It’s a good thing I like this dish, because we made a huge pan of it last Sunday and I’m still eating it for lunch. We probably should have invited about eight people over to dinner when we first made it, although I’m not quite tired of it yet. It’s awfully good.
Pastitsio, if you haven’t heard of it, is the Greek answer to lasagna. Details differ, but the basic formula is hollow pasta (preferably bucatini, which we can’t get, but other shapes work) layered with spiced tomato meat sauce and an egg-enriched white sauce which forms a custardy topping. The textures are fabulous, creamy and chewy all at once, and the cool custard complements the meaty tomato flavors. It’s a bit of work to put together, but well worth the effort if you have a long Sunday afternoon to spare. And now that autumn is here and standing over a hot stove is actually a pleasant activity, why not?
This was one of those amusing occasions where I open every recipe I have, then follow whichever parts appeal to me. In the past, we’ve made pastitsio from Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, which is very different – the bechamel is looser and binds all the ingredients, which are also tossed with breadcrumbs and extra cheese, and it’s rather bland (though in a good way). This time, in the pursuit of authenticity and a bit more flavor, I made the meat sauce (with some adjustments) from How to Roast a Lamb, and Jon made the bechamel from Saveur’s Greek issue (we have been getting a ton of mileage out of that issue). It worked!
If you like a cocktail while you fix dinner, be aware that this is at least a two-cocktail recipe. The sauce simmers for an hour, then you have to make the white sauce and cook the noodles and build it, then it bakes for another hour. Start early, and allow time for it to cool a bit before you cut in. And maybe have a snack while you’re cooking to tide you over, because this smells really good in the oven. Serve with a big green salad and red wine.
- 3 Tbsp olive oil
- 1 large onion, diced
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 3 fresh bay leaves (or 6 dried)
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 pound ground lamb (or you could make it all beef)
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/4 cup tomato paste
- 1 quart water
- 1 28 oz can whole tomatoes
- 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1-2 Tbsp kosher salt
- black pepper
- 1 stick of butter
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1 quart whole milk
- 3 eggs, separated
- 3/4 cup grated Parmesan
- 1 pound dried pasta, either bucatini, ziti, rigatoni or macaroni. Really anything works, but hollow is recommended.
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
Timing note: get the red sauce going, then put on water for the pasta and preheat the oven to 350°. That way you’ll be ready to spring into action once the bechamel is done.
To make the sauce, saute the onion, cinnamon sticks and bay leaves in the olive oil until just softened. Add the ground meat and cook until browned, stir in the ground cinnamon, then add water, vinegar, sugar and the can of tomatoes, lightly crushed by hand, with all their juice. Stir in salt and pepper to taste – you want the sauce to be a bit salty. Simmer uncovered for an hour or so, stirring occasionally, until the sauce is thick and almost dry.
To make the bechamel, melt the butter in a saucepan, then stir in the flour. Whisk constantly over medium heat until it’s as smooth as you can get it - it will be very thick. Add the milk and whisk it smooth, cook until thickened. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese and egg yolks, set aside.
Cook the pasta until not quite done, then drain. The Saveur recipe then has you beat together the remaining egg whites with the last quarter cup of Parmesan, and toss the cooked noodles in this – I have no idea why. We did it, though, and it was fine.
There are various ways of layering, but we oiled the pan, spread half the pasta in the bottom, poured all the meat sauce on top, then arranged the rest of the pasta over that. Then we put the bechamel on top and carefully smoothed it out over the noodles, trying not to shove them around. Then the pan went into the oven for one hour. The custardy top gets golden brown and almost crunchy around the edges – when it reaches this point, take it out and let it cool for at least 20 minutes, or you may not be able to make a clean cut.
Cut into squares and serve. Makes great leftovers.