While away a lazy Sunday

Lasagna is so forgiving to create that there’s time for a break in between

Los Angeles TimesNovember 27, 2013 

There’s nothing like lasagna from scratch to while away a lazy Sunday afternoon, and a mushroom and ham lasagna can be a habit-forming choice.

ANNE CUSACK/LOS ANGELES TIMES

Everyone has his own rituals for Sunday afternoons. Some guys sit around and watch football; for me it takes only about a quarter before I need a nap. Others feel inspired to take up household projects; the less said about my ability with a hammer the better.

Instead, I cook. Well, I cook year round, but when the days start to cool and the light turns golden, I get more ambitious. Rather than 30 minutes at the grill, I throw myself into hours-long kitchen projects. This year, it’s been lasagna.

One weekend I made Hazan’s wild mushroom and ham version. Another time I experimented with spicy tomato sauce and basil-flecked ricotta. Once you’ve mastered the basics of lasagna, it really is a most adaptable construct.

One place I don’t compromise is on fresh pasta. The fresh-versus-dried pasta debate is an old and tired one and, in the end, pointless. Each type of pasta has its purposes. Think of them as types of cloth: Fresh pasta is silk and dried is wool.

When it comes to building the lasagna, remember the importance of the pasta. The dish should be as much about the noodles as it is about the filling. Spread a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the pan, then a layer of pasta. Spread a thin layer of filling, then another layer of pasta, repeating until you’ve either filled the pan or used up all the ingredients, finishing with a layer of sauce. Then just sprinkle with cheese and bake.

FRESH PASTA TIPS

Pick up a pasta roller attachment for a stand mixer. It makes the job so much easier, eliminating the “third hand” problem of the manual versions entirely.

I also find it easier to make the dough in a food processor. I realize that in theory it’s simple enough to mound the dough on a work table, beat in the eggs and knead. But it’s messy.

Pulse just until the flour and egg mixture starts to clump together, then knead it by hand to make a cohesive dough.

Wrap the kneaded dough tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least half an hour to rest. You’ll know it’s ready to roll when you poke an indentation with your finger and it doesn’t immediately spring back.

Start the rolling process by kneading the dough again with the machine. Flatten it, fold it in thirds as you would a letter and feed it through the rollers on the widest setting. Repeat until the dough feels satiny smooth. Then start thinning, using progressively thinner settings.

When rolling out the dough, flour it lightly but frequently, whenever it starts to feel moist. I usually lightly dust the dough with flour a couple of times during the machine kneading, and then again midway through the thinning. But if the dough is moist, you may need to do it more often.

If the sheet of dough becomes too long for you to handle comfortably, cut it in half and work with smaller portions. Keep the remainder lightly covered with plastic wrap to prevent drying out.

Once the dough is rolled and cut, you can cook it immediately and save it stretched out on kitchen towels until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna. Be sure to give it a good rinse as soon as it’s done cooking to get rid of the excess starch, and then squeegee the sheets between your fingers to get rid of any extra water.

MUSHROOM AND HAM LASAGNA

2 hours, plus soaking time for the mushrooms and cooling time for the lasagna. Serves 12

FRESH PASTA

1 2/3 cups unbleached flour, plus extra for rolling the dough

3 eggs

Place the flour in the bowl of a mixer or food processor. Add the eggs and mix until a dough starts to come together. The dough should feel like soft clay; if it feels moist, add a little more flour. Turn it out onto a well-floured work surface and knead until it forms a cohesive dough, 4 to 6 turns. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate it to give it time to relax, at least an hour. You’ll know it’s ready when you poke an indentation with your fingertip and the dough does not spring back.

Line the counter with kitchen towels. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Take one piece (leaving the others under plastic wrap), flatten it slightly, flour it lightly and pass the dough through a pasta machine with the rollers adjusted to the widest setting. Fold in overlapping thirds as you would a letter and pass through again. Repeat until the dough feels silky smooth, 3 or 4 more turns.

Now start thinning the dough: Crank the machine two stops tighter and pass the dough through. Repeat, cranking the machine ever tighter until the sheet is thin enough that you can see your hand through it when held up to the light. This will be about setting No. 6. If the dough feels too moist, dust with a little more flour to keep it from sticking. Cut the finished dough sheet into roughly 12-inch lengths and arrange on the kitchen towels. Don’t let the cut sheets touch, as they may still be slightly sticky.

Repeat, kneading, rolling and cutting all the pasta dough.

Cook the pasta, 4 to 6 sheets at a time, in a large pot of generously salted boiling water. The pasta will be done when it floats to the surface, in less than 30 seconds.

Gently remove the pasta from the boiling water with a skimmer and transfer it to a large work bowl filled with cool water to stop the cooking. Carefully rinse each sheet under running water, then rub it with your fingers to remove any excess water. Spread it flat on a kitchen towel to dry until you’re ready to assemble the lasagna.

LASAGNA

2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms

3 tablespoons oil

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) plus 3 tablespoons butter, divided, plus more for greasing

cup finely chopped onion

cup chopped, peeled and seeded tomatoes

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1 1/2 pounds button or cremini mushrooms, sliced approximately 1/4-inch thick

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

Scrapings of nutmeg

1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided, plus more for the table

Fresh pasta

3/4 pound thinly sliced unsmoked boiled ham (prosciutto cotto), cut into julienne strips

Heat the oven to 400 degrees and place a rack at the uppermost position. Cover the dried mushrooms with 3 cups of warm water and set aside to soften at least 15 minutes. Remove the mushrooms from the water (reserving the water), squeeze them dry and chop them finely. Strain the soaking water through a coffee filter to remove any dust.

Over medium heat, heat the oil, 3 tablespoons butter and the chopped onion in the largest saute pan you have, ideally one big enough to hold all the sliced mushrooms without crowding. Cook until the onion turns translucent, about 3 minutes.

Add the porcini mushrooms, the soaking water, chopped tomatoes and parsley, and continue cooking until the water has evaporated and the mixture is nearly dry, about 10 minutes.

Add the sliced fresh mushrooms, 1 teaspoon salt and one-fourth teaspoon pepper, or to taste, and increase the heat to high. Cook, stirring frequently, until all the moisture released by the mushrooms has evaporated, 10 to 20 minutes, increasing the heat if needed for the liquid to evaporate more quickly. Taste and correct for salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.

Make a white sauce: Heat one-fourth cup butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. When it has melted, whisk in the flour to make a smooth paste. Whisk in the milk about one-half cup at a time, cooking until each addition has thickened. Season with one-half teaspoon salt and a pinch of nutmeg, or to taste, and stir in two-thirds cup of the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Remove from heat and hold in a warm place. (A skin will probably form on top of the sauce. Just stir it back in. Any small clumps will melt as the lasagna bakes.)

Generously butter a 12-by-9-inch baking dish and lightly coat the bottom with the white sauce. Line the bottom of the pan with a single layer of pasta strips, cutting them to fit the pan, edge to edge, allowing no more than one-fourth inch overlapping.

Stir all but about one-half cup of the remaining white sauce into the mushroom mixture. Spread a thin layer of the mushroom mixture on top of the pasta, then scatter a handful of ham strips over the top. Cover with another pasta layer and more mushrooms and ham, repeating until you’ve used all the mushrooms and ham, finishing with a layer of pasta. Ideally, you’ll have at least 6 layers of pasta. Spoon the reserved one-half cup of white sauce evenly over the top layer of pasta, and sprinkle over the remaining one-third cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. (The recipe can be prepared to this point and refrigerated tightly covered.)

If baking the lasagna immediately after assembling, place on the top rack and bake until a light golden crust forms on top, about 10 to 15 minutes. If the crust is slow to develop, turn up the oven to 450 or 475 degrees, but do not bake longer than 15 minutes altogether. If the lasagna was refrigerated, place on a rack in the center of the oven (for more even heating) and bake until it is warmed through and beginning to form a light golden crust, 25 to 35 minutes; place on the top rack after warming to form the crust more quickly if needed.

Remove from the oven and set aside to settle for about 10 minutes. Then serve with grated Parmesan on the side.

Nutrition information per serving: calories: 290; protein: 13 grams; carbohydrates: 22 grams; fiber: 2 grams; fat: 16 grams; saturated fat: 7 grams, cholesterol: 87 mg; sugar: 4 grams; sodium: 755 mg.

Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”

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