I love love loveeeee bechamel pasta bakes …in all forms and variations. Whether it’s the Egyptian Ma’carona Bechamel or the Greek Pastitsio or a traditional Italian Lasagna …I’m all for it! The very first time I enjoyed this dish, I was visiting my Aunt Fedaa’ in Jerusalem and since then it’s been in rotation as one of our favorite weeknight meals.
Here’s my favorite way to make a Bechamel Pasta bake. It’s been a favorite among family members and it’s always a go-to dish for dinner parties.
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely diced/sliced
2lbs ground beef or lamb
1 cup mushrooms, sliced (optional)
1 1/2+ cans crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce
1/2+ cup water (optional)
salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste
dried oregano, to taste
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup all purpose flour
4 cups milk
salt, to taste
pepper, to taste
nutmeg, to taste (optional)
dried thyme, to taste (optional)
16oz pasta of choice (Penne, Elbows, Rigatoni are all great options)
2 cups shredded low moisture mozzarella cheese
Parmesan Cheese, optional
In a large saucepan, sauté onions and garlic in olive oil until the onions are translucent. Add ground meat and continue to sauté until the meat is completely browned and cooked through. Add mushrooms, mix and continue to cook all ingredients together another few minutes. Sprinkle salt + pepper, to taste.
Add the tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes and water, if needed. You can also use ready-made pasta sauce in a jar (something like marinara works great) — really it’s up to you what tomato product you’d like to use. I often have jars of homemade tomato sauce on hand (thanks Mom!) that I use instead of canned tomato sauce. What you’d like to have is a meaty/saucy mix. Keep in mind that as it continues to cook, it will thicken. So don’t worry if it’s a little watery.
Add dried oregano, to taste. Add additional salt/pepper if needed. Toss in fresh basil leaves, cover and let it simmer on low heat for at least 1 hour.
NOTE: Keep in mind that you can really use your favorite red sauce recipe for this. You can even make it vegetarian if you’d like!
While the sauce is simmering, grate the mozzarella cheese and set aside. (I always buy the block of cheese and grate it myself because it melts significantly better than the pre-grated cheese). If you have parmesan cheese, grate that as well and set aside.
Once the red sauce has simmered for the hour and it’s become a nice thick ragú sauce, turn off heat and set aside.
Preheat oven to 425F.
In a medium saucepan, begin boiling the pasta until al dente. While the pasta is boiling, prepare the béchamel sauce.
In a separate saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter until it begins bubbling. Add flour and immediately whisk. You want to get out as many or all the lumps of flour, so keep whisking. Let it cook for about 1 minute over medium heat and then slowly begin pouring in the milk. Add salt, pepper and optional nutmeg and thyme, to taste. KEEP WHISKING/STIRRING while it cooks on medium heat. If you let it sit for too long, you’ll get some lumps sticking at the bottom. It’s going to take 5+ minutes of good stirring until you see the béchamel sauce finally thicken. Turn off heat and set aside.
Transfer the pasta to your desired baking dish, pour over the meat sauce and mix. In more traditional béchamel pasta recipes, it is neatly layered similar to a lasagna (pasta, red sauce and béchamel) but I’ve preferred mixing the meat sauce in.
Sprinkle some of the mozzarella cheese on top of the pasta and then pour and spread the béchamel sauce on top. Sprinkle on more mozzarella cheese and optional parmesan. Bake covered for 20 minutes and then uncovered for another 20 minutes or until the top is bubbly and gained a nice golden/brown color.