There was lasagne rivalry in my family – between mamma and my zia Alba who lived next door. It was mostly to do with besciamella and partly to do with ham. The points being debated were: Should you include bechamel sauce in lasagna? Or would it detract from the meaty sugo? And what about thinly shaved prosciutto cotto – was there any place for ham in a lasagne (or as we called it at home “pasta al forno”)? These were the conversations I remember hearing as a child amongst family members and other triestini and polesani, whilst sharing coffee and crostoli or over a game of cards, in a typically Italian way where food dominates discussions.

“Non me va quella blah-di besciamela” (I can’t stand that bloody bechamel sauce) my father would mutter in dialect when we were at home, after eating a portion of my aunt Alba’s lasagna, adding “non capiso perché la devi meterghe parsuto” (I don’t understand  why she needs to add ham). Mamma made lasagna that was proudly bechamel-free and ham-free, with ruby-red sugo and shavings of salty parmesan cheese between every layer of eggy pasta. Though she had used besciamella on a few occasions, she preferred to leave it out, not least because of my father, who had strong opinions that he would voice frequently and would probably have refused to eat it.  When mamma was making lasagna in the kitchen, my father would yell across the family room to remind her “me racomando, non usar besciamela!” (Don’t add any bechamel sauce).

maura alba dina nonna carolina mamma barbara 1957

I found an old black and white photo of the girls in the family from the late 1950s – zia Alba is on the left of the photo holding my cousin; my mamma is on the far right holding my big sister Barbara; with zia Dina and my nonna in the middle taken during the 6 months when my nonna came to visit her chldren in Australia. I love this photo of all the generations of women – and I like to think that my aunt Alba was making her lasagne back then. I remember them from the 1970s – her lasagna was paler than mamma’s; it was sweeter and the sheets of pasta seemed to slide around on the plate. Shaved ham in a single middle layer was an additional salty bonus, that gave the dish a surprising slightly smoky taste. And I loved it, in spite of my family’s preferences. My shy 6 year old self (which is when we moved away from living next door to my aunt Alba) would not have said anything about it, it remains a strong memory none the less, a food memory that has dipped in and out of my thoughts since.

lasagna prep collage-italy on my mind

My favourite lasagna these days is a vegetarian version – with optional shaved ham in it, plus optional occasional besciamella. I use ricotta, garlicky silverbeet with freshly grated lemon zest and a simple tomato salsa. When I use white sauce (the other name for bechamel sauce), I make it with smoked mozzarella (scamorza), which complements the smoky shaved ham. Lasagna is a lovely dinner party dish, as you can assemble it several hours ahead then pop it in the over when guests arrive. I use fresh home made pasta but you could buy dried pasta sheets and cook them before assembling your lasagne. I think I could make all of my extended family members happy with this recipe – and if papa’ was still with us, he might not even notice if I sneak in just a tiny bit of besciamella.

lasagna veg-italy on my mind

Before I get to the recipe, a couple of updates:
1. I have added a few more cooking classes to the second half of 2016.
2. My cookbook is currently being printed (yay)! I am hoping to have copies to sell at my cooking classes later in the year even though the official release is on 1 November 2016 in Australia/new Zealand and the UK (slightly earlier in the US). Click here to find out more.
3. I will be in Italy for the whole of September – in Capri running a few takeover cooking classes with Ristorante Michelangelo and running a workshop later in September with Fabrizia Lanza in Sicily. I cannot wait!

lasagne di ricotta, spinaci e prosciutto cotto

Serves 6

For the pasta:
3 eggs
300g flour (50% semolina rimacinata and 50% plain 00 flour)

For the sauce:
600ml tinned chopped tomatoes (I used Mutti Polpa)
1/2 large onion, peeled
40g butter
pinch sugar (optional)

For the filling and topping:
2 bunches silverbeet or spinach (350g when cooked, minus stalks)
splash olive oil
1 small clove garlic, minced
500g ricotta (drained if needed)
1 large egg
70g grated parmesan cheese
zest of a lemon
100g shaved ham (optional)
175g fresh mozzarella
10g butter

Start by making the pasta: place the flour on a work surface, make a well in the centre in which you will place the eggs. Work the flour into the centre ingredients little by little with your fingers until it is all blended and then knead until smooth. You could also do this step with a food processor, although you will still need to knead it until it is smooth. Form a ball with the dough, wrap in cling film and allow to rest for at least 30 minutes (a couple of hours is fine).

Whilst the pasta is resting, make the sauce. Place the tomatoes, peeled onion and butter in a saucepan. Simmer for about 40 minutes, remove the onion and adjust for salt and sugar (I find that Mutti tomatoes are sweet and do not need sugar but other brands might). Set aside.

Next, make the filling. Trim the stalks from the silverbeet, chop roughly and wash in plenty of water. Bring a large pot of water to boil and drop in the drained silver beet leaves. Cook for a couple of minutes, then drain well. Allow to cool, then chop finely. Heat a medium sized fry pan and add a splash of olive oil and the garlic. When fragrant, add the silverbeet and cook until well coated with the oil (a couple of minutes). Salt to taste and then turn off the heat. When cool, place in a large bowl. Add the ricotta, grated parmesan, egg and lemon zest. Mix well and add salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the pasta in three, keeping the portion you are not using in plastic wrap. Lightly flour a working surface. Using a rolling pin, stretch out the pasta until it is of a thickness that will allow it to go through the widest setting in a pasta machine. Roll through the dough, dust with flour, fold, rotate it a quarter turn and roll through on the same setting. Repeat this 5-6 times until the pasta is smooth and still has a bit of stretch (but not too much). Reduce the setting of the machine so that the pasta rolls through a thinner setting each time, until it is about 1mm thick (the second last on my pasta machine). Cut the sheets into pieces that will fit in your lasagna tray; dust with semolina, cover with a tea towel until ready to use.

Using a heat-proof rectangular dish (mine measured 28 x 18cm across and x5cm deep – plus I had leftovers to make a mini-lasagna in a small dish), start assembling the lasagna. Place a couple of small knobs of butter on the base, then smear a layer of tomato sauce, then pasta sheets, cutting them as you need to so they cover the entire base. Then add a good later of ricotta mixture, spreading it thickly and quite evenly. Next add another layer of pasta; spread a layer of tomato sauce on this; then another later of pasta, a layer of shaved ham (if using) plus an extra sprinkling of parmesan cheese if you like; then another layer of pasta and so on. Repeat until you have used up all your ingredients (you may have 5 or 6 layers of pasta). The top layer should be pasta, then tomato sauce and slices of mozzarella plus extra parmesan.

Bake uncovered for 40 minutes in a preheated oven at 200C. Remove from the oven, cover in foil and allow to rest for ten minutes before serving.

23 Comments

  • Francesca says:

    A wonderful story, nostalgic and evocative of the old days, and food memories- I can almost here your father’s voice. No besciamella! Love that old photo too. I make a similar vegetarian version and pop a little layer of besciamella on the top to keep all the moisture in. When you make pasta, what does the addition of half semolina rimacinato do to the texture?

  • Marcellina says:

    I thought we were the only ones to call lasagna “pasta al forno”! My darling mum died when I was nine but I still remember her amazing pasta al forno and it did contain la besciamela. Along with a roasted home gown chicken it was our staple picnic food. You have brought back beautiful memories. Thank you!

    • I am so sorry your mamma left you so early – but how wonderful that you still have such a strong food memory that includes her. Lovely. And yes it was always “pasta al forno”

  • Cange Radatti says:

    Pasta al forno made by my mother and my aunts always a family favourite & divine heated up next day, precious memories. Lovely photo of your family Paola.
    Cange

  • What lovely food memories! I agree with your Papa though. I’m a purist and don’t put besciamella or prosciutto cotto in lasagna. Besciamella also doesn’t agree with me at all-maybe your Papa had this problem too? I’ve been eating my share of orrecchiette this week in Puglia, so now it’s verdura for awhile! Ciao, Cristina

  • David says:

    I love the fact that everyone was so passionate about their lasagne! What a wonderful world in which people care about food!

    Your book is on pre-order on Amazon, and I can’t wait to have it in hand!

    • Thanks David! I do hope they start sending out before the release date 🙂 and yes Italians in particular are very passionate about what they eat (and their way is the only right way) hehe

  • Flavia says:

    Great post, Paola! I loved reading the comments on your Instagram feed, too. Besciamella is a topic of hot debate for sure! But it is so interesting to read how people prepare lasagne in different parts of Italy. it just goes to show that Italian food is fiercely regional and varies even more from household to household, which is one of the things I love most about the food of Italy. My dad and his parents always prepared lasagne with besciamella–not too much–just enough added between the layers to help bind them together. Grana or Parmigiano was also added, again in conservative amounts because a little goes a long way. It’s how I make my lasagne today, too. One thing I don’t put in lasagne is mozzarella, but I do add mozzarella (in tiny amounts) to my pasta al forno, which I make with ziti, mostaccioli, or penne. Thank you for sharing your recipe with us and the story of your family’s lasagne preferences. Love, love, love that photo of your mom, Nonna, and zie. 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment Flavia – the ones on Instagram were hilarious. I love how passionate people, especially Italians get about food. We have always put mozzarella on top of lasagna – in lieu of besciamella. Although we are very much northerners (who looking at my Insta comments are the ones who tend to use it), we just never had it because of my father’s feelings about it. And whatever he said was the law in the house! I do agree that it binds it together – I actually do not mind a little bit. And yes I think the photo is lovely too X

  • pblevitt says:

    To besciamella or not to besciamella – a point of contention with my family as well. The addition of the lemon zest must bring a vibrance to the dish, I will have to try it. You photos are simply amazing, bringing this family classic to life.

  • Samantha says:

    I loved Zia Alba’s pasta in forno with ham too! I think Zia Dina uses ham too? My mum makes hers with sugo and Parmesan which is delicious. I use her recipe of course although I am making a variation of yours tonight. Fantastic post and looking forward to seeing your book. X

    • Hi Samantha great to hear from you and from someone who ate zia Alba’s pasta al forno as well 🙂 I remember your mamma being a great cook too. I cannot remember zia Dina’s version – I think that is because she always made gnocchi for me. I hope yours works out well tonight and thanks hope you & the family are well xx

  • ciaochowlinda says:

    It seems as though every family has its own versions of lasagna — and if you have a mother from Northern Italy and a father from Southern Italy, as I do, you have a skirmish on your hands. I love all versions, including your delicious looking lasagne.

    • That is funny Linda – south vs north. I think there can be similar battles on the degree of firmness of pasta – how much “al dente” should it be cooked? With those from the south generally preferring it more all dente than those from the north. Love these differences!

  • This sounds like a lovely version of lasagne! I grew up on a southern-style lasagna with ricotta, not béchamel, for creaminess but once I got to know it, I really do appreciate a little “occasional” béchamel as you say!

  • Cange Radatti says:

    Hello Paola, if substituting fresh lasagna sheets for dried packet sheets can these be used directly from packet or do they need to be immersed in boiling water first before assembling lasagna. Can’t wait to see your cook book. Cange

  • No besciamella by my Mamma Rosa either!

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