Layers of flavour: Parma ham, spinach and chestnut mushrooms give this lasagne dish a lift.
Franco and Ann Taruschio’s most delicious version of vincisgrassi (an 18th-century pasta dish, especially of the province of Macerata, in the Marche region of Italy) most certainly eschewed some other ingredients listed in other, how shall we say, more exotic recipes: sweetbreads, brains and, in some cases, chicken giblets.
At The Walnut Tree, the layers of lasagne were simply interspersed with Parma ham and porcini and, in season, shavings of white truffle upon each bubbling and crusted serving. However, it is always that molten strata of my beloved béchamel that does it for me, in assemblies such as these.
Here with follows a slightly less luxe interpretation, but it remains quite lovely in itself. (Omit the ham to go meat-free.)
Mushroom, ham and spinach lasagne (serves 4, generously)
For the béchamel sauce
1 bay leaf
Freshly grated nutmeg
12 sheets egg lasagne
750g large chestnut mushrooms, sliced
50g butter—plus a little extra for greasing the dish
2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped
2tbspn chopped parsley
Grated rind of 1 lemon
500g young spinach leaves, blanched, drained, squeezed dry and roughly chopped
8–10 very thin slices cooked ham (preferably Italian)
6–7tbspn freshly grated Grana Padano cheese
To make the béchamel sauce, heat the milk with the bay, nutmeg and a little salt. Simmer for a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for 10 minutes. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, but on no account allow it to colour. Filch out the bay, add the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth.
On the lowest possible heat (preferably using a heat-diffuser pad), set the sauce to cook. The consistency will soon become silky and unctuous. Stir, fairly constantly, using a wooden spoon and cook for about 10 minutes.
Add pepper, check for salt, switch off the heat and cover with a tight-fitting lid; this helps to prevent a skin forming. Keep warm, nearby.
Pre-heat the oven to 200°C/ 390°F/gas mark 6.
Cook the lasagne sheets in salted boiling water until al dente, drain them on tea towels and fold over to prevent the pasta from drying out. Fry the mushrooms in the butter until golden, then stir in the garlic, parsley and lemon rind. Season and leave to cool in the pan.
Take a large rectangular baking dish and smear with a little butter. Begin with three sheets of lasagne spread out as one layer, then spoon a little béchamel sauce and a sprinkle of cheese over it.
Now, lay a couple of slices of ham, a scattering of mushrooms and some of the cooked spinach over it. Then, more lasagne, more sauce, more cheese, more ham, more mushrooms and more spinach.
Continue until the top layer is lasagne covered with sauce, together with a final, generous sprinkle of cheese. Bake in the oven for at least 40 minutes or until the surface sports a gorgeous golden crust. Serve directly from the dish at table, handing extra grated cheese for those who want some. Me, please!