I’ve been making moussaka for as long as I’ve been cooking, I think. I got seriously into cooking in my teens and remember I had a favourite book of classic recipes from around the world and each recipe was accompanied by a big photo of the dish. It was quite a simple and straightforward book, linked to a food magazine of the day, but absolutely perfect for a schoolgirl cook. There were recipes for things like goulash, bolognese, boeuf bourguignon, beef stroganoff – all the standards. Sadly, I seem to have lost the book along the way – which is quite surprising as I rarely throw out a cookbook and my large collection goes back a long, long way. But I moved on anyway from that early book and turned my devotion to Claudia Roden’s great classic, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, when it came to making moussaka. First published in 1968, my copy seems to be a 1975 reprint. And I guess I bought it then because I seem to have had it for ever! It’s even one of my own choices in my Top Ten Cookery Books series. I’ve used Claudia’s moussaka recipe ever since and the book naturally opens at that page; the book so old now the binding is broken and it just falls open at ‘moussaka’.
She says that although the Greeks claim the dish as their own, the name is Arabic and it’s possible the Turks adopted the dish from the Greeks and gave it this name. Certainly it’s on every menu in Greece and when I was last there, staying in beautiful Kardamyli a couple of summers ago, I ate it a lot and a photo of the dish at my favourite restaurant, Lela’s Taverna, was the heading for my blog for a long time and still backs my Twitter profile.
(You might be interested to know this was taken just before I started writing the blog; even before the blog, I was always photographing great food!) Moussaka, like most ‘hot’ food in Greece, is generally served warm there rather than hot. I thought this a bit strange the first time I went to Greece but one gets used to it and actually you can appreciate the flavour more. Warm, rather than very hot, food is also better for the digestion.
Sometimes – especially when my tall and hungry son comes to dinner – I add layers of potatoes to the classic aubergine and meat, which Claudia gives as an optional extra so I’m not straying too far off piste; I didn’t do that today however. I also like to follow another suggestion of hers and add a good sprinkling of Parmesan cheese on top of the bechamel sauce for a crispy cheesy topping. Lamb is more commonly eaten in Greece but I prefer beef and Claudia’s recipe says lamb or beef, so really it’s up to you to choose.
I’ve not made moussaka just for myself before; always for other people too. But as it’s such a favourite of mine it seemed there was no reason not to do a small portion. I bought just 250g of best quality lean (only 5% fat) beef and one aubergine.
First of all I cut the aubergine into slices – about 5cm thick – and sprinkled salt over them. Aubergines don’t really need this step these days but it’s a traditional way to bring out the aubergine’s bitter juices before frying (or, as I did, griddling) and this is what Claudia does.
While they did their thing, I got on with the meat. I sliced half a medium onion and gently fried it in about a tablespoon of olive oil. Once it was transparent and gently golden, I added the minced beef and turned the heat up. When the meat was coloured I added 1 tablespoon tomato paste, 1 medium tomato skinned and chopped, a handful of fresh chopped parsley, 1/3 teaspoon ground cinnamon and some salt and pepper. I added as an extra some dried oregano as this is such a favourite Greek herb and I had some dried from oregano grown in my garden last summer.
Mix all this together and then add a little bit of water and stir, then allow to gently bubble away for quarter an hour or so until the moisture is absorbed.
While the meat cooks, griddle the aubergines.
Traditionally they are fried in olive oil but this uses up loads of oil and the dish can become quite oily so I prefer to griddle mine. I wiped the salt from the aubergine slices and brushed them with oil and put on a hot griddle. Then I brushed the tops with oil before turning over. Once nicely cooked transfer to some kitchen towel to drain. When all the aubergine slices are cooked and the meat has almost dried out, start assembling the moussaka. Make a layer of aubergine in the bottom of an ovenproof dish, then tip in the meat and spread all over. Then top with a second layer of aubergine slices.
Now make a bechamel sauce: melt 30g butter, stir in 30g flour and mix to make a roux. Then slowly add 1/2 pint of milk a little at a time, stirring after each addition, so it mixes in nicely. If it gets lumpy at any stage, remove from the heat and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon till smooth. [There’s some controversy about whether to add hot or cold milk to a roux for a white sauce. Claudia adds hot but out of some laziness, not wanting to add an extra saucepan to the washing-up, I’ve always added cold. I was therefore interested to see Michel Roux Jr on a recent Food & Drink programme on BBC2 explain why one should always add cold milk.]
You want a fairly thick sauce as the idea is it stays on top of the meat and aubergines to form a custard (as you add egg yolk) rather than seep through. When done, add 1 egg yolk, some freshly ground nutmeg and salt and pepper. Mix well and gently pour over the top of the aubergine and meat, then grate over some Parmesan cheese, dot with a little butter and put in a 180C/160 Fan oven for about half an hour, or until nicely browned.
Remove and allow to cool a little before serving. Carefully spoon the moussaka onto a plate. There was enough here for two modest portions, though I have to confess it was so good I went back for seconds and will finish up the leftovers at lunchtime tomorrow.
I made a nice crisp green salad to go with it. Moussaka is quite rich so a fresh salad accompaniment works well. It was a great success; SO delicious. It wasn’t quite the same as eating moussaka on the edge of the Ionian Sea on a warm summer’s evening in Greece but it was warm, comforting, and oh so good. I like the warming cinnamon spice in the meat, the soft aubergine, the slightly crisp cheesy topping and the creamy custard. How it all comes together so well, I don’t understand. But it does!! And it’s definitely one of my all-time favourite dishes – and it’s always a big hit with family too who never seem to tire of my cooking it.