Like being part of a Greek family, creating the perfect pastitsio requires a lot of heart, generosity and patience.
I don’t eat a lot of meat these days, but this is one of those dishes straight from my childhood and with its roots in the sprawling, 80s-style kitchen of my Yiayia, that I succumb to by smell alone. It is simple, pure joy in a baking dish; creamy, aromatic comfort that warms the soul and deeply satisfies the belly.
My Yiayia’s version, like any Yiayia’s version, has been a constant and consistent offering at almost all family gatherings. We have grown from a family of ten at the dining table, in my earliest memories as eldest grandchild, to double that number; a rowdy bunch who can out-argue each other over what a distant aunty’s lazy daughter’s equally lazy husband’s awful mother-in-law said 10 years ago at a funeral, for example. This is usually followed by great declarations of love, all set to a background of bouzoukia and TV ads booming from the all-Greek ‘Antenna’ channel on the nearby television, should anyone feel uncomfortable with just the sounds of each other’s voices. The three little kids might slip under the table at some point or take to running around screaming, and the cooler set, my ‘little’ cousins all now in their 20s, talk in hushed tones bemoaning the drama at the other end of the long table. I like to sit somewhere in the middle, observing the fam and sneaking a word in on occasion, or even singing a line from a musical in high soprano fashion, just to add another layer to the chaos.
At the last large gathering in April for Orthodox Easter, I brought my version of pastitsio along, my grandmother now sadly unable to cook in the elaborate way she had for almost all of her life. I had offered to make this as my contribution to the feast, although terribly nervous given its status as Yiayia Signature Dish (besides her avgolemono and galaktoboureko). I should add that my mum has often been the pastitsio bearer, hers also delicious, but more ‘robust’ than my grandmother’s. Mum’s sometimes includes surprises: vegetables that are not supposed to appear in pastitsio, a decent hit of tumeric or some extra sugar, ’cause why not. Sometimes it’s a winning modification and on one occasion, a disaster. But that is my mum and her food – experimental and bold.
I don’t know how many more long lunches we will have at this table, in this dining room, which has been the setting of countless lively gatherings since I was 8 years-old. On a wall behind the table is a rather large portrait of me as toddler. I’ve always sat with my back to the portrait, my real-time, ageing self positioned just under a bright, soft-skinned and rosy version of me, forever three and smiling. I’ve never really wanted to face the portrait, always being told that one day it would be mine, when my grandparents passed. My grandfather would always blow kisses to that little girl on the wall, then look over at me and blow another kiss, whispering ‘koritsi mou‘ (little girl) across the table to me.
It’s almost six years since I’ve heard his voice and I’ve recently learned that my grandmother will soon give me the portrait, as she prepares to sell the house and move. I’m still working out how I feel, knowing that life changes in seasons, or even in moments, and eras end and new ones begin. I don’t think I’m ready to own the portrait, but I will lovingly continue to make pastitsio to serve at this table or the next one, or at my own table, cutting it into as many creamy pieces as there are loved ones surrounding me.
Extra virgin olive oil
2 medium or 1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
750 g best-quality minced beef
1/4 cup tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine (optional)
400 g can tomatoes
1 ½ teaspoons nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon sugar
sea salt and ground black pepper
100 g flour
100 g butter
4–4 ½ cups milk (warm just before using)
½ teaspoon nutmeg
4 egg yolks
150–200 g kefalograviera cheese, grated*
375 g penne or bucatini pasta
Serves 6–10 (depending on portion sizes)
1 Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over a medium heat and add about 2 tablespoons oil. Add the onions and sauté until soft. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant, taking care not to burn, then stir in the beef. Combine the ingredients until the meat is browned and then add the tomato paste. You can also add a little red wine at this point, for some depth of flavour. Once mixed through, add the canned tomatoes, sugar, cinnamon, bay leaf and cloves. Season well and then increase the heat to bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 30-40 minutes, covered.
2 While the meat is simmering, preheat your oven to 180°C and prepare the béchamel sauce. In a large pot, melt the butter over a medium heat. Add the flour and stir to form a paste, being careful not to burn the mixture. Slowly and steadily add the warmed milk while whisking the mixture. Continue to whisk until the sauce thickens and there are no lumps. Once you have a thick and creamy consistency (sort of like a thick, cake batter that is still loose), remove the pot from the heat and stir through seasoning, nutmeg and two-thirds of the cheese. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, whisking after each addition so as not to cook the egg or have the mixture curdle.
3 Cook the penne according to the instructions, ensuring it is absolutely al dente and even a little undercooked. It will cook further in the oven. Drain the pasta, reserving just a tiny bit of water so it doesn’t stick together.
4 Check the meat sauce for seasoning and adjust as necessary. When you are happy with the taste, remove from the heat and fish out the bay leaf.
5 To assemble the pastitsio, add a serving spoonful of the meat sauce to a large, deep ovenproof dish to coat the base. Grease the sides of the dish with a little olive oil. Add a spoonful of the meat sauce and a couple of spoonfuls of the béchamel to the penne, and stir to combine so the pasta is a little creamy, adding a handful of the remaining cheese (reserve some for the top). Pour the pasta into the baking dish. Top with the remaining meat sauce and even it out by shaking the dish. Spoon the remaining béchamel over the meat sauce and use the back of the spoon to even it out. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese and a bit of freshly ground pepper. Cook in the hot oven for about 35-45 minutes, or until it turns a warm, golden brown colour.
Allow to cool a little before serving and eat with crusty bread and your favourite salad. It’s even better the next day!
* Kefalograviera is a delicious Greek hard cheese, which is quite crumbly with a unique salty, nutty taste. It can be found at continental delis and some supermarkets. Substitute with grana padano or parmesan cheese, if necessary.