Moussaka is one of those dishes that I always felt was rather common, but once I made mention of it to friends and family I realized it may not be as common as I thought. I was met with reactions like, "Moose what?" and "Moose caca?" (you can't have 7 kids and not hear that one at least once), but most often it was simply, "What's that?"
What's that, indeed. I myself wasn't 100% sure, having never eaten it and only having read about it or heard of it the same way most Americans have, by watching "My Big Fat Greek Wedding
". I knew it was eggplant and bechamel, but hadn't the foggiest notion how it was put together or what it tasted like.
At one time during my adolesence I was surrounded by Greek-Americans that were all friends of my mother's. She owned a small re-sale boutique and right next door to her shop was Nick's. Oh yes, funny as it sounds because of the commonplace moniker, there really was a Greek restaurant named such right there. My mother and the proprietors, the Bozakis family, became fast friends and mom, who also loved to cook, was taught much about Greek cuisine from the real deal, but never moussaka.
I'd thought about making it from time to time, but it seemed out of reach and difficult and far too time-consuming for a person as busy as myself. Triple layers meant triple preparations and the question as to authenticity always plagued me. I don't like making dishes from other cultures that aren't true to tradition and I wanted to be certain.
I set out to research as in-depth as possible, first with the cookbooks I own and secondly on the internet. What I found only confused me further. Greece isn't the only country responsible for moussaka, in fact, the true origins are Arabic in nature and many countries across the Middle East seem to have a version all their own. What I was looking for, though, was the Greek version.
After I found several recipes I liked among a veritable plethora of them, I was still not satisfied that I'd never had it so I scoured the phone book and started making calls to local Greek restaurants. Each call left me wondering if I would ever find it locally. Finally I hit on Yianni's Taverna, and I struck gold. They whipped up some and it was picked up via take-out.
Yianni's Taverna, Bethlehem, Pa
My first taste of real moussaka was a lightbulb moment ... an "Ohhh, so that's
what it is!" Pure bliss. The way it was made was exactly as I'd decided I would make mine, a layer of potato on the bottom, topped with rich meat sauce and covered in thick and creamy bechamel. I nearly wanted to photograph it and pass it off, but it was so good there was no stopping myself. My 6 year-old son ate with me and he loved it every bit as much as I did. This part means if you're in the Lehigh Valley, you need to stop by Yianni's Taverna
for beautiful atmosphere and fabulous, authentic Greek food.
Having finally had moussaka and and understanding then for what I was really making, I set off to duplicate it. The recipes, though, were a challenge. There were differences of opinion on which cheese to use, whether or not to include potato, how to layer the ingredients and so on. I compared and read and compared some more and then finally decided on how best to prepare it.
My first batch used ground lamb and canned tomatoes. I don't cook with lamb and haven't since culinary school so the odor was something to get used to, but the flavor was divine. I paired it with spices and wine and fresh herbs and cooked it until the tomatoes were tender and falling apart. I salted and drained the eggplant slices and whipped up a bechamel worthy of its origins. Layered together and baked for an hour, the result was absolute perfection; I know because my 6 year-old told me so. He said it was just as good as the one we'd brought home.
Not convinced that I knew exactly what I was doing, I made it again; this time with ground beef and tomatoes from the garden and a blend of Kefalotyri and Kasseri cheeses. I repeated the potato on the bottom because I enjoyed it so much. The thin layer of potatoes soaked up the rich juices from the meat sauce and were so tender and delicious they would almost be enough by themselves. The second batch, with nutmeg laced bechamel and lighter flavored ground beef was every bit as wonderful as the others had been.
Now that I've eaten it thrice and cooked it twice I can say with complete certainty that I will be making it again and again. Even if it's time-intensive, it really is so worth it. Here is the recipe I settled on:
Makes 1 9x13 pan
6 tablespoons olive oil - divided
1 medium onion - chopped
3 cloves garlic - minced
2 pounds ground lamb or ground beef
1 large eggplant (aubergine if you live outside the U.S.A.) - evenly and thinly sliced lengthwise - do not peel
3 medium potatoes - peeled and thinly sliced
1 teaspoons salt plus more for sprinkling on eggplant
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
15 ounces tomato puree
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 Tablespoon freshly snipped oregano
1/4 cup freshly snipped parsley
1/2 cup red wine
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
4 cups milk
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces Kefalotyri cheese - shredded (or Romano or Parmesan)
2 Tablespoons bread crumbs
Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. Lightly oil a 9 x 13-inch baking pan and set aside.
- Salt eggplant slices well and set aside in a colander to drain. The salt will help the eggplant lose any bitterness and will also keep it from absorbing too much oil during frying.
- Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add oil. Stir in onion and garlic and cook until onion begins to turn translucent. Add ground beef or lamb and break up as you cook so it is very finely minced. Drain grease well.
- Add tomatoes, wine, spices, herbs, salt and pepper and stir well. Cook over low heat for half an hour or until sauce begins to thicken. Set aside and clean pan.
- Squeeze out eggplant and pat dry with paper towels. Heat oil in the same frying pan and add 3 Tablespoons oil - fry potato slices until very lightly browned and drain well. Fry eggplant slices until very lightly browned and drain well. *You can alternately bake or grill the eggplant for a healthier version.
- Layer the potato slices in the bottom of the prepared baking pan and top with another layer of eggplant. Spread the meat sauce evenly over the eggplant and top with a last layer of eggplant. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of shredded cheese and set aside.
- Make the bechamel: Heat milk until just hot and set aside.
- Melt butter in a medium saucepan over low heat and add flour. Stir until smooth and cook several minutes.
- Pour milk into roux in a thin stream and whisk constantly until milk starts to thicken.
- Whisk eggs until light and add a cup of hot milk sauce to them and stir briskly so the eggs do not cook.
- Pour into milk and roux and continue cooking until sauce is thickened.
- Add nutmeg, salt and 1 cup shredded cheese and stir until cheese is melted.
- Pour bechamel over top eggplant layer and spread evenly over all to cover completely.
- Sprinkle with bread crumbs and remaining cheese and bake for one hour.
- Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes before cutting.