Pastitsio, Please!

Posted on: Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Fondue nights bring back so many fun memories. On the topic of foodie nostalgia, my absolute favorite memory is our yiayia’s pastitsio. Every Sunday growing up, the five of us would pack into our Mom’s wood-grain station wagon and drive to our grandparents’ home in Swampscott for dinner. In the backseat, Kara and I usually crossed our fingers and toes hoping that Yi made pastitsio. After greeting and kissing Papou’s cheek, Kara and I would scurry to the kitchen.

Since the dish has many steps, Yi prepared it on rare occasions. We’d cheer upon finding Yi by the stove about to cut large pieces into the golden brown topping. Pastitsio is basically a Greek take on lasagna with three essential components- cheesy noodles, a rich lamb ragu, and a creamy Bechamel sauce all layered in a pan and baked until bubbly and golden brown. Each layer is prepared separately and when baked together, subtle sweet notes resonate from the cinnamon in the lamb sauce and nutmeg in the Bechamel. This rich winter dish is one of my favorite Greek entrees and I always look for special occasions to make it for friends.

Lamb and Tomato Sauce Layer
1 lb ground lamb
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1/2 c red wine (whatever you’re drinking!)
1 14 oz can tomato puree
1/2 c water
2 cloves minced garlic
3 T chopped fresh parsley
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t dried Greek oregano
salt and pepper throughout

Noodle Layer
1 lbs #2 Macaroni (available at most Greek or ethnic markets. Feel free to substitute Ziti or Penne if you can’t find it)
3 egg whites (reserve the yolks for Bechamel Sauce), beaten
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1/2 c Kasseri cheese, grated

Bechamel Sauce Layer
1 stick unsalted butter
1 c all-purpose flour
4 c whole milk, scalded in a small pan
1 c freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano Cheese
3 egg yolks, beaten
1/4 t ground nutmeg

salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Brush the bottom and sides of a 13 x 9 baking dish with EVOO.

For the Lamb and Tomato Sauce Layer, add the ground lamb to a large sautee pan and cook over medium-high heat until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Drain any excess liquid with a spoon. Add the wine, tomato puree, water, garlic, parsley, cinnamon, oregano, salt, and pepper and reduce heat to low. Simmer the sauce over low heat for 25 minutes. 

While the sauce is simmering, prepare the Noodle Layer by bringing a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the noodles until just al dente and drain well. Return the noodles back to the warm pot off of the heat. Add 4 T butter, 3 egg whites and 1/2 cup of cheese, mix well, making sure the butter melts, and set aside.

For the Bechamel Sauce Layer, melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Once melted, gradually whisk in the flour. Once the butter and flour become a thick, smooth paste, slowly whisk in the warm milk (adding ladleful at a time). Continue to whisk constantly for 5-6 more minutes until the sauce is thick, a bit thicker than a gravy. Remove the pan from the
heat and stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, nutmeg, egg yolks, salt and pepper to taste and stir with a wooden spoon. Now you are ready to assemble the layers!

Layer the bottom of the greased dish with half of the noodles. They tend to get intertwined, so you may need to use your fingers to evenly spread them out a bit. Pour the meat filling in an even layer on top of the noodles. Top with the remaining pasta noodles and flatten them out as best you can. Lastly, pour the Bechamel Sauce in an even layer over the noodles. Spread the sauce with a spoon or spatula, making sure the entire surface is covered. Bake for 45 minutes or until the Bechamel Sauce is golden brown and firm. Remove from the oven and let stand for at least 10 minutes before cutting into squares and serving. Serves 10-12.

Plated with a simple olive oil and vinegar salad and crusty bread, this rich bake will impress any dinner guest!


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