As Marcella Hazan rightfully says, the only way to make real lasagna is with homemade (as in do-it-yourself, the "you" being you or somebody you know or are willing to pay well) lasagna noodles. For exactly this reason most of us true Americans (including a certain notorious comic strip cat the cooking team no longer follows) rarely if ever get to experience the real thing, but never having experienced the real thing don't know what we're missing anyway. (Here the "we" means you, because we are lasagna veterans!) Thanks to a late arrival for a Rome commuter train from the Pope's country-home town (of course He uses a helicopter), dr bob knows.
bob met lele and lele introduced him to rita and bob introduced rita to bill and bill introduced rita to george and the Vatican Observatory was never the same again but after rita's adoption by the Observatory she was introduced to david in Tucson where the Observatory actually observes ... but that's another story. So rita has a mom named Gabriella, an authentic Italian mom who makes the best lasagna bob has ever had. For years the famous lasagna lesson was talked about, wherein dr bob would be expertly coached by Gabriella in the finer points of excellent lasagna making, but jet-setting schedules and real life considerations conspired to prevent the realization of this historic cooking opportunity.
Meanwhile dr bob merged with ms_ani and various roman friends began asking for wedding gift suggestions. By sheer coincidence (really) he was ready with street addresses and price quotes. From the dr bob scientific work group (thanks, guys!), a Pavoni Europiccolo super espresso/cappuccino machine for making ms_ani excellent coffee every morning to help ease her into the day (not a morning person like dr bob, who was relieved of this duty after a couple years by the realization that high blood pressure called for less caffeine in ms_ani). And from emanuela and domenico came the classic roller-type pasta machine WITH ELECTRIC MOTOR (making it a super pasta machine), cheap in Italy compared to the US, but requiring electrical connection through the dr bob ugly heavy duty possibly dangerous voltage transformer for cheap Italian pasta machines that don't run on US electricity (previously hauled to America for the estruder-type Pastamatic pasta machine bought on a visit to the still smoking volcano Mt Vesuvius). For dr bob to finally make excellent lasagna. Not every day of course.
Well, what to do. No lasagna lesson looming on the near horizon. No substitute Italian moms nearby. Marcella Hazan to the rescue. Marcella Hazan, on an extended visit to the USA on loan from Italy (Giuliano?'s mom), did a pair of classic Italian cookbooks in English, imaginatively titled the "Classic Italian Cookbook" and "More Classic Italian Cooking", that made her a pile of dollars in America, some of which she converted to lira enabling her to live in an outrageous piece of real estate on the Grand Canal in Venice. dr bob had her first volume on the shelf for years but like most of the cooking team library, it was left largely undisturbed on the shelf. Marcella Hazan? Who's she? that was the before story.
Well, forced to research the team library for some help in invalidating Emanuela's claim that he would never actually use the pasta roller machine, the best bet looked like merging helpful hints supplied by rita with Marcella's Bolognese sauce for the soon to be attempted without Gabriella's strategic lesson classic lasagna. Chosen partly on the basis of the opening remark of this story.
dr bob tackled the noodle job while ms_ani handled the four hour Bolognese sauce ritual, lightened somewhat by the 90's food awareness fears, details to follow. And it was great. Not quite like Gabriella's but an acceptable substitute. But that's not the whole story. An encore performance was arranged with not one but two different lasagnas, one classic and one an asparagus white sauce version. Again raves from the privileged guests. However, a slipup occurred. The instructions of the pasta machine say NEVER let water touch it. Who knows what happened. Maybe bob used really hot water and thought it would evaporate. Maybe bob was just absentminded. Or more likely just plain stupid. The result was RUST. Disabling the machine and requiring serious correctional measures.
You never imagine how complicated one of these roller machines is until you've gotten it disassembled and forget exactly what went where. And with no instructions at all to refer to, not even in the wrong language or by a nonnative speaker of the right one. Armed only with questionable mechanical abilities and a desperate hope for the day when we might again enjoy homemade lasagna. It took a while to get around to the attack. Life is complicated too. Steel wool, tarnish removers, old toothbrushes, and some miracle product WD-40 super lubricant from bob's amateur car mechanic days. It wasn't pretty. The first time was only a partial disassembly. With a manageable reversal. And more lasagna followed. But YUCK! What's this black grease oozing out of the ends of the rollers! Miracle product that had gone where no such product had gone before? And returning? The fun (if this word can be used in the same sentence with roller pasta making) was gone. Between trying to avoid touching the edges and unsuccessfully surgically removing black stains in between passes (hoping guests wouldn't notice the failed attempts), it was clear that more drastic action would have to remedy the latest dumbmeister mistake.
Complete disassembly, hoping to remember how things fit together during the dirty deed. Ooze removed. Almost successful reassembly. After a long and determined battle. Except for the pasta guides. Flimsy little things that just wedge in between the two sides of the machine, catching on some little thingamajig somehow. Impossible to coax into position. Time passes. Another attempt, with a do or die attitude. A monumental struggle. Met with success! Only two casualties, a finger on each hand, some blood left inside as a souvenoir. And more residual familiarity with the pasta machine than anyone should know about outside the factory.
[Along the way, a dead hairdryer contributed its electrical cord to the famous voltage transformer after bob accidentally made contact with a screwdriver, the cord, and the wrong place on it and ZAP, the pasta machine stops. Did bob only fry the aging wire to the transformer or the machine as well? Fortunately the hairdryer fix worked and it was back to the fight.]
Still, to this day dr bob always browses the kitchen store roller machine models noting the more affordable prices and the team's increased ability to pay them, since the black stuff at the edge problem has not entirely disappeared. But ... it seems such a waste to junk a perfectly good machine for a minor little problem like that. Something to remember next time the dr bob team makes a lasagna dinner invitation and you are the recipient.
Of course you're wondering. What's the big deal? Why do the noodles have to be earned by some masochistic kitchen rite rather than just plopping a box into the old shopping cart? The answer is twelve layers. At least. Homemade noodles can be paper thin to form a heavenly stack of feather-light noodles alternating between just the most delicate combination of red and white sauce layers, unlike any crude imitation version with at most 4 thick noodle slabs separating gobs of overpowering meat and tomato sauce.
However, the increasing popularity of more authentic Italian food products in America may seriously reduce the pain here. Buy pasta sheets in a fresh pasta store. Before they pass them through the cutting rollers to make strip pasta noodles. Right there you cut out most of the work. But they are still not at the thinnest notch on the pasta machine and have to be cut and rolled on the home pasta machine to get that last squeeze to the ideal thickness. Then there is the boiling stage in which one has to fish out these noodles from the big pot of scalding water, about 48 times for 16 layers of 3 noodle width lasagna pan. And find enough towels to lay them all out flat in the kitchen somewhere, layer after layer because of the numbers. More about that later. They still qualify as homemade, though. [Partly in the store home, partly in yours.]
The classic Italian mom turns a crank with one hand while trying to use the other single lonely hand for what is clearly the two-handed job of guiding the pasta sheet as it goes through and gets bigger and bigger and more and more unwieldy. All this after clamping the machine down to some clampable surface to keep it from sliding all over the place trying to get away. With an electric motor, it just sits there content without physical restraints and the rollers go much quicker and smoother leaving both hands free to "work the pasta" as they say. The difference between night and day. Hey, that rhymes. Hmm, food poetry ..., naahh!
The story continues ...