while lasagnas are not a traditional Croatian fare for holidays, we are making our own family traditions. And since we love lasagna, we decided to make an extra decadent version for our Yule/Christmas table. We make everything from scratch – the green pasta, the meat sauce, and the béchamel. This is an all hands on deck event and it usually takes us a couple of days to finish it all up, but this lasagna is the tastiest way to treat ourselves for holidays. It is by no means a traditional Italian lasagna. It is our lasagna. So let’s go and make Christmas lasagna!
Ingredients and procedures for Christmas lasagna
The list of ingredients is packed with veggies. You might be surprised how many veggies go into the lasagna. The only part of our Christmas lasagna that is (so far) veggie-less is béchamel, but that might also change in future.
4 large eggs
1 kg (2 lbs) high-quality ground beef (80:20 meat to fat ratio)
1 thick piece of bacon (at least 100g)
2 big onions ( or 1 full cup of finely diced onions)
3 carrots ( or 1 full cup of finely diced carrots)
1 bunch of celery stalks ( or again a full cup of finely diced celery stalks)
2 big bay leaves
0.75 – 1L tomato juice (3 – 4 cups of tomato juice)
dry paprika ( can be smoked paprika)
1 big glass of white wine (can be red as well, but red leaves a stronger taste, which might not be to everyone’s liking) you can substitute the wine with stock (I’d use beef stock)
grated parmesan cheese (we grate it ourselves. it tastes better)
It is a loooong list of ingredients, and so is the recipe. We usually do this over a couple of days. On the first day, we make pasta. On the second day, we make the meat sauce, and on the last day, we make the bechamel. Then we assemble it all and freeze it until Christmas or, if we make it one day ahead, then put it into the bottom shelf of our fridge. On Christmas, we defrost it (if we froze it) and then cover it with cheese and bake until heated through and cheese on top has browned. This makes for a really convenient dinner on Christmas. I don’t need to cook a lot, only the appetizers or a soup, and toss the salad, while the lasagne bakes in the oven. And I get to enjoy the holiday without the rush to get things done.
The green pasta
4 large eggs
2 Tbsp spinach puree
pinch of salt
I have to admit, I don’t know the exact weight of flour that is used for pasta. The reason being that every egg is a different size, and thus the flour usage differs. I start with half a kilo (1 pound) of flour and then gradually add more until I get a pliable dough, similar to playdough. So let the feeling guide you in this one.
To make spinach puree you need spinach. You can use fresh or frozen. If using fresh then quickly blanch it in boiling salty water. You will need around 2 handfuls of spinach, depending how big is your hand. If using frozen spinach, defrost it. Then put the spinach into a blender and blend the hell out of it. It should be a smooth paste. If necessary you can add one spoon of water, to make it blend more easily.
When you have pureed your spinach you are ready to make pasta. This step is the same as when making any pasta, you just add spinach puree instead of one extra egg. I use entire eggs because the egg whites give my gluten-free dough a bit more elasticity. You can, if you want, use only yolks. I would then put more yolks or 1 Tbsp of spinach instead of 2. Since I learned to make pasta in a bowl, I make my pasta in a bowl. I tried making it on a table and it was a mess. So you use the method that is easier for you. The steps are the same.
In a bowl of flour, (or a volcano of flour if working on a bench) put your eggs and spinach. Then start slowly mixing in flour with the eggs. Work from the inside to the outer edge until all flour is combined. If the dough is still very sticky and wet, add more flour. I add one by one spoon of flour until I get a good consistency. Then I kneed it a bit. Roll it into a ball, grease the surface of the dough and the bowl where it will rest. And leave it to rest for a while ( at least 20min) in the fridge, or if it’s wintertime, then on my balcony. You can make it one day and leave it in the fridge overnight, then continue the next day if you don’t have the time or space to roll it out the same day.
After the dough has rested it is time to roll it out. I roll it out in big sheets, a bit smaller then my lasagna pan. And I roll it into roughly 2mm (1/10 “) thickness. This year I will be rolling it by hand again, so not every sheet will be the same thickness, but it doesn’t matter. It will still be tasty.
You can roll the dough out the same day you make it. Or you can put it into the fridge to wait the assembly. Then you will roll it and cook it as you assemble the Christmas lasagna.
The meat sauce
1 kg (2 lbs) of high-quality ground beef, if possible grind it yourself
1 thick piece of bacon (about 100g of bacon) cut into small chunks
2 big onions cut into small dice
4 big carrots cut into small dice
1 bunch of celery stalks cut into small dice (about 1 lb or 500g of celery)
0,75- 1L tomato juice
salt and pepper to taste
2 big bay leaves
1 Tbsp paprika (we like our paprika, and it can be smoked paprika, for extra smokiness)
cayenne pepper to taste
optional – dried oregano
1 big glass of white wine (you can use red wine as well or omit it completely)
grated parmesan cheese (at least 4 Tbsp, but you may adjust it according to your taste. There is a specific point in which the sauce becomes extra savory – that’s the sweet spot)
We will start the meat sauce by frying the bacon in a Tbsp of oil. Put the oil and the bacon in the big wide pot in which you will make your sauce. Then fry the bacon until brown. You can take the bacon bits out of the pot and then sauté the veggies in the fat alone, but usually, we just keep it in.
In the next step put onions, carrots, and celery in the pot and sauté them on medium to low heat until tender and translucent. They should start falling apart. Then add the meat and mix it well with the veggies (and the bacon if you left it in). When all is combined, raise the heat up to high, and brown the meat. It should really really become nice and brown. And you should have the brown fond on the bottom of the pot. Also, add the bay leaves now. They will release their aroma in the bacon fat and impregnate it in the meat.
When the meat is finally brown (it can take a while) reduce the heat to medium, pour the wine and deglaze the pot with the wine. Then let it simmer out again until no liquid remains. The next step is to add the paprika, oregano, cayenne pepper, a little bit of salt and pepper. Quickly mix it in and then pour the tomato juice. Mix it thoroughly with the met and veg, and also if any fond is left in the bottom, deglaze it again. Then reduce the heat to low and simmer until reduced to your liking. The cooking of the sauce can take up to 2 hours and more, so make sure you have enough patience. Don’t try to rush it, and you’ll be fine.
After simmering for a couple of hours your sauce should be ready for finish. Taste it, and add the parmesan. Then taste again, and if not salty enough, add more salt. Then taste again. Add a bit more pepper (it will probably need it) and check if the parmesan level is ok. If everything is the way you like it, it is finally, finally done.
And we can move to the last component before assembly 🙂
The white sauce – bechamel
3 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp gluten-free flour packed full (rice and cornflour work well here, did not yet have success with potato flour)
salt, (white) pepper
The last component of our Christmas lasagna is – the white sauce. It has the smallest list of ingredients and is the trickiest to make. You can omit pepper in this one, but I like to add it. If you don’t want any dark specks in the sauce, simply use white pepper. If you cannot find white pepper, then add a normal one.
Put your saucepan on the middle to low heat and melt butter. When the butter is melted add the flour and whisk it until the flour is cooked. It may take around 5 min. Then add milk.
There are entire discussions about how you should add the milk. and if it should be hot or cold. I use room temperature or cold milk, and add it bit by bit. I would add around half a cup in, then mix it well. After it is thoroughly combined I add another half cup and mix it well. I do so until the entire liter is mixed in.
When the milk is mixed in I add in a pinch of salt and leave it to reduce a bit, occasionally stirring it so it doesn’t burn. I usually reduce it for around 15min and after the consistency is a bit more liquid than you think it should be (it should act like heavy cream), add the parmesan and pepper. Adjust the salt to your liking and add a little bit of ground nutmeg. You can also omit the nutmeg. The sauce will thicken up as it cools and will also thicken up as it bakes in lasagna.
At last, we can assemble the lasagnas.
A little proclaimer before we start the discussion about how I am assembling it wrong or using the wrong cheese. This is how I assemble my lasagna because WE LIKE IT THAT WAY. It is as simple as that. We like to separate our red layer and white layer with a pasta layer. We like to use gouda for the final layer and usually we use it in every white layer as well. It melts wonderfully and the last layer is beautifully golden brown. But you can use any cheese you want.
We even omitted béchamel one time and used only ricotta with a little mixed in parmesan. After that, we decided that we prefer the béchamel version so we do this one for our Christmas lasagna. For a quick version over the year we use ricotta or fresh cheese if we don’t feel like making béchamel. Use what ever you like and assemble however you like it. It is your lasagna. It should be enjoyed and created the way you like it.
The assembly of Christmas lasagna
grated cheese (we like gouda, so I use that one. but you can use mozzarella or even ricotta)
And now… Let’s assemble the Christmas lasagnas. First, take your lasagna pan and oil it lightly. I do this just in case. Since the sauces are not light by any means, you can even omit to oil the pan. And sometimes I forget, it still turns out just fine.
Next, we will precook our pasta. What we discovered over the years is that the home made pasta in these lasagnas is much better when pre cooked. In a big pot boil salted water then add one by one piece of pasta, and cook it until pliable. If you have not yet rolled out your pasta, you can roll it out now and put the fresh pasta into the pot for 1-2 minutes. Then take them out into an oiled container and add a bit of oil, like 2 drops of it, on top of the pasta, to prevent the next piece from sticking. Repeat until all of your pasta is cooked.
To the bottom of your lasagna pan add the meat sauce. I put approximately 3 Tbsp of meat sauce per layer in my pan, but it all depends on the dimensions of your pan. If it’s smaller then add a smaller amount. When the layer of meat sauce is in, add a layer of pasta on top. I like to carefully spread it over the meat sauce so it completely covers the sauce. Next, I add a layer of béchamel, the similar thickness to the meat sauce, and cover it with a very thin layer of cheese.
Then I add another layer of pasta, cover it with meat sauce, and repeat the process until no more pasta is left. What I make sure is to finish with the white layer. So the top of my lasagna is always béchamel and cheese. And it always has gouda on top. Be it mixed with another cheese or plain. But gouda is, in our opinion, the best cheese to top our Christmas lasagna.
Bake and eat Christmas Lasagna 🙂
The last step is to bake our Christmas lasagna until golden brown. It should be baked for around 35min and I usually put it into a cold oven. You reduce the heat of the preheated oven by a lot when you open the door, so if you cannot do this quickly, then start from a cold oven. For lasagna, it may mean 5 min more baking time, but since our pasta is cooked there should be no issues with raw pasta. If you are not sure they are ready, or it is still a bit cold after 30 min, cover them with aluminum foil and let them cake for 5-10 more minutes.
When they are finished baking, leave it to rest for 15 min so they are not piping hot and it settles a bit. Cut it to the portion size you like and enjoy! 🙂
P.S. You can serve a salad or pickles as a side dish.