Pastichio, or Greek Lasagna, is Greek comfort food at its finest. A casserole of hollow noodles layered with ragu sauce and blanketed in béchamel, Pastichio is the perfect dinner for those last cold nights of winter; when spring is on its way but hasn’t yet informed the temperatures.
The first Pastichio I tasted was one I cooked by accident. At the dinner table one evening when I was in tenth grade, my dad recalled a baked macaroni dish with both a beef and a white sauce that his mother, my Grandma Eleanor sometimes prepared. Grandma Eleanor was an excellent cook who mastered classic recipes like mashed potatoes and roast turkey due to my grandfather’s—I’ll call them selective–tastes. The macaroni dish seemed uncharacteristic, as though Grandma had gone rogue in the kitchen for one meal. Bemused, I decided to track down the recipe.
In a community-sponsored cookbook from my mother’s collection, I found a similar recipe. Titled Greek Lasagna, it was a macaroni casserole with both a meat and white sauce. I don’t remember much about cooking that first Pastichio, except the béchamel. I’d never made one before and asked my mother for help. First you need to make sure you’ve melted enough butter, she said dropping a chunk of butter into a pan, allowing it to melt into a gold puddle. Otherwise your sauce could become lumpy. That’s the secret. I watched as she poured in flour and rotated her wrist to stir a paste. I hoped that one day I could make sauces as easily. That I, too, could learn secrets.
When the Pastichio emerged from the oven all tomato-y and oozy, I felt proud. At the dinner table my dad nodded and proclaimed that it was just like his mother’s (though I believe she had a different recipe entirely. Thanks, though, Dad). Myself, I wasn’t happy with the dish—I don’t know what I had expected, but the recipe I made wasn’t it. I gave up on Greek Lasagna for a while.
The next time I tried Pastichio was at the end of my first visit to Greece. For my last dinner in Athens, Spyros’ mother baked a giant Pastichio, speckled brown with bits of crisp pasta protruding from the bechamel. It looked too beautiful to cut and I almost refused when she invited me to serve myself first. My appetite prevailed, of course, and my hand tremored as I tried to separate the long pasta into a neat square. In the end, I only succeeded in chucking a cheesy blob onto my plate. No matter, the Pastichio was rich with noodles and tomato sauce—a better, ricotta-less lasagna.
In the years since, Spyros and I have added Pastichio to our repertoire. It’s a tasty dish and easier than it seems. Our secret a stress-free Pastichio? When Spyros cooks pasta with meat sauce (ragu is his domain), he simmers a double batch and freezes half. On Pastichio day, we only need to make the white sauce and assemble, both my responsibilities. In about an hour and twenty minutes, we’ve got a dinner that tastes like it took an afternoon to prepare.
I hope you enjoy!
For the Ragu:
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 lb. (500 g) lean ground beef
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 carrot, finely diced
2 celery ribs, finely diced
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups canned diced tomatoes
1 bay leaf
Salt, black pepper
For the béchamel sauce and assembly:
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup + 1 tablespoon flour
4 cups 2% milk
A dash of nutmeg
¾ cup grated Kefalotiri or Parmesan
4 egg yolks
1 1 lb. package rigatoni, penne, or No. 2 Greek macaroni
Extra-virgin olive oil
¾ cup grated Kefalotiri or Parmesan
Make the ragu:
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat and cook the onion until soft and lightly golden. Add the carrot and celery and, likewise, cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
Add the beef, along with a little salt, breaking up any large pieces with a spoon. Sauté until brown. Pour in the wine and stir until evaporated. Next add the diced tomatoes, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. When the sauce starts to simmer, reduce heat to low and cook, uncovered for 1-2 hours. Add a little water if the sauce starts to become dry.
Make the béchamel
Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly until the paste has turned golden and smells fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Pour all the milk into the pan and stir until the sauce thickens. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheese and the egg yolks.
Assemble the Pie:
Heat the oven to 350oF (180oC). Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and add the pasta. Cook the pasta for half of the time recommended by the pasta manufacturer’s instructions. Drain and toss with a few tablespoons of olive oil.
Ladle a little ragu sauce on the bottom of a greased 9×13 baking dish. Add half of the pasta to the pan and sprinkle with grated Kefalotiri; cover with the remaining meat sauce. Top the meat sauce with the rest of the pasta and sprinkle with more Kefalotiri. Pour the béchamel on top and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle the top with the rest of the Kefalotiri. Bake for about 45 minute or until browned. Let rest for 20 minutes before serving.