November is bookended by two incredible feasts. Thanksgiving is the obvious end-of-month celebration, but if you live in my hometown of Lancaster, you may very well have a quick answer for the first.
Since I was a child, the first full weekend of November has been synonymous with the Greek Food Bazaar. I’d accompany my dad to the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church on Hershey Avenue to pick up boxes filled with tender chicken, creamy pastitsio, stuffed grape leaves, Greek salad, and a roll.
A box of assorted pastries was the much-anticipated grand finale. My siblings and I deliberated over the deliciously sweet options with exotic names that we never remembered but always enjoyed.
Once married, I convinced my husband to skip the takeout line. Instead, we parked the car and joined the hundreds of people who opted to dine inside the church. That’s when I developed a true appreciation for the Greek Bazaar.
The massive undertaking is a multi-generational, family-wide effort that begins not long after the last of the previous years’ pots are scrubbed.
Church members work as a well-oiled machine, delivering hot, hearty meals that are as comforting as a favorite home-cooked meal but as uniquely delicious as fine dining. Mothers and grandmothers efficiently fill plates to the brim while fathers and grandfathers shuttle a constant stream of hot food from the kitchen to the serving tables. Children join the effort, too, serving a variety of drinks to the crowds that fill the long banquet tables and then clearing and resetting those tables for the next wave of hungry diners.
The months of preparation and cooking that precede the bazaar are staggering. In a conversation with an older volunteer a number of years ago, I was amazed to learn that the yiaprakia (a mixture of beef, rice, and spices rolled in tender grape leaves) preparation begins a full six months before the event with the collection of grape leaves from arbors around the county. Those leaves are then stacked, blanched, and frozen until a few days before the event, when a small army of helpers prepares more than 25,000 yiaprakia alone.
As a child, I remember playing at the house of one of my Greek friends while her mother made yiaprakia. She told me that her family was likely one of the few who grew grapes for the leaves, not the sweet fruit. As a child, I thought that was so funny.
Possibly my favorite part of the meal, however, is a dish that is often referred to as Greek lasagna. Traditional pastitsio (pronounced pa-STEE-tsee-oh) is comprised of three fundamental parts—pasta, meat filling, and creamy sauce. The components are layered in a pan and then baked to a bubbly, golden deliciousness.
Like lasagna, my version of the recipe is easy but requires a few pots. For added convenience, the pastitsio may be prepared in advance, and I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth a little extra dish washing! I’ve taken shortcuts where possible and have managed to keep the added fat to a minimum while maintaining the creamy decadence of the béchamel sauce.
To taste the mouthwatering original that inspired this recipe, you can visit the Greek Food Bazaar on November 7 or 8 at the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, 64 Hershey Avenue in Lancaster. Further information can be found on the church website. In addition to the food, there are tours of the church and displays of crafts, art, and jewelry.
- 8 ounces bucatini, ziti, or penne pasta*
- 6 tablespoons butter, divided use
- 2⁄3 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided use
- 2 1⁄3 cups milk, divided use (I use nonfat or 1%; 2% or whole may be used)
- 2 eggs, beaten but used separately
- 1 pound ground beef
- 1/2 a medium onion, finely chopped (between 1/2 and 3/4 cup)
- 1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 teaspoons minced fresh mint (or 3/4 teaspoon dried; may substitute an equal amount of oregano)
- 1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon**
- 1⁄8 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch or arrowroot powder* **
- Cook the pasta according to the package directions, keeping it on the al dente side. Drain and return to pot. Stir 2 tablespoons of the butter into the hot pasta, stirring to full melt. (Optionally, you may melt the butter first and then add it to the pot.) Stir in 1/3 cup of the Parmesan cheese, 1/3 cup of the milk, and 1 beaten egg. Set aside.
- In a large skillet, sauté the ground beef and onion until the meat is cooked through and the onion is soft. Break up the meat as you go, and then drain any excess fat from the pan. Stir in tomato sauce, salt, mint, cinnamon, and nutmeg. (If you taste the meat sauce now, it may seem a bit salty. Don’t worry. This will balance the unsalted components later.) Set aside.
- In a saucepan, melt the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter, and then mix in the cornstarch or arrowroot powder until smooth. Slowly add the remaining 2 cups of milk, stirring briskly as you pour so that no lumps form. Cook, stirring often, over medium-high heat until the sauce starts to thicken a bit. Cook and stir for another minute, and then remove the pan from the heat. Beat the second egg in a small bowl. Stir in a few spoonfuls of the white sauce to temper the egg (this will keep the egg from scrambling when you add it to the hot sauce), and then pour the egg mixture into the white sauce, stirring briskly. Stir in the remaining 1/3 cup of Parmesan.
- Add half the pasta mixture to an 11 x 7-inch baking dish or other 2-quart casserole. (I don’t grease the pan.) Spoon all of the meat mixture evenly over the pasta layer, and then top with the remaining pasta. Finally, pour the white sauce over the pasta to completely cover. (It’s fine if some of the noodle edges are sticking out.)
- Bake, uncovered, in an oven preheated to 350 degrees F. for about 30-40 minutes, or until hot and lightly browned. If desired, you may broil for a minute or two, watching closely, to add a little extra golden color to the top. Let the dish stand for 10 minutes, and then serve and enjoy.
- *I have also made this recipe with Delallo’s brown rice penne, which is an excellent whole grain and gluten-free pasta option.
- ** Some people shy away from adding spices like cinnamon and nutmeg to a savory dish. Rest assured, their presence is subtle and doesn’t add sweetness, but it does enhance the flavor and add an authentic note to the dish.
- ***As another option and if gluten is not a concern, you may use 1/4 cup of all-purpose flour in place of the cornstarch or arrowroot powder.