“Remember, if it doesn’t work, I still love you.”
This was Mr. Cay’s reaction when I cheerfully informed him on Friday night that I intended to spend my weekend making an absolute beast of a lasagne which would take me two days, involve me using practically every saucepan we own and require me to make everything but the mozzarella from scratch. I am sure that any lesser (read: sensible) human being would probably have tried to talk me out of the whole affair, reminding me that I had a) never made fresh pasta before and b) have an uncanny knack of swearing and threatening to set kitchen equipment on fire when things don’t go my way. Thankfully, I am blessed with a supportive – if long suffering – other half, who doesn’t mind me destroying our kitchen in the name of culinary experimentation, so long as something edible results from it.
So, on Saturday, after a rather invigorating run down the tar-and-rotting-grain scented Dock Road, a visit to my favourite butcher’s in the St. John centre, and an unexpected run-in with an owl, I set to work. I slow cooked my oxtail joints in some chicken stock for eight hours until the meat swooned off the bones, and then left the mixture to cool overnight. Oxtail is notoriously fatty, and you don’t want all of that to go into your ragu, so you’ll need to skim the globs of fat off your braising liquid before you create your sauce. I added a tin of tomatoes, a good whack of wine and let the whole thing simmer gently whilst I tackled my pasta.
Ah the ‘joy’ of making pasta from scratch. I tell you what, it’s really not as easy as they make it look on TV. Creating the sheets for my lasagne led to me panting, puffing, grunting and swearing, meaning that my kitchen sounded like the set of a very low budget porno. It took me 35 minutes to realise that I wasn’t putting enough dough through my rollers, by which time I was threatening to throw my pasta maker out of the window and set fire to it.
Finally, after a lot of legwork – and more than one gin – I finally managed to create some relatively decent pasta. I’m fairly sure that if any Italian person had seen them, they’d cry at what I’d done to one of their most famous food creations, but I’ll be honest – after an hour of rolling the stuff, I was past the point of caring. My arms still hurt from cranking that bloody roller.
Eventually with a lot of sweat, a few tears and numerous threats of blood being shed, I managed to create something beautiful. OK, so the pasta may have been a little thick but I couldn’t have been prouder of my creation than if I’d actually managed to give birth to it myself. Would I recommend that you make this at home? Well yes – but only if you have a few days spare and greater upper body strength than myself. But, in the end, it was definitely worth it. Even if I will be running around the block for the next week trying to work off the leftovers from my thighs.
OXTAIL RAGU LASAGNE (Makes 5-6 large portions)
You will need:
For the oxtail ragu
- 1 medium sized oxtail, jointed (your butcher should be able to do this for you)
- 1 medium sized carrot, peeled and chopped
- 2 sticks of celery, diced
- 3 fat cloves of garlic, diced
- 1 medium sized white onion, peeled and chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 springs of fresh rosemary
- 1 tsp of dried sage
- 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
- 500ml chicken stock
- 250ml red wine
- Salt and Pepper to season
For the fresh pasta
- 250g 00 pasta flour
- 3 medium sized eggs
- A large pinch of salt
For the béchamel sauce
- 40g butter
- 30g plain flour
- 500ml milk
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 30g parmesan cheese, grated
- A large crack of black pepper
- A ball of good quality mozzarella
- First, brown your oxtail in a large pan. Once browned, remove the browned meat from the pan, top up with olive oil, and sauté your onion, celery and carrot and sweat for 10 minutes until soft. Add the chopped garlic to the pan and cook for another 5 minutes.
- Place the oxtail and sauteéd vegetables into a large saucepan (or slow cooker if you’re using one), and cover with the chicken stock. Add the tomato purée and bay leaf and simmer for four hours or so (or for around 6-8 hours if you’re using your slow cooker). Once the meat is cooked and beginning to fall off the bone, switch the heat off and allow the mixture to cool.
- Take the meat out of the pan, and shred it with your hands – taking care to remove any small pieces of bone you may find. Pour the fat off the sauce, heat it up, and then add the shredded meat, chopped tomatoes, wine, rosemary and sage. Let the sauce simmer for around half an hour until it has turned thick and glossy. The sauce can be made up to two days in advance.
- Now, it’s time to make your pasta. (I suggest that you drink a large glass of wine before you do this if you’ve never made pasta before. You will swear. You will sweat. And you will need a drink). Mix the flour and salt together into a volcano shape in the bowl. Make a well in the middle, and add the eggs. Wet your hands, and knead the mixture for around 10-15 minutes until it develops a silky texture. Allow it to rest for 30 minutes.
- Flour your pasta machine and your dough thoroughly. Roll the ball of dough out on your kitchen surface until it is about 1cm thick (it should feed through your pasta machine comfortably). Put it through each setting twice, fold it back on itself, then repeat the process. Once it gets too long for your kitchen countertop, cut it in half. Cut the pasta into sheets the length and size of the dish you’re using for the lasagne, and store under a damp cloth until you’re ready to use it.
- For the bechamel: Pour the milk in a small saucepan and bay leaf, nutmeg and black pepper. Place over a low heat and let it come very slowly up to the simmer, which should take around 5 minutes. Take the pan off the heat and strain the milk into a jug, discarding the bay leaf.
- Now, make the roux. Begin by melting the butter gently. As soon as it melts, add the flour and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon to make a smooth, glossy paste. Now begin adding the infused milk a little at a time, whilst stirring vigorously with a small balloon whisk. When the milk has been fully incorporated into the sauce,add the next amount. Continue doing this until there is no milk left – stirring vigrorously all the time.
- Turn the heat down and let the sauce cook for 5 minutes , whilst continuing to whisk it occasionally. While that’s happening, add the parmesan, taste, and season with salt and freshly milled black pepper.
- Assemble your lasagne: Still reading? Good good. Assemble your lasagne by spooning a third of the bechamel sauce into your lasagne dish. Then add a third of the ragu, and a sheet of pasta. Repeat until all of the ingredients have been used up. Dot with the mozzarella, and bake on 200 degrees centigrade/Gas Mark 4 for 30-45 minutes.
- Once baked, remove from the oven and admire your handiwork. Cry slightly. Serve with a green salad, lots of wine, and a glow of approval from friends, family and admirers.