Enjoyed across the globe, from the trattorias of Italy and the homes of Europe to the restaurants of the USA, lasagne is one of the crowning glories of Italian food. Made with sheets of dried pasta layered amongst a rich tomato ragù, sumptuous minced meats and the finest cheese, all baked to perfection in the oven, it’s easy to see why lasagne has become so popular. So where did this delicious dish come from, and what’s the secret to creating the perfect lasagne?
Although it is known as a distinctly Italian dish, lasagne actually has origins in ancient Greece. The name lasagne is derived from the Greek word laganon – the first known form of pasta. This early version was not a traditional lasagne as we know it, but it was composed of layers of pasta and sauce, meaning that the dish was named after the method in which it was made rather than its ingredients.
Many countries have since claimed to be the originators of the modern lasagne that we know and love today, with British researchers arguing that the earliest iteration of the modern recipe can be found in a British cookbook. However, few can dispute that lasagne as we know it was truly crafted and perfected in 14th century Naples.
It was here that the traditional lasagne of Naples, lasagne di carnevale, was born. This lasagne differs from the most common recipe – the Neapolitan version is layered with local sausage, small fried meatballs, hard-boiled eggs, ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, with a Neapolitan ragù. Lasagne al forno, the recipe now popular across the world, is traditionally associated with the Emilia-Romagna region. With its thicker ragù, creamy béchamel sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano, layered with beef and pork, this is certainly a much richer recipe. It’s this version that was taken to the USA by Italian immigrants in the late 18th century, where the dish quickly became an international favourite.
So, what makes the perfect lasagne? It’s universally agreed that, in classic Italian style, the basics are simple – sheets of lasagne, which can be replaced by fresh flattened egg pasta, a tomato-based ragù, authentic Parmigiano-Reggiano and high quality meats. Béchamel sauce, while sometimes unfavoured by Italian-American chefs, is also important, and the additional ingredients – vegetables, wine, ricotta and seasoning, for example – are often added or removed according to the taste of the chef.
The same goes for the ratio of ingredients and the texture. Giorgio Locatelli has argued that traditional lasagne should be a “sturdy, quite dry pasta dish”, preferring to stay away from the liquidy recipes that he refers to as being like “a version of shepherd's pie, only made with pasta instead of potato”. That’s not to say the sauce isn’t important though. While many chefs disagree over the perfect sauce recipe, that all agree that it’s best to let the sauce cook for a good few hours in order to bring out the best of the flavours. In this sense, creating the perfect lasagne isn’t too different to creating any good dish in the classic Italian style – just keep it simple, take your time, use the best ingredients and cook with passion.