Final paean to Greek food: moussaka and kourabiedes

October 17, 2011 § 1 Comment

This is my third and final post on recreating Greek food back home after our recent holiday on the Ionian coast.

Whether you consider moussaka to be a classic or a cliché, you’ll find it on the menu of every little waterside taverna like this one in the port of Vathy on the island of Meganisi:

Having eaten moussaka at Paleros’ New Mill Tavern where chef/owner Kathy serves up some of the best home-cooked Greek food around, I’m convinced that it’s a classic rather than a cliché:

What was so good about it? Its simplicity – slow cooked lamb and unctuously soft aubergines topped with a baked cheese and egg mixture – and its fantastic flavour – the meat subtly spiced with cinnamon and the cheese deeply savoury. So many weird versions of this dish abound some of which end up tasting more like lasagne than authentic moussaka.

Back home, I started looking for an authentic recipe for moussaka wanting to recreate the New Mill Tavern experience. The moussaka you find in the UK is sometimes more like lasagne or even our homegrown shepherd’s pie than the real deal. I remember my mother cooking this dish for family teatime back in the 1970s. Her multilayered creation interspersing white sauce with layers of tomatoey meat and a vegetable mix comprising potato and courgette as well as aubergine was rather good but nothing like the moussaka I’d tasted in Greece.

Delia Smith has a pretty good version in Book One of her “How to Cook” series. The meat base is spot on but the ricotta in the topping strikes an alien note for me and gives a a less than desirable spongy mouth feel.

So it was back to my new favourite cookbook, George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking” to see what he has to say on the subject. Clearly my search for an authentic moussaka was misguided as Mr Moudiotis says:

“Authentic moussaka does not exist; there are some good, some bad and some very bad versions, especially those served in most restaurants and pubs. The dos and don’ts of a moussaka are too numerous to mention. In general, a moussaka should be creamy and rich but not too heavy, the ingredients should be of good quality and well balanced. The amount of oil should be carefully controlled; it is a misconception that the more oil you use in a moussaka, the tastier it will be.”

He goes on to add that as well as aubergines you can use courgettes, potatoes, artichokes and even rice, nuts and currants. So, mum, you were right all along!

Now I have an admission to make. The delicious looking moussaka pictured below was prepared in my kitchen but by Laura who comes in to help with the boys and general housekeeping. She had the rather inspired idea of cutting the aubergine into strips which to our taste are a big improvement on the usual unwieldy big slices.

Here they are during the salting process:

And again once they’ve been fried:

It’s really important to fry the aubergines thoroughly so that they are quite soft. That way they have an unctuous melting texture in the finished baked dish. Undercooked aubergines can be a bit fibrous and bitter – not what is wanted at all.

What other changes did we make to the recipe? Well, we adjusted the portion size. I think this quantity serves 8 to 10 people rather than the 6 suggested in the original recipe. They clearly have big appetites in Greece. I’ve also tweaked the meat base ingredients a little, adding a bit more tomato passata and chopped fresh mint to the mixture.

Here’s what it looks like as it reduces:

And here is the dish as it is being assembled in layers:

The other major change to the original recipe was increasing the quantity of sauce topping. I found that there wasn’t nearly enough so I’ve increased it by half and if you plan to bake the moussaka in two or more smaller dishes rather than a single big one then I’d recommend increasing the sauce quantity I’ve given by another third. Oh, and I twiddled around a bit with the grated cheese and breadcrumb quantities.

Here is the completed moussaka ready to bake:

And again in all its golden baked perfection, and yes it tasted as good as it looks so congratulations Laura!

I won’t lie. This is neither a quick nor a simple dish to prepare. But it is good tempered (you can make it your own pace, it refrigerates, freezes and reheats well) and it’s well worth the effort.

Finally something sweet to conclude this three-part mini Greek epic.

The Greeks have a sweet tooth and you don’t have to look too hard to find an array of syrup-drenched pastries in bakeries and cafés – baklava, loukomades and the like. I came across this generous display of freshly baked icing sugar dusted goodies at Paleros’ town bakery:

I bought a bagful – they’re sold by weight – as a sweet conclusion for our island hopping picnic. They turned out to be the lightest, crumbliest buttery almond shortbread biscuits. I can attest to their crumbliness – packed in a rucksack they disintegrated into the tastiest bag of crumbs imaginable!

A little research back home confirmed these melt-in-the-mouth biscuits to be kourabiedes – a sweet Greek treat popular at easter, Christmas, weddings and frankly at any time. I give the recipe below but, a word of warning, I haven’t attempted these at home yet.

Our picnic destination was to have been the island of Ithaca, home of Odysseus. It proved to be too far for our slightly underpowered boat that day. Never mind. In the words of twentieth century Greek poet CP Cavafy:

“Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.”

Recipe for moussaka

Adapted from George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”

Serves 8-10


For the meat base

4 medium aubergines
2 tablespoons flour
Olive oil for frying the aubergine strips
1 tablespoon olive oil for frying onion and meat
1 large onion, chopped finely
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
900g minced lamb
2 tablespoons chopped flatleaf parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
150ml red wine
150ml tomato passata
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
150ml stock (cube or Marigold powdered stock dissolved in water are fine here)
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon dried oregano
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the sauce topping (I suggest you increase this by one third if you are dividing the mix into 2 dishes rather than 1 large one)

110g butter
9 tablespoons plain flour
900ml milk
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons plain thick Greek yoghurt

To assemble
Butter for greasing and dotting
2 and 1/2 oz grated grana Padano or similar hard mature cheese
4 tablespoons white dry breadcrumbs

Begin by preparing the aubergines. Wash them, cut off the ends then cut lengthwise into slices and then again into chunky strips. Sprinkle with a little salt and leave for an hour to draw out the bitter juices. Rinse and pat dry and coat sprinkle with 2 tbsp flour to coat lightly.

Heat a little olive oil in a your largest frying pan and fry the strips in batches until golden brown on each side. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Set aside.

Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a deep sauté pan or failing that a shallow saucepan and fry the onion until soft but not coloured. Add the chopped garlic and fry for a minute or so more. Add the minced lamb and cook for a further 10 minutes or so. Add the parsley, wine, passata, cinnamon, stock, honey, oregano, salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, partially cover (leave the lid at an angle) and simmer for about half an hour. Check and stir from time to time and add a little more stock or water if the meat seems to dry. If after half an hour the meat is too liquid, raise the heat, remove the lid and cook to reduce. You are aiming for a moist well flavoured meat mixture with most of the liquid evaporated. Now skim off any excess oil which will have cooked out from the lamb and discard. This step is really important if you want a light and delicious moussaka rather than one drenched in oil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Now make the sauce for the topping (an enriched béchamel). Melt the butter, stir in the flour to make a roux and cook for about 1 minute. Off the heat, beat or whisk in the milk little by little. Return the pan to a medium heat and cook, stirring all the time with a wooden spoon or whisk until the sauce thickens. Season with salt, pepper and nutmeg.

Beat the egg yolks in a bowl then add a little of the hot sauce to the eggs, whisking all the time. Now tip the egg mixture back into the sauce and whisk again. Finally add the yoghurt or cream to the sauce and beat again until the sauce is thick and creamy.

Now you’re ready to assemble the dish. If you’re baking it straightaway, preheat the oven to 170 degrees C (fan). Butter a large rectangular baking dish. I use a big white French porcelain lasagne dish which is perfect as it withstands both the heat of the oven and the cold of the freezer too if you are preparing ahead of time.

Scatter half the breadcrumbs on the base of the dish then spread one third of the aubergines on top of the crumbs. Layer half the meat sauce on top of the aubergines and one third of the grated cheese. Start again with another layer of aubergines, meat and grated cheese. End with a layer of aubergines.

Pour the sauce over the aubergines and smooth it out with a palette knife. Sprinkle the top with the remaining cheese and breadcrumbs and dot with a little butter.

If you want to prepare the dish ahead of time, then stop at this stage, cover, and refrigerate or freeze.

If cooking straightaway, bake in the oven for approximately 1 hour until golden brown and crusty.

Recipe for kourabiedes – Greek almond shortbread biscuits

Adapted from a recipe in George Moudiotis’ “Traditional Greek Cooking”.

Makes about 30 biscuits


200g butter at room temperature
75g icing sugar, sifted
2 teaspoons aniseed liqueur (eg ouzo) or brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
100g ground almonds
450g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder

a little diluted aniseed liqueur (eg ouzo) or rose water, and sifted icing sugar for coating the baked biscuits

Cream the butter with the icing sugar until light and creamy. Beat in the aniseed liqueur, vanilla extract and ground almonds. Sift together the flour and baking powder then stir into the creamed butter and sugar mixture to make a soft dough. Wrap the dough in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.

When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 150 degrees C (fan oven). Break off small walnut-sized pieces of dough and shape each into a flattened ball. Place the balls onto baking trays lined with silicone-coated baking paper spacing them 5cm apart to allow for spreading during baking.

Bake for 20-25 minutes until firm and a very pale gold colour. You may need to adjust your oven temperature to ensure they do not overbake. Cool on a rack.

Once they are cool, sprinkle with diluted aniseed liqueur or rosewater and roll in icing sugar until liberally coated (see picture above). Store in an airtight container dusted with more icing sugar until ready to eat. They keep well apparently for up to a month (they won’t last that long in my house!)

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§ One Response to Final paean to Greek food: moussaka and kourabiedes

  • Nicola Cousins says:

    Just off to go and buy the ingredients for moussaka. Interesting write up about the dish…I’ll let you know how it goes. Nicola

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