Just as we all thought spring had arrived, winter decided to go for one last hoorah and rain all over our new espadrilles!! Mousakas (μουσακάς) is the perfect dish for this time of year, it manages to taste of summery Greek holidays and family parties, and boasts just enough comforting qualities to see you through a temperature drop and a spring shower.
There is a lot of debate amongst Greek cooks about what constitutes the perfect mousaka. It is commonly made with minced beef or a pork/veal sauce, fried eggplants, kefalotyri cheese and is topped off with an egg-enriched béchamel sauce. Some people prefer to use lamb - a version to which Mr K strenuously objects. Other versions include eggplant and potatoes, or eggplant and zucchini, or all three.
My version is based on my mum's 1970s dinner party classic - from the time when a Greek cooking trend swept through Australian dining rooms from Surry Hills to Sutherland. Mum recounts serving her mousakas in individual stoneware dishes to her guests - who were often dressed in folky style kaftans - while Demis Russos and Nana Mouskouri were looping on the record player.
Interestingly, my mother in law very rarely makes mousaka - her specialty being the Venetian- influenced Ionian island classic dish, pastitsio - you can find that recipe here. My tweak to mum's classic 1970s recipe is using a combination of veal and pork, as well as a generous splash of ouzo. The fennel and anise flavour of the ouzo works really well with the pork, giving the sauce a great depth of flavour. I also like to boost the herby notes of the sauce with a little dried thyme and a good pinch of rigani.
For the meat sauce
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 brown onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
500g minced pork and veal
1/4 cup ouzo
1 tablespoon rigani
1 tablespoon of wild thyme
1 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons sea salt flakes
3 cups grated fresh tomato
2 cups beef stock
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, extra
For the vegetables
3-4 medium-sized eggplants, cut lengthwise into 5mm slices
Olive oil, for frying
For the béchamel sauce
100 g unsalted butter
100 g all-purpose flour
1 litre fresh whole milk
2 medium-sized eggs, yolks only
White pepper, to taste
Ground nutmeg, to taste
3 tablespoons of grated Kefalotyri (or pecorino) cheese
* You will also need some extra grated Kefalotyri, for sprinkling on top of each eggplant layer and on top of the béchamel.
** I use a medium size 8 cup baking dish
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. Add the ouzo and let the liquid reduce slightly. Then season with salt and black pepper, add the herbs and spices stir well. Then add the tomato and stir well. Add the stock, 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 meat is just slightly under cooked.
Fry the eggplant
In a wide, shallow frying pan, add about an inch of olive oil. Heat the oil over medium-high heat and when hot, add the eggplant slices and fry them on both sides. Remove the eggplant and place the slices on kitchen paper to absorb the extra oil.
Make the cream sauce
Melt butter in a saucepan, stir in flour and cook gently for about 2 minutes. Add warm milk and little at a time, bring to the boil and stir constantly. Boil gently for about 1 minute and add the nutmeg, white pepper and cheese. Take off the heat when the mixture is about the consistency of thick pouring cream. Allow to cool a little and stir in the egg yolks.
Assemble the mousaka
1. Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
2. Lay about one third of the eggplant on the bottom of the baking dish in one layer - don't leave any gaps, its okay for them to overlap slightly. Sprinkle with a little salt and about a tablespoon of kefalotyri cheese. Cover with one third of the meat sauce. Repeat, adding another two layers each of eggplant and meat sauce.
3. Spread the béchamel/cream sauce on top of the final meat sauce layer evenly and smooth over the top. Sprinkle with the remaining kefalotyri cheese.
4. Place the baking dish in the preheated oven and bake for 40 minutes or until the béchamel top has browned lightly.
5. Remove baking dish from the oven and leave to cool before serving. If you try to cut pieces while it’s hot, the layers will collapse.