Lasagne is one of Dan’s specialty dishes and one of the ultimate comfort foods. With its multiple rich layers of three kinds of cheese, pasta and meaty sauce, lasagne is not the most healthy of our recipes, so we don’t make it for ourselves all that often. But it’s our go-to meal to make for friends and family in need of a little comfort food or to celebrate special occasions. While not particularly complicated, the recipe takes a fair amount of time and effort to prepare — which makes it even more meaningful and satisfying when you’re cooking this dish for loved ones or someone deserving of a special meal. But, lest you think we are completely selfless with 100% pure motivation, this recipe also lends itself very well to incorporating enough extra ingredients to make a small batch for yourself when you’re preparing one for someone else. Win, win!
The first step of this lasagne is to make the sauce, using Italian sausage, crushed tomatoes, onion, garlic, olive oil and bay leaves.
We usually use equal amounts of hot and mild Italian sausage. You could use more hot sausage if you like your sauce more spicy, or less if you prefer it more mild. We think an even mix of both gives the sauce just the right amount of spice. (One of these days, maybe we’ll get really ambitious and make our own Italian sausage to use in our lasagne, assuming our kitchen and my delicate constitution can withstand the mess.)
Remove the casings of the sausages before cooking them. Slit the casing along one side…
…then peel the casing off and discard it.
Heat about a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat, then add the sausages and cook until they are thoroughly browned and their fat is rendered — about 20-25 minutes.
Break up the sausages into small pieces while they are browning.
While the sausages cook, finely chop the onion.
When the sausages are browned, turn the heat to low and drain or spoon off the rendered fat. One way to do this is to tilt the pot up on one end, then use a spatula or spoon to move all the sausages to the tilted end of the pot and allow the grease to accumulate at the other end. Then remove the grease with a big spoon and discard (or save for other cooking uses if you do that sort of thing.)
Turn the heat back to medium-high and add the onion to the pot with the sausage. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft — about 5 minutes.
Add the minced garlic, stir, and cook until the garlic is fragrant — about 2 more minutes.
Add the heavy cream to the pot, using it to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot.
Cook the mixture over medium heat until the cream cooks down and thickens — about 5-7 minutes. (The cream mixture should be thick enough that you can scrape it aside to briefly see the bottom of the pot before it runs back together.)
Add the tomatoes to the pot.
Also add about half a can of water — fill one of the tomato cans halfway full with water, pour the water back and forth between the cans to rinse out every bit of tomato goodness, then pour the water into the pot.
Add a glug of olive oil and the bay leaves to the sauce and cook, uncovered, over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Stir the sauce occasionally and keep an eye on it so that it doesn’t get too bubbly. If it starts to boil, turn the heat to medium low. When the sauce is done, remove the bay leaves and discard them, then taste and adjust the seasonings as necessary (you may need to add salt or a little more olive oil.) Allow the sauce to cool off the heat for about 15 minutes.
While the sauce cools, assemble the cheese filling with egg, basil, and Parmesan and ricotta cheeses. This is also a good time to grate the mozzarella cheese.
This recipe calls for a lot of grated Parmesan (about a cup), which is kind of a pain to grate by hand. We borrowed a tip from Ina Garten and grated it using the food processor. Just cut the Parmesan into big chunks, then pulse in the food processor until it is finely grated. So much easier and less hand-cramp-inducing than using a traditional grater. You could also buy pre-grated Parmesan, but we can’t in good conscience recommend you do that because freshly grated Parmesan tastes so much better and won’t be all dried out.
Beat the egg in a large bowl, then add the Parmesan, ricotta cheese, chopped basil and salt and pepper. It is perfectly acceptable to use part skim or low fat ricotta cheese — it won’t affect the flavor of the lasagne (save those calories where you can!) Mix all the ingredients together.
Assemble all the components for building the lasagne — sauce, noodles, ricotta filling and shredded mozzarella. Building the lasagne is a lot faster if you have help, since there are a lot of layers. It’s also more enjoyable with a helper — especially when you’re working together to create this delicious labor of love to give to someone else.
Start with a thin layer of sauce in the bottom of the pan. If you’re making a lasagne for someone else, these deep, all-purpose foil disposable pans from the grocery store are very handy. A lot of them even come with a plastic lid for easy transport.
The next layer is the lasagne noodles. We use the “oven ready” or “no bake” noodles, which do not need to be boiled before layering them into the pan (hence the name.) We don’t know who came up with this genius idea, but these noodles save time without changing the texture of the finished lasagne. Brilliant. (In case you’re wondering, both spellings of this dish — lasagne and lasagna — are considered correct. Technically, “lasagna” is singular and refers to just one noodle, while “lasagne” is plural. Because the dish includes more than one noodle, we’re going with “lasagne.” Plus, that’s how they spell it in Italy, where everything is better.)
Next, spoon a layer of the ricotta mixture on top of the noodles. No need to completely cover the noodles, since the ricotta mixture will spread out a bit while it melts and cooks in the oven.
Add a thin layer of shredded mozzarella cheese. You’ll probably want to do a thinner layer than we did here, since this cheese will also melt and spread, and you wouldn’t want to run out of mozzarella and have to use monterey jack cheese to top off the lasagna at the end. Just sayin. (But, if you do happen to do this, we have a hunch that your lasagne will likely taste just as good nonetheless.)
Keep building layers in the same order — sauce, noodles, ricotta, mozzarella (not too much!) — until you get close to the top of the pan. We did a total of 4 layers this way. For the final, additional layer, spoon over a layer of sauce, then noodles, then sauce.
Top the lasagne with mozzarella cheese (supplemented with whatever mild white cheese you happen to have, if you don’t have enough mozzarella to cover the whole pan) and a generous sprinkle of dried oregano.
Spray a sheet of foil with nonstick spray and cover the lasagne pan (sprayed side down), then place the covered lasagne in the oven. Place a cookie sheet on the oven rack below the rack holding the lasagne, to catch any drips of melted cheese. You may want to spray the cookie sheet with nonstick spray as well or cover it with foil too, especially if you happen to be fond of that particular cookie sheet and would like to ever use it again. If you’re not using a disposable pan, you might also want to spray the pan before you begin building the lasagne.
Bake the lasagne in the oven preheated to 350 degrees for about 40 minutes, then remove the foil and continue baking the lasagne until the cheese gets brown and bubbly — about 10 more minutes. Allow the lasagne to rest for about 15 minutes before attempting to cut and serve it.
We served ours with a simple garden salad. On the day we made this lasagne, we also made one for family friends (Hi Tom and Mary Ellen!), one of whom was having surgery the following day. A great thing about making this dish for someone else is that you can either give it to them uncooked and frozen, to be baked whenever they are ready for it, or uncooked and ready to bake that evening. We also like the versatility of this lasagne in terms of serving sizes — you can make a large batch to feed many people, or 2-3 smaller batches to freeze and cook later for just a few people at a time. We love this lasagne as a tangible way to show we care by doing something for someone else — sometimes more can be said by cooking and sharing a favorite meal than can be conveyed by actual spoken words.
For the sauce:
- 4-6 Italian sausages (2-3 mild and 2-3 hot), casings removed
- 1 yellow or white onion, finely chopped
- 4-5 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ to ¾ cup heavy whipping cream
- 2 (28 oz.) cans crushed tomatoes, plus ½ can water
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus 1 glug
- 2 bay leaves
- salt to taste
For the lasagne:
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ⅔ of a 32 oz. container of ricotta cheese (ok to use part skim or low fat)
- ¼ cup basil, chopped into thin strips (“chiffonade”)
- dash salt & pepper
- 4-5 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 package “oven ready” or “no boil” lasagne noodles
- Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat, then add the sausages and cook until they are browned and their fat is rendered — about 20-25 minutes. Break up the sausages into small pieces while they cook. When they are done, turn the heat to low and drain or spoon off the rendered fat.
- Turn the heat back to medium-high, then add the onions to the pot and cook until the onions are soft — about 5 minutes.
- Add the garlic and cook until fragrant — about 2 minutes.
- Add the heavy cream and use it to scrape up any browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until the cream cooks down and thickens — about 5-7 minutes.
- Add 2 cans of tomatoes to the pot. Fill one of the cans halfway with water and pour from can to can to rinse out all the tomato bits. Pour the water into the pot. Add a glug of olive oil and the bay leaves to the pot. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Reduce heat to low if the sauce begins to boil.
- Remove the bay leaves, taste the sauce and adjust the seasonings with salt or olive oil as needed. Allow the sauce to cool off the heat for about 15 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- In a large bowl, mix together the egg, ricotta cheese, Parmesan, basil and salt & pepper.
- In a deep pan sprayed with nonstick cooking spray, begin building the lasagne, starting with a thin layer of sauce. Add a layer of noodles, then spread a layer of the ricotta cheese mixture over the noodles. Sprinkle on a thin layer of mozzarella. Repeat the layers in the same order — sauce, noodles, ricotta, mozzarella — until the lasagne is near the top of the pan, about 4 layers total.
- For the final, additional layer, add sauce, then noodles, then sauce and top with mozzarella and a generous sprinkle of dried oregano.
- Spray a large sheet of foil with nonstick cooking spray and cover the lasagne (sprayed side down). Place the covered lasagne in the oven. Place a cookie sheet sprayed with nonstick cooking spray or covered with foil on the oven rack under the rack holding the lasagne, to catch any drips of melted cheese. Bake the lasagne for about 40 minutes.
- Uncover the lasagne and continue baking until the cheese gets browned and bubbly — about 10 more minutes. Remove the lasagne from the oven and allow it to rest for about 15 minutes before cutting and serving.
- You can freeze the uncooked lasagne to save for cooking and serving another time. Allow the frozen lasagne to thaw for about 24 hours before cooking.