Pasticcio

Meat and Macaroni Pie from Syros

GREEKS love pasticcio, a dish of ground meat cooked with onions and tomatoes and mixed with macaroni, cheese and cream, topped with a thick layer of béchamel sauce and baked. Although its name is Italian (it means, literally, “a mess”), pasticcio as such does not exist in Italy, but its roots are in the elaborate old timbales—pastry-enrobed pasta, meat, vegetable and egg pies prepared there for special occasions.

I found this recipe in a marvelous book published in 1828 in Ermoupolis, the capital of Syros. Written by an unknown author, believed to be a doctor who had come to Syros from Asia Minor, the book was the first Greek-language cookbook, and it appeared just after the modern Greek state was established, at a time when Syros was one of the most important ports of the eastern Mediterranean. The book is full of translated Italian, English and French recipes, with some local additions, and it is obvious that the author either cooked himself or spent much time as an observer in the kitchen. The original recipe calls for chopped tender veal, some cured pork and bone marrow, which are simmered in meat stock spiced with pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, then mixed with cooked “Neapolitan macaroni” and prunes and cooked for a while longer. Lots of “cheese from Crete or from Parma” is added, together with butter, and the rich mixture is poured into a deep pan lined with a sheet of pastry dough, covered with a second sheet and baked until golden brown.

The “cheese from Parma” obviously means Parmigiano-Reggiano. The name may have been translated from the Italian recipe, or the cheese may have been readily available on the island. There is no tomato in this dish, since the book came out just when tomatoes were first becoming available in Greece.

“Be careful to send it to the table while still warm,” the author advises.

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Ingredients

Filling

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil or unsalted butter
  • ¼ pound bacon, diced
  • cups coarsely chopped onions
  • pounds ground lean veal or beef
  • 2–3 tablespoons bone marrow (optional; see Note)
  • 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper or pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
  • Salt
  • ½ cup sweet red wine, such as Mavrodaphne or sweet Marsala
  • 1 cup beef stock or Chicken Stock, or more if needed
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 15 pitted prunes, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 pound ziti
  • cups grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or grana cheese
  • 1 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese
  • 1 cup whole milk, or more if needed
  • 1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 17¼-ounce packages (3 sheets) frozen puff pastry, thawed according to the package instructions
  • About 3 tablespoons milk

Method

Make the Filling

In a large, deep lidded skillet, heat the oil or butter and sauté the bacon over medium-high heat until crisp, 3 to 4 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer to paper towels to drain. Add the onions to the skillet and sauté until soft, about 4 minutes. Add the veal or beef and sauté, stirring, until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Add the bone marrow (if using), pepper or pepper flakes and salt to taste and sauté for 1 minute. Add the wine and simmer for 30 seconds. Reduce the heat to low, add the stock and cinnamon sticks, cover and simmer for 10 minutes. The mixture should still be moist. Remove from the heat, discard the cinnamon sticks and stir in the prunes and the butter.

Meanwhile, cook the ziti in a large pot of boiling salted water until just slightly undercooked (2 minutes less than directed on the package). Drain.

Transfer the ziti to a large bowl and stir in the meat mixture, cheeses, milk, nutmeg and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust the seasonings. The mixture should be moist; if it is too dry, add a little more milk or stock.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Oil or butter a 13-x-9-inch baking dish.

Divide the puff pastry into 3 portions. Cover 1 piece with plastic wrap. Briefly knead the other 2 pieces together, then roll out on a lightly floured surface. Line the dish with the puff pastry, trimming it to a 1-inch overhang; reserve the trimmings. Add the filling and smooth it with a spatula. Roll the remaining puff pastry and stretch it to cover the pasticcio. Cut off some of the overhanging bottom pastry; reserve the scraps. Fold the overhanging bottom pastry over the top crust and pinch the edges together to seal, crimping them to make a neat cord around the edge of the pie. Flatten the cord with the tines of a fork to prevent it from sticking up, or it will burn during baking (see illustrations). Roll the remaining puff-pastry trimmings and cut ribbons. Brush the pie generously with the milk, decorate with the pastry ribbons and brush again with the milk.

Bake for 15 minutes, sprinkling the top of the pie 8 to 10 times with water. Bake for 10 minutes more, then reduce the oven temperature to 350°F and bake for 30 minutes more, or until golden brown. Check often, and if the pastry puffs up, prick it in several places with a knife. If the top browns too quickly, cover loosely with aluminum foil. Turn off the oven, but leave the pie in the oven for 10 minutes more.

Let the pie cool for 15 minutes on a rack, then serve.

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