A Greek Easter Pastitsio

by Caterina Borg, Good Food Gourmet on April 12, 2015

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.comIf I were to ask you what dishes your family prepared for each holiday, what would they be? I am sure that most people would include things like a ham, perhaps a turkey, deviled eggs, pigs in a blanket, meatballs, potato or macaroni salad – right, am I close?  Well, if you were to ask a Greek kid the same question, you will get a very different answer.
Foods like spanakopita, tiropita, moussaka, dolmades, pastitsio, baklava and galatoboureko are some of the responses you might get. This elicited some strange looks from neighborhood kids and school friends, so it definitely did not land us in the cool kids club. These foods taught us to appreciate the ingredients, the process and the traditions of our culture and were gladly shared with anyone who was willing to try them.

When we moved to this country, my family lived in a tiny apartment in Adelphi, Maryland – a very middle class suburb of Washington, DC. This tiny apartment had an equally tiny kitchen which required a great deal of organization to prepare homemade meals. There was not only limited counter space but also limited dry and refrigerated/freezer space. I often wonder how we managed as a family of four. With all of these limitations, there was never talk of taking shortcuts or changing what we prepared for our meals—we just had to be more organized in how we did it all. More often than not, the process would spill out into the dining room and living room, and it truly became a family affair.

When my parents cooked or baked, they made enough to feed an army. We always made room at our table for guests who would stop by for coffee and end up staying for lunch or dinner. Many times friends who were experiencing difficult times and hard pressed for a meal, made their way to our home and were never turned away. My family always graciously obliged and sent them off with food to last them for days.

That’s what food is all about — to share and enjoy with each other, and thanks to my parents, we always had plenty.

Pastitsio is a great dish to make when you have a lot of people to feed, which is why it always shops up on the table at special events. What’s even better is that it freezes very well. Leftovers are cut and wrapped in both plastic wrap and foil, then frozen to be enjoyed another day.

This delicious dish is layered with a silky, cheesy béchamel, long bucatini noodles and meat sauce. My dad always made the meat sauce ahead of time to save some time. Once this step is out of the way, then making the béchamel and boiling the pasta can be done at the same time. This way, the dish comes together fairly quickly. I will say that this process is made even easier if you have an extra set of hands to help you along.

My dad was one of those people who loved to make his pastitsio with a huge cap of béchamel on the top that was made even more delicious with extra grated cheese added on top of that, before baking. If he was a little short on ingredients to make his usual quantity of béchamel, he would wrap the pastitsio in filo dough instead of adding the bechamel on top. I have never seen anyone but my dad make pastitsio this way, and it’s a great alternative if you don’t like a lot of béchamel.

This dish can be made with just about any protein like ground lamb, pork and even seafood – some cultures traditionally make it this way. The secret to its popularity across the globe is not in the different ingredients used, but the simple fact that we all love a creamy and meaty baked pasta dish.

Traditional Pastitsio  (makes 2-10” round deep dish pie pans or one medium roasting pan)
4-6- cups of meat sauce, prepare ahead of time
1 lb traditional pastitsio noodles (bucatini) or substitute ziti

Bechamel
2 sticks butter
1 cup flour
6 eggs, separated
5 cups milk, warm
6 cups grated kefalograviera  (or parmesan) cheese, reserve 2 cups for the top
½ to ¾ teaspoon nutmeg
S&P to taste (start with ¼ teaspoon)

Preheat your oven to 350°F. Make sure to make your meat sauce ahead of time on the link provided and allow it to cool completely. I make mine ahead of time and keep it stored in pre-portioned containers in the freezer.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Follow the directions on the back of your box of pasta by adding water to a large pot, adding salt and allowing it to come to the boil. Have your helper cook the noodles for you until they are al dente and strain them into a colander (set the cooking pot aside because you will need it later).

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

At the same time, you should start making the roux by adding the butter and flour to a large pot on medium heat and cooking it for about 5-10 minutes. This will be the thickener for the béchamel. Stir this continuously to prevent it from taking on any color.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Warm the milk in a microwave safe bowl and temper some of it into the egg yolks and add the remaining milk into the roux.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Use a whisk to loosen up any lumps that may have formed and then add in the tempered eggs and continue stirring with a wooden spoon. Lower the heat from medium to low and continue stirring.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Add in the 4 cups of grated cheese, the pepper and the ½ teaspoon nutmeg then taste for S&P. You probably will not need to add any salt because the cheese should be sufficient, but you may want to add a little more nutmeg. The mixture should now be getting quite thick.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

At this point, ask your helper whip your egg whites for you while you continue stirring the béchamel on low heat. Once the egg whites are nice and fluffy, fold these into your béchamel and then set the pot aside.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

The finished béchamel should look like this…

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Add the pasta from the colander back into the pot and add about 3 large ladles of béchamel into the pasta. Stir to coat the pasta very well. If it still seems a little dry, add a little more béchamel. Toss carefully so as not to break the pasta…

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Add ½ of the coated pasta to your greased baking dish and top this with some more of the béchamel. This will create a sturdy base so that the slices do not fall apart. Smooth it out evenly over the pasta.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Next add all of your meat sauce on top of this pasta layer and spread this out evenly over your pasta.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Add the remaining pasta evenly on top of the meat sauce creating 2 nice layers of pasta with a layer of meat sauce in the center.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Finally, pour the remaining béchamel evenly over the top layer of pasta. Add the reserved 2 cups of grated cheese over the béchamel and bake in the oven until the top begins to turn a lovely golden brown and begins to set.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

Allow this to cool slightly before serving so that you can cut nice, clean slices.

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

A Greek Easter Pastitsio, www.goodfoodgourmet.com

 

 

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