Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes, one ingredient at a time.
What's in a Name?
Pastitsio—some people refer to it as Greece’s answer to Italian lasagna. There’s only one problem with that thought. Despite what you might find with a Google search or in your favorite dictionary, pastitsio isn’t entirely Greek. One might say that it’s Greek with an Italian accent and a French attitude. There is one person responsible for this; his name is Tselementes, the man who so greatly influenced Greek cuisine that in Greece his name is synonymous with “cookbook.”
"David Schneider, owner of the restaurant Taxim, knows it won't be easy to change entrenched ideas about what a Greek restaurant should be. 'I've had people actually say, You need more blue and white. This place doesn't feel Greek enough. Likewise, there's an orthodoxy about how to make a dish.' If a single figure could be blamed for that orthodoxy—the one that upholds the ideal of Greek food as bechamel-blanketed pastichio—it would be European-trained Greek chef Nicholas Tselementes."
—Omnivorous: Greek Revival, Mike Sula, May 7, 2009, The Daily Reader, Chicago
The Original "Master Chef" of Greece
Our story begins on the Greek island of Sifnos, on the east coast is the village of Exámbela. The terraced landscape is a mélange of white-washed houses; their glistening doors and shutters match the azure blue of the Aegean Sea. It is here in 1878 that Nikolaus Tselementes was born. As a youth, he started cooking at Aktaion, the family restaurant in the Neo Faliro quarter of Athens. At the age of 19, he endured a brief stint in the army and then a short-lived assignment as a clerk for a notary. But in his heart of hearts, he recognized that cooking was not just in his blood, it was his passion. He relocated to Vienna, Austria, and there spent one year at a culinary institute.
Tselementes then returned to Athens and was hired as a professional chef for several international embassies. He rubbed elbows, as they say, with the rich and famous of Cairo and Istanbul, and satisfying those tastes further influenced his palate. However (if you will pardon the pun) he was hungry for more. In 1919 he traveled to the United States where he studied at Columbia University while working at a succession of successful, fine dining establishments, including the St. Moritz Hotel in midtown Manhattan, New York City.
One year later he published a 500-page cookbook, Cooking and Patisserie Guide. Tselementes felt the culinary traditions of his country were too heavily influenced by the cuisine of Turkey. As a result, he reformulated recipes for classic and comforting Greek dishes, eschewing herbs and olive oil and replacing them with cream, butter, and an abundance of béchamel.
Pastitsio Has an Italian Cousin
Tselementes didn’t invent pastitsio; it is likely that the original, ancient pastitsio was influenced by a recipe that dates to the 16th century. Pasticcio di Maccheroni was a creation for the Grand Duchy of Ferrara that was wildly popular with Italian nobility. During that time, the Balkans and the Greek coastal regions were occupied by the Republic of Venice—why would they not have brought their favorite dishes with them? It was this concept to which Tselementes wanted to return.
"Many chefs tried to imitate his techniques in an attempt to attract an international audience. While for some, he is almost a God-like figure . . . others hold him responsible for diluting and corrupting traditional Greek cooking, creating a class-based system where his French-influenced creations were for the affluent classes and traditional simple Greek cooking was more for the lower class. Few do not recognize this name that has today become synonymous with Greek food."
Disdained by Some, but Loved by Many More
In 1932 Tselementes returned to his home in Sifnos and opened a small cooking school, sharing not only his recipes and cooking techniques, but also advice on nutrition, organization, and household management. The school offered 20-lesson courses for beginning, intermediate, and advanced students. When electric stoves appeared in Greece for the first time, the manufacturer hired Tselementes to give cooking demonstrations to introduce wood- and charcoal-stove cooks to the modern concept of electricity.
He lived a simple life, frequently offering instruction and advice without asking for compensation. The oldest of the island’s residents still remember him as the man who cooked for them when they were hungry children during World War II.
Every year in the month of September, a three-day “Cycladic Gastronomy Festival” that bears his name is held in Sifnos. Each island of the Cyclades has its own booth where amateur and professional cooks prepare and present recipes that showcase their local foods. The festival is open to the public—entrance is free, and so is the food.
“In one of his rare newspaper interviews—parts of which were repeated in his obituary—when asked what he loved most, Tselementes replied: ‘My wife, cooking and music.’ When asked to explain the connection between cooking and music, he gave the poetic answer: ‘The smell of a dish, is what the sound of music is for the ears.’”
—Cooks & Other People: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1995, by Harlan Walker, September 1, 1996
The Three Main Components of Pastitsio
Of course, there is pasta, but not just any kind of pasta. Put away the spaghetti, the angel hair, spaetzle, egg noodles, and even your fancy orecchiette. Forget about farfalle, fettuccine, and fusilli. For this dish, you will need a tube-shaped pasta. If you are fortunate to have a deli or specialty food store nearby you might actually find a type of pasta named "pastitsio." But if not, do not despair. These work just as well.
Pasta al ceppo
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2. Meat Sauce
One might assume that a meat and pasta dish made in Greece would contain ground lamb; not so of pastitsio. Here ground beef delivers just the right level of umami flavor without overpowering the rich tomato base or the creamy white sauce.
3. Béchamel Sauce
Of the five mother sauces, this is indeed the simplest, and an easy one for the beginner. Only three ingredients are required—milk, flour, and butter. The key to success in the creation of this sauce is preparing the roux (rhymes with Winnie the Pooh). The sauce for pastitsio is embellished (just a little) with the addition of eggs.
For the pasta layer:
- 1/2 pound pastitsio (or similar tube-shaped pasta)
- 2 teaspoons Kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons softened unsalted butter
- 1 cup Kefalotiri cheese, grated (may substitute Asiago or Pecorino Romano), divided
For the meat sauce layer:
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 1/2 pounds lean ground beef
- 2 cloves garlic, minced (about 1 1/2 teaspoons)
- 1 small onion, grated or finely diced (about 1/2 cup)
- 1 small carrot, peeled and grated (about 1/2 cup)
- 1/4 cup dry red wine (not cooking wine)
- 1 (15-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
- 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1 bay leaf
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the béchamel sauce layer:
- 2 1/2 cups milk
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (not pre-shredded)
- 1/2 teaspoon table salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
For the pasta layer:
- Prepare your baking dish by coating the bottom with a drizzle of olive oil. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Add the salt and then the pasta, stirring constantly for the first minute to prevent clumping.
- Cook pasta according to package directions until al dente. Drain, rinse gently with warm water, drain again, and stir in the softened butter and 1/2 cup of the cheese. (Reserve the remaining cheese).
- Place the pasta/cheese mixture in the bottom of the prepared baking dish.
For the meat sauce layer:
- Heat the olive oil in a stockpot over medium heat. Add the beef and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned. While stirring, break up the meat into small chunks.
- Add the garlic, onion, and carrot. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the vegetables are softened. Add the wine and bring to a simmer. Next, add the tomatoes, sugar, balsamic, cinnamon, and bay leaf.
- Bring mixture to a boil; when boiling, reduce heat to a simmer, cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove bay leaf and set sauce aside. Taste for seasoning (you might want to add salt and pepper).
- Carefully spread the meat layer over the pasta in the pan.
For the béchamel sauce layer:
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Heat the milk in a microwave-safe liquid measuring cup for 1 minute. Whisk in the egg; set aside.
- Melt the butter in a medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until the flour is completely absorbed by the melted butter and there are no lumps—about 1 minute.
- Slowly stir in the warmed milk/egg mixture, whisking constantly so that no lumps form. Continue to cook, stirring, until the sauce thickens. This should take about 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Stir in the Parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg.
- Gently spread the sauce over the meat layer in the pan. Top with the remaining Kefalotiri cheese.
- Bake in preheated oven for 1 hour. Allow to sit for 10-15 minutes before serving.
- Philos Kitchen
- Encyclopedia of Kitchen History, Mary Ellen Snodgrass
- Neos Kosmos
- The Independent UK
- Chicago Reader
- Greek City Times
- The Spruce Eats
- Cooks & Other People: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1995, by Harlan Walker, September 1, 1996
© 2021 Linda Lum