Traditional Italian lasagna is not an option for Jews who follow the rules of kashrut, as the sauce mixes meat with béchamel and cheese. Consequently, Italian Jews have created their own variation of this staple dish, including this recipe, with a plain tomato sauce in place of the Bolognese. Its simplicity is its greatest asset. I love it and encourage you to try this recipe first and then experiment with different variations. You could, for instance, intensify the flavors by adding a mix of cheeses, or perhaps add roast vegetables to the tomato sauce, or go lighter by using ricotta and spinach instead of the béchamel and cheese. Do use thick egg lasagna sheets (fresh or dry) if you can as they have more flavor and will give the dish a better consistency.
For a shortcut, you can use 150ml (5fl oz/2/3 cup) of double cream instead of making a béchamel sauce – it is a bit of a cheat, but it works quite well! You can make the lasagne a day or two ahead and simply reheat it before serving. It also freezes well.
This recipe is from the cookbook “Jewish Flavors of Italy” by Silvia Nacamulli – a member of the FOODISH advisory committee, a London cook, lecturer and author of Roman origin who specializes in Jewish-Italian cuisine.
Ingredients for Vegetarian Lasagna
For the Lasagna
- 10–12 lasagne sheets fresh or dried egg
- 14 oz (400 grams) mozzarella (ideally the semi-hard cooking type, as it is less watery than fresh), or a mix of cheeses of your choice, finely diced, or shredded
- 1 ½ oz or ¾ cup (40g) parmesan cheese freshly grated
For the Tomato Sauce:
- 4 tablespoons olive oil extra virgin
- 3 garlic cloves crushed
- 1 lb 9 oz or scant 3 cups (700g) crushed tomatoes
- Atlantic sea salt to taste
- black pepper to taste
- 6–7 basil leaves plus extra to garnish
For the Béchamel:
- 17 fl oz (500 ml) milk
- 2 tablespoons (30g) butter
- 3 tablespoons (30g) plain white flour
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon Atlantic sea salt
- pinch ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (180°C fan/200°C/gas mark 6).
First, prepare the tomato sauce
2. Heat the oil and garlic in a large saucepan over medium-low heat and cook for a couple of minutes until the garlic has softened but not browned. Add the tomatoes, then rinse out the container with a little water and add that liquid to the pan. Add a good pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper. Cook, partially covered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and tear in the basil.
Meanwhile, Prepare the Béchamel:
3. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until almost boiling.
4. In a separate medium saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Once melted, add the flour and cook for about a minute, stirring constantly to create a roux. Slowly pour the hot milk into the roux, stirring constantly, with a hand whisk. Initially you may see small lumps, but they should disappear as you continue whisking. Cook, stirring, until the blend of milk, butter and flour has a creamy, custardy consistency. Add the nutmeg, salt, and pepper, and reduce the heat to low once it boils. Continue whisking for another minute, then remove from heat and keep covered.
Assemble the Lasagna:
5. Spread a thin layer of tomato sauce over the base of a rectangular oven dish, about 14 x 10 inches (35 x 25 cm), then lay some of the lasagne sheets on top in a single layer, trimming to fit. Cover this with about a third each of the tomato sauce, béchamel, mozzarella and parmesan. Add another layer of lasagna sheets, then another third of the other ingredients in the same order. Top with a final layer of lasagna sheets, tomato sauce, a thinner covering of béchamel, and the remaining mozzarella and Parmesan.
6. Bake in the oven for 20–25 minutes, until golden and bubbling on top. Garnish with basil leaves. Remove from the oven and leave to rest for 5 minutes before serving.
Tip: If your béchamel is too thick, add more milk to make a smoother consistency. If it is too runny, gradually add more flour, whisking it in bit by bit, to thicken it. For this recipe it is good to have a smooth, slightly runny béchamel.