“Make the pastitsio exactly like yiayiá did,” my children and nieces tell me each year since my mother passed away. I use her recipe, but I pull out a little bit of the butter. Believe me! There is still plenty, and the little I omit will not be missed. But according to the younger generation in my family, who miss my mother terribly, everything must remain the same.
I’d like to share an excerpt from Evanthia’s Gift with you in this post since it directly relates to Easter. Although, just reading again it has me choking up, as it had each time I wrote and revised this section of the book. My mother was the inspiration for Ana, and both women’s Easters and the months that followed were similar in many ways. But I know my mother is looking down on us and is joyful that we’ve carried on the traditions she treasured and looked forward to each year.
The foods we cook, especially the recipes handed down to us, are not simply meals. They are the legacies of our ancestors and what ties us to our past.
Ana spent hours in her kitchen, cooking and freezing trays of pastitsio, moussaka, spanakopita and tiropita. She prepared these foods for Easter, but also for a future occasion, one where she may no longer be with them. In the evenings, she sat by the fire snuggled into her husband’s arms, where she always felt safe, and they reminisced about the wonderful years they’d spent together. She spent time with the twins separately, giving them each her undivided attention, and schooled them with all the wisdom she would have bestowed upon them during their most impressionable years. She wanted her words to follow them through their joys and their heartaches, leaving them with invaluable life lessons, “Yiayiá style.”
She presented Nicky with a beautiful rose gold and diamond bracelet, one that her father had given her. “This is for you to give your wife one day — not your girlfriend.” She shook her finger at him. “Your wife. My father gave it to me and I am passing it to you. I will give it to Mommy to hold for you. You will know who to give this to. She will be the person you can’t live without.”
“I don’t want your things, Yiayiá. I want you,” Nicky told her.
“You will always have me, only not in the way you are used to.”
~ Pastitsio ~
2 pounds chopped meat ½ cup water
½ stick of unsalted butter ½ cup breadcrumbs
1 chopped onion ½ cup grated cheese
1 cup white wine Salt and pepper to taste
1 – 4 ounce can tomato paste
Dash of nutmeg
2-3 cinnamon sticks
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. It looks like ziti noodles the length of spaghetti. 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.
1½ 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° until the top is golden brown, about 25-35 minutes. Let it set and cool a bit before cutting into squares.