“People in Italy can go their whole lives without meeting a Jew or realizing they’ve met one,” says Bendetta author and photographer Jasmine Guetta. With only 45,000 Italian Jews living in the country, the culture is small but has been around since the Roman Empire. Mostly arriving from Israel as slaves, she says they had alternate fortunes ranging from persecution to political favor.
Guetta says the food of Italian Jews is nothing like that of Ashkenazi Jews living in America. She explores how Jewish culture and Italian cuisine intersect in her book, “Cooking at the Guidia.”
Eggplants weren’t introduced until the 18th century, and history books said the vegetable was only for “Jews and dogs.” Orecchiette, she says, is an ear-shaped pastry believed to have originated in Puglia, but was actually brought to Italy by Jews via France.
What happens to pasta in Italy during Passover? Guetta says the workaround for not using leavened ingredients is to use matzah sheets and treat them like pasta. To keep a Passover lasagna kosher, there can be no mixture of cheese, meat and milk. To overcome the problem, a bolognese is prepared traditionally, while the dairy products of bechamel are replaced by broth and rice flour is used instead of wheat flour. “You can spend your whole life in Italy and not have a ball of matzo,” she says.
Guetta operates Cafe LOVIa cafe with signature challah sandwiches, in Santa Monica.
Lasagna without dairy products
For 6 to 8 people
A real Italian lasagna mixes meat (sometimes pork) and milk. Did this discourage Jews from enjoying lasagna and even making it a festive Shabbat dish? Of course not. All you have to do is tweak the recipe a bit to make kosher lasagna, using beef instead of pork and a béchamel made with olive oil and broth instead of butter and milk.
Making lasagna from scratch is a bit of a project, but anything is doable if you have the time. Commit to half a day’s work and you’ll be rewarded with a truly delicious dish that everyone will love. However, if you don’t have much extra time, feel free to use store-bought pasta. Buy ready-made lasagna noodles, and as long as the béchamel and stew are homemade, no one will tell the difference.
Lasagna can be assembled ahead of time and stored in the fridge overnight or frozen for up to 3 months, tightly wrapped in foil. Transfer to the refrigerator to thaw for 24 hours before planning to cook.
- ½ cup (120ml) extra virgin olive oil
- ¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (100 g) all-purpose flour
- 4 cups (1 L) vegetable broth, homemade (page 78) or store-bought
- Pinch of grated nutmeg
- Kosher salt
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 celery rib, peeled and chopped
- 1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
- ¼ cup (60ml) extra virgin olive oil
- 2¼ pounds (1 kg) ground beef chuck (20% fat)
- 1 cup (240 ml) dry red wine
- 31⁄8 cups (700 g) tomato purée (passata)
- 3 cups (720 ml) vegetable or beef broth, homemade (page 78) or store-bought, or water, plus more if needed
- 1 bay leaf
- Kosher salt
- One 9-ounce (255 g) package of ready-to-cook lasagna sheets or a quadruple recipe of fresh egg noodles (page 103)
- 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs or matzo crumbs for garnish
- To make the béchamel, in a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat for one minute. Add the flour and cook, whisking, until it forms a golden paste (called a roux), 3 to 4 minutes. Whisking constantly, add broth in a slow, steady stream, then add nutmeg and salt to taste. Bring to a gentle simmer, whisking, trying to remove any lumps, and cook, whisking, until the sauce thickens, about 10 minutes. Be sure to constantly whisk the sauce so it doesn’t stick or burn on the bottom of the pan. The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon, but it shouldn’t be as thick as pudding, as it will thicken further as it cools. Remove from fire.
- Cover the béchamel with plastic wrap and let cool to room temperature. (Bechamel can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for a few days, or frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months.
Thaw it in the refrigerator and reheat it over low heat in a saucepan, stirring well before using.)
- To make the ragù, blend the onion, celery and carrot in a food processor until finely chopped to make a soffritto.
- In a large saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the soffritto and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are very tender, about 5 minutes.
- Add beef and cook, stirring often, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Pour in the wine and cook, stirring constantly, until it evaporates, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato puree, broth or water and bay leaf and mix well.
- Reduce the heat to a minimum and cook, uncovered, for a few hours. If the liquid reduces too much, add another ½ cup (120 ml) of broth or water. However, the ragù should be quite thick when ready, not too runny. Add salt to taste, if needed, and remove from heat.
- Discard the bay leaf and let the sauce cool to room temperature. (Ragù can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for a few days or frozen in an airtight container. Thaw and reheat before use.)
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
- If using fresh dough, divide it into 4 portions and roll each portion into a large sheet about 9 x 12 inches (23 x 30 cm). Or roll into 12 smaller 3 x 12 inch (8 x 30 cm) sheets and use 3 of these sheets, arranged side by side in the baking dish, for each layer.
- Cover the bottom of a 9 x 13 inch (23 x 33 cm) baking dish with a layer of béchamel. Put a layer of pasta on top of the bechamel, then spread more bechamel over the pasta and cover with a generous layer of ragù. (Don’t mix the béchamel and ragù; leave them in separate layers.) Place another layer of pasta on top, then add another layer of béchamel and another layer of ragù. Repeat once more. Place the last layer of pasta on top and cover with the remaining béchamel. Cover with the remaining stew, this time mixing the stew and bechamel a little with a spoon to obtain a marbled effect. Sprinkle top of lasagna with bread or matzo crumbs for a crispy top.
- Bake for 40 minutes, or until the top is crispy. Serve immediately.
*Italian Jews never give up their lasagna, even for Passover. If you want to make lasagna for Passover, replace the egg pasta sheets with matzo, briefly soaked in beef broth, homemade (page 78) or store-bought, to soften them. To make kosher béchamel for Passover, replace all-purpose flour with potato starch or rice flour.
Extract of Cooking at the Giudia by Benedetta Jasmine Guetta (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2022.