Thursday, October 09, 2008

Beef & Mushroom Lasagne

I love lasagne - it's easy to make, you can do it in advance, it smells divine as it cooks, and the only real limit to combinations is imagination. What's not to love? The only thing to keep to is using good ingredients. For the best quality pasta should be made using durum wheat as it's the only type of ground cereal that can hold on the tightness of pasta, in contrast to the common wheat ones that go soggy. The Italians follow a precise and measured method of development and production of pasta that involves drawing, rolling and subsequent drying of the dough under temperate conditions.

According to Real Italian Pasta when raw, good quality dry pasta must have the following characteristics:

• it must have a uniformly smooth appearance and texture;

• no spots or dark shades must be visible when light shines through it;

• it must have a clear and unmistakable amber yellow colour;

• it must be odourless;

• it must taste slightly sweet;

• when broken it must make a dry sound and the fracture must appear smooth and glassy with no air bubbles.

If it has all that it is worth seeking out. I bought some egg lasagne sheets from Gizani's deli in Exmouth Market to be sure of perfection. Though not from a real Italian recipe this was a great supper and made plenty for the next couple of days - so though it's a slow thing to make, the rewards are enormous. In fact, you could easily sate six hungry people.

Beef & Mushroom Lasagne

For the meat sauce

1 large onion, roughly chopped
4 fat cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped
2 tbspns olive oil
100g fatty smoked bacon, cut into thinnish strips
500g coarse ground beef mince
400g flat field mushrooms, roughly chopped to pieces the size of a walnut
1 tbspn worcestershire sauce
1 tbspn tomato paste
100ml stock or water - don'tuse stock cubes, they're horrible
Bay leaf
Salt and pepper

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and fry the onion and garlic on a medium heat for about ten minutes till they are translucent then add the bacon and continue to cook, stirring occasionally for another ten minutes or so till everything is soft and fragrant. Increase the heat and then add the meat and continue cooking until it has lost its raw red colour. Add the black sauce, tomato paste, stock or water and the bay leaf then season generously. Bring to the boil, then reduce the heat to it's lowest, cover the pan with a lid and cook gently for half an hour. Then add the chopped mushrooms, stir into the sauce, cover again and cook for another hour. Check the seasoning and add if needed. Remove the bayleaf.

For the Tomato Sauce
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
2 tins plum tomatoes in juice
2 tbspns olive oil
2 tbspns tomtato paste
1 bayleaf
2tbspns finely chopped fresh rosemary and thyme
Salt & pepper

In a large pan heat the olive oil then add the onions and garlic. Stir until soft and fragrant then add the tinned tomatoes, breaking them up if they are whole, as well as the tomato paste and the chopped herbs. Season well. Bring to a simmer and then cover and reduce the heat to low. Let it cook like this for an hour or so till you have a rich red sauce. Remove the bayleaf.

For the Cheese Sauce

1 clove garlic, crushed
75g butter
65g plain flour
fresh grated nutmeg
800ml milk
300g gruyere, grated
Salt and pepper

Heat a large pan and then melt the butter and add the crushed garlic. Cook over a gentle heat for a couple of minutes but don't let the garlic burn. Turn the heat very low then add the plain flour and stir to make a thick paste. Keep stirring till the only lumps are garlic bits and the mix has become a golden biscuit colour. This takes 7 or 8 minutes - if you stop too soon the flour stays raw and the final sauce will be horrible.

Still on a low heat start adding the milk and stirring it in. Incorporate the milk smoothly before adding the next bit and keep going till all the milk is used. By this point it should be about the consistency of single cream - add more milk if you need to. Raise the heat to medium and tip in all but a tablespoon of the grated cheese and stir till it melts into the sauce. It should now be about the consistency of double cream. Grate in a generous amount of nutmeg and season with salt and pepper. Have a little taste to check the sauce tastes great.

To assemble
Sheets of dried lasagne that require no pre cooking

In a large baking pan spread the base with the beef and mushroom mix. Then cover with a single layer of pasta. Next spread the tomato sauce over the lasagne and add another layer of pasta. Finally top with the cheese sauce and sprinkle over the reserved grated cheese.

Bake in a moderate oven, gas4/220C for about 45 minutes till the top is crusted in places and the sauce is bubbling around the edges. Let it settle for a few minutes before you serve.


I cooked the meat and tomato sauces Monday night and then made the cheese sauce and the final lasagne Tuesday night which has two advantages - it lets the flavour develop and it makes dinner much earlier on a week night that doing it all in one hit.

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