102 Luscious Layers: The Gonzo Lasagne

I’ll start at the end. This was a truly delicious lasagne. It’s a stunt dish, sure, but it’s also fantastic eating. Fifty-one layers of veil-thin pasta, alternating with layers of ragù Bolognese, tomato sauce, besciamella and Parmigiano Reggiano. How could it not be good?

The preparation of the ingredients is time consuming because of the sheer amounts: 5 lbs of ragù, 3 quarts each of besciamella and tomato sauce, a pound of grated cheese, and four 1.25 lb batches of pasta, including a total of 60 egg yolks.

The real challenges of the dish are related to engineering. How do you keep 102 layers of slippery pasta and semi-liquid sauces from collapsing into a mess? How do you keep the dish intact once it’s sliced for final cooking and serving?

The Del Posto Cookbook implicitly acknowledges the challenge: despite titling the dish “100-Layer Lasagne,” the recipe tops out at 60 layers. Beyond that, terra incognita. There be dragons.

Intrepid explorers that we are, we thought the full 100 layers might be fun to tackle, and that some of you might be interested in how we made it work.

We discussed the ragù Bolognese in detail the other day, so let’s start with the other easy parts. Besciamella is simple. Take equal parts by weight of butter and flour, make a roux, and whisk whole milk into that. Boil until thickened, and season with salt. Let it cool, and pour it into Ziploc bags; you’ll use these as piping bags during assembly.

Pasta sauce is also easy. Finely chop 2 medium onions and 3 cloves of garlic. Sweat them in olive oil. Add a squeeze-tube of tomato paste and fry that until it turns brick red. Take five 28 oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes with their liquid and run them through a food mill directly into the pot. Add a few bay leaves and a Tbsp of salt, and simmer for a couple of hours until it’s reduced by about 20%. Add a touch of sugar if needed to smooth out any rough edges.

The pasta recipe used here is interesting and well worth adding to your repertoire. It makes an enormously forgiving, easy-to-handle pasta that’s also very tender to the bite. It’s also easy to remember:

  • 200g Italian 00 pasta flour
  • 100g Semolina flour
  • 270g Egg yolks (about 15 large yolks, plus another one if you find the dough too dry to knead)

The semolina flour (the same flour that’s used to make dry pasta) adds integrity and texture to the dough. It’s also a bit grittier than the 00 flour, so you may find the pasta slightly more challenging to knead into a smooth product. Knead for about 10 minutes, then rest it in the fridge for at least an hour. It will hydrate as it rests, and you’ll end up with something that feels more like conventional egg pasta dough.

This is my dough… David’s was much smoother.

Now, on to the first engineering challenge. When I successfully made the 60-layer version of the recipe a few years ago, I noticed that the corners of the lasagne drooped down because, unsupported during assembly, the filling tended to get squeezed out and drop to the pan below. I knew that this would be more problematic as the dish climbed toward 100 layers. I also pictured it becoming unstable, possibly leaning to one side or even sliding as I moved it from counter to fridge.

I dealt with this in two ways. First, I determined that we’d make a double-length lasagne – 12″ long by 6″ wide rather than the 6″ square of the original recipe. (I also did this because hey… if you’re going to all this trouble, you might as well make enough to share with friends.) Secondly, I decided to make a mould to support the lasagne during the assembly and resting phases (the assembled lasagne needs to sit in the fridge for at least 6 hours to allow the layers to draw together.)

I looked around the house for quite some time for appropriate materials. My eyes finally settled on a pair of cedar planks traditionally used to BBQ salmon. They were 7″ x 12″. Perfect!

I wrapped those in foil, and did the same to some corrugated cardboard that I had cut to size to form the end pieces. I lashed the frame together with packing tape, and hoped for the best.

Time to build the beast. Grateful for our very long kitchen counter, I set things up as follows, from left to right (going roughly backwards from final assembly to pasta rolling):

  • Final assembly area, with the frame sitting atop parchment on a half-sheet pan
  • Ziploc piping bag of besciamella and bowl of grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Pots of ragù Bolognese and tomato sauce
  • A large pot of boiling water to cook the pasta sheets
  • A bowl of cold water to stop the cooking of the boiled pasta sheets
  • A pasta stand to hold the cooled sheets and those awaiting cooking
  • A craft mat with a grid to guide cutting of the raw and boiled pasta
  • A “runway” of empty space to hold the pasta coming out of the pasta machine
  • The pasta machine

We realized shortly into the process that cutting the pasta prior to boiling it was futile, because the sheets expanded in the boiling water. It also occurred to us that we didn’t need to cut the sheets to fit precisely: in a 100-layer lasagne, you can compose many of the layers from offcuts. This increased the yield of the pasta, and made things go much more quickly.

The pasta sheets cooked four at a time, for just one minute. Then they went into a bath of cold water that needed to be refreshed every second batch.

We started assembly outside of the frame, to make it easier to access the corners. Each sheet of pasta is topped with about 2 Tbsp each of pasta sauce, ragù, besciamella, and cheese. It’s tempting to want to put more fillings on per layer, but it’s important to be restrained. This is a marathon, not a sprint.

After about eight layers, we slid the jury-rigged frame around the burgeoning beast, and built upward. We paid particular attention to building up the edges and corners. We reached the 100th layer with one sheet of pasta to spare, and the 100-layer lasagne became a 102-layer behemoth.

Into the fridge it went for an overnight rest. And then the cleanup – which took longer than the assembly – began.

Before lunch the next day, we unmolded the Leviathan and took its vital statistics: 6.5″ wide, 6.5″ tall, 12 inches long, and weighing in at a staggering 19 pounds.

Trimming the ragged end of the monstrous morsel revealed the 102 distinct strata in all their glory:

Cutting, cooking and serving this was going to be tricky. The layers were compressed together, but had by no means fused into a monolith.

We used the foil-covered cedar planks as a cutting guide, and deployed three thin Joseph Joseph plastic cutting mats: two to help support the outer edge and one to hold the inner cut edge tightly against the outer boards as we laid the slice down. We used a long, narrow Granton slicer to make the cut, sawing gently and with short strokes while pressing down.

We ran a long fish spatula underneath to help hold the slice together as we laid it down, then used it to slide the lasagne onto a griddle.

The Del Posto Cookbook suggests searing each slice on both sides, then warming it through in the oven. There was no way we were going to risk turning the slice over, so we instead seared the bottom and then broiled the top. This worked pretty well, though we took the bottom a bit far into charred territory on the first slice. Still, the lasagne can take quite a bit of charring and still taste good (indeed, Del Posto’s photos indicate that they take it right to the edge of burnt.) The smooth, mellow pasta, besciamella, ragù and cheese get along nicely with deep caramelization.

It took two large spatulas and two people (one holding, one pushing) to transfer the slice to a serving platter. We surrounded it with some more simmered tomato sauce, garnished it with basil and fresh parm, and – after slicing it in half – plated it.

In the eating, the texture of the pasta was the real revelation. Delicate, yielding, but definitely “there” as individual layers.

So, was it worth it? For us, definitely. And we’ll do it again one year, as soon as the memory of the cleanup has receded.

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