Recipe: Pastitsio (Greek Pasta Bake)

I am definitely a cold weather cook. Even in the spring and summer I can't seem to stop braising meats and baking casseroles. Comfort food is definitely a major theme in my kitchen. And while exploring Southern cuisine — which is the ultimate comfort food in my book — is my passion, I also enjoy exploring the comfort foods of other nations.
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Since it's Pasta Week at The Kitchn, I thought I'd share one of my favorite carb-loaded recipes. It was my oldest sister that first introduced me to Pastitsio, although we just thought it was a "baked lamb casserole" at the time. It wasn't until I researched the recipe further that I learned its real Greek origins. In a sense, it's just a spin on lasagna, a.k.a. classic comfort food.

I'm not going to preach that my version is authentic by any means, but I will say it is quite delicious. This is definitely a labor intensive dish, as most lasagna-style recipes are. You start with a rich lamb ragu simmered in red wine and spiked with cinnamon. Then you make a cheesy mornay sauce enriched with egg yolks and sprinkled with nutmeg. These sauces are layered between stacks of ziti noodles and baked into a complex casserole.

I had guests in from out of town this weekend, so pastitsio seemed like a great way to impress. Even better, this is one of those meals best eaten the day after it is cooked, so I made it the day before and popped it in the oven before serving. We enjoyed it as a filling late lunch, with plenty of leftovers for late night snacking. There's still one last slice in the refrigerator... I think it might make a pretty good breakfast tomorrow!

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Pastitsio (Greek Pasta Bake)

Serves 8 - 10

For the meat sauce
2 pounds ground lamb (or ground beef)
1 cup chopped onions
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry red wine
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes, chopped with their liquid
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the bechamel
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups whole milk, scalded
1 cup freshly grated Parmesan (or Kefalotyri if you can find it)
3 egg yolks
Freshly ground nutmeg
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the pasta
1 pound pasta, such as ziti or penne
3 tablespoons good quality olive oil
3 egg whites (from yolks used in bechamel)
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan (or Kefalotyri if you can find it)

Preheat oven to 375°.

To make the meat sauce, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet or braiser over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onions and saute until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add the ground lamb and cook until crumbly and browned all the way through. (I drained off a bit of the fat once this was done.) Increase heat to high, pour in the red wine, and allow to simmer until the red wine has cooked out. Stir in the tomato paste, cinnamon, and allspice. Add the tomatoes with their juices, reduce heat, and simmer the sauce for thirty minutes, stirring occasionally.

To make the bechamel, melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and whisk until smooth, about one minute. Add the scalded milk and continue to cook until the sauce is thick and coats the back of the spoon, about 5 - 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the Parmesan and egg yolks. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg to taste.

To make the pasta, cook the noodles until just barely al dente. Drain and toss with olive oil. Fold in the egg whites and Parmesan until well mixed.

In a casserole dish with tall sides, layer half of the noodle mixture in the bottom of the dish, covering the bottom completely. Spread the entire amount of meat sauce over the noodle layer. Spread remaining noodles over the meat sauce. Pour a thick layer of bechamel on top of the noodles, to the top of the casserole dish (there may be a little leftover).

Bake the casserole until the top is puffy and golden brown, about 45 minutes. This is best served the day after it is cooked, just reheat in a 325° oven until warmed through. If eating the day of, let it rest for at least 30 minutes before serving (this will make cleaner slices.).

Related: Recipe: Ham & Linguine Casserole, Mother of all Casseroles

(Images: Nealey Dozier)

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