Weekend Homemade Lasagna with Italian Bechamel Sauce

As I snuggle under my duvet tonight to write these memories, I am a mother whose heart is swollen with pride.  I have so many emotions coursing through my body at this moment that I can barely contain myself.  I must tap out my emotions in order to breathe in and out the thoughts that fly through my mind.   The college responses are coming in...and the news is favorable.

I must confess that I have the most delicious caramel filled milk chocolate bar from Lake Champlain Chocolates sitting by my bedside helping me to tap out my joyous news.  I am savoring every gooey milky morsel.

Anyone who has gone through the teen years with their children understands the wrenching pains and uplifting joys of watching their children stumble, struggle, hurt, succeed, and then celebrate their first tastes of success in life.

Just the other weekend, we were moving through our leisurely Sunday trying to be carefree and relaxed while  flipping pancakes like always, listening to the sizzle of sausages on the stove, and sliding an egg onto each person's plate.

Knowing our daughter is daily glancing out the window to see if the mail has passed and anxiously checking e-mails to see if "the news" will be that day, can make parents feel so helpless.  It's time.  It was time for the "acceptances" and "rejections" from college applications.  Would we say the right words?  Would it be rejections?  Would we comfort or help celebrate?

We want nothing more than to assure her she will be alright. That she is worthy.  That she is valued.  But, this is one of those momentous turning points in life.  This is the beginning of the 'hills' and the 'valleys' that weave the tapestry of a life that will be beautiful at times and painful at others.  This feels like so much more than a scraped knee, a bee sting, or a bad dream.

We are not parents filled with gloating pride of accomplishment.  Seriously and honestly, that isn't it.  But, rather we are celebrating the joy bestowed on us as parents to watch our child be joyous and uplifted for these precious moments in her life rather than be anxious and distressed.  

To manage these interim weekends of waiting and wondering what life will bring our first born, we've kept busy on weekends creating, stirring, rolling, and mixing recipes in the kitchen.  

Patrick is still happily tickled to pull out his Father's Day gifted pasta maker.  Last weekend, he suggested we tackle lasagna...from scratch...bechamel and tomato sauce and all.  

Rolling out pasta dough has to harken back to playdough playing days of pre-school.  Remember taking clumps of playdough and squeezing it through those little molds to make all sorts of shapes?

One of the cutest items we bought when we lived in Japan was this little playdough "sushi" maker kit.  You could squeeze though little rice mounds, sheets of nori, and all sorts of raw fish toppings to create 'obento' boxes.  We had countless Japanese tea parties.

Bechamel sauce in lasagne brings this traditional pasta dish to new levels.  I'm not sure what was more sensual...the aroma while cooking the sauce or indulging in the final result.  I would have been willing to imbibe the sauce by the spoonfuls with morsels of dense Italian bread and flakes of pungent crumbly Parmesan cheese.

Hearty, thick, chewy, Italian bread is compulsory for this Northern Italian lasagna indulgence.  I realize that this requires doubling up on those evil carbs, but ...just don't eat lunch...is all I can say!  I usually put out a cheese tray with fruit mid-afternoon so I can concentrate and save my appetite for a Sunday dinner.

One of the beneficial side effects from the labor of stirring the sauce, squishing the tomatoes, cranking through the pasta dough, and layering this heady goodness on top of each other is the assured knowledge of ...leftovers.

My heart as a mother is singing with joy (and relief) for the happy news that our daughter is receiving from the colleges of her choice.  I've been through many of life's 'ups' and 'downs'.  I know I can handle disappointments and failures that come my way.  

It is truly heartbreaking to watch your children struggle through these moments in life when they are fraught with self doubt and uncertainty.  You, as a parent, know they do not quite have the perspective to foresee that they will survive and be stronger in the future.

Tonight, we are thankful for the strength and joy that comes this time with good news. 

Furthermore, delicate nibbles on caramel filled milk chocolate squares do wonders to promote those celebratory moments.

Weekend Homemade Lasagna with Italian Bechamel Sauce
(recipe courtesy of Giada De Laurentiis)


Bechamel Sauce:


Preheat oven to 375˚ degrees F.
Bechamel sauce:
In a 2-quart pot, melt 5 tablespoons of butter over medium heat. When butter has completely melted, add the flour and whisk until smooth, about 2 minutes. Gradually add the milk, whisking constantly to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue to simmer and whisk over medium heat until the sauce is thick, smooth and creamy, about 10 minutes. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of wooden spoon. Remove from heat and add the nutmeg and tomato sauce. Stir until well combined and check for seasoning. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
In a saute pan, heat extra-virgin olive oil. When almost smoking, add the ground beef and season with salt and pepper. Brown meat, breaking any large lumps, until it is no longer pink. Remove from heat and drain any excess fat. Set aside and allow to cool completely.
In a medium sized bowl, thoroughly mix the ricotta and eggs. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
Into the bottom of a 13 by 9-inch baking dish, spread 1/3 of the bechamel sauce. Arrange the pasta sheets side by side, covering the bottom of the baking dish. (Be sure that you don't make your pasta sheets too thin.  They will get lost in the thick layers of filling. We made ours too thin.) 

Evenly spread a layer of all the ricotta mixture and then a layer of all the spinach. Arrange another layer of pasta sheets and spread all the ground beef on top. Sprinkle 1/2 the mozzarella cheese on top of the beef. Spread another 1/3 of the bechamel sauce.

Arrange the final layer of pasta sheets and top with remaining bechamel, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into 1/4-inch cubes and top lasagna.

Line a large baking sheet with aluminum foil. Place lasagna dish on top, cover and put on the middle rack of the oven and bake until top is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Remove cover and continue to bake for about 15 minutes.

Simple Tomato Sauce:

(**We made our sauce the day before and that helps with time constraints)

In a large casserole pot or Dutch over, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until soft and translucent, about 5 to 10 minutes. Add celery and carrots and season with salt and pepper. Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. 

Add tomatoes and bay leaves and simmer uncovered on low heat for 1 hour or until thick. Remove bay leaves and check for seasoning. If sauce still tastes acidic, add unsalted butter, 1 tablespoon at a time to round out the flavors.
Add 1/2 the tomato sauce into the bowl of a food processor. Process until smooth. Continue with remaining tomato sauce.
If not using all the sauce, allow it to cool completely and pour 1 to 2 cup portions into freezer plastic bags. This will freeze up to 6 months.

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