Aaaaaand I’m back! With Moussaka!

Wow, I took yesterday off with the blog to go to Sea Ranch (Sonoma County, California) that was great.

So here I am, back on my blog, with what some might describe as a very humble offering: moussaka.

But you see, I love moussaka. And you know what else? It’s weird looking. It was a grey day. Greek casserole….

For those of you who haven’t been introduced to moussaka, it is a tricky one. And I don’t blame you for being suspicious. Most versions I’ve eaten in Greek restaurants are just awful. And clearly several days past their prime. At worst, it’s lukewarm mushfood. But at it’s best, it’s just glorious. A layer of roasted slices of potato. A layer of lamb cooked in cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. A layer of roasted slices of eggplant. All beneath a charred and fluffy layer of bechamel that reminds me of toasted marshmallows. I ate this version at Kokkari in San Francisco and it was quite a memorable experience. Really, I think I ordered the moussaka because I was impressed that he had the nerve to charge $32 for it. Well, it was worth every penny and maybe a few more. When Kokkari came out with a cookbook, I ran out and bought it without thinking twice, because I just knew that a recipe for the moussaka would be included. And it was. And I’ve made it. And now you should.

Kokkari Moussaka (10 servings)

2 globe eggplants, about 1 pound each

1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

2 pounds Yukon Gold or other yellow-fleshed potatoes

Kokkari Béchamel Sauce (recipe follows), made with 7 1/2 cups milk

1 large egg

2 large egg yolks

1/2 cup grated kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese

1/2 cup Greek-style whole-milk yogurt, homemade or purchased

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Lamb Filling (recipe follows)

– Preheat the oven to 425°F. Remove the ends of the eggplants and score them lengthwise in 4 to 6 places, then cut crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Arrange on a wire rack and salt both sides lightly. Let drain for about 1 hour, then pat dry.

– In a bowl, combine the eggplant slices and the 1/2 cup olive oil. Toss to coat the slices evenly, then arrange them on a heavy baking sheet in one layer. Season both sides with salt, using a total of 1 teaspoon. Grind some pepper over the top and bake until the eggplant is tender, 20 to 25 minutes.

– Peel the potatoes and slice them 3/8 inch thick. Toss them in a bowl with the 2 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Arrange them on a heavy baking sheet in one layer and bake until tender, 20 to 25 minutes. (You can bake them at the same time as the eggplant.)

– Whisk the béchamel until smooth and no longer stiff. Whisk in the egg, egg yolks, cheese, yogurt, and nutmeg to make a custard topping.

– In a 15-by-10-by-2-inch baking dish, arrange the roasted potatoes in a single layer. Top with the lamb filling, compacting it into an even layer with the back of a wooden spoon. Top with the roasted eggplant slices in a single layer. Dollop the custard topping on top, then spread gently into an even layer. Set on a baking sheet and bake until well browned and set but still quivery, 45 to 50 minutes. Let cool for at least 45 minutes before slicing.

Lamb Filling

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 pound white onions, chopped

2 1/2 pounds ground lamb shoulder

1/4 cup Italian tomato paste

2 tablespoons honey

2 bay leaves

1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice

1 1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

– Put 1/4 cup of the olive oil and the onions in a large skillet. Sauté over high heat until the onions soften slightly and begin to smell sweet, about 4 minutes. Do not allow them to color. Add the ground lamb and sauté, breaking up the meat with a wooden spoon, until the lamb is no longer pink and there are no clumps, about 3 minutes. Continue cooking until the meat releases its juices, 2 to 3 minutes longer. Drain in a colander set over a bowl. Return the meat to the skillet. Let the juices settle for about 5 minutes, then skim the surface fat with a soup spoon and return the skimmed juices to the skillet with the lamb.

– Add the tomato paste, honey, bay leaves, allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, 1 tablespoon salt, and several grinds of pepper. Simmer gently, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until all the liquid has been absorbed and the meat is moist but not soupy, about 10 minutes. Remove the bay leaves.

Kokkari Béchamel Sauce

8 ounces unsalted butter

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

7 1/2 cups whole milk, warmed

Sea salt

– In a large, heavy pot, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour all at once and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture just begins to darken and smell nutty, about 3 minutes.

– Add 2 cups of the milk to the pot and whisk until smooth. Add another 2 cups and whisk again until smooth. The mixture will look like creamy mashed potatoes. Whisk in the remaining 4 cups milk and 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 20 minutes to eliminate the raw flour taste. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon to prevent the sauce from scorching, and scrape the sides of the pot occasionally with a heatproof rubber spatula.

– Transfer the sauce to a large bowl and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let cool, then cover tightly and refrigerate for up to 2 days.

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