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Dreaming of White Lasagne

(post, Judith Klinger)

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I’m dreaming of a white…..lasagne…..

‘Tis the season for funghi and salsiccia (mushrooms and sausage), they just taste right this time of year as the fog sticks around longer, the night comes quicker, the smell of wood smoke fills the air, and I wonder where on earth did I put my gloves. We’ve already been wearing thick neck scarves for over a month because the threat of cold air is particularly deadly in Italy, ask any Italian and they will issue dire warnings about having cool air on your neck. 

It’s also a good time of year for al forno pasta, or pasta baked in the oven, because not only does the house smell good, but it warms up my chilly kitchen. 

You’ll need: 
½ kilo of mixed mushrooms: fresh, dried, frozen
8 sausage links, good, rustic pork sausage, not effete chicken & apple sausage
1-liter porcini béchamel sauce (don’t worry, see below, its not hard)
750 g ricotta di pecora (huh? See below)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
250g grated parmigiana, the real thing, not out of a green can
1/2 kilo of lasagne pasta
2 cups milk
8T butter
6 T flour
Olive oil, salt, pepper

I used euro weights just to get you in an Italian state of mind. You need about a pound of mushrooms and sausage, a quart of béchamel, 26 oz of ricotta, but if it comes in a 32 oz container, use the 32 ounces.  Ricotta di pecora is sheep’s milk ricotta and if you can find it, use it, if not…demand it! And just in case you don’t have a field of sheep ready to produce, use regular cow’s milk ricotta. 250g grated parmigiana is about two good handfuls. You need about a pound of pasta.

The trick to lasagne is to prep all the ingredients before you move on to assembly. Everything should be right in front of you, neatly arranged in bowls, you need to “mise your place” or things get very messy. 

1)	Slit open the sausages, turn the meat out into a bowl and break it up with a fork. Then gently sauté the meat until done, all the way mashing it with the fork to break it up into crumbles. 
2)	Mushrooms: I like to use a mix of dried porcini, frozen mixed mushrooms, and fresh ‘champignon’ or white button mushrooms. Dried porcini add depth to the overall mushroom flavor, and fresh porcini cost a bundle, so if you get fresh, then eat them raw in a salad and don’t waste them on a lasagne!  Put a good handful of dried porcini into a quart glass jar and fill with 2 cups of lukewarm water, letting the dried ‘shrooms steep. You’re going to be using that porcini water for the béchamel, so don’t throw it out!
Thaw out your frozen mushrooms in a bowl of warm water. Thinly slice the fresh mushrooms. Gently sauté all of the mushrooms, along with the finely chopped onion. (Gently means use medium heat. I’m not suggesting you use a soft spatula and massage the little funghi, you can be as rough as you like it with the mushrooms, just keep the heat low enough that you don’t scorch anything). Drain the dried porcini and add them last, reserving the porcini water. 

3)	Put on a big pot of water to par boil your lasagne. 

4)	Porcini béchamel: 2 cups of milk, 2 cups of the dried porcini water, 8 T of butter and 6T of flour.  Melt the butter in a heavy bottomed saucepan (heavy bottom distributes the heat better so you don’t get super hot spots), and then add all of the flour and start stirring with a whisk. You want the flour to get a light caramel color, and you do not want the flour/butter mixture to splash onto your hand because it will burn like napalm. When the flour smells appealing, slowly add the porcini water, still mixing constantly, then add the milk and cook until it thickens into a sauce, about 5 minutes of stirring time. 

5)	Nearly there. It’s assembly time. Working in small batches, par boil your lasagne pasta until its’ pliable. Here you have options: fresh pasta requires just a dunk in the salted water, there’s some pre-boiled lasagne pasta available, follow the directions on the package, dried lasagne noodles should boil for about 2-3 minutes, you want them pliable, not falling apart. 

6)	Assembly time: With a ladle, pour a small amount of the béchamel into the pan and spread it around. Now a layer of noodles, bit of béchamel, then all of the sausage, noodles…you get the idea. I like a 3 layer lasagne with all of each ingredient used per layer, so one full layer of ricotta, one of mushrooms, one of sausage and each layer gets a dose of béchamel.  Add the last of the béchamel on top and then add the parmigiana. 

7)	Bake at 350F/150C for about 45 minutes or until everything is bubbly and brown on top. You can make this in individual pans and freeze it because if you are going to go to this much trouble, it’s nice to have it stashed for a quick meal later in the week. 

8)	Variations: Our friends recently served an outstanding variation: asparagus, mushrooms & sausages, or you could go with mushrooms and sautéed pancetta or prosciutto. Fool around, have some fun with different combinations. Tell me your favorites. 

Great with a full bodied white wine or a light red. And remember to wear a scarf when you go outside.