It’s time to dirty a few dishes. Okay, more than a few, but making pastitsio is worth the pile of pots and pans it requires to make it. If you are not familiar with pastitsio, it is a layered pasta dish, kind of similar to Italian Lasagna, most often associated with Greek cuisine although a similar dish can be found throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. Often made with lamb, although beef is common also, the dish starts with a layer of pasta, then a layer of meat sauce, followed by another layer of pasta, and finally topped with with a rich bechemel, often enriched with egg and cheese. While the dish, and all of its components, seem quite familiar, there is just enough nutmeg, cinnamon, and allspice to lend an exotic flair to it, which makes it a great starting point from which a novice can start to explore the world of Greek cuisine.
One of the great things about making pastitsio is that it doesn’t require a whole lot of special ingredients. In fact you will probably have almost all of the ingredients in your house already. Of course if you want to get really “authentic” about it, there are few ingredients you need. First is a special, hollow pasta noodle that is used to make pastitsio, but any hollow pasta, such as penne, ziti, or macaroni will do. In fact, we had cavatappi around so that is what we used. Secondly you will need Kefalotiri cheese. This Greek hard cheese is made from sheep’s and goat’s milk. It can be difficult to find, but Pecorino Romano makes a great substitute. Failing that, a good parmesan works well. Just stay away from the stuff in the green can. You know the stuff that I mean.
Lastly, the only other decision to be made is whether to use lamb or beef. Some people will say that lamb is more traditional, but many “authentic” recipes I’ve seen say you can use either. My wife is not a big fan of lamb so we usually go with beef. So, now, let’s dirty some pots and pans!!
1 Tbs. butter
2 pounds ground beef
1 medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground black pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
2 Tbs. parsley, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
4 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced (or 1 15oz can diced tomato)
1 each egg white
Melt butter in a large saute pan, over high heat and add the ground beef, onion and garlic. Cook until brown then add all the remaining ingredients except the egg white. Cook until most of the liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temperature and then stir in the egg white. Set aside.
The Cream Sauce
1/2 cup butter
3/4 cup flour
4 cups milk
1 cup Kefalotiri cheese or substitute (see above)
Melt butter in a sauce pot and add the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute then add the milk. Bring to a boil, stirring to ensure that sauce is smooth. Once the sauce thickens add the seasonings, to taste and remove from heat. Meanwhile beat eggs and stir in the cheese. To this mixture add about 1 cup of hot sauce and mix to temper so that the eggs won’t curdle. Pour egg mixture back into the sauce,stirring to combine, then set aside.
The Pasta and Assembly
1 pound of hollow pasta (see above for details)
1 cup Kefalotiri cheese, grated (or substitute)
While making the sauce, bring to a boil, in a large pot, 1 gallon of salted water. Cook pasta per directions on the package. Drain and rinse. Lightly grease a 9×13 baking dish. Place half the pasta in the bottom of the dish, topped with 1/3 of the grated cheese.
Over this layer spread the meat filling.
Then the other half of the pasta, followed by another 1/3 of the grated cheese.
Finally, pour on the cream sauce and top with the remaining 1/3 of grated cheese.
Bake in a 350°F oven for about 45 minutes or until bubbling and the top is golden brown.
Remove from oven and allow to cool for 15 minutes before cutting and serving.