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for the cheese lovers

Recipe: pastitsio

Just this past weekend, I was walking through Whole Foods with one of my besties from high school (she was in town for a conference) when Emily said, “I could give up meat in an instant, but I could never give up cheese.” I smiled because I have several friends who are bona fide cheese fiends. It’s quite the accomplishment that I can eat Gruyère, but that is about as exotic as I get… which I realize isn’t terribly exotic at all. Still, when presented with the opportunity to receive a review copy of Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, I could not wait to crack it open.

224 pages of cheesy goodness

Stephanie and Garrett – two incredibly talented individuals – are the masterminds behind the book (Garrett is one of my favorite food writers). They teamed up to present countless hours of research and recipe development in this glorious collection of all things pasta, cheese, and more cheese. As I stated before, I am not a cheese person, but found myself mesmerized by Matt Armendariz’ seductive photos of melty cheese and pasta. After perusing fresh salads, creamy stovetop dishes, hearty mains, and sweet recipes, I settled on pastitsio for my test drive. Hot casserole-style dishes are especially welcome during our Arctic cold snap in the Rockies.

the meat sauce: tomato paste, canned tomatoes, olive oil, white wine, salt, ground lamb, pepper, oregano, bay leaves, rosemary, cinnamon, allspice, garlic, onion

for the pasta and mornay sauce: olive oil, milk, penne, pecorino romano, butter, eggs, salt, flour, pepper

The recipe calls for Kefalotyri, which I could not find, so I used the recommended substitution of Pecorino Romano. That’s another nice thing about this book. Even though I know zip about cheeses, Stephanie and Garrett introduce the reader to new and exciting varieties while offering more common cousins in case you can’t source the original. Other than the cheese, all of the other ingredients are easy enough to find. Oh wait, except bucatini – I couldn’t find that either and opted for penne, a pasta for which I have strong affections.

start the meat sauce: add browned ground lamb to sautéed onions and garlic

add wine, spices, tomato paste

pour in the canned tomatoes

simmer it down for 30 minutes

I deviated a little bit from their recipe, browning the lamb first and draining off all of the fat (there was a lot). The sauce smells heavenly as it simmers on the stove. And definitely let most of the liquid boil off so you don’t wind up with a runny pastitsio. While the sauce becomes saucy, you can work on the other parts of the dish. I should warn you now, if you were hoping to get away with minimal dishes, this may not be the recipe for you. I made an ass ton of dirty dishes. Ass. Ton.

ready the pasta: penne, olive oil, pepper, egg whites, grated cheese, salt

whip the whites to soft peaks (this is a little more than soft peaks)

Cook the pasta just shy of al dente. The recipe suggests 3/4 of the recommended cooking time on your pasta’s package. This ensures that you won’t have soggy noodles in the final dish, but it also means the noodles won’t be as fragile when you toss or manipulate them. It makes for prettier presentation too.

toss the pasta with olive oil

gently mix the pasta with egg whites and cheese

season with salt and pepper

and the sauce should be ready (remove the bay leaves)

When the sauce is ready, remove the bay leaves and prepare the mornay sauce. The mornay sauce starts with a roux and hot milk is whisked in to form a thickened creamy sauce. Then egg yolks are tempered and added back to the sauce to give it some custardy goodness. The last step is to stir in a boatload of cheese. It’s a lot of cheese. Maybe too much for my taste, but probably heaven for proper cheese lovers.

heat the milk

whisk flour into the hot butter and stir until the roux turns brown

whisk in hot milk

The purpose of tempering egg yolks is to avoid curdling the yolks. We often do this for custards, especially if you make a lot of custard-based ice creams. Plopping an egg into a large body of hot liquid is going to cook that egg pretty quickly. That isn’t what we want when we make custards or want egg yolks to thicken a sauce. By adding a little bit of the hot liquid to the yolks and whisking it in quickly, we bring the temperature of the yolks up gradually without shocking the proteins. Add a little more liquid and again, you raise the temperature gradually. Usually after the second addition, the temperature is close enough to the sauce that you can safely add the egg mixture to the pan and stir it in without curdling. Nifty. Stirring over gentle heat should result in a smooth, thicker sauce.

tempering the yolks with a little hot milk mixture

whisk the tempered yolks back into the saucepan

stir the cheese into the sauce once it has thickened

The assembly is easy as long as you have the patience to line your pasta up. I imagine it would be far faster with bucatini than penne, but it’s worth the effort for the pretty. Layer half of the pasta on the bottom of the baking dish. The meat sauce goes over the pasta, then a final layer of pasta on top of the sauce. Finish layering with the mornay sauce. I had more mornay sauce than would fit in my baking dish, so I recommend an extra deep baking dish or perhaps a slightly larger pan. It still turned out great. And definitely set your pan on a foil-lined baking sheet to catch the juicy drips that will invariably bubble over in the oven.

layer the penne

gently spread the sauce over the pasta

layer more pasta on the meat sauce, then cover with the mornay sauce

sprinkle cheese on top


In the end, we enjoyed this wholly satisfying cheesy twist on a Greek classic. I’m glad that I couldn’t use all of my mornay sauce because I felt (for my amateur cheese tastes) that it was a tad strong for my liking. The reduced amount of sauce was more than sufficient. Perhaps in the future, I’ll use less cheese in the mornay sauce (because I’m a cheese wimp). Still, this is a lovely, hearty meal that is perfect on a chilly evening. And if you have a cheese loving cook in your life, this book would make a fantastic gift.

delectable layers: comfort food at its best

I received a free review copy of Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese from Little, Brown and Company with no obligation. My thoughts. My words.

[print recipe]
from Melt: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese by Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord

2 tbsps olive oil
1 1/4 lbs. ground lamb
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
14 oz. crushed tomatoes
4 tbsps tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp fresh oregano, chopped
1/4 tsp fresh rosemary, chopped
1 large or 2 small bay leaves
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

2 egg whites
12 oz. bucatini or penne
1 tsp olive oil
4 oz. grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/4 tsp black pepper, freshly ground

mornay sauce
2 egg yolks
3 cups whole milk
3 tbsps butter
3 tbsps flour
10 oz. grated Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano
1/4 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp black pepper

Make the meat sauce: Brown the lamb in a large saucepan or stockpot over high heat. Drain the fat and reserve the lamb in a bowl. Heat the olive oil in the same pan over medium heat and sauté the onions until soft. Add the garlic and sauté for a minute. Add the lamb, tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, cinnamon, allspice, oregano, rosemary, bay leave(s), salt, and pepper. Stir everything together. When the sauce comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer the sauce for 30 minutes. Stir occasionally until most of the liquid has simmered away. Remove the bay leaves.

Prepare the pasta: Whisk the egg whites to soft peaks (should just hold its shape, but will fall back on itself rather than stand upright like stiff peaks). Cook the pasta according to the package instructions, but only cook for 75% of the suggested cooking time (because it will cook some more in the oven). Drain the pasta. If you are using bucatini, cut the noodles so they are 8-inches long (or the length of your baking dish). Return the pasta to the pot. Add a teaspoon of olive oil and toss with the pasta, then let the pasta rest for a minute. Add the egg whites and 4 ounces of grated cheese. Toss well, season with salt and pepper.

Make the mornay sauce: You can make this sauce while the pasta is cooking. Beat the egg yolks in a medium bowl. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. Turn off the heat when the milk just starts to boil at the edges. Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the flour and whisk or stir until the roux takes on a light brown color, making sure to scrape the bottom to avoid burning. This should take about 3 minutes. Slowly stir the milk into the roux and continue stirring until the sauce takes on a nappe consistency (should be able to drag a clear line across the back of a spoon). Remove the pan from heat. Temper the yolks by whisking 1/4 cup of the hot sauce into the beaten egg yolks, whisking quickly to avoid curdling the eggs. Whisk another 1/4 cup of the sauce into the egg yolks. Whisk the egg yolk mixture back into the saucepan until incorporated. Reserve 1/2 cup of the grated cheese and set aside. Stir the rest of the grated cheese into the sauce until melted. Season with salt and pepper.

Assemble the pastitsio: Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease the bottom and sides of a deep 8×8-inch baking dish (mine was 9×9-inch) with olive oil. Give the pasta a stir and pour half of it into the baking dish. Smooth the pasta out so that they are parallel and cover the surface area of the dish. Gently spread the meat sauce over the pasta to completely cover the noodles. Spread the rest of the pasta over the meat sauce, arranging the pasta like the first layer and covering the meat sauce layer. Pour the mornay sauce over the pasta, making sure to cover every surface. I did not use all of my mornay sauce because my dish was not deep enough to accommodate everything. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the sauce. Set the baking dish on foil-lined baking sheet to catch drips and overflows during baking. Bake for 30 minutes until the cheese on top is golden. Let cool for 30 minutes before serving or refrigerate overnight and reheat in a 225°F oven for 30-45 minutes or until bubbly. Serves 6.

more goodness from the use real butter archives

mac and cheese (two ways) fondue greek beef/chicken salad with tahini-yogurt dressing lasagne (db)

15 nibbles at “for the cheese lovers”

  1. Eva @ Eva Bakes says:

    Pastitsio is my favorite Greek dish but I’ve been too scared to attempt it. After reading your post, it actually seems do-able and something that I might try soon. Thank you!

  2. Garrett says:

    Oh my gosh, thank you so much for the sweet and kind review. (And, also, mad props for the dutiful layers of the penne. I would have just gone with the throw-n-go method.) I’m ecstatic that you enjoy the book and pastitsio recipe.

    Also, you’re one of my favorite writers. You don’t mince words ever. You just say it like it is, regardless of anything, and that’s appreciated in a world where so many writers are so guarded about what they say (which, one would think, is the opposite of a good writer).


  3. Rocky Mountain Woman says:

    that book is on my wish list and this recipe is why…

  4. Christine says:

    I made pastitsio only once – using a riff on Ina’s recipe. No whipped egg whites, and the bechamel was thicker on top and I added some Greek yogurt per some other online recipes I found which made it zippier. I also changed Ina’s sauce by decreasing the spices since 1 T of cinnamon seemed like an awful lot to me, and my husband isn’t the biggest cinnamon fan to begin with. OH and there you mix the sauce and pasta together instead of having it lie in the middle and while I used ziti I sure didn’t line it up because I’m not that motivated. It’s a faster, less cheesy dish than this one but plenty delicious. I’ll have to give this one a try some time.

  5. Christine says:

    ETA – also, I left the bechamel as is and didn’t mix any of it with the sauce or vise versa – I wanted the thick cap of creamy bechamel.

  6. Stephanie says:

    This is awesome, Jen! Made my day. :)

  7. Tieghan says:

    This book has been on my list for too long!! I must get it, but in the meantime I will be making this. It looks incredinle!

  8. Elizabeth says:

    Your photography is beautiful — the book’s on my list, but your photo of the pasta lined up in rows convinced me to buy it! I already know I’ll throw my pasta in the baking dish, helter-skelter — but I’ll always remember the beauty of the dish, as it could be. LOL!

  9. Lene says:

    Jen, your photos are gorgeous.
    Have made this – and it´s absolutely yummy :-)
    So right for this time of the year, where extra fuel is needed to keep warm.

  10. Samantha says:

    Jen! What a work of Art! I wish I was Jeremy! or your sister who lives next door! Tasting through your photos, yummy!

  11. Joyce says:

    hi Jen!!

    You know pastichio is my absolute favorite! This looks delicious. Thank you for the share. Happy Holidays to you and loved ones :)

    xoxoxo, always


  12. Becky says:

    Jen, I have been reading food blogs for several years now. As a non-cheese lover, I do not recall a single blogger who does not enjoy things drenched and baked and dipped and sauced with cheese. I appreciate cheese and am fine about others enjoying it. It just so happens to not be my thing. I’m not much into pasta either. Athough, if I were to try a cheesy pasta meal, this one you have made here would definitely be a tasty one to try. Much love and peace to you this Christmas. I really enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your life and the beautiful meals you prepare. :)

  13. jenyu says:

    Eva – it’s actually pretty straightforward! I didn’t think it would be (which was why it took me so long to try making it myself!)

    Garrett – you are such a dear, and I am so proud of you and Stephanie for this glorious book you have created! Big smooches!! xo

    Rocky Mountain Woman – just wait until you see the rest of the recipes!

    Christine – the beauty of cooking is that we can decide how we want to make a dish until it becomes our own :)

    Stephanie – congratulations, sweetie!! Absolutely lovely book. Super proud of you and Garrett xoxo

    Tieghan – it’s pretty insane, but all of the recipes in the book are just beautiful – I hope you get it!

    Elizabeth – ha ha, I think your taste buds and stomach will forgive you the lining up of the pasta ;)

    Lene – wonderful!

    Samantha – :)

    Joyce – Hi sweetie! I think you meant to comment on the other post, but regardless – you’re welcome :) xo

    Becky – I am not a huge cheese fan, but I do share recipes on here that I think people might enjoy (or that my neighbors, friends, family have enjoyed). There are certainly more cheese-introductory recipes one can try if they aren’t big on cheese. I have plenty of those too ;)

  14. Kathryn McCool says:

    I bought the second edition of Melt at the NY ACI last year and was browsing through it when I came upon this recipe for Pastitsio. I used to get the dish when I lived in the Detroit metro area and loved it! When I came across the menu it was an ah ha! moment. It turned out to be exactly like the one I used to get. It’s a fair amount of work and worth every minute and dirty pan it takes! The cookbook is fantastic!

  15. Kathryn McCool says:

    I found this recipe in the second edition cookbook Melt that I bought while at NY ACI last fall. I read it and it was an AH HA! moment. I used to get Pastitsio at a Middle Eastern restaurant in Dearborn years ago and never found anything like it in any cookbook ever. I made it last week end. It is exactly what I remembered. It’s a bit time consuming – a couple of hours with prep and it requires quite a few pots and pans. Worth it! I recommend the recipe and the cook book!

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