The doctor I work for wasn't able to have his usual chef cater his latest dinner party, so he asked me. This is not too surprising since I treated him and a few friends to a birthday dinner in March, so he knew I could cook and bake.
The twist was that I only had a little over a week's notice and only knew the menu on Monday for a Saturday dinner. He wanted Greek Night with lots of Greek foods. Even more interesting is that he wanted moussaka for 16 and I had never in my life made moussaka. Since I am twisted that way, it made it sound like even more fun than cooking something I knew how to do.
Thank heavens for the Internet! After taking a close look at a half dozen moussaka recipes, I mixed them up to make my own version, made a shopping list, figured out the rest of the menu and on Friday afternoon started cooking.
Since I'd been told that there would be a music session before dinner, I made sure that there were lots of appetizers: hummus with pepper strips and cucumber slices and foccacia triangles for dipping;
marinated mozzarella balls,
toasted whole almonds, a tray with artichoke hearts, black olives, pepperoncini, and more marinated mozzarella balls, and sliced dense bread, which was perfect with my favorite recipe of the night, cucumber in yogurt Greek style.
The recipe will be posted in the next day or two. There was also a dish of pimento stuffed green olives. A wooden cutting board held a big wedge of Parmesan Reggiano for cutting into shards for nibbling like a little mouse. Very tasty spread.
For the dinner two trays of moussaka barely fed the 20 who ended up attending. The doctor had thought that there was too much food, but it worked out just fine. The most difficult thing about making moussaka is how much time it takes. The eggplant prep takes the longest, but the cheese bechamel takes quite a while, too, with constant stirring. I broke it down into two days of work, with the eggplant prep and meat sauce prep being done Friday, the layering done Friday evening and both trays of layered food being tightly covered and refrigerated about 16 hours. I removed them from the refrigerator about 10 am on Saturday to let them warm up a bit. The sauce was made Saturday in the late morning, then the sauce was spread over the casseroles, the cheese sprinkled on top and they were baked. I let them cool a bit before taking to the party. I reheated them for about 20 minutes in a 225 degree F. oven so that they were done about 15 minutes before they were served. Moussaka is usually served warm or at room temperature, not hot.
There was also some good local organic artisan bread, a big Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumber, mint, red onion, black olives, and feta and a dressing with herbs and lemon juice and olive oil.Some of the appetizers were transferred to the main table, too.
Since there were two birthdays being celebrated, one of the wives had brought a decorated carrot cake. Another guest brought a delicious apple pie. Another guest brought cookies and a bowl of cherries. I provided a big bowl of watermelon. It was surrounded with sesame seed-pistachio cookies from a Mediterranean bakery. A tiered tray held some Personal Pavlovas, this time with strawberries (which worked out well...the tang of the berries offset the sweetness of the meringues) and key lime curd.The 'big deal' dessert was Sin City chocolate fudge cake with quince jelly and whipped cream. I made a half batch last November with a different fruit, but made the full cake for the party. I had no idea that so many people would be bringing desserts as well, but it was still the hit of the party. There is something about the the haunting flavor of quince jelly that went so well with the chocolate and whipped cream.
So, would I do it again? Probably, although it is a lot of work and exhausting, too. If catering was the only thing I did in life, then it would make more sense. As it is, I worked my real job Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and did a Convention report and ran the meeting of the P.E.O. Scholarship group on Wednesday, so the rest of my life took up my time and energy until Friday. What I did enjoy was trying something new, cooking and baking yummy food, and seeing so many people enjoying it. That is the real joy...knowing that your food is appreciated. It was also a treat to listen to some wonderful musical performances, including guitar, violin, piano, and vocal.
Yesterday was exhilarating. Now I need a nap.
Moussaka with Lamb, Potatoes and Eggplant
Much of the success of this recipe goes to Nancy Gaifyllia, a great Guide to Greek Food,
although there are a number of variations due to other recipes from the web
although there are a number of variations due to other recipes from the web
Serves between 10 and 20, depending on how hungry they are
5-6 medium eggplants (5-6 pounds)
4 large onions, chopped
2 pounds ground lamb
1 pound ground turkey
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (15 oz.) diced tomatoes in juice, drained and juice reserved
8 whole cloves
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
3 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon finely minced mint, preferably spearmint
1/2 cup dry white wine
freshly ground pepper - about 1/2 teaspoon
1 cup grated Kefalotyri, Romano or Parmesan cheese (I used a combination that included Romano, Parmesan and some Mozzaarella, shredded)
1 cup dry breadcrumbs, divided
2 cans (15 oz each) sliced potatoes, drained but not rinsed
7 cups bechamel with cheese - recipe follows
Peel strips of the skin of the eggplants lengthwise, leaving about 1/2 inch in between, all around the eggplant. Cut eggplant lengthwise into 1/2 inch slices. Spread the slices out on paper towels on large trays, then sprinkle liberally with salt and let them sit for 30 minutes while you make the meat sauce. (Note: Salting the eggplant removes any bitterness and absorbs some of the natural liquids, so don't skip this step).
For the meat sauce, saute' the onions in a large frying pan in 2 tablespoons of olive oil until onions are transluscent. Add the lamb and turkey, breaking the meat up into chunks and continue to saute' until lightly browned. Add the tomato juice drained from the canned tomatoes and stir until the juice cooks off. Add the tomatoes, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, alspice, bay leaves, mint, 1/2 cup breadcrumbs and the white wine. Mix well and reduce heat. Cover and simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 45 minutes to an hour. You may need to uncover and stir the last 15 minutes to make sure the mixture is dry enough. It is important to have the mixture as dry as possible.
Now, return to the eggplant. Rinse them well, drain, and pat dry. Put foil on baking sheets and lightly brush the foil with olive oil. Lay the eggplant slices on the foil in a single layer, then lightly brush with olive oil. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Bake the sheets of eggplant until lightly brown (some parts of mine didn't brown, but the edges did) and eggplant is soft. It took me a while to do this because I had five big sheets of eggplant slices and could only bake two at a time. Each sheet took about 15 minutes. Cool slightly, remove to a tray, and let cool completely.
Spread the drained potato slices on the oiled foil. Sprinle with a litte salt and drizzle with some olive oil. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes. Let cool.
When the meat sauce is dry enough, take two large flat casseroles and oil the bottom and sides lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs on the bottom of each casserole dish. Spread the potatoes on top of the breadcrumbs, half in each casserole. Top the potatoe slices with eggplant slices in a single layer in each casserole. Spread half the meat mixture in each and then make sure each layer is even and packed. Tope the meat layers with another layer of eggplant slices. At this point you can cover tightly and refrigerate or you can make the cheese sauce and bake them.
When the bechamel cheese sauce if cooked, pour half over each casserole and spread evenly over the top. Bake in a preheated 350 degree F. oven for 30 minutes. Then sprinkle half the cheese over each casserole and bake an aditional 15 - 30 minutes, until golden brown.
Remove the moussaka from the oven and allow to cool for 20 - 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Bechamel Cheese Sauce
4 cups water
8 tablespoons (1/2 cup) cornstarch
2 cans evaporated milk, undiluted
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter, softened
2 eggs, beaten
pinch of grated nutmeg
1/2 cup grated Kefalotyri or Parmesan cheese
In a large saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Once it boils, dissolve the cornstarch in one can of evaporated milk, and add to the watter, stirring briskly witha wire whisk..Lower the heat to medium and add the second can of milk, then salt and the butter.
Continue to whisk until the sauce thickens. It took mine about 15 - 20 minutes to thicken.
Add the beaten egg and nutmeg, whisking very quickly (so the eggs don't cook) until well blended. Remove fromt he heat, stir in the cheese, mix well and set aside, covered, until ready to use.