My mum turned sixty-five on Monday. I’ll see her in Italy this Friday, and have been looking for a birthday present for weeks, with no luck whatsoever. It happens every year, without fail. Oh, and at Christmas, too.
It’s not enough that I’m a terrible gift giver: she’s the hardest person to buy for I know. Books are a safe choice, although not the best, as she’s still working through the backlog she built up before retiring. She’s not fussed about fashion, completely careless for cosmetics, and not at all the spa-and-pampering or afternoon-tea-package type. Why, yes, I googled “what to give your mother for her birthday”, and the results filled me with despair.
If only I could cook for her; that would work out quite nicely. But then, I wonder if she would enjoy the meal, or question what’s so special about it, waiting for the “real” gift at the end. To her, cooking is a means of survival; a way to keep costs down and avoid excess, more often a chore than it is a pleasure. To me, it’s pure bliss and an act of love. Few things make me happier than feeding friends or family, and if someone pushes a half-full plate aside, or leaves the table still hungry, I get unspeakably sad.
In my child’s brain, a tray of lasagne roasting in the oven was the number one proof of my mother’s intention to make me happy. In much the same way, watching her quick-fry a gristly steak, or half-heartedly heat a ready meal, filled me with worries she was cross with me. It took years, and many lousy attempts at acting like a grown-up, to realise she was just tired. I don’t know much about motherhood, or see myself learning the trade any soon, but here’s something I’m pretty sure of: working a full time job and ploughing through hours of overtime and raising a daughter as a single parent is bound to leave you feel knackered, uninspired, or deflated from time to time. And you shouldn’t let anything or anyone tell you it’s wrong to feel like that – not even your child’s tantrums in front of a less-than-spectacular plate of food (forgive me, Mum).
Mum’s lasagne were the ultimate treat to me, usually confined to the odd Sunday lunch. Always an early riser, she’d start cooking in the morning, and I’d wake up to rows of parboiled sheets cooling off on damp tea towels. If any of them had torn while cooking, I’d eat them on the spot when no one was watching: a forbidden pleasure ready-to-bake lasagne eventually robbed me of. When the brimful, scalding dish landed on our table, I always grabbed two portions, eager to take in as much of that heavenly food and that seemingly fleeting love as I could.
I have since learnt some restraint – but only on the grounds that, if I resist the urge to go for seconds, I’ll have a leftover helping to enjoy the next day. Trust me on this: a portion of lasagne saved today is the road to tomorrow’s joy. If you can stomach gluten, meat and dairy, and have never stuffed your face with a leftover portion of homemade lasagne, you haven’t lived as fully as you think.
Mum’s lasagne take a couple of hours to prepare; far less than I thought when my only part in the process was asking “is it ready yet?” about every five minutes. My advice is to share them wisely. If you make a whole batch for two, you won’t have to fight about the leftovers (a definite relationship dealbreaker in my books). Make it for three, and you’ll need a good excuse to snatch the doggy bag; make it for four, and there will likely be no such thing. At a stretch, you could feed five or six people with a light appetite; if you ask me, though, lasagne are best enjoyed when you’re ravenous. Whether it’s food or affection you’re hungry for, or both, is yours to tell.
My favourite beef lasagne
(serves 4 – 5)
- 8 lasagne sheets
- 1 batch of beef ragù (see ingredients, quantities and recipe here)
- 50g butter
- 50g flour
- 500ml skimmed milk
- Salt, pepper and nutmeg, to your taste
1. Prepare the beef ragù
- If you’re making it from scratch, start around 1.5 – 2 hours before you move on to the next stage.
- If you already have it in the freezer, make sure it has thawed before you use it (or defrost it in the microwave if you’re tight for time).
2. Prepare the béchamel sauce
- Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan, on a medium heat.
- Add the flour, stirring quickly with a wooden spoon, so it blends with the butter. Lumps may form – try to break up as many as you can.
- Gradually add the milk: I usually pour in 100ml at a time, which makes measuring easier. Keep stirring throughout.
- Don’t stop stirring, even when you’ve used up all the milk. You want your béchamel to start thickening in the pan, until it resembles a creamy soup; you might get there way before it starts boiling.
- Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, then remove from the hob. Add small quantities at first, and have a taste to check the balance is right. At its best, béchamel sauce has a delicate, milky flavour, so it’s the dairy notes you want to bring out.
3. Assemble and cook
- Get a medium-sized ceramic or glass oven dish, and pre-heat the oven to 180°.
- Cover the bottom of the dish with a thin layer of ragù, so the lasagne sheets don’t stick while cooking.
- Place a layer of lasagne on top of the sauce. You should be able to fit in two sheets – don’t worry if they overlap slightly in the middle.
- Layer a generous portion of ragù on top, spreading it with a spoon so it covers the surface evenly.
- Pour a good helping of béchamel sauce over the ragù; make sure you cover any empty spots.
- Repeat the procedure – lasagne first, then ragù, then béchamel – to make two more layers.
- The fourth layer is a controversial matter. My mother is adamant that the last level of lasagne should be covered in béchamel only. I usually end up with a small amount of leftover ragù, and if it’s less than a portion for one, I use it straight away. Up to you how you want to play it – I love both versions just the same.
- Chuck everything in the oven, and cook for around 30 minutes, or until the lasagne sheets have softened. The béchamel will be slightly thicker, and if you get a thin crust on top, that’s better still! Don’t overdo it though, or you’ll risk burning the top layer.
You can store any leftovers in an airtight container; they’ll keep well for 2 – 3 days in the fridge. On the day you plan to eat them, simply pre-heat the oven to 180°, then cook for 15 minutes so you can serve them warm. I also hear they last a couple of months in the freezer, but they’re never around for that long in my house. Or in my mother’s, especially when I’m there to visit.
Wait, there’s more!
I’m entering this recipe into Credit Crunch Munch, a link-up for simple yet effective recipes that don’t break the bank. This month’s host is Michelle at Utterlyscrummy. Click the image to see the full list of entries…