“Make the pastitsio exactly as Yiayiá used to prepare it,” my children and nieces tell me each year since my mother passed away. I use her recipe, but I tend to cut back on some of the large amounts of butter she had favored. Believe me, there is still more than enough in my recipe and, in my opinion, the little I omit would not be missed. But according to the younger generation in my family, who still miss my mother terribly, as we all do, everything must remain exactly the same.
I’d like to share an excerpt from Evanthia’s Gift since it directly relates to holidays and food. In this case, the holiday is Easter, but the food mentioned in the excerpt are pretty much staples for every holiday meal in a Greek home.
My mother was the inspiration for Ana, and both the real and the fictional woman made family her priority. I’m certain my mother is looking down on all of us with joy as we carry 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 our ancestors’ legacies and tie us to our past.
Excerpt from Evanthia’s Gift
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 ground beef
½ stick of unsalted butter
1 cup white wine
½ cup water
1 – 4 ounce can tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of nutmeg
2-3 cinnamon sticks
½ cup breadcrumbs
*½ cup grated cheese
Melt butter in a large skillet. Add ground beef 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. This variety looks like ziti noodles, but in 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 stir in the grated cheese. Let cool for 15 minutes. (I like to place the béchamel in the refrigerator for a bit) Slowly add the beaten egg yolks 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 a stick of melted butter and ½ cup of *grated cheese to the pasta 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 35-40 minutes. Let it set and cool a bit before cutting into squares.
*The traditional grated cheese for this dish is kefalotyri, but you can also use parmesan or romano.
καλά Χριστούγεννα! καλές γιορτές!
Merry Christmas! Happy holidays!