My glorious and infinitely-patient Citizens of TFD Nation – I thank you from the very depths of both My heart and My depression, as the last 3 weeks have been exceptionally difficult for the Solon of Solemnity. My mindset has been…challenging – but I have rallied My flagging energies to rise transcendent from the abyss to share one of My all-time favorite comfort foods, just in time for the New Year! I speak of that delectable Greek delicacy known as moussaka and I will assuage My loyal Citizens for being M.I.A. with the best version of this recipe I know – My own!
While I have in the past shared a hybrid Greek/Turkish recipe I created for Cypriot-style moussaka, I wanted to bring the dish back to its classically Greek roots and provide you all with a version that takes the dish to hitherto unscaled heights of both flavor and authenticity. All of this, of course, accomplished in a way that still gives the Prometheus of Promise an opportunity to snatch culinary fire from the Gods feasting at the very summit of Olympus and bring gastronomic perfection back to the Mortal Realm, no matter the cost!
Moussaka is an eggplant- or potato-based dish, often including ground meat, which is very common in Greece, as well as the Balkans and the Middle East, with many local and regional variations throughout the area. Many versions have a top layer made of milk-based sauce thickened with egg (custard) or flour (béchamel sauce). Most versions are based primarily on sautéed aubergine (eggplant) and tomato, usually with minced meat, sometimes lamb but even more common is beef (at least in Greece – more on this later).
The English name for moussaka was borrowed from Greek mousakás (μουσακάς) and from other Balkan languages, all of whom borrowed from Ottoman Turkish, which in turn borrοwed from Arabic the word muṣaqqa‘a (مصقعة, lit. ’pounded’ or ‘cold’). The word is first attested to in English in 1862, written mùzàkkà. A mediæval treastise has come down to us titled ‘A Baghdad Cookery book’ which suggests that moussaka originated in the Levant.
It contains a musakhkhan recipe similar to that of moussaka – the cookbook was published around the 13th century, however the ancient moussaka bore no resemblance to the popular layered version we know today. It was more like an eggplant stew. It was Arab Immigrants that actually introduced moussaka to Greece and Turkey in outdoor dining areas.
In Greece, the dish is layered and typically served hot. The best-known version in Europe and the Americas is the Greek variant created in the 1920s by French-trained Greek chef Nikolaos Tselementes. His seminal Greek version includes three layers that are separately cooked before being combined for the final baking: a bottom layer of sliced eggplant sautéed in olive oil; a middle layer of ground lamb cooked with chopped or puréed tomatoes, onion, and spices (cinnamon, allspice and black pepper); and a top layer of béchamel sauce or savory custard.
Tselementes also proposed a vegan variant for Greek Orthodox fast days, which includes neither meat nor dairy products, just vegetables (ground eggplant is used instead of ground meat), tomato sauce, and bread crumbs. Another variant is (melitzanes) papoutsakia (μελιτζάνες) παπουτσάκια (lit. ’eggplant, little shoe style’) – whole small eggplants stuffed with ground meat and topped with béchamel and baked.
As further elucidated on cookswithoutborders.com:
Kremezi went on to write about the dish’s origin at some length in an excellent story for The Atlantic 10 years ago, “‘Classic’ Greek Cuisine: Not So Classic.” The story is a must-read that not only elucidates moussaka’s origin-story, but also helps us understand why Greek cuisine tends to be less attention-grabbing this century than that of its Levantine neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Syria and Palestine.
Tselementes, who was hugely influential early last century — not just on home cooks, but on restaurant chefs and therefore on the Athens dining landscape — aimed to Westernize Greek cooking by returning it to what he believed were its roots. Curious as it would seem, he believed French cooking had its roots in ancient Greek cooking. Under Turkish rule, he believed, Greek cooking had become unacceptably eastern, and his goal was to re-Europeanize it, emphasize cream and butter. (Béchamel!) The rising Athenian middle and upper classes of the 1920s ate it up.
Kremezi didn’t. In the Atlantic story, she wrote, of Tselementes’ influence:
“He revised — and in my opinion, destroyed — many Greek recipes….The exclusion of spices and even herbs from the spicy and fragrant traditional foods resulted in the almost insipid dishes many Greek restaurants still serve. Tselementes went as far as to omit thyme and bay leaves from Escoffier’s recipe for sauce Espagnole, in his Greek translation. He also despised garlic, which he very seldom uses in his recipes!”
In Greece, there are several further variations on this basic recipe, sometimes with no top sauce, sometimes with other vegetables. Such variants may include, in addition to the eggplant slices, sautéed zucchini (courgette) slices, part-fried potato slices, or sautéed mushrooms. TFD enjoys all of these variants and includes many of the ingredients in My version.
The versions served in Egypt, Turkey and the rest of the region as well as throughout the Middle East can be quite different from the Greek versions, however. In Egypt, messa’aa can be made vegan or vegetarian as well as with meat; in all cases, the main ingredient is the fried eggplant. The Egyptian version of moussaka is made from layers of fried eggplant immersed in tomato sauce and then baked. A layer of seasoned cooked ground beef is usually added between the eggplant before baking. The dish can be served hot but is usually chilled for a day or so to improve the taste.
In Saudi Arabia, muṣagga‘a is eaten hot, but in other Arab countries, it is often eaten cold. In Albania, Bulgaria, the former Yugoslavia, and Romania, potatoes are used instead of eggplant, pork or beef mince, and the top layer is usually milk or yogurt mixed with raw eggs, sometimes with a small amount of flour added. There is also a three-layer version: the bottom layer consists of ground pork and beef, the middle layer of potato slices, and the top layer is typically a custard. Each layer is cooked on its own and layered in a pan and baked until the top is browned.
Typically, the Romanian version is made with potatoes or eggplant or cabbage. The layers start with the vegetable, then the layer of meat (usually pork), then vegetables, until the pot is full. Sometimes bread crumbs are used as a topping, sometimes slices of tomatoes and crushed cheese. The pot is then filled with tomato sauce. There is also a pasta variant, with pasta being used instead of vegetables. The “fasting” variant, which is vegan, replaces meat with mushrooms or a mix of sautéed onions and rice.
In the rest of the Balkans, the top layer is often a custard: this is the version introduced in the UK by Elizabeth David’s Mediterranean Cookery and where it remains the usual presentation. Grated cheese or bread crumbs are often sprinkled on top. In the Levant, moussaka is a cooked dish made up primarily of tomatoes and eggplant, similar to Sicilian caponata, and may also include chickpeas. It may be served cold as a mezze dish, or hot.
Turkish musakka is not layered. Instead, thinly sliced eggplant is fried and served in tomato-based meat sauce seasoned with green peppers, garlic and onions. It is generally eaten with pilav and cacık. There are also variants with zucchini (courgettes, kabak musakka), carrots (havuç musakka) and potatoes (patates musakka).
Like Diogenes with his lamp searching for an honest man, I have sought long and hard to find only the best ingredients for this recipe to create My supreme version for your gustatory pleasure!
Despite its worldwide popularity, moussaka tends to be thought of in Western countries and elsewhere as a Greek dish, and it is the Greek version to be shared today. Given its strong Arab roots, it is no surprise that the spices used in the dish are classically Arab – cinnamon being at the top of the list. Since long-time members of TFD Nation are aware that I abhor cinnamon in large quantities, I have instead opted to use the milder Ceylon Cinnamon (buy at the link) and added in complementary flavors also used in Greek/Arab cooking such as nutmeg and clove.
The meat sauce used in moussaka is the foundation of the entire dish, IMHO – so I have created a complex and supremely delicious version of this sauce that is the apotheosis of all versions! Mine calls for mostly 90/10 ground beef, with a bit of ground lamb and sweet pork sausage – and trust Me, the combination really works in the dish! Truth be told, lamb is rarely served in Greece except on Easter and major family gatherings – pork is the most common meat, then beef, THEN lamb! Combined, they are revelatory and add their unique savor to the final product.
My meat sauce also uses a plethora of fresh herbs and garlic, plus a few unusual dried herbs and umami-enhancing additions to balance the sauce to My tastes. Dried wild thyme flowers from Greece are a secret weapon of mine, you can easily purchase the top-quality of this rare culinary herb here. I also call for a SMALL splash of Maggi seasoning (please use the European version, it is MUCH better than the American – buy it at the link) as well as veal demiglace – and for the love of God, PLEASE only use Greek olive oil in this recipe, this is a decent and inexpensive one!
The béchamel sauce is the classic recipe (you expected Me of all people to give you anything less?!), and I strongly encourage you to use Greek Kefalotyri cheese – you could also use Pecorino Romano or Gruyère, as their flavor profiles are quite close to the Greek cheese. You can buy Kefalotyri cheese here or try your local cheesemonger or check at Whole Foods, as they tend to carry it as well. For the eggplant, I call for removing most of its bitter skin as well as salting the slices to remove any bitter juices they might contain – I also use garlic in My version of this recipe, btw!
My Citizens – 2022 has been a very challenging year for the Duke of Depression and I am hopefully optimistic that 2023 will see a New Year replete with optimism and a return to the TFD of Yore! 2023 marks the beginning of year 9 for this expository historically-resplendent gastronomic exercise. As such, I look forward to providing you all with ever-more frequent and unique world recipes of repute under My imprimatur and unfurled banner in 2023 – LONG LIVE TFD NATION! 🙂
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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