A native to Vermont, Aaryn found her way to London via San Francisco and Florence, and although her American accent will fool you, she’s Italian at heart. An avid foodie and wine obsessive, her favourite London hidden gem is Yield N16 wine bar, where she'll usually be found drinking something from Tuscany or Piemonte. A lifetime spent travelling and a childhood around food means it's played a big part in finding common ground in any country. In this wonderful food memory, Aaryn talks about her discovery of the power of food to comfort and bring people together, and brings us a recipe for the dish.
"As the only child of a designer and publisher, I traveled a lot growing up. Able to hold my own in conversation from as young an age as five, my parents saw the alternative to paying for childcare as accompanying them on press trips. Growing up in the hospitality industry, I loved talking to people and the exposure to food and wine ignited a passion in me I didn’t know existed. However, by age 13, my childhood confidence was dwindling and I’d become a typical teenage girl, grappling with my own insecurities about growing up, my body image and in particular what I ate.
Greece, or more specifically should I say, moussaka, changed all that.
On the trip to Greece, we were hosted by a woman called Eleni who represented one of the wineries my parents were visiting. She took a liking to me, and, as I was too young to drink wine, she made sure I got to sample every one one of the regional culinary delicacies instead. From dolmades, tzatziki, aubergine fritters, spit-fire roast pork, spanakopita, to lamb and, yes, intestine (!) meatballs, I tried it all, but it was moussaka I fell in love with...
Moussaka is your classic comfort food. Layers of crispy fried aubergine alternated with golden potatoes, rich meat sauce topped with spoonfuls of béchamel, sprinkled with cheese and baked in the oven to a brown creamy goodness. I could never get enough of it. Luckily for me the kind and obliging Eleni made sure it was served at almost every single meal we ate.
Seeing I’d taken such a liking to the national dish, Eleni asked me if I wanted to learn how to make it. After getting approval from my parents, I was welcomed to her house and into her kitchen while the adults were busy at a wine tasting.
As I learned that night with Eleni, the task of preparing moussaka is not without trial and error. It is labour intensive. We began by frying each slice of aubergine and potato separately, taking care not to burn them, before letting each one rest on both sides until its oil had been absorbed by kitchen paper. Next, we prepared the meat sauce, leaving it to simmer for a good part of an hour in order to release its juices and began to fix the béchamel. By the time my parents arrived it was nearly half nine and and we’d hardly noticed a powerful thunderstorm had begun outside.
Layering the vegetable slices quickly in the baking dish, we began to work faster as Eleni feared a power outage and the dish needed to cook for an hour and cool before serving. As we worked, a few more of my parents friends turned up and soon nobody seemed to mind waiting as the adults passed the time popping corks and drinking Greek wine.
Praying that the power would not go off we set the moussaka in the oven, and let it to cook as the storm raged on outside.
The power eventually did go off. But lucky for us, it somehow magically managed to hold off until the moussaka was out of the oven. Around midnight we pulled the bubbling baking dish from the oven to rounds of applause from our expectant, and by now, very hungry guests. Serving the moussaka by candlelight, the sounds of thunder and lightning struck in the background as we divided our work up into heaping portions, oozing with cheese and filling the house with a savory wholesome aroma. It was 12:30am.
Serving moussaka that I’d helped prepare myself around Eleni’s kitchen table, was a defining factor in my choice to pursue a career in food and wine. At the time I didn’t know it, but that moment was the first time I learned the power of food to comfort and bring people together. It was also one of the first times in my teenage years started to believe what I was capable of achieving."
- Aaryn Vaughan
Keep reading for Eleni's Moussaka recipe
Eleni's Moussaka - Recipe
A note - this is not a dish for cooks in a hurry! A good moussaka can take hours to prepare - you want to give those flavours time to develop - so make sure you have plenty of time (and plenty of wine) on hand!
3 aubergines, sliced
3-4 russet potatoes, peeled & sliced
1 large onion, diced
750g minced lamb, pork or pork and veal combination to substitute
150ml olive oil (more as needed)
Salt as needed
300-400g chopped fresh or tinned tomatoes (or 600ml passata to substitute)
2 tbsps. tomato purée
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2-3 whole cloves
1.5 tsps. cinnamon or ½ a cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
150ml red wine
2-3 tbsps. chopped flat leaf parsley
1 tbsps. chopped fresh (or 1 tsps. dried) oregano
For the béchamel:
60g kefalotyri or pecorino cheese, grated
2 eggs beaten
Nutmeg to grate
Preheat the oven to 190C/fan 170C/gas 5. Cut the aubergines in medium sliced rounds, salt and set aside to rest for about 20 minutes. This will help draw out any bitterness in the aubergines and help prevent them from soaking up too much oil. Rinse thoroughly, let drain, blot dry and set aside.
Put the potato slices in a large pot and add just enough salted-water to cover them. Over medium-high heat bring the potatoes to a boil and boil lightly until just tender, about five minutes. Drain well and set aside.
In a large heavy-bottom skillet heat 1-2 tbsps. olive oil over medium-high heat. Once hot fry the slices of aubergine, turning over as necessary, until soft and slightly golden 2-3 minutes on each side. Make sure not to overcrowd the pan to allow the aubergine to cook evenly. Once finished drain on kitchen roll or a wire rack. Repeat until all the aubergine slices are fried.
To prepare the meat sauce: Put a further 2 tbsps. of olive oil into a larger frying pan and heat over medium high-heat. Add the onion and cook until tender 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently. The onion should be translucent, not browned. Add the garlic, cinnamon, cloves, salt, pepper and bay leaf and cook for a further 5 minutes before adding the minced lamb or pork and veal substitute. Turn up the heat and brown the lamb well, cooking until it has released its juices and the spices have been absorbed. Add the tomatoes and water and bring to a simmer. Turn down the heat to low and cook for a further 30-40 minutes until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the tomato purée and red wine and continue simmering until the wine has evaporated about 5-10 minutes. Stir in the fresh parsley and oregano and cook for a further 2-3 minutes. Take off the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, make the béchamel: Add the milk to a medium sized sauce pan and bring it to just below boiling point. While doing this melt the butter in an another sauce pan over medium heat. Once the butter has dissolved, stir the flour into the butter and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly. Gradually whisk in the hot milk, working out any lumps from the butter and flower mixture and bring to a boil. Reduce and simmer for a further 10-15 minutes.
Whisk the egg yolks in a separate bowl, then add a bit of the hot milk and butter sauce to the yolks whisking constantly. Continue mixing in the rest of the béchamel to the yolk mixture making sure both are fully incorporated. Add the cheese and mix to combine. Cover the bowl with cling film and keep in a warm place while preparing the moussaka.
To assemble the moussaka: Turn the oven down to 180C/fan 160C/gas 4. Lightly oil the base and sides of a large rectangular oven dish. Layer a third of the aubergine slices in the dish and top with half the meat sauce, cover with a layer of potatoes. Repeat these layers finishing with the eggplant layer, until the dish is nearly full, leaving a quarter inch at the top. Top with the béchamel, any leftover grated cheese and a sprinkle of grated nutmeg.
Bake for about 45 minutes until the aubergine is very tender and the cheese sauce is thick and slightly bubbling. The top should be brown, but not too crispy. Remove from the oven and let sit for 20 minutes before serving. Cut in thick square slices and serve alongside cooked vegetables or a green salad. Serve with plenty of good Greek wine.