An Authentic Lasagne?

Trying to find genuine Italian dishes is like trying to catch fish with your bare hands. Slippery. Especially when you live in a country full of faux-Italian dishes, each vying with one another in their claims of genuine authenticity.

Lasagne is a case in point. It is found in supermarkets, school dinners, cafes and on restaurant menus absolutely everywhere.  It is a bastion of home-cooking. But what is the real deal supposed to be like?

Bah, I normally decry, and cook whatever suits my tastebuds best. But what if you’re cooking for a bona fide Italian? What do you do then? Throw the plateful of minced slop in front of them and see that look of barely-hidden horror in their eyes? No sirree.

So I abandoned my usual recipe, and decided to explore. Felicity Cloake has a recipe for her perfect lasagne in her “How to make perfect…” series. However, her rather dry looking result, coupled with the liberal use of hard-to-obtain ingredients meant that was out of the question. In the end, I made the lasagne recipe I got off BBC Food. The chef certainly had an Italian sounding name. Would that be a mark of true authenticity?

Well, I made a version as close to the recipe from BBC Food as I could. It was ok, crammed full of mozzarella and parmesan; I felt as though there was cheese coming out of my eyeballs. So I streamlined it down. I put a layer of bechamel between each pasta sheet instead of cheese. I replaced most of the meat in the ragu with lentils. And I saved a little parmesan and mozzarella for the very top, where it melted to form a lovely golden cheesy topping. And hey presto, it was delicious. And then, authenticity no longer mattered anymore.

Lasagne 

  • olive oil
  • 2 onions
  • 2 carrots
  • 4 sticks of celery
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • handful of dried herbs
  • 500g lean mince
  • 400g cooked lentils, drained
  • a squirt of concentrated tomato puree
  • 800g chopped tomatoes
  • 400ml red wine
  • 450ml stock
  • butter
  • 2 dsp plain flour
  • milk
  • bay leaf
  • a pinch of grated nutmeg
  • fresh lasagne sheets
  • handful of mature cheddar, grated

Finely chop the onion, carrots, celery and garlic. Heat up a splash of oil in a big pan, and gently fry everything in the pan until soft. Throw in a sprinkling of rosemary.

Mix in the mince until almost completely cooked, then add the lentils.Bubble away until most of the liquid is gone. Then pour in the wine and cook it until the wine has evaporated. Stir in the chopped tomatoes, concentrated tomato puree, and the stock. Cook this gently on a simmer for 2 hours until most of the liquid is gone.

Make the bechamel by heating a small container of milk in a saucepan with a bay leaf until  boiling. Fish out the bay leaf and set the milk aside. In the saucepan melt a knob of butter, and whisk in 2 heaped spoonfuls of flour. Gently whisk in the milk little by little until you’ve got yourself a nice white sauce, and add the grated nutmeg. Pour a little sauce onto the bottom of an ovenproof dish. Cover with layers of fresh lasagne sheets. Then spoon a thin layer of ragu over this, followed by a layer of pasta sheets, then a layer of bechamel, then a layer of pasta sheets. Keep going until all the ragu is used up. You should have quite a lot of pasta layers. I had at least 4. For the final layer of pasta, cover the top with bechamel, sprinkle with grated cheese, and stick in the oven at 200˚C for 30 minutes until the top is golden and bubbling. Let it cool slightly, and cut into pieces.

For vegetarian friends I make the lasagne in exactly the same way, but increase the quantity of carrot, celery and lentils. You could use any hard cheese as long as it isn’t made with rennet. It’s just as delicious.

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Chocolate Cheesecake

Baking familiar and simple recipes in my kitchen is always a pleasant way to relax. I had a spate of cheesecake making this time last year, so I thought I’d see if I still remembered all the tricks and turns it took to make it just right.

I baked a chocolate cheesecake on Friday evening, which is a version vastly modified from the Hummingbird Bakery cookbook.  I’ve scaled it down in size, halved the biscuit base, and changed the entire contents of the filling, using half Quark and half Philly light for the cream cheese.

I also decided not to bother with melting the butter, and squished it together with the crumbed digestive biscuits using my hands, which got a little messy, but was infinitely satisfying, and in my mind, further reduces the risk of getting that dreaded soggy bottom (darn it Great British Bake Off, for raising standards of baking to stressful standards of perfection!)

The whole cheesecake turned out looking great. There was a smidgeon of chocolatey graininess when I mixed the melted chocolate and the cold cheese together, and I forgot to add the specified double cream, but it came out of the oven with just the right degree of wibble, and no cracks on the glossy brown surface. Fantastic. Into the fridge it went to set overnight.

And here is where I botched it. I couldn’t get it out of the tin without breaking the base, and so it didn’t look terribly presentable once I’d cut into it. The perfectionist inside me was wailing.

Ugliness aside, cheesecake 1 tasted pretty darn good and the family wolfed it down. The quark worked brilliantly – the filling nice and creamy – with none of the squeakiness I’d heard to expect from quark cheesecakes. The base was crunchy (which made it even more difficult to cut!) and not-at-all soggy.

So, after messing up the presentation of that cheesecake, I had to find an excuse to make another one. Onto cheesecake 2. At first, it seemed like everything was going to go wrong. The mixture was worryingly liquid, and it turned out rather grainy as I was too impatient, and combined the chocolate too quickly into the cheese mixture. The bain-marie leaked into the layers of tinfoil, I splashed hot water all over the kitchen floor, and the top of the cheesecake cracked slightly as well!

I persevered (having used up a great portion of my precious stores of Valrhona chocolate in it, I wasn’t about to give up!) and actually, this cheesecake really turned out brilliantly. No soggy bottom, creamy topping, fabulous ganache layer to finish it all off, and ultra top marks from all happy taste testers, who declared it even better than the first one.

Hurrah!

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Chocolate Cheesecake

  • 8 digestive biscuits, crushed into crumbs
  • 75g butter, softened
  • 1 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 500g cream cheese
  • 6 tbsp double cream
  • 200g caster sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tsp plain flour
  • 200g dark chocolate, melted

Line the base of a 23cm springform cake tin and wrap the tin well in layers of foil .

Combine the biscuit crumbs with the butter and cocoa powder, and press together with hands until it forms a soft dough. Press this firmly into the base of the tin and chill until needed. Preheat the oven to 160˚C.

Beat the cream cheese together with the cream, sugar, eggs and flour. Beat in the melted chocolate. Spoon over the crumb base and smooth the top. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the top is just set. You can bake the cheesecake in a bain-marie for better heat distribution, and to reduce the likelihood of the top cracking.

When the cheesecake is done, turn the oven off and leave it inside for 1 hour. Remove the foil, and chill the cheesecake overnight before serving. You can make a ganache to cover the top of the cheesecake if it is very cracked, and it also tastes good!

A change in the air….

There have been changes in the air, and I feel like I’ve been blown along like a rather large, ungainly tumbleweed.

Most of my latest posts have been cooking ones, but there hasn’t been a lot of activity in the kitchen, nor the running or fashion front.

Yesterday I went on an outing to Oxford. It was lovely. I wandered around the cobbled streets. Every now and again my feet would find a crack between two cobblestones, and I would tip to one side, my equilibrium temporarily unbalanced. My feet walked me to the Ashmolean Museum. I was disappointed that all the pre-Rhapaelites had been shipped off to the Tate Britain, but there was still plenty to admire.

I walked past hundreds of Oxford students, and felt sad. I wanted to stay here, and bury myself into the very substance of the city.  Perhaps it was slip of my subconscious, but I bought a return ticket from Oxford to London, instead of a single. So there will be a time later this year when I’ll be back again….