Have you ever had pastitsio? The famous Greek pasta bake? The one that is layered with pasta, a cinnamon fragranced meat sauce, and a thick layer of creamy bechamel? You know the one that every Greek swears that their mother or yiayia make the most amazing one ever? Yes! That’s the one!
Every single Greek kid on the planet grows up eating pastitsio. It is considered the ultimate comfort food. And to me, my yiayia Anneta made the best one. Whenever she threw a dinner party, her guests always showed up hungry awaiting her amazing cooking. If she taught me anything, it was to cook with all of my heart & to pour love into every dish. Especially the ones that have special meaning to me.
This dish is a little labor intensive because it is made in four steps. But it is most definitely worth it! I often will make the pasta & meat sauce layers the day before baking this. Layer them in the pan, cover with foil and refrigerate it overnight. That way the following day, I just need to make the béchamel sauce and to bake it.
I make this probably once or twice a year, mostly because it is so rich in not only tradition, but calories. So if I make this, I bake the standard size pan no matter what. It’s perfect for a party!
The great thing is that the leftovers freeze very well! And they reheat in the oven very well too! So I divide it into pieces and store them in an airtight container lined with parchment in the freezer. This way, when we have a craving for this wonderful comfort food, it is available.
To reheat it, I loosely wrap the pieces in parchment paper in the pan and heat the oven up to 400 F and let it both defrost and reheat for about and hour or more. I stab it with a knife to check the temperature.
16 oz package of bucatini or penne pasta
7 oz of feta cheese (in the brine)
Meat Sauce Ingredients:
16 oz ground beef
16 oz tomato sauce (no salt added)
1 large white or yellow onion
3 cloves of garlic
2 bay leaves
1 1/2 tbsp of ground cinnamon
1 pinch of ground cloves
1 tsp of honey or sugar (balances the acidity of the tomato sauce)
1/2 cup of dry red wine
1 tbsp dry parsley
1 tsp dry oregano
1 tsp salt
1/2 ground black pepper
2 sticks of butter
8 tbsp of all purpose flour
7 cups of whole milk
8 oz freshly grated graviera (or gruyere)
1 tbs freshly grated nutmeg
1 tbsp black pepper
1 tbsp of sea salt
4 egg yolks
A little more nutmeg, black pepper and 2 tbsp of grated Parmesan or aged Mizithra cheeses.
Drizzle a little extra virgin olive in the bottom of a 10 in. x 14 in. lasagna pan and set aside.
Start by cooking your pasta. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. When boiling, add a tbsp of sea salt to the water. Add the pasta. Stir it around so that it doesn’t stick to the bottom. Boil it according to the directions on the package. Drain well, and add the pasta to the lasagna pan. Toss it with olive oil & let it cool.
When it has completely cooled down, crumble half of the feta cheese & beat two eggs. Toss those with the pasta. The eggs with bind the pasta layer. Set aside.
Meat Sauce Layer
Drizzle some olive oil into a large pot. Add in your ground beef. And separate it with your wooden spoon and allow it to brown. Add a little bit of salt and pepper. When the meat has cooked, then add in finely diced onion and three cloves of garlic. I chop the onion & garlic in the food processor for a quick mince!
When the onion is translucent, pour in the tomato sauce and a tsp of honey and stir together. The honey or sugar balances out the acidity of the tomato sauce. Add the cinnamon, salt and pepper to taste. Add the wine. Continue to cook on low. For 30 minutes. At the end, stir in the parsley and oregano.
Ladle the meat sauce over the pasta layer. Crumble the rest of the feta cheese over that and set aside.
Allow the milk to come to room temperature. It will make the cooking faster.
Make the roux buy melting the butter in your large pot on low and then whisk in the flour for a few minutes. This will become golden brown.
Pour in the milk little by little while stirring, so that it will thicken as you go. When it has thickened and you can see the lines from the whisk in the mixture, turn off the heat. Add in the salt, pepper, nutmeg and gruyere. Whisk till thoroughly combined.
Temper the egg yolks with a little bit of the bechamel. Then add the egg mixture to the sauce & whisk thoroughly to combine. Tempering is an important step or else you will scramble the eggs and ruin your sauce.
Ladle this over the pasta and meat layers. At this point you can grate a little more nutmeg & black pepper on top, and a tablespoon or two of grated Parmesan or aged Mizithra cheeses. This layer of cheese with help give it a nice crust.
Bake at 350 F for 1 hour. Wait 30 minutes before cutting into it.
This is perfect served with a simple salad like arugula with lemon, olive oil, salt and pepper. Or with a Greek horiatiki, which is a tomato and cucumber salad. Add a slice of feta on the side if you like.
Truly this dish is the star of the show, so you don’t want a complicate whatever else you are serving with it.