This year I spent Easter in my mom’s village. It’s a village with very few permanent residents – about 100 – but all the children, and grandchildren seem to come back during Easter. Not like twenty years ago, when I remember that the village felt alive every day of the year – with donkeys, tractors, waking you up every morning. Those days are gone.
And the decaying stone houses – my family’s included – are evidence that a return to the good ‘ol days, just isn”t around the corner.
Nonetheless, during Easter every year, a burst of energy fills the village. I arrived on the Friday morning, which is when the “epitafio” – a beautiful bed of flowers – is prepared.
On Friday morning, the church bell rang and people passed by the church, often with their children, to help put it together. On Saturday, the village became very full, with children and grandchildren making the trip to the village specifically to attend Saturday night church service . During the service on Saturday night, the lights were turned off and everyone lit a candle. Even if you are not religious, it is hard not to enjoy attending the very end of the Saturday service because the light is so pretty.
After service, we went home and enjoyed avgolemono soup. This is traditionally how peoples’ fasts are broken. Then on Sunday, the entire village smelled of charcoal. Families in the village were preparing “souvla” (traditionally goat, but now sheep, pork or chicken on a charcoal spit), and other meat dishes such “pastitsio” which is essentially a Cypriot type of lasagne. Which brings me to today’s recipe, one of my favourite Cypriot meat dishes. It’s layers of Mezzani (A) pasta, mixed pork mince, and bechamel sauce.
This recipe is a family favourite. Everyone has their own way of making “pastitsio”. Some prefer a light bechamel, some prefer a heavier one. Some add tomato, some don’t. There are many ways to make a good pastitsio, and though this isn’t the only way, it is certainly a tried and tested delicious way. The trickiest part of this recipe is making the bechamel sauce. I have tried to set out the instructions clearly below. Tips and tricks:, when making the bechamel sauce, it is important to continuously whisk and have the stove on low heat. When putting together the “pastitsio”, oil the pan before you begin filling it so that pieces come out easily. When making the bechamel sauce, use some of the reserved pasta water in your bechamel sauce to add a little bit more flavour to it.
Enjoy, any questions, just shoot in the comments below. I was very, very intimidated about making this dish. It’s only ever really brought out in our family, for large and important gatherings, so I was pretty nervous about trying to make it myself. But in reality, it’s just the intimidating (not-so-much-once-you-make-it-once) bechamel sauce! Enjoy!!
for the filling:
500g pork mince
1 diced onion
1 tsp Tomato Paste
1 heaped cup grated anari cheese (“anari” cheese is very similar to ricotta when freshly made. The “anari” cheese used here is dry, not fresh. If not in Cyprus, I suppose you could substitute it with the closest version of a dried ricotta cheese.)
500g (1 pack) Mezzani (A) Pasta
2 tbs chopped parsley
1 scant cup bread crumb mix (1/2 cup grated anari & 1/2 cup bread crumbs)
1/8 tsp cinnamon
chicken broth for boiling the pasta
olive oil or vegetable oil for frying and coating the pasta
for the bechamel sauce:
1 full cup vegetable oil
2 cups Village Flour
3 & 1/3 cups milk (before the mixture bubbles)
1/4 cup milk (after the mixture bubbles, but before the egg is added)
3/4 cup reserved chicken broth from boiling the pasta
1 egg well beaten
1/2 cup milk (after the egg is added)
1/4 cup grated anari cheese
1. Boil the pasta in chicken broth (or use a stock cube). Once cooked, but al-dente, drain the pasta (reserving 3/4 cup of the pasta water) and rinse the pasta in cold water. Place in a bowl and drizzle a little vegetable or olive oil on top so that the pasta does not stick. Set aside.
2. In a large pan over high heat, add 1 to 2 tbs olive or vegetable oil. Once hot, add the mince meat, onion, tomato paste, parsley and 1/8 tsp cinnamon. Once well cooked remove from the stove and drain the mixture so that there is no liquid left in the meat sauce.
3. Take a rectangular dish, and soak a paper towel in olive or vegetable oil. Rub the soaked paper towel around the dish, to lightly coat the dish in olive oil. Sprinkle a layer of the bread crumb mix to the bottom of the pan.
4. Prepare the bechamel sauce. On medium high heat, add the vegetable oil and 2 cups of Village flour. Constantly whisk the mixture, ensuring that there are no clumps of flour. Continue to whisk the mixture, slowly adding 3 & 1/3 cups of milk until it begins to bubble. (The mixture should resemble goop-y mashed potatoes.)
5. Continue to whisk, once the mixture bubbles, add 1/4 cup milk and 3/4 cup of the reserved pasta water. Continue to whisk the mixture and slowly add the beaten egg.
6. Continue to whisk the sauce, and add 1/2 cup milk and the 1/4 cup of anari.
7. Preheat the oven to 175C.
8. Assemble the “pastitsio”. Place two-thirds of the pasta on the bottom of the pan and press down on it to create as much of a flat surface as possible. Sprinkle half of the grated anari cheese on top of the pasta. Spread the meat sauce on top of the pasta. Spread a thin layer of bechamel sauce on top of the pasta and meat sauce. Place the remaining pasta on top of the mixture, again pressing down on it to create as much of a flat surface as possible. Sprinkle the remaining grated anari cheese on top of the pasta. Spread the remaining bechamel sauce on top of the pasta with a spatula so that it becomes level with the top of the dish. Sprinkle a thin layer of the breadcrumb-anari mixture on top.
9. Bake in the oven for about 1 hour, until the bechamel sauce begins to turn a golden brown. Once baked, remove from the oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.