March held a lot of excitement for the Daring Bakers. First of all, our beautiful new website was launched. Make sure to go check it out, because it is very nice! And then, there was the challenge....
The March 2009 challenge is hosted by Mary of Beans and Caviar, Melinda of Melbourne Larder and Enza of Io Da Grande. They have chosen Lasagne of Emilia-Romagna from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper as the challenge.I had to read that a couple of times before getting that yes, we were actually making lasagne. Lasagne as in pasta with ragu and cheese and bechamel. No chocolate, no buttercream, no folding in of stiffly whipped egg whites. Nope, this time we were to make our own pasta dough. That's an interesting challenge, people! Thanks Mary, Melinda and Enza for your creativity and for surprising us with this!
Oh, before I continue, I should tell you that all the recipes can be found on the websites of our lovely hosts. They are long, so I will not repost them here.
Day 1: Buying new stuff
The Daring Bakers will never force you to go out and buy fancy new kitchen equipment in order to complete the challenges. We were thus given instructions on how to hand roll pasta dough, into lasagne sheets the thickness of a paper. I read the instructions, and told Markus that we probably would want to buy that pasta machine that we'd been talking about on and off for years. Yes, handrolling would have been even more of a challenge. But see, without a pasta machine we would probably never have made pasta ourselves again after this challenge. Now that we have a pasta machine, we've started talking about all the wonderful pasta concoctions we want to create (gorgonzola and walnut ravioli, anyone?). We also needed a new dish for the lasagne. A large rectangular stoneware dish is something we have been missing in our kitchen for a long time (it's very hard to make lasagne in an oval shaped dish since pasta sheets are, well, not oval), so I went and bought us a very pretty Le Creuset dish. See, we're helping the economy! (Not ours, though.)
Day 2: Making the Ragu alla Contadina (Country style ragu)
According to the challenge we could use our own favourite meat ragu recipe (or a vegetarian one for those with such proclivities). We decided to use the given recipe for a Ragu alla Contadina and that was a good decision.
The recipe asked us to buy whole meat and grind it ourselves. We don't own a meat grinder (yet) and one thing with foreign recipes is that cuts of meat are hard to translate. I think different countries use partly different cuts, so when faced with "boneless veal shoulder or round" and "beef skirt steak", I don't really know what to ask for in Swedish in the grocery store. The solution was to buy ready-ground veal and beef. There was no ground pork though, so we got a slice of pork loin and ground it in the food processor. I don't think that was ideal cause it ended up chunky rather than ground, but once it got cooking it was okay.
So, here's a picture of the mise en place for the ragu. The carrot kind of escaped under a plate.
Yup, that's a bottle of store-bought stock between the wine and the glass of milk. The recipe called for chicken or beef stock, preferably home-made. We used store-bought game stock. I've never made this in another way so I can't compare, but we thought it worked with its meaty, earthy flavour. Oh, and that glass of milk is not 100% milk since we ran out when we had almost poured two cups, so we had to top it off with 2-3 tablespoons of cream. I can't imagine that had any negative impact on the flavour...
Making the ragu was very straight-forward and posed no problems. It took a bit of time (most of it consisting of letting it bubble slowly on the stove and stirring once in a while) but it was well worth it - it was absolutely delicious! The meat had an almost melt-in-your-mouth consistency and we had to stop ourselves from "tasting" it over and over again ("are you sure it doesn't need more pepper? Let's have another taste."). But in to the fridge it went and we went on to making the pasta...
Day 2, later: The big challenge - making the Pasta Verde dough
I think I read the instructions for this three times before starting. Making a well out of flour, putting the eggs and spinach in the middle, stir that together and then gradually incorporate more and more flour from the sides of the well. We cut down on the spinach (the recipe called for 300 g, we used maybe 100 g) but I still found it very hard to do as the instructions said because the spinach kept creeping away and ending up outside the flour well. Here's an action shot (where you also can see the new pasta machine in the background, and the pretty snow-covered trees outside our kitchen windows):
There seemed to be an awful lot of flour, and when the dough had reached a stage where it was "satiny, smooth and very elastic", there was quite a bit left:
We decided to leave that flour out, because our dough was pretty and smooth green ball:
We wrapped the dough in plastic and let it rest in room temperature. After an hour or so, we noticed that it wasn't ball shaped anymore, but had started to float out and go all soft on us. D'oh! We decided to wing it and add more flour rather than to start from scratch, and after more kneading and slightly nervous resting we did a small test run through the pasta machine and - success! I guess we should have trusted the recipe and used all the flour to begin with, huh? Ah, hindsight, always so lovely... Rather than rolling out all the dough and drying it, we put it in the fridge to be rolled out the day after - the day of lasagna-making!
Day 3: Making the lasagna, and enjoying it with a good wine and a good friend.
We heated the ragu over low temperature on the stove, and made the bechamel sauce. We did some tinkering with the measurements for the bechamel (4 tablespoons of flour and 4 tablespoons of butter can't both be weighing 60 grams!) but other than that, there were no problems. Then came the moment of truth: making the pasta sheets! The dough seemed to have held up nicely in the fridge and still had the right feel to it. Markus turned the handle of the pasta machine around and around again, and our poor old IKEA kitchen table which was unsteady to begin with became even more squeaky.
The pasta sheets came out beautiful and the dough was a breeze to work with. We skipped the step of pre-boiling the pasta since we doubted that the very thin sheets would survive boiling without breaking apart and/or sticking together. Instead, we went straight to assembly, layering pasta, a thin spread of bechamel, then a thin spread of ragu and over that a generous sprinkling of parmesan cheese. We got six layers of pasta in our lasagne, then we were out of both pasta, ragu and bechamel - perfect!
We had invited a friend over for dinner, and the lasagne was a success. We found that instead of tasting like pasta baked with meat and cheese, like lasagne usually does, this one had all the components melting together into a wonderful, flavourful unity. We ate the whole thing (to Markus dismay, who wanted leftovers for his lunch box) and combined with a couple of bottles of Chianti and many laughs, it made for a wonderful evening.