Since adding the impressive, labor-intensive Yesterday's 100 Layer Lasagne to the menu at Mario Batali's acclaimed New York City restaurant Del Posto in 2009, executive chef Mark Ladner has never stopped refining it. His unlikely inspiration for the restaurant's now-famous dish was the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Princess and the Pea. Ladner wanted to create a dish inspired by the story for a party Batali was throwing, and created a layered lasagne with a single dried pea.
He found that 20 layers weren't "impressive in terms of size," and realized that it took 100 layers to fill the form. Wanting a baked pasta dish on the Del Posto menu, Ladner kept working at it. The lasagne has evolved quite a bit since that initial preparation, both in its idea and execution. Ladner says that since so many cooks in his kitchen have made it over the years — "it's a big part of somebody's job" — the recipe has been updated, tweaked, and improved with everyone's insights.
The premise is simple: layer deliciously eggy fresh pasta with traditional bolognese made with veal and pancetta, light marinara, and simple besciamella. Ladner explains that Del Posto's lasagne is a hybrid of Italian-American lasagna (mozzarella, ricotta, marinara, and dry wavy pasta sheets) and traditional Italian lasagne (spinach, pasta, no tomatoes). The result is a fine dining-worthy dish that ends the pasta courses on the restaurant's multi-course tasting menu because it is meaty, baked, and has a bit of spice.
Eater NY editor Greg Morabito sees the dish as an example of how Del Posto has changed perceptions of Italian cuisine in New York City: "The 100 Layer Lasagne represents everything that Mark, Mario, Joe, Lidia, and Brooks are trying to do at Del Posto — that is, show the world that Italian food belongs in the realm of fine dining. Most people think of lasagna as a familiar, homey dish, but at Del Posto, it's a show-stopper." Below, the elements of Del Posto's 100 Layer Lasagne:
1. The Pasta
As its name implies, the 100 Layer Lasagne calls for many sheets of fresh pasta. Ladner uses Del Posto's standard fresh pasta recipe. He combines semolina flour, double zero flour, eggs, and olive oil, with the last two ingredients providing the moisture. The lasagne sheets are made with extra yolks, which add "silky elasticity" and a golden color. Before assembling the pasta, Ladner blanches the noodles for one second, and then immediately puts them in cold water to stop the cooking process. While using fresh pasta (versus the more typical Italian-American lasagna's dried pasta) does make the assembly process a more delicate one, Ladner discovered over the course of recipe testing that the yolk-fortified pasta fuses the tower layers together and adds a pleasing, rich flavor to the dish. He says that the layers are "almost pudding-like."
2. The Bolognese
Ladner explains that the bolognese sauce he uses in the lasagne is a traditional, Bologna-style recipe from Mario Batali. The sauce begins a day in advance with olive oil, onions, and celery cooked "over a flicker of a flame" in a heavy-bottomed rondeau for about six hours. Ladner explains that it's sofrito without carrots, which made the sauce too sweet. The onions and celery are done when they are melted and without any color.
The sauce is finished on the second day. House-ground pancetta and garlic are rendered until aromatic, and then the sofrito from the previous day is added. Ladner uses an equal amount of house-ground pork shoulder and veal shoulder, to which he adds salt. As the meat loses its juices, Ladner adds tomato paste, chicken stock, and dry white wine (whichever is available), and brings the mixture to a simmer. The meat is slowly braised for about two and a half hours, again over extremely low flame. Ladner barely moves the sauce as it cooks, waiting for the components to melt together. The sauce is finished with milk. One of the distinguishing features of the sauce is that it does not use pepper. Ladner says he doesn't know where that rule came from (and perhaps he'll investigate someday), but that no pepper is a law of traditional bolognese-making.
3. The Marinara
Ladner explains that the marinara sauce he uses in the lasagne is extremely light. The base of the sauce is San Marzano Italian plum tomatoes, which are passed through a food mill. To begin the cooking process, Ladner blanches garlic in olive oil until it is soft and colorless. (It's important to note that the garlic isn't browned or toasted.) Next he adds the tomatoes, bringing the mixture to a rapid boil. As soon as the sauce boils, Ladner pours it into a new vessel with a bunch of basil. The sauce is then seasoned with salt and potentially sugar if it's needed before being used in the lasagna. The leftover sauce then goes back onto heat. After chili flake is added, the sauce is reduced further until the water cooks off. The lasagne is then served atop this thicker sauce.
4. The Besciamella
Ladner says the besciamella sauce — or béchamel in French — plays a critical role to the structure of the dish. In the absence of traditional Italian-American lasagna ingredients like mozzarella or ricotta to act as binders, Ladner needs the besciamella "to be the glue." It's a fairly standard preparation, with butter and flour being combined over heat into a roux before milk and salt are added. While Italian besciamella often uses nutmeg, Del Posto's does not.
5. The Assembly
After years of honing, the assembly process is much different than it used to be. The lasagne used to be assembled in a six-inch hotel pan, baked, and then nerve-rackingly cut and served warm. "It was precarious to cut," Ladner says, "and it was super-messy." The cooks had been refrigerating the dish and experimenting with the leftovers, which inspired Ladner to do the same. He began refrigerating the lasagne overnight, and then cutting individual portions and searing them in clarified butter before serving. This method of searing each piece allows each diner to get the coveted corner piece experience, while also making it easier on the cooks to assemble. Searing has the added benefited of adding caramelized flavor to the dish, the resulting crispness breaking up the pudding-like texture of the lasagne.
Taking the idea of working with chilled ingredients even further, the dish is now completely assembled cold, "like a Napoleon." Ladner explains that not only is working with cold ingredients easier, it's also cleaner and more efficient, resulting in significantly less wasted product. On a silpat (once the components are cold there's no need for hotel pans), Ladner layers a piece of pasta and then adds a "conservative amount" of each the bolognese, the marinara, and the besciamella. There really are 100 layers give or take, and when built cold the dish does not need skewers to stabilize it. The lasagne now sets up in the refrigerator overnight instead of in the oven. A single "block" of lasagne can serve 40 people, and the kitchen creates five every two days. While cold, the block is cut into portions that are about an inch thick and three inches square. The cold portions are then seared and baked. After baking, the lasagne is once again extremely delicate so it is with great care that it is plated over the thick marinara sauce. The dish is finished with grated Parmigiano cheese.