We have 4 daughters between us and when they were pre-schoolers our parents cared for each of them while we returned to work after a blissful year or two of maternity leave. Not only were our children embraced by papou and giagia’s love every day, they were also exposed almost exclusively to the Greek language and their Greek heritage. How special, and how blessed we all were! As if that weren’t enough, their bellies were filled daily with nutritious, home-cooked meals which were essentially made-to-order. If our daughters wanted to snack on milk and freshly made Greek cookies (koulourakia), our parents set to baking. If they craved spaghetti, the water was boiling before they could even say “σε παρακαλώ” (please). If they wanted chicken and there wasn’t any in the house, papou would run (practically) to the market to pick some up. Nothing was too much trouble, and to this day, especially when it comes to their grand-daughters, nothing is.
Although each of our girls had her particular favourite, one meal which was often requested by all of them was, and still is, pastitsio. It seems that their tastebuds are similar to many of yours because since starting this blog a few short months ago, pastitsio is a recipe which many of you have requested as well. So, here it is. 🙂
Pastitsio (sometimes spelled pastichio) is a layered, baked dish which includes pasta noodles, ground meat and a béchamel sauce. It is a classic Greek meal, often invited to celebrations and large family gatherings. It may seem complex, but like our moussaka, the different components involved are actually pretty simple. And, as with moussaka, some of the steps, like boiling the noodles and preparing the meat sauce, can be done the day before, cutting down the prep time so that pastitsio can even make it onto your weekday menu plan.
Along with our love of pastitsio however comes a particular, personal, pastitsio pet peeve. We cringe just a little whenever we hear pastitsio described as a Greek lasagna. We know that lasagna is delicious, and many Greeks, including our parents, make lasagna…but pastitsio is not lasagna. Sure, they both include pasta, and lasagna often includes ground meat, and they are both baked…but so what? Pumpkins and carrots are both orange vegetables that can be turned into delicious soups, but you would never think to call a carrot a skinny, root pumpkin, would you? Pastitsio is pastitsio, a dish so delicious, so beautifully its own, that it deserves to be referred to by it’s proper name. Thanks 🙂
As you may notice when reading the recipe below, the meat sauce may appear very familiar. That is because it is essentially the same meat sauce recipe which is used for our parents’ spaghetti and meat sauce. What is great about this, is that if you have meat sauce left over, you can boil some pasta the next day and have a different meal. Or you can freeze the leftovers for a great last minute lunch option. In fact, if you follow the recipe exactly as described, you will most definitely have meat sauce left over as our parents do not use all that is made for the pastitsio. Why do they prepare more than they need? They figure, they are going through the effort of making it, may as well get two meals out of it. They are very practical people.
Although the pasta and meat sauce can be prepared ahead, the béchamel sauce really does need to be made the day you are planning to assemble and bake your pastitsio. You will notice in the recipe which follows that our parents’ béchamel sauce contains no butter. This is typical for their cooking, because for them, olive oil is gold and replaces butter in almost all recipes. They also use 2% lactose free milk in their béchamel sauce (although you can use regular milk if you like) and so despite the large amount of eggs (keep in mind that this makes a large pan of pastitsio), the resultant béchamel is light yet still incredibly flavourful.
In terms of technique, there are a few things which we feel are important to point out. The first is that although it may appear counter-intuitive, the pasta you will boil should be boiled completely. That is, do not undercook your noodles because you figure they will finish cooking in the oven once the pastitsio is assembled. Second, we noted that our parents have a really neat trick which makes total sense! After pouring the béchamel sauce over the second layer of pasta, our parents use a fork to repeatedly poke into the pan of pastitsio and they wiggle the fork around. What this does is allow the béchamel to seep in between the noodles versus just settling on top. Brilliant!
In terms of the pasta being used, pastitsio is actually quite particular in that you should, if at all possible (and most things are possible) use the tubular spaghetti meant for this dish; what we affectionately call long macaroni. In fact, Greek brands of pasta sell noodles which are called Pastitsio and the ones we use are Pastitsio no. 2. If you can’t find these noodles in your local grocery store, the great world of on-line shopping is definitely going to have them.
This recipe was made for an 11 x 16 inch baking pan, but pastitsio is actually very versatile and very forgiving. If you have a smaller pan, don’t worry. You can easily half the recipe for a pan half the size. Otherwise, keep the quantities the same and you’ll either be faced with enough ingredients to make a large pan of pastitsio like we did, two smaller pans, or you’ll have leftovers. Pastitsio component leftovers are super because any extra pasta and meat sauce can simply be served together for an easy meal. As for the béchamel sauce, there are lots of different ways that you can use extras. If you need some inspiration, check this out.
This recipe calls for aged mizithra which is a hard crumbly cheese made with leftover whey from the production of other cheeses, which is then combined with either sheep or goat milk. If you can’t find it, be a little bit sad, and then substitute grated parmesan or romano cheese. Or, try to find it online. Maybe it will be delivered at the same time as your pastitsio pasta!
Please note that the recipe below was used for a very large pan: 11 X 16 inches, with a 4 inch depth. If you’re using a more traditional glass baking pan: 9 X13 inches, please halve the recipe below.
Mia Kouppa: Pastitsio
- Meat sauce
- 1 medium onion
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1300 grams of ground meat (mixture of veal and pork) (approximately 6 cups of ground meat)
- 7 cups homemade tomato sauce or passata
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon pepper
- 1 heaping teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup boiling water
- 900 grams of Greek pasta, Pastitsio No 2
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup Greek olive oil
- 2 liters milk
- 7 eggs, beaten
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/2 cup plus 6 tablespoons mizithra
- 2 teaspoons mizithra to sprinkle on top of béchamel
- For the meat sauce and pasta
- Finely chop one medium onion and cook in 1/4 cup olive oil until softened.
- Add the meat, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, cinnamon and 1/2 cup boiling water to the pot. Cook for 45 minutes over medium heat, uncovered.
- Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon salt to the water. When the water has come to a boil, add the pasta. Cook as per package directions. Despite the fact that this pasta will go into the oven when the pastitsio is baking, cook the noodles until they are edible
- Once pasta is cooked, drain and set aside.
- Heat olive oil in a heavy saucepan over high heat.
- Add flour and mix continuously so that flour does not burn and cook for approximately 2 to 3 minutes. You don’t want your flour to brown.
- Slowly add 2 liters of milk and then slowly stream in 7 beaten eggs. You must stir this mixture constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk.
- Cook béchamel sauce for about 10 minutes on medium-low heat, until it has thickened but is still easily poured. You can tell if your sauce is ready if it coats a wooden spoon and you can draw a line across it with your finger.
- Take a 11 x 16 inch baking pan and grease it with 3 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of mizithra on bottom of pan.
- Layer half the pasta on the bottom of the roasting pan. Toss with 5 tablespoons of mizithra until evenly coated.
- Using a slotted spoon, spread the meat mixture over the pasta. The slotted spoon is important as your meat sauce will have a fair amount of liquid and you want to drain most of this off. You can use as much of the meat as you would like. Our parents do not use all of the meat that results from this recipe. Instead, they ensure that there is a fine layer of meat covering all of the pasta as shown above, and they reserve the rest for another purpose.
- Sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg on top of the meat.
- Spread the rest of the pasta on top of the meat mixture and then top this layer of pasta with 1/2 cup grated mizithra.
- Pour the prepared béchamel sauce over the pasta. Use the back of a spoon to spread it evenly, ensuring that all of the noodles are covered with sauce.
- Then, take a fork and vertically insert it in several areas over the pastitsio and wiggle it around. This will help the béchamel seep in between the top layer of the noodles.
- Sprinkle the 2 teaspoons of mizithra on top of the béchamel.
- Bake pastitsio on the top rack of oven, uncovered, for approximately 50 minutes. Keep an eye on your pastitsio. You may want to turn your pan halfway through the cooking process if it is browning unevenly. You may also want to set your oven to broil for the last minute of baking in order to brown it more significantly on top. Enjoy.
For the Béchamel
Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit.