Ahh my old friend mushroom pasta. I try to move away to new flavours but mushrooms and pasta and cheese just go together so well and together create the best lasagne I have had in a long time. Alternating layers of mushrooms and ricotta fillings, separated by perfectly cooked pasta dough and topped with a mushroom based béchamel and a layer of melted mozzarella is just such a wonderful meal to eat (and it makes your house smell fantastic).
I thought it would be interesting in this post to talk a little bit about ricotta. In previous recipes I have covered mushrooms and their properties, as well as various troubleshooting techniques for different dishes but in this instance, I feel that the ricotta is something that should be understood better, as it is never fully appreciated. The most important thing about ricotta (in my opinion) is that it is a whey cheese. This is as opposed to a cheese like cheddar, which is a curd cheese. Whey cheeses are, as you may expect, made from whey which is a by-product of cheesemaking. The whey is either boiled down and reduced which caramelises the sugars in the milk creating a dark, yellow/brown, almost sweet cheese (like Norwegian Gjetost) or it can be heated (often with a small quantity of acid to lower the pH) to coagulate the whey proteins (like albumin) – similar to how milk proteins are coagulated into curds in normal cheesemaking – before the now coagulated proteins are strained out. The second method (coagulation) is how ricotta is produced.
The name ricotta derives from the Latin word recocta meaning “re-cooked” which is a perfect description really as it tells you all you need to know about the production process. The milk is heated and rennet added to create curds and whey; the curds are removed and the whey reheated to form ricotta! This technique has been used for almost two millennia as there are records of ricotta being eaten by the Romans and being served to important guests. Part of the appeal of ricotta was that it does not store well. The shelf life of fresh ricotta – without any preservatives – is not long, so the only people who ate it back in the times of the Romans were farmers who made it themselves to extract as much value as possible from their leftover whey and the wealthy who could afford to have fresh ricotta made for them as this was not the kind of thing you would want to buy in the market after it had been sitting in the hot, Mediterranean sun all day.
While the ricotta is an incredibly important part of the dish, it cannot stand up to the flavour of the mushrooms by itself which is why I add parmesan, nutmeg and black pepper to it before the lasagne is assembled. The creaminess of the cheese layer helps add texture and a luscious mouth feel to the final lasagne and the end result is truly remarkable.
Let me know in the comments below if you have a go at making this for yourself!
Makes 6 large portions or 8 small ones
Prep time: 1 hour
Cook time: 1 hour
For the mushroom layers
3 cloves garlic
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 medium onion (or 2 small onions)
10g dried porcini mushrooms
60ml boiling water
Salt and pepper to taste
For the cheese layers
½ tsp nutmeg
Salt and pepper
45g plain flour
1 clove garlic
½ mushroom stock cube (optional)
Salt and pepper
Ready to use lasagne sheets – if you want to buy ones that you need to soak, that is fine but I haven’t used that variety before. Follow the package instructions to prepare the lasagne sheets if necessary.
For the mushroom filling
Place the porcini mushrooms into a small bowl (or cup) and pour over the boiling water. Leave to stand for five minutes.
While the porcini mushrooms are rehydrating, finely chop the onion and garlic and roughly chop the mushrooms into bitesize chunks (remember they will shrink a bit so I generally chop them into pieces no more than half an inch in any direction).
Remove the rehydrated porcini mushrooms, squeeze them out and roughly chop them. Reserve the soaking liquid for later!
In a large saucepan, melt the butter on a low heat and then increase the heat until the butter is foaming.
Add the garlic, chopped porcini mushrooms and thyme leaves and lightly fry for a minute until the scents are released. If you like, you can add a couple of grinds of black pepper here too.
Next, add the chopped onion and fry until it becomes translucent (a couple of minutes).
Finally, add the mushrooms and stir them through. Pour over the reserved water from the porcini mushrooms. This will prevent the mushrooms from burning. Cover the pot and cook for ten to fifteen minutes until the mushrooms have released most of their liquid – don’t forget to stir them regularly.
Drain the mushroom liquid and set it aside for later – I ended up with around 400-450ml but don’t worry if you have less.
While the mushrooms are cooking, make the cheese filling.
Whisk the egg, ricotta, nutmeg, a good pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of black pepper together in a large bowl.
Finely grate the parmesan and whisk it through the ricotta.
Chop the feta into half centimetre/quarter inch cubes and gently stir this through the ricotta filling.
To make the final layer before assembly, finely chop the garlic and shallot.
Add milk to the reserved mushroom liquid to make it up to 500ml.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan and fry the onion shallot and garlic until they turn translucent.
Add the flour and whisk to combine.
Pour about 100ml of mushroom liquid into the pan and whisk it into the flour mixture. This will begin to thicken.
Slowly add the rest of the mushroom liquid until it is all in and then cook, stirring continuously for another five minutes until you have a thick, mushroom bechamel sauce. If you would like to add some extra mushroom stock, add the stock cube now and whisk it through.
Whisk a quarter cup (four tablespoons) of the bechamel into the ricotta mixture.
To assemble the lasagne, lightly oil an oven-safe dish and spread a very thin layer of the ricotta mixture over it.
Add a layer of pasta.
Pour over half of the mushrooms and spread them out into an even layer.
Roughly chop half of the taleggio and sprinkle it over the mushrooms.
Add another layer of pasta followed by half of the ricotta mix.
Add pasta, the remaining mushrooms and taleggio, more pasta, the rest of the ricotta and finally a last layer of pasta.
Pour over the bechamel and spread it out evenly.
Grate the mozzarella and sprinkle it over the lasagne.
Add a couple of sprigs of thyme and cover the top of the lasagne with foil. Try to avoid this touching the cheese too much as the cheese could stick once it melts!
The lasagne can be cooked now or later.
To cook the lasagne, place it in the middle of the oven and turn the oven to gas mark 6 (200°C).
Bake for 40 minutes, uncover and then cook for another fifteen to twenty minutes to crisp up the top.
I would recommend serving this hot (although I have been known to eat cold lasagne leftovers before however I would assume they are probably not for everyone…)
Leftovers reheat well in the microwave.
If you, like me, adore mushroom pasta, why not have a go at my mushroom pasta bakes (with or without chicken) or maybe even my mushroom carbonara … or if you are trying to be really fancy, my handmade mushroom ravioli.
Have a good one and I will be back next week with a delicious bread recipe – I am finally giving away my sourdough recipe and will also give you a few ways to jazz it up!