As much as I love to cook, a bit of the joy slips away when my ponytails look at a dish and start to groan like their arms are being slowly torn from their socket, or make faces that imply a sock that has been worn for several months is dangling precariously close to their cute little nostrils. Naturally, I’m more drawn to recipes that I know are going to be guaranteed hits with everyone who eats at my table. Call me crazy, but their little smiles and nods of approval make the mountain of dishes that I always leave behind in the kitchen somewhat more bearable.
So, when I stumbled upon a recipe for Pastitsio (pronounced pah-stee-tsee-oh) last weekend, I headed straight to the kitchen to start the meat sauce. A rich creamy sauce over a meat-pasta combo—how could I go wrong? I actually set out to make Aubergine Lasagna, after reading a recent post by Charles over at Five Euro Foods – but I didn’t buy enough eggplant on shopping day. Mind you, pastitsio is actually very similar to Charles’ dish—both recipes include delicious béchamel and meat sauces.
The morning after I made this dish, I proudly consulted with Miss Kerassia, my authority on all things Greek. Miss Kerassia is a wonderful home cook who moved to Toronto from Greece some time ago. She works at my daughter’s daycare, and I look forward to her warm, welcoming greeting every morning. She tells me that Pastichio (as it is also known) is the equivalent of lasagne for Greeks, and it is a favourite go-to meal for her and many of her friends.
Kerassia educated me on how this dish has been influenced by Italy and Turkey, two neighbouring countries to Greece. Pastitsio takes its name from the Italian pasticcio, which means baked savory pies with meat, fish, or pasta. She talked about how the unique spice combination in this dish (cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice) is in fact reflective of Turkish origins. While I only sprinkled a pinch of cinnamon on top of the béchamel sauce before baking, Kerassia likes to add a cinnamon stick to the meat sauce while it is cooking—so I’ve added that optional step to the recipe below. However I should point out that the version that I made did not include any allspice.
If you’re looking for a smile or two next time you spend time in the kitchen, then I highly recommend this recipe.
Pastitsio (Pah-stee-tsee-oh) [Baked Penne with Béchamel Sauce]
Adapted from Three Sisters Around the Greek Table
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 lb (500g) extra lean ground beef
- 1 ½ tsp salt
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 28 oz tin crushed tomatoes
- 2 tbsp tomato paste
- 1 tsp oregano
- 1tsp thyme
- 1 cup red wine
- Pepper to taste
- Cinnamon stick (optional)
Sauté onions with olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat until soft (about 5 minutes). Add ground beef and cook until brown, adding salt to the beef as it cooks. Break up the beef as it cooks. Add the wine and cook until the wine is reduced by half. Add the tomato paste, crushed tomato sauce, oregano, thyme, cinnamon stick (if usin) and pepper. Bring sauce to a boil, lower the heat and simmer until the sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes. If the sauce is too thick, add some water. Remove cinnamon stick (if using) and remove from heat.
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp flour
- 1 ¼ cup of milk
- 2 tbsp grated romano cheese
Melt the butter in a sauce pan over medium heat. Add the flour and mix with a spoon until the flour and butter are combined. Gradually add milk and whisk (using magic whisk) continuously to avoid any lumps from forming. Simmer until sauce is thick and creamy, about 10 minutes. Remove sauce from heat before it reaches boiling point. Add the cheese and set aside until ready to use.
- 5 cups penne pasta, dried
- ¼ cup grated romano cheese (or pecorino/mizithra)
- 2 tbsp grated romano cheese (or pecorino/mizithra)
- 6 slivers of butter
- Pinch cinnamon
- Pinch nutmeg
Prepare meat sauce and set aside.
Preheat oven to 400°.
Bring large pot of salted water to boil and cook pasta until al dente (or as you like it).
Place the cooked penne in an 11” x 14” in baking dish (rectangular or oval) and sprinkle with the cheese.
Pour the meat sauce on top of the penne and mix together until the penne is evenly coated with sauce.
Prepare the béchamel sauce and spread evenly on top of the pasta with meat sauce.
Top the béchamel sauce with cheese and slivers of butter. Sprinkle on cinnamon and nutmeg. Place in a preheated oven for 25 to 35 minutes, or until lightly browned.
Let the dish sit for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.
- I actually used my own white sauce recipe for the Béchamel and added some grated romano cheese, as the original recipe suggested. (I add a cup or so of grated cheddar cheese to the sauce when making Mac & Cheese.) My version makes less than half of the original recipe, but it is enough to cover the entire pasta dish (I was trying to minimize the number of rich calories). You could easily double the sauce recipe when you feel like splurging (I intend to at least one time in the future).
- I really recommend using the magic whisk when making a Bechamel or white sauce. It works wonders at getting out any lumps in the sauce. I bought mine at the kitchen shop in St. Lawrence Market.