Monday, October 20, 2014

The Greek Mousakas

There is a lot of dispute among Greeks over what is a proper mousakas and even greater over what constitutes the perfect one.

Mousakas’ roots are not Greek—you can find versions of the dish in Arab/Middle Eastern and Balcan countries. It was Greek-ified in the first half of the 20th century by the French-trained Greek gastronomist Nikolaos Tselementes, who added the delicious, yet so un-Greek at the time, béchamel sauce on top of the layered dish and introduced it to Greek home-cooks through his cookbooks. Mousakas became part of Greek cuisine ever since, as did the béchamel sauce, that made its appearance on top of other Greek dishes like pastitsio.

Greek mousakas (μουσακάς) is commonly made with minced beef/veal sauce, fried eggplants, kefalotyri cheese and is topped off with an egg-enriched béchamel sauce. But then there are other versions including eggplant and potatoes, or eggplant and zucchini, or all three. My family’s version is the last one.

You will find many versions of mousaka among Greek homes and in restaurants or tavernas. A lot of them will not be good, most of them will have the wrong type of béchamel sauce that’s too thick, others that will be filled with grease and an inordinate amount of olive oil. Mousakas must be anything but oily and greasy and unsavory. It should be characterized as meaty, honeyed rich and luscious.

The meat sauce is traditionally rather rich in sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves, but my version is a little lighter. It is mostly tomato based rather than spiced, and it lends itself to a lighter mousaka. The eggplants, potatoes and zucchinis are all fried but yet are not as heavy as you would expect. Of course, being Greek and having grown up with this dish, I’m used to eating it, so to be honest, there will be some of you who may find it heavy.

To me this is the better mousakas—of course every Greek cook will say the same thing about theirs but, oh well. The different layers of potato, zucchini, eggplant, alternating with meat sauce and a good sprinkling of kefalotyri cheese, make for a more interesting combination of flavors that work together beautifully and harmoniously. The very strict, traditional moussakas of just eggplant and meat sauce, is to me just a tad one-dimensional and even though I enjoy it, I prefer this one more.

The béchamel sauce on top is creamy and rich but not heavy, rather airy as it soufflés up in the oven. Granted, to make a good béchamel is not easy, you need to practice, however, once you get the hang of it and feel for it, then you’re okay. Following the recipe always helps.

Mousakas is the ultimate home-cooked dish. I certainly feel sorry for all those tourists having to suffer through eating mousaka in many touristy areas around Greece, eating those awful specimens of mousaka that are oily and heavy and not at all what a mousakas should be. So for those of you who would like to taste the real thing, do make this one and let me know how you liked it.

Greek Mousakas

Mousakas is all about balance of layers. The most important element/layer of mousaka for me is the béchamel. It shouldn’t be too thick nor too thin, and it should be rich and creamy.

Even though eggplant and zucchini are summer vegetables, this dish is made all year round in Greece. It is super comforting on a chilly autumn and winter evening.

Traditionally, the cheese used in this dish is Kefalotyri, a hard, yellow Greek cheese made from raw goat or sheep's milk that has a slightly salty, sharp flavor and aroma. If you can’t find it, use Pecorino or Parmesan.

Greeks always choose veal over beef, we don’t particularly enjoy the mature flavor of beef, but you can use either.

Yield: 6-8 servings / for a medium-sized baking dish 31x25cm, 6-7cm deep (the size of the dish is important so try to use a similar-sized dish)


for the meat sauce
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, sliced
500 g minced veal or beef (it shouldn’t be too fatty)
Freshly ground black pepper
½ tsp sweet paprika
Pinch of sugar
½ cup passata (tomato pulp)
2 heaped Tbsp tomato paste
½ cup hot water

for the vegetables
4 medium-sized potatoes, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
2 medium-sized eggplants, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
2 large zucchini, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
Sunflower oil, for frying

for the béchamel sauce
100 g unsalted butter
100 g all-purpose flour
1 liter fresh whole milk
2 medium-sized eggs
White pepper, 3-4 grinds of the mill
3 Tbsp grated Kefalotyri

More grated Kefalotyri (about 5 Tbsp), for sprinkling on top of each vegetable layer and on top of the béchamel (50-60 g cheese in total for the whole dish)

Special equipment: kitchen paper, medium-sized baking dish 31x25cm, 6-7cm deep


make the meat sauce
Heat the olive oil in a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed saucepan, over medium-high heat. Sauté the onions for about 5 minutes, until they become soft and translucent and then add the garlic. Sauté for 1 minute and add the minced meat. Sauté for 4-5 minutes, stirring continuously with a spoon or spatula, until browned. Season with salt and black pepper, add the sweet paprika and sugar and stir well. Then add the passata and tomato paste and stir well. Add the water, stir well and let the mixture come to the boil, uncovered. Once it does, cover and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, or until the minced meat is almost cooked.
While the filling is cooking, you need to keep an eye on it, stirring occasionally, because it might need more water. Once cooked, the sauce should not be dry. It must have an average amount of liquid in it in order to permeate the vegetables and give the dish extra flavor.

fry the vegetables
In a wide, shallow frying pan, add as much oil to fill it by ¼. Heat the oil over medium-high heat and when it’s very hot, add the potato slices on one layer and fry them on both sides. Add more oil if needed.

Important note: The potatoes (as well as zucchini and eggplants) need to be cooked by ¾ as they will continue cooking in the oven. Be careful though, especially with the potatoes because you don’t want them to be hard.

Remove the potatoes and place them on kitchen paper to absorb the extra oil. Continue with the rest.
Fry the zucchini and eggplant slices in the exact same manner as the potatoes, placing them afterwards on kitchen paper.

make the béchamel sauce
In a small, heavy-based saucepan, add the butter and melt over a low heat. Add the flour and using a whisk, stir and cook for 2-3 minutes until you have a white roux.
While whisking, pour the milk in the saucepan, turn heat up to medium and allow the mixture to come to the boil, whisking continuously to prevent lumps.
Once the béchamel comes to the boil, turn heat down to low and simmer for 6-7 minutes, stirring with the whisk regularly, until it thickens, being careful that it doesn’t become lumpy or catches. Remove pan from the heat and add the two eggs, whisking vigorously and quickly to incorporate them in the sauce. You need to be super quick doing this because you don’t want your eggs to scramble. You can do it one egg at a time if you prefer. Add the kefalotyri and white pepper, season with salt to your liking and mix well.

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

assemble the mousaka
Eyeball the division of the meat sauce into three portions in order to spread it equally over the three different vegetable layers.

Lay the potatoes on the bottom of the baking dish in one layer. Sprinkle with a little salt and 1 Tbsp kefalotyri. Cover with one portion of meat sauce.
On top of the meat sauce, lay the zucchini slices, in one layer but making sure not to leave gaps between the slices. If some overlap, that’s okay. Sprinkle with a little salt and 1 Tbsp kefalotyri. Cover with another portion of meat sauce.
On top of the meat sauce, lay the eggplant slices, in one layer but making sure not to leave gaps between the slices. If some overlap, that’s okay. Sprinkle with a little salt and 1 Tbsp kefalotyri. Cover with the last portion of meat sauce.
Spread the béchamel sauce on top evenly and smooth the top. Sprinkle with 1-2 Tbsps kefalotyri cheese.

Place the baking dish on the low rack of the preheated oven and bake for 30 minutes, then transfer dish to the middle rack and bake for a further 10-15 minutes or until the béchamel has taken on a golden brown color.
Remove baking dish from the oven and leave to cool before serving. If you try to cut pieces of mousaka while it’s hot, the layers will collapse.
The next day the mousakas will taste even better.

You can keep refrigerated for 2-3 days or in the freezer (in an airtight container) for 2-3 weeks.
You can reheat individual pieces.