My mother’s side of the family is Greek. When I was little, my yiayia (grandmother) lived with us. She took care of me and cooked for the family. My first memories stretch back to when I was barely able to reach the stove, yet still determined to “help” her in the kitchen. She and my pappou (grandfather) opened a successful restaurant, The College Inn Café. It was in this restaurant that they built their American dreams. Her life, much like my own, revolved around the kitchen. My yiayia made her own dolmades (using fresh grape leaves), cured her own olives, and of course made moussaka. One thing you need to understand about Greek grandmothers and mothers: They all make moussaka. Naturally, every Greek swears that their mother or grandmother’s moussaka is the best. In Greece there’s even a cooking competition show called My Mother Cooks Better than Your Mother, in which rosy-cheeked, apron-clad mothers throw down in the kitchen like MMA fighters. We Greeks take our cooking seriously! I’ll let you decide for yourself if my yiayia’s recipe is the best moussaka.
For the filling:
- 1 large eggplant, about 1 pound
- 4 large zucchini, about 1 pound
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 1 yellow onion, diced
- 1 ¼ pounds ground beef
- ¼ cup tomato paste
- 3 tablespoons red wine
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 bay leaf
For the béchamel:
- 4 ounces unsalted butter (1/2 stick), cubed
- ½ cup flour
- 4 cups whole milk
- Scant ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
- ¾ teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup grated kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese
- 1 large egg
1Heat the oven to 375°F.
2Remove the ends of the eggplant and zucchini and cut into ½-inch slices. Place the slices in a large bowl and toss with 1/3 cup of the olive oil, salt, and pepper. Arrange the slices in a single layer on a sheet pan covered with a silicone baking mat or oiled parchment paper. Bake until the eggplant and zucchini slices are tender, about 25 minutes. Set aside to cool.
3Meanwhile, prepare the meat. In a large skillet, heat the remaining olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Sauté until the onion begins to soften (this will take several minutes). Increase the heat to medium-high and add the ground beef, allowing it to brown a bit before stirring.
4Reduce the heat to medium and add the tomato paste, wine, cinnamon, and bay leaf. Cook until the meat is cooked and the liquid has been absorbed, about 20 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed. Remove the bay leaf, and set the meat mixture aside.
5To prepare the béchamel sauce, place a large saucepan over medium-low heat and add the butter cubes. Once the butter has melted, whisk in the flour. Whisk constantly for several minutes, until the mixture begins to brown and becomes fragrant. Add half of the milk, whisking until smooth. Add the remaining milk, again whisking until smooth. Add the nutmeg and salt. Cook until thick, 10 to 15 minutes. Vigorously whisk in the cheese and egg.
6In a deep baking dish (approximately 10 inches by 5 inches), compactly layer half of the eggplant and zucchini slices. Top with the beef, pressing it tightly into the baking dish. Top with the remaining eggplant and zucchini slices. Give the béchamel a good whisk and carefully pour it over the top, making sure it’s evenly distributed.
7Bake the moussaka until the top of the béchamel is set and the top has browned, about 40 minutes. Allow the moussaka to cool for 30 to 40 minutes before cutting and serving.
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