Moussaka: With thanks to my Yiayia, Chef Cathy Kaufman, and King Battus of Cyrene

11 Mar

Last time, I used this blog to do some armchair traveling to the ancient city of Cyrene, built in honor of Apollo, destroyed in the cataclysmic earthquake of 365 A.D., and remembered for the fantastic wealth it enjoyed thanks to its exportation of silphium, a close relative of asafoetida – a spice that hasn’t been used in Greek cooking since the fall of Rome.

Except, as it turns out, in New York City, in the year 2012.

Cathy Kaufman, a culinary historian and professional chef who works at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City, told me that she uses asafoetida in her moussaka, adding a tablespoon to the ground lamb, and a teaspoon to the milk she uses to make her béchamel sauce.


Inspired, I decided to combine her recipe with my Yiayia’s.  The asafoetida in this dish is very mild, tempered, as Cathy explained, by the cinnamon and tomatoes. And since most of my Indian recipes call for only a pinch of the spice here and another pinch there, I have to look for every opportunity to use up the jar of asafoetida that I bought a year ago and that is still sitting (very pungently) in my pantry!

Cinnamon sold at a spice stall in the Athens Central Market.

Cathy Kaufman teaches classes at the Institute for Culinary Education using recipes from historical cookbooks and other primary sources that she adapts for modern kitchens and readily available ingredients.  She has taught classes on Greek Dining from Odysseus to Alexander the Great, on Apicius and the Cooking of Imperial Rome, on Feasting with Montezuma, on Dinner with Don Quoixote, among others.  For a listing of upcoming classes, visit ICE’s Web site – and take a peek at Cathy’s wonderful site, The Historic Table, as well!

Moussaka, With an Ancient Twist

This is a very traditional recipe, with the very un-traditional, but ancient, flavor of asafoetida added in! 

Moussaka (with a little bite taken out because I simply couldn't wait!)

Moussaka takes a bit of time, but it’s worth it – especially since it freezes so well.  I make it in two small baking dishes rather than one large one, so that I can enjoy one right away and freeze one for later.  To freeze, just pull the moussaka out of the oven, let it cool completely on the counter, wrap it in plastic wrap and then in foil, and freeze.  To reheat, thaw overnight in the refrigerator, and then bake uncovered in a 350 degree F oven until warmed through (160 degrees F using a food thermometer; about 20 minutes).  You can also make the meat (or meatless!) sauce the day before to save some time. 

Eggplant, one of the key ingredients in Moussaka, sold at the Athens Central Market.


About 3 pounds eggplant (3 medium or 4 large)

1 pound potatoes

1/3 cup flavorful, extra virgin olive oil

One large onion, diced

1.5 pounds ground lamb (or ground beef, or a combination).  Or, if you are vegetarian, omit this ingredient, and simply make the Moussaka with the eggplant, potatoes, and meatless tomatoe sauce only.

2 cups crushed tomatoes (fresh when in season, canned other times of year!)

4 cloves garlic

¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 bay leaf

Pinch of ground allspice

1 Tablespoon asafoetida

Freshly ground black pepper and salt to taste

½ cup water

2 Tablespoons tomato paste

¼ cup dry red wine

2 cups Bechamel sauce

½ cup grated Kefalotyri or Paremsan cheese

 For the Bechamel:

5 Tablespoons butter

5 Tablespoons all-purpose flour

2.5 cups milk

Pinch of nutmeg

½ to 1 teaspoon asafoetida (depending on your taste)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 egg yolks, lightly beaten


Peel the eggplant, leaving some of the skin on so that it forms stripes. Trim the ends.  Cut into ¼-inch slices.  Generously salt the slices, place in a colander, cover with a heavy plate, and let drain for at least a half hour (one hour is even better).

Peel the potatoes and place in a large saucepan with enough lightly salted water to cover them. Bring to a boil and cook until just tender (don’t overcook them). When they are done, drain, and when they have cooled, cut into 1/8-inch slices. Set aside.

While the potatoes are cooking and the eggplant is draining, make the Bechamel. Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat until it just comes to a simmer. Don’t let it boil.  Turn off heat and set aside.

Heat the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat until foaming. Add the flour and stir well. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until very smooth and light golden in color.  Gradually whisk in the milk until it is very smooth.  Bring to a boil, whisking constantly, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Remove the sauce from the heat and add nutmeg (I tend to be very generous here, but some people don’t like strong taste of nutmeg), asafoetida, salt and pepper to taste.  Whisk the egg yolks in a small bowl and add a bit of the hot sauce to the yolks. Blend well, and repeat a few times, to temper the yolks.  Pour the yolk mixture into the saucepan.  Keep warm while preparing the moussaka.

Make the Moussaka.  Rinse the eggplant slices and blot dry.  Heat a thin layer of olive oil in a large skillet.  Brown the epplant slices in a single layer in batches on both sides (about three minutes per side). Place on a plate lined with a paper towel.

Prepare the meat (or meatless tomatoe) sauce.  Heat 1 Tablespoon olive oil in a skillet.  Add the onion and cook over medium high heat, stirring frequently until tender. Add the lamb or beef and cook, stirring frequently, until browned all over (or skip and go right to the next step).  Add the tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon, bay leaf, allspice, asafoetida, salt, pepper, and ½ cup of water.  Simmer until most of the moisture has evaporated, about 20 to 30 minutes (the longer the better so the flavors have time to blend). Add the tomato paste and red wine and simmer about 10 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Assemble the moussaka: Use olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of a 9 by 13 baking dish. Place a layer of potatoes on the bottom, followed by a layer of eggplant, a layer of meat sauce, a layer of grated cheese.  If you have room in your baking dish, you can add a second layer of eggplant and cheese. Pour the béchamel sauce over the top, making sure it goes all the way to the edges of your dish.

Bake, uncovered, until the béchamel is thick and golden brown and the eggplant is very tender, about 45 minutes to 50 minutes. Let stand for about 20 minutes before cutting and serving.


4 Responses to “Moussaka: With thanks to my Yiayia, Chef Cathy Kaufman, and King Battus of Cyrene”

  1. Kathe March 11, 2012 at 10:19 pm #

    Great recipe and story, Liz!

    • KuZina March 12, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed it, Kathe!!!!!

  2. Betty March 12, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

    Aside from the asafoetida, this recipe is very similar to the one which I use when making moussaka. I would suggest, however, to make the bechamel sauce while simmering the meat sauce, so as not to have to keep the warm bechamel hanging around too long. If I can find asafoetida in Athens, I will give this a try, just out of curiosity.

    I have an idea that I have tried asafoetida cough drops at long ago visits to Knott’s Berry Farm in California. As I recall, the flavor was pleasant, but of course the drops were sweet..

    • KuZina March 12, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

      Thank you for your suggestion! (And I will keep my eyes open for asafetida cough drops . . .!)

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