(photo: Michael Ruhlman)
Difficulty: Labor Intensive
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 2:15 hours
Moussaka (the stress is on the last syllable) is a baked lamb and eggplant casserole covered with a thick layer of béchamel sauce that becomes golden and crusty. It can be made with other ingredients besides eggplant, such as beef or zucchini, potatoes, or artichokes. Mousakka is the best known of all Greek foods. Greeks believe that mousakka was introduced when the Arabs brought the eggplant, although Arabs, especially in Lebanon, think of it as a Greek dish. Mousakka is also found in Turkey.
No one knows what the origin of mousakka is, but the following recipe from the thirteenth-century Arabic cookbook known as the Baghdad cookery book was proposed by the writer Reay Tannahill in her book Food in History as the ancestor of mousakka.
Maghmūma or Muqaṭṭaca
Cut fat meat small. Slice the tail thin and chop up small. Take onions and eggplant, peel, half-boil, and also cut up small: these may, however, be peeled and cut up into the meat-pot, and not be boiled separately. Make a layer of the tail at the bottom of the pan, then put on top of it a layer of meat: drop in fine-ground seasonings, dry coriander, cummin, caraway, pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. On top of the meat put a layer of eggplant and onion: repeat, until only about four or five fingers’ space remain in the pot. Sprinkle over each layer the ground seasonings as required. Mix best vinegar with a little water and a trifle of saffron, and add to the pan so as to lie to a depth of two or three fingers on top of the meat and other ingredients. Leave to settle over the fire: then remove.
It seems likely that the Greek mousakka has Arab origins and is related to the Levantine musakhkhan (a chicken and onion casserole wrapped in thin flat bread), with the word mousakka perhaps derived from this Arab word.
One potential problem with making a traditional mousakka is the amount of fat that might remain after baking. To avoid this I’ve developed this recipe, which removes a lot of fat, but also retains the authentic flavor.
For the eggplants
3 pounds eggplant, sliced 1/3-inch thick
½ to ¾ cup extra virgin olive oil
For the meat
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 ½ pounds ground lamb
½ cup dry white wine
1 large tomato (about ½ pound), peeled, seeded, and chopped
¼ cup finely chopped fresh parsley leaves
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
1 bay leaf
3 whole cloves
1 teaspoon sugar
1 small cinnamon stick
¼ teaspoon freshly ground allspice berries
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large egg whites (save the yolks for the white sauce), beaten to form stiff peaks
2 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
For the white sauce
9 tablespoons unsalted butter
9 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
3 cups milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup freshly grated kefalotyri or kashkaval cheese
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
2 large egg yolks
To finish the mousakka
1 teaspoon unsalted butter
2 tablespoons dried breadcrumbs
- Heat a lightly oiled cast iron griddle over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. Brush each slice of eggplant on both sides and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes a side. Brush and cook the remaining slices. Remove and set aside on a paper towel-lined platter to absorb more of the oil.
- In a medium skillet, brown the lamb over medium heat until it loses most of its fat, about 10 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon, pressing down each scoop with the back of a wooden spoon to squeeze out more fat. Clean the skillet, then heat 2 tablespoons olive oil over medium-high heat and cook the onion and garlic until translucent, 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently so the garlic doesn’t burn. Add the meat and crumble it further with a wooden spoon. Add the wine, tomatoes, parsley, oregano, bay leaf, cloves, sugar, cinnamon stick, allspice, and salt and pepper, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, then cook until the meat is soft and flavorful, about 30 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf and cinnamon stick. Cool, then fold in the beaten egg whites and 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs and blend well.
- Make a thick white sauce by melting 9 tablespoons butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Form a roux by stirring in 9 tablespoons flour and cook until very light golden, about 3 minutes. Take the saucepan pan off the heat and slowly whisk in the milk. Return to a medium heat and cook until thick, 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding the grated cheese at some point. Reduce the heat if it is bubbling. Stir in some grated nutmeg and the egg yolks. Turn the heat off.
- Preheat the oven to 400ºF.
- Lightly butter the bottom and sides of a 9 x 12 x 2 baking dish and sprinkle 1 tablespoon of breadcrumbs over the bottom shaking and tilting the dish so all sides are lightly coated with breadcrumbs. Line the bottom of the baking dish with two layers of eggplant slices, cover with the meat sauce and layer the remaining eggplant slices on top. Cover with the white sauce and then sprinkle the remaining 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs on top. Bake until the top is golden, about 30 minutes. Remove from the oven. As there still may be a good deal of fat remaining, cut out a two-inch section from the mousakka in one of the corners, then rest the baking dish tilted so that liquid runs to that corner. After several minutes spoon away any accumulated fat and continue to let the fat run into the corner for another 30 minutes. Place the mousakka in a warm oven until ready to serve.
Makes 6 servings