Moussaka

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This is more or less how my aunt makes her moussaka. It seems like an incredible job, but you could split up your workload and make the mince sauce the day before (but bring it back to room temperature before putting the moussaka together). If you peel the potatoes in advance, keep them in a bowl of water so that they don’t discolour. You could even fry your eggplant and potatoes a few hours before making the béchamel and putting the moussaka in the oven. The size of the dish is important: I use a transparent oval dish, 35 cm (14 inches) long, 24 cm (10 inches) wide and 6 cm ( inches) deep.

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Ingredients

  • 2 large eggplants (aubergines) (about 1 kg/2 lb 4 oz in total)
  • about 250 ml (1 cup) light olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped flat-leaf (italian) parsley
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 850 g (1 lb 14 oz) minced (ground) pork and beef
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 125 ml (½ cup) white wine
  • 500 g (2 cups) tomato passata
  • 500 g (1 lb 2 oz) potatoes, peeled

Béchamel Sauce

  • 120 g (4 oz) butter
  • 125 g (1 cup) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 1 litre (4 cups) warm milk
  • a little freshly grated nutmeg

Method

Trim the hats off the eggplants, then slice the eggplants lengthways into 5 mm (¼ inch) slices. Sprinkle salt quite generously over the slices and leave them in the sink or in a bowl for about 30 minutes to draw out any bitter juices.

Heat 3 tablespoons of the oil in a wide non-stick saucepan. Sauté the onion, mixing it with a wooden spoon until it is softened and lightly golden. Add the parsley and garlic and cook for another minute until you can smell the garlic, then add the mince. Cook over medium-high heat until the meat loses its water and begins to brown, shifting it around with a wooden spoon. Add the cinnamon, oregano and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper. When the mince is golden, add the wine and scrape the bottom of the pan with your spoon to make sure no mince is stuck. Let most of the wine evaporate, then add the tomato purée and leave it to simmer for about 30 minutes, uncovered, stirring now and then. Break up any clusters with a wooden spoon. If it seems too dry, add a few more drops of water, but this shouldn’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, slice the potatoes lengthways into 5 mm (¼ inch) slices and pat them dry. Heat 4 or 5 tablespoons of olive oil in a large non-stick saucepan and fry the potatoes in batches over medium heat until they are golden on both sides and cooked through. Remove to a plate lined with kitchen paper, to absorb the oil, and sprinkle with a little salt.

Rinse the salt from the eggplant with cold water and pat dry. Fry in batches in the same pan and oil as the potatoes — they will absorb a lot more oil than the potatoes, so they need a bit of attention. When the underside is golden, turn over and prick with a fork in several places, especially in any still hard bits, so that they are almost collapsing. If you press down with a fork, they should not be hard and papery but instead should be almost like a purée. If they are darkened but not yet soft, stack them on top of the new batch so they can cook for longer. Remove the slices to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb some of the oil while you finish the next lot, adding only a tablespoon of oil if possible between batches.

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F/Gas 4). Arrange half the eggplant over the base of your oven dish, even slightly overlapping if necessary. Then add the potatoes in a single layer, if possible. Add half the mince, pressing it down with the back of a large spoon. Add the rest of the eggplant in a layer, and then a final layer of mince. Press it down and you should still have about cm (1 inch) space at the top of the dish.

The béchamel needs to be made just before you bake the moussaka. Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook for a few minutes, stirring constantly, then begin adding the warm milk. It will be immediately absorbed, so work quickly, whisking with one hand while adding ladlefuls of milk with the other. When the sauce seems to be smooth and not too stiff, add salt, pepper and a grating of nutmeg and continue cooking, even after it comes to the boil, for 5 minutes or so, mixing all the time. It should be a very thick and smooth sauce. Taste for seasoning and spoon over the mince. It should come just about flush with the top of the dish.

Bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour with a baking sheet underneath to catch any spills, until the moussaka begins to bubble up and the top is golden in parts. Leave it in the oven to cool slightly before serving. It could even be served at room temperature. Cut into traditional square servings.

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