Monday, January 15, 2007

fresh pasta + basic tomato sauce

seven-layer lasagne

I have been enamored with the idea of thousand-layer lasagne since I first saw Heidi’s recipe for it on 101 Cookbooks. From “whisper-thin sheets” and “crunchy and caramelized” to her threat to “fight you for a corner piece,” I knew instantaneously this approach would be the answer to the deadweight-style baked pasta that has long kept me away. But, just like last weekend’s English muffins, it took Ruth Reichl’s whisper in my ear, er, email inbox, about “sheets so thin you could practically read the newspaper through them” to convince me not to wait any longer. I had to make it.

pasta, new school
self -portrait in upended bowl

But first, we had to buy a pasta roller. Unlike the artichoke ravioli, which I was able to form through hand-rolling, pressing lasagne noodles into impossibly thin sheets sounded like torture by hand. The machine cost about fifty percent more than I had hoped, but at that point was too obsessed with this baklazagne to care. One cinch of a sheeted noodle later, my doubts had evaporated, and as I ran it through setting after setting, thinner and yet thinner still, I couldn’t bring myself to stop one mark shy of the thinnest as Heidi has suggested, instead going all the way to 9 (baby). At its slimmest, the noodles were translucent, nearly impossible to keep flat and had almost torn-paper like edges, which I didn’t bother to trim clean.

my new love
floating into a soft pile

There was not a chance I’d get these boiled or even soaked in hot water a la Ina Garten without them falling apart — seriously, even a droplet of water made them stick to each other. The benefit for you is that it forced me to bake them uncooked, which I had originally been nervous to do, fearful of a dish deprived of its moisture by greedy noodles but given no other option, I realized a heavier-than-normal dousing of sauce made a perfectly-balanced dish. I kept the fillings simple: some spinach sauteed with coarsely-chopped garlic and mixed with a cup of ricotta and small pile of parmesan (though double this would have been a better amount) a pound of hand-torn fresh mozzarella strips and over four cups of fresh tomato sauce. After thirty or so minutes in the oven, the top began to buckle and warp, brown at the edges, the layers too light to handle the heat which I took as a sign of blissful blistered doneness.

fillers

I was only able to build seven — sniffle, so very far shy of a thousand — layers before simultaneously running out of sauce, cheese and filling, but I swear I could have brought it to an even ten before running out of dish space. Whether or not you choose to one-and-a-half the amount below to achieve those extra tiers, make your own sauce or start with from-scratch pasta is up to you — I won’t even pretend it didn’t take many hours to get all this done — I promise that you will fall in love with this complex but tissue-like dish. We ate it ravenously in front of the Rome premiere with a Caesar salad (Alex’s genius suggestion), and later still-frozen marbled brownies and a bottle of Tokaji, patting our bellies and reveling in our day off ahead. I hope you enjoyed yours, too.

it buckled

Fresh Pasta
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine

3 cups all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons water

To make pasta dough in a food processor: Blend flour, eggs, salt, and water in processor until mixture just begins to form a ball, adding more water, drop by drop, if dough is too dry (dough should be firm and not sticky). Process dough for 15 seconds more to knead it. Transfer to a floured surface and let stand, covered with an inverted bowl, 1 hour to let the gluten relax and make rolling easier.

To make dough by hand: Mound flour on a work surface, preferably wooden, and make a well in center. Add eggs, salt, and water to well. With a fork, gently beat eggs and water until combined. Gradually stir in enough flour to form a paste, pulling in flour closest to egg mixture and being careful not to make an opening in outer wall of well. Knead remaining flour into mixture with your hands to form a dough, adding more water, drop by drop, if dough is too dry (dough should be firm and not sticky). Knead dough until smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes. Cover with an inverted bowl and let stand 1 hour (to make rolling easier).

Basic, Awesome Tomato Sauce

1 tablespoon butter
2 large shallots, finely chopped
1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
A couple glugs red wine
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes
1 15-ounce can pureed tomatoes

Melt butter in saucepan over medium-high heat until foam subsides. Add shallots, red pepper flakes and salt, sauteing them together for a few minutes, until the shallots are translucent and beginning to color. Add the red wine, letting it sizzle and cook down slightly, then the whole and pureed tomatoes. Breaking the whole tomatoes up with a wooden spoon, let the sauce simmer for a few minutes. (No need to cook it down very much, as the extra liquid will be helpful to cook the pasta, and it will finish cooking in the oven.) Season to taste.

Makes approximately 5 cups of sauce

Other lasagne ingredients: Several cups of baby spinach, sauteed in olive oil with two chopped cloves of garlic, seasoned to taste and cooled slightly, then mixed with 1 to 2 cups ricotta (to taste, I prefer less, the large amount is more traditional) and 1/2 cup grated parmesan, dropped in small dollops around each layer. A one-pound ball of fresh mozzarella, torn and then scattered about, on top of the spinach mixture. The spinach can, of course, be replaced with any other mix of vegetables.

Baklasagne/Thousand Layer Lasagne pasta-sheeting and dish assembly instructions at 101 Cookbooks. My only adjustments were baking this in a 9 x 13 dish and not pre-boiling the pasta.


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