Pasta bake with Béchamel (Greek Pastitsio)

Pastitsio is a classic Greek favorite.  Come along with me on the journey of making it and I can assure you, it will become your favorite too.

Pastitsio is a dish that gathers everyone around the table on a Sunday.  You first recognize the the sound of the simmering Bolognese sauce, followed by the tap-tap of the busy whisk taking its turn into the velvety Béchamel.  So many things happening at the same time in the kitchen.  The fragrances blend into one scent that leaves you wondering what could this dish be? A bake or a pasta sauce? “Oh its Pastitsio, Yessss! its gonna take a while, but its so worth it” you think.

To make Pastitsio we start off with the Bolognese.

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Saute the onions over medium to low fire for 2 minutes until they are just a bit soft.

Add the meat and continue sauteing until the color of the meat is light brown. Around 10 minutes.

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Now add 1/4 cup of the wine and stir (save the other 1/4 cup for the end), simmer for 5 minutes.

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Then in goes the cinnamon and oregano and add the water.  Give the mixture a stir and let it simmer, reduce to a thick sauce for approximately 40-45 minutes over low heat. Note: I use Greek Oregano here. It is quite strong and definitely stronger than Italian. So depending on the strength of the Oregano you are using, you might need to adjust the quantity accordingly.

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It’s important to have a thick sauce.  If the sauce has too much liquid, it will stay on the bottom of the tray, and could make the pasta too soggy (see further down how we assemble the dish for the oven).  So a thick sauce is good here! A good way to test the thickness is to take a spoon and push it across the surface of the sauce. If the spoon trail stays down like a little “ditch” then the sauce is thick enough.

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Towards the end, you add in the other 1/4 cup of the wine and simmer for maybe 2 minutes or so. This is to give our sauce an extra winey taste. The combination of the wine and the strong oregano gives us a sauce that on its own, could be just a little bit over the top, but when blended in with the bechamel and pasta, its like heaven. Trust me.

Put the Bolognese sauce aside and move on to the bechamel sauce. Melt the butter over low heat, it should take about 5 minutes.

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Add the flour and whisk continuously. Cook the butter/flour mix for about 5 minutes until a golden color (not brown).  Keep the fire low so the mixture doesn’t become stiff and clumpy.

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Then slowly add 6 cups of the room temperature milk while stirring with a whisk. Bring to a low simmer, add the cheddar cheese and the remaining 2 cups of the milk while continuing to stir.  If the sauce is too thin you can add a bit more cheese a this point, or if too thick a bit more milk.

Let the sauce simmer for around 40-45 minutes stirring often so the béchamel doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. It will be ready when you have a thick white sauce.

 

Boil the pasta according to package instructions. Now comes the best part, assembly. You will see how this beautiful dish comes together, very rewarding. Lightly brush the baking pan with butter. Layer the pasta on the bottom.

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Then add your second layer, the Bolognese.

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Carefully spread the bolognese over the pasta, covering all. Like I mentioned earlier, your sauce should be thick and meaty. There are two good reasons why… If the sauce is too watery, you will end up with lots of liquid at the bottom of the pan. This will make your pasta soggy and difficult to serve. Some liquid will evaporate during baking, but not as much as you would think. Second, think of the bolognese as a barrier between the pasta and the bechamel on top. If its too loose, bechamel will escape down.

Next you pour the bechamel sauce…

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… all over the bolognese layer.

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Then sprinkle with some parmesan on top.

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You bake this trayful of joy for 15 minutes at 205 C / 400 F and then for 30 minutes at 180 C / 350 F.

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Isn’t this wonderful? It tastes wonderful too.

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Serves 12-16

Ingredients

Bolognese Sauce

  • 2 medium (1 cup) red onions, chopped
  • olive oil
  • 1360 g (3 lbs) minced (ground) beef
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  • 680 g  (2.5 cups) tomato passata or puree
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp cinnamon
  • 4 tbsp oregano

 

Bechamel Sauce

  • 250 g (9 oz) butter
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 8 cups of milk at room temperature
  • pinch of salt
  • 170 g (6 oz) cheddar cheese

 

  • 1 pack of penne pasta 450 g (1 lb)
  • 60 g (2 oz) Parmesan Cheese

 

Directions

Saute the onions over medium to low fire for 2 minutes until they are just a bit soft.

Add the meat and continue sauteing until the color of the meat is light brown. Around 10 minutes.

Next add 1/4 cup of the wine and stir (save the other 1/4 cup for the end), simmer for 5 minutes.

Then in goes the cinnamon and oregano and water.  Give the mixture a stir and let it simmer, reduce to a thick sauce for approximately 40-45 minutes over low heat.

Towards the end, you add in the other 1/4 cup of the wine and simmer for 2 minutes or so. The sauce will taste winey and strong.

For the bechamel sauce melt the butter over low heat for about 5 minutes.

Add the flour and whisk continuously. Cook the butter/flour mix for about 5 minutes until its color is golden (not brown).  Keep the fire low so the mixture doesn’t become stiff and clumpy.

Then slowly add 6 cups of the room temperature milk while stirring with a whisk. Bring to a low simmer, add the cheddar cheese and the remaining 2 cups of the milk. If the sauce is too thin you can add a bit more cheese at this point. Or if too thin a bit more milk. Let the sauce simmer for around 40-45 minutes stirring often so the béchamel doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pan. It will be ready when you have a thick white sauce.

Boil the pasta according to package instructions.

Lightly brush the baking pan with butter. Layer the pasta on the bottom. Then add your second layer, the bolognese. Spread it all over the pasta covering everything. Next you pour the bechamel sauce all over the bolognese layer. Lastly, sprinkle with some parmesan on top.

 

 

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