That sounded a little dramatic. You know why? It was. My weekend was full of excitement, drama, and the emotional rollercoaster of figuring out what, exactly, is in the perfect bolognese. It was exhausting. It was stressful. It was delicious. Bolognese is really the ultimate Italian meat sauce. It’s the quintessential sauce that you’d want in a lasagna. It is simmered for hours and tended to with the utmost care. It is magical. It’s also time consuming, expensive, and potentially extra fussy. Through my time striving to become an honorary Italian, it is something that I have just recently become comfortable making and serving to my New Jersey Italian in-laws (although it’s an entirely different style than the ricotta-based lasagnas that I’ve had from them). If you’ve ever spent any time reading about Italian cooking, you have without a doubt come across the goddesss of Italian cuisine, Marcella Hazan. Sometime in the last year, after reading this hilarious public apology note to Marcella, I bought one of her books. It has been collecting dust on my shelf for the last several months.
So when I decided to make a lasagna last weekend? I broke down and made Marcella’s version. The version that simmers the meat and aromatics in milk, before adding wine, then finally tomatoes. And her version? It uses white wine. It was more than I could bear. Her recipe was just too…. weird! And so after reading through her recipe with much skepticism, I figured I would hedge my bets and also make a double batch of the Smitten Kitchen Bolognese that I not only love, but trust. So then I got down to business.
Ingredients prep was fairly simple, if not time consuming. There was a lot of onion, carrot, and celery to chop. And since I was going to be using a LOT of wine in those recipes, (plus I have plans for a risotto or two in the next week or so and a wine-based braise that’s going to be happening soon), I got the good stuff. 😉
And I got to browning my aromatics, beef, etc. And I made some sauce. The Smitten Kitchen recipe (that I doubled) took up 4 cans of tomato paste and a full quart of wine. It is marvelous.
And as I began to make progress in the Marcella Hazan bolognese? I began trusting it less and less. As the milk bubbled away, reducing down to near nothingness, I cursed myself for wasting my beautiful grassfed beef and milk on a recipe that was sure to be a failure. When the white wine was added, I silently cried, watching the beautiful golden liquid disappearing into the anemic meat mixture. And after adding the tomatoes and simmering for hours? I didn’t feel any better. Sure, it tasted alright, but it was no deeply tomatoey, red winey masterpiece. So I let the sauces cool, then tucked them away into the refrigerator overnight before starting on the lasagna assembly the next morning.
The next afternoon, I threw together a batch of spinach pasta, preboiled (this step is imperative), chilled, and laid it out. I made my bechamel. Ricotta is for amateurs, or people who are not nearly as pretentious as I am. A lasagna bolognese must be delicate, simple, and layer only pasta, bolognese, bechamel, and maybe a sprinkling of cheese.
And so the shootout began. I have nearly a gallon of the rich, tomatoey Smitten Kitchen recipe, and just under a quart of the Hazan one. As such, I made a full 9×13 pan of the SK sauce, and just a small loaf pan with the Hazan bolognese. And I got to layering.
A layer of pasta
A smear of bolognese
A drizzle of bechamel
A sprinkle of parmesan
Lather, rinse, repeat.
And then I ran out of bechamel! But I was at the top of both of the pans anyway, so I replaced the final topping of bechamel with a nice thick layer of sliced mozzarella (sacrilege!).
And then I put them in the oven for a solid hour or so. I pretty much just waited for the cheese to start getting nice and brown on top. Scientific, I know.
And we had the whole clan over for dinner. My mother in law, father in law, aunt in law, and grandmother in law. And we all tasted both. Everyone preferred the Hazan example. I was floored. It’s true. Her bolognese has a cleaner flavor and really…. refined the lasagna. That’s not to say that the Smitten Kitchen sauce doesn’t have it’s place. I don’t think it could be beat on top of something big and robust, but Marcella has a place in my heart now.