Artichoke Pastitsio with Basil Béchamel (Παστίτσιο με Αγκινάρες και Κρέμα Βασιλικό)
Serves 12 as a main course or 24 as a side dish
Be sure to crush all the peppercorns; most eaters won’t want to bite into large peppercorn chunks. Though 2 tablespoons of crushed peppercorns sounds like a lot, it’s balanced by the mild pasta, cheese, and topping. (The original recipe for Raphael Sauce calls for a whopping 3 tablespoons of freshly crushed black peppercorns.) Don’t cut up the artichoke pieces, leaving them large protects the flavor of artichokes from being lost in the spicy sauce. Instead of small jars of marinated artichoke hearts, it’s more cost-effective to buy large jars.
3 6-ounce jars marinated artichoke hearts (or 24 artichoke pieces and 3/4 cup of marinade from a giant jar of artichokes)
4 cups diced yellow onions, 1/2” dice
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. Aleppo pepper or 1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
14.5-ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably fire-roasted
1 Tbsp. dried oregano, crushed
2 Tbsp. freshly crushed black peppercorns
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cups whole milk
3 ounces parmesan cheese, freshly grated
1 cup ricotta cheese, preferably whole milk
1 packed cup fresh basil leaves
1 pound Pastitsio pasta, small penne, or other hollow pasta
1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
Make the Sauce: Separate the artichoke pieces from the marinade. Remove as much oil from the marinade as possible; a fat separator makes this task easy. Discard the oil and reserve the rest of the marinade.
Sauté the onions, lightly seasoned with salt, in olive oil until the onions soften and start to turn golden. Add the Aleppo pepper and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the crushed tomatoes, diced tomatoes, oregano, and crushed black peppercorns, bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer uncovered for 30 minutes.
Add the reserved artichoke marinade and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add the artichoke pieces and simmer until the sauce is very thick, about 30 minutes. (The sauce may be made ahead to this point.)
Make the Béchamel: While the artichoke sauce is cooking, make the béchamel. Warm the milk over low heat or in the microwave; don’t bring the milk to a boil. Melt the butter in a large saucepan, thoroughly mix in the flour and cook for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Slowly stir in the warm milk and cook, stirring, until the sauce is smooth and the thickness of heavy cream. Season with salt to taste. Stir in the 3 ounces of freshly grated parmesan cheese and take the béchamel off the heat.
Measure out 1 1/2 cups of béchamel and set aside to mix into the pasta. Thoroughly mix the ricotta into the remaining 2 1/2 cups béchamel. In a blender or food processor, purée the basil and one cup of the béchamel-ricotta mix; stir this purée back into the remaining béchamel-ricotta mix.
Cook the Pasta: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the pasta until it’s al dente (the length of cooking time depends on the size of the pasta). Drain the pasta in a colander, and mix it with the reserved 1 1/2 cups béchamel.
Assemble the Pastitsio: Preheat the oven to 375°F. Place half the pasta in the bottom of a well-oiled 9” x 13” baking pan. Sprinkle the pasta with 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese. Spread the artichoke sauce over the cheese, making sure the artichoke pieces are evenly distributed. Top with the remaining pasta and another 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese. Spread the Basil Béchamel over the pasta and top with the remaining 1/3 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Bake at 375°F for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 350°F and cook for 40-45 minutes, or until the top of the Pastitsio is golden and set. Let cool for at least 15-20 minutes before cutting into squares and serving (if you cut Pastitsio immediately after removing it from the oven it will fall apart).