Pastitsio (also Pastichio) is a classic Greek pasta bake made with pasta, meat sauce and topped with béchamel.
NOTE: We have 2 recipe boxes below. The first recipe box is for a pan that is 11 x 16 inches; and the second recipe box is for a pan that is 9 X 13 inches.
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 yiayia’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. When 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 ever 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 taste buds 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 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 its proper name. Thanks 🙂
If you love pasta, we think you’d love our “Spanakopita mac and cheese”. Watch video below:
As you may notice when reading the recipes below (remember, there are two recipe boxes, for two different pan sizes of pastitsio), 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. This is great because if you have meat sauce left over, you can boil some pasta the next day and have a different meal.
You can also 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 because our parents do not use all that is made for the pastitsio. Why do they prepare more meat sauce than they need? They figure that if they are going through the effort of making the meat sauce, 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 recipes which follow 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 many eggs, 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 under cook 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 from Misko. 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.
The first recipe listed below 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 ( for your convenience, we included a 2nd recipe box below, halving the recipe, to be used for a 9 x 13 inch pan). Otherwise, keep the quantities as they are for the larger pan and you’ll either be faced with enough ingredients to make that large pan of pastitsio, you’ll be able to make 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 Greek 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!
This is our parents very BIG pan!
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Please note that the 1st 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 size baking pan: 9 X 13 inches, please see the 2nd recipe box below.
- 9 X 13 inch pan (3 Quarts)
- 1/2 medium onion, chopped
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (30 ml)
- 650 grams ground meat (mixture of veal and pork) approximately 3 cups or 1 1/2 pounds
- 3 1/2 cups homemade tomato sauce, or store bought tomato sauce ( 875 ml)
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon heaping cinnamon
- 1/4 cup boiling water ( 60 ml)
- 500 grams Greek pasta, we use Misko Pastitsio No.2 ( about 1 1/4 lbs)
- 1/2 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup Greek olive oil (60 ml)
- 1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons all-purpose flour (42 grams)
- 1 liter milk
- 4 eggs beaten
- 1 1/2 tablespoons Greek olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1/4 cup + 3 tablespoons Greek mizithra cheese ( 45 grams)
- 1 teaspoon Greek mizithra cheese to sprinkle on top of bechamel
For the meat sauce and pasta
- Finely chop 1/2 medium onion and cook in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until softened.
- Add the meat, tomato sauce, salt, pepper, cinnamon and 1/4 cup boiling water to the pot. Cook for 45 minutes over medium heat, uncovered.
- Meanwhile, boil a large pot of water. Add 1/2 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 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; do not under cook the pasta.
- Once pasta is cooked, drain and set aside.
For the Bechamel
- 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 1 liter of milk and then slowly stream in 4 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, while stirring constantly, 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.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit. You will bake on center rack.
- Take a 9 X 13 inch baking pan and grease it with 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil.
- Sprinkle about 1/2 tablespoon of mizithra on bottom of pan
- Layer half the pasta on the bottom of the pan. Toss with 2 1/2 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 might 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 but be sure that there is a fine layer of meat covering all of the pasta, as shown above.
- 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 1/4 cup grated mizithra cheese.
- 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 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 1 teaspoon of mizithra on top of the béchamel.
- Bake pastitsio on the center 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
- Let sit for 20-30 minutes before cutting and serving.