“Moussaka is meant to be served lukewarm. This allows the flavors to meld and the layers to solidify a bit. I can, however, testify that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a mouthful of hot moussaka.”
It’s a fact frequently bandied about in food-loving circles that every cuisine has its own dumpling—the Italian ravioli, the Jewish kreplach, the Korean mandu and so on. But less often discussed is the casserole, that comforting one-dish meal that is almost as universal. From Morocco’s tagine to Japan’s hot pot to France’s cassoulet, these tend to have a layered complexity that distinguishes one from another. And yet, isn’t moussaka just shepherd’s pie that’s gone on an odyssey? Versions of this Ottoman Empire salmagundi are eaten all over Greece, Turkey, Serbia and Bulgaria, but the Greek one, like the most authentic Italian lasagne, is distinguished by an indulgent layer of rich béchamel.
The latter day moussaka is attributed to Nikolaos Tselementes, an influential Greek chef of the early 20th century who returned to his homeland after stints cooking in Austria and America. Its combination of eggplant (aubergine), lamb, tomatoes and sharp, sweet spices is all Greek to me. A foundation of sautéed sliced eggplant supports a pool of ground lamb cooked with tomatoes and aromatics, which is then crowned by that creamy white sauce and baked until brown and bubbly.
Variations are legion. Potatoes are sometimes called for, as are zucchini, currants, breadcrumbs and all manner of superfluous ingredients. In her seminal Mediterranean Cookery, Elizabeth David substitutes the béchamel with a cheese-dusted egg custard. The recipe that follows here lands somewhere in the middle, with a béchamel that’s further enriched by the addition of an egg yolk and a few spoonfuls of thick yogurt. Let’s think of this as a neo-classical approach.
Moussaka is meant to be served lukewarm. This allows the flavors to meld and the layers to solidify a bit. I can, however, testify that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a mouthful of hot moussaka.
14 ounces tomatoes, canned or fresh, peeled
1/2 pound ground pastured lamb
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup red wine
3/4 pound eggplant (aubergine), cut crosswise into 1/4″-thick slices
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 generous cup whole organic milk
1 bay leaf
freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
Purée the tomatoes in a blender and set aside. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a large heavy saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the lamb, cayenne, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and a little sea salt and pepper and cook, stirring to break up the meat, until browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer lamb to a large strainer set over a bowl and drain; discard any liquid left in the pot. Return pot to the heat and add another glug of olive oil along with the garlic and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until almost evaporated, 10-15 minutes. Add the pureed tomatoes and lamb and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until thickened, about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set sauce aside.
Heat about a quarter cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Working in batches, add the eggplant slices and fry, turning occasionally, until tender and browned, about 5 minutes. Transfer eggplant slices to paper towels.
To make the béchamel sauce, melt butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until pale and smooth, about 2 minutes. Still whisking, add the milk in a steady stream; add the bay leaf and cook, whisking often, until reduced to about 1 cup, 15 minutes or less. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg, and discard the bay leaf. Let sauce cool for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the yogurt and egg yolk and whisk this into sauce until smooth.
Heat oven to 400°. Spread a few spoonfuls of the sauce over the bottom of an ovenproof casserole. Lay the eggplant slices on top, season with salt and pepper, and then cover with the meat sauce. Pour the béchamel over the top of the meat sauce and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Sprinkle Parmesan evenly over the top and bake until browned and bubbly, 45–50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving (if you can wait that long).
Words and photography by Laura Silverman