What is Pastitsio?
Pastitsio consists of luscious layers of pasta, seasoned ground meat and a creamy Béchamel sauce baked to perfection. Pastitsio is Greek comfort food at its finest!
The three essential components of Pastitsio – pasta, meat filling and a creamy Béchamel sauce – are layered in a baking pan and baked until golden brown. The bottom layer can be any tubular-shaped pasta (I used rigatoni, but penne or any tubular-shaped pasta will do); the middle layer can be ground beef, ground turkey, ground lamb or ground veal spiced with cinnamon and mixed with tomato sauce; and the top layer is Béchamel sauce, which is a white sauce made with milk plus two eggs in this particular recipe.
I first tasted Pastitsio in the early 1980’s when a friend invited me to go to a Greek Festival at a church in the greater Boston area. From my very first bite I thought Pastitsio was fantastic! Since then I’ve attended Greek Festivals in Columbia, South Carolina and Charlotte, North Carolina and I always enjoy the Pastitsio every time! If you’re ever near a Greek Festival, I’d encourage you to go and sample the Greek food. It’s great!
- 3 cups pasta, dry (preferably tubular-shaped such as penne, rigatoni, etc.)
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated or shredded and divided
- 1 1/2 lbs. ground meat (your choice)
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 15-oz. can tomato sauce
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/2 cup butter
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 4 cups milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 eggs
- Cook pasta per package directions. Drain. Toss cooked pasta with 3 tablespoons butter and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
- Cook ground meat, onion and garlic in a large skillet over medium-high heat, stirring until meat crumbles and is no longer pink; drain off any grease.
- Stir in tomato sauce, 1 teaspoon salt, cinnamon and pepper.
- Melt 1/2 cup butter in a saucepan over low heat. Whisk in flour, cook, whisking constantly for 1 minute.
- Whisk in milk; cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thickened and bubbly. Add 1/2 teaspoon and remove from heat.
- Whisk eggs until thick and pale. Whisk about one-fourth of the white sauce mixture into the eggs.
- Add tempered eggs to remaining sauce, whisking constantly.
- Spoon pasta mixture into a greased 13" x 9" baking dish. Spoon meat mixture over the pasta; sprinkle with remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese.
- Pour cream sauce over top of meat layer.
- Bake Pastitsio at 350 degrees F. for one hour or until golden.
- Serving suggestion: Salad, Green Vegetable, and Garlic Bread.
Each of the three layers that compose Pastitsio require a little time so I would plan on thirty minutes for total preparation. This may sound like a lot of time but believe me it is so worth it when you taste the Pastitsio! I know you know how to cook pasta and brown meat so I’m just going to show you how the Pastitsio is assembled for baking.
First layer – spoon the pasta mixture (pasta, butter and Parmesan cheese) into a greased 13″ x 9″ baking dish.
Second Layer – Spoon meat mixture over the pasta layer.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese over meat layer.
Third Layer – Pour the Béchamel sauce over the meat layer.
Bake Pastitsio for 1 hour or until golden on top at 350º F.
Béchamel sauce is simply a white sauce made from butter, flour and milk. In Pastitsio, eggs are added to the sauce for additional richness and flavor. The reason for stirring a small amount of sauce into the eggs is to “temper” the eggs. If the eggs were added to the entire amount of sauce at once, the result would be scrambled eggs. By adding a small amount of sauce to the eggs first, the temperature of the eggs is raised and they may then be added into the larger amount of sauce without the worry of scrambled eggs.
The use of cinnamon in a savory dish may be new to you – I know it was to me when I first tried it in a recipe for Beef Brisket some years ago. I was surprised at the flavor of cinnamon with meat because in the US we usually think of cinnamon as a spice to be used in sweet items, like cinnamon rolls or apple pie. In the Mediterranean and the Middle East, cinnamon is often used to spice meat dishes. Check out the recipe for Beef Biryani, an Indian dish, if you like the flavor of cinnamon with beef. (I actually like it so well that I use 1 teaspoon of cinnamon in Pastitsio when I make it.)
Cinnamon has been around at least since 2000 B.C. when Egypt imported it from other countries. Cinnamon has antioxidant and antibacterial properties and may be of benefit to our health. The addition of cinnamon adds enjoyment to various foods, especially for those people with a decreased sense of taste.
I hope you’ll make Pastitsio for your family and friends soon! They’ll thank you for it!
Remember to Savor the Flavor!
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