Pasta al forno
Preparation - Difficult but rewarding.
Serves 8 - 10

Because it can be made in great quantities to serve lots of hungry workers after their labors are done, this dish reminiscent of lasagne is a big favorite at the trebbiatura, when the harvest of summer wheat is threshed, or indeed at any other time of the year, harvest or not, when there are lots of mouths to feed. At times like these, my neighbor Mita Antolini always wears a little smile of special pride as she accepts her neighbors' compliments. Her layers of pasta are as thin and fine and elegant as a silk handkerchief, a far cry from the stodgy lasagne most Americans are used to.

This may look like a long, complicated recipe, but much of it can be done in advance. You could, for instance, make the ragu' several days before you need it, and mix the pasta dough the morning of the day you plan to serve it. Then it's just a question of making the besciamella (a well-seasoned white sauce) and assembling the dish, which can also be done several hours before baking. Mita's daughter-in-law Maura, who has a full-time job running a clothing stall in the traveling local street markets, often puts her time and the family freezer to good use by making two of these at once and freezing one (unbaked) to be brought out and cooked whenever the occasion demands.

A word of advice if you're going to make this all at once: It's easiest if you first make the ragu', then put the milk to steep with its flavorings, and make the pasta while the milk steeps. Then continue with the besciamella while the pasta rests. If you must make the besciamella in advance, press a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the sauce to keep a skin from forming.

This pasta is best of all when it's baked, literally, al forno, in the outside oven after the bread has come out, when a slight smokiness from the wood-fired oven impregnates the dish. But it's darned good baked in a conventional kitchen oven too.

For the ragu':
  • 2 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium carrot, scraped and finely chopped
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 stalk celery, finely chopped
  • 1 sweet Italian sausage
  • 1 pound lean ground beef or veal
  • 1 1/2 cups tomato puré
  • 2 cups whole canned tomatoes, with their liquid
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
For the pasta:
  • 1 pound (3 1/2 to 4 cups) unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3 or 4 large eggs
  • 1 T extra virgin olive oil
For the white sauce:
  • 4 cups whole milk
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 small onion, peeled but left whole
  • 1 small carrot, peeled but left whole
  • 1/2 medium stalk celery
  • 1/4 lb (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • salt to taste
  • freshly grated nutmeg to taste
For the final assembly:
  • 1 T extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
OO Skillet, saucepan, pasta pot, oven proof dish.

  1. First, make the ragu':

    Heat the olive oil over medium-high in a saucepan and while it's heating, chop together the carrot, onion, and celery.

    Add the vegetables to the oil in the pan and sauté gently, turning the heat down if necessary, until the vegetables are soft but not beginning to brown.
  2. Meanwhile, open up the sausage, discarding the sausage skin, and when the vegetables are soft, add the sausage meat to the pan, breaking it up with a fork.

    Cook, tossing and stirring the sausage meat with the vegetables.

    When the sausage has lost its pink color, add the ground meat and continue in the same manner, tossing and stirring the meat to mix with the vegetables until it is thoroughly browned.

    Stir in the tomato purée.

    Coarsely chop the whole tomatoes and add them with their juices to the pan. Add a pinch of sea salt and several grinds of black pepper, or to taste.

    Bring to a simmer, lower the heat to medium-low, and cook at a steady, even, but not vigorous bubble for about 20 minutes, or until the tomatoes have cooked down to a thick sauce.

    If the sauce gets too thick, stir in a few tablespoons of boiling water.

    If the sauce doesn't thicken sufficiently, raise the heat to medium-high and continue cooking, uncovered, an additional 10 minutes.

    When the sauce is done, taste and adjust the seasoning.

    Set aside until ready to proceed with the recipe. (You can make the sauce well in advance and refrigerate it, but heat it very hot before assembling the recipe.)
  3. Make the pasta: Mound about 3/4 of the flour on a board or wooden work counter and make a well in the center.

    Break the eggs into the well and slowly mix the flour into the eggs, adding 1 tablespoon of water from time to time as the dough comes together.

    Once the eggs and about 1/4 cup of water are incorporated, knead the dough on the board for at most 5 minutes. (Too much kneading will develop the gluten and make the pasta very stiff.) You're aiming for a soft but not sticky mix, but don't worry if the dough is stiff, as it will relax while it rests.

    Form the dough into a ball, rub the olive oil in the palms of your hands, and rub it all over the outside of the ball.

    Cover loosely with plastic wrap and set aside to rest at least 15 minutes. (In warm weather, refrigerate the dough to keep it from getting too soft if you need to keep it more than 15 minutes or so, but bring it back to room temperature before rolling it out.)
  4. Finally, make the besciamella, the white sauce that binds together all the elements of the dish:

    In a medium saucepan, combine the milk, bay leaves, onion, carrot, and celery.

    Place over medium heat and bring just to the boiling point, but do not let boil. Set aside, covered, to steep for at least 30 minutes.

    When ready to continue, the flavored milk should be very hot. If necessary, return to the heat before continuing with the recipe, but do not let the milk boil.

    In a saucepan large enough to hold the milk, butter, and flour, melt the butter over medium-low heat.

    When it is completely melted and just beginning to foam, add all the flour at once, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon to get a thick paste. Continue stirring for 5 minutes or so to cook off the raw taste of the flour, but if the flour starts to turn color, remove from the heat.

    Skim out and discard the solids from the very hot milk and begin adding the milk, in ladlefuls, to the flour-butter paste, whisking constantly, with the pan set over medium-low heat.

    As soon as one ladleful of milk has been smoothly incorporated into the sauce, add another.

    Continue until all the milk has been combined, then add a pinch of salt and a very little freshly grated nutmeg, and continue cooking over very low heat and stirring constantly until you have a thick sauce, in consistency somewhere between heavy cream and sour cream.

    When ready to assemble the dish, use the olive oil to grease a 9- x 13-inch Pyrex or enamel oven dish, like a lasagna dish. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

    Use any remaining flour to dust the work surface lightly.

    Unwrap the pasta dough and cut out a piece about 1/4 to 1/2 cup in size. (Those who are new to pasta-making will find it easier to work in smaller batches.)

    Pat the pasta dough into an oblong and pat it lightly in the flour on the board.

    Now, either roll the pasta out in a long oblong sheet, as thin as you can make it without letting it fall apart, or put it through a pasta machine, starting with the widest opening and gradually decreasing until you get to the smallest and finest sheet. Ideally, two sheets of pasta, slightly overlapped, will be just a little larger than the pan in which it will bake. Have ready a kitchen towel spread out on a tabletop and lightly dusted with flour.

    Lay the sheet of pasta on the towel to dry and continue with the rest of the pasta.

    Leave the pasta sheets to dry for about 15 minutes, or just long enough to tighten them up a little and lose their softness but not to become dry and brittle.

    Bring a large pan of water to a rolling boil, and have ready a bowl of cold water next to the stove.

    Drop two of the pasta sheets into the boiling water for a few seconds, removing them with a slotted spoon or scoop just as soon as they float to the top, then transferring them to the bowl of cold water to stop the cooking instantly.

    Lay the sheets in the bottom of the prepared baking dish. Spread about 1/2 cup white sauce over the layer - you don't have to cover it completely.

    Sprinkle a scant 1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano over the sauce and add a little salt and pepper.
  5. Repeat with another two sheets of pasta, spreading on some of the ragu' instead of the besciamella.
  6. Continue in this fashion, alternating thin layers of ragu' with the besciamella and cheese until you have at least ten layers. The topmost layer should be white sauce and cheese.
  7. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the top is golden and the sauce is very bubbly.

    Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes or so, then serve.





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