A classic Greek moussaka is a special treat. Layers of silky eggplant and rich meat sauce kissed with a whiff of cinnamon form the base. That's topped with a thick, creamy layer of cheesy béchamel sauce that just melts in your mouth. This is a dish to make when you want to impress, but it's also easy enough to make a big batch and have some extra to serve for a weekday supper.
This month for our 'Eat the World' recipe challenge we head off to the sun-kissed shores of Greece, home of ancient cultures, rich mythology, and unsurpassed beauty. Greece has a special place in my heart - it's the first European country I visited - many eons ago. Raymond and I were dating at the time, and we each bought a large traveler's backpack, rolled up a sleeping bag, packed some shorts and t-shirts, and headed off on our first grand adventure. The experiences of that trip are vividly burned into my memory. No matter where in the world we've traveled since, nothing will ever come close to the wonder and discovery of a journey that opened my eyes to what mysteries lay waiting to be discovered in foreign lands.
The stunning beauty of Greece is a siren call that lures me back. Brilliant blue ocean only matched by an even more brilliant blue sky, dazzling white houses with aquamarine trim, pots of bright red geraniums, miles of silvery olive groves, stunning ancient ruins, donkeys laden with baskets, smiling old men playing cards in the shade, smiling old women leading the donkeys home from the fields, the ever present humming of the cicadas, the hot, hot sun beating down, cooling dips in that blue sea, and wonderful meals in every village, cooked the same way they'd been prepared for centuries.
We were living on a budget, so our meals were of necessity the simple peasant food that didn't cost much - unknowingly the best we could have found. We ate in little out-of-the way tavernas where the local fishermen and farmers ate, tucked at the edges of olive groves or in winding cobbled back streets. The strumming bouzouki music and heavenly aroma would call us to follow our noses to the promise of a feast for our stomachs and our senses. Large pots of meltingly soft meats and vegetables, stewed with lashings of olive oil and savoury Mediterranean herbs, simple but so rich with flavour, were prepared with love by the mamas and grandmas that made them the same way their mamas and grandmas before them did.
We'd seat ourselves at a small table decked with a checkered plastic cloth, a stubby burned down candle, and a decanter of red wine vinegar and fruity green olive oil. Every meal began with a Greek salad - not the Greek salad we eat here in North America, but a simple side plate with a few slices of fresh sweet cucumber, a pile of sun-ripened tomato chunks, maybe a bit of raw onion, and topped with a handful of salty black olives and some big crumbled chunks of feta. The plate would either already be dressed with a splash of vinegar and a liberal dousing of olive oil, or you'd do it yourself. No lettuce, no green peppers, no oregano, nothing else. Just cucumbers, tomatoes, olives, and feta. Simple. But so memorable. To this day I love my Greek salads just like that.
This would be followed by moussaka.
The two basic dishes - the equivalent of fast food in Greece - that were always on offer in every Greek taverna were a big tray of rice-stuffed baked tomatoes and a huge pan of moussaka. Oh, that moussaka! Rich ground lamb layered with lusciously silky eggplant, fragrant with that exotic taste of cinnamon in a savoury dish, all tucked under a dreamy blanket of creamy white custard - it was an intoxicating meal I couldn't get enough of. I'm sure we ate it almost every day (the fact that it was so cheap didn't hurt either). The flavours and textures were so new and exciting to me.
Fast forward a few decades, and I still love moussaka just as much. Yes, it takes a bit of work, and a bit of time to prepare, but it's simple if you break it down into its separate bits.
And it is so worth it.
Making moussaka is definitely a labour of love - it involves several different components, but they aren't difficult to make and can be prepared ahead. While you're making the moussaka anyway, it's worthwhile making the full batch for serving a crowd, or make it in two smaller pans and serve one to your family or for entertaining a smaller group, and freeze the second pan for a special meal later.
Can You Make Moussaka Ahead of Time?
Yes! This is a great dish for entertaining. Make it ahead of time and refrigerate it or even freeze it and your guests will never know it wasn't made fresh just before they came. You have a few options, and they all make your life much easier:
- You can prepare the eggplants and meat sauce 1 to 2 days ahead of time, then make the béchamel sauce and assemble and bake the moussaka on the day you plan to serve it.
- You can make the whole moussaka 1 to 2 days ahead of time, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it. Then on the day you need it, you can bake it and serve it.
- You can make the whole moussaka, cover it well, and freeze it for up to 3 months. Then on the day you need it, you can remove the plastic, and pop it into the oven fully frozen. It will need 20 to 25 minutes longer cooking time than an unfrozen moussaka.
- You can fully bake the moussaka, let it cool, then cut portions, wrap them individually in plastic food wrap, and freeze them on a baking sheet. When frozen, pop them into a large ziptop freezer bag and remove portions as you need them for quick and easy meals or lunches. Just thaw and reheat in the oven until warmed through, or bake from frozen for 25 to 30 minutes.
How To Make a Moussaka
You will need three components which are layered to make a moussaka. Think of it as a Greek Eggplant Lasagna.
- Tender, silky eggplant slices, traditionally fried in olive oil, make a moussaka unique. (We're going broil them or grill them to simplify the process and make the dish less oily.)
- These are layered with a rich meat sauce characterized by the typically Greek flavours of cinnamon, oregano, and bay leaf, making it complex and delicious.
- The eggplant and meat layers are all topped with a thick, luscious layer of cheesy custard - basically a white sauce (béchamel) that's augmented with cheese and beaten eggs to help it set when baked, so it can be sliced into rich golden squares. The top of the béchamel gets caremelized and slightly crisp - this is a dish to wow your guests.
Prepare the Eggplants
Instead of lasagna noodles, you're going to slice up 4 eggplants and brown them - not only healthier, but really tasty, too. Eggplants used to be quite bitter and needed to be salted to draw out the bitterness, but modern day eggplants have had the bitterness bred out of them so you no longer need to do that. Some people still salt the eggplants, then rinse them to remove the salt, in order to remove excess moisture, but I find you can do without that step if you cook your meat sauce long enough so that it is quite thick and doesn't add extra moisture to the moussaka.
The salted eggplant slices are also traditionally fried in oil - eggplants are oil sponges, and I find that simply broiling the eggplant slices makes for a much lighter moussaka without sacrificing any of the flavour (and it's less messy, too!). Once the eggplant is layered in the moussaka, you can't tell that the slices were broiled rather than fried. You could also make it even easier and grill the eggplant slices on the barbecue, so you can do them all at once.
Make the Meat Sauce
The meat sauce for moussaka is a bit like a regular bolognese sauce, but it has less tomato, is cooked until it's thicker, and is flavoured with the Greek seasonings of oregano, cinnamon, and bay leaves. It is one rich and hearty sauce. Onions, garlic, and red wine help make it even more so.
Ground lamb is the meat traditionally used in Moussaka, but modern versions often use ground beef. If you don't care for the stronger taste of lamb, then beef is a good option for you. It's equally delicious.
And Make the Béchamel Sauce
It's just a fancy French name for a white sauce. But you'll need a lot of it because what makes a moussaka so luscious is that thick layer of silky, cheesy custard on top of it. This sauce is a little different than a normal béchamel sauce, because it is set with eggs, which you temper with a bit of the hot sauce before stirring in, so they don't curdle. It can also have a bit of cheese stirred into it.
Then, Assemble Your Moussaka
Place half the browned eggplants in a single layer in the bottom of a roasting pan, an extra-deep 9 x 13-inch pan, or two 9 x 9-inch baking pans.
Spread on half the meat sauce, then the remaining half of the eggplant slices, and finally the remaining half of the meat sauce. Spread the top nice and smooth.
Pour on the béchamel sauce, and sprinkle with a bit of Parmesan cheese.
Now bake it to burnished golden deliciousness. What a mouthwatering dish of Greek comfort food!
Pour yourself a glass of red wine. Put on a Greek music soundtrack. Loudly call out 'Opa!' and dig your fork through that creamy nutmeg-whiffed top layer and the silky eggplants interspersed within the rich meat layer. The rich tomato, herby oregano, and hint of cinnamon brings to mind the flavours of a sun-kissed Greek island with gnarly olive trees surrounding ancient ruins. There's a little taverna in the distance, wafting out delicious smells and the gentle strains of joyous bouzouki music are calling you to come and pull up a chair.
* * * * *
an 11 x 14-inch baking pan (28 x 35.5cm), a large roasting pan, an extra-deep 9 x 13 inch pan (2½ or 3 inches deep – inside measurement), or two 9 x 9 inch square pans (23 x 23 cm)
a large cookie sheet for broiling the eggplants, plus parchment paper cut to fit into the bottom of the pan
- 4 medium eggplants ~1 lb/454 gms each (4 pounds/1.8kg total)
- ¼ cup (60ml) olive oil
- ¼ cup (60ml) olive oil
- 2 medium onions, finely minced (about 2 cups)
- 4 large cloves garlic, finely minced
- 2 lbs (900gms) lean ground meat (lamb, beef, or a combination of both)
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1½ teaspoons fine sea salt
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon pepper
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 bay leaves
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 large can (800gms/28 oz) peeled whole tomatoes, or 4 packed cups peeled, diced fresh tomatoes
- 1 cup (240ml) red wine
- ½ cup (115gms) butter or ½ cup/120 ml olive oil
- ¾ cup (105gms) sweet rice flour (or all-purpose flour for non gluten-free)
- 5 cups (1.2 litres) milk 2% is fine
- 1 teaspoon fine sea salt
- ½ teaspoon nutmeg
- ¼ teaspoon white pepper
- 1 cup (100gms) grated Parmesan cheese, divided ideally you’d use Greek kefalotyri cheese if you can find it
- 2 large eggs
Prepare the Eggplants:
- These can be broiled 2 to 3 days ahead and kept refrigerated until assembly time. Bring back to room temperature before assembling.
- Preheat the broiler and arrange a rack in the top position of the oven, so it is about 4 inches (10 cm) from the heating element.
- Trim off the stem end and peel away 4 or 5 strips lengthwise down each of the eggplants with a vegetable peeler or paring knife (the peel can be tough – this will make sure it is easier to cut through the moussaka when serving). Slice one of the eggplants into half-inch (1 cm) thick rounds. You’ll only slice enough to fill the pan you are using to broil the eggplants, as they will brown if you cut too many slices ahead.
- Cut a sheet of parchment paper so it just fits into the bottom of a large cookie sheet (trim off any standing-up edges). Lay a single layer of eggplant slices onto the paper – cut more slices from the second eggplant to fill the pan. Pour ¼ cup of olive oil into a small bowl or cup, and use some of it to lightly brush the tops of the eggplant slices. Broil the eggplants until nicely browned (3 to 5 minutes – it will depend on your oven). SET A TIMER! Check at 3 minutes. It’s easy to forget about them! When they are brown enough, remove the pan from the oven, flip over the slices, and brush the tops again lightly with olive oil. Return the pan to the broiler and broil the second side til brown (another 3 to 5 minutes).
- Repeat until all the eggplant slices have been broiled on both sides. If you use the oil sparingly, it will be enough. If you run out, use a little bit extra.
- *Alternately, you can fry the eggplant slices in a skillet, using a little bit of the oil for each batch. You may need more than ¼ cup of oil for frying them. Set the fried eggplant slices onto paper towel to absorb excess oil.
Prepare the Meat Mixture:
- This can be prepared 2 to 3 days ahead and kept refrigerated until assembly time. Bring back to room temperature, or warm slightly so the oil is melted, before assembling.
- Finely chop the onions and garlic (I like to use my mini-chopper). Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed, wide dutch oven or deep skillet. Add the onions and garlic and cook until translucent and golden, 5 to 8 minutes.
- Add the ground meat and cook until it is no longer pink, breaking up any large chunks as it cooks.
- If using canned whole tomatoes, break them up by squishing each tomato in your hands before adding it to the meat mixture.
- Add the rest of the ingredients for the meat layer and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium, and cook, uncovered, for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture is nice and thick. It is ready when most of the liquid has evaporated and only the oil is left bubbling at the bottom – if you pull a spatula through the mixture, it will leave an open track that doesn’t ooze back in to fill up very quickly; only the oil will ooze into the track. Remove the bay leaves.
Prepare the Béchamel Layer:
- Melt the butter in a large saucepan set over medium heat. Add the sweet rice flour (or regular flour) and stir until it is all moistened with butter. It will be dry and clumpy. Add about a quarter cup (50 to 60 ml) of milk and cook and stir until it is all incorporated. Keep adding about that much milk at a time, cooking and stirring after each addition until all the milk is used up. After a few additions of milk, switch to using a whisk and whisk constantly as you add the milk. If you keep whisking and adding the milk in small amounts, you will have a nice smooth béchamel (white sauce).
- Add the salt nutmeg and white pepper, whisking them in til smooth. Let the sauce cook and bubble for 1 minute, stirring constantly.
- Remove the béchamel from the heat and stir in half of the grated parmesan cheese. Let it cool for 5 minutes.
- Whisk the eggs in a bowl, then temper the eggs by adding a big ladleful of the hot béchamel sauce, a little at a time, while whisking constantly. Add about a cup of sauce to the eggs gradually. (This warms up and dilutes the eggs so they don’t curdle when you add them to the hot sauce.)
- Now pour the tempered eggs into the béchamel sauce in a thin stream, whisking constantly while you add them. Cover and set aside til needed.
To Assemble the Moussaka:
- Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Grease the bottom of whatever pan you are using with a little olive oil. (See EQUIPMENT above.)
- Layer half of the eggplant slices in the bottom of the pan, overlapping them slightly if needed to make them fit.
- Add half of the meat mixture, spread it smooth.
- Layer the remaining half of the eggplant slices on top of the meat.
- Add the remaining half of the meat mixture, packing it down and spreading the top smooth to make an even surface for the béchamel sauce.
- Pour the béchamel sauce over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining half cup of parmesan cheese.
- Bake for about 45 minutes, or until the top is bubbling and golden. (If using two smaller pans, you will only need to bake them for about 35 minutes.)
- Leave the moussaka to cool for at least 30 minutes (preferably 45 minutes if it’s baked in one large pan) so the béchamel can set and it slices nicely into even squares.
- Serves 8 to 10.
kalí̱ órexi̱ (guten appetit)
Check out all the wonderful Greek dishes prepared by fellow Eat the World members and share with #eattheworld. Click here to find out how to join and have fun exploring a country a month in the kitchen with us!
Palatable Pastime: Spanakopita Bites
Magical Ingredients: Spanakorizo
Amy’s Cooking Adventures: Greek Cabbage Roll Rice Bowls
A Day in the Life on the Farm: Makaronia me Yiaourti
Pandemonium Noshery: Aginares a la Polita - Greek Artichoke Stew
Sneha’s Recipe: Greek Hot Dogs
Culinary Adventures with Camilla: Skordalia
Sugarlovespices: Greek Spinach and Feta Pie with filo pastry (Spanakopita)
Kitchen Frau: Classic Moussaka
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Check out my past ‘Eat the World’ Recipe Challenge posts:
(in alphabetical order)
- Argentina: Red Chimichurri Sauce
- Bangladesh: Chingri Masala (Shrimp Curry)
- Bulgaria: Patatnik (Savoury Potato and Cheese Pie)
- Cambodia: Noum Kong (Cambodian Rice Flour Doughnuts)
- China: Kung Pao Chicken
- Colombia: Pan de Yuca (Warm Cheese Buns)
- Egypt: Fava Beans and Feta
- England: Gluten Free Fish and Chips and Mushy Peas
- Ethiopia: Four Ethiopian Recipes for a Fantastic Feast
- Fiji: Spiced Sweet Potato and Banana Salad
- Finland: Lohikeitto (Creamy Salmon, Potato, and Dill Soup)
- France: Axoa d’Espelette (A Simple Stew from the Basque Country)
- Georgia: Charkhlis Chogi (Beets with Sour Cherry Sauce)
- Guyana: Fried Tilapia in Oil & Vinegar Sauce (fish dish)
- Hungary: Túrós Csusza (Pasta Scraps with Cottage Cheese)
- India: Kerala Upma (Fluffy, Kerala Style Breakfast Upma Recipe)
- Iraq: Tepsi Baytinijan (Eggplant & Meatball Casserole)
- Ireland: Dublin Coddle (A tasty Sausage and Potato Stew)
- Israel: Cucumber, Feta, and Watermelon Salad
- Jamaica: Rice and Peas (Coconut Rice and Red Beans)
- Kenya: Maharagwe with Ugali (Red Beans with Cornmeal Slice)
- Laos: Ping Gai (Lao Grilled Chicken Wings)
- Lesotho: Chakalaka & Pap (Veggie & Bean Stew with Cornmeal Polenta)
- Luxembourg: Stäerzelen (Buckwheat Dumplings)
- Mexico: Cochinita Pibil Tacos (Pit Barbecued Pig to Make in Your Oven)
- Netherlands: Boerenkool Stamppot (Kale-Potato Mash with Sausages & Pears)
- New Zealand: Classic Pavlova
- Poland: Polish Honey Cake
- Portugal: Tuna and Sardine Pâtés
- Puerto Rico: Piña Colada Cocktail
- Scotland: Cranachan (Raspberry, Whisky & Oat Cream Parfaits)
- Senegal: Mafé (Beef and Peanut Stew)
- Sudan: Peanut Butter Creamed Spinach & Peanut Meringue Cookies
- Sweden: Swedish Meatballs with Cream Gravy
- Switzerland (Christmas): Basler Leckerli Cookies
- Thailand: Shrimp Laksa (Khung)
- Trinidad & Tobago: Peanut Butter Prunes
- Ukraine: Buckwheat Kasha with Beef
- United States (Soul Food): Smothered Pork Chops
- Uruguay: Torta de Fiambre (Baked Ham & Cheese Sandwiches)
- Vietnam: Caramelized Pork Rice Bowls