20 September 2010

Making moussaka

Moussaka is a Greek casserole (in French, a gratin) of eggplant slices and a meat sauce made with tomatoes, onion, garlic, herbs, and spices. The spices — cinnamon and nutmeg, along with parsley and bay leaves — give the sauce and the dish a distinctive flavor. The eggplant is pre-cooked, either in the oven or in a skillet, with olive oil. After the casserole is baked in the oven, the eggplant is soft and succulent.

Eggplants/aubergines from the vegetable garden

This recipe, which is a French version of moussaka, calls for putting a layer of sliced potatoes on the bottom of the casserole. The potato slices give the moussaka an added dimension. They form a sort of pie crust on the bottom of the baking dish.

A layer of partially cooked potato slices for the bottom of the dish...

...and a layer of partially cooked eggplant slices over that

We almost never buy eggplants (called "aubergines" — the French word — by the British) but we grow them in our vegetable garden here in Saint-Aignan. For us, moussaka is a once-a-year treat these days. It's one of the first rituals of fall, or late summer, when the eggplant crop comes in, and there are fresh tomatoes from the garden to cook with them.

A sauce of ground meat, tomatoes, spices, and aromatics

The best moussaka is made with ground lamb, but ground beef works fine too. The cinnamon and nutmeg, along with tomatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs, give whatever meat you use a good flavor. I've never tried it, but I'm sure moussaka would be very good made with ground turkey. Last year, I posted a recipe for a kind of moussaka using zucchini instead of eggplant. That would be courgettes instead of aubergines...

A layer of thick cheese sauce goes over the top...

...with some more grated cheese to make a good crust

Julia Child has a fancy French recipe for moussaka in her Mastering the Art... and The French Chef books, and a simpler one in The Way to Cook. She adds chopped mushrooms to the sauce, which would be good. She says she uses either mozzarella or Swiss cheese in the sauce. You could also use grated parmesan in the sauce or on top.

Moussaka as it comes out of the oven

Here's my translation/adaptation of the French recipe I used to make the moussaka in the pictures here.

with sliced potatoes

3 or 4 eggplants/aubergines (2¼ lbs.)
1 lb. ground meat (lamb, beef, turkey, etc.)
4 tomatoes (1 lb.), chopped
½ lb. (or more) potatoes, sliced
3 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
olive oil for frying
3 Tbsp. chopped parsley
a pinch of nutmeg
½ tsp. cinnamon
2 bay leaves
½ cup red wine
½ cup grated swiss cheese

For the cheese sauce:
4 Tbsp. flour
4 Tbsp. butter
2½ cups milk (or more)
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 egg yolk
½ cup grated swiss cheese

Cut the eggplants into rounds ¼-inch thick. Put the slices in a colander, salt them generously, and let them disgorge or “sweat” for an hour.

Meanwhile, peel the potatoes and cut them into thin slices. Peel the tomatoes if you want.

Make the meat sauce. In a skillet or wok, cook the chopped onion and garlic in olive oil until they’re transparent and just starting to turn a golden brown. Add the ground meat (lamb, beef, turkey, etc.) and season it with salt, pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Let it cook for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Then stir in the chopped tomatoes, some chopped parsley, the red wine, and the tomato paste. Let it all cook together for15 minutes longer, until nearly all the liquid has evaporated. Set it aside.

After an hour, rinse and pat dry the eggplant slices. Arrange them in a single layer on a baking sheet brushed with olive oil. Brush the tops of the slices with olive oil. Put the baking sheet in a 400ºF/200ºC oven for ten to 15 minutes, until the vegetables are softened and starting to brown. Do the same with the sliced potatoes. If you prefer, you can cook the eggplant and potato slices by batches in a skillet with olive oil instead of in the oven.

Make the cheese sauce in a separate pan by cooking flour in melted butter for a minute or two, and then gradually stirring in milk (+ some cream if you want it rich) until you have a thick, creamy sauce. Add salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg. Off the heat, stir in the egg yolk and the grated cheese.

Putting the moussaka together
Put the pre-cooked potato slices in a layer in the bottom of a baking dish. Then put on a layer of pre-cooked eggplant slices (half the total you are using). Spoon half of the meat sauce over all.

Put on another layer of eggplant slices and another layer of meat sauce. Finally, pour the thick cheese sauce over the top and smooth it out with a spoon or spatula.

Cooking the moussaka
Set the baking dish in the oven at 350ºF/180°C for 45 minutes. After about 20 minutes, sprinkle grated cheese over the top and let it melt and turn golden brown.

Take the cooked moussaka out of the oven and let it rest at room temperature for at least 10 minutes before you serve it. It’s good accompanied by a green salad dressed with vinaigrette. And bread and red wine, of course.


  1. Mouth watering good! Yummy!

  2. Wow, Ken, that looks fabulous! All of those fresh ingredients... yummm!


  3. Moussaka is one of my favorite dishes. This year you have grown your own potatoes for it- I bet it is better than ever.

    Your eggplants look beautiful! Thanks for the recipe.

  4. And now I am starving. This sounds so delicious! I'm reading your blog, as usual, before breakfast. But I really need to go downstairs and eat something! Not moussaka, yet. But maybe later today! I've never tried these potatoes on the bottom of the dish. But I will.

    I've been dehydrating a lot of plum tomatoes, peppers and onions because we have so much just now. I just use these in soup in the winter months. Or snacks!

  5. Ah, a good warming dish for these crisp Fall days! Today is forcast to get up to 84F only. The cool air will feel good.

    Finally back on e-mail after the move.

  6. I agree with all the 'yummy' votes. My grocery shopping will have to include some meat - perhaps turkey so I can make a moussaka this week, too. I thought for sure you added more cheese that the amount stated in the recipe. Your dish looks sooo "comforty" for these cool autumn evenings.

  7. Hi Bill, glad you made it to your new home and are getting set up and settled. 84! Is that degrees Kelvin? Sounds hot to me. Actually, we're supposed to hit 80 today, before temperatures plunge tomorrow and rain comes in.

    Kristi, I plan to dry/dehydate some of our tomatoes in the oven this afternoon and evening. We did that successfully last year and they were delicious.

    Mary, the moussaka has very little cheese in it, actually. And you know, you could make something similar without using meat at all. Just some chopped mushrooms, for example, in the tomato sauce, maybe.

  8. Ken,

    We followed your recipe (except we substituted yellow squash and zuchs for the potatoes). It turned out fabulous! It was a beautiful and crisp Fall evening. What a perfect meal for the perfect Fall day here in Michigan.

  9. Good, Steve. I'm glad.

    Oui, Alex. Oui, c'est bon.


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