Like being part of a Greek family, creating the perfect pastitsio requires a lot of love, generosity and a great deal of patience. Pastitsio, the epitome of comfort food, is sometimes referred to by heathens as ‘Greek lasagne’. As with lasagne, it is a pasta bake with three key components: pasta, béchamel sauce and a meat ‘bolognese’ sauce. And like lasagne, those who have the pleasure of eating it can often be rendered silent with one mouthful. It could actually be the only way to shut a Greek or Italian person up. In this part of the world, namely Melbourne, with two of the largest Greek and Italian communities outside of their respective countries, you will often hear the Italian phrase ‘una faccia, una razza’ (one face, one race), in reference to the similarities and close relations between Greeks and Italians. I learnt this phrase from none other than my Pappou (my Greek grandfather).
But if you were also to take into account that much-cited and critically-acclaimed film, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you will know that the Greeks invented everything. In fact, all etymological roads lead to Greece. Straight to the Parthenon. My Pappou still maintains that ‘kimono’ is indeed a Greek word. And ask any Hellene, and they will verify that the Italians stole their language, democratic ideals, philosophies, gods (whom they renamed in a not-so-clever attempt the cover up their thievery) and, indeed, their pasta bake.
My own live-in Italian had been warned about renaming this dish when I decided to make it for the first time for this here el bloggo. That it silenced him has perhaps been one of my greater achievements in this relationship, as that is no mean feat. His only words were, ‘I want to marry this pastitsio’. In a land where such folk as Caligula were revered, I’m sure a marriage to a pasta dish could be arranged.
This dish is one I’d never attempted to make, given it had been a recipe firmly in the clutches of my mother and Yiayia, one of them producing a tray of it at every family occasion and the other making silent comparisons. Their versions do differ – Yiayia’s is traditional, meaty, heavier on the cloves; Mum’s is rebellious and bold, heavier on the tomatoes. At times my siblings and I have been asked to make a choice, a very public choice that no child should have to make. We have erred on the side of caution and chosen the mother when in her presence, apart from that one time she added sugar instead of salt, and the pastitsio was completely inedible. Actually the only one who continued to eat it was her Hungarian partner, Attila (his real name), for whom all food is served in a caveman-sized bowl and unless walking, can be ingested.
My version is a nod to my mother’s, however a last-minute phone call was made to my grandmother for a few finishing tips. Diplomacy is key in a Mediterranean family. Given that this winter in Melbourne has been a particularly chilly one, it couldn’t be a more ideal time of year to spend some time cooking this up. It’s not at all difficult, and the warm-blanket-wrapped-around-you type of happiness you will feel in eating it will make the time spent churning the béchamel completely worthwhile. The only possible way this dish could be more satisfying is if you have an Italian on hand to feed it to.
350 g penne pasta
extra virgin olive oil
2 medium onions or 1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
750 g lean minced beef
1 tablespoon tomato paste
400 g can tomatoes
1 ½ teaspoons nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon sugar
sea salt and pepper
100 g flour
100 g butter
3 ½ cups milk (warm just before using)
½ teaspoon nutmeg
4 egg yolks
100 g kefalograviera cheese*
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium heat and add about 2 tablespoons oil. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, then stir in the mince meat. Combine the ingredients until the meat is browned and then add the tomato paste. You can also add a little red wine at this point, for some depth. Once mixed through, add the canned tomatoes, sugar, cinnamon, bay leaf and cloves. Season well and then increase the heat to bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes, covered.
While the meat is cooking, preheat your oven to 180°C and prepare the béchamel sauce. In another large pot, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the flour and stir to form a paste, being careful not to burn the mixture. Slowly and steadily add the warmed milk while whisking the mixture. Continue to whisk until the sauce thickens and there are no lumps. Once you have a thick and creamy consistency (sort of like a thick cake batter that is still loose), remove the pot from the heat and stir through seasoning, nutmeg and ¾ of the cheese. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, whisking after each addition so as not to cook the egg or have the mixture curdle.
Cook the penne according to the instructions, ensuring it is absolutely al dente and even a little undercooked. It will cook further in the oven. Drain the pasta, reserving just a tiny bit of water so it doesn’t stick together.
Check the meat sauce for seasoning, and adjust as necessary. When you are happy with the taste, remove from the heat and fish out the bay leaf and cloves.
To assemble the pastitsio, add a serving spoonful of the meat sauce to a large, deep ovenproof dish to coat the base. Grease the sides of the dish with a little olive oil. Add a large spoonful of the meat sauce and a couple of spoonfuls of the béchamel to the penne, and stir to combine. Pour the pasta into the baking dish. Top with the remaining meat sauce and even it out by shaking the dish. Spoon the remaining béchamel over the meat sauce and use the back of the spoon to even it out. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and a bit of freshly ground pepper. Cook in the hot oven for about 35-45 minutes, or until it turns a nice golden brown colour.
Allow to cool a little before serving and eat with crusty bread and your favourite salad.
* Kefalograviera is a delicious hard Greek cheese, which is quite crumbly with a unique taste. It can be found at continental delis and some supermarkets. Substitute with grana padano or parmesan cheese, if necessary.