Over the last few weeks of lockdown, I’ve found myself going through a number of different cooking emotions: normally a form of solace, something I turn to in times of crisis, it has become a little more complicated. I already knew I was privileged to have a well-stocked kitchen, radio 4 burbling away in the background, as I pottered about making whatever came into my head that day, but I don’t think I’d considered how stabilising the time I spent in there was.
When the pandemic first came to Britain, I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place: not wanting to stockpile and deprive others, while also not knowing whether, if forced to quarantine, I’d have enough in to keep us going for a fortnight. I tried planning far in advance, going into the supermarket with a military-level strategy, only to discover I couldn’t get the ingredients I needed, or that there wasn’t a grocery delivery available.
Next, I tried moving from meal-to-meal, dependent only on what was available to me in my cupboards; I was lucky to be able to do this, of course, but I desperately missed the happy anticipation that went along with thinking of tomorrow’s supper, or Sunday’s lunch. I am one of life’s planners. I am not a thrower-together-er. Amidst all the changes and fears, It became a peculiar focal point of what life was like before lockdown, and what it is like now. I was sad for those lost possibilities – the tiniest grievances during a time of global pain and panic, but the only thing that I could focus on without losing my mind. I began to dread meal preparation, a former pleasure.
But suddenly, almost out of nowhere, last week there came a point where I wanted to be back in the kitchen. I wanted to be gently chopping and dicing, simmering and stirring, layering and assembling, ticking items off my mental to-do list. I wanted a cooking project. And a lasagne felt like the perfect project, mainly because it takes bloody ages to make properly. But a lot of the effort bookends a period long enough to sit down with a book and a glass of wine, or a tv programme and a cup of tea, while it bubbles away in the oven becoming more delicious. It doesn’t use any fancy ingredients: just some veg, some meat, a couple of tins of tomatoes, dried pasta, a very small amount of flour and butter, and some milk. If any of those items are unavailable to you, multiple substitutions can be made without any detriment to the dish. This is just my version of an endlessly tweakable and tolerant meal.
It feels like my life has been measured out in lasagnes: the lasagne made by my best friend’s mum, roasted vegetables blitzed and hidden in the sauce to get nutrition into her fussy children; those served first at school, and then later at college; the M&S ready meals I survived on as a young adult, volcanically hot – and now this one. But it’s more than simply nostalgic. Lasagne is an inherently comforting dish. The deeply savoury ragu, the creamy, not-quite-bland bechamel acting as a foil, blankets of pasta sheets just holding their bite, all topped with bubbling cheese – it’s not hard to understand why it is a source of reassurance. It helps that it’s also absolutely delicious.
This recipe does not pretend towards true authenticity: only a fool would write a lasagne recipe with any claim toward that without serious Italian heritage. But it is, I think, a great recipe. The meat in this lasagne is a slow-cooked bolognese, made with a mixture of beef mince and pork mince: the combination of the two meats works well, giving a complexity, and the addition of the streaky bacon, a great smokiness. Like Marcella Hazan’s recipe, I simmer the mince and veg away in milk, which gives sweetness and a mellow richness (if that’s not too much of a tautology). The four hour oven cook is chunky, but it’s almost entirely hands off, and that long, slow reduction gives the sauce a tenderness and the most fantastic flavour. Blanching the pasta sheets for a single minute means that when the dish bakes, the pasta doesn’t need to leach liquid from the sauce to cook. A classic bechamel finishes the whole thing off, dotted with parmesan and a little mozzarella.
Lasagne also freezes brilliantly: I like to chill it down, portion it, and then wrap well in tin foil before freezing. Defrost fully, return to an 180°C oven for 20 minutes, covered, then uncover for 5 final minutes.
Makes: Enough for 8
Takes: 5 hours
Bakes: 40 minutes
For the ragu
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 carrot, diced
1 celery stick, diced
1 onion, diced
2 rashers streaky, smoked bacon, cut into small pieces
400g beef mince
400g pork mince
300ml whole milk
100ml white wine
2 x 400g tin plum tomatoes
For the bechamel
100g plain flour
1 litre milk
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Salt, to season
1 tablespoon olive oil
18 dried lasagne sheets
- Heat a large, heavy-bottomed casserole dish with the olive oil, and add the finely diced onion, celery and carrot. Cook gently until soft but not coloured.
- Place the cut bacon in a cold frying pan, and place over a medium heat, cooking until the fat is golden. Retain the bacon fat in the pan, and spoon the bacon into the casserole dish.
- Brown both minces in the bacon fat: unless you have an enormous frying pan, you will likely have to do this in batches to avoid steaming it. You want the mince to take on a rich, dark brown colour. Add the browned mince to the casserole dish.
- Pour 300ml of milk into the casserole dish, bring up to a gentle boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for half an hour.
- Add the white wine and both tins of tomatoes, swilling the tomato tins out with hot water and adding that to the casserole dish too. Squish the tomatoes so that they break apart. Bring up to a gentle boil.
- Preheat the oven to 140°C. Place a lid on the pan, and cook for four hours, by which time the ragu should be thick and rich. Check for and adjust seasoning.
- To make the bechamel, melt the butter in a pan over a medium heat, then add the flour and stir to form a paste. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan, until the mixture smells nutty.
- Remove from the heat and add a splash of the milk, whisking in to the flour and butter mixture. Add the milk in small additions, whisking each in before adding the next. Once all of the milk is added, the mixture should be smooth and glossy. Stir through the nutmeg and season to taste; cook for a couple of minutes more, stirring and scraping the bottom throughout. If you’re not using the bechamel immediately, place a sheet of clingfilm over it, directly touching the sauce.
- Once your ragu is ready, and you’re just about to assemble, turn the oven up to 200°C and put a large pan of salted water with a tablespoon of oil on to boil. Once the water is boiling, cook each of the lasagne sheets for one minute only. Separate the sheets and set to one side .
- In a large roasting dish, spoon a third of the ragu and spread out in an even layer. Top this with a quarter of the bechamel, spooned on top. Lay six lasagne sheets over the top – if you need to break bits off to ensure even coverage or to avoid the rounded corners of your dish, do so. Repeat twice more with a third of the ragu, a quarter of the bechamel and six lasagne sheets.
- Top the very top layer of lasagne sheets with the last of the bechamel, and use a spatula or the back of the spoon to make sure all of the lasagne is covered. Tear the mozzarella, grate the parmesan across the bechamel, and distribute across the top of the bechamel.
- Bake for 40 minutes until the lasagne is bubbling and the cheese golden. If you’d like neat portions, leave the lasagne to cool for 20 minutes before serving.