2 layers of melty eggplants. 2 layers of a tomatoey meat mixture. All covered in a cloud of white sauce -the thicker the better for me.
My first taste of moussaka was when I was a university student. I used to work a few hours a week at the school’s health centre. After one Thanksgiving, my employer brought me a portion of her moussaka. It tasted like nothing I had had before. There was a thin layer of what tasted like cream but it wasn’t. It was texturally different -fluffy and thicker. I now know that it was made with a basic white sauce, also referred to as bechamel sauce, prepared from butter, flour, milk. It’s the basis of most dairy sauces. At that age, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as a white sauce. Neither would I have been able to pronounce ‘bechamel’. All I knew then was, it tasted sinful and lovely.
Under that velvety layer was a sheet of creamy eggplants and then a tier of tomatoey tasting ground beef. I remembered thinking, “Goodness gracious. Why is Bertha sitting behind a desk? She should be leading a team in a kitchen!” Bertha never did part with the recipe. Neither was I able to find out if the recipe was hers or from a cook book. She was tight lipped. Almost everyone else has been very generous with sharing recipes. I believe we share the same belief that a recipe shared makes for happier people. After all, we take nothing with us when we die. Might as well have others go on to party another day with both good company and food. Strange as it is, I never had another moussaka since Bertha’s, that is, until last June.
I was in Athens and made a day excursion to Nafplio, a popular seaport city less than 2 hours away. It’s a town steeped in history and with well laid out pedestrian friendly streets. A city where almost every photograph you take would be postcard worthy.
It was a very quiet Monday. I could count the number of tourists on the streets if I had wanted to. Had we been there over the weekend, it would have been overrun by both local and foreign tourists. We met our driver and guide for lunch. He took us to a Greek taverna just off the main square. We left him to do the ordering. George was as passionate about his country as he was his food. We were in good hands. The food starting to fill up the table. We started to eat. There was bread, wine, rooster with a light tomato sauce, dolmades – stuffed vine leaves, greek salad, grilled octopus and finally the moussaka. What a thick layer of bechamel it had and it tasted better than I remembered. It felt like I had come full circle.*
On returning home, I bought myself ‘Vefa’s Greek Cooking’. She is promoted as ‘Greek’s best selling writer’ with an impressive resume. I tried her moussaka recipe. I found it complicated and the flavours was not what I was looking for. It didn’t remind me of what I had in Nafplio. I pulled out my other Greek cookbook, Tessa Kiros’s ‘Food From Many Greek Kitchens’. Her recipe was interesting and less complicated. However, I knew it would not give me the taste I was after. I though it very curious that her bechemel sauce required 8 cups of milk. Wow. That’s a lot. I searched online.
As I expected, there were as many variations for moussaka as there were recipes for it. Now, I like a moussaka with a thick layer of bechamel sauce. Oddly, not a single recipe I came across mentions how thick a layer their recipe for bechamel sauce produces. This information is important as there are 2 camps when it comes to moussaka. Those who like a thick layer of bechamel and those who like a modest amount. I like it unabashedly thick and I was disappointed when my first moussaka produced a pathetically thin layer of bechamel.
If you stick to the measurements of my baking vessel, you won’t need to do any guesswork. To bake a 1/2″ (1.25cm) layer of bechamel, stick to the measurements I give. To bake a generous 1″ (2.5cm) bechamel layer, simply double the measurements (for bechamel sauce).
After 3 trays of moussaka, I am happy with my final recipe. It has the selection, combination and ratio of herbs and spices that reminds me of that Nafplio moussaka and of course, it has that beautifully fluffy and thick layer of bechamel (1″ high!). Eat in moderation though, it does terrible things to your waistline.
This is the ninth recipe for the spread of meze I served at a recent party. I prepared 10 meze that were inspired by my holiday in Greece. Click here, Greek Meze, Another Selection Of Wonderful Little Bites. Scroll down to the end of the post and you will find a table spread of all the 10 meze, the names of the meze and links to recipes that I have already posted.
* For more on Athens and the good food I had there plus luxurious accommodation at Santorini and Athens go to my pull down tab ‘Travel & Whatnot’.
|Cook:||~30 minutes to grill/fry eggplants
~20 minutes to cook meat
~20 minutes to cook white sauce/bechamel
~1 hour to bake
|Serves:||~4 as a meal or ~ 6 as part of a meze|
|Oven Temperature:||400F (200C) to grill eggplants
380F (190C) to bake moussaka
|Can recipe be doubled?||Yes.|
|Make ahead?||Eggplants and meat and be cooked up to 2 days ahead.
Baked moussaka keeps well refrigerated up to 3 days. Can be frozen up to 1 month.
1. Preheat the oven to 400F(200C). Line the baking tray(s) with aluminium foil as it makes clean up easier.
2. Cut the eggplants into 1/4″ (0.63cm) slices. Toss or brush the eggplants in the 1 cup of olive oil, salt and pepper. Lay the eggplants in one layer on baking tray(s). The eggplants should take ~30 minutes to cook. They should be lightly golden brown in parts and soft to the touch.
3. Cool slightly on tray(s) before removing to a cooling rack to drain off excess oil. I use cooling racks that I use for my baked cookies/biscuits. Set a baking tray of sorts under it to catch the oil. I do not drain them on kitchen paper towels as they tend to stick on it.
4. Before using, blot as much oil off the eggplants with kitchen paper towels. At this stage, you could refrigerate the eggplants up to 2 days.
1. Cut the eggplants into 1/4″ (0.63cm) slices. On a large surface frying pan, heat up on medium high heat, as much olive oil (from the 1 cup of olive oil) as required to fry the eggplants. Cook in batches until eggplants are cooked through. They would be soft to the touch and lightly golden brown in parts. It might take approximately, 5 – 7 minutes on each side depending on how thick you had cut the eggplants.
2. Once cooked, to drain off the excess oil, I like to drain them directly on my cooling rack (for cookies/biscuits). Set a baking tray of sorts under it to catch the oil. I do not let them drain on paper kitchen towel as they tend to stick to it.
3. Before using, blot as much oil off the eggplants with kitchen paper towels. At this stage, you could refrigerate the eggplants up to 2 days.
1. In a pot, I use a nonstick pot so I don’t add any oil, fry the beef until it is cooked through breaking up lumps in the process. Remove beef from the pot and drain off any excess oil. Set the drained beef aside for the moment.
2. Rinse out pot, wipe clean and heat up 3 Tablespoons olive oil on medium high heat.
3. Fry all of the onions and only 1 Tablespoon of garlic (rest of it will be used during assembling) until the onions have softened and are lightly brown around its edges. Return the beef to the pot, add the canned tomatoes, tomato puree and meat spices.
4. Stir and continue to stir until there is hardly any sauce left. This would take ~ 10 – 15 minutes. The mixture should be fairly dry or the moussaka will bake up with too much liquid.
5. Taste and adjust seasonings. The meat mixture should be a little over spiced at this point as it will mellow after it has baked. Set aside. At this stage, you could cool the meat mixture and refrigerate up to 2 days.
White sauce/bechamel layer
1. I use a rectangle baking dish 12″ X 7.5″ X 2″ (30cm X 19cm X 5cm). Keep close to those measurements and you would be assured of a layer of bechamel that is either a modest 1/2″ (1.25cm) or 1″ (2.5cm) thick (when you double the bechamel ingredients for the latter layer).
2. This process will take ~15 minutes of constant stirring. It does ensure a lump free sauce though. Heat a pot (preferably nonstick) over medium high heat. Melt the butter, then add the flour.
3. Using either a silicon or a wooden spoon, keep stirring.
4. It will foam and bubble quite hard after a few minutes. Continue to stir.
5. The bubbling will subside and you would probably smell the flour cooking. The smell reminds me of a water biscuit.
6. The colour of the sauce will quite quickly start to turn darker. It should look like the colour of condensed milk.
7. Continue to stir. Do not let it brown too far. Add the milk a little, ~ 3 Tablespoons, at a time, and continue to stir to incorporate the milk. The mixture will seize on you but do not panic. Stir.
8. Add more milk only after the milk has been completely worked in.
9. Repeat the same procedure until all the milk has been used up. It should look like thick, big blobs.
10. When all the milk has been used up, taste the sauce. You want to check that the flour has been cooked through and there is no ‘floury’ taste. Cook further if required. If the sauce taste cooked, turn off the burner and remove pot from the heat.
11. In a large bowl, crack and use a whisk to beat the eggs.
12. Use the whisk to take a small dollop of the cream. and whisk it quickly into the eggs.
13. Do not use too large of a dollop as you do not want to scramble the eggs. Once the egg mixture is lump free, gradually work in more sauce into the egg mixture, making sure it is lump free and fully incorporated before adding more sauce. Work the remaining sauce in in the same manner. You should have a smooth sauce.
14. Add 3/4 cup of parmesan and stir to incorporate. When fully incorporated, taste. Add the nutmeg, pepper and more/less salt. Amount of salt depends on how salty the cheese is. If the cheese does not completely melt at this stage, it’s perfectly fine. It will do so in the oven.
1. Have a rectangle baking dish ready. Mine measures 12″ X 7.5″ X 2″ (30.48cm X 19.05cm X 5.08cm) or get one that is close to those dimensions. Divide the eggplants into 2 portions. Do likewise for the meat mixture.
2. Layer the bottom of the baking vessel with 1 portion of eggplant, overlapping as you go to seal up any gaps. Spread 1 portion of the meat mixture over the eggplant, evening and flattening it out as you do so.
3. Next, layer the remaining eggplants. Again, overlapping to avoid gaps.Spread the remaining meat mixture, evening and flattening it out as you do so. Remember the last 2 Tablespoons of garlic? Sprinkle it over the meat.
4. Pour the bechamel as evenly as you can over the entire surface. Use a flat surface silicon spatula to spread it out into the corners and even it out as well as you can. Be gentle.
5. Sprinkle the remaining 3/4 cup of parmesan over.
6. Bake in a preheated 380F(190C) oven, oven rack positioned middle for 1 hour or until the tops are lightly browned.
7. Cool for ~10 minutes before cutting/serving otherwise you will be serving a big blob of moussaka instead of a nice neat cut of Moussaka.
Break up the work
(1) Eggplants can be grilled 2 days in advance.
(2) Meat mix can be made 2 days in advance.
Cook up to 1 month in advance, freeze and reheat
The entire dish in its baking container can be frozen up to a month.
It is best to defrost overnight in the refrigerator and up to 2 nights before. Cover with an aluminium foil and reheat in a 400F (200C) oven for 30 minutes or until warmed through. Test by inserting a skewer into the centre and feel skewer to check that it isn’t cold! Cool for 10 minutes to allow the moussaka to set before cutting or you will be serving big blobs of moussaka instead of neat slices.
Leftover bechamel is lovely over bread toast or on steamed/grilled vegetables. Baked rice too – sprinkled with more cheese and a bit of ham!
WHAT’S COMING UP NEXT?
Given, the chance, I would have Greek grilled octopus for every meal!
My Greek inspired meze!
First row. Left to right:
Slow Cooked Octopus In A Sherry Vinegar Garlic Marinade,
Moussaka – Baked Casserole Of Eggplants, Tomatoey Meat Topped With A Creamy White Sauce,
Santorini Fava A Delicious Yellow Split Peas Dip,
Grilled & Marinated Peppers With Fig Balsamic Cream
Second row. Left to right:
Greek Inspired Harissa-Style Hot Chilli Sauce To Go With Olives,
5 Minutes Grilled Cheese Meze,
Santorini Tomatoey Tomato Balls/Fritters
Third row. Left to right:
Crispy Whitebait And Sweet Onions Disk,
Pork Souvlaki Kebabs Skewers,
Tzatziki A Cucumber Yogurt Dip,
Oh So Soft Pita Bread