So while I was at the grocery store last night, my boyfriend, a much pickier eater than I am but still a food lover, informed me that he’s not a fan of ricotta. He also commented that he wanted his lasagna as cheesy as possible, and took a tone like I’d lost my ever-loving mind when I suggested silken tofu as a substitute. (I would never put tofu in a lasagna. I was trolling.)
Thinking it over, I came up with a solution. Cream sauces tend to be really frustrating for me, but I got it right! I took the classical bechamel sauce, the original method of making lasagna in northern Italy, dumped a bunch of cheese into that as if I were making a mac and cheese, and used that for the “white” layers in my lasagna. It didn’t come out as perfectly layered as if I’d used ricotta, but we’re going to have leftovers for DAYS. So much food!
So here’s how I did it this time, but I’d probably do some tweaking for repeat performances.
1 1/2 lbs 85% lean ground beef
roughly 1 c. white wine
5 Tbsp. butter
1/4 c. flour (roughly)
4 c. milk–has to be warm first!
6 c. finely shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
4 oz. finely shredded Parmesan cheese (for heaven’s sake, don’t use that powdered crap–there’s so much more flavor in the real stuff!)
1 box oven-ready lasagna noodles
2 jars of pasta sauce (I used Bertolli Tomato Basil, because it was on sale, but you do what you like)
I started out the way one always starts with lasagna, right? Browning up the ground beef. I like a meaty lasagna, so while most recipes call for a pound of meat, I browned up a pound and a half. It was 85% lean, so a lot of that cooked off anyway. I saw a couple of recipes that called for deglazing the pan with some white wine, and there was some Pinot Gris in the fridge, so I thought, why not? So I drained the fat off the meat and poured a glass of wine for me and one for the meat. I simmered that down to reduce it until most of the liquid had evaporated, seasoned the meat up with some kosher salt and freshly ground pepper, and set that to the side.
Then it was time to do the bechamel. This is a roux (pronounced roo) based cream sauce, and I’ve screwed those up enough times that all the puns about roux-ing the day I tried it are well placed. I took the recipe from a Bon Appetit recipe that made a much bigger lasagna than this, so I really think I’ll make less next time. The trick with the roux is to melt the butter on low heat, and to make sure it’s heated to the point of foaming before you SLOWLY add the flour. Make sure you’re whisking it briskly enough not to form lumps. Once you’ve got that together, that’s your roux. Keep cooking that, whisking constantly, for about a minute or so. Then you’re going to start adding your milk, about 1/2 c. at a time. Make sure it’s whisked smooth in between additions. Add a pinch of nutmeg to it–Dale had the pre-ground stuff on hand, but if you can do freshly grated, it adds a whole new level of flavor. You’re going to want to let it cook for a little while longer, still whisking, until it’s about the thickness of heavy cream.
I bought my mozzarella in 3 packages of 8 ounces (2 cups) each. Yes, it’s a pound and a half of cheese, but I like cheese, so don’t judge me! So I took one of the packages and dumped most of the contents into my bechamel at this point as though I were making a macaroni and cheese. It takes quite a bit of whisking to make that much cheese settle into the sauce, and it was still a bit stringy, but I went with it. I also grated a little bit of the Parmesan into it. Doing it again, I’d probably make less of the bechamel itself, but the amount of cheese was fabulous. SO MUCH CHEESE!
I put about a cup of the pasta sauce in the bottom of a pan. Typically I’d use a 13×9 pan, but I couldn’t find one in his kitchen, so I picked up a foil pan that was labeled as a lasagna pan, just under 14×10 and much deeper than a typical Pyrex type thing. I ended up needing the extra depth with the amount of bechamel in it.
I then added the rest of the sauce to the meat. I layered it as one does with a lasagna, grating Parmesan into the cheesy layers, finishing up with a layer of noodles and one of cheese. Lasagna with a bechamel takes longer to cook than one with ricotta cheese, so figure on about an hour of bake time at 350F. Start it off covered with foil, then take the foil off for the last 10-15 minutes of the baking.
Make sure you let it set up for a bit before you cut into it, because it will be too runny to cut just out of the oven. Usually, when recipes say they make 8 servings or so, I don’t buy it, but seriously, we got seconds for both of us and there’s still about 2/3 of a lasagna left. We’re going to have leftovers for days. I’m glad it turned out as well as it did, because we’re going to have lasagna for a while. I’m thinking next time, though, I’ll cut the amount of bechamel in half and do a layer of pesto too. All in all, I think it turned out well, and I’ll definitely do it again.