How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

Photo and text by Panos Diotis and Mirella Kaloglou.

Calories (per serving): 
803
Servings: 
Preparation Time: 
Cooking Time: 

 

What a winter! The period of unusually cold weather we’re experiencing this year, which has started before the Christmas season, isn’t like anything we encountered before. The snow storm Ariadne hit Greece hard in January, with heavy snowfalls, even at sea level. The temperatures plummeted for days, even in the islands(!), with snow up to 2m/6.5ft in depth in some places, like Evia.

 

Steni village- Evia Island Greece with snow

 

So, when the storm passed, one of the best places to explore was Steni, a mountain village in Evia, within a quick drive from Athens. We wanted to see first-hand how much snow there was and explore nature as well. 

 

When we arrived, the first images of winter scenery in the village were a testament to the serious problems the snow storm must’ve caused to the people living there. We went to Evia 15 days after the storm had passed and even then, there was a lot of frozen snow in the streets. The main roads however, were clear, so people could reach the island’s main city (Halkida) for provisions. 

 

Steni village- Evia Island Greece with snow

 

We had our morning coffee at a cute little café in the village, to warm ourselves up, and then started driving towards the top of the mountain. We wanted to see if we could reach the top, which is about 1800m/6000ft high, but couldn’t do it, due to the fog, snow and ice. The road was very slippery and narrow at places. 

 

So, we took some pictures around the fir trees and the snow, enjoyed the scenery and went back to the village which was about 600m/2000ft down from the place we stopped for pictures. We bought some local honey and fresh artisan bread from the village’s old bakery to bring with us back to Athens. Both were excellent quality and we enjoyed them with a little butter in the next morning, to really appreciate the flavors.

 

Steni village- Evia Island Greece with snow

 

With all this cold weather outside, the timing was perfect for the ultimate Greek comfort food: Pastitsio! What is pastitsio? It’s the Greek version of lasagna; an extremely delicious, rich baked meat and pasta casserole, with creamy sauce and cheese! Need we say more?

 

The word pastitsio, probably comes from the Italian pasticcio, a very similar pasta casserole that’s very popular around the Mediterranean. The Greek version has three layers: pasta, ground beef sauce (usually scented with a little cinnamon) and a top layer of creamy, cheesy sauce (we call it béchamel here, but it’s actually Mornay).

 

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

The pasta used in pastitsio is usually a long tubular macaroni. A slightly thinner version of this is bucatini. People abroad however, also make this dish with ziti, rigatoni or even penne, as long tubular pasta is a bit harder to find sometimes. In this recipe we’ll use the traditional macaroni, but feel free to try the dish with any of the aforementioned pasta.

 

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

Two of the main ingredients for this dish are the cheese and the eggs. Both of those help in binding the pasta, the meat and the sauce together. Also, when in room temperature, the top layer becomes thick like custard, just like in moussaka, the other popular Greek casserole. In order to help the sauce on top stay in its place, we have a small tip to share here as well: we keep some of the boiled and drained pasta aside; a handful of two will suffice. Then, we add them at the top, right above the meat sauce, and pour the béchamel cream over. The pasta added here, helps holding the sauce in place when everything is baked together.

 

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

Pastitsio is made with traditional Greek cheeses. Most people use kefalotyri. A sharp and salty hard cheese, made from sheep’s milk. Don’t worry though; if it’s not available at your area, you can use Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheeses instead. The result is equally delicious.

 

If having to cook three layers sounds a bit confusing or hard, don’t worry. We’ll provide you with handy step-by-step pictures to make things easy. Making pastitsio needs a little time and effort, but the dish is definitely worth it! Put it on the menu for a Sunday meal with friends or family and it’ll be a huge hit.

 

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

If you want to save some time, you can make the meat sauce ahead. The meat sauce requires most of your attention, and we often prepare it a day before. This way, we only have to boil and drain the pasta and prepare the béchamel sauce the day we bake the pastitsio. It’s a lot easier this way!

 

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

You can also assemble the pastitsio a day ahead, put it in the fridge and then simply bake it right before dinner. Another option is to cook this dish ahead, baking and everything, and then store it in the fridge, covered with film; in this case simply reheat in a convection oven for 20-25 minutes (at 160C/320F) on the next day.

 

How to make Pastitsio: The Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

When you take the dish out of the oven, the smell will make it irresistible to cut right into it. You must resist the temptation though and allow it to cool down, before cutting into pieces. Let it cool down for at least 30 minutes. This way cutting the pieces will be easier and the temperature will be just right to enjoy it.

 

So let’s see the recipe for an authentic Greek pastitsio.

 

Ingredients: 

 

 

For the meat sauce:

Greek Pasta Casserole (Pastitsio)

 

- 1kg / 34oz / 2lb ground beef*
- 250g / 9oz (2-3 medium sized) onions, finely chopped
- 400g / 14oz (about 2) tomatoes, grated**
- 3-4 garlic cloves, minced or finely chopped
- 180ml (3/4 cup) olive oil
- 125ml (1/2 cup) red wine***
- 70g / 2.5oz kefalotyri or pecorino cheese, grated****
- 1/4 teaspoon (a pinch) ground cinnamon
- salt, pepper

*You can also use ground turkey for a leaner version or ground lamb for a more authentic flavor. You can mix ground beef with ground lamb or beef with pork as well.
** You can also use canned crushed tomatoes
*** You can also use white wine or even cider.
**** You can also use Parmesan or Graviera or Dubliner or aged Asiago or Provolone.

 

For the pasta:

Greek Pasta Casserole (Pastitsio)

 

- 500g / 17.5oz / 1lb long macaroni or bucatini*
- 3 egg whites, lightly beaten (you will use the yolks in the béchamel below)
- 90g / 3oz (3/4 stick) butter, unsalted
- 70g / 2.5oz kefalotyri or pecorino cheese, grated**

*You can also use rigatoni or ziti or penne.
** You can also use Parmesan or Graviera or Dubliner or aged Asiago or Provolone.

 

For the béchamel (mornay) sauce:

Greek Pasta Casserole (Pastitsio)

 

- 200g / 7oz (1 3/4 sticks) butter, unsalted in room temperature 
- 140g / 5oz flour, all-purpose
- 1.5lt (6 cups) milk, room temperature
- 3 egg yolks
- 70g / 2.5oz kefalotyri or pecorino cheese, grated**
- a pinch of nutmeg
- salt, pepper


** You can also use Parmesan or Graviera or Dubliner or aged Asiago or Provolone.

 

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Preparation: 
Start by making the meat sauce. This is the part that requires most of your attention. You can make this a day before and store in the fridge if you want to save some time.

 

Add the olive oil in a large saucepan/skillet or a medium sized pot and place over medium high heat. Once hot, add the onions (pic. 1) and stir until softened, about 3-4 minutes.
Add the ground meat (pic. 2) and stir. Try to break it up with a wooden spoon or spatula. Cook until most of the moisture is evaporated.

 

Reduce the heat to medium and add the garlic, the cinnamon, salt and pepper (pic. 3). Cook for 3-4 minutes, stirring continuously until it gets a bit dry (pic. 4).

 

Add the wine (pic. 5). Continue cooking for 2 minutes more and then add the grated tomatoes (pic. 6). Cook for 8-10 minutes, until most of the liquid evaporates and the mixture is thick.

 

Remove from heat, add the cheese (pic. 7) and give it a final stir to incorporate. Have a taste to check for seasoning, and set aside. Remove the eggs, the milk and the butter from the fridge. Separate the yolks from the egg whites. Butter a large, deep 36x28cm / 14x11in baking pan (pic. 8) or a similar in volume, large baking pan.

 

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water, for 2 minutes less than the package instructions. 

 

Drain and transfer to the baking pan, keeping a handful (or two) of pasta aside (pic. 9), for the top layer (this is optional but we recommend it). Add the egg whites, the butter and the cheese (pic. 10) to the pasta and mix. Spread the pasta evenly in the pan. Preheat the oven at 170C/340F (in convection oven - fan assisted baking).

 

Layer the meat sauce on top of the pasta (pic. 11) and spread evenly (pic. 12).

 

Make the béchamel sauce:

Melt the butter in a medium sized pot (or a deep saucepan), over medium heat (pic. 13). Add the flour (pic. 14), whisking continuously. 

 

You will make a thick paste (pic. 15). Slowly add the milk (pic. 16), little by little, whisking constantly until smooth. Continue whisking slowly and bring the sauce to a boil. Cook for a few minutes, until it starts to thicken.

 

Remove from heat and add the cheese (pic. 17), the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Add the egg yolks (pic. 18), while whisking vigorously.

 

Spread the smal ammount of pasta you kept aside, on top of the meat (pic. 19). Spread the béchamel sauce, evenly, on top (pic. 20). You can also sprinkle a little more cheese or breadcrumbs over the top, but that’s entirely optional (pic. 21).

 

Bake in the middle rack for 50 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the oven. Remove, allow it to cool down for at least 30 minutes, cut into pieces and serve.

Kali Oreksi!

 

Tips: 

1. You can make the meat sauce 1-2 days ahead, store it in the fridge and warm it up (or simply bring it to room temperature) before using it in the pastitsio.

2. Feel free to try other types of ground meat as well, like lamb or turkey (or mixes of ground meat).  

3. You can try making pastitsio with a variety of pasta and cheeses. Feel free to adjust the flavors according to your liking.

4. If you prepare this meal a day ahead, store in the fridge (covered with film) and reheat in a conventional oven for 25 minutes (at 170C/340F) the next day.

5. You can add more crushed tomatoes (up to twice the proposed quantity here) if you like the meat layer to be saucier.

 

 

How to make Pastitsio: the Greek Lasagna Casserole

 

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