Lasagna the way I used to make it took hours. Who has the time to devote to layer after layer these days?
I set about finding a way to simplify the process and still enjoy this wonderful combination of ingredients layered into a sort of molten Italian food lover's delight. I consulted Oklahoma City chef Chris Becker, who is the creator of Della Terra Pasta, for some lasagna-making insight.
I figured Becker, with his New York City Italian restaurant experience, could probably make most any version of lasagna blindfolded and that he would have boiled down an efficient method to make the dish. When he offered to collaborate on making lasagna, I was excited. We met at the Urban Agrarian Market, where Becker makes his pasta when he isn't tending his day job at Francis Tuttle Technology Center.
I went into this lasagna project with the concept that lasagna consisted of multiple layers, including: a tomato-based sauce; lasagna noodles boiled al dente; mozzarella cheese; more noodles; more sauce; ricotta cheese mixed with fresh herbs, garlic and eggs; more noodles; more sauce; more noodles; a spinach layer; more noodles; more sauce; more noodles and cheese and sauce; plus cheese-infused white sauce marbled with the meaty tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese — all baked together under cover until the last.
I never thought of my everything-but-the-kitchen-sink version of lasagna as being one giant run-on sentence. But looking at it now — well, you get the idea. I see why I haven't made lasagna in years. I understand why many home cooks have come to rely on their grocer's freezer case or just head to their favorite Italian restaurant when they have a craving for this dish.
When I made lasagna, I made a lot of it so that I could cut the cooled-down leftovers into squares, wrap them up and stock the freezer with individual portions to enjoy later without all the preparation.
Now with the help of Chef Becker, I am thinking of lasagna as a fairly simple process. He recommends using Italian sausage in the meaty tomato sauce. Italian sausage is infused with plenty of seasoning for the sauce. It is sauteed with diced onion and a fresh clove of garlic.
There are several ways to go with the sausage and several Italian-style sausages out there to use. You can even use Made in Oklahoma versions of Italian sausage: J.C. Potter's Italian sausage or some of that wonderful stuff made by Lovera's in Krebs. If you like traditional link sausage, it will be necessary to crumble it into a pan to saute it. Italian sausages can be found in pork, chicken or beef.
I found J.C. Potter's lite sausage to be quite lean and still have plenty of seasoning for us. I wrapped a rubber spatula in a dry paper towel and stirred the sausage to absorb any excess fat as it browned then discarded the towel once it became soaked.
The biggest surprise to me in Becker's recommendation was using so few layers of pasta noodles (only three or four) and in not boiling them. Wow! I hoped that worked. He sent me away with a stack of his dried noodles to try. To my delight, they worked very well and fit into a couple of different-size dishes — a large oval but shallow casserole dish, and the smaller but deeper 8-by-8-inch or 9-by-9-inch Pyrex dishes I use for making brownies.
“Just break them apart to fit,” he said. “Push them down into the sauce then cover them with more sauce.”
The layers and sauce ended up being about an inch away from the edges of my baking dish. As it baked and the cheeses, pasta and sauce melded together, it filled in the space and had plenty of room to bubble up without running over into the oven. This roomy assembly method will save the extra time it might take to clean up an oven spill.
The version we made used buffalo-style mozzarella sliced as thin as possible. The Della Terra lasagna flats were thin but softened beautifully in the bath of meaty sauce. I think of the lasagna I've made over the years, sometimes even involving our children in turning the crank of the pasta roller to make thick egg-infused noodles for our time-hogging kitchen sink versions of this dish.
I loved this straightforward version Becker proposed. The process was so simple, and the result was elegant and heavenly. It was perfectly suited for our empty nest needs and full of that unmatched Italian comfort we find among the layers of this dish. Gosh, this is good!