Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pastitsio - Greek Baked Pasta

This is a Greek version of lasagna. It is similar to many Italian versions except:
  • It is not made with flat noodles. It's always made with elbow macaroni.
  • The red meat sauce, usually lamb but could be beef,  is flavored with cinnamon.
  • It isn't heavy on cheese. The richness comes from a cheaters* b├ęchamel, a white sauce made with milk and enriched with eggs.
It is familiar, and yet not. The cinnamon is the secret flavor which makes it totally unlike any Italian lasagna.

This recipe makes a lot. It's rather a production, so that's a good thing. You can freeze it or you can share it with your friends. You can eat it for breakfast, if you like. I have!

Because there are a number of components and steps, it's important to read through the whole recipe to understand what happens when. You want to wait until you are ready to assemble the casserole to cook the pasta. Otherwise, it will be over-cooked and mushy.

(serves 8-10)

Meat Sauce
½ Tablespoon olive oil
1 pound ground beef or ground lamb, or a combination of the two
1 large onion, chopped
½ cup dry red wine
½ cup tomato sauce
3 Tablespoons tomato paste
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 14 oz. can diced tomatoes, drained

1 pound elbow macaroni
salt for pasta cooking water

White Sauce
2 Tablespoons butter
3 Tablespoons cornstarch
½ cup cold water
3 cups whole milk
¾ teaspoon salt
4 eggs, beaten in a medium bowl

2 cups grated Parmesan cheese
ground cinnamon for garnish
non-stick cooking spray

Spray a 9"x13" lasagne pan with cooking spray. Set aside.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the ground meat and cook until starting to brown. Drain off the fat to leave about 1 Tablespoon. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, under softened. Add the remaining meat sauce ingredients, bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook until the remaining components are complete. Make sure to taste it for salt. If the sauce is bland, the casserole will be bland, so season well.

While the sauce is simmering, bring a pot of salted water to boil. 

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Dissolve the cornstarch in water. Add the milk, cornstarch, water, and salt to the saucepan. Cook until the sauce starts to thicken, stirring to prevent sticking and scorching. The sauce will not thicken until the milk comes to a boil. Remove the sauce from the heat and pour about 1 cup of it into the beaten eggs, stirring to combine. Then add the rest of the sauce to the eggs, mixing well. Set aside.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Cook the macaroni until just under-done, about 7-8 minutes. Drain well. Place ½ the macaroni in the lasagne pan. Pour the meat sauce evenly over the macaroni. Sprinkle with 1 cup of the grated cheese. Spread on the rest of the macaroni. Pour the white sauce over the pasta, spreading it evenly. Sprinkle with the rest of the cheese and  ground cinnamon. Bake for 45 minutes. Let sit for 5 minutes before trying to cut.

Tastes even better reheated the next day.

*It's a cheaters version because a classic b├ęchamel is thickened with a roux, a mix of butter and flour. This one uses cornstarch, which also helps to stabilize the proteins in the eggs, keeping them from scrambling in the hot sauce.

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