Moussaka (as made by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s housekeeper)

This recipe comes from Rick Stein’s TV series From Venice to Istanbul. This featured in the programme where he visited the home of the late Patrick Leigh Fermor and ate a moussaka cooked by PLF’s housekeeper, Elpida Beloyannis.

I have been cooking moussaka for decades and I am always looking for recipes that have a particular edge to it. I’ve watched the programme a few times now and decided that I’d give her recipe a try.

I reproduce it here with no additions.

2 large aubergines, peeled and sliced length-ways in 1cm slices
4 large courgettes, sliced length-ways in 1cm slices
2tbs salt
2 large potatoes, sliced length-ways in 1cm slices
olive oil for frying

1kg minced lamb shoulder, or lamb mince
1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
1kg flavourful tomatoes – plum or vine-ripened
2 cinnamon sticks
4 fresh bay leaves, or 2 dried
1 rounded tsp coarse ground black pepper
1 rounded tsp salt

150g unsalted butter
150g plain flour
1 litre full-fat milk
4 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
1 whole nutmeg
200g Graviera or Jarlsberg or Gruyère cheese (this was the only point where I changed the recipe. I used Kefalotiri cheese)

  • Sprinkle the salt over both sides of the courgette and aubergine slices and lay them in a colander to drain for 30 minutes.
  • Rinse the slices under running water and pat dry.
  • Heat some olive oil in a pan. Elpida deep fried the vegetables, but shallow frying also works, if slightly more time consuming.
  • Fry the sliced vegetables briefly in the hot oil, until starting to colour (3-4 minutes for the vegetables, 5-6 minutes for the potatoes). Allow the vegetables to drain in a sieve.
  • Put a large pan or casserole onto medium-high heat. When hot, add the meat and stir until browned and little steam rises from the pan. As the meat browns, the fat will be released from the meat. This will both lubricate the pan and provide the medium for cooking the garlic and onions, removing the need to add more oil to the dish.
  • When the meat is browned, add the finely chopped (via, for ease, mandolin or food processor ) onion and garlic. Stir in the lamb fat until softened. Add the chopped tomatoes, together with the cinnamon, bay leaves, pepper and salt.
  • Stir briskly for five minutes, then turn the heat down and allow to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. The salt will draw the moisture out of the tomatoes and the simmering will evaporate it, thereby concentrating the flavours in the sauce. Remove the cinnamon sticks and bay leaves once it has finished cooking.
  • While the meat is cooking, put the butter, flout and milk into a pan over medium heat and stir with a whisk until it boils. Turn the heat down and simmer for 5 minutes to ‘cook out’ the flour. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for 5 minutes – if the sauce is too hot when you add the eggs, they will cook immediately and curdle the sauce. Stir in the cheese. Whisk the eggs together, then add to the sauce, whisking well (Elpida used an electronic whisk, which looked most effective if a little splashy). Grate in half the nutmeg and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  • To assemble the dish:
    • In however many dishes you are using, lay the potatoes in the bottom. As the dish cooks, the juices will drip down onto them and make them beautifully soft and richly flavoured.
    • Cover with a thin layer of the meat sauce.
    • Add a layer of aubergine slices.
    • Cover with a thin layer of the meat sauce.
    • Add a layer of courgette slices.
    • Cover with a thin layer of the meat sauce.
    • Spread a generous layer of the enriched cheese sauce over the top and sprinkle with the remaining cheese and grated nutmeg.
  • You can cover the dish with cling film and keep in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to mature, or you can cook immediately. Since everything is mostly cooked, the cooking time is surprisingly short for what looks like such a substantial dish. This moussaka is at its best served just warm, so factor in at least a 30-minute cool-down after it comes out of the oven to your serving time. Not only will the flavour be better but it will, to a certain extent have firmed up enough to be able to be served in slices that will hold their shape.
  • To cook the moussaka:
    • Heat the oven to 180°C/160°C fan.
    • Bake for 30 minutes until the sauce has risen and souffle’d and the cheese beginning to brown.
    • Test for done-ness by poking a skewer all the way through the dish to the potatoes. You should find no resistance. Upon removal, the whole of the skewer should be hot.
    • Set aside to cool for 30 minutes.
  • Enjoy with salad.

I have to say that this makes an absolutely huge amount of moussaka, but it is also absolutely delicious. I made a salad to go with it, using lettuce, cucumber, tomatoes, fennel and Kalamata olives and a simple olive oil and lemon juice dressing.

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