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Here in Athens, a bright early spring sun is shining and there is a promise of heat in the air. Yesterday, the year’s first butterfly sought temporary shelter on our balcony. But since we suspect not everyone is enjoying such seasonal privileges quite yet, here’s a recipe for Pastitsio, a solid, comforting baked dish of pasta, tomatoes, lamb and milk, a standard in the “a fine square meal” category of Greek cuisine. It is another slow-cooked dish, requiring a bit of time (but not much more than 90 minutes, during half of which the dish is in the oven, so you have plenty of time to browse through our brochure or website!).
The origins of Pastitsio are unclear. Its name is of Italian origin, although there it seems to designate a variety of pie-like dishes quite unlike the Greek version. Some suspect that it entered the world as the result of a steamy love affair between an Italian Lasagne and a Greek Moussaka. It certainly appears to be related to both dishes, but perhaps more closely to the latter, as it is essentially the same recipe, with Macaroni replacing the aubergines. Like Moussaka, it features a highly savoury sugo-like base and is covered with a rich home-made béchamel sauce (as it includes cheese, it’s strictly speaking a Mornay Sauce). The béchamel tends to intimidate many aspiring cooks, which it shouldn’t, as it’s well worth making and not really all that difficult.
Pastitsio is standard fare in most Greek homes, and is commonly served at weddings, village feasts and similar group celebrations. It is also very common in Greek taverna cooking, even where this aims directly at the mass tourist market. As a result, many visitors to Greece have had the misfortune to first savour it in uninspiring low-grade cheapo versions, which often present it as a cubic block, insipidly floury and covered by a disconcertingly gelatinous layer of mysterious whiteness. If you’ve ever been confronted by such a monstrosity on previous holidays in Greece, please don’t let it put you off! The real thing, a proper home-made Pastitsio, is a delightful thing, and the use of fine meat, good fresh tomatoes and quality cheese can make it an instant favourite. One of the secrets of this dish is, once again, the use of cinnamon as its most important seasoning.
Ingredients (serves: 6):
500 g Macaroni (they should be tubular Macaroni of the largest diameter you can find)
For the béchamel sauce:
0.75l milk (whole/full fat)
50g Butter (definitely not margarine)
80g white flour
50g grated white or yellow cheese, such as Greek Kefalotyri or Regato, or Italian Parmesan
lemon juice, nutmeg, pepper, salt
For the meat:
2 Onions, finely chopped
500g minced lamb (beef can also be used, but only in emergencies!)
c4 large tomatoes, peeled (or about 400g canned peeled tomatoes), chopped (keep the juice!)
1 tablespoon tomato purée
100ml red wine
a handful of chopped parsley
allspice and cinnamon, salt, pepper
100 g dry grated white or yellow cheese (see above)
It’s best to prepare the béchamel sauce first, unless there is more than one cook involved, in which case it can be made while the pasta and meat are being prepared. Making béchamel is a task that requires full attention, which does not mean that it’s difficult. Prepared shop-bought béchamel concoctions are not worth trying, just be careful and patient and you’ll be fine!
To make the béchamel, heat the butter in a smallish saucepan, then add the flour, stirring constantly. The two should merge fully into a thick dough-like mass while bubbling up for a minute or two, but do not allow the butter to turn brown. Reduce the heat. Now add a small amount of milk, stirring or whisking constantly – make sure the milk does not seperate from the butter-and-flour mass. Repeat this. Then pour in the rest of the milk very slowly, while stirring/whisking all the time. Raise the heat again and continue stirring as the mass is brought to the boil again. After boiling up, take it off the heat. Mix the eggs with the cheese and add them, carefully, to the sauce, then season with lemon juice, salt, pepper and nutmeg.
During or after making the béchamel, you boil the Macaroni according to the instructions on their packaging, and then drain them. Meanwhile, you can chop the onions and fry them in a little olive in a large pan at medium temperature until they start turning transparent, at which point you add the minced lamp and mix it in well, stirring regularly until all the meat has turned brown. Now, stir the tomatoes, their juice and the tomato purée into the increasingly aromatic mixture. Then pour in the wine and season the lot with cinnamon, allspice, salt and pepper according to taste (don’t be too stingy with the cinnamon). Let it all continue to cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until there is nearly no liquid left.
Take a large ovenproof dish (glass or ceramic are best, metal can also be used) and butter it generously. Pour half of the Macaroni in and sprinkle about 50g of the cheese on top. Now take the meat-and-tomato mixture off the heat, taste and season again if necessary. Mix in the parsley and spread the entire scrumptious sauce over the pasta. Then, dollop the remaining pasta atop, creating a roughly flat surface. On this, you pour your wonderful béchamel creation and then sprinkle the rest of the cheese. Now place it in the preheated oven and bake at high temperature (200° C) for at least 45 minutes and up to an hour (this affects how solid or runny the end result is). Let the Pastitsio cool down a little before serving.
Pastitsio is best eaten accompanied by a green salad (rocket is perfect) or even a full Greek one (yes, there will be a recipe for that in due course). There should also be some of that red wine left… If you think our portion was overly generous, there is a reason: the recipe is actually sufficient to serve 8, but like many Greek slow-cooked dishes, Pastitsio really benefits from reheating, allowing its flavours to fuse even more. In summer, it can also be eaten cold.
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