One of the little known secrets to making unforgettable lasagna is the decadent creamy sauce called béchamel.
Outside of a few regions of Italy, however, the tendency is for most cooks, restaurants and frozen lasagnas (God forbid!) to use ricotta instead of béchamel. To test this idea, I Googled lasagna recipes to see how long it would take to find one that called for béchamel. Three pages and 26 recipes into my search, I finally found one. That’s too much obscurity for something as downright magical as béchamel.
With only a little extra effort, this luxurious white sauce made of flour, butter and milk adds intoxicating creaminess without using any cheese. When it is layered between thin sheets of egg pasta, a savory meat sauce and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, it creates a lasagna that is both stick-to-your-ribs delicious and surprisingly light.
The Italians and French each want to take credit for inventing béchamel, understandably. Historical records on the subject are spotty, which means we’ll never really know for sure, though they do offer two likely scenarios. The first suggests that the chefs in the kitchens of the court of Louis XIV created it. The second suggests its birthplace was actually Tuscany and that it was subsequently introduced to France by Italian noblewoman Caterina de’ Medici of Florence.
Of the two, my favorite is Caterina, who seemed like quite the pragmatist. Married off to French royalty for political gain, this wealthy child bride arrived in France with insurance against home sickness. In addition to her governess, she brought several pastry chefs, three cooks, and a gelato-maker. Imagine! She also packed the flavors and scents of Tuscan cuisine. One specialty in particular was béchamel sauce, though at the time it had the unfortunate name of ‘colla’ or glue. Not surprisingly, the name was changed to béchamel, in all likelihood after a French courtier and patron of the arts by the same name.
Béchamel has worked its way into a variety of savory dishes ever since. You now find it in dishes featuring meats, vegetables, fish, pasta and, occasionally, my beloved lasagna. I say occasionally because many people continue to reach for the ricotta container when making their own lasagnas.
Allow me to offer up two reasons for using béchamel over ricotta.
First, Béchamel add wonderful flavor. It has a buttery creaminess that perfectly balances the savoriness of the meat sauce and subtle sharpness of the Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s the not-so-secret, secret ingredient that makes it all work and completes the ensemble, like adding a soundtrack to a feature film. Ricotta falls short because although it has a wonderful milky brightness, I find it is too fresh-tasting for lasagna. Once cooked, its mild flavor gets completely overshadowed by all the other saucier ingredients.
Second, béchamel offers a marvelous velvety texture that blends beautifully with the chewiness of a meaty sauce and layers of egg pasta. Ricotta, on the other hand, cooks dry and dense and its goopy, curd-like consistency lends no creaminess whatsoever. I recently read a comment online from a woman who shared that she purees ricotta because her family doesn’t like its texture in lasagna. Using béchamel would most certainly solve that dilemma.
Making it is fairly straight-forward. You cook equal parts of butter and flour, technically known as ‘roux,’ on medium heat until the mixture becomes a coppery golden color and then add milk. Waiting for that coppery color is important, as it prevents the sauce from tasting like uncooked flour. To finish, add salt and white pepper to taste and perhaps a hint of freshly grated nutmeg for additional sweetness and warmth.
To avoid lumps forming in your béchamel, start whisking the roux continuously from the time you add the milk. At first, add only a little milk and whisk until the mixture is completely blended. Then slowly add the rest of the milk and continue whisking until the roux-milk mixture looks smooth and well blended. I have found this approach to be more effective than a myriad of other techniques and suggestions that focus on the temperature of the milk or roux.
Once the béchamel thickens, it is done. Its opulent glory is ready to be savored by all – not just the queen.
making classic lasagna with bolognese sauce & béchamel
Granted, this is not a last-minute type of dish to make since it requires several steps and a little planning. Like all things worth working for, this dish will make you smile. It will also keep any December to February chill that’s in the air at bay.
First, and preferably the day before, you’ll need to make the béchamel sauce and the bolognese sauce. I say preferably because then it won’t take you so much time over the course of just one day.
On the day you make the lasagna, preheat the oven to 400°F. Also, have 2 cups or so of freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano on hand..
Then you’ll need to cook 2 lbs. of boxed lasagna noodles. (I will, at some point, make a fresh pasta tutorial.) Bring 6 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. It is best to work in batches here. Add 1/3 of the lasagna noodles into the boiling water and return to a boil, stirring frequently especially in the first two minutes or so when most of the ‘sticking’ usually takes place. Continue cooking the pasta, stirring occasionally, until it’s al dente (floppy but still very firm to the touch). This usually takes 8 to 10 minutes.
In the meantime, set a large bowl of ice water next to the stove. When the lasagna noodles are al dente, remove them (a large wire skimmer works very well) and transfer them to the ice water. Allow them to completely cool before removing them. Place them on a clean, damp kitchen towel. Don’t be afraid to stack them, but separate each layer with more clean, damp kitchen towel. Make sure the towels are damp or the pasta risks sticking to them.
To assemble the lasagna, ladle enough ragu’ over the bottom of a 15 x 10-inch baking dish to completely cover it. Arrange the cooked noodles lengthwise, making sure they are slightly overlapping one another. Then spoon enough meat sauce to cover the first layer of noodles evenly. Dollop ¼ or so of the béchamel sauce.
and then gently spread over the meat sauce. Sprinkle ½ cup of grated cheese.
Repeat this process until you only have a ½ an inch or so from the top of the baking dish. Spread a thin layer of meat sauce over the top layer of noodles and sprinkle the remaining grated cheese. Cover loosely with aluminum foil and place in the oven. Lower the temperature to 375°F and bake 45 minutes.
Uncover the lasagna and continue baking until the top is crusty around the edges, about 20 minutes or so. For nice and clean slices, allow the lasagna to rest for at least 30 minutes.