Authentic Pastitsio, or Greek lasagna ~ layers of pasta, cinnamon-laced beef, Kasseri cheese and béchamel.
Authentic Greek food. I love it all, from the Greek festivals here in St. Louis to Greektown back home in Chicago. And you’ll love this pastitsio. But first, I have to fill you in on where I got this recipe, or moreover, how I learned to make authentic Greek pastitsio.
Pastitsio is Greek comfort food, pasta layered with meat, cheese and béchamel sauce. Picky Eater loves pastitsio. Come to think of it, I think the whole family likes it. We’ve had it numerous times at the Greek church Friday luncheons, and I’ve made it a couple of times over the past 20 years or so. Then I got this version, authentic home cooked Greek grandma pastitsio!
I substitute teach at our high school and a few weeks ago I was chatting with another sub on our off hour. Our daughters just graduated and started college this fall. We talked nonstop about the girls and college and food, mainly Greek food. Flora and her family are Greek and she was telling me all about the dishes she makes and where she gets her ingredients. It was just a great conversation, I really like Flora, and her daughter, Thalia.
Several days after our gabfest, I received an email from Flora. Her pastitsio recipe! This kind of stuff super excites me. When somebody shares how to make an authentic, classic dish like pastitsio that she learned from her grandmother, well, need I say more? I am blown away with how good it is. I get a little excited about good food, I know. Our house smelled like Greektown when it was baking in the oven.
So, let’s get started. The meat mixture is flavored with cinnamon and tomato sauce. Flora said let it stew for 3 hours and make it the day before. That’s what I did. It is ground beef and I used ground sirloin. No lamb, so if that’s what you’ve heard, sorry, not here.
What are pastitsio noodles?
The pastitsio noodles are long tubes of pasta. I found these at a local specialty grocer. If you can’t find, I have used mostaccioli noodles as a good substitute (not penne, with the ridges).
What is Kasseri cheese?
And the cheese. Here’s where I get weak in the knees. Kasseri cheese. It’s Greek, duh. Again, I got mine at the same specialty grocer. A good substitute would be asiago, and Flora said you can also use an Italian blend. But I used kasseri and couldn’t stop eating it as I was grating it. I’m pretty sure it’s the same cheese, or very similar, to what they use in Greektown for saganaki, the oopah! flaming cheese that’s an institution in Chicago Greek restaurants. If you can find it, definitely use kasseri cheese.
How to layer pastitsio
The pastitsio is finished off with a layer of béchamel sauce, which is butter, flour, milk and eggs, cooked until thick and creamy. Béchamel scares people but it really isn’t hard to make and Flora’s béchamel is the best I’ve ever made. And then melted butter is drizzled all over the béchamel layer with some kasseri cheese, lord, have mercy. According to Flora, this is what makes it brown when it bakes. All I know is that it was crazy rich and good and browned on top. Layer like this: noodles, cheese, meat mixture and more cheese, béchamel and more cheese and melted butter.
So, that’s it folks. Lasagna of any kind is a bit labor intensive but so worth it. Making the sauce a day ahead helps, and it’s way better the next day anyway. Then it’s just the béchamel, grating the cheese and layering the pastitsio. Not hard at all. If you like Greek food, want to try making it at home, try this, you will love it. Next time I see Flora, I’m asking for the spanakopita recipe from her mother-in-law. Hope she shares that also. Best, Kelly🍴🐦
UPDATED April 28, 2019: no changes to original recipe, just spiffed things up a bit.
Pastitsio (Greek Lasagna)
- 3 pounds ground beef
- 1 large onion, chopped
- 2 15-ounce cans tomato sauce
- 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
- coarse kosher salt
- 1 package pastitsio noodles, or mostaccioli
- 1/2 pound or more kasseri cheese, grated, about 4 cups (or asiago or an Italian blend) ~ Flora uses a lot of cheese, like a pound!)
- 4 eggs
- 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup flour
- 5 1/2 cups whole milk
- Make the meat sauce one day ahead. In a large pot, add a little olive oil and heat over medium heat. Add the chopped onions and sprinkle with a generous pinch of salt, cook until onions are just translucent. Add the ground beef and cook and stir until no longer pink, breaking it up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. Add the 2 cans of tomato sauce and cinnamon, stir and bring to a simmer. Season with salt to taste. Let meat sauce stew for 3 hours, yes, for 3 hours with a lid on, slightly askew. Stir occasionally. Let cool and then refrigerate overnight.
- Bring sauce to room temperature or warm gently before layering the pastitsio. Grate the kasseri cheese and set aside, you want at least 4 cups.
- Cook noodles in boiling salted water until al dente (I cook a minute or two less than package directions). Drain noodles and when cool enough to handle, put them in a large bowl and mix one beaten egg into the pastitsio noodles with your hands.
- Preheat oven to 350º. In a lasagna pan, or other large pan, drizzle a little olive oil in the bottom or coat lightly with cooking spray. Put all of the noodles which were tossed with egg in the bottom of the pan and arrange evenly. Sprinkle with a third of the shredded cheese. Using a slotted spoon, cover the noodles and cheese evenly with all or most of the meat mixture, leaving room for the béchamel layer on top. Sprinkle another third of the cheese over the meat layer. You now have noodles, cheese, meat, cheese layered so far.
- Make the béchamel sauce. In a heavy bottomed large pot, melt 1 stick of butter. Add the flour to the melted butter and whisk to combine well and cook, stirring constantly for a minute or two. Slowly add 5 cups of milk, whisking the whole time. Cook and whisk until it just starts to boil, when it starts to bubble. Turn off heat.
- In a separate bowl, beat 3 eggs and 1/2 cup milk with a hand mixer. Add this mixture to the pot, slowly, whisking the whole time.
- Put back on medium-high heat and cook and whisk until thick and bubbly. When at the desired consistency, cut the heat and let the béchamel sit for a few minutes.
- In a small sauce pan, melt 1/2 stick of butter. After the béchamel has rested a few minutes, pour it over the meat and cheese layer, spreading evenly over the top. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the béchamel. Lastly, drizzle or spoon the melted butter on top of the cheese, this is what will brown the top of the pastitsio. (Okay, Flora says to use a stick of melted butter. Too much I think, especially for my pan size. But that is what she says to use.)
- Place pan on a baking sheet and then into preheated oven and bake for 1 hour, until browned and center is hot. If not browned enough, after 1 hour, turn on broiler and cook another 3 - 5 minutes, watching carefully until top is browned.
- Let pastitsio rest for 10 minutes before serving.
- The sauce takes 3 hours to simmer and is best refrigerated overnight
- Assembling the pastitsio takes about 30 - 45 minutes
- Baking time is about 1 hour and then it needs to rest a bit
- Use a very large pan, I used a 12 by 18-inch baking pan.
- Flora says you can halve the recipe for a smaller pan.
*Adapted from my friend Flora’s grandmother and Flora’s own tweaks to the recipe.