Two big grand dishes of immense comfort, moussaka and pastitsio or basically the same: a kind of Greek lasagna, where spiced ground meat (or lentils, if you want to go vegetarian) is/are layered with either eggplant or pasta, then topped with a fluffy béchamel sauce that puffs up in the oven.
Of the 2, moussaka is closer to lasagna, given that it boasts 2 layers of eggplant. Patitsio is kinda like a heartier version of macaroni and cheese. You could even do a weird, unholy but tasty hybrid, having both eggplant and pasta layers, because…why not?
And while the steps look long, it’s pretty straightforward. Both the meat sauce and the Béchamel can be made in advance, and you can assemble either casserole in about 5 minutes, once you’ve either fried the eggplant or boiled the pasta.
I decided to deliver them both to you in the same post to demo how similar they are, and how you can kind of game day your decision, depending on what you like and/or are in the mood for—as well as if you happen to have eggplant on hand. Note the bold type at the beginning of each step to indicate if the step is for one or both dishes.
Moussaka Pastitsio: A Note on the Cheese
If you’re up for doing a little bit of extra work—namely, heading to a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean market—I highly recommend you track down kefalotiri cheese. It has a bunch of names that variations on the spelling, but man, it is awesome. Similar taste and texture-wise to halloumi, it makes this Béchamel and the rest of either taste taste rich and perfectly salty. Plus: Every Middle Eastern/Mediterranean market I’ve ever been to is staffed by delightful folks who are very happy to help you discover a lot of wonderful foods. Think about getting a jar of red pepper paste to sub for tomato paste.
- Moussaka Pastitsio: meat or lentil sauce: Heat a big pan. Pour in some oil when the pan is hot. When the oil is hot, brown chopped onion and minced garlic, a good amount either way. Add half pound of ground meat (or raw lentils in half the amount), and stir til meat is brown or lentils are fully incorporated with the onions. Add dried oregano, a good hit of salt, pepper, a can of crushed tomatoes, a healthy spoon of tomato paste, and about a quarter cup of broth. Let simmer about 20 minutes. Season with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves and cook one more minute, then check to see if it needs more salt an pepper. Cool to room temp; you can make this a day ahead if you like. When the mix is at room temp, add in one beaten egg.
- Moussaka Pastitsio: Béchamel: For each 1/2 pound of meat or lentils you used, you want to whisk 2 tablespoons of whole milk with 1 egg yolk. Then melt 2 tablespoons of butter and whisk in flour until it’s smooth and bubbly. Gradually whisk in just under 1 cup of milk (the recipe uses one cup, so less 2 tablespoons), 1/4 teaspoon of salt, a pinch each of nutmeg and allspice, and then simmer it. Take the heat back down to low, and simmer while whisking until the sauce is nice and thick. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the egg yolk and 1/3 cup grated kefalotiri or Parmesan. You can now put it back very low heat, whisking for another couple of minutes. Taste to see if it needs more salt and pepper, and set it aside. You can also make this a day ahead.
- Pastitsio: Boil some pasta in salted water until al dente. Once again, you can do this a day ahead. Keep pasta covered and toss with a little oil before you store it.
- Moussaka: slice your peeled eggplant into half-inch crosswise slices. Sprinkle with salt. Line a cookie sheet with towels (paper or otherwise), lay the slices on top, and then weight them down with something heavy and flat, maybe a platter or big casserole. Let them sit like that for 20 minutes.
- Moussaka: Clean out your pan, or use a new one. Put some flour on a plate—gluten free is fine, especially chickpea flour. Season with salt and pepper. Pat the pressed eggplant slices dry, then dip them in the flour, shaking off any excess. Heat the pan, then heat a good 1/2 inch of oil. Make sure the oil is hot before you add the eggplant slices one at a time. You want them to brown up, but watch them carefully. A minute on each side should do the trick. Remove to drain on paper towels.
- Moussaka assembly: Heat your oven to 325º. Put down a layer of half the eggplant, sprinkle with more grated cheese, add the filling. Top with the rest of the eggplant and more cheese. Pour on the bechamel, and sprinkle with a little more cheese. Bake 30 minutes, then increase heat to 400º and bake 15 minutes longer, for a golden brown top. Moussaka should rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.
- Pastitsio assembly: Heat your oven to 325º. Place pasta in bottom of casserole. Add meat on top. Sprinkle on grated cheese, then pour on béchamel and sprinkle with additional cheese. Bake 30 minutes, then increase heat to 400º and bake 15 minutes longer, for a golden brown top. Pastitsio should rest for 5-10 minutes before serving. Serve with steamed green beans on the side. Greek Salad and Spanikopita are great go-withs.