Wednesday, February 11, 2009

perfect party pastitio

A long time ago, in the same land I am in now, I used to participate in a food blogging challenge - Presto Pasta Nights, originated by Ruth Daniels of Once Upon a Feast.

My first submission to PPN (#60) was a Garlic, Sweet Potato and Spinach lasagna. I still count it as one of my best-ever creations - succulently rich slices of sweet potato layered with spinach, noodles, zucchini and a flavourful mix of ricotta and basil pesto. Though I'm still not sure why I chose to put a layer of zucchini slices on the bottom.

Bring the first (and only) roundup that I regularly participated in, Presto Pasta Nights holds a special place for me. This week marks a momentous milestone for PPN - the 100th Roundup (WAY TO GO RUTH!).
So even though I have not been very good at blogging lately, I decided to make the effort to type more than 140 characters (Twitter=my new blog ;-)) and submit a recipe and photos for gorgeously delicious pastitio that I will definitely make again.

A few weeks ago an old friend from across the pond e-mailed me to let me know he was flying into town for work. This kind of thing does not happen very often, so it called for something a little fancier than usual. Knowing this, and taking into account the chaos and craziness that ensues with our two boys at a restaurant, no matter HOW WELL behaved they are, I opted to offer a home-cooked meal, with all the confidence that subscriptions to Bon Appétit and Gourmet bring.

The pastitio from the December issue had me at bechamel. Plus, I'm a sucker for anything with ground lamb in it. Yes, I know that some people quake at the thought of roux and whisking, but I was craving the creaminess. And yes, lining up each individual piece of penne made it a little finickier to prepare than a standard lasagna, but who knows when I'll ever have this kind of time again? Get past those two things, and the rest of the preparation is a cinch. I made some modifications based on personal tastes, but essentially stuck to the recipe.

And like the first lasagna I submitted to PPN, it was good, no wait - really good.
A perfect party pastitio worthy of a celebration of any milestone or special occasion. Or for no particular reason at all.

Congratulations on your 100th roundup Ruth!

Greek Pastitio
(shamelessly borrowed from the December 2008 issue of Gourmet)
I halved the original recipe for the meat sauce. When I make this again, I would definitely add more meat and tomatoes. I used dried thyme instead of fresh thyme, simply because that is what I had on hand. In my opinion though, fresh is always better.

For meat sauce:

1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 pounds ground lamb
1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes in juice
2 teaspoons dried thyme
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
For béchamel sauce:

3 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 1/2 cups whole milk
3/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated kefalotyri cheese
3 large egg yolks
For pasta:

2 pounds rotini
1 3/4 cups coarse fresh bread crumbs (recipe says white, I used whole grain)
1/4 cup grated kefalotyri cheese

Meat sauce:
Cook onions in oil in a 12-inch heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened, about 7 minutes. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Increase heat to high, then stir in lamb and cook, stirring occasionally and breaking up any lumps with a fork, until meat starts to brown, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, drain tomatoes, reserve juice, and chop.

Pour off excess fat from skillet, then stir in tomatoes with their juice, thyme, spices, and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Simmer over low heat, partially covered, until some liquid has evaporated but sauce is still moist, about 40 minutes. Discard thyme.

Make béchamel while meat sauce simmers:
Melt butter in a heavy medium pot over medium heat. Whisk in flour, then cook roux, whisking frequently, until pale golden, about 6 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat milk in a heavy medium saucepan until just about to boil. Add milk to roux in a stream, whisking constantly until very smooth. Bring sauce to a boil over medium heat, whisking, then cook, whisking, 1 minute. Remove from heat and stir in nutmeg, cheese, and 1 tablespoon salt.
Lightly beat yolks in a bowl. Gradually whisk in 1 cup béchamel, then whisk yolk mixture into remaining béchamel in saucepan. Cover with a round of buttered wax paper (buttered side down).
Cook pasta and assemble pastitsio:
Preheat oven to 375°F with rack in middle. Cook penne in a pasta pot of boiling salted water (3 tablespoons salt for 6 quarts water) until al dente.
Drain pasta, then transfer to a large bowl and stir in 1 cup béchamel.

Arrange one third of pasta lengthwise in 1 layer in a large (17-by 11-inch) baking pan (about 2 inches deep). Because I halved the recipe, I used a 9-by-13-inch pan.

Add half of meat sauce to baking pan, spreading evenly over pasta.

Make another layer of pasta and top with remaining meat sauce, then arrange remaining pasta on top.

Spread remaining béchamel evenly over top layer of pasta.

Stir together bread crumbs and cheese and sprinkle evenly over top of pastitsio.

Bake until crumbs are golden brown and sauce is bubbling, about 45 minutes.