Lasagna al Forno: Two Excellent Versions

Lasagna5

We are a house divided. We are a house divided when it comes to Lasagna that is. My wife and youngest prefer the one common in the south of Italy while my oldest and I prefer the luxurious northern version. Recently I figured why not please everyone? Why not make both and let peace and awesome Italian pasta casseroles reign? So, what is the difference? Well, they are both properly called “Lasagna al Forno” meaning oven-baked Lasagna. So they both have lasagna (the actual flat noodle) and both are baked in the oven. They both have cheese and a sauce (and I am simplifying and generalizing quiet a bit here because really any dish of Lasagna noodles baked in the oven is a Lasagna al Forno).

Lasagna-Bolognese

Lasagna

The southern version has a sauce of tomatoes and meat. Most often the meats (sausage, meatballs, beef chunks, or ground beef or maybe a combo) are cooked in the tomato sauce to make a Neapolitan ragu before getting layered in the casserole with the noodles, ricotta cheese and mozzarella. First an foremost though, for me, what distinguishes this type of Lasagna from the northern version is the emphasis on the tomato sauce.

Now, the northern version is that of Bologna, the region (Emilia-Romagna) rich with dairy, pork and fat. It’s where so many delicious foods come from like Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and true balsamic vinegar. The Lasagna Bolognese is richer with a thick meaty Ragu Bolognese. It does not use ricotta and instead gets its creamy component from Balsamella, aka Bechamel sauce made from flour, butter, milk and seasoned with a pinch of nutmeg.

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To make the Bolognese meat sauce I follow a basic template I learned from Mario Batali that includes starting with finely minced pancetta, garlic, onions, carrots, garlic and celery. I like using a food processor for that to get them very fine so that they can almost melt into the sauce. For the meat I use at least two types (usually veal and pork). I get the vegetable mixture cooking very gently in olive oil and butter before stirring the meats in.

Tomato Paste

The only tomato in this sauce is a few spoons of tomato paste that gets added in with fresh thyme, white wine, a Parmesan cheese rind (yes, just like it sounds. I save those hard ends from the cheese I buy) and whole milk. The ragu simmers very gently for a couple of hours or more until everything is tender and the flavors are well melded. The end result is a thick meat sauce that is definitely on the drier side when compared with a typical tomato pasta sauce.

Pancetta

Bolognese

The sauce for the Neapolitan style lasagna contains a couple of cans of San Marzano tomato, onions, basil, oregano, garlic and -this time around for the sake of time saving- ground beef. It is a delicious sauce and tastes lighter and fresher because of all the tomato, aromatics and herbs.

Lasagna2

Lasagna3

Lasagna4

To assemble the process is similar for both casseroles. A bit of sauce on the bottom followed by noodles, sauce, ricotta or balsamella, cheese (a mix of mozzarella and Parmesan), noodles,….I like to finish with a thin layer of sauce (or blasamella in case of the Bolognese) and some more cheese. I bake the dishes covered at first to get everything bubbly and cooked through then I uncover for the last 20 minutes or so to get the cheese and top browned. As for the noodles themselves, unless I made fresh egg pasta for the dish, I never boil them anymore. For dry pasta I just let them soak in water for about an hour. They hydrate and get soft and pliable. I make sure the built lasagna is slightly on the “juicy” side so the noodles cook perfectly as the dish bakes.

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Lasagna-Napoletana

Now the hardest part is to…wait. After the dishes are baked they need to rest for a good 20 minutes. They need to settle down, cool slightly and set a bit. This will, not only make them easier to eat, but also much easier to portion and cut out cleanly without the layers falling apart. Yes, two of those are a lot of baked noodles for the four of us, but Lasagna are excellent leftovers. So we enjoyed these for a couple of more days and everyone was happy.

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Hold the Dark (Jeremy Saulnier – 2018) A-

In a small Alaskan town a little boy goes missing, taken by wolves that roam the area presumably. The mom enlists a wolf expert who wrote a book about them (Jeffrey Wright) to find him. Where it goes from there is not by any means what one might expect. The mystery of the boy missing is really resolved in the first 20 minutes maybe before we delve into a superb psychological and possibly fantastical exploration of desolation, depression, violence, nature and man. The tone is very deliberate as Saulnier introduces and fleshes out the main themes. The father (Alexander Skarsgard) is in Afghanistan, is a man of few words and really violent tendencies. He is an apex predator. The mother, Medora, played so well by Riley Keough, is mysterious and just tough to pin down. We touch on Native American issues and their relationship with the community at large and law enforcement in particular. Really what the over arching theme here is the wolves. They are perfect for living in their environment. They hunt. They have a hierarchical system. They can kill and eat their young. The missing boy’s parents seem to mirror the wolves that roam the frozen landscape of this movie. They almost cannot live anywhere else either. This is not the most approachable of Saulnier’s films, but it works for me on many levels from its harsh landscapes and dim lighting to the slow pace, excellent performances and surreal aspects.

Mandy (Panos Cosmatos – 2018) B+

Really insane film with crazy, good crazy, Cage performance. It’s a surreal dark story of a couple in love, Red and Mandy, living in what seems like a forest cabin. He’s a lumberjack of course. They get attacked by a weird (is there any other kind?) hippie cult whose leader wants Mandy to join his group of lady friends. Things go horribly wrong and the movie descends into a sort of rock opera, horror revenge thing with psychedelic red tones, mutants, coke and even a chainsaw battle. What can i say? It’s definitely not for everyone but I liked this bizarre adventure.

Whiplash (Damien Chazelle – 2014) A

What would someone do to be truly great, to achieve perfection over and over? This is a topic I am always fascinated by. The sacrifice and hard work of those at the top of their game makes for great movies and documentaries. When Andrew (Miles Teller) gets picked by Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) to join his Jazz band in a prestigious conservatory he sees it as his ticket to greatness. Fletcher’s group is the best of the best, he shapes great musicians and our drummer protagonist worked his butt off to make it there. J.K. Simmons does and amazing job as Fletcher. He is menacing, ruthless, scary but can also lull you into comfort before breaking you down. If Andrew’s dream is to be on of the greats, the real Greats as a drummer, it is Fletcher’s dream to produce one of the greats from his class. While I think Fletcher is a horrible person, the film almost makes a case that him and Andrew are made for each other. Miles Teller does a hell of a job here as well and with Chazelle’s tight direction, awesome music and an outstanding finale this makes for a masterpiece of a movie.

The Kindergarten Teacher (Sara Colangelo – 2018) A-

It’s a teacher who gets obsessed with a 6 year old. Not sexually, but non the less, still messed up. Maggie Gyllenhaal plays the teacher initially very sympathetically. We like that she is taking the time to support her student as he shows sign of being a brilliant poet. He might be a prodigy. She does not want the world, his too busy dad, the dad’s immature girlfriend or the whole system to assimilate him and tamp over his genius. As the layers peel though we follow her into her family and personal life. She wants to be a poet, she is enrolled in night classes but she is not nearly as good as this kid. This is a portrait of an obsessed woman who is middle aged and feels like she is never going to be all she dreamed she wants to be. It’s really well directed and Gyllenhaal’s performance is excellent as is the young actor’s who plays the six-year old Jimmy.

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan – 2017) A-

Cold and dreary Wyoming, lots of snow and a dead teenager open up this one from Taylor Sheridan. Sheridan seems to have a knack for framing human stories that deal with social issues in the guise of thrilling well-made plots. In the excellent Hell or High Water it was the economic problems and market crashes that hit some more than others. In this one it’s about native Americans and especially women who seem to go missing and unreported.  Jeremy Renner and Elisabeth Olson play a game and wildlife agent and an FBI agent respectively who end up teaming up to figure out what happened on that Arapaho Indian reservation called Wind River. The film is a tight and brutal thriller with excellent performances and well composed scenes in the cold cold Wyoming mountains. It is not a conventional who-done-it mystery, but a story of loss, pain, violence and a hell of a harsh life.

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas – 2014) A

Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart deliver really excellent performances in this beautiful film. They play Maria Enders, a very popular actress, and her assistant Valentine respectively. They are heading to a Swiss town so that Maria can accept an award by her old mentor, a well-respected theater director called Wilhelm. Unfortunately the old guy commits suicide before they arrive because he was terminally ill. Maria is obviously heart-broken when she is approached by another director who wants to remake a play she starred in 20 years ago when she was 18 that was written by Wilhelm. The play, called The Maloja Snake, revolves around the relationship between two women, the older Helena and the much younger Sigrid. Now, though, she needs to play the flip side of the role, the older woman in that play.

Most of the film takes place in the beautiful Swiss hometown of Wilhelm as Maria rehearses her lines with Valentine, discusses Hollywood, acting, aging, having second thoughts about playing the older person in the play against the wild and young Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz)…Valentine might be the assistant but she also seems more than that. She is Maria’s confidant, her sounding board and is surprisingly honest and terse a lot of the time. We begin to realize that the play themes are maybe a little too close to home when we compare them to the real-life relationship between Maria and Valentine.

The film is deliberate with really interesting conversations and a lot of subtext. Assayas’ really makes use of the amazing location and we got awesome scenes between the two actresses in and around Sils-Maria. The film has an epilogue in London but really the climax is the last scene with them two as they hike to see the famous “snake” of clouds that give the play its name. Assayas and Binoche seem to work great together and I am looking forward to checking out their earlier collaboration.