Elpida’s Moussaka


Elpida's Moussaka


And welcome to the new year!

I’m starting off with an un-seasonal dish and (probably) ruffling some feathers as I scold Rick Stein. Oh yes. I’m going there. Hashtag Food Rebel (note to self: check with the hip and groovy kids whether I’m doing that right).

I like the travelogue programs he makes and the recipes he sources, but I have to take issue with a recipe he found on his recent Venice to Istanbul journey.

He stopped off at the house of the late travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and chatted with his housekeeper Elpida Beloyannis. Seemingly, the great man had an aversion to moussaka and forbade Elpida from making it. Quite rightly, she ignored his proclamation and not only made it but served it to him as well. Sidebar: How much do we love the cut of Elpida’s jib!?

She only informed him of the deception after he had polished off the lot for lunch, to which he allegedly replied, “Moussaka? I HATE moussaka!”.

But he confessed he found it delicious and asked her to cook it again.

All of which makes for a great story, and Rick duly scribbled it all down, together the notes for the recipe as Elpida demonstrates in her kitchen.

His verdict: A rare and many splendoured thing. The best moussaka he has ever tasted.

Which is, I’m sure you’ll agree, quite the endorsement. In the program you can see and hear his admiration for Elpida’s recipe.

Which is why I was hugely disappointed to find the recipe published online entitled “Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Moussaka”.

It is many things – including, from the lips of Mr Stein himself, “light as a feather” and “a world-class dish”, statements with which, having made and eaten it myself, I whole-heartedly concur – but Patrick Leigh Fermor’s, it most definitely is not.

All he did was scoff it down then stagger off for a two-hour snooze. Recipes do not belong to the eaters, they belong to the creators.

And this is Elpida’s Moussaka.

Elpida Beloyannis. She deserves her name to be known.

Elpida’s Moussaka

For some reason the recipe that appeared online suggested beef mince, when the film very clearly shows Elpida using lamb.  I have therefore adapted the recipe to reflect this, as well as tweak the quantities of vegetables, based on what I observed on the film, rather than the recipe which appeared online. Yes, I know it’s not the season in the UK for either courgettes or aubergines *pulls scarf a little tighter and jams bobble hat on a little firmer* but nevertheless, they are ‘out there’  and available, and if ever there was a time to enjoy a warming dish that can transport you to a land of dazzling sun and azure Greek waters, it is now.

This makes a LOT of moussaka. The vegetables and potatoes turn it into a one-dish meal, and it is so light and flavourful, everyone will be coming back for more, so my recommendation is that you make one large dish to ensure there’s enough to go round. Afterwards, you can portion out the remainder and freeze for a speedy supper standby.

Now I don’t know what kind of baking dishes you have at home, but you need to choose something deep, to get all of the layers to fit without overflowing. Maybe even two dishes. When you slice your vegetables, lay them into the dish, to make sure you have enough for the layer. Make sure they fit snugly, or even overlap a little; there will be some shrinkage when you fry them. Much easier to see you need a few more when you’re slicing, than find out you haven’t enough when you’re at the construction stage.

Edit: Forgot to say, I chose to skin the tomatoes before chopping, to make for a smoother sauce.

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 – peeled (optional)
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

  • 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 them 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, flour 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 half of 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.