Pastitsio

If you like Greek food and want to try your hand at a traditional Greek comfort food, pastitsio should be on your list of must cook dishes! A baked pasta dish layered with meat and cheese sauces, this is perfect for a Sunday supper or any large get together!


We can’t talk about pastitsio without talking about Nikolaos Tselementes. Tselementes was the “Julia Childs” of Greece. He studied in France and then came back to his homeland of Greece to write cookbooks sharing his new found knowledge. HIs recipe for bechamel sauce changed many Greek dishes into “au gratin” dishes. Before this introduction of French techniques, pastitsio was a pie of pasta and meat wrapped in filo dough, and while meat pies of any kind pique our interest, we appreciate this “new” version of pastitsio. The distinct layers of salty feta flavored pasta, wine-infused meat sauce, and a thick creamy bechamel sauce make this a hearty festive dish especially well suited for celebrations. In fact, in Greece this is often served for Easter dinner.


This is a dish that like lasagna is involved and full of love. While not hard to create, it does have lots of steps. We suggest making this dish over a day or two. The meat sauce, the bechamel, and even the pasta can be prepared ahead of time. These parts can be made ahead and stored separately or the entire dish can be preassembled and then baked right before serving.


Even with a French makeover, this dish keeps its Greek flavors.


Though this dish reminds us of a combination of lasagna and baked ziti, the flavors are traditionally Greek. Salty feta, bay leaf, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg all come together to create flavors very different from Italian pasta dishes.


Ingredients

Pasta: The bottom layer of this dish should look like rows of stacked pipes. Greek pastitsio recipes call for number 2 macaroni which is a long thick hollow spaghetti. This pasta isn’t readily available in the United States, and so we’ve substituted rigatoni or penne pasta. Both types of pasta provide the signature hollow pipe-like shape pastitisio is known for.


Cheese: The Greek people consider themselves connoisseurs of cheese, and that shows in this dish that traditionally calls for both feta and kasseri cheeses. Feta is readily available in most US grocery stores, but kasseri, a buttery mild-flavored cheese is not. In this recipe, a combination of romano and mozzarella cheeses stand-in for this cheese.


Ground Meat: Sometimes we see pastitsio recipes calling for ground lamb instead of beef. Our experience with pastitsio is that beef is the go-to meat, and ground beef is readily available and relatively inexpensive making it our choice for this recipe. Since there is no opportunity to drain the meat during the cooking process, do choose meat that is at least 90% lean.


Spices:

  • Bay Leaf The faintly evergreen taste of bay leaves add a very subtle note to this dish. Be sure to remove the leaves after cooking your sauce.

  • Cinnamon In the United States, cinnamon is usually thought of as a sweet spice. In Greek cuisine, cinnamon crosses the sweet divide and often appears in savory dishes as well. We suggest the flavor of Ceylon cinnamon for this dish.

  • Clove The sweet warm flavors of cloves pair well with the cinnamon called for in this recipe meat sauce. As always, just a little bit of clove goes a long way!

  • Nutmeg Nutmeg is a classic French addition to bechamel sauces. When using nutmeg, nothing beats freshly ground nutmeg! We use about 1/8th of a whole nutmeg berry for this recipe.

  • Paprika Paprika isn't traditional in this recipe, but we like the bit of brightness it adds.


Milk: This recipe calls for both whole milk and buttermilk. It may seem unusual to add buttermilk to a white sauce, but we find it adds just a bit of sourness and cuts through some of the richness of a bechamel sauce. You can certainly use all whole milk instead if buttermilk isn’t available.


Technique

This recipe uses several techniques that might not be part of your everyday kitchen repertoire.


To ensure tender ground meat, baking soda is added to the meat before it cooks. This tip has been making the rounds on social media recently, but has been a part of Greek cooking for a long time! We’re not sure of the science behind it, but it seems to work–so we’re sticking with it!


Another more unusual technique is how the ground meat is cooked. Instead of browning the meat and then adding liquid, this recipe does the opposite. It cooks down the wine before adding the meat. The meat is cooked in the liquid to keep it tender and moist.


Bechamel Sauce is a classic French white sauce that starts with a roux. In our Red Enchilada Sauce Recipe, we have step-by-step instructions for creating a roux. This sauce takes roux just one step further by adding milk to create a white sauce. Make sure to remove it from the heat before adding in the egg yolks and cheese.


When cooking your pasta, be sure to cook 3 minutes less than you normally would as it will continue cooking in the oven.


Greek Pastitsio Recipe

Ingredients:


Meat Sauce

1 teaspoon Pacific Sea Salt

½ teaspoon baking soda

2 tablespoons + 1 cup water, divided use

1 pound ground beef, 90% or more lean

2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil

½ cup onion, diced (about 1 medium onion or ½ large onion)

1 teaspoon Pacific Sea Salt

1 teaspoon Freshly Ground Pepper or about 10 grinds

2 teaspoons Minced Dried Garlic or 2 cloves finely minced fresh garlic

3 teaspoons Cinnamon

½ teaspoon Cloves

2 teaspoons Sweet Paprika

1 teaspoon Oregano

⅔ cup tomato paste

1 cup red wine

1 cup water

2 Bay Leaves

1 teaspoon Freshly Ground Pepper or about 10 grinds


Pasta

16 ounces of penne or rigatoni pasta

2 egg whites

5 ounces feta cheese, crumbled


Bechamel Sauce

5 tablespoons butter

5 tablespoons flour

3 cups whole milk

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon Pacific Sea Salt

1 teaspoon Freshly Ground Pepper or about 10 grinds

½ teaspoon Freshly Ground Nutmeg or about ¼ of a nutmeg berry

3 tablespoons of romano cheese

½ cup of grated whole mozzarella cheese


Directions


Meat Sauce

  1. In a large bowl, combine baking soda, salt, 2 tablespoons water, and ground beef. Stir to mix well–we use our hands to get it all combined. Set aside.

  2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat for about 2 minutes. Add olive oil and allow to heat for 1 more minute.

  3. Add chopped onions, salt, and pepper. Cook for 3-4 minutes or until onions are soft but not brown.

  4. Add garlic, cinnamon, cloves, oregano, and sweet paprika. Stir and cook for about 30 seconds.

  5. Add tomato paste. Stir and cook for about 90 seconds.

  6. Add wine to the skillet. Stir until everything is combined and the mixture starts to thicken.

  7. Add the water and bay leaves. Stir to combine. Add the ground beef mixture. Stir to break up the beef.

  8. Bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally.

  9. Remove from the heat and allow to cool while you continue on the rest of the steps. Or the sauce may be prepared ahead and placed in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.

Pasta

  1. In a large bowl, stir together egg whites and feta cheese. Set aside.

  2. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

  3. Cook pasta 3 minutes less than the cook time on the package instructions.

  4. Drain the pasta.

  5. Stir the pasta into the feta cheese mixture.

  6. Set aside.

  7. Preheat the oven to 350° F.

Bechamel Sauce

  1. In a large skillet over medium-low heat, melt the butter.

  2. Stir the flour into the butter. Cook for 3-4 minutes stirring constantly. Do not allow it to brown. Add salt and nutmeg. Grind in pepper.

  3. Add the whole milk, stirring constantly. Add the buttermilk. Continue to stir as the sauce thickens. Simmer for 10-15 minutes stirring often. It should be thick enough to coat a spoon.

  4. Remove from the heat. Stir in egg yolks, one yolk at a time.

  5. Stir in cheese.

  6. Allow to sit and cool for about 10 minutes

Assemble the Pastitsio

  1. In the bottom of a 13” x 9” baking dish, add the pasta.

  2. Layer the meat sauce on top of the pasta. The sauce should sit on top of the pasta.

  3. On top of the meat sauce, layer bechamel sauce.

  4. Bake for 40 minutes or until the bechamel just begins to brown.

  5. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 20 minutes before cutting.

Sources:

"Nikolaos Tselementes Changed Greek Cuisine Forever—But for Better or Worse?"

Tselementes, Nikolaos (1950). Greek Cookery.


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