Fresh tomato lasagna

Can you count the layers?

I can. I did. If we’re willing to count the bit of sauce on the bottom of the dish – and I’m not at all sure we should be – then this lasagna has 18 layers of homemade pasta sheets, fresh tomato sauce, and creamy mozzarella cheese (with a smack of Parmesan on top). If we just want to count the pasta sheets themselves, then the answer is eight, which isn’t too shabby, though I say it myself.

It had been a good long time since I made lasagna, and the last time I made it… well, it was a disappointment at best. That one was too complicated, too many twists and turns and clever ideas and it all became a giant convoluted baked mess. Edible, to be sure, but hardly the triumph I was reaching for. So this time I kept it simple. Super simple. Too simple? Not really, but the light touch I gave this one caused my dashing husband to proclaim that it was more souffle than lasagna. I took it as the highest compliment. Or, to be more precise, I took it as a compliment once I stopped obsessively wondering if he really meant that there wasn’t enough food. There was enough food. Pretty much. Who knew the lasagna would turn out so tasty? Who were we to resist its charms?

Overly Long and Picture-Laden Fresh Tomato Lasagna Recipe

Start by buying super ripe tomatoes. The better the tomatoes, the better this lasagna will be. And by “better” I don’t mean fancy names or labels or heirloom-ness,  I mean ripe and super tomato-flavored. Taste before you buy. Also, less juicy varieties will work better here. Your Romas, your Early Girls, your plums.

Take about 3 pounds of those tomatoes and hull them (cut out their core). Chop them and run that mixture through a food mill.

Alternatively, you can purée them in a blender and then run them through a food mill or, if you don’t have a food mill, strain the mixture through a sieve to get the seeds and skin out – although that process is such a pain that I would then consider peeling and seeding the tomatoes first and then whirling them in a blender. In any case, you want to end up with a smooth purée of tomatoes with very minimal seeds or skin in the mix.

Pour this purée into a pot, add an onion that has been halved and peeled and about 6 tablespoons of butter. Bring the whole mess just to a boil.

Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring now and again as the mood strikes you, until it is all reduced and dark red and yummy looking and a bit thickened up. This will take at least an hour and maybe two depending on how juicy the tomatoes were to start with.

While the sauce is cooking you need to make the pasta. Work 2 cups of flour, a teaspoon of fine sea salt, and 4 eggs into a dough. Knead this dough so it holds together and is nice and smooth – you can just do this in the bowl you mixed the dough in. No big deal. No need to knead it like bread dough. Put the pasta dough on a piece of plastic wrap, wrap it up and shape it into a flat disk as you do so. Put it in the fridge for at least 30 minutes. You could, of course, do this before you get the sauce started so that once the sauce is cooking you can start in the with pasta. I did not do that. I found there was plenty of clean-up, note-taking, and lunch-eating to do while the pasta rested.

Then you need to roll out the pasta. I divided the dough into 8 portions. Rolled one portion on the thickest setting, folded that piece like a business letter in thirds, rolled it on the thickest setting, repeated that move and then moved on, doing that with each portion of dough (adding flour as necessary along the way, of course).

I then took each piece through the next setting, and so on until the dough was rolled out on the thinnest setting on my pasta roller-outer. You may well have another method for rolling out pasta dough. Please, use that if it works for you.

Cut the pasta sheets into pieces that 1) will fit in the pan you’re going to bake the lasagna in and 2) that you can deal with and handle without losing your mind. For me that meant cutting each sheet into 3 or 4 pieces.

Put a large pot of water on to boil, add enough salt so it tastes salty, and drop the pasta sheets in for about 30 seconds each. Have a bowl of ice water ready to dunk the pasta into when you take it out of the boiling water to cool it immediately.

Lift pasta out of the water, running your hand down each piece to remove as much excess water as possible, and lay the pasta out on clean kitchen towels. Warning: this will most likely use up most of your counter space.

Thinly slice about 8 ounces of fresh mozzarella cheese. Finely grate about 4 ounces of Parmesan cheese.

Taste the pasta sauce, add enough sea salt to make the flavor really pop.

Put about 1/3 cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9×13 (or there about) baking pan and spread it around. Arrange a single layer of pasta in the pan. Top that with just a bit of sauce – seriously, just the thinnest of layers that will fall far short of coating everything.

Then a layer of pasta. Then a layer of mozzarella – but not a solid layer, just pull each slice apart a bit and arrange about half the mozzarella in the pan. Top with pasta. Then sauce. Then pasta.

Then a sprinkle of Parmesan. Then pasta. Then sauce. Then pasta. Then the remaining mozzarella. Then pasta. Then sauce. Then pasta. Then sauce and the rest of the Parmesan.

Cover and bake for 35 minutes at about 375°F. Uncover and bake another 15 minutes or so. Serve with fresh basil leaves and some oven-dried tomatoes. I also offered up a platter of sautéed zucchini, all beautifully browned and yummy out of a cast iron pan.

I’d like to say that this feeds six, but that is stretching it. It really is terribly light. Delicious. But light.