Remember the final section of Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev? After Andrei's taken the vow of silence, and the plague has wiped out most of the region? And the prince's soldiers come to the bell-maker's house to demand a bell, and the bell-maker's whole family is dead, except his teenage son, the kid from Ivan' Childhood? And the kid boasts how he can make the best bell ever, 'cause the dad gave him the secret of bell-making from his death bed, and the soldiers take the kid up on it, and tell him if he screws up the bell it's execution for sure, and the kid oversees the whole process and is a complete prick to everyone, and Andrei's watching from a distance? And finally it's the moment of truth and the clapper's in and the bell has to ring in a beautiful tone, and it does, and everybody's ecstatic, except the kid himself, who's a devastated sobbing wreck, and Andrei breaks his silence and asks the kid what's wrong, and the kid tells Andrei that he lied, that his father never gave him the secret of bell-making?
Well, I kind of feel that way relative to my Grandma Petrosino and lasagna-making. And still, I go on, year after year, trying to approximate her sublime results. I am told that my efforts more than suffice, so I will share here, for the first time, my methods and tips.
FIrst, the correct receptacle. In my early years of lasagna-baking, when I was a schlubby, nomadic bachelor, I was content to throw everything in one of those disposable aluminum roasting pans. But the time came to put away childish things, and a few years ago My Lovely Wife and I invested in a Real Lasagna Pan from Mario Batali (left). Aside from being an attractive and sturdy piece of cookware, it's a real whiz at heat retention, a serious consideration in the lasagna-making game.
Ingredients are, of course, incredibly key here. The object is to get the best and freshest possible. Here's where I've gained a considerable advantage over the past two decades: by living in Carroll Gardens, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for fabulous Italian food. I make a homemade tomato sauce using Italian canned goods I usually buy at Esposito's And Sons on Court Street. That's also where I get the meat. While Esposito's is famous for its sausage and soppresata and other such truly great stuff, the store is also a superb all-around butcher shop.I get four pounds of ground meat—2 1/2 pounds beef, 1 1/2 pounds pork ("That's the flavor," as Martin Scorsese's dad says in Goodfellas.) For cheese, it's Caputo's, also on Court Street. Four pounds ricotta, and three balls (about a pound each) of fresh salted mozzarella. Caputo's is also a fantastic pasta store, and they have come up with the lasagna-maker's life saver: a soft fresh lasagna noodle that goes straight into the pan, no boiling required (it's next to the sauce there). You just shake the semolina off and lay it down. Then there's the salt, pepper, oregano, and two eggs.
Of course before the chef begins he or she must make sure that the tunage is in order. For this cooking session, I decided to groove to, first off, Just Us, the first solo session from British saxman Elton Dean, made around the time he was just joining Soft Machine and featuring that group's Mike Ratledge on keys for a couple of tracks; fans of the Softs might be surprised at the particular character of this largely free-blowing session. Then there's Larry Coryell's Spaces, pairing that great guitarist with the equally great John McLaughlin; Chick Corea, Miroslav Vitous, and Billy Cobham comprise the killer rhythm section that finds the lead players splitting the difference between early fusion and unabashed Django-worship. Ragged Border is the debut album from Cosa Brava, the latest rock project spearheaded by the wondrous Fred Frith. And finally, the "new" Jimi Hendrix album, Valleys of Neptune, very hot stuff indeed. Throw these in the CD changer magazine, crank the volume, and get down to business.
First to prepare the ricotta. This will be, in a sense, the bedrock of this casserole (it seems sacreligious to refer to lasagna as such, but sometimes such de-mystification can be useful), so it needs some character of its own.
Having been diligent in the topping of the noodles with the sauce, you now begin to spoon down the ricotta. As I implied, you wanna distribute it relatively evenly over the sauce and noodles, so spooning out individual dollops and then patting them down with the bottom of the spoon it the way to go. At this point your first pan of meat should be done, so go ahead and drain that big boy, after which you may proudly commence spooning the meat on top of the bed of ricotta. It goes without saying that you may season your meat to taste before or during sauteing; I tend to lean on the minimalist side in this respect, as the meat's going to get a lot of flavoring, as it were, from the other ingredients in the mix as the come together in the baking process.
Now, while you've been up to all this, you've had an intern or a eunuch on the premises slicing your mozzarella. Wait, no, you haven't? Well, then you're going to have to cut it up yourself. I recommend eight slices of the fresh stuff per layer of lasagna. This seems like odd math, given that this recipe will in fact yield nine big slices of lasagna. I cannot account for this discrepancy. Just trust me. It will work. Lay each slice down like so, I mean, as seen in the photo at right. After which comes another application of the sauce. As seen at left.
And then, of course, more noodles are laid atop that full layer, and the process is repeated. By the time you reach the top, you will find that you'll need to lay three noodles lengthwise across the pan, and tuck the ends in a bit; this seals the whole thing together, as it were. And then it's time to pop that beautiful baby into the oven. (After you've covered the dish with aluminum foil, or course [not shown here].)
Said oven should be at 350 degrees. And if you're making it to be refrigerated and eaten a day or so later, which you definitely should do, don't cook the thing fully. Cook it for 25 minutes to a half-hour, long enough for all the ingredients to start mixing together. Then remove from the oven, cool at room temperature for a while, and put in the refrigerator. For the main event, again with the 350 degrees, but this time bake for an hour, give or take a few minutes. Here is some idea of what the results ought to look like...
After which, you should enjoy. And enjoy the leftover portions; they just get better and better after reheating.