This is what I make when I crave comfort food.
Pastitso (pronounced pa-steets-zo) instantly takes me back to the happiness of childhood, family holidays, and special occasions. Christmas dinner at my Aunt Stella’s house wouldn’t be complete without a BIG pan of pastitso; cinnamon simmering with meat still smells exactly like Christmas to me today. As I’ve gotten older, pastitso is what I choose to prepare when I want to celebrate an occasion or put in a little extra effort for Sunday dinner. I made a pan over the weekend to celebrate the closing of my Ya-ya’s new home in Michigan. We are so happy she moved closer to us, and pastitso seemed like the perfect housewarming dinner!
My family’s version of pastitso uses ground beef, elbow noodles, and lots and lots of cinnamon. It may sound odd to use cinnamon in a savory dish, but without cinnamon it just wouldn’t be pastitso! We aren’t talking a sprinkle of cinnamon either…I use a good 2-3 tbsp. of the stuff. The original recipe card just says “cinnamon” and for years I never knew how much to put in. When consulting with family they would say “until it tastes right” or “until the sauce is darker”. After many, many batches I finally settled on 2-3 tbsp. but still add an extra sprinkle or two…just in case. Sometimes family heirloom recipes rely more on taste and feel than on measurements, and that is fine by me! A few years ago Ina Garten featured pastitso in an episode of her cooking show and I jumped for joy that someone else actually knew what it was! Her version is probably truer to tradition, but I am partial to my family’s way of making it. As I imagine most people would be.
This recipe is so much more than food to me, it is love.
- 1 lb. (16 oz.) elbow noodles, cooked
- 1 lb. ground beef
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
- 15. oz can diced tomatoes
- 2-3 tbsp. ground cinnamon (maybe a little more)
- 2 c. shredded mozzarella cheese
- 2 eggs, beaten
- salt/pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook pasta according to package directions. Drain and set aside. While noodles are cooking, prepare the meat sauce.
Brown the ground beef, breaking it up into small pieces with a wooden spoon. Add onion to the ground beef and cook until tender, approximately 8-10 minutes. Drain and discard excess fat from the meat mixture then season with salt and pepper. Add 2-3 tbsp. ground cinnamon and stir to combine.
Add crushed tomatoes and diced tomatoes (do not drain); stir well. At this point the sauce should be thick and darker in color (from the cinnamon). Bring the sauce to a simmer and taste for seasoning. If you cannot taste a distinct cinnamon flavor add a teaspoon or so more. It is important to be able to taste the cinnamon after the noodles and other ingredients are added. Season with additional salt/pepper, if needed.
Time to make the casserole! In a large casserole dish (I typically use an 11 x 17 in.) spread half of the cooked elbow noodles.
Spoon the meat sauce on top of the noodles and spread into an even layer.
Distribute the other half of the noodles on top of the meat mixture.
Cover with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese, and then drizzle the beaten eggs over all. The mozzarella and the egg bind together to form the most delectable crust imaginable…by far my favorite part of pastitso!
Cover the casserole dish with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour; at this point the house will smell heavenly! Remove the foil and bake for an additional 10 minutes until the top is golden. Remove from the oven and let stand 5 minutes before slicing and serving. I usually serve simple green salad to round out the meal.
Pastitso is also amazing reheated in lunches the next day, the flavors intensify overnight. This is definitely the warm, fall dish you have been looking for. Enjoy!