Greeks prepare moussaka with loving care: each slice of eggplant is laid in the pan as if placing a blanket over a baby. The meat sauce is stirred and sampled any number of times until the balance of herbs and spices achieves perfection. The white sauce topping is whisked until it is the color of old ivory and swells upward like a cloud. Only then, as the casserole is tiered layer by layer, is the cook happy.
There are numerous variations on the triumph, of course. Some cooks use a bottom layer of potato. Some add green peppers or a layer of sautéed or softly boiled greens. Some put raisins or currants in the meat sauce to add a sweet touch. Some use a dusting of cinnamon or bread crumbs on top, instead of nutmeg. Some varieties of moussaka are made with squash slices, artichoke hearts, or even rice.
I prefer a moussaka of only eggplant and more eggplant. No sweetness in the sauce for me—a savory blend couples best with the olive oil and eggplant. To make the sauce truly outstanding, I use a combination of white wine and brandy. The eggplant slices are baked to achieve the smoky taste that never develops in frying. As for the topping, redolent nutmeg cannot be bettered as the spice to accent curdy kefalotyri cheese. In return for its loving preparation, the queen of all Greek dishes comes out of the oven a pleasure garden of flavors.
Yield: Serves 8 to 12
for the eggplant filling:
3 medium eggplants
1 cup olive oil, or more as needed
1½ pounds lean ground beef or lamb
1 large onion, finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 tomatoes, finely chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Lightly oil several baking sheets.
2. Trim the stem ends off the eggplants, and cut them into ¼-inch-thick lengthwise slices. Coat each slice on both sides with oil. Arrange the slices in one layer, without overlapping, on the baking sheets. (You may need to do this in several batches, depending on how many baking sheets you have and the size of your oven.) Bake for 10 minutes, turn them over, and continue baking until well wilted and slightly golden, another 8 to 10 minutes (see Notes).
3. Remove from the oven and set aside until cool enough to handle. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.
4. While the eggplant is cooling, prepare the filling: Place the meat in a large nonreactive skillet. Turn the heat to medium-high and cook, using a fork to break up the chunks, until the meat is browned, 10 minutes. Add the onion and garlic and continue cooking and stirring until well mixed, 3 minutes. Add the remaining filling ingredients and mix well. Cook over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is fairly dry and crumbly, 20 minutes. Remove the skillet from the heat and set it aside to cool.
5. Prepare the topping: Stir the besamel, lemon juice, nutmeg, and 2 tablespoons of the cheese together in a mixing bowl. Set it aside.
6. To assemble the moussaka, cover the bottom of a 13- ×9-inch baking dish with an overlapping layer of eggplant slices. Spread one third of the meat mixture over the eggplant, and then sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the remaining cheese over the filling. Repeat the layers of eggplant, filling, and cheese. Arrange the remaining eggplant slices over the second layer (don’t worry if there are not enough slices to cover the filling completely), and spread the remaining filling over them. Spread the topping over the meat, and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.
7. Place the dish in the oven and bake until the moussaka is bubbly, golden on top, and slightly browned around the edges, 1 hour. Remove it from the oven and let it rest for at least 20 minutes before serving.
The easiest way to coat the eggplant slices with oil is to pour about 1 cup olive oil in a bowl and use your hands to “brush” each side. You may need a little more oil; the idea is to coat them well without saturating.
To streamline the process, the meat filling and the topping mixture can be prepared in advance and refrigerated, covered, for up to 2 days. It is best, however, to proceed with the assembling and cooking of the moussaka once the eggplant preparation is under way.
You can also fry the eggplant slices.
To enter a Greek restaurant is to think moussaka. To sample Greek cuisine for the first time is to bite into moussaka. To enjoy Greek food is to fall in love with moussaka. It comes in two versions: with an inner tier of saucy and succulent meat between layers of vegetable, and purely vegetarian. The two versions, of course, have many small variations, almost as many as there are Greek cooks. More white sauce, or less. All eggplant with no potato, or a layer of potato as the foundation. A long-simmered meat center, or a quick dash of meat and spices. It doesn’t matter, though. To dive into the casserole in any of its versions is to dive into divinity. It is reason alone to know Greek cooking: A life with no moussaka is desolate indeed.In both versions of moussaka—with and without meat—a layer of greens, such as spinach, kale, chard, or dandelion, simmered until soft and then fried until lightly crisp, makes the dish more complex, unusual, and leafily enchanting.
Nutritional information is based on 12 servings and includes 1/8 teaspoon of added salt per serving. Nutritional information does not include Saltsa Besamel. For nutritional information on Saltsa Besamel, please follow the link above.