Homemade lasagna is one of the world's greatest comfort foods, and you certainly don't need to have an Italian heritage to enjoy it. The layers of rich meaty sauce, sturdy pasta and creamy cheese are pretty irresistible, especially where the cheese gets all crunchy at the edges. It's best if you make the whole thing from scratch, but you can pull together a perfectly good lasagna using store-bought pasta and sauces if necessary. The only thing you'll need to do by hand is the ricotta layer for the lasagna filling.
Simple Ricotta Mixture for Lasagna
The whole point of using ricotta cheese for lasagna is to set up a contrast between the bold flavors of the tomato-based sauce and the creamy richness of the ricotta layer. It's the same contrast you enjoy when you spoon tomato sauce over cheese-stuffed manicotti or cannelloni, and you don't need to overthink it.
A classic, simple version of the ricotta mixture includes an egg or two to help bind the ricotta together, some grated Parmesan or another hard Italian-style cheese, some parsley and maybe a bit of salt. That's really all you need. Stir the ingredients together in a mixing bowl, until they're well combined, and then keep them chilled in your refrigerator until it's time to assemble your lasagna.
Some Alternative Versions
If you'd like to elevate your lasagna a little bit, you can pump up that basic filling by adding other ingredients to suit your taste. Some cooks love to add spinach, for example. You can put down a layer of uncooked baby spinach beneath the ricotta when you're building your lasagna, but it's even easier to thaw frozen, chopped spinach and squeeze out the excess moisture. Then mix the spinach into your ricotta, so it's evenly distributed throughout the cheese layer.
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You may also choose to add a small quantity of minced fresh herbs, such as basil or oregano, to complement the flavors in your tomato-based ragu. For a subtler variation, try adding other cheese to the mixture. Grana Padano, Romano, Asiago and other grating cheeses are all strong and pungent, but their flavors aren't identical. Using a mixture, rather than just one, broadens and deepens the flavors in your cheese layer.
A Neapolitan Variation
In the southern city of Naples, one tradition during C_arnevale_ – like Mardi Gras, a lavish festival leading up to the austerity of Lent – is to serve your family a really rich lasagna. Rather than keeping the ricotta layer separate from the ragu, this style of lasagna adds part of the tomato-based sauce right into the ricotta mixture. It's still creamy, and still distinct from the ragu-only layers, but it smooths the contrast between them.
Lasagna Without a Ricotta Layer
You'll occasionally trip across a lasagna recipe that has no ricotta layer at all. Instead, it uses a layer of the classic white sauce known in France as bechamel, or in Italy as besciamella. This is actually every bit as authentic and traditional as the cheese layer: Italian cuisine is made up of from hundreds of regional and local traditions, some of which use cheese and some of which use the white sauce.
You make the white sauce by stirring milk into a butter and flour roux, and seasoning it with salt, pepper and a hint of nutmeg. You won't taste the nutmeg as such, but it's there because it has a strange ability to make milk and cream taste creamier. When you assemble your lasagna, pour a layer of besciamella and a layer of ragu between each layer of pasta.
Fred Decker is a trained chef, former restaurateur and prolific freelance writer, with a special interest in all things related to food and nutrition. His work has appeared online on major sites including Livestrong.com, WorkingMother.com and the websites of the Houston Chronicle and San Francisco Chronicle; and offline in Canada's Foodservice & Hospitality magazine and his local daily newspaper. He was educated at Memorial University of Newfoundland and the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology.