Pastitsio (Greek beef pasta bake)

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Pastitsio – with layers of pasta, a rich cinnamon-spiked red wine meat sauce, topped with a thick layer of cheese sauce, this is Greece’s answer to Italian Lasagna. Let the fun begin!

Pastitsio – Greek pasta bake

Pastitsio is so much more than just another pasta bake. A step up from Baked Spaghetti and – dare I say it – even America’s famed Baked Ziti (which regular readers know I hold in high esteem!), this is Greece’s version of classic Italian Lasagna.

We love how it slices neatly with the layers clearly visible, and the striking tubular Greek bucatini-style pasta.

We love how the rich red wine, tomato and meat sauce is spiked with cinnamon and cloves, giving it uniquely Greek personality rather than “just another meat sauce”.

And we (Cheese Monsters in particular) love the extra thick, cheesy Béchamel sauce topping. The Greek’s have not skimped on any element here. It’s all about abundance!

Freshly baked Pastitsio being placed on a table, ready to be served (Greek beef pasta bake)

What you need for Pastitsio

There are 3 parts to Pastitsio:

  1. Feta-tossed pasta;
  2. Greek meat sauce – Like Bolognese sauce, but thicker and scented with cinnamon and cloves which you also see in Greek Moussaka; and
  3. Greek Béchamel Sauce – Thickly laid and thicker set than you traditionally see in things like Italian Lasagna.

1. Feta-tossed pasta – Thick bucatini

The unique thing about the pasta layer of Pastitsio is the feta cheese tossed through it (yum!) and the addition of egg whites. Feta adds flavour while the egg binds the pasta together so you can cut neat slices, as pictured above.

Pot of cooked Bucatini tossed with feta cheese - for Pastitsio

1.1 Ingredients for the Pastitsio pasta layer

Here’s what you need for the pasta layer:

Pastitsio - Greek beef pasta bake
How to make Pastitsio

Greek bucatini

The pasta traditionally used in Pastitsio is a thick bucatini-style pasta called “Pastitsio pasta No. 2”, pictured below. It’s a tubular pasta – like a really thick spaghetti with a hole running through it. However it’s thicker than Italian bucatini , such as bucatini used in this Zucchini pasta.

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Where to find Greek bucatini-style Pastitsio pasta No. 2

You’ll find Greek Pastitsio Pasta No. 2 at European delis and grocers around Sydney. I found the Misko brand (pictured) at a fruit & veg store in Top Ryde (Sydney) which has a good stock of European goods.

Can’t find Pastitsio pasta?

Honestly, don’t get too hung up about it. Use ziti or penne instead if you want it to look similar when you cut it. Otherwise, ordinary Italian bucatini – sold in the pasta aisle of everyday supermarkets these days – or really, any pasta is just fine. It won’t alter flavour, just how it looks!

2. Pastitsio meat sauce

Making the meat sauce is really no different to making your favourite Spaghetti Bolognese. It’s very straight forward! But there’s two important differences:

  1. Cinnamon and clove – As used in traditional Greek Moussaka, a subtle perfume from these spices is what makes the meat sauce Greek, rather than a generic Bolognese; and
  2. Thicker meat sauce – The sauce is much thicker than Bolognese Sauce. This is intentional so it sits comfortably above the pasta layer, rather than trickling down through it. This is how you get the neat layers!
Pot of thick beef meat sauce for Pastitsio - Greek beef pasta bake

Here’s what you need for the meat sauce layer:

What goes in Pastitsio - Greek beef pasta bake

No boat-rockers amongst the above ingredients. Red onion is often preferred in Greek cooking rather than the typical brown/yellow onions.

And as noted above, the added spices that make this a Pastitsio meat sauce rather than an Italian-style one are cinnamon and cloves.

2.2 How to make Pastitsio meat sauce

As for making it, just pretend you’re making Bolognese! Unlike Bolognese however where a long and slow cooking can be optional, the Pastitsio meat sauce needs to be simmered for a good hour to reduce the sauce so it’s really thick.

This makes the meat sauce sit on the pasta, rather than mixing through the pasta layer, so you get distinct and tidy layers. The added bonus is that the longer simmering time makes the beef super-tender and really intensifies the sauce flavours.

How to make Pastitsio

3. Greek Béchamel Sauce

The Greek Béchamel sauce used in Pastitsio differs from the typical white sauce you see on things like Lasagna:

  1. Thicker layer – About twice the volume used in typical Lasagna. No complaints over here, I’m personally a big fan of lots of cheese white sauce!
  2. More set – It’s set almost like a custard that you can cut through, as opposed to being creamy like Béchamel typically is. It’s thickened using a combination of a slightly higher flour-to-liquid ratio, as well as the use of egg yolks (which also enriches the sauce beautifully!)
Greek Béchamel for Pastitsio

3.1 What goes in Pastitsio Béchamel sauce

Here’s what you need to make the Pastitsio Béchamel sauce:

Pastitsio - Greek beef pasta bake

Kefalotyri Greek cheese

This is a firm, traditional Greek cheese made from sheep or goat’s milk. It’s used to top the Pastitsio to give it a delicious golden crust as well as stirring through the Béchamel Sauce to give it flavour.

Kefalotyri cheese is a hard cheese with a salty, savoury and piquant taste, similar to Parmesan. However it’s not as salty as parmesan.

Believe it or not, these days it’s available at Woolworths and Coles in Australia! 🙌🏻 Pictured below.

Best substitutes (in order): Kefalograviera (a related, hard Greek cheese), pecorino, Parmesan, Romano.

Pastitsio assembled and ready to go in the oven

Use leftover Kefalotyri to make Saganaki!

What to do with your leftover Kefalotyri? Make saganaki, a popular melted cheese Greek appetiser! Cut leftover Kefalotyri into 1.5cm / 1/2″ slices, dust with flour then pan fry in olive oil until golden on the outside, melted inside. Squeeze over a bit of lemon, serve with bread for. It’s AMAZING. You can thank me later…!! 😉

3.2 How to make Pastitsio Béchamel sauce

Here’s how to make the Pastitsio white sauce:

How to make Pastitsio
  1. Make a roux – Melt butter, then add the flour and cook it out for a minute. Slowly add the milk in while stirring – this is how you can make a lump-free Béchamel sauce without having to use a whisk! The trick is to make a “paste” first, then add the rest of the milk that the paste easily dissolves into.

    Lumpy sauce? Don’t worry! Just give it a good whisk and it will smoothen out.

  2. Cook until thickened – Stir over a medium heat until the sauce thickens, and won’t thicken any further. The thickness test: The sauce should fully coat the back of a spoon and when you draw a path across with your finger it doesn’t disappear;
  3. Flavourings – Stir in cheese and nutmeg. The cheese will also thicken the sauce slightly more;
  4. Egg yolks – Remove sauce from the stove and let it cool for a few minutes. Then whisk the egg yolks in. Make sure you mix straight away once you add the yolks otherwise they may scramble in the sauce!!
  5. Done! While warm, the sauce should be pourable but quite thick, like pictured. Cover with a lid and keep warm until required. If it goes cold, it will get too thick to pour. If that happens just reheat it over a low heat until it becomes pourable again.
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4. Assembly!

You need a BIG casserole dish for Pastitsio! A typical 9 x 13″ pan won’t cut it, it’s not deep enough. My baking dish is 33 x 22 x 7 cm / 9 x 13 x 2.75″.

How to make Pastitsio

The next steps, along with some tips I figured out through trial and error:

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  1. Pasta direction – Lay out the pasta so they are (mostly) in one direction if you want the visual effect of the pasta holes when you cut it, as pictured in the photos in this post;
  2. Cool meat sauce – A cool meat sauce will make the layers more distinct. Because it’s thicker and more emulsified, it sits on top of the pasta rather than seeping down through it. It also provides a firmer bed onto which the Pastitsio white sauce is poured, helping that layer also stay distinct;
  3. White Sauce – Pour over and spread. If your white sauce cooled down and is too thick to pour, just reheat gently on a low stove until it’s pourable;
  4. Grate over Kefalotyri (or parmesan if you can’t find it) – then bake until the top is golden; and
  5. Rest for 15 minutes before cutting to serve. The longer it stands, the better it will hold its shape when cut. If you want really neat slices, make it the day before – reheat in the baking dish then cut!
Close up of fork eating Pastitsio (Greek pasta bake)

What to serve with Pastitsio

I can’t think of anything more appropriate than a big, fat juicy Greek Salad on the side! This traditional salad is a lovely, refreshing contrast to the richness of Pastitsio.

But here are a few more side salads that I think will also go really well with Pastitsio:

Enjoy! – Nagi x

Watch how to make it

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Close up picking up a slice of Pastitsio - Greek Pasta Bake

Pastitsio (Greek Pasta Bake)

Servings8 – 10 people

Tap or hover to scale

Recipe video above. Greece’s answer to Italian Lasagna! This traditional Greek dish is made with layers of pasta topped with a rich meat sauce perfumed with a hint of cinnamon and clove, topped with a thick layer of cheese sauce.For the neat layers pictured, arrange the pasta so they’re all going in one direction, and rest the baked Pastitsio for 15 minutes before slicing. Excellent for making ahead (keeps for 4 to 5 days in the fridge) and freezes very well!


Meat Sauce:

  • Heat in a large pot over high heat. Add garlic and onion, cook for 2 – 3 minutes until onion is softened. Add beef and cook, breaking it up as you go, until it changes from red to brown.

  • Add wine and and cook until the wine has mostly evaporated – about 3 minutes.

  • Add remaining Meat Sauce ingredients. Stir well, bring to simmer, then reduce heat to medium / medium low so it’s simmering gently. Cook for 45 min to 1 hour until liquid is mostly gone, stirring every now and then. It should be a thick mixture with little liquid, not saucy like Spaghetti Bolognese (Note 4).

  • Remove from stove and cool. Preferably to room temperature, otherwise for at least 30 minutes before assembling (lid off).

Greek Béchamel (Note 5):

  • Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir for 1 minute.

  • While stirring, slowly pour half the milk in. It should turn into a wet paste. Then again, while stirring, pour in remaining milk – the paste should easily dissolve so it’s lump-free. If not, just whisk vigorously.

  • Cook, stirring so the base doesn’t catch, for 5 minutes or until thick enough so it coats the back of a wooden spoon thickly and you can draw a path across it with your finger.

  • Remove from stove. Stir in nutmeg, cheese and salt.

  • Leave to cool for 5 minutes. Then whisk in egg yolks quickly. Place lid on and set aside. If sauce cools and gets too thick to pour, just reheat on a low stove until pourable.

Pasta (Note 6):

  • When you’re ready to assemble, cook the pasta per packet instructions, minus 1 minute.

  • Drain, then return to the pot. Leave to cool for 3 minutes, then stir through egg whites. Gently stir through crumbled feta.

Assemble and bake:

  • Preheat oven to 180°C/350°F (all oven types).

  • Place pasta in a baking dish (33 x 22 x 7 cm / 9 x 13 x 2.75″), arranging them so they are all going in the same direction as best you can (for visual effect when sliced). Make the surface as level as you can.

  • Top with Meat Sauce, then smooth the surface.

  • Pour over Béchamel Sauce, then sprinkle over the cheese.

  • Bake 30 min or until crust turns golden.

  • Cool for at least 10 minutes so you can cut neat slices with tdhe layers neatly visible. Serve!

Recipe Notes:

1. Red wine – any dry red wine is fine here. If you can’t consume alcohol, substitute with liquid beef or chicken stock/broth.
2. Kefalotyri Greek cheese – a Greek sheep or goat’s milk cheese, similar to Parmesan but not as salty. Substitute with Parmesan or Romano cheese.
3. Pasta for Pastitsio – the traditional pasta is a thick tubular pasta called “Pastitsio No 2 pasta”, sometimes also referred to as Greek bucatini. It is thicker than Italian bucatini (tubular pasta). See in post for close-up photos. Find it at European/Greek delis. Substitute with small penne or ziti, or normal Italian bucatini for a similar look. Otherwise, any pasta is fine!
4. Thickness of meat sauce – you want it very thick with barely any sauce in order to achieve the neat layers that you see pictured in post. If it’s too loose, it will run down into the pasta and discolour it, as well as making the pasta slippery so it doesn’t hold together when you slice it. But even if your slices don’t cut as neatly as pictured, it doesn’t affect flavour!
5. Greek Béchamel – thicker than the cheese sauce used to top Italian lasagna both in consistency and thickness of the layer. The egg yolks help it set more when baked so it doesn’t ooze when you cut a slice.
6. Tossing pasta with egg whites – the purpose of the egg whites is to help the pasta set better so you can cut neat slices with distinct layers. Do this just before assembling so the egg whites don’t dry out before baking.
7. Storage and make ahead – cooked Pastitsio keeps perfectly in the fridge for 4 to 5 days, or freezer for 3 months (thaw then reheat covered in oven).
8. Nutrition per serving, assuming 8 (big!) servings.

Nutrition Information:

Calories: 597cal (30%)Carbohydrates: 48g (16%)Protein: 35g (70%)Fat: 28g (43%)Saturated Fat: 13g (81%)Trans Fat: 1gCholesterol: 137mg (46%)Sodium: 1062mg (46%)Potassium: 786mg (22%)Fiber: 4g (17%)Sugar: 7g (8%)Vitamin A: 651IU (13%)Vitamin C: 10mg (12%)Calcium: 250mg (25%)Iron: 5mg (28%)

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