Pastitsio is a form of Greek casserole, similar to moussaka, both of which show up on the menu of a typical Greek restaurant. It’s been called “Greek lasagne” but it seems to me to be more similar to a Greek spaghetti pie.
For years, I’ve made it, off and on, as a treat, but it’s a bit of a production to make it according to the recipe in my old Better Homes & Gardens cookbook, and when I happened to see a cooking show in which they made pastitsio in what was claimed to be the more authentic Greek way, it was somewhat easier, and since then I’ve found some products and made some tweaks to simplify it further.
So I’ll be sharing with you a simplified version and a somewhat more complicated version.
The simple version:
To start with, you’ll need to pick up two ingredients from your local International Food Store (in my case, Valli Produce).
First, the pasta. This is similar to bucatini, but the holes are wider. In fact, even though this is literal pastitsio pasta, from the Greek foods aisle, the photo above is from a pasta in the pasta section with even wider holes and I think that version worked even better.
Second, the Bechamel Mix. How easy is it to find? Not sure. . . but it makes the recipe easier, that’s for sure.
And the third short cut requires a jar/can of standard pasta sauce.
Here’s the ingredients list:
1 1/2 lbs ground beef or lamb
1 jar pasta sauce (I used Hunt’s garlic & herb)
1/4 – 3/8 cup dry red wine
1/2 tsp cinnamon
12 oz pastitsio pasta
1/2 cup milk
3/8 cup parmesan cheese (the kind from the green cannister)
Bechamel mix packet
500 ml milk
additional parmesan cheese (any kind), for sprinkling
Step 1: cook the pasta
Do not use a regular pot. You want the pasta to cook without bending, so you’ll need something long enough to accommodate it. I use my small-ish roasting pan, fill it with water and a bit of salt, and set it above two burners. You can watch this video (at about the 3:30 mark) for another example, an oval cast iron pot which is probably even better. Do not stir the pasta but let it cook and take it off a few minutes before the end of the listed cook time. Then, using two pair of tongs, carefully take tong-fuls of pasta and lay them in a 13 x 9 baking dish (sprayed with cooking spray) so that they line up neatly. Again, watch the video, at about 4:30. This is kind of tricky and once it came out pretty darn near perfectly, but another time (I think because I cooked it longer and didn’t leave the pasta untouched) it curled up and I couldn’t get the desired effect.
(Optional, and perhaps not necessary: because there is lots of water hiding in the pasta, I used a medicine dropper from when the kids were little to suction some of the excess water out.)
Separately, mix together the 2 eggs, the 1/2 cup milk, and the parmesan, and pour it over the pasta.
Step 2: prepare the meat
The meat sauce in the original cookbook, or in the linked video, is fussy. Here, I just brown the meat and onion, drain it, add in the jar of spaghetti sauce, the wine, and the cinnamon, and cook until the mixture seems thick.
Spread the meat sauce in a single layer on top of the pasta.
Step 3: prepare the Bechamel sauce
Follow the directions on the box for one packet (there are three in a box). However, it is somewhat fussy and my first time, I ended up with clumps. The second time I also ended up with clumps so I took out my immersion blender instead.
Spread the Bechamel sauce on top of the meat sauce.
Step 4: bake
Sprinkle parmesan cheese on top of the bechamel sauce. Then bake in a 350 degree oven for 30 minutes. Maybe more; that’s the original bake time from the BH&G cookbook with 2/3s as much but in the video Michael Symon bakes it for an hour.
Note that this fills my particular 13 x 9 dish up to the brim, so you may want to put a cookie sheet underneath to ensure that nothing spills onto the oven itself.
Let it rest for a few minutes, then enjoy.
What if you can’t find the bechamel sauce packet?
Here’s the recipe for the bechamel sauce from the original cookbook:
Melt 3 tablespoons margarine or butter, and stir in 3 tbsp flour and 1/2 tsp pepper. Add 1 1/2 cups milk, and cook and stir ’til thickened and bubbly, plus an additional minute. (Note: the recipe says to add “all at once” and it’s never been clear to me what the purpose of that is but I frequently have problems with lumps, though now that I have my immersion blender I can also solve them easily.) Then remove from heat and stir sauce gradually into two beaten eggs. (Why not add the eggs to the sauce? You’d get scrambled eggs. But you can add some of the sauce to the eggs, then add the mixture back, so that you don’t have to use up a large dish.) Then stir in 1/4 cup parmesan cheese.
This is the amount for an 8 x 8 baking dish. You can multiply the amounts by 1.5 to keep the same proportions, or you can double it, or you can keep it the same and it’s just a slightly thinner layer of bechamel.
What about the hard-to-find pasta?
Granted, it looks impressive to serve this with proper pastitsio noodles, but it’s not the end of the world to use macaroni, instead.
And that’s it.