Pastitsio is often referred to as the Greek answer to lasagna, but I think that it’s selling it quite short. The rich lamb sauce is more than a simple bolognese, and gains character from cinnamon and cloves. Mozzarella and ricotta aren’t to be found here, as the entire mixture is cradled by a luxe bechamel enriched with egg yolks and feta cheese. I think that the lasagna reference must have come from folks who didn’t have a culinary context for the dish, but I say why categorize? Can’t pastitsio just be pastitsio?
Back when I was little, summertime meant a trip to the Greek festivals held by the Orthodox churches in the DC Metro area. I believe that our favorite was in Maryland, where a church hall was taken over by dozens of old ladies doling out massive portions of what must have been secret family recipes. I can be sure that there must have been arguments over who had the best recipes and which versions would be made for the festivals. No matter – I never had a bad meal. The rundown was that you hopped in line and pointed to whatever you wanted to eat copious amounts of – moussaka, tender roasted lamb, lemony potatoes and oven braised green beans. I’m sure there was salad. I’m sure there were even other cooked treats. I barely made it past the pastitsio – a heaping of blubbery noodles in a delicately spiced sauce, almost too heavy to carry. We would tote the styrofoam containers outside to the picnic tables and attempt to conquer the Joey Chestnut-sized portions. You almost wanted to scream “Release the kraken!” (Haha, Mom, that was for you…)
My version of pastitsio is no secret family recipe, but it’s good. Damn good. It’s one of the few dishes that my husband will eat faster than I can keep it in the house. He just refers to it as the “lamb” – most likely because taking time to call it by its full name takes away time that he might spend eating it. Fine by me – just like those little old ladies from the church hall, I love to dole this out in epic portions as well.
1 onion, chopped
4 c. of garlic, chopped
2 lbs. of lamb
2 tbs. of olive oil
1/2 tsp. of cinnamon
1/4 tsp. of cloves
1 tsp of oregano
1/8 tsp. of white pepper
1/8 tsp. of black pepper
1 c. of tomato sauce
1 c. of beef stock
4 tbs. of butter
4 tbs. of flour
4 c. of milk
1/3 c. of cream
pinch of black pepper
pinch of white pepper
pinch of nutmeg
2 oz. of feta cheese, finely crumbled
1/2 c. of grated parmasean
pinch of ground cloves
1 lb. of mostacioli or cut ziti
Preheat your oven to 375°. Bring a pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
You’ll start by making your bechamel to top the pasta. Melt 4 tbs. of butter in a large sauce pan. Whisk in the flour and stir until smooth and all incorporated – about 1 minute or so. Slowly add your milk in dribs and drabs, whisking to prevent lumps. Keep on whisking and crank the heat to medium to coax the sauce into thickening. Keep whisking and add the black pepper, white pepper, cloves, and nutmeg. Turn off the heat and whisk in the feta and parmasean. Taste for salt and pepper and correct seasoning. Set aside.
Now you need to make your meat sauce. Heat 2 tbs. of olive oil in a large skillet. Add your ground lamb and brown, breaking up any large chunks. When the lamb is almost browned, add the onions and garlic and continue to cook until the onion is translucent. Add cinnamon, cloves, white pepper, black pepper and stir. Add stock and stir to incorporate. Last, add the tomato sauce and continue to cook until thick and bubbly.
By this time, your pasta water should be boiling. Add your pasta and cook until al dente. Drain and dump into a greased 13 x 9 rectangular pan. Pour your lamb sauce on top of the pasta and stir. Beat 4 eggs into the bechamel and then pour the mixture on top of the pasta, making sure to evenly cover the top.
Place in the oven and bake for 40 minutes, or until lightly browned on top. Let rest for 5-10 minutes and then cut into squares. Dig in and release the kraken.
In this recipe, you use a rectangular pan, but when my mom would make this for us as kids, she’d use her Le Creuset doufeu (it’s basically a French dutch oven). It was pretty majestic – because the pot is narrow and high, the bechamel on top of the pastitsio would form into a thick, creamy layer atop the pasta. If you have a dutch oven and want to bake it this way, I highly recommend it. Thanks mom 😉