Challenge No. 14 – Moussaka

This recipe was suggested by my friend Kate.  I’ve never made moussaka before and I’ve only eaten it a handful of times, without really knowing what was in it.  When Kate suggested this recipe, she delighted in telling me that her dad makes the BEST moussaka. So I knew I had a challenge ahead and a tall order to live up to.

Before we get started, My Gastro Adventure has hit a little milestone this week and the website has now had over 1,000 views and reached a total of 31 subscribed follows!! I therefore wanted to say a massive thank you to everyone who has viewed the site, liked the posts and opted to follow the blog 🙂

Also, for those of you who are following the blog by e-mail, you may have received a strange “Test” post update earlier this week – this was my attempt to set up My Gastro Adventure on bloglovin, which I finally successfully managed to do.  Sorry if it caused you any confusion and thank you again for choosing to follow me on my adventures!

Anyway, on with the moussaka. I did some searching and found this recipe by Antony Worrall Thompson.

The recipe calls for the following ingredients:-

  • For the filling
    • 75ml/6fl oz olive oil
    • 1 large onion, finely chopped
    • 675g/1½lb lamb mince
    • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
    • 1.25ml/¼tsp cinnamon
    • 1.25ml/¼tsp allspice
    • 2 x 400g/14oz tin of chopped tomatoes
    • 1 tbsp fresh oregano, chopped*
    • 2 bay leaves
    • 1 tsp fresh, soft thyme leaves
    • 175ml/6fl oz white wine
    • 4 medium aubergines, cut into 1cm/½in slices
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • Plain flour, for dusting
  • For the topping
    • 85g/3oz unsalted butter
    • 85g/3oz plain flour
    • 900ml/1½pt milk
    • 85g/3oz parmesan, grated
    • 115g/4oz gruyère, grated
    • 2 free-range egg yolks
    • 1 free-range egg

Edited - ingredients

*I couldn’t get hold of fresh oregano so I just used dried oregano (1tsp dried is the equivalent of 1tbs fresh).

I started by chopping my onion finely and added it to my casserole dish with the heated oil. The recipe says to cook the onion for about 10 minutes until soft and then to brown the lamb in a separate frying pan.  I however didn’t wait for the onion to finish softening and popped about half of the lamb into my frying pan to get started whilst the onions cooked.

Edited - browed lamb

When the first half of the lamb was browned, I added it to the softened onions, along with the garlic. I used a wooden spoon to try and break the mince down as much as possible.  I then set about browning the second half of my lamb.

Now those eagled eyed amongst you may have noticed something strange about my ingredients picture above.  I didn’t notice it myself until I opened the second pack of lamb to brown and when I added it to my pan it looked a bit odd. I double checked the packaging…yep, it was beef! Whoops! I clearly should have checked the pack a bit more carefully in the supermarket. Anyway, I’d previously read you can make moussaka with lamb, beef or even a beef/pork mix so I just carried on with the lamb/beef combination 🙂

Next, I added the cinnamon, allspice, chopped tomatoes, oregano, bay leaves and thyme into the casserole dish.  I then added the remainder of the browned meat, deglazed the frying pan with the wine and added this to the casserole dish.  I reduced the heat and left it to simmer for 1 hour.

Edited - Casserole dish

Practical tip: don’t measure your spices out over the pot of onion/garlic/mince.  Perhaps an unnecessary tip but one I’m including out of an experience with this challenge. I tried to measure out the 1/4 tsp of cinnamon over the casserole dish, however, the cinnamon wasn’t coming out and then suddenly the powder shifted, filled the measuring spoon and (quite) a bit extra went straight into the pan.  Luckily, it wasn’t too much extra so as to affect the flavour but it was a close shave!  Lesson learned 🙂

I then set about slicing the aubergines.  I didn’t know whether I needed to peel the vegetable first – this may be a simple thing which most people would know but I’ve never cooked with aubergines before and so I wasn’t too sure.  I did a quick search and found another moussaka recipe which specifically stated to leave the skin on and so I decided to do this.

Edited - aubergine slices

I put the aubergines slices into a colander and sprinkled salt on them – I don’t actually have a colander and I just used the top parts of my steaming pans!  I gave the aubergines a good toss to make sure all slices had come into contact with the salt and then I popped the ‘colander’ on top of a plate, leaving them for 30 minutes.

Edited - salted slices

Practical tip: don’t skip the salting stage.  This is done to take away the bitterness of the aubergine.  The salt draws out some of the liquid from the sliced aubergine and when you lift the colander at the end there will be quite a lot of brown liquid on the plate.  This is an important step and should not be missed.

Now I was making this on Saturday afternoon with plenty of time before Kate and her boyfriend were due to arrive for dinner. One of the great things about the recipe is that it can be made ahead of time! This meant, I wasn’t too stretched for time and so instead of getting straight on with the béchamel sauce, I had a quick tidy up of the kitchen.

With a few of the pots washed and the sides cleared, I cracked on with the sauce.  I was a bit nervous about this bit.  I’ve tried to make béchamel sauce before and it just ended up tasting of flour. It was absolutely disgusting! This time round I was making it for guests and it is such a key part of the moussaka I was really hoping things would go to plan.

I melted the butter in my saucepan and then added the flour, giving it a good mix.  I left it on the heat for a minute.  I’ve read somewhere that you have to cook off the flour when making sauces and I think this may have been part of the problem last time.

Edited - butter in pan Edited - flour and butter mixed

I then took the pan off the heat and started adding the milk a little at a time, giving it a good stir in between each addition.  Once all the milk was added, I put the pan back on the heat and kept stirring, waiting for the mixture to thicken.  This is when I realised I probably should have started the sauce a bit sooner! It took about 30 or 40 minutes before it had thickened properly.  Talk about an achy arm with all that stirring!

Edited - thickened sauce

In between all the stirring of the yet to thicken sauce, I removed the casserole dish from the heat and rinsed my aubergine slices.  I put them on some kitchen roll to dry and carried on stirring the béchamel sauce.

Once it was finally thickened, I let the sauce simmer for 7 minutes and then removed it from the heat.  I added 55g each of the gruyere and parmesan cheese and seasoned the sauce with a bit of salt and pepper.

Edited - cheese to sauce

The next step was to brown the aubergines.  I patted the slices dry, coated them in flour (by shaking them in a sandwich bag) and then fried them in batches.  This seemed to take forever to do.  It was only about 8 minutes per batch but because there were so many slices, it took ages.

Edited - browned aubergines

Once the aubergines were all cooked, I added the egg to the cooled béchamel sauce and finally I had all the component parts of the moussaka ready. 

It was time to start layering up.  First, I put 1/3 of the mince mixture into my dish and before topping with the aubergines, I cracked some pepper on top.  I hadn’t seasoned the mince whilst cooking and when I tasted it, I thought it could do with some black pepper.  I then covered the mince with a layer of the aubergines.

Edited - mince layer Edited - aubergine layer

I added the next layer of mince, some more aubergines and then the final layer of mince.  I topped it all off with the béchamel sauce and the left over grated cheese.  I didn’t actually use the full amount of gruyere, only because there was so much and it just didn’t seem necessary. I used all the parmesan and about 40g of gruyere.  

Edited - oven ready

I put the dish to one side whilst I got started on pudding – make sure you come back again soon to read about my passionfruit cream profiteroles and hot chocolate fudge sauce.

Anyway, Kate and her boyfriend arrived just as it was time to put the moussaka in the oven for 60 minutes.  We had some warm pitta bread with humous and fried halloumi to start whilst the main event cooked away in the oven.

When the timer went off, I took the moussaka out the oven and patiently waited for 5 minutes just like the recipe said.  I then served up and we all tucked in with some crusty bread and a Greek salad (cucumber, tomato, olives, red onion and feta, drizzled in Greek olive oil).

Edited - cookedEdited - served up

So, with such a high standard set by Kate’s dad, I had a lot to live up to. Whilst everyone agreed it was nice (even Dave who ate round the aubergines!), when I asked Kate and her boyfriend for their verdicts the answer was “it’s good…but the problem is Kate’s dad makes the BEST moussaka”.  So I didn’t quite hit the bar that Kate’s dad set but still it was very enjoyable. 

The best bit for me was the fact that the béchamel sauce worked! It was the right texture and tasted yummy 🙂 I did however feel the dish took quite a long time to make because of all the messing around with the aubergines! I’ve read another recipe which recommends simply baking the aubergine slices for around 25 minutes at 180 degrees celcius.  I’m definitely going to try this next time rather than frying them. 

Overall, I was pleased with how this challenge turned out and will be adding moussaka to my recipe arsenal for the future.

Coming up next week, an Easter treat for Challenge No. 15 – simnel cake! Hope to see you then.