03 April 2011

My favourite moussaka recipe

Yesterday I made an eggplant moussaka (mousakas melitzanes), something which I don’t do as often as I should. It is pretty labour intensive; working alone you won’t have much change from three hours, and that is before you start the cleaning up. Every time I do this I realise why I don’t do it more often, but it is worth it both because it is a wonderful dish and because the two of us get about four meals out of a dish that is nominally one serve for six.

The recipe which follows is taken from Sophia Skoura’s The Greek Cook Book, translated and adapted by Helen Georges, Crown Publishers Inc., New York 1967.  If you do exactly as you are told (including following the added comments by me) you will achieve a pretty good representation of the wonderful moussakas that were made for us when we enjoyed the generous hospitality of a Greek family in Athens (friends of my sister-in-law) during the early 1970s.

½ cup butter or vegetable oil
700 grams chopped meat (I use ground topside)
2 tablespoons chopped onions (I use one reasonably large brown onion)
½ cup white wine
700 grams ripe tomatoes, peeled and strained (I use two 400g tins of chopped tomatoes with no added salt or herbs; if you so this, be sure to drain them well or your recipe will end up a bit wet and you will have to spend additional time reducing it)
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
1.4 kg of eggplants
Oil for frying
1 recipe Béchamel sauce (see below)
1 cup breadcrumbs
½ cup of grated Parmesan cheese
2-3 tablespoons melted butter

My first step does not appear in Sophia’s recipe and opinions vary about it but I think it is essential to get rid of some of the sharper flavours in the raw eggplant. I start by slicing the eggplant into slices about ¼ inch (6-7mm) thick, putting the slices in layers in a colander, sprinkling each layer with salt as I go. This makes the slices sweat some of the juice they contain.

Place half the butter or oil in a frying pan (I use a mixture of both).  I then sauté the onions gently until they are glassy (again you are driving off the volatile compounds that give the sharper flavours before combining the onions with anything else). Then add the ground meat. Stir to crumble the meat and cook until brown.  Add the wine, tomatoes, parsley, salt and pepper (I don’t find it necessary to add salt) and bring to a simmer. Simmer until the liquids are absorbed.

Wash and dry the eggplant slices – wash them very thoroughly to get make sure you get rid of as much free salt as possible.  Fry them in good olive oil.  You don’t need to cook them – they will spend enough cooking time in the oven – again you are wanting to drive off the sharper flavoured compounds so that you are left with the gentle flavours of the eggplant. Fry them at a reasonable heat, and keep enough olive oil up to them to enable proper heat transfer from the frying pan. If the pan is too dry you will tend to singe the surface without heating them through – but at the same time, try not to saturate them with olive oil. The aim should be to get them translucent and just starting to brown without burning.

For this operation you need to fry them in a single layer, removing the individual pieces as they are ready. You cannot tip them all into the pan at once.  Place the fried eggplant slices on a platter as they come out of the pan.

Arrange half of the eggplant slices in even rows on the bottom of a medium-sized baking pan. Sprinkle with half the breadcrumbs. Add half of the cheese to the chopped meat, mixing it in well; spread this on top of the eggplant.  Add another layer of eggplant, and set aside while you make the Béchamel (see below).

Cover the dish with the Béchamel. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top, then the remaining breadcrumbs. Drizzle with melted butter. Bake for 30-40 minutes in a pre-heated 350° F (170°
 C) oven until golden brown.

chamel sauce

6 tablespoons butter (120 grams)
7-8 tablespoons flour
4 cups milk, scalded
1-2 egg yolks (I use two)
Salt and pepper to taste

Melt the butter, without allowing it to brown. Gentle heat is everything in this game. Add the flour slowly, mixing constantly, to make a smooth buttery paste without lumps. Remove from the heat. Slowly mix in the scalded milk – mix it in a little at a time so that you are just thinning the paste without having two distinct phases (paste and milk) which will be much harder to combine.  Return to the heat and stir until the sauce thickens. Beat the egg yolks well, and add them with salt and pepper to the mixture, stirring constantly until blended (I usually stir a few spoons of the mixture one at a time into the egg yolks so that I do not raise their temperature too suddenly, then stir that mixture into the rest of the Béchamel mixture.

This is now ready to be poured over the moussaka.


Anonymous said...

Luckily, I have just remembered why whenever I make moussaka I vow never to do so again! Otherwise I could be tempted ... to do it .. again ..

Anonymous said...

It's gently raining in Canberra. I have the last of the eggplants from my vegetable garden sitting in the fridge. After I finish work today, I am going to replicate your recipe ... and no doubt about mid-way through will be regretting the length of time it takes. My aged mother, grimly clinging onto living alone even though she's now nearly blind, will love the results. Her favourite food!