Perfect Moussaka

This is going onto the blog by special request, as Irene enjoyed it so much last night. We used to eat moussaka a lot when I was growing up, though in a rather different version from the one I cooked last night.

I have just found my mother’s recipe in my first recipe notebook (repurposed – it has art ‘O’ level notes in the back!): aubergine, courgette or marrow (it was the 1970s!) and a green pepper were sliced, dipped in seasoned flour and fried in olive oil until pale gold.  Minced lamb or beef was fried gently with finely chopped onion, seasoning and bayleaf or herbs – no garlic mentioned. Then the vegetables, meat and peeled tomatoes (tinned or fresh) were layered into a dish, topped with a thick cheese sauce and baked at Gas 5/6 for 30-45 minutes. What strikes me is that I didn’t give any quantities, and barely any method, so it was clearly just a reminder for something I knew how to cook.

The idea of making a moussaka came from having leftovers from the roast lamb we ate on Sunday (I’m trying to reinstate traditional Sunday lunches as a way of differentiating the days in lockdown). Having browsed a number (far too many) recipes, I took a lead from Felicity Cloake’s recipe in the Guardian for the sauces but then went off piste a bit.

The main thing I find about many recipes is that they end up very rich because of frying the aubergines in a lot of oil. This is undoubtedly traditional and delicious but, alas, my calorific requirements are rather lower than those of a Greek farmer! Cloake improves on this by brushing the sliced aubergine with oil and baking it, and I went one step further and cooked the aubergine with hardly any oil in my griddle pan. Traditionally you use kefalotyri cheese for the sauce but, surprise, I didn’t have any, nor pecorino or the cheddar I used as a teenager; parmesan proved an acceptable stand-in. The result was lighter – if you don’t think too much about the béchamel cheese sauce – and still delicious.

I don’t always salt the aubergines in advance, but did this time. The argument for doing it used to be that it drew out the bitter juices, which I never found convincing – maybe modern aubergines have had the bitterness bred out of them. More likely, it improves the flavour by salting the aubergines properly before you start cooking (see Samin Nosrat on salting in posts passim). I do think it’s worth doing, but you can, of course, skip it if you don’t have time.

I made half these quantities to use the small amount of leftover meat I had, which made just enough for two, but wished I had made a full quantity and had one for the freezer. Next time…

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  • 2-3 aubergines
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • sea salt

Meat sauce:

  • 1 onion
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 350-400g leftover roast, or minced, lamb
  • 1 bayleaf
  • 1 tsp dried oregano or thyme
  • ½ tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp tomato puree stirred into 150 ml water
  • 100ml red wine

Béchamel sauce:

  • 350 ml whole milk
  • 40g butter
  • 40g flour
  • 40g parmesan or pecorino
  • 2 eggs
  • nutmeg to grate

Start by slicing the aubergine across into ½ cm slices – lengthways looks nice, but you end with two pieces that are all skin. Layer them into a colander, sprinkling generously with sea salt as you go. Leave for at least 30 minutes – I left mine for several hours, though heaven knows if I’ll manage that if/when life gets back to normal. Rinse and pat dry on a clean tea towel.

Finely chop the onion, heat the olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onion over a medium heat until it starts to soften. Crush the garlic, add to the pan with the herbs and cinnamon and cook for a few more minutes, watching that it doesn’t brown or catch. If using leftover meat chop it roughly, removing any excess fat, skin or sinew. Turn up the heat and add the meat to the pan. If using fresh mince cook it until it is well browned and the mixture is fairly dry; if leftovers then just fry it for long enough to warm it through. Add the bayleaf, wine and tomato paste mixture, and bring up to a simmer. Turn the heat back down and leave to blip away while you get on with the rest of the dish.

Heat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/Gas 6 and put the griddle pan on to heat. Brush the aubergine slices sparingly with olive oil (or you could use a spray). Once the griddle pan is really hot cook them in batches, turning them as needed – they should only take a few minutes each side. I found this needed my full attention so I don’t recommend trying to multi-task and make the béchamel at the same time!

Once all the aubergine is cooked, start on the cheese sauce. Heat the milk gently to just under boiling point, then turn off the heat. Meanwhile melt the butter in a separate saucepan and then add the flour all at once stirring thoroughly. Cook over fairly gentle heat for a couple of minutes until it starts to smell and look biscuity. Then add the hot milk gradually, stirring furiously to avoid lumps – I used a whisk – and cook for a few minutes until you have a thick, smooth sauce. Grate the parmesan and stir into the sauce, then take it off the heat and beat in the eggs one at a time. Season with salt, pepper (white pepper if you have it) and lots of grated nutmeg. By this time the meat sauce should have reduced nicely – just check it for seasoning.

Now assemble the dish: grease an ovenproof dish and start with a third of the aubergine slices, then half the meat sauce, repeat, add the final third of the aubergines and pour the sauce over the top. If you were super organised, you could do all of this ahead of time, put in the fridge and then bake it when you were ready to eat (in which case allow another 10-15 minutes in the oven). Bake for 30-40 minutes until the top is browned and puffed up and everything is piping hot. A green salad is, in my view, the best accompaniment.

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