Hello hello everyone and welcome back to the Umami for Days show, where you can always count on me to prattle for at least 3 paragraphs about the niceties of my daily life before prattling some more to tell you all about what I’ve been noshing on lately. Today’s we're talking about the mighty and mysterious Moussaka!
Moussaka is an elusive character in terms of origin with multicultural roots spanning Greece, the Balkans, the Levant, and the Middle East. A friend from Lebanon tells me she grew up knowing it as originating from Greece, and so much googling on my part turned up nothing conclusive enough to mention here. But while one can’t be certain on where moussaka was dreamed up, nobody would doubt that it’s dreamy! [A veritable language playground just brimming with important food facts, this blog!] If I had to describe this hearty three-layer casserole in just two words they would be "so meaty.” But with a couple more I'd describe it as fragrant with spices, rich with tomato sauce, made lush by a layer of custardy béchamel.
A quick image search might give you the impression that this moussaka will serve up in perfect little squares almost like a lemon bar, and yours very well might if you make a point of aiming for such a results by using a square pan, waiting for the dish to cool to room temperature after baking, and focusing on precise slicing and serving. We, on the other hand, scooped up our helpings as soon as possible (i.e., after a 15 minute rest out of the oven), allowing them to tumble into messy piles of spicy, meaty goodness on our dinner plates, and we don’t regret a thing.
This recipe, while not requiring any heavy lifting in terms of technique, does entail quite a few steps that cannot be abbreviated (in my experience, at least). I wouldn’t say that it requires a lot of effort, but it certainly takes a good bit of time, as you have to prepare all of the components for the three layers (meat, eggplant, béchamel) separately before you assemble and then bake for almost an hour, with a 15 minute rest prior to eating. But ohhh sweet nuthin', what can I even say? The time you’ll spend is worth it, worth it, worth it. The finished product is both grand and homey, all at once. We’ve made it three times in as many months, and are now on a bit of a Moussaka kick. I’m eyeing this recipe for the next go round because a base layer of potatoes does sound like it would do so well here, especially considering our household consensus of veg > meat. You know you’ll be hearing all about it when I do. Cheers and happy cooking!
A few recipe observations (because ya know I just can’t resist):
Meat: The original recipe called for 1 lb of lamb and 1 lb of beef, but we aren’t big fans of ground lamb (i.e., I tolerate it in the name of trying new recipes, but Cos doesn’t like it at all.) I used all beef for every iteration.
Portions: The first time I made this I used a short 2 lbs of ground beef and made the full recipe; this made for faaaar too many leftovers for us and I got some intense indigestion trying to take them down on my own over a week of lunches. (#SmellsFromTheCubicle) The second time, I halved the recipe so only needed 1 lb of beef, and it worked well. Most recently, I tried making the full recipe with only 1 lb of beef, and while all the flavors still nailed our expectations, the béchamel way overwhelmed the meat. If you, like us, know that 2 lbs of meat will yield too many servings for you and yours, just go ahead and halve the recipe and cook it in an 8x8-ish pan or small dutch oven.
Custardy Béchamel: We are a house divided on the texture of custard, and Cos is on the “ehh” side of the fence. The first two times, I told him (nicely) to get over it and eat his supper. The third time I relented (I aim to please here, guys) and used only 1 egg in the béchamel, boiling it down a bit more on the stove so that it would set up solidly without the second egg. Keep this in mind if you’re like Cos and don’t care much for the texture of custard.
Cloves: I’m not a fan of the flavor this spice imparts, and only ever use it begrudgingly in my single, annual pumpkin pie. I left it out here and did not miss it, plenty of spice otherwise.
Moussaka, adapted from the Seven Spoons cookbook
Eggplant and Meat Filling:
¼ cup (60 ml) mild olive oil
2 medium globe eggplants, sliced into discs ¼ inch (6 mm) thick
Black pepper, freshly ground if you have it
2 lb (910 g) ground beef, lamb, or both
1 large onion, white or red, diced
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 ½ tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves (optional, see note above)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Leaves picked from 4 sprigs of thyme
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1 ½ cup (120 ml) water
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, leaves and tender stems, chopped
3 cups (710 ml) milk, preferably whole fat
¼ cup (60 g) butter
¼ cup (30 g) all-purpose flour
½ cup (50 g) grated Pecorino Romano or kefalotyri cheese
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Black pepper, freshly ground if you have it
1-2 eggs, lightly beaten (see note above)
Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).
Prepare the eggplant. Grease one large baking sheet (or two if necessary) with a thin coating of olive oil. Place the sliced eggplant on the pan in a single layer, then brush lightly with more olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and bake until golden and pliable, about 30 minutes. Set the eggplant aside, but leave the oven on.
Prepare the meat filling. In a large Dutch oven or heavy pot with a lid, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the ground meat(s) and cook, breaking it up with a spoon, until it is browned and most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 to 15 minutes. Add the diced onion and cook, stirring intermittently, until the onion is translucent, about 5 more minutes. Stir in the garlic and cook for 2 more minutes. Turn the heat down to medium and splash in the red wine vinegar, scraping up any brown bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook until the vinegar has mostly evaporated. Gather up a third of the roasted eggplant and chop or tear into small pieces. Add them to the meat mixture. Stir in the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, coriander, thyme, oregano, and cloves (if using), and cook until fragrant, less than a minute. Season with salt and pepper. Scoot the meat over towards one side of the pan to make a bit of clear space at the bottom of the pan and add the tomato paste, smearing and scraping the paste across the hot surface so that it cooks and darkens, 1 to 2 minutes. Incorporate the paste into the meat mixture, then add the tomatoes and water and bring to a boil. Once the mixture is boiling, reduce to a simmer and cover. Let it bubble away, stirring now and again, until the béchamel is ready. Add a little more water if it starts to get too dry, a tablespoon or so at a time.
Make the béchamel. Warm up the milk in a glass measuring cup in the microwave (I did for 2-3 minutes), or in a pot on the stove. [Note: I’m willing to bet that you could skip this step altogether, especially if you measure out the milk and leave it out on the counter when you preheat the oven so that it’s no longer ice cold. Though I haven’t tested this theory, I don’t usually pre-warm my milk when making béchamel otherwise. I just happened to here in the spirit of following directions well.] Either way, it should be just under boiling (if you choose to heat it). Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat. Once fully melted, whisk in the flour and cook, stirring constantly, until it has picked up a little bit of color, about 3 minutes. Slowly pour in the milk, whisking all the while. Continue to cook, stirring, until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens. If you plan to only use one egg (see note above), boil it it down a little more now. Stir in grated cheese and nutmeg, then taste and season with salt and pepper. Set the béchamel aside for a few minutes.
Assemble the dish. Check the meat for seasoning. [Note: Tara says here, “it may need a surprising amount.” I found that it did need a surprising amount every time.] Stir in the chopped parsley. Assemble the moussaka directly in the Dutch oven, or in a 9x13 inch baking dish. Layer the roasted eggplant slices on top of the meat mixture. Temper the egg(s) by stirring in some of the warm béchamel, then stir the egg mixture back into the rest of the sauce. Pour this over the eggplant and meat. Bake until the edges are bubbling and the top is well browned, 40-45 minutes. Let stand for 15 minutes, then serve with a simple salad or (if you’re like us) a pile of roasted vegetables.