Lasagna for Christmas Day
Most Italians and Italian-Americans prepare a meatless meal, usually many fish courses, to celebrate La Vigilia, Christmas Eve. My family always made shrimp, calamari, clams, sea bass, and sometimes served caviar. It entailed a huge amount of preparation and we’d all be exhausted when it was over. The next day we’d get up early. My father would slice up a pannetone, make a pot of strong coffee, and we’d open presents. Then we’d all pile into the car and drive over to my grandmother’s house where she’s have a big antipasto plate already on the table. And then she’s bring out a beautiful ragu filled lasagna. This was pure heaven. The lasagna varied from year to year, but I was especially found of one she made with turkey and a creamy béchamel sauce. I never got her recipe but have come up with my own version. It’s pretty close in spirit to my grandmother’s but I’ve included fresh rosemary, an herb I don’t remember her using very much. She would have chosen fresh oregano or basil, but the rosemary gives it a real wintery aroma.
Merry Christmas to you.
Christmas Lasagna with Turkey and Rosemary
(Serves six as a main course)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup medium diced pancetta or guanciale
2 sweet Italian pork sausages, casings removed
1 1/2 pounds freshly ground turkey
A generous pinch of sugar
1 large onion, cut into small dice
1 carrot, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
4 sprigs of fresh rosemary, leaves well chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
A few big scrapings of nutmeg
3 ground allspice
Freshly ground black pepper
½ cup dry white wine
½ cup turkey or chicken broth
1 35 oz. can Italian plum tomatoes, well chopped, with juice
½ cup of whole milk
For the besciamella:
3 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups whole milk
⅛ teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 fresh bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of sugar
⅛ teaspoon hot paprika (I used the Basque piment d’espelette)
1 pound of very thinly rolled fresh egg pasta, cut for lasagna, boiled until just tender
1 1/2 cups grated grana padano cheese
In a large casserole fitted with a lid, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. When hot, the butter and the pancetta and let the pancetta brown. Add the sausage and the turkey, and the pinch of sugar, mashing the meat up with a wooden spoon, and brown it lightly all over. This will probably take about 10 minutes. Add the onion, carrot, garlic, rosemary, bay leaf, nutmeg, and allspice. Season everything with salt and black pepper and sauté until the vegetables are tender and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Add the white wine and let it bubble until almost evaporated. Add the turkey or chicken broth and the tomatoes with their juice. Bring the sauce to a boil and then turn the heat down low, cover the casserole, and simmer for 1 1/2 hours, stirring it occasionally. Now add the milk and simmer for about 10 minutes longer. Turn off the heat and let the ragu sit and settle for about ½ hour. This will allow the flavors to blend and it’ll also make it easier for you to scoop excess fat from the surface. Check for seasoning, adding more salt or pepper, if needed.
To make the besciamella: Melt the butter in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour, whisking it to blend it into the butter. Cook, while continuing to whisk, for about a minute, without letting the mix color. You’ll smell a sweet, lightly toasted flour aroma. Add all the milk, and continue whisking. Add all the seasonings, and continue cooking, whisking often, until the sauce has thickened. This will happen around the time it comes to a boil. When bubbles appear on the surface, turn the heat down a bit, and continue cooking for another minute or so or until the sauce is thick and very smooth.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
In an approximately 8 x 12 inch baking dish, spoon out a thin layer of the ragu. Now put down a layer of the pasta sheets. Spoon on some beciamella, smoothing in out, and sprinkle on a thin layer of grated grana padano. Make another layer of ragu, another one of pasta sheets, more beciamella, and more grated cheese. Spoon of the remaining ragu, put down a last layer of pasta, finish up the beciamella, and then sprinkle on a light layer of grana padano. Give the top a little salt and pepper and a fresh drizzle of olive oil. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil, turn the oven up to 425 degrees and bake until the lasagna is bubbling and nicely browned on the top, about 15 minutes longer. Let it rest about 10 minutes before serving.
Erica DeMane is a writer and chef. Find her blog: EricaDeMane.com
Painting: Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence by Caravaggio