After I graduated from college, a friend and I spent a few weeks backpacking around Europe. We ended up spending a few days on the Greek island of Naxos, where we had moussaka for the first time. I’ve spent the past eight years trying to recreate that heavenly blend of eggplant, tomato, meat and egg, and I think I’m getting close, thanks to Elizabeth David and a lot of trial and error. (For those of you who don’t know Elizabeth David, you should! She’s one of my culinary heroes; many people consider her responsible for bringing good, simple cooking to Britain during the post-WWII period.) This recipe is adapted from two moussaka recipes she has in two of her cookbooks. (Both can be found in the Elizabeth David Classics omnibus, which I highly recommend. Many of my most-used recipes come from flipping through those pages.)
Elizabeth David’s Moussaka with some interpretation by me. Serves 6-8.
A large Dutch oven or cast iron pot (mine is about 7 quarts)
3 large eggplants
1 large onion
1½ to 2lbs ground meat (lamb is traditional, ED uses beef, I’ve often gone with buffalo)
2-3 pint tins of whole peeled or diced tomatoes
6 egg yolks
2 pints whole milk
Dishtowels or paper towels
(Note: this can easily be made a vegetarian or even vegan dish by leaving out the meat and egg custard topping. Fried eggplant, onion, and tomatoes will be tasty, too!)
While not difficult, for best results this will take several hours of sporadic work, so plan ahead! Wash and thinly slice the eggplants into rounds (¼” at the thickest). Lay them out on a baking sheet and sprinkle liberally with salt. Let sit for at least an hour. If you have more time, turn them over after an hour and let the other side sit salted as well. This step makes frying the eggplant rounds much easier as the salt sweats out some of the moisture from the eggplant.
When the salt crystals have turned to liquid (as you can see in the photo above), pat each round with a dishtowel or paper towel, squeezing out as much excess as possible.
Pour a generous amount of olive oil into a large frying pan and place the rounds in the pan. (I like to have two pans going at once to keep things moving quickly.) The eggplant rounds will soak up a prodigious amount of oil, but they will also release it back into the pan to some extent once they have turned a nice golden brown. When an eggplant round is looking nice and golden (or even a dark brown, although you don’t want them to burn), press it with a spatula into the pan or on top of a less-cooked round to squeeze out some of the oil, and then place on a plate.
While the eggplant is frying, slice up the onion and start it sautéeing in a third pan. When the onion is golden, add in the ground meat and cook until the meat is also golden brown.
Preheat your oven to 375. Start a pot of milk simmering gently and add the beaten egg yolks. ED claims this will turn into a thick batter, but I have never managed to keep it as a smooth custard. Mine usually has egg curds in it, but it doesn’t matter. It’s still delicious. Set aside to cool.
Once the eggplant is done frying, you can start making the layers in your Dutch oven. I like to lay down a small amount of the tinned tomatoes on the bottom (if you’re using whole peeled tomatoes, mash or cut them up a little), and then add a layer of eggplant.
Then add a layer of onion and ground meat.
Then add a layer of tomatoes and their juice. Repeat.
I usually end up with two layers of each, but if you’re using a smaller pot, you might have three. If I’m lucky, I have enough eggplant for another layer on top. The final layer should be the egg custard (although if you’re adapting this recipe to make it vegan, just leave the tomato layer on top, or the eggplant will burn).
Elizabeth David claims it only needs an hour in a moderate oven, but I have had my best results when I’ve left it in to cook for 2 hours (I think it needs at least an hour and a half). Delicious! This is a very hearty dish, so it’s nice with a light, cool salad.