Nine years ago, at about this time, I got to stay, along with my sister and brother-in-law, at a little house in Florence.
Our hostess, Auntie Gretchen, and my sister’s mother-in-law Nadia had been students together in Rome. Their sons, Simone and Raffaele, are the same age and close as brothers. And so, by affinity and also because she is innately gracious and hospitable, Auntie Gretchen took my sister and me to her bosom as part of the family.
For our first night under her roof she cooked us a dinner to remember: an arugula and prosciutto salad, followed by mushroom lasagne. Dessert was a nod to her American heritage – lemon meringue pie. We sat at her kitchen table watching her slice and squeeze the lemons, and grate parmigiano reggiano over the salad. The kitchen simmered with warmth that chilly October night and smelled deliciously of garlic.
But mostly I remember that mushroom lasagne, about which I still dream, and sometimes try to duplicate, without success. I’ve slowly and painfully come to realize that in order to come up with a lasagne that comes even slightly close to Auntie Gretchen’s, at the very least I would have to be in Florence, with access to the same milk, cheese, mushrooms, and pasta that she used. At most, I would have to be Auntie Gretchen.
This is where James Barber‘s cooking philosophy comes in handy: “You use what you’ve got.” So when my dreams of mushroom lasagne clamor to be transformed into reality – as they did this weekend – I roll up my sleeves and do my best with what I’ve got. So here it is. It’s not Auntie Gretchen’s Lasagne, but it’s Maria’s Lasagne, and my fondest wish for it is that it will become part of a great mushroom memory for someone, somewhere.
6 cups sliced mushrooms (you can use a combination of any kind you like, but try to use more flavourful varieties such as crimini, portobello, or porcini)
1 medium onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup dried mushrooms, reconstituted in 1 cup hot water
Salt and pepper
Heat the olive oil and butter together in a large skillet until melted.
Saute the onion and garlic until soft and fragrant.
Add the mushrooms and cook until soft. Add the reconstituted mushrooms along with the water. Cook for 5 minutes more. Season according to taste. Remove from heat and set aside.
For the Béchamel sauce:
5 tbsps butter
4 tbsps all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, scalded
Salt and pepper
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat and whisk in the flour 1 tbsp at a time. Cook, whisking constantly, for 1-2 minutes. Add the scalded milk and whisk until smooth. Cook until the sauce thickens, about 5 minutes. (Watch carefully and whisk often so it doesn’t burn.) Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper.
To assemble the lasagne:
Grate 1 cup of mozzarella cheese for the topping.
For oven temperature, follow the package directions of your lasagne of choice.
Place a layer of cooked mushrooms (including broth) in the bottom of your lasagne pan. Add a layer of lasagne, then a layer of Béchamel sauce.
Keep building the layers until the pan is full or you run out of mushrooms and sauce – whatever comes first.
Sprinkle the grated mozzarella over the top, cover with foil and bake according to package directions.
Let rest for 15 minutes before serving.