Moussaka is the renowned, classic dish of the Greeks. It’s their timeless comfort food akin to our meatloaf or the Italian’s lasagna. Although I love Greek food in general (oregano, feta, lamb, yogurt, etc.), the combination of these ingredients in this way was something I’d never had before and it’s been on my culinary bucket list forever.
Now that eggplants are in season, in gorgeous varieties, and I had the better half of last Sunday for the kitchen, there wasn’t going to be a better time to try. Moussaka is notoriously difficult and time intensive. I read several tips and purist demands as well as shortcuts and substitutions. I believe the end result is both reverent to its history while making some adaptations to keep the time and taste approachable for people like me. I have to be honest though, it still took two hours to multi-task and get the ingredients ready at the same time, ready to bake. This is better than the three hour average I’d read about, but I don’t know that I’ll revisit the endeavor until an especially Greek occasion calls for it.
As for the taste, I love it. Taking the time to properly prepare the eggplant makes it’s star role silky and savory, without being bitter or spongy. The spices are unusual in a curious and addictive way. My palate was surprised in a way it isn’t often and I wanted bite after bite. The bechemel sauce makes the whole thing rich and delicate at the same time. This is better the second day, so if you can help it, save some to heat up again and you’ll have an incredible reunion.
This recipe makes enough for a large 14″ lasagna pan or two 8″x8″ pans. I did two pans. One 8″x8″ pan served 6, so I didn’t bake the second one and covered it in plastic wrap and foil and put it in the freezer for a lazy night later.
1 14-oz can crushed or diced tomatoes, undrained
4 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/3 lb ground lamb, turkey, or beef
2 Tbs tomato paste
1/2 tsp cayenne
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1⁄4 tsp ground ginger
1⁄4 tsp ground allspice
1 tsp oregano
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 medium yellow onions, finely chopped
3 medium eggplants
2 russet potatoes, cut into 1⁄4″-thick slices
2 cups ricotta
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
4 Tbs butter
1/4 tsp nutmeg
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Begin by preparing the eggplants. You can peel them or leave the skins on. I half-peeled them, leaving 1 inch strips of skin around each one. Cut them crosswise into 1⁄4″-thick slices. Place them in a large colander, sprinkling liberally with salt between each layer, then put a small plate with a heavy weight on top – this will draw out any excess juices and remove the bitter taste. Let set for 1 hour.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 6-qt. pot over medium-high heat. Add the lamb, cayenne, oregano, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, and 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 the remaining olive oil along with the onions and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, tomato paste, and lamb and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer about 30 minutes. Remove from the heat and set meat sauce aside.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Rinse the eggplant slices after they’ve sat for an hour in the colander. Pat dry on paper towels. Brush a baking sheet with olive oil. Coat each side of sliced eggplant with olive oil then season slices with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place the eggplant slices on cookie sheets (I did 2 at a time) and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the baking sheet and set aside on a plate. Repeat with all eggplant slices and add the potato slices to the last pan to bake with the last eggplant slices.
Next, make the béchemel sauce. Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until pale and smooth, 2 minutes. Whisking constantly, add the milk in a steady stream until incorporated. Cook, whisking often, until reduced to 2 cups, about 15 minutes. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Let sauce cool for 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together the ricotta and eggs and whisk into sauce until smooth.
Now, to assemble! Place the reserved potato slices in the bottom of a lasagna pan or two 8″x8″ pans and season with salt and pepper. Put half of the eggplant slices on top, and then cover with half of the meat sauce. Repeat with the second half of the eggplant slices and the last of the meat sauce. Pour the béchamel over the top of the meat sauce and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Bake until browned and bubbly, 45–50 minutes. Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.