Happy cook. Good food.

I may have hinted before at my cooking heritage. It’s wonderful and it deserves some space here.

In Canada – at least where I come from – we don’t necessarily self-identify as ‘Canadian’. Everyone knows and accepts that everyone else is Canadian, but everyone also knows that their cultural roots aren’t buried very deep, and so we very proudly let them show. My hometown is in deepest, darkest northern Ontario – we’re talking an 8-hour drive from the bright lights of Toronto – and yet, it’s so culturally diverse. I went to school with so many kids whose surnames I couldn’t pronounce: children of Finnish, Latvian, French, Aboriginal, Croatian and Italian descent. I for one, was a lucky member of the local Italian community because each of my paternal grandparents’ families had emigrated from Italy in the 20th century. So I grew up as a part of a big Italian family  – with food and love at its core.

I could go on for days, but where I mean to direct this story is to my dad [whose birthday is next week…and I haven’t sent a card yet…sorry dad!]. Dad tried his hand at several careers before deciding that feeding others was what he loved doing most. And so he opened his own fresh pasta shop. He’d make all sorts of freshly made Italian foods like pasta, sauce, lasagna, etc. And my sisters and I got to reap the rewards of this line of work. It always amazed me how dad could be making dough (…yes, I hear the pun, it’s one I’ve heard often) and sauce all day long, and still would actually want to eat it several times a week. I think it’s because pasta is part of my dad’s DNA. I swear that his blood is part tomato sauce. And his skin always smells faintly of flour and garlic. He too was born into this proud Italian heritage and he basked in it as well.

So I grew up in the extremely fortunate position of eating amazing food from my grandparents, dad’s shop, and mom (the inspiration for all my baking) and that’s absolutely what set me on my own food journey. They’re what made me want to have those skills for myself after I left home.

Which leads me to lasagna. The bar has been set pretty high. And I’ve obviously dabbled…but it’s always been a little underwhelming. Does this happen to everyone else too? A treasured dinner/bake from your childhood, made at the hands of a loving parent/grandparent, and no matter how precisely you follow the recipe it NEVER tastes the same? Ugh.

Since moving to the UK I have diverged from my dad’s recipe slightly in that I have adapted to the British style of lasagna: topped with a bechamel sauce (side-note here to make clear that although I call it the ‘British style’ I’m 100% certain that it derived from some particular region of Italy. And I’m equally sure that the way my dad makes it derives from another region, that’s probably not that far away) . I do feel slightly traitorous, but it’s nice.

Sunday night I decided to attempt it again. And while it still didn’t match my dad’s, it was SO GOOD! And I attribute this to a few things:

  1. I used mince/ground beef from the butcher’s…and I’m never using the pre-packaged stuff from the grocery store again. When I have browned mince from the grocery store it’s always released lots of water and a slightly off-putting smell. It’s been fine, but also not. Right? Whereas the mince from the butcher sweated for maybe a minute before rendering some fat and actually browning the meat. And by ‘browning’ I don’t mean that it just turned a slightly brown shade of grey, I mean it got all crispy and sticky and lovely dark-golden brown! I couldn’t break it down as finely as the shop-bought stuff, but that turned out even better. There were these nice little juicy chunks at the end.
  2. I gave the bechamel sauce more time and attention. So I don’t use a recipe here. If you’ve made bechamel even once you’ll know why. It’s super easy. And so I eyeball roughly the same volumes of butter and flour and then add as much milk as it takes to get to the right consistency. But before making this batch I was thinking…What if I’ve not been cooking it out for long enough? What if it needs more milk and more cooking to get to the right consistency? Because when you top your lasagna with the bechamel sauce and bake it, the sauce tends to firm up and become less oozy. But the ooze is good…I want a bit of ooze. So this time I let it cook on the stove-top a bit longer and fed it milk until it didn’t really thicken any more.
  3. I was in a really. good. mood. Which was strange because my husband was going out for the afternoon/evening and I had both girls to manage for several hours on my own. On the weekend…!

Do you find that when you’re happy and contented that your cooking just sings? And the reverse is true too I think. When you’re feeling rushed and grumpy, your food just doesn’t cut it. I’ve been thinking about this phenomena for a while and I think that feeling positive while cooking makes you more present – more aware of what you’re doing – and more able to be creative with your cooking. I also think there’s something going on that can’t be measured – something about spreading joy and positivity. You hear all the time that some people’s positive attitudes are infectious. I think the same principle applies to someone who is happy when they cook: they imbue their creation with their good vibes.

Anyways. Lasagna. Here’s my recipe – as best I can capture it. Recipes for cooking are much more a guide (more so than baking) – so take any bits that sound good to you and pass them on!

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[I’m going to try a new recipe layout here…bear with me!]

Emily’s Toffanello/British Lasagna

Brown 400g ground beef in a large hot frying pan or heavy bottomed pot with 1 tbsp olive oil until some or most of it turns dark brown and starts sticking to the bottom of the pan. Pour the ground beef into  a bowl and set aside. Take 1 chopped onion and 1 clove chopped garlic and add to the frying pan along with 1 tbsp olive oil. Fry on medium until the onion becomes transparent (approx 5 mins). If you’ve got any red wine lying around the kitchen then add it to the pan at this point (anywhere up to 250ml). Let it bubble for a few minutes (don’t panic if you don’t have wine, it’s fine without as well). Add the beef back into the pan along with 3 cans of chopped tomatoes, 2 bay leaves, 1 tbsp tomato paste, 1 tsp dried parsley, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1 tsp sugar, a pinch of chili flakes (although I avoid when making for children) and salt and pepper to taste. Rinse the tomato cans out, saving the tomato-water and add it to the pot. You should add about 1 can‘s worth of water. Let this bubble for at least 30-45 mins (ideally leave it for 1.5-2 hrs). Taste and adjust salt/pepper/sugar to taste (the sugar combats the acidity of the tomatoes).

Next, make the bechamel sauce. Add 4 tbsp unsalted butter to a saucepan on medium heat. When the butter is foaming add 4 tbsp plain flour. Stir and cook for about 2 mins. In the next stage you should be adding milk in a few additions to make a smooth sauce. I figure you’ll need at least 400ml but there’s a chance you’ll need more. If you don’t have more, just use water or stock. I’d add about 150ml of milk at a time, always stirring or whisking until the sauce has thickened and has no lumps in it. Keep cooking the sauce and adding milk until it’s the desired consistency. See my note above about not rushing this stage. Add salt and pepper and a good dose of grated parmesan to taste.

Time to assemble. First, preheat the oven to 200C/375F. Make sure you have at least 12-16 of the dried lasagna sheets (enough for at least 3 layers, although 4 is really sumptuous). In your rectangular dish first add one ladle of sauce – only just enough to add some moisture to the bottom of the dish. Then your pasta in an even layer. Layer sauce (be generous with the sauce) then pasta until you run out of ingredients – pasta should be your last layer before the bechamel sauce. Pour all the bechamel on – it should look like it’s drowned the pasta. That’s good because the pasta will absorb a lot of the moisture in the sauces. Sprinkle over grated parmesansalt and pepper and cover with foil. Place in the oven and cook for 45 mins. Remove the foil and bake until the bechamel starts to brown (should be about 15 mins). Check to make sure all the pasta is cooked by piercing all layers with a knife. If they yield easily then it’s done!

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It does take some time. This is a Sunday afternoon recipe. Made for quiet, lazy days where you can cook in your own time. And it is so worth it.

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