Many years ago in a hole-in-the-wall cafe in old town Athens I had the pleasure of enjoying a near perfect meal of pastitsio and spanikopita; both recipes I have longed to recreate since. The cook there put a lot of love into their food for sure; just thinking about the lamb and okra stew my father-in-law ordered has my mouth watering (and I don't even like okra.)
The pastitsio at that little cafe had a very light but substantial béchamel topping. I am certain they whipped the egg white to get that lift, so my last few efforts have been experimenting with egg white proportions and I finally feel as though I've come close to reproducing that legendary dish. I recently served my version to a gathering of nearly 30 guests, with over half of them returning to the buffet line for seconds and all them raving about the results.
One pan will easily feed 10-12, and it is very manageable for any group since it can be made the day ahead. I used the standard disposable casserole dish (11 3/4' x 9 1/4" x 1 1/2") and filled it to nearly overflowing, but it did not spill out over the edge as it baked, making clean up for that big party a breeze. This is a recipe I will be coming back to in the future.
1/2 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion chopped
2 pounds lean ground beef/lamb or any combination
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup water
1 chicken or beef bullion cube
2 Tablespoons tomato paste
3 Tablespoons chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup bread crumbs
Saute the onion in the oil until translucent, add meat and cook, breaking up chunks until no pink remains. Add all remaining sauce ingredients with the exception of the bread crumbs and allow to simmer and reduce until sauce is thick and very little liquid remains in the pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in bread crumbs. Allow to cool.
1 pound pasta, ziti, bucatini, or penne
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup butter, cut into 1/2 tablespoons slices
1 1/2 cup (6 oz) Swiss or Kasseri cheese, shredded
While the meat sauce cooks, bring a large pot of salted water to the boil and cook the noodles according to the package directions to al dente, or firm to the bite. Pour noodles into a colander to drain and run under cold water to cool. Use the residual heat from the pan the noodles cooked in to melt the butter. Once the butter is melted, return the cool noodles to the pan and toss to coat. Combine the remaining ingredients and toss to coat the noodles evenly.
Place approximately two-thirds of the noodles in the bottom of a greased 9 x 13 casserole, cover with the meat sauce, making an even layer. Use the remaining noodles to top the meat sauce and proceed to making the béchamel topping.
The top layer of béchamel will have slightly more lift if made the same day as baking, but the casserole can easily be made the day ahead, refrigerated overnight, and baked the next day with very little appreciable difference in the lightness of the cream top. Note baking times will be approximately 20 minutes longer when baked directly from the cold refrigerator.
4 cups milk, heated
3/4 cup flour
1/2 cup salted butter
1/4 - 1/2 tsp nutmeg, fresh ground
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup Parmesan or Kefalotyri, grated
4 eggs, separated
1/2 cup Parmesan or Kefalotyri, finely grated for topping
Heat milk on the stove or in the microwave to warm (warm milk reduces lump formation in sauce.) Melt butter and stir in flour, allow to cook over medium heat 2-3 minutes. Slowly pour in the warm milk and whisk constantly until the mixture is evenly smooth. Remove from heat and allow to cool 5 minutes.
While the sauce cools, beat the eggs whites to soft peaks. Add nutmeg, pepper and 1/2 cup cheese, whisk to combine. Remove 1/2 cup of the warm béchamel and whisk it into the egg yolks to temper them, then add the yolk mixture to the sauce, whisking to combine. Repeat with the beaten egg whites to temper them and then folding them into the sauce. Salt to taste.
Pour the béchamel sauce over the top layer of noodles and sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese over all. Pastitsio can be covered and refrigerated overnight to bake the next day or placed directly into a 350-degree oven on the middle rack for approximately 50 minutes. The top should be golden brown. Allow to cool 15 minutes before slicing and serving for the best presentation.
TIP: To test if a dish is heated through to the middle, carefully poke a fork through the top layers and let it set in the middle of the dish for about 1/2 a minute. Feeling the fork will indicate if the middle is sufficiently hot or not. If the top browns too quickly before the middle cooks through, tent the top with aluminum foil.