bechamel, bolognese, cheese, crockpot, Greek, meat sauce, minced meat, pasta bake, pastitsio, slow cooker, spaghetti
Hello! Well, yes, here I am! It’s been a while. Phew, a busy few weeks. I’ve just completed the last of a series of projects that popped up at the same time as my new Greek blog launch. One was a recipe contest for the restaurant chain TGI Friday’s, the other a guest post at a food related website (more on that in future) and the final one was another secret mission about which I can say that it involved making a Christmas recipe and photographing it. While it was 25C outside. Weirdest feeling!
All this at the time I was supposed to be building up the content of my own new blog. And practicing my new food styling and photography skills after a fabulous workshop in Holland at the end of September. Oh, and entertaining my gorgeous little nephews who came over for a week’s visit from the UK with my cousin and my uncle! Rather than try and do everything at once (I’m not good at that) I set myself a schedule (I’m better at that) and got all the projects done one after the other, while keeping a week in between completely free so I could enjoy the holiday with my family. It was my uncle’s first visit to Greece, after his sister (my mum) has lived here for 45 years! It was such a fab week!
Now I’m hoping to get into a rhythm with my posts, both for The Foodie Corner and OTO Spaghetti, and maybe show up here a little more often. That’s the plan anyway…
In order to celebrate all the above, and to make up for my disappearance, I am sharing a really good recipe. Not that all the rest aren’t really good… but this is a rather special dish. Pastitsio. Anyone who has been to Greece knows what it is. Its elements are I suppose –more or less- the same as those of lasagne, but somehow the taste is different. Equally yummy, but different. While lasagne is best made to be fairly sloppy, pastitsio should be able to proudly stand tall with each layer clearly visible on its mouthwateringly beautiful profile. Yes, I do love my pastitsio, is it that obvious?
Now, I know with lasagne lots of people go and add a cartful of veggies and make all sorts of adjustments. That would be fine here as well, but your end result would not be pastitsio. I’m sure it would be tasty, but I would have to object to the name being used in vain. The meat sauce has to be fairly simple, in fact even my recipe is quite a fancy version, and it has to be thick, not runny. It might be hard to find the proper pasta to use, it’s called bucatini (a thick spaghetti with a hole running through it), but it’s worth the search. If you really really really have to, use penne or rigatoni. I don’t think spaghetti is a good substitute. The béchamel, unlike lasagne, has egg in it which keeps it nice and thick (remember the standing tall thing).
Pastitsio is one of those with which you end up dirtying a hundred different pots and pans. That might have something to do with why I don’t make it that often… But it’s soo worth it. Here’s the recipe. It’s based on the one in the little Greek book “Recipes for children” by Mima Karvouni, a little gem of a book I use to find things to make for The Mister when I run out of ideas for food he might actually like rather than put up with (i.e. my usual blog experiment type cooking). For the meat sauce I use my slow cooker Bolognese recipe which is super tasty. Making it in the slow cooker is brilliant in this case, as you will see from all the steps below. You can make it the conventional way, there is a note in the same post for a stovetop method.
So, here goes… (ingredients are listed by order of appearance)
500g bucatini pasta
2 Tbs margarine or butter or 1 Tbs oil (to keep the pasta from sticking)
1/2 c grated cheese (a hard yellow cheese would be best, like gruyere or parmesan or maybe manchego)
salt & pepper
1 litre (approx. 4 cups) thick Bolognese sauce. Use this recipe BUT omit the stock to ensure a thicker consistency. It should be slightly thicker than what you would want from a sauce over a plate of pasta.
For the béchamel
100g margarine or butter
100g all purpose flour
1 litre milk
pinch of nutmeg
salt & white pepper (or black if not available)
3/4 c grated cheese for topping
1/4 c breadcrumbs (not traditional, can be omitted)
1. Boil pasta according to packet instructions, being careful not to overcook. Drain and add the 2 tablespoons of marge. Stir gently so that pasta is coated, then set aside to cool.
2. If you haven’t already made your meat sauce, do that now.
3. When the pasta has cooled a bit, add the egg and ½ cup of cheese, stirring gently till the pasta is coated with the mixture. Careful the egg doesn’t scramble.
4. Put half the pasta in a baking dish (mine is 30cm x 27cm – about 12”x10.5”), spread it around nicely and add the meat sauce in a layer on top. Then cover the meat sauce with the rest of the pasta, again spreading it out.
5. Make your béchamel. It’s important here that you have all the ingredients ready next to you. Melt the marge in a medium sized saucepan on medium to high heat, add the flour and mix well with a wooden spoon. You want the mixture to come together into a paste. Cook for a few minutes stirring constantly. Working quickly, switch the spoon for a whisk* (keep spoon next to you), lower heat to medium and add about half the milk while whisking quickly. Keep whisking till the mixture becomes smooth. It might thicken quickly, if it does then add the rest of the milk, without stopping the whisking. If it doesn’t, add the rest of the milk gradually (still whisking). When you are confident that the sauce is smooth, turn the heat up just a bit and switch back to your spoon. I find the spoon better at this stage as I can feel the bottom of the pan better and know if it’s catching. If it is, turn the heat back down to medium. Keep stirring, getting into the corners of the pan, till the sauce thickens a bit. It doesn’t need to be super thick as the egg will thicken it later. I stop when I can just see the bottom of the pan when the spoon swishes around during stirring.
6. Take the béchamel off the heat, add the nutmeg and some salt and pepper.
7. Preheat the oven to 200C (or 180C on fan).
8. When the béchamel has cooled just a bit, add the egg while stirring vigorously. Pour the sauce over the top layer of pasta in the dish.
9. Mix the ¾ cup cheese with the breadcrumbs and sprinkle over the top of the pastitsio.
10. Bake for about 45 to 50 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Let the pastitsio rest before cutting and serving.
Note: (*) I find the best whisk for sauces and custards is the one pictured below. It gets into the corners of the pan better than the others, which are more suitable for bowls.
And a small announcement: In between writing steps 9 and 10 I found out that two of my recipes have made it to the final of the TGI Friday’s recipe competition. I’m a happy bunny!