Real, authentic Italian lasagna is made with a creamy bechamel sauce as is the Italian dish called “Pasticcio.” The delicious red-sauce version of lasagna we have in America is great, but it’s not the same as what the rest of the world usually eats. Italy, however, isn’t the only place where a bechamel style lasagna reigns supreme as far as baked pasta dishes go. Egypt and Greece have their own take on the dish that’s heavy on the bechamel called “Macarona Bechamel” (literally bechamel macaroni) or “Pastitsio” (sometimes called pastichio or pastitso) respectively.
Depending on who your momma is, anyone whose had Egyptian Macarona Bechamel or Greek Pastitsio has tasted the main ingredients which are pasta, meat, and bechamel sauce. The vast majority of versions also incorporate tomato sauce, but there are a few that skip it. Then there are variations that take off from there in terms of spices (some use cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, or thyme, etc.) and even the type of pasta used (some people make it with spaghetti layered into a baking dish or elbow macaroni). The best and most traditional method uses penne or another tubular medium sized pasta.
In my version, I’m channeling both my own mother and mother-in-law to come up with this semi-hybrid version. It’s a little lighter on the bechamel and meat than usual (my mom uses two pounds of meat for example and many Greek festivals have versions twice as thick), but adjusting those proportions to your liking is fairly easy in the directions. Most notably, I grew up eating different kinds of macarona bechamel or pastitsio, but it wasn’t until I tried my mother-in-law’s version that I thought to incorporate cinnamon into the recipe. It completely changes up the flavor in the best way adding a nuanced depth of sweet and savory flavor. Nonetheless, for the dogmatic traditionalists out there thinking that cinnamon is just too exciting, this recipe also works well without it.
This dish is best shared, but I wouldn’t blame you if you just ate all the leftovers yourself.
Makes one 9 x 13 or 12 x 10 pan with 12 servings at 360 calories each.
How to Make Macarona Bechamel or Greek Pastitsio
Is it macarona bechamel or pastitsio?
- 1 box (16 oz or 1 pound) of penne pasta (about 1600 calories)
- 1 pound of lean ground beef (800 calories)
- 1/2 large sweet onion chopped (20 calories)
- 2 medium cloves of garlic crushed (10 calories)
- 1 eight oz. can of tomato sauce (70 calories)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil (120 calories)
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon (3 calories)
- 2 teaspoons plus 1/2 teaspoon of salt to be used separately
- Bechamel Sauce Ingredients: Note: Some people may like their tray of pastitsio to have more bechamel than I’m using in this recipe. That’s somewhat personal taste, but for those people, I suggest making 1.5 times the amount I have in this recipe. Then just add as much or as little as you like, but making sure that the top layer is thicker than the bottom layer.
- 1 stick (8 tablespoons) of butter (800 calories)
- 1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) of all purpose flour (200 calories)
- 4 cups of whole milk (600 calories)
- 1/4 to 1/2 of cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (100 calories)
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1 pinch (less than 1/8 teaspoon) ground black pepper
- 1 large skillet
- 1 large sauce pot
- 1 large pot for boiling pasta
- One 9 x 13 or 10 x 12 baking dish
- Can opener
- Cup, tablespoon, and teaspoon measurements
- Chop half a large onion and peel two medium sized cloves of garlic.
- Place a large skillet over medium-high heat with 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in the pan.
- Saute the ground beef in the pan while breaking it up as it cooks.
- When the meat has taken on some color and is almost cooked, add in the chopped onion. Saute the meat and onions until the onions start to get a little translucuent.
- Crush and add in two crushed cloves of garlic to the meat and mix well as the meat continues to cook.
- When the meat is cooked through and the onions are almost translucent, add in 8 oz. of plain tomato sauce. Don’t use a heavily spices store-bought sauce if you can avoid it. The idea is to use a neutral tomato sauce (usually found in cans or cartons). Before adding the sauce, however, you may need to drain the liquid in the pan if it seems like the meat and onions have given off a lot of water. You don’t want to add the tomato sauce with all of that water. In order to drain the pan, usually it’s as easy as slightly tilting the pan over the sink to let the liquid drain and using a spatula to make sure none of the meat falls out of the pan.
- Add a 1/2 teaspoon of salt and the 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon to the meat and simmer it in the tomato sauce on medium heat for about 5 minutes.
- After 5 minutes of simmering, remove the pan from the heat and set it aside. Loosely cover the meat with some aluminum foil if you like. If you’re working quickly, you don’t even need to cover it.
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil and season the water with a couple of teaspoons of salt. When the water is boiling, add the pasta to the water and boil according to the al dente (that means the pasta is cooked, but is still a little firm when you bite down) directions on the box. Usually al dente penne takes about 10 – 12 minutes. If you feel up to it and want to save time, you can boil the pasta while cooking the meat.
- When the pasta is ready and al dente dump the pot of pasta and water into a colander to drain it. Run cold water over the pasta to stop the cooking process. This helps the pasta not to overcook, but also keeps it from sticking together and clumping when you want to use it later. Set the pasta aside and loosely cover it with plastic wrap or foil if you like. If you’re working quickly, you won’t need to cover it.
- Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Now for the sauce. This will require almost constant stirring using a whisk, so get ready! In a large sauce pot, melt one stick of butter on medium heat. Be careful not to let the butter brown or bubble too much.
Note: Some people may like their tray of pastitsio to have more bechamel than I’m using in this recipe. That’s somewhat personal taste, but for those people, I suggest making 1.5 times the amount I have in this recipe. Then just add as much or as little as you like.
- While stirring the melted butter with a whisk, slowly add in the 1/2 cup of flour to the butter to make a roux while sifting the flour a little bit at a time. A roux is a mixture of fat and flour that is used to thicken a sauce.
- Once the flour and butter are well mixed, simmer the roux on medium-low heat while mixing for about 3 to 5 minutes. The roux should smell vaguely of pie crust.
- Next, slowly add the 4 cups of milk to the roux while mixing continuously with the whisk and bring the mixture up to a very light simmer. It should not boil, but you should see some steam coming from the milk.
- Add in the teaspoon of salt and a generous pinch of black pepper to the milk as you stir.
- After about 20 minutes or so, the sauce should start to thicken and become a bechamel. When the sauce starts to coat the whisk when it’s pulled out of the sauce, you can add in the 1/4 cup of finely grated parmesan. Continue simmering and stirring for another few minutes to make sure the cheese is well incorporated. The bechamel should remain liquidy enough to pour, but thick enough to completely coat a spoon dipped into it. When done, turn the heat off and set the bechamel aside.
- Now comes the assembly! Place half of the pasta in the bottom of the baking dish.
- Ladle or spoon 1/3 of the bechamel onto the pasta in the baking dish and mix the pasta well.
- Add the ground beef mixture over the first layer of pasta and bechamel sauce. Spread it out evenly.
- Then cover the meat with the remaining half of the pasta before ladling on the remaining 2/3 of the bechamel. Smooth out the bechamel and try to make sure all of the pasta is covered.
- Place the assembled baking dish into the oven on the middle rack and bake for 25 minutes until the bechamel is bubbling.
- After 25 minutes, turn the oven’s broiler to high and broil the top of the macarona bechamel for about 5 minutes until it develops some nice color and toasty brown spots.
- Take the baking dish out of the oven and set it aside to cool. Try your best not to immediately dig in and eat because instead of nice pieces of macarona or pastitsio, you’ll end up with a delicious pile of slop on the plate. Let it cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.
- Cut it up, serve, and watch it disappear!
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