Nonna’s Lasagna

Automne 2019
food and drink

BY: Christopher St. Onge

The grandmother of my life-long friend Ralph, Raffielina Milano, made the lasagna of my dreams. Totally scratch-made, her lasagna was mild, milky and a study in restraint, demonstrating that sometimes less is more. At its heart are great homemade noodles, as thin as can be, a gorgeous simple sauce, and laborious but-so-good mini pork meatballs. If you have the patience for it, and are on Nonna-time, her meatballs were about half the size indicated here—simply use a half teaspoon (2 mL) of the pork mixture per meatball. The addition of the ricotta is my own.

½ cup (125 mL) fresh bread crumbs
2 tbsp (30 mL) milk
1 lb (455 g) lean ground pork
1 egg
1 small clove garlic, finely grated or chopped
2 tbsp (30 mL) finely grated Pecorino Romano
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
¼ tsp (1 mL) finely ground black pepper
2 tbsp (30 mL) finely chopped parsley
1 cup (250 mL) Light Tomato Sauce (recipe below)

4 eggs
1 tsp (5 mL) salt
2½ cups (625 mL) all-purpose flour, divided, plus extra for dusting

1 ¼ cups (310 mL) Creamy Ricotta (recipe below)
3 cups (750 mL) Light Tomato Sauce, divided (recipe below)
3 pkgs (125 g each) Ontario buffalo mozzarella, drained and torn into small pieces
1½ cups (375 mL) finely grated Parmesan
½ cup (125 mL) finely grated Pecorino Romano

1 For the meatballs, combine bread crumbs and milk in a medium bowl. Add pork, egg, garlic, cheese, salt, pepper and parsley; stir to bring mixture together.

2 Using a scant teaspoonful at a time, measure out meat mixture and form into a ball; place in a large skillet. Repeat with remaining meat mixture to make 70 to 80 small meatballs (it’s okay if meatballs are stacked on top of each other in skillet).

3 Pour tomato sauce over meatballs and set over medium heat; bring to a boil, cover and cook for 8 minutes or until meatballs are no longer pink inside. Set aside (meatballs may be prepared in advance, held in sauce, covered and refrigerated for up to 3 days).

4 To make the pasta, whisk together eggs and salt in a small bowl. Place 2 ¼ cups (560 mL) flour in a separate medium bowl. Pour eggs over and stir to combine, first with a fork, then with your hands as dough becomes less wet. Once all flour is incorporated, turn out onto a clean work surface and dust with 1 tbsp (15 mL) flour.

5 Knead for 5 to 7 minutes, dusting with more flour as needed (you may not need all the indicated measure of flour), until dough is dry to the touch and smooth. Form into a ball and cut into 8 equal-sized wedges. Cover with plastic wrap; let rest for 30 minutes.

6 Lay several clean kitchen towels side-byside on work surface and dust lightly with flour. Working with 1 wedge at a time, form into a rectangle roughly ½ inch (1 cm) thick. Dust with flour and pass dough through widest setting on pasta machine. Fold onto itself into thirds as you would a letter and pass through machine on the same setting again. Repeat this 3 more times, dusting with flour as necessary to prevent sticking.

7 This time, without folding, pass through machine on the next setting. Continue, decreasing the space between the rollers, until pasta is 1/16th inch (1.5 mm) thick, again dusting with flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Cut pasta into manageable lengths and arrange on kitchen towels. Repeat with remaining dough.

8 Bring a large pot of well-salted water to a boil; arrange a large bowl of ice water alongside. Cook noodles in batches of 4 for 30 seconds; carefully remove with a spider or large slotted spoon and transfer to ice water. Repeat with remaining noodles; drain noodles and immediately arrange flat on paper towels; pat dry.

9 Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).

10 To assemble, remove meatballs from sauce and combine Creamy Ricotta with remaining enriched sauce. Set ricotta mixture and meatballs aside.

11 Spread ½ cup (125 mL) Light Tomato Sauce in bottom of a 9 x 13-inch (23 x 33-cm) baking dish. Arrange a layer of noodles overtop, spread with 2 tbsp (30 mL) more sauce and top with another layer of noodles. Top noodles with ⅓ cup (80 mL) sauce, then one-third of the mozzarella cheese.

12 Combine Parmesan and Pecorino in a small bowl; sprinkle one-third of Parm mixture over mozzarella. Top with one-quarter of the meatballs, randomly placing them over the cheese.

13 Top with another layer of noodles, then half the ricotta mixture. Top this with ⅓ cup (80 mL) sauce, then another one-quarter of the meatballs, nestling them into the divots created by the meatballs in the layer beneath. Top with another layer of noodles.

14 Repeat, in the following order: ⅓ cup (80 mL) sauce, one-third of the mozzarella, one-third of the parmesan mixture, one-quarter of the meatballs, another layer of noodles, half of the ricotta mixture, ⅓ cup (80 mL) sauce, one-quarter of the meatballs, a layer of noodles, 2 tbsp (30 mL) sauce, another layer of noodles, remaining sauce, the final third of the mozzarella and remaining Parmesan mixture.

15 Top dish with foil and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes; remove foil and bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes or until browned.

Serves 6

Because there are so few ingredients here, bad canned tomatoes have nowhere to hide. Spring for good-quality Italian canned tomatoes, but not necessarily D.O.P. San Marzano because even those vary greatly in acidity and ripeness. Look for Paese Mio, Garofalo, Cento or Cirio brands, whether D.O.P. or not. Sieving the puréed tomatoes of their seeds ensures a sweet sauce.

2 cans (798 mL each) Italian tomatoes
¼ cup (60 mL) water
¼ cup (60 mL) extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed but intact
1 small onion
2 sprigs basil (both with 5 to 7 leaves attached to stem)
2 tsp (10 mL) sea salt

1 Add tomatoes to a blender; pour water into 1 can and swirl to clean can. Transfer water into second can and do the same. Add water mixture to blender. Purée tomatoes (if using a high-powered blender, process on low). Pour through a fine mesh sieve set over a large bowl and set aside.

2 Heat olive oil in a medium pot over low heat; add garlic and fry until light golden, turning garlic once. Remove and discard garlic.

3 Pour tomatoes into pot; increase heat to medium. Peal and quarter onion and stir into tomatoes along with the basil and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce to low, and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes or until the consistency of whipping cream. Remove onion and basil; discard. Use sauce immediately or store in fridge, covered, for up to 5 days. 

Makes 4 cups (1 L)

True ricotta is made from whey, but this fast, easy version made from whole milk and cream tastes better than most store-bought versions. If using in the lasagna, drain for at least 18 hours in fridge before combining with the sauce. It can be used anywhere ricotta is used, and is delicious drizzled with olive oil or honey and a good pinch of dried chili flakes, served with crusty bread.

4 cups (1 L) whole milk
½ cup (125 mL) whipping cream
¾ tsp (4 mL) sea salt
¼ cup (60 mL) white vinegar

1 Arrange several layers of cheesecloth in a large sieve set over a large bowl.

2 Combine milk, cream and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat; bring to a simmer (watch carefully, as the mixture may boil over quickly once simmering). Remove from heat and stir in vinegar. Let stand 5 minutes to allow curds to develop. Gently pour into sieve and let drain 1 hour.

3 Bring ends of cheesecloth over cheese to enclose and refrigerate along with the bowl to catch drips for 12 to 24 hours before using. Ricotta will keep for 3 days in fridge.

Makes 1¼ cups (310 mL)

What to Serve