The Best Thing She Ever Ate

About one month ago, I received a very special email from a stranger whom I now consider a loyal friend.  She found me through my website and took the time to write. And what did she say?

Chef Gold: I am fairly sure the subject dish featured in a recent Bon Appetit is not only the best thing I have ever made (in +40 years of cooking), it may be the best thing I've ever eaten. Bravo!

It made me smile. I'm still smiling and decided to share this recipe with you. It originally appeared in the March issue of Bon Appetit in an article I wrote about baked pastas. It is a riff on the Greek dish "Pastistio." According to Peter Minakis who writes a web-column called "Greek Food & Beyond," pastistio is the Greek form of the Italian word pasticcio, which means hodgepodge (among other things).  It is simply a baked pasta dish whose three components include: the pasta (often bucatini), a meat sauce (a classic Bolognese finished with a pinch of cinnamon-- a must), and bechamel (a thick creamy sauce made from butter, flour, milk, eggs and cheese.)

Like the traditional Greek pastistio, my version has a bit of cinnamon in it, but I ramp up the flavors with the addition of ras el hanout (an aromatic spice blend popular in Morocco), cumin, and dried mint -- a hallmark of many Moroccan dishes. This can be assembled and baked early in the day and reheated before serving. (Bake uncovered at 375 degrees for 18 minutes.) Try one of the terrific Greek wines (white or red) now available in many wine stores.

I raise a glass to Mary Bowler of Southfield, MI, for her lovely note. Keep in touch!

Morrocan-Inspired “Pastistio” with Spicy Lamb & Cinnamon

2 tablespoons olive oil 1 heaping cup finely diced red onion 2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped 1-1/2 tablespoons ras el hanout 1 tablespoon ground cumin 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1 pound ground lamb 28-ounces plum tomatoes in puree 2 tablespoons dried mint leaves 8 tablespoons unsalted butter 6 tablespoons flour 3 cups milk 6 ounces feta cheese, crumbled 3 eggs, separated 1  pound  penne rigate ½ cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

Heat oil in a very large skillet.  Add onions and garlic and cook over high heat 5 minutes until soft.  Add lamb and cook 5 minutes until just cooked through.  Add tomatoes, ras el hanout, cinnamon, mint, and all but 1/2 teaspoon cumin.  Bring to a boil, stirring, lower heat and simmer 20 minutes until thick.  Add salt and pepper to taste

Meanwhile, melt 6 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan over medium heat.  Whisk in flour, and cook until golden, about 5 minutes, stirring constantly.  Bring milk just to a boil in another saucepan.  Slowly add hot milk to flour mixture, whisking constantly until smooth.  Bring just to a boil, then simmer several minutes until thick.  Remove from heat.  Stir in feta, egg yolks and remaining cumin.   Whisk 1 minute until yolks “cook.”  Season with salt and pepper.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Add pasta and cook until just tender, about 12 minutes.  Drain pasta well and transfer to large bowl.  Add 2 tablespoons butter, egg whites and 1/4 cup grated parmesan.  Arrange 1/2 pasta in a deep 9-x-12 inch lasagna pan.  Spread the lamb sauce over pasta.  Top with remaining pasta and press firmly.  Spoon white sauce on top and sprinkle with remaining parmesan.    Bake 40 minutes until bubbly.   Serves 8