Monday, 1 October 2012

Pesto Lasagna or Lasagne Alla Genovese

Basil is one of those things I can't imagine living without. I use fresh leaves in my cooking at least 3 times a week, and what better time to use them than at their peak, right at the end of the summer heats? Basil will add a sweet herb-y taste to pasta sauces, meat dishes, and even desserts and cocktails! The plant is also lovely: keep it by a window where it will get lots of sunlight and generously water it everyday, and you'll always have fresh basil to flavor your food!

Pesto, it goes without saying, is one of my favorite things, ever. It's versatile, tasty, can be adjusted just to your taste, and it can easily be frozen for later use. I try to always have some pesto handy, because a tablespoon here or there can make almost any dish suddenly taste very sophisticated. Roast chicken? Pesto! Minestrone? Pesto! Grilled white fish? Pesto! The damn thing is addictive. So imagine a lasagne literally stuffed with it!!

This recipe makes a beautiful lasagne for hotter weather, because it is not as heavy as the tomato or meat sauce based ones, and if you make your own pesto, it is simply bursting with seasonal goodness (however, do not fool yourself into thinking this is diet lasagne!). Sure, it's a bit of work and a lot of assembling, like any lasagne, but the creamy blend of bechamel and pesto is to die for. It also looks really beautiful and smells amazing! I got inspired by a post of The Italian Dish, but used my own pesto and bechamel recipe to create this dream of a pasta bake.

10 to 20 lasagne noodles, pre-cooked (or no-boil lasagne noodles)

Pesto (makes about 1 cup):
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
3 large handfuls of fresh basil, leaves picked and chopped
Coarse sea salt
1 handful of pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 large handful of grated Parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Sea salt
1 squeeze of lemon juice

Bechamel (makes about 4 cups):
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter
4 cups milk
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup grated mozzarella cheese
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Pulse the garlic and basil in a food processor with a pinch of coarse sea salt. Add the pine nuts to the mixture and pulse again. Transfer to a bowl and add half the Parmesan. Stir gently and add olive oil slowly; you need just enough to bind the sauce and give it an oozy consistency. Season to taste and add most of the remaining cheese. Poor in more oil and taste again. Keep adding cheese and oil until you are happy with the taste and consistency. Add a little squeeze of lemon juice at the end.

In a heavy medium saucepan, melt the butter without letting it brown. Remove from the heat. Whisk in the flour, 1 tablespoon at the time until it is incorporated.

Heat up the milk in another cooking pot until just about to boil. Add ladlefuls of the milk to the butter and flour mixture. Put this mixture back on the heat and whisk. Add the nutmeg and white pepper.

When the milk is absorbed, add more, a little at the time and stir until all the milk is used up. Keep whisking until the sauce is velvety. If the sauce doesn't thicken, add some flour, one scant tablespoon at the time, stirring constantly until the desired texture is achieved.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In an 9 by 13-inch baking pan, place about 1/3 cup of the bechamel to coat the bottom of the pan. Lay first layer of lasagna noodles. Add enough bechamel to coat the noodles. Add some pesto and spread into the bechamel. Add a handful of the grated Parmesan.

Continue to layer the noodles, bechamel, pesto and Parmesan until the last layer of noodles (I got 4 layers of 3 noodles). On top of this, spread one layer of bechamel, add the rest of the Parmesan and top with the mozzarella.  Sprinkle the oregano on top.

Wrap tightly with foil. Bake for forty to forty-five minutes (if using regular, cooked noodles) or 50 minutes to one hour (if using no-boil noodles). Remove foil and bake for 10 minutes more, until top is golden. Check if the noodles are cooked through by piercing the lasagne with a fork. Cool 5 to 15 minutes before serving.

If you are a lasagne-newbie, you may be wondering if traditional pre-cooked noodles are better than no-boil noodles. While purists will want to kill me, I have to confess that I never really noticed a significant difference between the two: while pre-cooked noodles can have a more uniform texture, they can be harder to handle, and have a tendency to be sticky. No-boil noodles mean less dishes to clean, and a quicker assembly, but they need to cook longer...

Here is what you do if you want to pre-cook your noodles: cook them in boiling salted water, and take them out when they just start getting a bit malleable, after about 3 minutes. To make sure they do not stick together, lay the noodles, well separated, around the edges of the cooking pot and colander. When you assemble your lasagne, carefully lift them and lay them as desired in your baking dish. Do not cook them too early in the process because if they have time to dry out, they will become trickier to arrange.

If you are using no-boil noodles, make sure they are soaked in plenty of sauce because they absorb a lot of liquid. Leave the lasagne in the oven 10 to 15 minutes longer if you used no-boil noodles, and poke your lasagne with a fork, to make sure they are nicely cooked before cutting and serving.

Of course, if you are in a hurry, you can use store-bought pesto. I recommend the Fontaine Santé brand, because the consistency is nice and gooey, and not too paste-like (there is also no weird ingredients or preservative in that pesto, making it the sanest choice I have yet to find on the shelves). This is especially important in a baked pasta dish like this one, where the sauce helps cook the pasta. If the pesto is too thick, the results will not be as creamy.

I served this elegant lasagne to my pesto-loving brother, who almost licked his plate clean. Honestly, I was quite close to doing that myself. The sauce's texture thickens a bit in the oven, and mixes really nicely with the pesto: the Parmesan and crunchy golden mozzarella crust complemented the sauce perfectly. The only thing I might try differently would be mixing the bechamel and the pesto before spreading it on the noodles .

If you want to beef up this lasagne, add finely chopped broccoli or cauliflower (or both!) between the pesto and the Parmesan on the middle layers of noodles. The veggies will gently cook in the sauce, and you'll get healthy goodness with your luxurious pasta bake, making it somewhat less of a guilty pleasure. Serve it with a dry white wine, to balance out the sweet creaminess of the bechamel and the tang of the pesto.


  1. Uhm. I love pesto. And this is something I never thought of... but I must make immediately.

  2. It is a very rewarding pasta experiment! Let me know how it goes!