I have zero knife skills. I have never attempted a consomme. Soufflés are beyond me. But when it comes to lasagne, man I can lasagne with the pros. And by pros, I mean my mum. Because comfort food is not something which peaks in Michelin Star restaurants, your Raymond Blancs or Massimo Botturas cannot compete with the comfort food of your youth served up in chipped bowls by someone who loves you unconditionally and probably changed your nappies.
To the best of my knowledge, there is absolutely no Mediterranean stock in my very pale, very Celtic bloodline, nothing to suggest that my mother’s recipe came from anywhere other than a Delia cookbook. And I don’t claim that it’s a classically brilliant dish, but Deirdre’s Lasagne, the recipe I committed to memory the summer before leaving for university, is the perfect comfort food in my humble opinion.
It’s deliciously simple. Meat, as much veg as you can pack in, pasta, a rich tomato base, lashings of cheese and a creamy sauce (and here I deviate from mum’s recipe slightly, because in my house life is just too short to fuck up a white sauce – Viva la Dolmio!).
There is something wonderfully satisfying about building up the layers of lasagne – spooning on the bolognese, snapping crisp shards of pasta to imperfectly fill the gaps, pouring over white sauce – no matter how much life might be falling down around your ears, this is a thing you can do. You, master of literally no engineering skills, can safely construct a carbohydrate dream which will bring you warmth and comfort, like an edible pillow fort. And you’re building with an ancient culinary material, pasta sheets, an ingredient from the Middle Ages. How’s that for dining on the shoulders of giants? In my darkest days, I have found no greater grounding than that of a pasta sheet.
I’ve always thought that I could throw together a lasagne with my eyes closed. It is a staple, go-to, old reliable dish to be served up with hand-cut wedges, garlic bread or a fresh green salad with a dripping of balsamic perhaps. I could do no wrong with a lasagne.
Or so I thought.
It’s been a tough, tiring few weeks. I’ve been through something of an emotional pepper mill and due to work, voluntary and social commitments I haven’t had time to clean up the debris. Were I to present my current mindset on a dish right now it would be an Eton Mess – scraped up off the floor. So, on my first Sunday of leisure in some time, I attempted to tidy my mind and build a familiar, tasty framework to set me up for another busy week ahead. But something went wrong.
The mince fell apart in a grisly grainy texture. The pasta sheets curled up. The bechamel sauce pooled. And I burnt the garlic bread. I was disgusted, and honestly, a little shaken. So many things I took for granted had blown up in my face, now I couldn’t even rely on my most trusted culinary friend.
Of course I’ve tried to reassure myself – it was very cheap mince, produced a lot of liquid and gave very little taste. Perhaps those pasta sheets have been in the store cupboard a touch too long. Or maybe it was just a bad day. Whatever it was, it felt a suitable analogy for my present state of affairs and I’ll begrudge eating the damn thing for lunch and dinner day in, day out until I can take great pleasure in dumping its remains in the bin.
Good riddance to bad lasagne.