Sunday 29 March 2009

Daring Bakers March 2009 Challenge: Homemade Spinach Pasta, Béchamel & Ragu Lasagne

What a fun and tasty challenge this month’s recipe was. It really pushed me outside my comfort zone – I have never made my own lasagne sheets before, let alone ones containing spinach! But to me that just made the challenge all the more exciting – who doesn’t enjoy giving their skills and technical ability a little work out in the kitchen? The main part of this challenge was making our own spinach pasta lasagne sheets which we then had to layer with a white sauce (Bechamel) and ragu of our choice to create a lasagne. We were provided with recipes but I made my own Vegetarian style ragu in place of the meat one provided. I have however, also included the meaty ragu recipe below, in case you want to give it a go. All the recipes below (apart from the Vegetarian Ragu) are from The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.

Not having a pasta machine I made my lasagne sheets by hand. I real work out for your arm muscles! The dough starts off hard and tough but the longer you knead it the softer and more pliable it becomes. Thankfully I made it one weekend while I was home and my mum and I took turns at working the dough. It was worth the effort though and produced a silky, springy dough that was a lovely shade of green. The next challenge was rolling out the dough thin enough to cut into sheets. This was a little more tricky with just a rolling pin, but I found by only using a quarter of the dough at a time it was manageable.
For my Vegetarian ragu I decided to go with mushrooms and aubergine for their slightly meaty texture and ability to add a rich deep flavour. Along with other assorted veg I also included a tin of brown lentils which helped enhance the brown meaty appearance of the ragu. I’m not saying I wanted my ragu to taste like meat, but I did want to create a ragu that resulted in a traditional looking lasagne when layered with all the other components.

Once layered and baked it had a lovely golden surface and smelt wonderful. It sliced beautifully too, the individual layers all showing up well. Looking at them made all the hard work worth while and the colours were almost like the Italian flag of green, white and red (well reddy brown). My spinach lasagne sheets seemed to have swollen slightly during baking and were a little on the thick side, but still perfectly acceptable, and the veggie ragu was full of flavour with the Béchamel sauce keeping everything soft and creamy. All in all I was happy with my lasagne and my family seemed to enjoy it too. Well worth pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone and I may even attempt fresh pasta again now.

The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge. Thanks for choosing such a fun and challenging recipe guys – it was great to attempt something so outside my comfort zone. Don’t forget to check out the Blogroll.

Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna (Lasagne Verdi al Forno)
9 litres salted water
1 recipe Spinach Pasta (recipe follows)
1 recipe Bechamel Sauce (recipe follows)
1 recipe Country Style Ragu or Vegetarian Ragu (recipes follow)
125g freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or other cheese
Working Ahead
The ragu and the béchamel sauce can be made up to three days ahead. The ragu can also be frozen for up to one month. The pasta can be rolled out, cut and dried up to 24 hours before cooking.

Spinach Egg Pasta (Pasta Verde)
Makes enough for equivalent to 1 pound (450g) dried boxed pasta.
2 large eggs
300g fresh spinach, rinsed dry, and finely chopped; or 170g frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and squeezed dry
400g plain flour (double zero or pasta flour preferred)

Method – By Hand
Mixing the dough:
Mound the flour in the center of your work surface and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs and spinach. Use a wooden spoon to beat together the eggs and spinach. Then gradually start incorporating shallow scrapings of flour from the sides of the well into the liquid. As you work more and more flour into the liquid, the well’s sides may collapse. Use a pastry scraper to keep the liquids from running off and to incorporate the last bits of flour into the dough. Don’t worry if it looks like a hopelessly rough and messy lump.

With the aid of the scraper to scoop up unruly pieces, start kneading the dough. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, use the scraper to remove any bits of hard flour on the work surface – these will make the dough lumpy. Knead the dough for about 3 minutes. Its consistency should be elastic and a little sticky. If it is too sticky to move easily, knead in a few more tablespoons of flour. Continue kneading about 10 minutes, or until the dough has become satiny, smooth, and very elastic. It will feel alive under your hands. Do not shortcut this step. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and let it relax at room temperature 30 minutes to 3 hours.

Stretching and Thinning:
If using an extra-long rolling pin work with half the dough at a time. With a regular-length rolling pin, roll out a quarter of the dough at a time and keep the rest of the dough wrapped. Lightly sprinkle a large work surface with flour. The idea is to stretch the dough rather than press down and push it. Shape it into a ball and begin rolling out to form a circle, frequently turning the disc of dough a quarter turn. As it thins outs, start rolling the disc back on the pin a quarter of the way toward the center and stretching it gently sideways by running the palms of your hands over the rolled-up dough from the center of the pin outward. Unroll, turn the disc a quarter turn, and repeat. Do twice more.Stretch and even out the center of the disc by rolling the dough a quarter of the way back on the pin. Then gently push the rolling pin away from you with one hand while holding the sheet in place on the work surface with the other hand. Repeat three more times, turning the dough a quarter turn each time.Repeat the two processes as the disc becomes larger and thinner. The goal is a sheet of even thickness. For lasagne, the sheet should be so thin that you can clearly see your hand through it and see colours. Cut into rectangles about 4 by 8 inches (10 x 20 cm). Dry the pasta at room temperature and store in a sealed container or bag if not using straight away. Hand rolling is not necessary if you have a pasta machine.

Bechamel Sauce
60g unsalted butter
60g plain flour
approx 570ml milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg to taste
Using a medium-sized saucepan, melt the butter over low to medium heat. Sift over the flour, whisk until smooth, and then stir (without stopping) for about 3 minutes. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and keep the mixture smooth. Bring to a slow simmer, and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper, and a hint of nutmeg.

Country Style Meat Ragu’ (Ragu alla Contadina)
Makes enough sauce for 1 recipe fresh pasta or 1 pound/450g dried pasta
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
60g pancetta, finely chopped
1 medium onion, minced
1 medium stalk celery with leaves, minced
1 small carrot, minced
125g boneless veal shoulder or round125g pork loin, trimmed of fat, or 125g mild Italian sausage
250g beef skirt steak, hanging tender, or boneless chuck blade or chuck center cut
30g thinly sliced Prosciutto di Parma
160ml dry red wine
375ml chicken or beef stock
500ml milk
3 plum tomatoes from a can, drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the olive oil in a 12 inch (30cm) skillet (frying pan) over medium-high heat. Have a large saucepan handy to use once browning is complete. Add the pancetta and minced vegetables and sauté, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, 10 minutes, or until the onions barely begin to color. Coarsely grind all the meats together, including the prosciutto, in a food processor or meat grinder. Stir into the pan and slowly brown over medium heat. First the meats will give off a liquid and turn dull grey but, as the liquid evaporates, browning will begin. Stir often, scooping under the meats with the wooden spatula. Protect the brown glaze forming on the bottom of the pan by turning the heat down. Cook 15 minutes, or until the meats are a deep brown. Turn the contents of the skillet into a strainer and shake out the fat. Turn them into the saucepan and set over medium heat.Reducing and Simmering: Add the wine to the skillet, lowering the heat so the sauce bubbles quietly. Stir occasionally until the wine has reduced by half, about 3 minutes. Scrape up the brown glaze as the wine bubbles. Then pour the reduced wine into the saucepan and set the skillet aside.Stir ½ cup stock into the saucepan and let it bubble slowly, 10 minutes, or until totally evaporated. Repeat with another ½ cup stock. Stir in the last 1/2 cup stock along with the milk. Adjust heat so the liquid bubbles very slowly. Partially cover the pot, and cook 1 hour. Stir frequently to check for sticking.Add the tomatoes, crushing them as they go into the pot. Cook uncovered, at a very slow bubble for another 45 minutes, or until the sauce resembles a thick, meaty stew. Season with salt and pepper.

Vegetarian Lentil, Mushroom and Mixed Veg Ragu
400g tin green or brown lentils, drained
200g chestnut mushrooms
400g tin chopped tomatoes
1 onion
2 carrots
½ large aubergine
2 cloves garlic
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp tomato puree
6 fresh basil leaves
1tsp dried mixed herbs
350ml vegetable stock

Peel and finely dice the onion and carrots, about 1cm dice. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onion and carrot. Cover with a lid and leave to sweat for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Meanwhile, crush the garlic and finely dice the mushrooms and aubergine. Once the onions have softened, remove the lid and add the mushrooms, aubergine and garlic.
Allow to cook for 10 minutes before stirring in the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, stock and herbs.
Cook on a gently heat for 10 minutes before stirring in the lentils. Allow to cook, uncovered, for around 15-20 minutes until the veg is soft and the sauce slightly reduced and thickened. Season to taste.
Allow to cool to room temperature before using.

Assembling the Ingredients Have all the sauces, rewarmed gently over a medium heat, and the pasta at hand. Have a large perforated skimmer and a large bowl of cold water next to the stove. Spread a double thickness of paper towels over a large counter space. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Have an approx 3 litre shallow baking dish at the ready.

Cooking the Pasta
Bring a large pan of salted water to a boil. Drop about four pieces of pasta in the water at a time. Cook about 2 minutes. If you are using dried pasta, cook about 4 minutes, taste, and cook longer if necessary. The pasta will continue cooking during baking, so make sure it is only barely tender. Lift the lasagne from the water with a skimmer, drain, and then slip into the bowl of cold water to stop cooking. When cool, lift out and dry on the paper towels. Repeat until all the pasta is cooked.

Assembling the Lasagne
Spread a thin layer of béchamel over the bottom of the baking dish. Arrange a layer of about four overlapping sheets of pasta over the béchamel. Spread a thin layer of béchamel (about 3 or 4 spoonfuls) over the pasta, and then an equally thin layer of the ragu. Sprinkle with about one and a half tablespoons of the béchamel. Repeat the layers until all ingredients are used, finishing with béchamel sauce. Top with a generous covering of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or other cheese (I used cheddar). The assembled lasagne can wait at room temperature, 20 degrees Celsius, for about 1 hour before baking. Do not refrigerate it before baking, as the topping of béchamel and cheese will overcook by the time the center is hot.

Baking and Serving the Lasagne
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Cover the baking dish lightly with foil, taking care not to let it touch the top of the lasagne. Bake 40 minutes, or until almost heated through. Remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes, or until hot in the centre (test by inserting a knife – if it comes out hot, the dish is ready). If you like a browned top then do not bother with the foil. Turn off the oven, leave the door ajar and let the lasagne rest for about 10 minutes. Then serve.
Serves 6 to 8 as a main meal.

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Angela @ A Spoonful of Sugar said...

It looks awesome, Katie! I bet your arms ached after rolling out all of the pasta; mine ached, and I used a hand-cranked machine :)

So, will you be making pasta again?

Snooky doodle said...

Looks delicious! I ve never made my own lasagne sheets either. They look delicious. You made a yummy lasagne. so good!

Elyse said...

I'm so impressed with your hand rolling. I'm sure that was quite the workout. The lasagna looks fantastic, and your vegetarian ragu sounds PERFECT!

Courtney said...

your ragu looks great, loved adding lentils to it.

Meeta K. Wolff said...

i love the lentils in the ragu - i have used the same idea for a veg shepherd's pie. great job katie!

TeaLady said...

That looks really, really good. Great job on this one. Rolling out the dough was great therapy and this pasta was incredibly easy. A keeper. YOurs looks yummy!

Crafty E said...

This looks a very tasty dish Katie

Elle said...

Super lasagna! You even measured your pasta sheets! Looks wonderful and delicious!

Sophie said...

Your filling looks fantastic, what a hearty and nutritious ragu :). You did a great job with the pasta too.

AJ said...

Lovely idea for the vege ragu!!