Moussaka’s Béchamel: heart of the matter

Just because moussaka is made in a dish and baked in the oven, it’s a travesty to classify this glorious creation as only a family casserole.  In the truest sense it is just that, though—one big dish made with  familiar ingredients found lying around any imageswell-stocked Greek kitchen, like eggplant, lamb, and a world class béchamel sauce.

Although the béchamel’s roots are classically French, the Greeks adopted their own version of this masterful sauce and never looked back.  The traditional béchamel sauce made with milk and a roux for thickening does not contain eggs, but Greek versions are known to frequently include egg yolks or whole eggs.

The addition of eggs to their beloved bessamel, creates a thick, creamy sauce substantial enough for layering or topping dishes such as moussaka or pastitsio.  Depending on who is cooking, the béchamel sauce may appear in any number of places in the moussaka:  on the bottom of it, in the middle and/or on the top.  Wherever it is placed, it plays a predominant role in balancing these big flavors and textures.

There are several steps to this hearty moussaka, but none are complicated.  The vegetables are baked off in the oven—which allows plenty of time to cook the meat sauce and prepare the béchamel.

moussaka edit 2For the béchamel, I prefer a lighter sauce made with butter cut with olive oil.  Flour is stirred into this heated mixture and slowly cooked to created a roux, the basis of the sauce.   Milk is then added to the roux, which  magically thickens the milk as it heats.  The  addition of eggs further thickens and creates a rich supple sauce.  A bit of grated cheese, a touch salt, white pepper and nutmeg provide dimension and round out the flavors.

To assemble the moussaka, a preliminary coating of bread crumbs sprinkled into the baking dish will help to absorb any excess liquid and bind with the potatoes to create a cohesive bottom for easier portioning.

The completed dish can be made ahead, covered with foil, refrigerated, and baked later.  For best result, be sure to allow extra time for the moussaka to rest before cutting it.   Serve with orzo and a field green salad tossed with cucumbers, tomatoes and onions.



  • 2 tbsp olive oil, approx.
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 medium eggplant, cut in half lengthwise and sliced into about 1/2″ thick slices
  • 1 to 1 ½ lb. Yukon gold or red potatoes, if large halved lengthwise and sliced 1/2″ thick

Tomato-Meat Sauce

  •  2 tsp olive oil
  •  1 large onion, chopped (about 2 cups)
  •  3 cloves garlic, crushed
  •  1 lb. lean ground lamb or beef
  •  1 tsp oregano
  •  1/4 tsp cinnamon
  •  1/8 tsp allspice
  •  1 bay leaf
  •  salt and pepper
  •  1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes
  •  2 tbsp tomato paste

Béchamel Sauce

  •  2 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 4 tbsp all purpose flour
  •  3 cups milk
  •  1 tsp salt
  • 1/8 tsp white pepper
  •  1/4 tsp nutmeg
  •  1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  •  2 eggs, lighten beaten and warmed with 2 tbsp of the hot sauce

   Bottom Coating:  1 cup dried bread crumbs
   Cheese Topping:  1 cup grated Kefalotiri cheese or crumbled Greek feta


  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Slice the eggplant, lightly salt it and allow it to drain in strainer for 10-15 minutes.  Blot dry with toweling and layer in rows on oiled baking sheet.  Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper and, drizzle lightly with olive oil and bake in 425 degree oven until they begin to brown slightly, 30- 40 minutes.
  3. Slice potatoes and place on oiled baking sheet, sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and bake at 425 degrees until they begin to brown, 30 – 40 minutes.
  4. For the tomato-meat sauce, sauté onion and garlic over low heat in oil.  Add the meat and cook until it turns color, drain any excessive liquid or fat.  Add the herbs, spices, salt and pepper and cook until meat begins to brown.  Stir in the tomatoes and tomato paste, bring to a simmer, reduce heat and cook slightly covered 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Adjust seasoning.
  5. For béchamel sauce, heat olive oil and butter in saucepan, stir in the flour and cook over low heat for about 3 minutes, until smooth and thick.  Pour in the milk, whisking to avoid lumps.  Cook over medium low heat, whisking until it smooth, thick, and flavors have soften, about 10 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk the eggs, and slowly pour in a few tablespoons of the hot sauce to temper eggs and avoid curdling.  Remove sauce from the heat, stir in the Parmesan cheese and the warmed egg mixture; whisk until silky and smooth.  Add salt, pepper and nutmeg.   Briefly return to heat, whisking until well heated; adjust seasoning.
  6. To finish the moussaka preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Oil a 9×13″ pan or a gratin dish and sprinkle the bread crumbs evenly over bottom.  Next, layer all the potatoes into the dish; cover them with half of the meat sauce.  Layer the eggplant on top and smooth the remaining meat sauce over the eggplant.  Carefully spoon the béchamel over the top and sprinkle it with cheese.  Cover the dish with foil and bake at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes.  Remove foil and bake until the top is bubbly and begins to brown, 55 to 60 minutes total.
  7. Let the moussaka rest 20 minutes before cutting. Yield:  8 servings.

2 thoughts on “Moussaka’s Béchamel: heart of the matter

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