There are few recipes that are so beloved in Greek cuisine as pastitsio. The iconic dish, featuring pasta (Misko, Pastitsio #2), ground meat, and bechamel sauce on top, is a staple at every holiday meal and celebration. I will confess, it is my favorite, too, so when I saw the news that a variation on the classic published in the New York Times had stirred up such an uproar on social media and inspired a response in the San Francisco Gate, I thought what better time than now to include pastitsio in The National Herald’s Greek Gastronomy section.
The recipe in the Times used lamb instead of ground beef, penne instead of the traditional long tubes of pasta, and added tomatoes. The bechamel also looked to have been spread across the top in a thin layer, when pastitsio enthusiasts know it’s all about the cream which should be a thick layer at least an inch or two, if possible. The inclusion of cinnamon also raised some hackles but it is often used instead of nutmeg. If you prefer nutmeg, always use it freshly grated and sparsely since it can overpower the dish.
Chris Preovolos in his article, “The NYT put lamb in their pastitisio recipe and Greek Americans are up in arms,” in the SFGate pointed out that “pastitsio is not baked ziti” which the recipe seems to resemble more than the Greek favorite. He noted that “food writer Colu Henry, who recently published a well-received book on pasta, stepped on what is (apparently) the third-rail of pastitsio discussion: lamb.”
The over 300 Facebook responses to the recipe focused mostly on the use of lamb. “That is not pastitsio THIS IS MADNESS! THIS IS HERESY! Anyway, too much tomato and in Greece rarely if ever one uses lamp over beef mince,” Vasilis Chronopoulos posted on the NY Times’ Facebook page.
Rafael Dias posted, “I’m not Greek, but I have eaten enough to know this is very wrong!”
The following is a traditional recipe, though variations do exist.
For the meat sauce:
3 tablespoons Greek extra virgin olive oil
1 large chopped onion
1 pound ground beef
1 can tomato sauce (8 oz.)
1/2 teaspoon Greek sea salt
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon or 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
For the bechamel:
5 cups milk
8 tablespoons (1 stick) salted butter
10 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons freshly grated cheese
2 egg yolks, beaten
2 egg whites, reserved to mix with pasta
1 package pasta for pastitsio (Misko #2)
2-4 tablespoons grated cheese, to taste
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large pot or saucepan. Add the onion and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the beef, and sauté over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, until browned, crumbling it with a wooden spoon. Drain off any excess fat and cook for 2 more minutes. Add the sauce, 1 cup of water, salt, pepper, and cinnamon, or nutmeg, whichever you prefer, and continue cooking over medium heat for 20 minutes or until the sauce is reduced slightly. Set aside.
Place a large pot of water on the boil for the pasta. Add a 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt to the boiling water.
To make the bechamel, heat the milk in a deep pot or saucepan, do not boil. In a separate saucepan, melt the butter, add the flour and stir constantly until the butter is absorbed, then add the milk and continue stirring with a whisk, until the cream is smooth and bubbling throughout. Stir in the grated cheese and the beaten egg yolks until completely combined, remove the bechamel from heat and set aside.
Once the salted pot of water comes to a boil, add the pasta and stir. Do not cook for more than 5 minutes so the pasta will retain its shape and it will continue cooking in the oven anyway. Drain and stir in the reserved egg whites with the pasta.
Assemble the pastitsio by lining up half the pasta in a deep, 13 by 9 inch baking pan. Sprinkle with some of the grated cheese and add the meat sauce. Line up the remaining pasta on top of the meat sauce layer, sprinkle with grated cheese, and add the bechamel on top. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for 30-40 minutes and allow to cool 15-20 minutes before slicing and serving.