When I think about a dinner-party, this Greek comfort pasta bake is always part of the menu. In Greek households, pastitsio is a must-have when having guests over. The layers of pasta, meat sauce, cheese, and creamy bechamel sauce go together so well. The kids usually flock to the side of the table that this tray is sitting on and in the blink of an eye, it’s all gone.
In Greece, the pasta that is used to make this dish is known as Pastitsio Macaronia. It looks like long tubes of spaghetti that is hollow in the center. In America, this pasta is sold at Mediterranean/Middle Eastern markets. If you can find it, use it and you will be pleasantly surprised at how delicious and delicate this pasta bakes up in this dish. If you cannot find it, don’t worry, just use penne pasta. That is what we used at the cafe for 10 years because it was so readily available. We baked tons every week.
Layers of noodles, a hearty meat sauce, cheese, and a creamy bechamel topping come together to create this hearty Pastitsio that everyone loves, especially the kids. They usually flock to the side of the table that the Pastitsio is on.
The meat sauce varies. Many people like to add warm spices like cinnamon, and nutmeg. I don’t add the spices, instead, I add extra tomatoes for a thicker, richer sauce. I like nutmeg in the Bechamel, so, I never add it to the meat sauce. Cinnamon is nice is the meat sauce, but the kids always prefer it without the spices so, I leave them out.
- 1-pound (500 grams) pastitsio noodles or penne pasta
- 8 ounces shredded Parmesan or Gruyere cheese
- 2 ounces unsalted butter, diced
For the meat sauce:
- 2 pounds lean ground beef
- 1 large onion, finely chopped
- 1/3 cup olive oil
- 6 garlic cloves, grated
- 32 ounces canned tomatoes, pureed
- ½-1 cup water
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, optional
- 3-4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
For the Bechamel sauce:
- 5 cups whole milk
- 3/4 cup olive oil
- 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
- salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup parmesan cheese
- 2 whole eggs
- 2 egg yolks
Preheat the oven to 375 °F, 190 °C.
Make the Meat Sauce:
Combine the chopped onion and olive oil in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat for about 8 minutes or until soft and golden. Add the garlic and warm through 30 seconds.
Add the ground beef and cook it over medium-high heat for 7-8 minutes.
Add the crushed tomatoes, salt, pepper, Bay leaves, red pepper flakes, and oregano. Mix to combine.
Add the water, bring to a boil then reduce the heat to medium-high. Cook for 15 minutes or until the sauce thickens. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Add the parsley and mix together.
Prepare the pasta & Assemble the Pastitsio:
Boil the pasta until al dente, drain, and place in a 9 by 13 by 3-inch baking tray. You may also make this in a larger tray (14 by 12-inch) for a thinner pasta bake.
Add the butter to the pasta, season lightly with salt and add 1/3 of the Parmesan cheese and mix well. Add 1 cup of the meat sauce and mix it with the pasta.
Pour the remaining meat sauce over the pasta and spread it on top to create an even layer.
Sprinkle half of the remaining Parmesan cheese on top of the meat sauce.
Make the Bechamel Sauce:
Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour. Whisk well while cooking for few minutes until toasted.
Add the milk in 2 batches and whisk together to keep it creamy. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
Cook until it comes to a boil. Keep the sauce on the thinner side as it will thicken more as it bakes in the oven. Remove from heat.
Whisk the eggs together in a bowl. Add some of the hot milk mixture into the eggs and whisk to temper them so that they don't scramble when added to the cream sauce.
Add the eggs to the sauce and whisk well. Add the parmesan cheese and mix to combine.
Pour the bechamel sauce over the meat sauce layer and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan cheese.
Bake on the center rack of the oven for 45 minutes or until the sauce is golden brown.
Remove from the oven and set aside at room temperature for at least 45 minutes so that it can cool a bit and set. Cutting it before it sets will make the pieces fall apart.
Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. Reheat in the oven, covered with foil until warmed through.
Freezer Instructions: Assemble the pastitsio and allow it to cool to room temperature. Wrap with plastic and store in the freezer for up to 2 months. When ready to bake, thaw it overnight in the refrigerator then, bake as per the recipe card instructions. It will take an additional 15 minutes to be ready.