Monday, October 15, 2012

Lasagna a Sugo Di Carne e Formaggi Romano Besciamella








A nice Northern Italian style version of the classic lasagna of layered sugo di carne and ricotta!

     Sugo di carne is a thick rich Italian meat sauce that is a standard Italian recipe.  Sugo di carne can be cooked to a thinner consistency for being tossed with spaghetti or cappellini.  For baked pastas like lasagna, the sugo di carne is cooked till the tomatoes and sauce coat the meat with flavor.  Sugo di carne for lasagna should be thick enough to stand tall in a spoon!  
     Many Italian chefs refer to any four cheese mixture by the name quattro formaggi.  Some Italian chefs say that quattro formaggi never includes ricotta cheese, while other Italian chefs always include ricotta in the mix.  Tre formaggi is Italian three cheese mix and it usually refers to the standard ricotta, mozzarella and parmesan mixture that is used for making baked ziti and many lasagna recipes.  Cottage cheese is never a suitable substitute for ricotta, so just forget about using cottage cheese!
     Italian besciamella sauce is the same as French bechamel sauce.  Besciamella originated in Italy.  Besciamella is a sauce that is commonly used in Northern Italian cuisine.  Besciamella is sometimes flavored with a small amount of grating cheese for al forno (baked) pastas.  I add just enough romano cheese to the besciamella sauce in this recipe to add a nice complimentary flavor for the sugo di carne sauce.  
     At a few Italian restaurants that I cooked in, we used to garnish the baked pastas with a thin streak of salsa pomodoro (tomato sauce) spooned across the middle of the pasta.  I had no salsa pomodoro on hand, so I placed 3 thick slices of ripe plum tomato across the top of the pasta before baking.  This added some nice eye appeal and a pleasant al fresco tomato flavor. 
     Fresh pasta was used to make this lasagna.  My first Italian apprenticeship involved learning how to make perfection fresh pasta from a few great Italian chefs.  I must admit that I am good at making fresh pasta, because I learned from one of the best Sicilian chefs from New York City and a great chef from Venice Italy!  Later during a second apprenticeship, I learned Northern Italian and Genovese styles of pasta.  
     Teachers at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts School usually asked me to demonstrate how to make pasta during class.  Many kids detest those who are older and who have experience these days, so the teachers request for me to instruct the art of making pasta usually only led to more hatred from the stubborn students.  Deservedly so, they did not learn a thing about making great pasta!  Ce est la vie!  Those that paid attention, produced far superior quality pasta during future classes.  
     There are a few tricks and a few rules that need to be followed when making fresh pasta.  I will explain as much as possible.  If you really want to learn how to make great fresh pasta and roll the pasta out like a professional, then seek apprenticeship or tuition from a good Italian pasta chef in person.  Pasta making is a hands on learning experience.

     Sugo di Carne Recipe:  
     This recipe makes enough for 3 medium pasta portions or 3 to 4 lasagna portions!  Some people like big portions of Italian food, so this recipe may only be enough for 2 large portions when served with pasta!
     Heat a pot over medium low heat.
     Add 5 tablespoons of olive oil.
     Add 4 cloves of  finely chopped garlic.
     Add 1/3 cup of very finely minced onion.
     Add 1/3 cup of very finely minced carrot.
     Add 1/3 cup of very finely minced celery.   
     Stir and saute, till the fine soffritto vegetables become tender, but not browned at all.
     Add 6 ounces of ground veal.
     Add 10 ounces of lean ground lean beef.
     Stir the meat with a wire whisk occasionally as it cooks, so any clumps of ground meat are broken up into tiny pieces.   
     Note:  Clumps of cooked ground meat are not desirable in this sauce!  Sugo di carne is meant to coat the pasta with flavor and cling to the pasta.  If you want big chunks of ground meat, then that is what meatballs are all about!
     Saute the ground meat, till it is fully cooked and lightly browned.  (Do not allow the meat to overly brown.  That is how a sugo di carne becomes greasy and dark in color!)
     Add just enough imported Italian canned crushed plum tomatoes to almost cover the meat.  (The proportion of ground meat should be slightly higher than the proportion of tomato!)
     Add 1/2 cup of imported Italian canned tomato puree or 3 pureed peeled and seeded fresh overripe plum tomatoes.
     Add sea salt and black pepper.
     Add 3 pinches of basil.
     Add 3 pinches of oregano.
     Add 1 pinch of crushed dried red pepper.
     Add 2 pinches of whole fennel seed.  (Do not add too much fennel seed to a sugo di carne, or that will be the only flavor that can be tasted!)
     Add 1/2 cup of dry red wine.
     Add 1/2 cup of light beef broth.
     Raise the temperature to medium heat.
     When the sauce starts to gently boil, reduce the temperature to low heat.
     Stir the sauce once every 4 or 5 minutes.
     Simmer the sauce for 30 to 35 minutes. 
     Add 3 pinches of finely chopped curly parsley or Italian parsley.
     Note:  Do not simmer this sauce all day!  Meat sauces that are cooked for too much time will start to lose their crisp flavor and bright color.  A meat sauce that is simmered too long will become acidic and dark in color!
     After the sugo di carne finishes simmering, the sauce should be a thick consistency for lasagna assembly.  The sauce should stand tall in a spoon.
     Allow the thick sugo di carne to cool to room temperature or refrigerate the sauce for lasagna assembly.

     Pasta Making Information:
     This recipe is not a simple semolina and water pasta dough recipe for pasta extruding machines.  This is a standard pasta recipe for hand turned pasta sheet rolling machines.  A rolling pin can be used to roll sheets of pasta, but a hand cranked pasta rolling machine is much easier to use and it makes sheets of pasta that are very uniform in thickness.  An economical Italian hand cranked pasta rolling machine costs about $18 to $40 dollars and it is a good investment for home usage.  A heavy duty restaurant grade pasta sheet roller costs about $350 to $650 dollars and it will last a lifetime, because it is rebuildable. 
      
     Pasta Dough Making Tips:
     Pasta dough can be started in a metal gear driven electric cake mixer with a dough hook, but it still must be folded and pressed by hand to finish blending the ingredients.  The dough does not need to be extensively kneaded, because it will be run through the pasta rolling machine several times at the widest setting and folded each in half each time.  Using the pasta rolling machine to finish the kneading of the dough is one of the tricks of the trade.
     Before the dough is rolled out as pasta sheets, the dough must rest in a refrigerator for 3 to 4 hours, so the dough becomes smooth and elastic.
     Pasta dough is usually made in batches and the extra dough can be refrigerated.  It is best to drape a cloth that is lightly soaked with olive oil over the block of pasta dough inside of a sealed container, when refrigerating pasta dough.
     The outside of the pasta dough block nearly always turns a grayish color after a couple of days, because of oxidization.  This is nothing to worry about and the gray surface does not need to be trimmed off.  The gray color will disappear after the dough is worked and after the pasta is boiled.
     Like all fresh products, fresh pasta has a Servesafe 7 day refrigerated shelf life.  Pasta dough can be frozen, but it is better when it is fresh.
     Good pasta dough should not be too stiff and it should not be too soft.  The dough should dent when heavy pressure is applied by one finger and the dough should only slightly or partially spring back.  A pasta dough with this texture will produce some fine pasta.
     I usually use a mixture of semolina and all purpose flour to make pasta.  This is how we made pasta when I apprenticed.  Only a tiny fraction of salt is added to the dough recipe.  A tiny fraction of olive oil is also added to the dough.  The eggs are the key to the texture of the pasta and no water should be added during the initial mix.  When the dough tightens, becomes stiff and starts to crumble, that is the time to start sprinkling very small amounts of water on the pasta dough, while kneading, till the dough becomes smooth and workable again.  Too much water in a pasta dough will result in a sticky stretchy dough that is hard to manage when shaping fine pasta.

     Pasta Dough Recipe:
     1 cup of flour per egg is the approximate proportion for Italian pasta!
     Place 1 1/2 cups of semolina in a large mixing bowl.
     Add 1/2 cup of all purpose flour.
     Add 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt.
     Mix the dry ingredients together.
     Pile the dry ingredients on the center of the mixing bowl.
     Form a shallow well on the center of the mound of the flour mixture.
     Place two whole eggs in the well.  
     Add 2 teaspoons of olive oil.
     Use a fork to gentle stir the eggs in the flour well, just like you are mixing eggs for scrambled eggs.
     As you stir the eggs in the well, allow the eggs to slowly and gradually gather the surrounding flour.
     Stir like this, till a dough starts to form.
     Scrape the ingredients from the fork back into the mixing bowl.
     Start using your fingers to gradually incorporate the remaining dry flour mixture into the dough mixture.
     At this stage, at some point, the dough will become dry and crumbly.  Now it the time to add a small sprinkle of water.  Do not add to much water!  Add a small amount, then work the dough.  Add small amounts of water till the dough becomes workable again.  The dough should be stiff in texture.
     Fold the dough and press with the heels of your palms after each fold.  Fold and knead the dough this way, till it becomes blended.
     Press the dough with 1 finger under pressure to make a dent in the dough.  The dough should only partially spring back when it has the correct texture.  The texture of the dough can be corrected by adding a sprinkle of water and more kneading if it is too dry.  If to wet, then work the dough on a flour dusted surface, till it becomes the correct texture.
     Form the dough into a thick rectangular block shape and place it in a sealed container.
     Refrigerate the dough for 3 to 4 hours, till the semolina in the dough becomes smooth.  
     
     Pasta Rolling Machine Techniques:
     Follow these instructions and tips for rolling out sheets of pasta!
     A very light dusting of flour on the work surface is best, when rolling sheet pasta.  Sometimes I do not dust with any flour at all, if the room temperature is chilly.
     When running sheets of pasta through a pasta sheet rolling machine, the pasta will pile up like an accordion and stick together, so pause while running a pasta sheet through the roller and gently use the backs of your fingers to carry the pasta sheet from under the machine out over the work surface, so the pasta sheet does not accordion.
     For the widest setting on a pasta roller, the pasta is run through several times, till it becomes smooth and till it starts to become wide.  If the pasta sheet has rough edges, then fold the sheet in half and keep running it through till the pasta sheet has smooth edges.  This is only done at the widest setting on the pasta rolling machine.
     Cut a 1/2" thick, 10" long slab of pasta dough for making the first pasta sheet.  Gently feed the thick slab of dough through the rolling machine at the widest setting to start the process.  The first past through will usually result in a rough broken pasta sheet.  Fold and press the sheet and pieces together, before running the dough through a second time.  On the second pass through the pasta roller, the dough will hold together and start to look like a rough sheet.  
     After the pasta sheet is uniform looking after being rum through the pasta rolling machine at the widest setting several times, then it is ready for the next step.  
     The pasta dough sheet can be run one time through each successive smaller thickness setting on the rolling machine, till the pasta sheet becomes the desired thickness.  
    The pasta sheet can now be turned into desired shapes! 

    Cutting Pasta Sheets For Lasagna:
    A lasagna can be made to be an individual portion with small square of pasta.  A multi portion large lasagna can be made with long sheets of pasta that are cut to the size of the baking pan.  The choice is up to you!  I wrote the following recipe for a single portion lasagna, but the techniques are the same for a large pan of lasagna.          
     Use a kitchen square and a straight edge ruler as guides for cutting and measuring square shapes or rectangle shapes of pasta sheets.  
     5"x 5"or 4"x 6" are standard sheet pasta sizes for an individual size lasagna.  Use one of these sizes if you want to make an individual size lasagna like the one in the recipe below.
     A pizza cutting knife wheel with a straight edge or ruffled edge pastry cutting wheel is best for cutting pasta.
     Cut enough squares or sheets of pasta, so the lasagna will have at least 5 layered decks.  Do not stack the pasta sheets or they will stick together.

     Cooking The Pasta Sheets:
     Bring a large pot of water to a gentle boil over medium high/high heat.
     Add some sea salt.
     Place the pasta sheets in the water, one at a time, till they are all in the hot water.
     As soon as the pasta sheets begin to float, then they are done cooking.
     Drain the hot water out of the pot and cool the pasta sheets under cold running water.
     Place the cooked pasta sheets on a dry lint free pastry towel to dry off any excess water.

     Formaggi Romano Besciamella Recipe:
     This recipe makes enough for 2 sauce portions!  No onion and clove piquet is needed for this besciamella sauce.  This is not a French bechamel! 
     Heat a sauce pot over medium/medium low heat.
     Add 4 pats of unsalted butter.
     Add an equal amount of flour, while constantly stirring, to form a roux.
     Stir till the roux cooks to a white color, with very little hazelnut aroma.
     Add 1 1/3 cups of milk while whisking.
     Add 1/4 cup of cream.
     Stir as the sauce heats and thickens to a very thin sauce consistency.
     Reduce the temperature to low heat.
     Gently simmer and reduce the sauce, till it becomes a thin sauce consistency.
     Add sea salt and white pepper.
     Add 1 pinch of nutmeg.
     Add 2 ounces of grated romano cheese while stirring.
     Stir till the cheese melts into the sauce.
     Keep the sauce warm over very low heat.

     Tre Formaggi:
     This recipe is enough for 3 to 4 lasagna portions!  Never add salt or pepper to tre formaggi or the delicate "sweet" flavor of the cheese will be lost! 
     Place 15 ounces of ricotta cheese in a mixing bowl.
     Add 3 ounces of finely grated parmesan cheese.
     Add 5 ounces of grated mozzarella cheese.
     Add 1 tablespoon of minced Italian parsley.
     Add 1 whisked egg.
     Mix the ingredients together.
     Chill the tre formaggi mixture in a refrigerator. 
     
     Lasagna a Sugo Di Carne e Formaggi Romano Besciamella:
     This recipe is written for 1 individual size lasagna portion!  Adjust the other recipes by using baker's math if you want to make a big pan of lasagna.  Simply double the sheet pasta cutting recipe for two portions, because the sauce and cheese recipes will be plenty enough for two portions. 
     Spread a thin layer of the romano besciamella on the bottom of a 6" wide round casserole dish.
     Place one square of the cooked pasta on the sauce.
     Spread a thin layer of sugo di carne on the pasta square.
     Sprinkle a little bit of grated mozzarella cheese on the sugo di carne.
     Repeat the steps for a second later of sugo di carne and cheese.
     Place a square of pasta over the second layer.
     Spread a thin layer of the tre formaggi over the pasta for the third layer.
     The fourth layer should be sugo di carne and grated mozzarella.  
     The fifth layer should be tre formaggi.
     Place a top square of pasta on the stack and leave it bare.
     Spoon a generous amount of the romano besciamella over the lasagna.
     Place 3 thick slices of ripe plum tomato across the top of the lasagna.
     Sprinkle a little bit of grated mozzarella over the lasagna.
     Sprinkle a couple pinches of grated romano cheese over the lasagna.
     Place the casserole dish on a sheet pan.
     Bake the lasagna in a 350 degree oven, till a few light brown highlights appear.
     Place the hot casserole dish on a serving platter.
     Sprinkle a few pinches of minced Italian parsley over the lasagna.

     This is a great tasting lasagna!  Yes, lasagna is a heavy filling meal.  It took 18 hours for my tummy to growl for more food after dining on this lasagna!  Be prepared for that nice relaxing pasta overdose coma feeling after eating a big portion of lasagna!  Yum!  Ciao Baby!  ...  Shawna

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