Growing up in the US, one of the most popular comfort foods, especially as a child, was mac and cheese, however, chances are, if you grew up in a Middle Eastern family, your mum made makarona, which was usually some version of a pasta bake. Every family had their own recipe and additions, but it was usually tomato based, aromatic with spices and had minced meat. It was most mums' go-to dish when she wanted something quick and easy. If you grew up specifically in an Egyptian family, your mum probably made makarona bechamel, which, in my opinion, was one better than the normal makarona tray bake because, as you can probably tell from the name, it has bechamel sauce added.
I generally gravitate towards white or pink sauces, rather than purely tomato-based ones, so for me, the addition of bechamel makes this the best of comfort foods. Yes, it means an extra pot, but it is so worth it because the silky creamy bechamel along with the fragrant minced meat layer is absolutely heavenly. This dish is perfect to make ahead of time and store, if you're meal-prepping, and great for hosting. I usually like to make a few mains when I host, and one of them is usually something I can put in the oven and forget about, and this one is always a crowd pleaser. I mean pasta, bechamel and cheese, what's not to love?
It is quite similar to lasagne with its different layers, but instead of lasagne sheets, you use penne pasta or a similar medium-sized pasta that will hold the sauce, like rigatoni or fusilli. Just make sure you don't overcook your pasta because it will be going into the oven and will fall apart and break if it is too soft. When making the bechamel, you want to make sure you are constantly whisking and scraping the bottom to avoid burning the milk. I like to add cheddar or mozzarella cheese to my sauce, because more cheese makes it more yum! But you could skip the cheese if you prefer. The meat layer isn't meant to be really saucy, but you don't want it to be completely dry either. Once you've layered everything, into the oven it goes, then top with cheese for a nice crispy top!
When it comes to serving, you could serve this immediately, but I would definitely recommend leaving it to rest for about 20 minutes so that it sets. This way, you get the distinct layers, and it is much prettier to serve. I like to serve this with a lemony salad to brighten up the dish and balance the richness, but this dish totally stands alone. Make this dish and add a new favourite comfort food to your list.
500 g penne
2 tbsp tomato paste
2 tbsp olive oil
700 g minced beef
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp garlic, minced
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tbsp cumin
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp oregano
2 tbsp tomato paste
½ cup water
4 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
1 litre milk, room temperature
1 tsp nutmeg
Salt and pepper
½ cup cheddar cheese, grated
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
2 tsp oregano
- Begin by cooking your pasta in salted water. Once cooked, drain, leaving a little bit of the pasta water. Split pasta in half and add tomato paste to one half and mix, making sure it is evenly coated with the tomato paste and set aside.
- To make your meat layer, heat the olive oil and sauté the meat. Once it starts to brown, add the onions and garlic and cook until the meat is browned. Add in the spices, tomato paste and water, and let simmer on low heat for a few minutes, or until most of the water is absorbed. You may need to add more or less water, depending on your meat. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Set aside.
- For the bechamel sauce, heat the butter in a pot and add the flour. Cook for a minute or two, until the flour and butter begin to change colour. Slowly add in room temperature milk while whisking. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg and cook until the bechamel begins to thicken. Add in the cheese and continue to whisk until the cheese is fully incorporated and the bechamel has thickened but is still pourable. Add a bit more milk if needed.
- To assemble, add the pasta with the tomato paste to the bottom of a greased oven tray. Pour the meat layer over it and spread evenly. Mix the bechamel into the other half of the pasta and pour over the meat layer, making sure to spread evenly.
- Bake in the oven at 200 C or 180 C for a fan-assisted oven, for about 15 minutes, sprinkle with cheese and oregano, and bake for another 5 minutes, or until golden brown. Let rest for at least 10 minutes before serving and enjoy!
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