Moussaka has it all,” Aglaia Kremezi said plainly when I asked the acclaimed journalist and cookbook author what accounts for the casserole’s universal popularity. The classic rendering, with its plush eggplant; dense, earthy potatoes; meat sauce that’s warmed by spices; and satiny béchamel lavished across the top, add up to cozy yet sumptuous festival food for indulging family and friends.
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But moussaka also ranges widely and has significantly evolved over time. Cooks throughout the eastern Mediterranean make countless regional variations with or without meat, hot or cold, spicy or just fragrantly spiced, and capped—or not—with lush dairy. In fact, Kremezi, who resides on the isle of Kea just off the coast of Athens, believes that the elaborate version that’s most associated with Greece didn’t exist before the 20th century, when famed Greek chef and cookbook author Nikolas Tselementes aggrandized the dish with influences from his Western culinary training. So moussaka as we know it is really a modern dish built from the ingredients and techniques that were introduced to Greece over centuries of migration from its east and west—the culinary equivalent of a crossroad.
No matter how it’s made, moussaka is usually a bit of a project. So while I was seasoning the vegetables and sauce and enriching the béchamel to my own taste, I figured I’d look at each layer with an eye for efficiency, too.
Plush, Concentrated Vegetables
Many recipes start by salting the eggplant to draw out moisture and bitterness and then sautéing it to collapse the air pockets that make the flesh puffy, rendering it denser and firmer. I skipped both steps since growers have hybridized much of the bitterness out of the plant and eggplant soaks up oil like a sponge. Roasting was more effective: The oven drove off moisture, collapsed the air pockets without making the flesh greasy, and added browning.
It’s tough to fit a moussaka’s worth of sliced eggplant (I was using more than 3 pounds, leaving the skin on to keep the flesh intact) on two baking sheets, so I cubed it. There was more surface area for evaporating moisture and browning, and the chunks packed tightly into the baking dish, making for a firm layer.
A Tangled Origin Story
A fixture at Greek diners and festivals and in cookbooks and home kitchens, moussaka is arguably Greek cuisine’s most iconic dish. But the casserole’s origins are far more nuanced and fuzzy than its patriotic reputation suggests.
For one thing, said Febe Armanios, a historian at Middlebury College whose research includes food history in the Middle East, similar preparations with fried eggplant and meat have been made throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East for centuries. Greek journalist and cookbook author Aglaia Kremezi also believes that the most celebrated form of moussaka didn’t even exist until the 20th century, when famed Greek chef and cookbook author Nikolas Tselementes—who is widely credited with popularizing modern Greek moussaka—drew inspiration from his French culinary training and crowned the dish with béchamel.
For those reasons, Kremezi doesn’t think of moussaka as traditionally Greek. In fact, she considered excluding a recipe from her book The Foods of Greece (1993) because the extravagant casserole doesn’t represent the simple peasant cooking that anchors her native cuisine. And yet, thanks to the mass immigration of Greeks to western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia during the 20th century, that very moussaka has become inextricable from modern Greek culture.
“I think moussaka became elevated as a Greek dish when it was exported widely by the Greek diaspora,” said Armanios. Furthermore, she noted, “The [now classic] incarnations of the recipe—beautifully layered with a nutmeg-infused, cheesy béchamel sauce—yeah, that is a Greek innovation.” –Elizabeth Bomze
While the eggplant roasted, I sliced Yukon Gold potatoes for the casserole’s base layer: a firm foundation that would help each portion of moussaka retain its shape. Pan frying is a common way to parcook the potatoes, especially if you’re doing the same with the eggplant, as is blanching. But I opted for the microwave: Tossed with some oil and basic seasonings and zapped for the better part of 10 minutes, the potatoes gave up their raw edge without becoming greasy or waterlogged and retained enough structural integrity for me to shingle them in the greased baking dish.
Spiced, Deeply Savory Meat Sauce
Consult enough Greek cooks and you’ll learn that there’s no consensus on the type of meat that should be used to make moussaka. But both Kremezi and John Diamantopoulos, chef and general manager of Boston’s Saloniki Greek, agreed that lamb is not the default.
“Greeks don’t really do ground lamb,” Diamantopoulos told me. “Besides, its gaminess takes away from all the other flavors.”
Heeding his advice, I built a rich flavor base by sautéing onion and garlic and then adding tomato paste that I browned to maximize its umami depth. Then I deglazed the pot with red wine and stirred in a warm, earthy mix of paprika, dried oregano, red pepper flakes, and cinnamon. When the pot was nearly dry, I cooked a pound of 80 percent lean ground beef (its fat would carry all those aromatic flavors) until it had lost its raw pinkness and then added crushed tomatoes. I let it bubble away until the liquid was almost gone and the mixture was tight enough that it wouldn’t gush from a slice. Finishing it with red wine vinegar, another suggestion from Diamantopoulos, made the flavors pop.
Getting Each Component Just Right
By concentrating and tightly layering each component, you’ll be able to cut a tall, clean portion.
- BÉCHAMEL: low ratio of milk to roux, plus egg yolks and plenty of kasseri, makes for a custardy version that soufflés.
- MEAT SAUCE: Cooking off most of the wine and tomato juice concentrates flavor and tightens up the consistency.
- EGGPLANT: Cubing and roasting skin-on chunks encourages the puffy flesh to collapse without turning mushy and adds flavorful browning.
- POTATOES: Briefly microwaved and tightly shingled on the bottom of the baking dish, they provide a firm foundation that absorbs flavorful liquid and fat from above.
Classic French béchamel is a fluid white sauce made by thinning roux with milk, and its role is usually as a subtle, creamy binder. But for casseroles such as moussaka and pastitsio, Tselementes turned the sauce into a grand component all its own by enriching it with eggs and sheepy kasseri cheese. Spread over the top, the sauce puffs and browns like a lush soufflé.
I borrowed the béchamel formula from our Pastitsio recipe (November/December 2019), spreading a thick coat of the creamy mixture over the layers and baking the casserole in a hot oven until it was brown and bubbly. The béchamel sliced cleanly, and its richness was such a treat. In fact, I wanted to up its effect, so I made an even thicker, more luxurious version by reducing the ratio of milk to roux and using only egg yolks—three of them—to make it extra-custardy.
That last batch really did have it all: distinct layers of velvety-firm potatoes; eggplant that was plush and savory; concentrated, fragrant sauce; and béchamel that baked up like a creamy, cheesy cloud.