Pastitsio is one of my favorite foods, so when I heard that the latest A Taste of the Mediterranean event hosted by Tony Tahhan and Peter Minakis was going to focus on Greece and more importantly, pastitsio, I was thrilled. I have to admit though, I was almost all pastitsio-ed out as I recently used a bit of creative energy to put together this version for the Royal Foodie Joust. But then again, I don't think I can ever get sick of pastitsio ...
Pastitsio is a rustic dish with plenty of comfort-food appeal and it's one I quickly associate with family and friends as it so often graced our table for Sunday family meals, holidays, parties, etc., growing up. Every Greek family--living abroad or in Greece--has a recipe for pastitsio similar to others but perhaps slightly different (say, with a varying herb or spice or even a slightly different technique).
My family's recipe which my mom gave to me seven years ago when I was first married, was an instant hit with my husband who was thoroughly impressed by my pastitsio-making ability--for him a tell-tale sign of a good wife ... too bad I never roll out my own phyllo dough, then maybe I'd be perfect?!
Getting back to the recipe: our original family recipe features a cinnamon-flavored meat sauce between layers of long Greek noodles topped with a rich and creamy bechamel scented with nutmeg and sprinkled with cinnamon before baking. For the ATOM event, however, I wanted to post about something a little different. So I adapted a recipe I read in Aglaia Kremezi's Foods of the Greek Islands (I know, I know; I have to stop discussing recipes from this one book) in which she features a pastitsio from the island of Syros. What's interesting is Kremezi notes she found the original recipe in a book published in 1828 in Ermoupolis, the capital of the Greek island of Syros, and written by an unknown author.
I made a few changes to Kremezi's original recipe, which itself sounds quite good and will definitely be one of my next party foods. The original recipe calls for a meat sauce of ground veal or beef flavored with bacon (she had me at bacon!), onion, bone marrow, sweet wine, cinnamon and prunes. I omitted the bone marrow and--although not included in the original--I added a couple tablespoons of tomato paste to the sauce. Kremezi then combines the meat sauce with cooked ziti, grated cheese, milk and nutmeg and packs the mixture in a casserole dish lined with puff pastry. I layered the meat sauce with long noodles and topped it with a lighter version of my family's bechamel since the meat sauce includes that ever-so yummy, but quite fatty, bacon.
Pastitsio me Damaskina apo tin Syro/Pastitsio with Prunes & Bacon from Syros
(Adapted from a recipe in Aglaia Kremezi's Foods of the Greek Islands)
Makes a 13x9 inch pan
1/4 pound bacon, chopped
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds combination of ground veal, pork and beef
1/2 cup Mavrodaphne, Marsala or Sherry
3/4 cup water
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 cinnamon sticks
15 pitted prunes, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound of Pastitsio No. 2 Macaroni
4 1/2 cups milk
4 tablespoons butter
8 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano
1 teaspoon grated nutmeg
Ground cinnamon, for sprinkling
In a large skillet, brown the bacon until crisp. Remove to a plate and set aside. Add the onions to the skillet and saute until soft. Stir in the ground meat and saute, stirring, until no longer pink. Add the wine to the skillet and boil for a minute or so. Reduce the heat, add the water, tomato paste, cinnamon sticks, salt and pepper to taste, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, discard the cinnamon sticks and stir in the prunes. Set aside.
Heat the milk and butter in a large saucepan. Once the butter has melted, begin whisking the flour in a little at a time, stirring constantly. Once the bechamel has thickened, stir in the grated cheese, the nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and whisk in the eggs one at a time, incorporating well after each addition.
Meanwhile, boil the macaroni until al dente. Drain the pasta and begin layering the pan first with macaroni, then the meat sauce, then macaroni and finally the bechamel. Sprinkle with cinnamon and bake in a 375 degree oven until golden.
Note: Pastitsio is not a dish you serve immediately upon baking. In fact, bake your pastitsio as early in the day as possible, let cool completely (uncovered) and then re-heat before serving. This will ensure your pieces stay intact. (I let the pieces shown here cool for an hour before cutting, yet I think they could have used a bit more cooling as they were still very hot when sliced and the bottom layer didn't hold up as well as I would've liked.)