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It's All Greek To Me- Adventures in Pastitsio

It's week three of Love4Lasagna and so far, I am kind of batting 0 for 2. Shack didn't like the rapini in the lasagna roll ups and last week, he thought there was something bitter in the chili verde lasagna, although Little Shack and The Neighbours loved both. This week I decided to make pastitsio, a greek dish that is very lasagna like but traditionally it is made with lamb. Shack HATES lamb.

When I was younger I spent quite a lot of time in Greece because I worked in Athens for a couple of long stints. To be honest, I only ate this dish once when i lived there because it was always the dish that was kept out at room temperature for days on end, beside the moussaka and it would get all congealed and kind of disgusting looking, to be honest, and it was really horrible. Now, why would I want to make a dish like that?? 
I am assuming that freshly made, still warm from the oven eaten on the day it was made, not three weeks after it had been put out on the counter, it might be a totally different kettle of calamari. It can't be terrible. It's got pasta and everyone likes pasta. It has a cheesey bechamel sauce and you would have to be crazy to not like bechamel.  It has what amounts to a bolognese sauce but cooked until there is little liquid left and instead of basil and oregano, it has oregano, allspice and cinnamon. Okay, that doesn't sound all that appetizing but I am an open minded eater!

I decided I would just make it with ground beef in an effort to win Shack over this week but I am kind of afraid that he is not going to like the allspice in the meat or the nutmeg in the bechamel or the lime in the coconut again and I will be stuck with this giant casserole of really heavy pastitsio that I can't even feed to Reno because it is full of milk and butter and cheese and Reno becomes a disgusting, gassy mess if she ingests even the smallest crumb of cheese.

Yesterday I went to The Danforth, Toronto's Greek area, to buy kefalotyri cheese and had to pick up some fantastic sheep's milk feta and tzaziki while I was there. I can't stop into the Greek House Food Market without picking up a few extra goodies. They make all of their own dips, their own greek yogurt and they often have goodies like bottle of olive oil that somebody's grandfather brought back from greece the week before. 

After I bought my greek treats, I met my friend, Alexander for coffee and invited him over for dinner to try my pastitsio but he is watching his girlish figure and declined. To punish him I am going to share a photo of him declining my dinner invitation.

I think that he had actually made a date with the lovely young lady sitting beside him and that is why he is not here for dinner.

Anyway, I read tons of recipes and took inspiration from each from each one to make my final dish. I will post a link to the three that i took from :

I followed the second recipe from Joe Horn at My Cooking Quest very closely with only a few changes and i kept the bread crumbs even though that is not traditional because i thought a bit of crispy top crust might be a nice foil to all that richness underneath. 

Pastitsio (makes 10 – 12 portions)
adapted from the cookbook Modern Greek
For the Pasta:
  • 1 pound ziti
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten (I used 3 eggs)
  • 3 tablespoons grated kefalotiri or parmesan cheese
  • 1 cup bechamel sauce
For the Pie:
  • 2 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 5 cups meat sauce
  • 3 cups bechamel sauce (I used 4 cups)
  • 3 tablespoons breadcrumbs (I used panko)
  • 3 tablespoons grated kefalotiri or parmesan cheese
This recipe is all about the order.  Make the meat sauce first.  When you have about 30 minutes left before the meat sauce is done start on the bechamel and start the pasta water.  When you are about 15 minutes from from the meat sauce being done, cook your pasta.

Pasta – Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil.  Add the pasta and simmer for 10 minutes or until almost soft.  Drain in a colander and transfer to a large bowl.  Allow to cool and then add the beaten eggs, cheese and bechamel sauce. Toss the pasta until well coated with the mixture.

To Assemble – Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Brush the bottom and sides of a rectangular 9×13 inch baking dish with the melted butter.  Spread a third of the pasta evenly in the dish can cover with half of the meat sauce.  Add another third of the pasta and cover with the remaining meat sauce.  Add another third of the pasta and cover with the remaining meat sauce.  Spread the remaining pasta over the top and spoon on the bechamel sauce, smoothing it over the top.  Sprinkle on the breadcrumbs and cheese.  Make for 40 minutes or until the top is golden brown.  Let rest for 10 minutes before cutting and devouring!

  • 4 cups milk (I used 5 cups of milk)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon allspice berries or ground allspice
  • 8 tablespoons butter
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 4 tablespoons grated kefalotiri or parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat the milk, bay leaves and allspice in a saucepan over low heat or in the microwave in a glass bowl.  Don’t let the milk burn.  You are looking for 150 degrees or so.  Melt the butter in another saucepan or saucier, then add the flour and whisk for about 5 minutes until combined.  Slowly ladle or pour, be careful, the hot milk into the flour mixture (discarding the allspice and bay leaves) and whisk constantly until the sauce thickens.  Remove the saucepan from the heat and, when slightly cooled stir in the cheese and nutmeg.  Add salt and pepper to taste. (makes 4 cups)
Meat Sauce:
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 medium-sized yellow onions, peeled and diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh flat leaf parsley (i left out the parsely)
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 sprig fresh thyme (i left out the thyme)
  • 2 pounds lean ground beef
  • 1/2 cup red wine, (drink the rest of the bottle while making this, I did)
  • 1 15 ounce can chopped tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon allspice ( I used about 4 allspice berries and removed them at the end)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat and saute the onions, garlic, celery, parsley, oregano and thyme for about 5 minutes until softened. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and reserve.

meat simmering
Add the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the saucepan and saute the ground beef, stirring often to break up the pieces, for about 10 minutes until browned.  Add the red wine, tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaves, salt and pepper and saute for another 5 minutes. Return the onion, garlic and celery mixture to the saucepan, stir well and simmer the sauce for 45 to 60 minutes or until the sauce has thickened. (Makes 5 cups).

It's now in the oven and i just checked it at the 45 min mark and I am going to leave it in for another 10 minutes so the timing seems to be about right. I am serving it with a salad - not a true horatiki, just mixed greens with tomato, cucumber, feta and a light dressing of olive oil and greek vinegar. This dish is CRAZY rich and heavy and I can't imagine serving bread or anything else other than a light salad and it needs something green so I am adding the mixed greens so we don't all get scurvy. I will report back after dinner with the results!

Okay, I just got back from eating dinner and it was actually really, really delicious. Even Shack loved it! Little Shack said he wasn't loving the bechamel (i think it was the nutmeg) but ate all of the insides, The Neighbours said it was delicious and both ate seconds. When it was in the oven, I had decided that this dish was best left to loving old Greek grandmothers with nothing else to do but cook and dirty half the dishes in their kitchen. I had bechamel debris everywhere and it was a really, really terrible clean up. If blood looked like bechamel, my kitchen looked like a CSI crime scene.
That was before we tasted the pastitsio though. I would really love to make it again with lamb and i just might do that even if Shack hates lamb because I love lamb and The Neighbours love lamb and it can't just be all about Shack now, can it?

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