Naples. In the royal kitchen the dough was boiled instead of baked.
In 1881 the recipe book Il Principe dei Cuochi first mentioned tomato added to the ancient preparation. The evolution of this dish continued with another significant introduction: in 1863 a culinary manual on the eating habits of the Middle Ages published in Bologna promoted the idea of layering the pasta sheets, essentially giving life to lasagna as we know it today. The quintessential green pasta that’s so typical of Bologna is a 1930s modification.
Ingredient list for ragout, pasta and bechamel
As with any Italian traditional dish, lasagna alla bolognese boasts many different variations. The traditional recipe as deposited at the Bologna Chamber of Commerce has the following instructions for a 6-portion yield.
For the ragout: 300 g (10 oz) coarsely ground beef; 150 g (5 oz) minced pancetta; 50 g (1/4 cup) each of chopped carrot, chopped celery, chopped onion; 300 g tomato sauce, 1/2 glass dry white wine, 1/2 glass whole milk, chicken broth, EVOO or butter, salt and pepper.
For the lasagna: 400 g (14 oz) all purpose flour, 2 eggs, 250 g (9 oz) boiled spinach.
For the bechamel: 100 g (3 oz) 00 flour, 100 g (1 stick) unsalted butter, 1 quart whole milk, salt, 1/2 tsp. powdered nutmeg.
For garnish: Flecks of butter, grated Parmigiano cheese
How to make ragout alla bolognese
Pan fry the pancetta in a large Dutch oven style pot. Add 3 tbsp. of EVOO or 50 g (half a stick) of butter with the celery, carrot and onion trinity, and let it all simmer gently. Next add the ground meat and brown it evenly. Pour in the wine and stir until fully evaporated. Mix in the tomato sauce, cover and simmer gently for 2 hours, moistening with broth if necessary. Towards the end, add the milk (which subdues the acidity of the tomato) and adjust seasoning.
Rolling out the lasagna dough and making bechamel
Wring out the moisture from the boiled spinach and pass them though a food mill. To make the green lasagna pasta dough, mix together flour, eggs and pureed spinach to obtain a heavy, satiny ball. Roll out the dough to thin sheets (about 1/8 of an inch) and cut in large iPhone-sized rectangles. Boil the lasagna sheets al dente in lightly salted water. Fish them out and allow them to cool on a clean kitchen towel. While the sheets cools, prepare the bechamel. Melt the butter in a saucepan over gentle heat, sift in the flour and mix with a wire whisk. Cook this roux until golden, then add the milk and the nutmeg.
Final assembly and baking
Butter a rectangular baking dish and start layering the boiled lasagna sheets, dressing each with a generous coating of ragout, bechamel and grated Parmigiano cheese. Keep layering to fill the baking dish. Cover the last layer with extra bechamel, flecks of butter and grated cheese. Bake in the oven at 160°C (320°F) for approximately 30 minutes, or until a nice crust forms. Are you drooling yet?
I know what I’m making for Sunday supper.
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Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.