Dishes of Comfort: Finding Home Away from Home in Lasagna

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Ivonne from Cream Puffs in Venice recently blogged about comfort food and her favorite dish of comfort and invited her readers to do the same.

The issue of comfort food is something very close to my heart.

When I first moved to Italy, I pined for many things that I couldn’t find here because food was one of the ways that I felt still connected to home. In that way, I was sharing a similar experience with those at home, a taste, a feeling, a memory attached to that particular experience. When I returned home for visits, I had prepared a list months in advance about exactly what would pass my lips in those short weeks. It was an emotional need.

I actually blogged a few months ago about one of my unusual comfort foods, Dungeness crab. It was instrumental in my first trip back home after moving to Italy.

In the months to follow, my mother and I started a furious exchange of her recipes via email and I started to catalogue them and try to recreate them here as best as I could. As I started making myself more at home here, I stopped obsessing as much about food back home and my list of “must eats” when I return in the summer dwindled considerably.

Needless to say my search to recreate my mother’s lasagna, the taste that meant home to me in so many ways, has been a long battle.

Of course, the casualties of this war to find a perfect lasagna are still quite delicious.

To me, lasagna is very synonymous with family, because we knew that whenever we made a tray of it, we’d need help finishing it and therefore it made its appearance at most of our family gatherings. A belly full of lasagna was a common medium for our family discussions around a table that could last hours as we digested.

The type of lasagna I ate growing up is that which is largely popular in the States, the Neapolitan version which uses ricotta. My Italian ancestors are also from the Naples area, so most of the other lasagne I ate were made similarly. Most American restaurants offer this type of lasagna. I had no idea another version existed until I moved here, and like so many other myths about Italian food in America that we hold as true in the old country, the lasagna Bolognese (meat sauce and bechamel) is actually the version that is more diffused throughout Italy and considered the “standard” lasagna.

I kept my eye out for the big, thick lasagna noodles with the wavy edges that are synonymous with lasagna back home. Yet I kept finding only these thin sheets of pasta about 6 inches long that don’t even requiring pre-cooking! These of course are the traditional lasagna noodles. This required a bit of adjusting mentally, but they are nice as they can reduce prep as well as final cooking time (around 20-25 minutes instead of 50) and make the lasagna quite a bit lighter.

The incorporation of besciamella, or bechamel sauce, is probably the other big change for me. I love the layer of crispy besciamella and parmigiano on top of the lasagna when it comes out of the oven. It protects its soft underbelly of chunky meat, sauce and thin noodles and provides a great contrast in texture for your mouth.

Lasagna fresh out of the oven

When I made this lasagna I used packaged ricotta because if you’ve ever had to wait in line at the deli counter when you get off work, you know that it takes an extra 20 minutes compared to other times in the day (you know, when people are working). And that’s my reality if I shop to cook something that evening.

Unfortunately I found the ricotta to be much too creamy and not chunky enough, and therefore when mixed with the egg, it lost its sturdiness and form. Next time I will definitely use the fresh ricotta from the deli or local cheese supplier. In the States I found the packaged ricotta to be more of a chunky consistency that adds a lot of body to the lasagna, but there was very little fresh ricotta around to compare it with.

My lasagna

Then I decided that I would try to make a “Green Lasagna” which is made using pesto and besciamella, except that I wanted it a little heartier, so I alternated my mother-in-law’s homemade pesto on the noodles with a layer of meat sauce and a little cheese on the following layer, and made what I called “Lasagna Tricolore” because of the green pesto, red sauce and the white mozzarella.

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Of course, my mother’s lasagna is still the original lasagna in my heart and makes its appearance on important occasions.

And in the meantime, I’ll wade my way through variations on the lasagna theme in my search for comfort.

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Comments

  1. says

    If you prefer a chunkier ricotta you should probably try mixing fresh and baked ricotta. Some of the packaged ricotta here are added with cream to make it even creamier (but also fatter, and ricotta is supposed to be almost perfectly fat-free!), but even those that are not are extremely creamy and soft. That’s how ricotta is supposed to be when fresh! Light, creamy, silky. When worked with a fork, alone or with other ingredients, it must turn into a real cream, something that you can sperad on bread.

  2. Michelle says

    Ciao Sara, interested in a Calabrian lasagna recipe? I’ve literally been making it once a week for the past month or so because the OH *loves* it. Tomorrow I’ll be doing it again!

    Notice *no* mozzarella, *no* ricotta, and absolutely *no* besciamella!

    First boil 3 eggs. Then start the sauce–I do a meat sauce (olive oil, red onion, garlic, ground veal, parsley, red wine, pomodori, peperoncino, sale). While the sauce is cooking, tear up about 200 g of prosciutto cotto, cut up a good chunk of provola into meltable bits, and cut up the boiled eggs in squares. Now, when the sauce is done, slap that on the bottom of the pan, a row of the lasagna noodles you wrote about (made with egg, no pre-cooking), more (ample) sauce, prosciutto, egg, and cheese. Keep going until you run out o’ stuff. On the top layer, I do just sauce and a little provola, and then grated Grana Padano. Cook covered for about 20 minutes at 220 degrees C; take off the cover at the very end if you like the cheese to brown.

    This is called stuffed lasagna, or in dialect, “sagne chine.” Instead of the meat sauce, you can also make small meatballs–and feel free to throw in mushrooms, peas, artichokes, whatever you like. The OH isn’t really fond of the vegetables with pasta, so I make it without :(

  3. says

    Heavenly, just heavenly, I can almost smell it wafting through the house…
    My Italian mother-in-law’s speciality is homemade lasagna. I love it. But I too was surprised that ricotta didn’t feature in “Italian” lasagna. I didn’t know that had Neopolitan origins.
    And, yes, caff

  4. says

    oh that looks divine. My mouth is salivating. We (let me rephrase that, my husband) rarely makes lasagna but when he does it’s a fish lasagna with tomato sauce. Before you scream “that’s not lasagna!” let me explain. He uses the fresh lasagna noodles and layers them with calamari, mussels, clams (without the shell of course) diced baby octopus and shrimp. Its a fun twist on a classic dish.

  5. says

    Avery, I think that the first to make fish lasagne was Gualtiero Marchesi (founder, chef, and owner of Harry’s Bar). But he didn’t bake them. He made a fresh fish sauce, short-boiled and very light in taste, and layered the cooked lasagne (the lasagna noodles in English) with the sauce and some fresh herbs. He made three or four layers, letting the sauce drip off the sides, placing the lasagne askance, points like a star, and finished with some more sauce.

  6. says

    OH!

    My mouth is watering! This looks just gorgeous. I love that so many people have so many different versions of lasagna and what it means to them.

    Yours is beautiful! Thanks so much for taking part!

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