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Pastitsio: The Most Impressive Baked Pasta

By Andrew Janjigian Published

A triple-decker composition of tubular pasta, spiced meat sauce, and lush béchamel, Greek pastitsio is king among casseroles—and often a royal pain.

Pastitsio is culinary pastiche in the most literal sense. It’s a Greek meat and macaroni casserole inspired by similar Italian compositions such as baked ziti and lasagna (pasticcio, the root of both “pastitsio” and “pastiche,” is an old Italian term for a pie containing meat and pasta); the seasonings are Hellenic; and it’s lavished with French béchamel. The dish is an alloy of language and cuisine.

What makes pastitsio stand out from its Italian analogues is most obvious when you look at a slice of it: Instead of being jumbled together or loosely stacked, the casserole’s components are impressively stratified. The base layer typically features rows of wide-bore tubular pasta held together with a thin mortar of cheese and béchamel. Above that sits a band of tightly bound, robustly spiced ground meat and tomato sauce. Topping it all off is a plush blanket of cheesy béchamel. A well-constructed version holds together so that in each forkful, the layers remain separate but are experienced together.

It’s classic comfort fare and one of my favorite things to order at a Greek diner—the type of dish you find at the center of many Greek family meals. But since there’s no hiding gluey or mushy noodles, dull or dry meat sauce, or grainy béchamel, the best versions take time and care to make. Streamlining the whole package without sacrificing its character was my goal, so I took on the challenge layer by layer.

Neat Rows of Noodles

A layer of neatly aligned tubular pasta bound by creamy, cheesy béchamel sauce is a hallmark of pastitsio; each slice should look like it contains rows of stacked pipes. Traditional recipes call for “number 2” macaroni: long tubes that look like wide bucatini (in prominent Greek brands, the “2” refers to this shape of noodle). I found that ziti, the most widely available match in terms of diameter, was actually easier to work with; the stubby Italian tubes fell into parallel orientation with almost no effort.

Senior editor Andrew Janjigian prepares for a five recipe test of a pastitsio, a Greek baked pasta dish.

Parcooking the pasta to just shy of al dente before assembling and baking was key. Cooked any less, the pasta tasted raw, while fully soft pasta collapsed and ruined the “stacked pipes” visual and pleasing texture.

Distinct layers of noodles, meat sauce, and bechamel—a hallmark feature of pastitsio—can be seen through the baking dish as the casserole cools.

A Cheesy Cover

In many cuisines, béchamel—the classic white sauce made by thickening milk with a roux—is a background component with a subtle presence. It holds together the layers in lasagna, anchors the ham and Gruyère in a croque monsieur, and binds up the elbows in macaroni and cheese. But in pastitsio, béchamel gets its chance in the spotlight. It’s typically thickened with cheese and sometimes egg and spread over the casserole into a distinct layer that bakes up custardy and browns deeply. (A portion of it also binds up the pasta layer.)

The Sauce Cooks the Pasta, the Pasta Cooks the Sauce

  • Most pastitsio recipes call for parcooking the pasta; tossing it with a portion of the béchamel; and thickening the remaining béchamel with enough roux to make it spreadable, not runny. But when I realized that the pasta could cook in the béchamel, and that its starch could thicken the sauce, I combined these steps to make the process more efficient.

     

    Hot Béchamel Hydrates Pasta

    Briefly simmering and then steeping the ziti in the béchamel hydrates its starch just enough to ensure that it will be fully cooked after baking.

     

    Pasta Starch Thickens Béchamel

    As the pasta softens, it leaches starch that thickens the béchamel (without it, the béchamel would require twice as much roux to thicken up appropriately).

I thickened the béchamel in two stages: First, I used it to parcook the pasta, which leached starch that tightened up the sauce just enough to hold the ziti together (see “The Sauce Cooks the Pasta, the Pasta Cooks the Sauce”). Then I strained out the pasta and thickened the sauce further by whisking in cheese and an egg. Now the sauce was spreadable. A sprinkling of more cheese over the top encouraged the surface to brown.

Kasseri Cheese

Kasseri is a Greek cheese that’s increasingly available in U.S. supermarkets. It’s semifirm, stretchy, and salty like Italian provolone but richer because it’s made from sheep’s (or sometimes a combination of sheep’s and goat’s) milk, which is fattier than cow’s milk. It’s the traditional choice for Greek baked casseroles such as pastitsio and moussaka, but if you can’t find it, a 2:1 ratio of provolone to Pecorino Romano will approximate its flavor and elasticity.

Savory, Spiced Meat Sauce

The most obvious difference between the meat sauce in pastitsio and a version you might find in an Italian pasta dish is the seasoning. Cinnamon and oregano are traditional flavors, and dried mint and paprika further distance it from anything in the Italian canon.  

The sauce should be tight and concentrated and the ground beef tender—both reasons why most recipes call for a long, slow simmer. But I found a faster way to achieve both goals. Briefly treating 93 percent lean ground beef (which has enough fat to stay supple without making the sauce greasy) with baking soda before cooking altered the meat’s chemistry so that it was better able to hold on to moisture, and skipping the usual browning step avoided toughening its exterior. I had tender meat in about half the original time.

Minimizing the amount of liquid also expedited cooking. One-quarter cup of red wine added brightness, and instead of reducing tomato sauce, I thinned out ultraconcentrated tomato paste with just enough water to make the finished sauce appropriately fluid.

Recipe Pastitsio

A triple-decker composition of tubular pasta, spiced meat sauce, and lush béchamel, Greek pastitsio is king among casseroles—and often a royal pain.

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JC
JOHN C.
16 days

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too. I've done this using a rimmed sheet pan instead of a skillet and put veggies and potatoes around the chicken for a one-pan meal. Broccoli gets nicely browned and yummy!

Absolutely the best chicken ever, even the breast meat was moist! It's the only way I'll cook a whole chicken again. Simple, easy, quick, no mess - perfect every time. I've used both stainless steel and cast iron pans. great and easy technique for “roasted” chicken. I will say there were no pan juices, just fat in the skillet. Will add to the recipe rotation. Good for family and company dinners too.

MD
MILES D.
JOHN C.
9 days

Amazed this recipe works out as well as it does. Would not have thought that the amount of time under the broiler would have produced a very juicy and favorable chicken with a very crispy crust. Used my 12" Lodge Cast Iron skillet (which can withstand 1000 degree temps to respond to those who wondered if it would work) and it turned out great. A "make again" as my family rates things. This is a great recipe, and I will definitely make it again. My butcher gladly butterflied the chicken for me, therefore I found it to be a fast and easy prep. I used my cast iron skillet- marvellous!

CM
CHARLES M.
11 days

John, wasn't it just amazing chicken? So much better than your typical oven baked chicken and on par if not better than gas or even charcoal grilled. It gets that smokey charcoal tasted and overnight koshering definitely helps, something I do when time permits. First-time I've pierced a whole chicken minus the times I make jerk chicken on the grill. Yup, the cast iron was not an issue.