When I was staying in the village of Plomari, on the southern coast of Cyprus, I had the most extraordinary vegetarian moussaka one evening in a small taverna in the centre of the town. It confirmed for me that vegetable moussakas are just as good as those that are lamb-based. It’s best to leave the moussaka to stand for about 20 minutes after it has come out of the oven, both so the béchamel can firm up and to make it easier to cut, so bear this in mind when you are working out what time you want to eat. I use a 2.5-litre oven dish which is 35cm x 25cm in shape. You want it to be deep enough for a couple of layers of aubergine. Serve with bread or orzo and some wilted kale, dressed with a squeeze of lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil.
dried wild mushrooms 25g, a mix of porcini, oyster, black trumpet and so on
aubergines 3-4 large (total weight about 1.2kg) cut in rounds about 2½cm thick
onion 1 medium, finely chopped
garlic 3 fat cloves, minced
ground cumin ½ tsp
chestnut mushrooms 700g, chopped into 3cm chunks
ground cinnamon 1 tsp
sweet paprika 1 tsp
dried oregano 2 tsp
tomato passata 400g
sugar 1 tsp
parsley leaves 25g, chopped
plain breadcrumbs 100g (shop-bought is fine)
salt and black pepper
For the sauce
whole milk 650ml
salted butter 60g
plain flour 60g
kefalotyri or parmesan cheese 60g, grated
white pepper ¼ tsp
nutmeg ⅛ tsp freshly grated
large eggs 2, lightly beaten
Preheat the oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7. Rinse the dried mushrooms and place in a bowl. Cover with just-boiled water and set aside to rehydrate. Lightly brush a baking tray with oil, add the aubergine in a single layer and toss with 3 tablespoons of oil and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Bake for 25-30 minutes until soft.
Heat 3 more tablespoons of oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sauté for 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cumin and fry for a couple of minutes. Then add the fresh mushrooms, cinnamon, paprika and oregano. Fry for 5 minutes. Drain the dried mushrooms and add them to the pan with the tomato passata, sugar, parsley and 1½ teaspoons of salt. Cook for 5 minutes over a high heat to evaporate some of the water. Add the breadcrumbs, stir well and take off the heat.
Now for the sauce. Heat the milk until it is just below boiling point. Melt the butter in another saucepan over a low heat, add the flour and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently. Slowly whisk in the hot milk and keep stirring until you have a thick sauce. Once you do, add the cheese, ½ teaspoon of salt, the white pepper and nutmeg, and whisk until the cheese melts.
If you are baking this straight away, take the sauce off the heat and leave it to cool for 5 minutes before beating in the eggs. If you are finishing the dish later, simply beat the eggs into the sauce just before you start assembling the moussaka.
Arrange half the aubergines in the oven dish and spoon over the mushrooms. Add another layer of aubergines, covering the mushrooms completely, then pour over the sauce. Bake for 45 minutes or until well browned. Leave to cool for 20 minutes, then serve.