Sorry for such a delay in posts but I got the creeping cruds a couple of weeks ago that knocked me on my ass. But I’m finally all better now, whew! But enough about me and on to today’s topic. When it comes to lasagna, I often like to take a page out of Sandra Lee’s Semi Homemade book and use shortcuts. I used to always think, “Why didn’t I just buy Stouffer’s??” when I would make lasagna from scratch. Using homemade bolonese sauce was fine if I had some leftover from a large batch. But making the sauce from scratch and the béchamel sauce and the lasagna, aiyeee!!! But we love lasagna and to help speed up lasagna nights, I keep a few things on hand in the fridge/freezer and pantry for those cravings. Assembly is still required but the time from prep to serving is way quicker.
I keep blocks of mozzarella that I buy in bulk in the freezer, cut into portions needed for pizza and lasagna (it’ll keep for a very long time if sealed in a food saver bag). Of course you can make this even more simpler by shredding the mozzarella before freezing or buy preshredded mozzarella. I like to shred mozzarella from the large blocks if I have time since I find the pre-shredded ones a little too fine and not as creamy. The only thing to keep in mind is to take it out of the freezer and into the fridge the night before or take it out of the freezer with enough time to defrost. If you have a Food Saver, that will make defrosting even faster. I’ve used slightly frozen mozzarella in lasagna before with no problems. Just need to increase the baking time a bit.
I also keep a box of Barilla Oven Ready lasagna on hand. These don’t require boiling prior to assembly although I do like to just rinse each piece under water since it helps cook more evenly. If you’ve never used these before, they are awesome!
When it comes to the meat sauce, I like using a 24-oz jar of Prego Mushroom & Garlic Sauce. You’re saying, “Jar sauce! What???” I know but it works great in this case. We stopped buying prepackaged pasta sauce years ago due to the fat and sugar content in many of the the jar sauces. HOWEVER, I feel there are times where you just gotta go with it. Besides, lasagna is not typically a low-carb diet menu item anyway. Of course you can use whatever jar sauce you want. I’ve tried a lot of different varieties and brands but the mushroom and garlic has been by far the favorite for the lasagna. If you really want to make this fast, you can certainly leave out the béchamel sauce but it is absolutely wonderful with it. The shortcut here if you don’t feel like spending 10 minutes on béchamel sauce, add 2 tablespoons of ricotta cheese to the meat sauce. As for the ground meat, I’ve been using ground bison and/or lean grass-fed/grass-finished ground beef (around 92%). Bison is not very fatty but it works beautifully in this sauce. And full disclosure, we prefer this semi-homemade sauce over the bolognese sauce.
I find that making the meat sauce first and then the béchamel sauce works best since I don’t have to fuss with keeping the béchamel sauce on warm over a double boiler. BTW, the leftover is great and heats up nicely in the microwave.
Adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
- 1 lb lean ground beef (about 92% lean)
- 1 24-oz jar Prego Mushroom & Garlic Sauce (or any pasta sauce you like)
- 1 box Barilla Oven Ready (no boil) Lasagna
- 1/2 cup ricotta cheese
- ~2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
- ~2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter (for buttering the lasagna pan)
- Béchamel Sauce (or substitute with 2 tablespoon of ricotta cheese or cream cheese)
- 3 cups whole milk
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 1/2 tablespoons all purpose flour
- 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
For Meat Sauce:
In a heavy bottomed pan, brown the meat on medium heat, breaking up chunks. Add jar sauce to meat and simmer for 10 minutes. Set aside and make the béchamel sauce.
For Béchamel Sauce:
In a saucepan, heat the milk on medium low heat, bringing the milk just to the verge of boiling. A ring of pearly bubbles will form around the edge of the milk when ready.
While the milk is heating, in a heavy bottomed pan, melt the butter on low heat. Once the butter is melted, add the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cook, while stirring constantly, for about 2 minutes but DO NOT let the flour to become colored (it’ll get pasty tasting if it does). Remove from heat.
Add 2 tablespoons of the hot milk to the flour-butter mixture and stir to thoroughly incorporate the milk. Do this 3 more times (total of 1/2 cup of milk), making sure each addition of milk is fully incorporated before adding more milk. Now you can add the rest of the hot milk, 1/2 cup at a time, stirring to completely incorporate the milk before adding more milk. I like to use a whisk since I find it incorporates the milk faster than a wooden spoon.
Once all the milk has been incorporated, place the pan over low heat, add salt, and cook, stirring constantly until the sauce becomes dense and the consistency of sour cream. Use a whisk to break up any lumps that might have formed. If not using right away, keep warm in a double boiler set on very low. If a film develops on top, just stir it when ready to use.
Rinse each piece of the uncooked pasta under cold water and pat dry. Lay flat on a towel.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
Thickly smear the bottom of a lasagna pan with the butter. Then smear about 4 tablespoons of béchamel sauce. It’ll be a very thin layer of béchamel sauce. If not using béchamel, just skip this step. Line the bottom of the pan with a single layer of pasta strips, edge to edge. Cut strips as needed to cover the bottom of the pan. I don’t overlap the strips.
Combine the meat sauce the remainder of the béchamel sauce (or the ricotta or cream cheese). Spread just enough of the sauce to cover the first layer of pasta strips. Don’t go too thick. It’s okay if some of the strips show through. Sprinkle a big handful of mozzarella cheese on top of the sauce. Put little dabs of ricotta cheese next. Sprinkle on some Parmesan cheese. Add the second layer of pasta perpendicular to the first layer of pasta. I find this helps keep all the layers together and tighter than if all the pasta strips were laid in exactly the same direction. Repeat the procedure for the meat sauce, mozzarella, ricotta and Parmesan cheese to build up the lasagna. Depending on the size of the lasagna pan, you should have 3-5 layers. Leave enough of the sauce and mozzarella to spread a thin layer over the top-most layer, in that order. If you have leftover parmesan, sprinkle that on top of the mozzarella.
The lasagna can be made ahead of time. Tightly seal with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 2 days. Take the lasagna out of the refrigerator 30-60 minutes before baking.
Place the lasagna pan on a baking sheet (in case it boils over), and bake on the middle rack in the preheated oven for 25-30 minutes. The cheese on top should be completely melted and slightly brown. The edges should bake to a golden crust and you should see some bubbling around the edges. If baking a make-ahead lasagna, I use a butter knife to test the temperature in the middle of the lasagna to make sure it’s heated through completely. I stick the butter knife into the center and hold it there for about 10 seconds. Remove it and feel the knife to see if it’s sufficiently warm. If not, I let it bake for another 10 minutes or so and test again.
Remove from the oven and allow the lasagna to set for 10 minutes. Serve directly from the pan. You can see how well all the layers come together in the picture below. The thin individual layers and the cross-layering of the pasta all neat and beautiful. Also notice how well it comes out of the pan. Don’t forget to serve a nice slice of garlic bread and a nice glass of Chianti with it!