The Pastitsio (or Pastichio) is a traditional Greek lasagna recipe made in a casserole dish consisting of layers of pasta, ground meat sauce (similar to Bolognese) and a creamy béchamel sauce.
It’s ideal for a delicious Sunday dinner and it also freezes very well.
Nothing speaks family dinner better than Pastitsio! You may also know it as Greek pasta bake, and you certainly know that this is the food to serve to your loved ones when you want to offer them a hearty and cozy dinner.
There aren’t enough words to describe this great recipe! It's probably the most loved pasta dish of Greek cuisine and that's why you can find it in the menu of most Greek restaurants.
This ultimate Greek comfort food consists of 3 different components: a cooked pasta at the bottom of the pan, an aromatic meat sauce in the middle and a velvety béchamel sauce which coats the casserole like a warm and fluffy blanket.
The ingredient list for this traditional pastitsio recipe is relatively big, but don't be afraid, you already have most of them in you pantry.
For the meat sauce:
- Ground beef (sometimes mixed with ground lamb)
- Olive oil
- Bay leaf
- Cinnamon stick
- Ground cloves (or whole)
- Dry red wine (or rose)
- Tomato paste
- Pureed tomatoes (canned or fresh)
- Salt and freshly grated black pepper (to taste)
- Ground allspice (optional)
For the pasta:
- Pastitsio Macaroni pasta No2 (or bucatini or penne pasta)
- Grated yellow Greek cheese like Kefalotyri cheese or Graviera (Cheddar and Parmesan cheese will also do. Please no feta cheese!)
- Salt (for the water)
For the béchamel sauce:
- All-purpose flour
- Olive oil (or melted butter)
- Large eggs
- Grated Kefalotyri cheese (or another Greek cheese like Graviera or even Cheddar, Parmesan cheese)
You can read the instructions more analytically in the recipe card.
The basic steps are:
1. Make the meat sauce
2. Boil the pasta
3. Make the Bechamel sauce
4. Build the Pastitsio and bake it in the oven
The meat sauce
The basic ingredient for the meat sauce is beef. This sauce is much like this mom’s Bolognese sauce for pasta but it’s usually made with less tomato and not all the spices.
Also, it should not have too much moisture, so you’ll have to simmer it slowly over low heat until almost all of the liquid is evaporated. If you're in a hurry and the sauce is not fully ready yet, you can add 1-2 tablespoons of ground rusks, to absorb the extra liquid.
Inevitably, you’ll have some moisture left, which during baking, will drip down at the bottom of the pan and give extra flavor to the pasta.
The type of pasta
Traditionally, a type of hollow tubular pasta called Pastitsio macaroni pasta No.2 is used for this recipe in Greece, that's why you can find it in every Greek super market.
Alternatively, you can use thick bucattini pasta, which is another type of tubular pasta, like long and thick spaghetti with a hole in the middle. This whole chicken cacciatore stew recipe uses bucattini pasta. If you can't find bucattini, your next best option is penne pasta.
Cook the pasta al dente. When you bite it, you should be able to feel some resistance. Because the pasta will continue cooking in the oven, boiling it for 2-3 minutes less is recommended.
Flavor the pasta with some grated cheese. Cheese will also act as a glue and will bind the pasta together, holding each piece intact for prettier serving.
The Bechamel sauce (white sauce)
I like to make my béchamel with olive oil but you can also melt butter. Make sure to cook the flour with the oil until it starts to smell nutty. This will give extra flavor to your sauce.
The Bechamel should be pourable, and not thick like plaster! A general rule for the best texture is to use 4 cups (1 litre) of milk for every 100 grams of flour.
There are many ways you can make a creamy béchamel without lumps. Some people like to add the milk cold and all at once.
What works for me is to use room temperature milk and remove the pan from the heat before adding the milk. I add the milk gradually and whisk constantly, until a smooth mixture is formed. At first the mixture thickens a lot, but as I add more milk it loosens up. I then return the pot to the heat and cook, whisking constantly, until it starts to bubble.
Nutmeg is one of the most important bechamel ingredients, so try not to omit it!
A couple of eggs are used for the best texture (you don't have to separate the egg yolks from the egg whites) and some grated Greek cheese for extra taste.
**For this recipe, it is best to measure the flour by weight, using a kitchen scale. If you don’t have a scale the right way to measure the flour with a cup according to Kingarthurflour.com is to use a spoon and fluff up the flour inside the container/bag it is stored, then sprinkle it into your dry-cup measure (the one that measures exactly a cup at the top) and scrape off the excess with a straight edge.
Variations and layers
1. The most common Pastichio layering consists of a pasta layer at the bottom of the pan, following with the meat mixture, following with another layer of pasta and ending with the bechamel sauce.
2. The easiest way is to mix the pasta with the meat sauce in the casserole dish, level the surface and top with the bechamel sauce.
3. The modern way is to have 1 layer of pasta, followed by the meat layer and topped with the bechamel sauce. I prefer this way, with the exception that I keep a small quantity of pasta and arrange it on top of the meat, because I believe that the bechamel sauce adheres better this way.
4. Meat sauce variations. The classic recipe is made with minced beef, but you can also use a mix of beef and ground lamb or pork.
About the ratios: I guess everyone has his own preferences, but for me the ideal ratio for the best Pastitsio is for the pasta, the meat sauce, and the béchamel sauce to have approximately the same height. If something can be taller, then that would be the pasta.
The only downside of this Greek pasta bake recipe is that it's time consuming, meaning it requires a lot of preparation
However with some good scheduling you'll certainly pull it through and the end result will reward you.
So, if you want to make some of the components ahead:
- The meat sauce can be made 1 or 2 days ahead and kept in the fridge.
- The bechamel sauce can be made 1 day ahead and kept in the fridge.
- The pasta should be cooked on the same day.
- Alternatively, you can make the pastitsio 1 day ahead, store it in the fridge and bake it the day you want to serve it.
Storing and Freezing
This recipe will keep well for at least 3-4 days when stored in the fridge inside an airtight container. It is actually better the next day, and you can re-heat it in the microwaves or in the oven wrapped with foil.
It also freezes very well.
You can either freeze it before you bake it, or bake it first and then freeze some individual slices.
Freezing before baking: Make the pastitsio in one large casserole dish or two smaller ones. Let it cool completely (in case any of the different components is still warm), and wrap it with plastic wrap.
Sprinkle the surface with grated cheese to ensure that the wrap won't stick to the bechamel sauce. Store in the freezer and thaw the night before baking it.
Freezing baked Pastitsio: Put individual slices if freezer safe containers, let them cool completely and store in the freezer. Thaw from the night before and warm in the microwaves or in the oven.
Notes - tips:
- Sauté the minced meat in a wide pan, and let it brown very well before stirring with a wooden spoon. You will gain extra flavor!
- Cook the pasta al dente. That doesn’t mean it should be undercooked, but firm to the tooth. Keep in mind that the pasta will continue cooking in the oven.
- Cook the flour with the oil until it starts to smell nutty. This gives flavor and eliminates the flour-y smell the béchamel sometimes has.
- Serve the pastitsio with this Greek cabbage salad (Lahanosalata)
Authentic Pastitsio recipe (traditional Greek lasagna)
For the meat sauce:
- 2.4 pounds (1100 grams) ground beef (or a mix of beef and lamb or pork)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil (or vegetable oil)
- 1 large onion, grated or finely chopped
- 1 carrot, grated
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- ¼ teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 cup dry red wine (rose)
- ¼ cup thick tomato paste
- 2 cups pureed tomatoes (canned or fresh)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice, optional
For the pasta:
- 1 package (1 pound/450 grams) pastitsio pasta No2 (or bucatini pasta or penne)
- 1 ½ cups (120 grams) grated cheese (Greek Kefalotiri, Cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano)
- 2 teaspoons fine salt (for the water for the pasta)
For the béchamel sauce:
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (150 grams) all-purpose flour
- ½ cup (100 grams) olive oil (or butter)
- Freshly ground nutmeg (about ⅓ of a nutmeg seed)
- 1 ½ teaspoons fine salt
- 6 cups (1500 grams) milk, warm
- 2 large eggs
- 1 ½ cups (120 grams) grated cheese (cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano, Greek Kefalotiri)
- One deep baking dish (casserole) about 14 x 10 inches (36 x 25 cm) and 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) deep or one round pan 14 inches (35cm) in diameter and 2.5 inches (6.5 cm) deep
- Make the meat sauce: Heat a deep pan over high heat and add the oil and the ground beef. Let it brown, without stirring, and when the meat is no longer red, stir with a wooden spatula and break any meat lumps.Cook until all the juices have evaporated, reduce heat to medium/high and add the onion the carrot, the bay leaves, the cinnamon stick, the allspice and the cloves. Stir for 5 minutes and add the wine. Wait for 1 minute for the alcohol to evaporate and add the tomato paste, the pureed tomatoes, the salt and the pepper.When it starts to boil again, reduce heat to low and simmer until almost all of the liquids have evaporated (about 30 minutes). Remove and discard the bay leaves and the cinnamon stick.
- In the meantime, make the pasta:Cook the pasta in a pot with salted water, until al dente, according to the packaging directions (because they'll continue cooking in the oven, boiling them for 2-3 minutes less is recommended).
- Drain the pasta, mix in the grated cheese and transfer about two-thirds of the pasta to the casserole dish. Level with a spoon and cover with the meat sauce. Level the meat sauce with the back of a spoon and spread the rest of the pasta uniformly over the meat.
- Preheat your oven to 374°F (190°C)
- Make the béchamel sauce: Cook the flour with the olive oil in a large pot stirring continuously with a whisk until it starts to smell nutty. Remove from the heat and add the nutmeg and the salt.Whisk to combine and add the warm milk gradually, whisking constantly to prevent it from forming any lumps. At first the mixture will thicken but as you continue to add the milk it will loosen up.When all the milk is added, return to the stove and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until it thickens. When it starts to bubble, remove from the heat and let it sit on your counter for 5 minutes to cool a little.Add 1 cup of the grated cheese and the eggs and whisk quickly to combine.
- Pour the béchamel sauce over the pasta, level with a spatula and sprinkle the surface with the remaining grated cheese.
- Bake for 50-60 minutes or until the top is golden brown with dark spots all over the surface. Let it rest for 20-30 minutes before slicing for easier serving. Eat!
- The meat sauce can be cooked from the previous day and kept refrigerated.
- This is a large recipe, about 9-10 servings. If you want a smaller quantity, it may be better to divide the pastitsio into two smaller pans and freeze the one for later use.
- For the grated cheese I use a mix of the cheeses listed in the ingredients (but you can also use your favorite type).
- Instead of ground allspice and ground cloves you can use 5 allspice kernels and 5 whole cloves but you’ll have to fish them out of the meat sauce after it’s done.
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