Pastitsio – Greek Comfort Food

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 It seems that once Halloween is behind us, the holiday frenzy begins. The shelves in the stores are cleared of any evidence of autumn and spook, Thanksgiving seems to be all but ignored and all focus goes to scoring the best deals on gift purchases. But I like tradition and even though my children are older now, I still carry on the little rituals our family created. More so, I treasure the traditions and foods that have been passed down through the generations in my family and my heritage. The stuffed peppers I made for Halloween were the very ones my mother made— Yemista. It’s comforting to me to make the foods she cooked for us when we were children. In a small way I feel I am preserving history and giving our children a sense of where they come from through the food of their ancestors. Each culture tells a story through their cuisine and the Greeks are certainly passionate about their food. Just try and leave a Greek woman’s home without eating something. Any of you reading this who have been to my mother’s home would know this firsthand!

Aside from the questions and requests I get about baklava and “those cookies with the powdered sugar”, people ask me if make “that Greek lasagna.” The answer is yes. But, although layered like lasagna, it is quite different. The pasta needed for this dish look like spaghetti length ziti. No tomato sauce is poured between the layers, and the top layer is béchamel sauce. Although in Northern Italy, lasagna is made with a layer of béchamel on top.

I will warn you, that although this is not difficult to make, it is time consuming and requires many pots. For this reason, I double or triple the recipe and make several trays at a time and freeze them. I cook, cool and cut the squares before freezing. It is nearly impossible to cut neat squares when this dish is hot. I can guarantee you the pastitsio will taste just as good out of the freezer and heated as it did the first day you made it.

I happened to have a tray in the freezer and knew I was having a large crowd, so in addition to the stuffed peppers, I served the pastitsio. So, here is my mom’s recipe(with a little less butter), and I know she would have something to say about that!

Pastitsio

Meat

2 pounds chopped meat

½ stick of unsalted butter

1 chopped onion

1 cup white wine

½ cup water

1 4 ounce can tomato paste

Dash of nutmeg

2-3 cinnamon sticks

Salt and pepper to taste

½ cup breadcrumbs

½ cup grated cheese

Melt butter in a large skillet. Add meat and onion. Cook until meat is brown. Add wine, water and tomato paste. Add salt, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon. Simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add breadcrumbs and grated cheese.

*While preparing meat mixture, boil water for 2 pounds of pastitsio pasta. You can find it in specialty stores and many Italian and Greek groceries. The pasta should be very al dente when you take it out of the pot and drain it.

Béchamel sauce

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter

1-cup flour

4 cups warm milk

Salt to taste

Dash of nutmeg

4 egg yolks

1 cup grated cheese

Make a roux by melting the butter in a saucepan and whisking in the flour. Stir for 2-3 minutes on medium heat. Add the warm milk while continuously whisking until the sauce thickens. Add the salt and nutmeg. Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Add the grated cheese. Slowly add the beaten eggs to the sauce while whisking, so not to cook the eggs in the sauce. The sauce should be smooth and pale yellow in color.

To assemble– Add some butter and grated cheese to the pasta to give them flavor and coat well. Layer the bottom of a deep baking dish with half the pasta. Distribute the meat mixture on top of the pasta and layer the rest of the pasta on top of the meat. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of pasta. Sprinkle lightly with breadcrumbs. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 350 degrees until the top is golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Let it set and cool a bit before cutting into squares.

2 thoughts on “Pastitsio – Greek Comfort Food

    • Actually, I never make it. I am the only one in my family who loves rice pudding. My mom made a rice pudding that I loved and my dad gave me her box of recipes. I never saw her pull out a recipe when she made that or anything else ,but I will look for it. Her recipe was different that other rice puddings I’ve eaten. It wasn’t creamy. It was stiffer, but I loved it.I know two people who make the best creamy rice pudding I’ve ever had – My sister-in-law, Donna and my friend’s sister, Sue. Now I will ask them for their recipes and experiment. There was no need for me to make it when I get treated to theirs.

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