As much as I love to be gastronomically adventurous when I travel, especially when I was writing A Mediterranean Feast and my job was to eat everything under the Mediterranean sun, I sometimes would eat foods I had already tried simply because I found them so soothing–comfort food away from home so to speak. One of those foods was the Greek Pastitsio, a baked macaroni with meat sauce and Béchamel sauce. You can find it served in nearly every Greek taverna.
The traditional method of baking in Greece was to use a beehive-shaped oven called an avli built on the side of a house. Those who couldn’t afford an oven would send their food to the local baker’s fourno (oven) for cooking. Pastitsio, baked macaroni with meat sauce and white sauce, with its Italian-derived name but Muslim-derived baking technique of mixing meat and pasta, is a favorite dish for the Sunday of Apokreos, the week before Lent, when meat is typically eaten. Pastitsio is also frequently found in tavernas and a recipe appears in every Greek cookbook. This recipe is based on a wonderful pastitsio I had at a truck stop near Arta in the region of Epirus in Greece many years ago. It is not unusual to find really great and simple food at Greek truck stops. A certain kind of pasta is used for this preparation that the Greeks call “macaroni for pastitsio,” which is what the Italians call ziti lunghe or mezzani, long un-cut macaroni or ziti. Kefalotyri cheese is a hard, yellow grating cheese usually made of sheep’s milk, though sometimes goat’s milk. If you can’t find kefalotyri cheese you can substitute young pecorino such as cacio di Roma, the Greek kasseri, or pecorino Romano cheese.
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
¾ cup all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 cups hot whole milk
4 egg yolks
2 egg whites, whipped to form firm peaks, but not dry ones
Pinch plus 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1 ½ cups (about 3 ounces) freshly grated kefalotyri cheese
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 ½ pounds ground beef
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
3 cups crushed or chopped fresh ripe or canned tomatoes
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
6 whole cloves, ground
1 ½ teaspoons freshly ground allspice berries
1 pound ziti lunghe or mezzani or pennette
1. Make a thin Béchamel sauce. In a large saucepan, melt 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter over medium-high heat. Stir in 1/4 cup flour and cook this roux until it begins to turn very light brown or golden, 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Lightly salt and pepper. Whisk 2 tablespoons of the hot milk into one of the bowls with two egg yolks. Remove the saucepan from the heat and whisk 2 cups of the hot milk into the roux. Return the saucepan to medium-low heat and cook a few minutes, stirring. Remove from the burner again and stir in the milk-egg yolk blend. Set aside. You might want to label this Béchamel so you don’t confuse it with the one you make in step 2.
2. Make a thick Béchamel sauce by following the instructions in step 1 using another 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) of the remaining butter, the 1/2 cup remaining flour, the remaining 2 cups hot milk, and the remaining 2 egg yolks. Once the sauce is made, stir in the whipped egg whites, a pinch of the nutmeg, and 1/2 cup of the kefalotyri cheese.
3. In a large skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook, stirring, the onion until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beef and brown with the garlic, 3 to 4 minutes, stirring. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, cinnamon, the remaining teaspoon nutmeg, the cloves, and allspice and season with salt and pepper. Mix well, reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer until well blended and fragrant, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
4. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil, salt abundantly, and add the pasta. Cook until very al dente, about half the time called for on the macaroni package. Drain and transfer to a large bowl.
5. In a small skillet, melt the remaining 1/4 cup butter; once it turns brown, pour over the pasta. Toss the pasta with the thin Béchamel from step 1; you just want the pasta coated not soggy with Béchamel, so you might not need to use it all.
6. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
7. Butter a 12 x 9 x 2-inch or similarly sized baking casserole. Cover the bottom of it with half the pasta trying to align the macaroni in one direction and evenly. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the kefalotyri cheese. Spoon the meat sauce over the pasta, spreading it evenly. Sprinkle with another 1/4 cup of the kefalotyri. Cover with the remaining pasta, and sprinkle with another 1/4 cup of the cheese. Cover the pasta with the thick Béchamel from Step 2 spreading it evenl;y with a spatula. Sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup kefalotyri evenly on top. Bake until golden brown, about 50 minutes. Let rest 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 servings