Friday, January 2, 2009

Pastitsio, "A Rose by Any Other Name..."

As much as things change...

Bride and Groom? Check. Reception Hall? Check. Photographer? Check. Flowers, Bridesmaids, Ushers? Check, check, check. Officiant/Celebrant/Reverend/Priest? Ooooohhhh, that's a tough one.

On New Year's Eve, SSSal and I attended the wedding of WheatonJen, (of Baby Lava Cakes fame). In many ways it was a traditional, neighborhood-girl-marries-nearby-neighborhood-boy ceremony. Well almost.

WheatonJen is especially cool toward organized religion. So it became a challenge to find the proper celebrant to best oversee the ceremony. The bride's younger brother even offered to become an ordained minister from an online church, but somehow that seemed a bit much.

Enter That's right folks! In the Chicagoland area, when you're searching for the right balance of secular and pious, when you want a warm, humorous ceremony with just the right amount of the God stuff, turn to Rev. Jim Rehnberg, the Rent-a-Rev.

Rev. Jim did a great job honoring the dignity of the ceremony while keeping everyone relaxed and attentive, capped off by the readings, not from scripture, but from The Art of Marriage by Wilferd Peterson and The Places You Will Go by Theodor Geisel. Really no different than any wedding; two young people celebrating their commitment and love with help from the internet and Dr. Seuss.

For today's recipe let's embrace the idea of new twists on old traditions. Pastitsio can best be described as Greek Lasagna. I'm sure the Greeks out there will be appalled by this, but lasagna is the famous sister. This recipe is a little involved and is different primarily in the spices it uses, but it does make for a nice new version of an old standby. Enjoy...

from Gourmet, December 2008

Meat Sauce

2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 TBSP olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 pounds ground lamb
1 large can (28 oz) whole tomatoes in juice
1 small can (15 oz) whole tomatoes in juice
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Bechamel Sauce

7 TBSP unsalted butter
6 TBSP all purpose flour
7 cups whole milk
3/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (about a 2 ounce chunk)
5 large egg yolks


2 pounds Ziti or Mostacolli
1 3/4 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Meat Sauce

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook, stirring frequently, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook an additional minute.

Increase the heat to high and add the ground lamb. Stir the lamb occasionally, breaking up any large chunks as you go. Cook the meat until it starts to brown, about 15 minutes.

While the lamb is cooking, drain the tomatoes over a large bowl, saving all the juices.

Chop the tomatoes and place them, along with seeds and any additional juices, into the bowl holding the reserved juice from the can, (Crabby Note: I prefer to just squish the tomatoes by hand over the bowl, it's a lot more fun that way.).

After the meat starts to brown, pour off any excess fat from the skillet. Turn the heat down to medium and add the chopped tomatoes and juices. Stir in thyme sprigs, spices and 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt.

Bring the mixture to a simmer. Partially cover the pan and simmer until the liquid has evaporated but is still moist, about 40 minutes. When done, discard thyme stems.

The meat sauce can be made and stored, refrigerated, up to 2 days ahead. Bring to room temperature before assembling the pastitsio.

Bechamel Sauce

Have all ingredients measured out and ready.

Pour milk into a medium saucepan and heat until just below a boil, (this should be started a few minutes before beginning the roux).

Make the roux by melting the butter in a heavy medium pot over medium heat. When the butter has melted and just stopped foaming, whisk in the flour. This works best if the flour is added in stages, say 2 tablespoon at a time.

Cook the roux, stirring frequently, until pale golden, about 6 minutes.

Using a ladle, add the hot milk to the roux in a steady stream. WHISK CONSTANTLY. You may want to have someone help you stream in the milk if this is the first time you've ever made a bechamel, it'll be much less stressful that way.

Whisk until the sauce is very smooth and bring to a boil.

Cook the sauce for 1 minute while whisking constantly (are you starting to get the idea about the whisking?).

Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan, nutmeg and 1 tablespoon of salt. Set aside.

Now the hard part.

Lightly beat the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Gradually, slowly, carefully, whisk in 2 cups of the warm bechamel. Whisk constantly, but not aggressively.

Add the egg/bechamel mixture back into the remaining bechamel saucepan. Cover with a buttered piece of wax paper (buttered side down).

You've just tempered the eggs. Congratulations!


Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cook the pasta according to box directions minus 1 minute of cooking time (you're going for al dente here).

Drain the pasta and transfer to a large bowl. Gently mix 1 cup of the bechamel into the pasta.

Now, in a large (10x14) baking pan, arrange the 1/3 of the pasta lengthwise in a single layer. If you don't care about the tube effect when you cut into the pastitsio, I say just make sure the bottom of the pan is covered in a single layer and then move onto the next step.

Add half the meat sauce to the pan and spread evenly over the first pasta layer.

Repeat the previous two steps, creating a second layer of pasta and meat.

Build a final layer of pasta on top of the other layers.

Carefully spread the reaming bechamel over the top layer, making sure to fully cover any exposed pasta.

Note: When I made this recipe I was left with a bit of extra pasta and maybe 1 1/2 cups of extra bechamel.

Stir together the bread crumbs and grated Parmesan. Sprinkle the combination over the top of the pastitsio. Bake in the oven until golden brown, about 45 minutes. DO NOT BROIL THE TOP TO GET IT TO BROWN! It will burn almost instantaneously, (don't ask!).

Allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

I know, a lot of steps. But look at it this way, not only did you learn how to make Pastitsio, you also picked up how to make a bechamel, which will come in handy in the future. You also need to know that like the first slice of pie, the first piece of pastitsio doesn't come out easily. So if you're going for wow factor, set aside the first piece for leftovers.

OK crablings, that's it for today. Let's wish the newlyweds happiness and clear sailing on their journey through life. But when they get back, just like you, they need to remember that they can do it, they can cook.


marissa | Rae Gun Ramblings said...

thanks so much for sharing this looks delicious I'll have to try it.

Anonymous said...

Great idea for a large dinner party! Also, for those trying b├ęchamelle for the first time - it's OK if you have lumps in there while adding the milk to the butter/flour paste, don't panic, just get your handheld mixer in there and mix the shit out of the lumps - you'll have your silky sauce back in two seconds. Then keep stirring until it's thickened to your liking.

WineWizardBob said...

Oh boy, the cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, allspice combo is geared for California fruit bomb red wines. Those yummy Zinfandels, the red ones, are perfect with this dish and you dont have to spend a lot. If however you desire to look for the obscure, try to find Alpine red grapes like St. Magdelener, Zweigelt or Blaufrankirsch.
The Shooting Star, subdivision on Steele of California, label from Washington state makes a great Blue Franc to compliment this dish.

Dixie Clark said...

So glad I found this recipe! I'd become very tired of the same old same old dinners as of late. Having worked at a greek owned restaurant, I've had this dish before although it's been some time. I'm no stranger to tempering eggs so I used my own method but it's in the oven as we speak and I just can't wait to dig in. Thanks! said...

I hope it works out for you Dixie.Please post the results.