Macarona Bechamel, as it's known in the Middle East, is a Bechamel pasta bake that takes the win for the best pasta casserole ever! It's an Egyptian dish that is loved by the family and its pure comfort food. I mean, butter, flour, pasta, sauce... what else do you expect. Okay I'll keep talking.
What is Macarona Bechamel?
Macarona Bechamel is an Egyptian recipe that I've enjoyed so much growing up, having had so many Egyptian family friends that were brilliant cooks (who also introduced me to Egyptian Goulash, yum!). I am assuming that the French introduced Egypt to Bechamel sauce during their occupation, and then the Egyptians ran with it and created this masterpiece.
It's definitely a dish that resembles Italian Lasagna (especially if you make it with Bechamel, which I do) but the ground beef sauce has different spices which gives it that classic Arabic flavour. I love a good casserole and always include one in my menu if I'm ever hosting. This one is one of my go-to's along with moussaka and this eggplant casserole.
For this recipe, I love using penne pasta to get that classic look. As for the Bechamel sauce, which is the star of the show, it's actually quite easy to whip up if you follow my instructions. Don't be intimidated! Yes its French, and everything French is scary to me automatically, but this is definitely do-able.
Now this recipe is not super labour intensive at all, but it also isn't a quick meal. So if you love the quicker easier pasta dishes, then check out my one pot pink pasta. You'll love it!
Ingredients you'll need
You can use any medium sized pasta for this Bechamel pasta bake, but Penne works and looks great. For the meat sauce, you can definitely play around with spices but I love the combination of Allspice and Cinnamon. And of course, we need the classic Bechamel ingredients of butter, flour and milk.
How to make Macarona Bechamel
Although this Bechamel pasta bake has a few components, it's really straight forward to make.
Start by boiling the pasta in salted water until al dente, then make the meat sauce. To do this, finely dice the onion and cook it, then brown the ground beef. Add all the spices and tomato sauce and simmer until cooked through.
Next, prepare the Bechamel sauce. Melt butter in a deep pan, then slowly add in the flour and continuously whisk to create a roux. Cook the flour, whisking continuously for 3-4 minutes, then slowly add in room temperature milk (or milk warmed in the microwave for a few seconds). Continue whisking as you add in the milk then follow it by the chicken stock. Allow the sauce to thicken for about 5-7 minutes while whisking. Add in the seasoning and check that the sauce has thickened properly by coating the back of a spoon and running your finger through it - it should remain separated (see video below).
Next is the layering! Mix the drained pasta with a bit of the Bechamel sauce (about 1 cup). In a large deep casserole, add a spoonful of the Bechamel sauce, then add half of the pasta. Cover it with all of the meat mixture and smooth it out to an even layer.
Add the second half of the pasta, then pour all of the remaining sauce on top. Make sure you have enough to cover the whole thing well (recipe should yield enough, just don't use too much for the pasta and the bottom of the casserole).
Time to bake it! Cover it with foil and bake it at 375 F for 45 minutes. Uncover it and broil it for 15 minutes to get some browning on the top (stay close by to avoid burning it). Allow it to cool on the counter for 30 minutes or so in order for it to set and be easier to cut into pieces.
Watch me make this Bechamel pasta bake!
Tips for making the best Bechamel sauce
I know some of you may be intimidated by the Bechamel sauce, so here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Use the right ratio of butter to flour. I typically go for a 1:1 ratio per the recipe and it never fails me!
- Make sure that you cook the roux for 3-4 minutes to ensure it gets cooked and toasted well before adding in the milk. This will enhance the flavour
- Whatever you do, just continue whisking through the whole process!
- Use room temperature or warm milk. I have used cold milk before, and it works, it just takes more arm work to whisk it in. But warm milk generally combines more easily. You can just use a glass measuring jug and pop it into the microwave for a few seconds (the milk should not be really hot or boiling!)
- The addition of chicken broth is completely optional (adds so much flavour) and you can substitute more milk for it if you don't have it
- You can adjust the thickness of the sauce by adding more or less liquid. If you like a more "saucy" consistency, you can add a bit more milk (½ to 1 cup more). This recipe yields a "set" pasta slice but not too thick either
Recipe notes for Macarona Bechamel
I've seen versions of this dish being made with a layer of cheese on top. Although not the "authentic" way, I certainly don't say no to cheese. If you like it - add it! I don't add it because I think the Bechamel is decadent enough and has a really deep creamy flavour that gets lost if you add cheese (which is bolder in flavour).
Also, some people add egg yolks to the Bechamel sauce. A few people have told me that it makes it more "silky" but I've tried it both ways and don't see the need to add it. But again - if you want to, you certainly can!
Storage and freezer instructions
Macarona Bechamel is perfect if you're looking for a make-ahead dish. You have two options here. You can assemble everything and refrigerate it the day before, then bake it before serving.
Or, you can assemble everything and cover it well with Aluminium foil then freeze it. Before baking, allow it to thaw overnight in the fridge. Both methods will work great!
I hope you try out this Bechamel pasta bake and let me know what you think by leaving a comment and a star rating! I love hearing from you guys!
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Bechamel Pasta Bake (Macarona Bechamel)
For the pasta:
- 600 g Penne pasta
For the meat sauce:
- 700 g lean ground beef
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 onion
- 2 cups tomato sauce
- 1.5 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
For the Bechamel sauce:
- 1 cup flour
- 1 cup butter
- 1 L milk
- 1 chicken stock cube dissolved in 1 cup hot water or 1 cup chicken stock
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- Preheat your oven to 375F
- Start by boiling the pasta in salted water until al dente. Drain and set aside
- For the meat sauce, finely dice the onion and cook in a pan with the vegetable oil, stirring occasionally until softened for about 5 minutes
- Add the meat and break it up using a wooden spoon and cook until browned, for about 5-7 minutes
- Add all the spices and the tomato sauce and simmer for 5 minutes. Set aside
- Make the bechamel sauce by melting the butter over medium heat
- Add the flour in a few tablespoons at a time and continue whisking as you do this to form a roux. Cook for 3-4 minutes as you continuously whisk
- Warm the milk by heating in the microwave for a few seconds until its room temperature or slightly warmer (you don't need it to be hot). Cold milk works too but warm milk is easier to incorporate
- Pour the milk in slowly while continuously whisking. The sauce may look lumpy but don't worry - keep pouring in the milk and whisking. If you feel your sauce is catching on the bottom of the pan, turn the heat down to medium low
- When milk is finished, add in the chicken stock and continue to whisk for 4-5 minutes until the sauce thickens. Check by coating the back of a spoon and running your finger through it - it should stay separated
- Mix the pasta with roughly 1 cup of the Bechamel sauce
- In a deep, large casserole dish, add a tablespoon of Bechamel sauce and spread it around, then add half the pasta
- Add all of the meat mixture on top and even out the layer, then add the remaining pasta
- Cover with all of the Bechamel sauce and smooth it out - you should have enough sauce to cover the whole thing well
- Cover the casserole with aluminium foil and bake at 375F for 45 mins. Uncover and broil for 15 minutes to brown the top
- Allow the pasta to cool for 15-20 minutes to set, then cut into pieces and enjoy
- Chicken stock is optional. If you don't have it, just use more milk
- For the Bechamel, use warm milk to make it easier to incorporate into the roux
- You can layer this dish ahead of time, then either refrigerate and use the next day or freeze and thaw overnight in the fridge before baking