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Arpi’s Chocolate Tart

The lockdown gave rise to a new social group: mothers of kids that had to be homeschooled and kept busy within social acceptable norms. A number of tricks where utilised to keep us mothers relatively sane: memes in social media, zoom chats, cooking, alcohol.

Birthdays were a challenge. We did the best we could. Our son celebrated his over zoom with his classmates. They sung happy birthday, he blew the candles of his cake.  Then, as the lockdown eased, we repeated the process with his grandfather, his godparents and then his grandmother in separate sessions. I am sure he is aware of the absurdity, but, given the presents, he plays along.

As of the cakes, and given that our assembly skills are a little rusty to build the Millennium Falcon or Darth Vader, the two variations we baked was a multi coloured cake so our son could choose the colours (white, brown, red, blue ) and participate in the process, and a chocolate tart.

We first had this chocolate tart from Arpi, a good friend and mother of two with similar challenges. She baked and brought it at a playdate in more care-free times. She was kind enough to give the recipe, and we have to say it is the best chocolate tart we have baked.

For the tart shell

  • 115g unsalted butter, softened
  • 115g unrefined caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp coarsely grated salt
  • 115g all purpose flour (sifted)
  • 30g unsweetened cocoa powder (sifted)

For the filling

  • 350g whipping cream
  • 350g good quality dark chocolate (55% cocoa solids), roughly chopped
  • 50g unsalted butter, cubed
  • 2 Tbsp brandy (optional)

For the tart shell, combine the butter and unrefined sugar in a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, about 5 minutes until light and creamy. Add the flour, cocoa and salt and mix well until combined. Shape the dough into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

Remove the pastry from the refrigerator and roll out between two sheets of baking parchment until approximately 3mm thick.

Butter a 23cm fluted tart tin (with removable bottom, if you have one), line with the pastry and gently push it into the base and edges, allowing the excess to hang  by 1cm over the sides. Prick all over the base of the tart with a fork and refrigerate (or even better freeze if there is room in your freezer) for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 170°C.

Cut a large circle of baking parchment and scrunch it  up a couple of times. Lay it over the pastry base, fill with beans or coins and bake for approximately 10 minutes before removing the beans or coins and parchment. Return the pastry case  to the oven and bake for a further 5 minutes. Remove the tart tin from the oven, let cool a little and then, using a sharp knife, cut the excess pastry from around the top of the tart tin and set aside.

For the ganache, place the chopped chocolate into a bowl.

Heat the cream in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally to make sure it doesn’t scorch. The cream is ready when it reaches 90°C, right below the boiling point or you can tell the cream is warm when it just begins to bubble and is hot to the touch.

Pour the warm cream over the chopped chocolate, and whisk until smooth. Add the butter (and the brandy if using) and keep stirring until shiny.

Pour into the tart shell and refrigerate for 2-3 hours to allow the ganache to set.

Quarantine Pathways

What we are realizing as we are slowly stepping out of the lockdown is that we followed rigid routines: reading, cooking, wandering in the city and in nature, watching the daily announcement of the civil protection and the chief epidemiologist.  In a sense we were walking on pathways that we deepened everyday. The first pathway was through nature, literary on the hill around the corner from where we live, or a little further away before and after the strict lockdown. We discovered new paths and took joy every time we saw wildlife (not the bears and wolves our son anticipated), but birds we had never seen before, swarms of butterflies and the usual turtles. We were walking mainly silently.

The Erlkönig caught up in daylight

The second pathway was through the city. We strolled past the Tsoladies (the ceremonial presidential guard), down to Zappeion. Our son had a precise map on his head with the optimal routes for his roller scooter, down to the level of pavement material variations. Of course the stroll was bizarre, passing through sites that were now empty – an opportunity to focus on the architecture. On the edge of Zappeion we discovered a spot that looks old: perhaps a small theatre of late antiquity or the yard of a villa. We still have not figured out what the site is (was). A friend suggested a pun: A circular launch pad in front of a Frank Zappa statue. Our son called it ‘our hideaway’, ran on the circular marble line, watched ants in and out their nests between the cracks of the old mosaic and imagined moles living in under-earth tunnels (he spotted the entrance of such a tunnel). Another daily stop was at  the pool with the water turtles: there are 63 of them and the gentleman who takes care of them confined that they grab the occasional pigeon from his leg disembowel and eat it. To the great disappointment of my son we did not witness such a scene. At the end and after hard thinking he concluded that the ‘animals are neither good or bad’.On the way back to our house I served as the engine of his scooter and pushed or pulled all the way uphill.

Animal Planet – observing some pigeon- eating turtles

The third pathway was food. We feel grateful to the local shops that they did not stop their delivery even for one day (thank you Nora, Nataly and everyone at Ideal Fresh). We cooked almost every day. The connotation that comes to my mind whenever I hear of daily emphasis on food is the overindulgence scenes in the dinning room of the “Zauberberg’, but we tried to stick to healthy and ‘Mediterranean’ cooking. We explored old and new cookbooks (between them Ottolenghi’s NOPI and Salt-Fat-Acid-Heat of Samin Nosrat) and discovered recipes that we will include in our repertoire. Our supply of Popi’s olive oil and Naxos’ cheese, honey and capers was interrupted. I guess you call this supply chain regional – so it is already partly restored.

The fourth pathway was reading. I managed to finish ‘Life and Fate’ of Grossman. The title sounds corny but it lives up to its aspirations! As with great Russian novels, I get so much involved and get identified with some of the characters, that I find it hard to keep on reading. I then moved to MacFarlane’s “The Wild Places” and Lino Politis’ Anthology of Poems Part 2, ‘After the Fall’. The highlight of the last is the ‘Tale of the Donkey, Wolf and Fox’. “ Damned Donkey and thrice- cursed/ heretic and and mean, filthy dog/ you ate that leaf of cabbage without vinegar/How comes we did not drown on this journey!”, says the Fox.

Watching the daily announcements of the Civil Protection and the Chief Epidemiologist became an obsession. Tsiodras (the Chief Epidemiologist) had nothing to do with the usual clowns. I think the guy is the last spark of the reaction of science coming together with the tradition of Christian orthodoxy and he seems like an answer to non-compatibility problems endemic to non-Catholic and non-Lutheran traditions. I have the suspicion that some of what he says can be traced back to 8th century solved disputes.

The last pathway was of course technology – the big conceptual network that defines our lives and extends our perception, in a sense the triumph of science and engineering.

Now we are gradually stepping out of the confinement and reconnecting with friends and family, after relentless home schooling, teleworking, having celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, Easter and National Day at home. To what expend is it over? We hope that we will survive until science triumphs again!

oven baked fries

Oven Baked Fries

Fried Potatoes! We used to have them when I was a kid. Especially in the summer, during our holidays on the island, my mother prepared them with fried eggs! Then she became an advocate of healthy food, and the fried potatoes drifted into oblivion. Years later, on a trip to Madrid I had fried potatoes and eggs in an upscale tapas restaurant. This was my madeleine  moment! And then, again, I lost the fried potatoes thread for more years. Now we sometimes have them as a treat for our son ( I mean how can he grow up without knowing what real fried potatoes are? ).  Nevertheless, we always feel that we are pushing the envelope of what is acceptable a little too far.

After rigorous research we concluded that we found a very good alternative. They taste really good. 

Besides the default way to prepare them, we suggest another three alternatives : with feta, garlic (optional) and oregano, with paprika and garlic and with truffle oil and parmesan.

Sometimes we go for a oven baked fries extravaganza and make all 4 alternatives. It’s fun to taste and compare. Of course you can choose just one version and go with that, or even improvise.

Serves 4 as a side dish

6 large potatoes (1,2kg) skin on (you can peel them if you prefer), cut into 1,5 cm wide fries

For the default oven baked fries

  • 15ml olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp fine semolina
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper

For the feta cheese and oregano oven baked fries

  • 15 ml olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp fine semolina
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese

For the paprika oven baked fries

  • 15 ml olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp fine semolina
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 clove of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp sweet paprika

For the truffle oil and parmesan oven baked fries

  • 15ml olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp fine semolina
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp truffle oil
  • 2 Tbsp parmesan cheese,  finely grated

Preheat the oven to 220ºC (fan).

Place a large saucepan of salted water over a high heat. Bring to a boil, add the potatoes and boil for 5 minutes.

Drain and set aside to dry out for 5 minutes. Divide into 4 batches and transfer into 4 different bowls.

For the default baked fries, mix all the ingredients gently together and set aside.

For the feta cheese and oregano baked fries mix the olive oil, semolina, sea salt, black pepper, minced garlic and dried oregano and set aside.

For the paprika baked fries mix all the ingredients gently together and set aside.

For the truffle oil fries mix the olive oil, semolina, sea salt, black pepper and set aside.

Prepare two large baking trays by dividing each of them into two compartments with foil and line each compartment with baking parchment.

Spread each batch out onto a parchment lined baking tray compartment. Take care to spread the potatoes in a single layer, evenly spaced so that the potatoes are not touching each other. 

Bake for about 30-35 minutes, turning once halfway through, until golden brown and crisp.

Take the cooked fries out of the oven and place each batch into a separate bowl.

For the truffle fries, sprinkle with the truffle oil and the grated parmesan cheese.

For the feta cheese fries, add the crumbled feta ontop.

Serve immediately as a side dish or as finger food with our homemade ketchup.

oven baked fries
oven baked fries
ketchup
ketchup

French Toast… à la grecque

The Tsoureki is the typical Easter Sweet Bread of Greeks. It contains mahaleb, a spice made from the seeds of the Prunus mahaleb tree, grown in the Middle East. Prunus mahaleb is mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Its’ wood is hard enough for use in carpentry. We learn that the goddess Ishtar herself had planted a tree in order to make a bed and chair from its’ wood.
The problem was that, after ten years and when the tree was fully frown and ready to be lodged, it was infested with nasties. Untypical for her notorious fame, Ishtar had to call for help, and it was Gilgamesh who killed the immune-to-spells snake, expelled the storm bird and drived away the succubus demon.

Besides the tree’s qualities that made it suitable for carpentry, its’ fruit was also esteemed. The seeds of the tree occur in Mesopotamian incantations from the 22nd century BC, in lists to be used for the mixing of potions and medicine. What a long journey for the mahleb, from the haze of of the temples in Nippur four thousand years ago, to the local patisseries and bakeries! Nowadays in Greece, everybody knows an establishment where they produce a good Tsoureki – usually a founder from Konstantinoupoli ( Istanbul) is involved!

Tsoureki is consumed traditionally on Easter Sunday morning after Easter fasting. I think that a good Tsoureki pairs exceptionally with chèvre, roquefort or gruyere cheese, not to mention the more mainstream way, butter and jam. Or, you can also try it for this french toast à la grecque (inspired from a recipe of NOPI by Ottolenghi and Scully) which is great for a festive breakfast or brunch. You can substitute the Tsoureki with brioche, challah or even panettone.

Tsoureki French toast

Serves 2

For the French toast

  • 2 eggs
  • 100ml full fat milk
  • 200g Greek Easter Bread (tsoureki), ends trimmed and cut into 3cm thick slices
  • 40g cold unsalted butter, cut into 2cm cubes

For the star anise sugar

  • 4 whole star anise, blitzed in a spice grinder into a fine powder
  • 25g caster sugar

For the Strawberry compote and yogurt

  • 150g fresh strawberries
  • 35g caster sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • 100g greek yogurt

Place the strawberries in a medium saucepan with the sugar and lemon juice over medium-high heat and cook for about 6 minutes, stirring from time to time, until the sugar has dissolved and the compote thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and let it cool to room temperature, about an hour.

Mix together the ground star anise and caster sugar, then spread out on a plate, ready for the toast to get dusted and set aside.

Whisk the eggs in a medium bowl until pale and airy and then slowly add the milk while whisking continuously. Transfer the egg and milk mixture to a dish that is large enough to fit the 4 slices of tsoureki in a single layer. Add the tsoureki slices and let them soak for about 5 minutes, turning them carefully once or twice.

Preheat the oven to 220°C (fan)

Place 20g of butter in a large non-stick pan over medium-high heat. When it starts to foam, place in the 4 slices of the soaked tsoureki and fry for about 2 minutes. Flip them over, add another 20g of butter and continue to fry for another 1-2 minutes, until golden brown.

Transfer the cooked tsoureki slices on a baking sheet and bake for 4 minutes, until all slices puff up and get deep, golden brown.

Remove from the oven and dip each slice in the star anise sugar one at a time, flipping so that both sides get coated.

Serve immediately with the greek yogurt and the strawberry compote.

Tsoureki French toast
My Greek Shakshuka

My greek shakshuka

‘Strange days have found us’, as the old song goes. And it goes on : ‘They’re going to destroy / Our casual joys’… we try not! . We stay at home, stroll in the near-by hill, telework, homeschool and cook something nice. We try to keep the calories balance under control and enjoy what we eat, so why not a greek-style shakshuka? We hope that you have some good eggs stocked!

The egg is a frequent occurrence in cosmological myths, probably not only because it bears life, but also because of its shape and nutritional value. Out of the primeval forces that created the world according to the orphic cosmogony the cosmic egg is the first mention of something edible. In order to appreciate its importance, consider the forces: Chaos, Earth, Heaven, Ocean, Time and Water. In a sense the Egg is excelled to the sphere of theological, cosmological and philosophical contemplation.


Our recipe is more related to a more peasant and medieval association of the egg to the supernatural: the Italian ‘Uova in Purgatorio’, a napoletanian version of the shakshuka, in which case the eggs represent souls surrounded by flames in the Purgatory. It sounds macabre, but wait until you delve into the details of the bizarre ‘Cult of the dead’, an 17th century spin-off of the catholic faith that inspired the name of the dish and numerous shrines in the street of Naples.


Our other reference is to the ‘kayianna’, a rural version of scrambled eggs with tomatoes from western Greece.


We think that in our recipe we stroke a good balance of the ingredients – needless to say that their quality can make or brake this simple and very delicious dish. Of course you can experiment and use whatever is of the season or available in the fridge, as we did when a friend (thank you Katerina) supplied us with several kilos of zucchini from her vegetable garden in Nemea.

Serves 2 as a main dish, or 4 as a starter

  • 4 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 onions, peeled and finely sliced
  • 1 green bell pepper, finely sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely sliced
  • 1/2-1 tsp dried chilli flakes (depending on your spice tolerance)
  • 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
  • 230g cherry tomatoes (about 20-23), finely sliced
  • 80g feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 Tbsp capers
  • 4 eggs
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp chopped parsley or basil leaves or 1 pinch dried oregano

Place a large pan on medium heat with the olive oil and cook the onions and peppers for about 8-10 minutes, add the garlic (and the chilli flakes-if using) and cook for 2 more minutes stirring regularly. Add the sliced cherry tomatoes, bring to a boil stirring carefully, then lower the heat and let simmer covered for about 10 minutes.

Remove the lid, stir in the chopped parsley leaves ( or basil leaves or dried oregano) and season with a pinch of sea salt, then add the crumbled feta and the capers.

Make 4 wells with the back of a spoon, crack in the eggs, cover the pan and cook the eggs until the egg whites are set but the yolks are still running.

Sprinkle the top of the eggs with some sea salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serve with fresh sourdough bread.

Olive oil 2019

Another great year for Popi. She now has the confidence of a master producer, ready to show off her cool and tackle any small unexpected incident: A sack of olives forgotten in the far corner of the grove was picked up the next day. She could prove (contrary to everybody’s concerns ) that the olive press did not embezzle any of our precious juice to the advantage of the producer ahead of us!

Olive groves produce a strong harvest every second year. 2019 was an abundant year and the hired workers plus friends and family worked for three days. The crew were Greeks, Albanians, German, French. The olives have to be shipped in the same day they are picked to the olive press, else the quality of the oil is degraded. A three day harvest implies three visits to the olive press, that stays open all through the night. There is interaction with producers that seem to be meticulous in their approach and there is always something to learn: this year Popi spotted a better quality sacks than the ones she is using and got the whereabouts of the supplier. Is this important? For the stratospheric quality of Popi’s oil it is.

The olive was up to Popi’s standards. More like a juice, very fruity and somehow bitter. (Some uninitiated might find the intensity annoying). It is somehow a waste to use such oil for cooking, as the high temperature compromises the taste and all the fresh goodness. Better use it in salads or have on a slice of bread with salt flakes and oregano.

Well done again Popi!

fresh olive oil

sesame breadrings

Greek Sesame Bread Rings

The greek name for the sesame bread ring is ‘Koulouri’. It is still the most commonly available street food in Greece – even more than souvlaki and is sold everywhere, in bakeries or in small stands on the streets. It is usually in a simple ring form but you may also find it twisted or braided.

Our son likes them a lot, so we decided to start exploring recipes, different shapes and coatings. We ended up in the following variant, which is simple and very tasty. 

Bread rings aka koulouria
  • 500g all purpose flour
  • 2Tbsp sugar
  • 1tsp sea salt
  • 16g dry yeast  dissolved in 4 Tbsp of lukewarm water
  • 1,5 cups water (or more if necessary)

To coat

  • 1,5 cups sesame seeds (you can also use black sesame seeds or poppy seeds or mix them together)
  • 2 Tbsp of grape molasses (or 2 Tbsp sugar)
  • 1 cup of water
Bread rings aka koulouria , always trying new shapes

Add the sugar to the dissolved yeast and stir. Set aside for about 10 minutes until frothy.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour with the salt. Make a well in the middle and add the yeast mixture. Add the water and using the hook attachment mix on low speed for about 5-6 minutes until an elastic and soft dough forms. Add some more water or flour  if necessary.

Brush a clean, large mixing bowl with oil, add the dough, cover with a tea towel and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour until it doubles in size.

Preheat the oven to 200 C (fan)

Prepare the coating by dissolving the grape molasses (or the sugar) in 1 cup of water in a shallow bowl. Spread the sesame seeds in a shallow pan.

Lightly grease the kitchen counter or other work surface with some olive oil. Place dough on surface and divide into 10 balls.

Roll each dough ball out into a rope approx. 45-50cm long. Bring the two edges together to form a circle. 

Dip each bread ring into the bowl of water and molasses or sugar mixture, and directly into the other bowl with the sesame seeds making sure to cover it on all sides.

Place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet , being careful not to place them too close together as they continue rising during baking. I usually bake them in 2 or 3 batches.

Bake for about 15 minutes on the middle shelf of your oven, turning the tray around once halfway through baking, until golden brown all over. 

Eat warm or in room temperature with all kinds of cheese or with butter and honey or jam.

You can always try different shapes
Twisted and braided “koulouria”

Whole Wheat Raisin Bread

This is a somehow primitive recipe compared to other raisin breads like panetone or stolen, but the raisins combine with the whole wheat flour to an austere and delicious result. 

You can have it as a power breakfast with butter and marmalade (and then perhaps set off for a long trek to Rohan), or just a plain slice of it with tea.

For the yeast mixture

  • 20g fresh yeast, dissolved in 1/2 cup lukewarm milk
  • 1 tsp caster sugar

For the dough

  • 540g whole wheat flour
  • 1,5 cups lukewarm milk
  • 80g melted butter (plus some extra melted butter for brushing the braid)
  • 80g caster sugar
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • 1 cup raisins

Add the sugar to the dissolved yeast and stir. Set aside for about 10 minutes until frothy.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the flour with the salt, sugar and lemon zest. Make a well in the middle and add the milk, melted butter, raisins and the yeast mixture. Using the hook attachment mix on low speed for about 3 -4minutes until a dough forms. Add some lukewarm water or flour  if necessary.

Cover with a tea towel and let it rise in a warm place for about 1 hour.

Divide the risen dough into 3 balls roll each into strips 35-38 cm long and about 4-5 cm in diameter. Lay the three strips side by side, pinching together at one end, and braid. Pinch together at the other end to hold the loaf intact.

Place the bread on a parchment-lined baking sheet, covered with a tea towel, and let rise for one more hour.

Preheat the oven to 170 C (fan).

Brush the bread lightly with melted butter and bake on the middle shelf for about 30-35 minutes, turning the tray around once halfway through baking, until golden brown all over. Remove from the oven and leave to cool.

Soutzoukakia Smyrneika

Both Food Interpreters have at least one grandparent that arrived from Asia Minor. The refugees did not carry with them much (they were refugees, not expats) but they had a very strong culinary culture that enriched the cuisine of mainland Greece. In a sense the food they ate, influenced from Easter Mediterranean, Asia, Ottoman cooking and – for the ex-residents of Smyrna – France, was better than that of their established co-patriots.

  
The women were adamant about the recipes they brought with them. Deviations from the ‘original’  recipes were not an option, and, in case a poor individual strayed away from the path of culinary righteousness was looked down with contempt. 

The Soutzoukakia we are presenting here are  such a faux pax: They are are baked and not fried, they are bigger than they should, are less spicy and in general terms lighter. Nevertheless we think they are great comfort food and certainly more suited for children. 

Serves 4 hungry people

For the soutzoukakia

  • 600g minced beef
  • 220g onion, very finely chopped
  • 2 garlic gloves, minced
  • 150g rusk crumbs
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil  (plus some more for brushing the soutzoukakia)
  • 4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2tsp sea salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

For the tomato sauce

  • 500g freshly grated tomatoes (or chopped canned tomatoes)
  • 1/2 tsp sugar (optional, depending on the acidity of the tomatoes)
  • 3Tbsp olive oil
  • 110g onion, very finely chopped
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper

To prepare the soutzoukakia, place the ground beef in a bowl, and stir in the rest of the ingredients. Wet your hands and knead well to a smooth paste.Cover and let rest for about 10-15 minutes.

Preheat your oven grill to high temperature and line a baking tray with baking parchment.

To shape the soutzoukakia take a handful of the meat mixture (about 50g) and make it into a shape of a flat oblong sausageAs soon as the soutzoukakia are shaped, brush them with olive oil and place them on the prepared baking tray.

Broil them under the hot grill for about 6-8 minutes, turning over half way and brushing them with olive oil, until they are golden and cooked through.

In the meantime, place a large pan on medium heat with the olive oil and cook the onions for about 7 minutes stirring regularly. Add the tomatoes with the sugar and ground cumin, bring to a boil stirring well, then lower the heat and let simmer uncovered about 10-15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the soutzoukakia in the tomato sauce and stir gently. Let simmer about another 10-15 minutes minutes until the sauce thickens.

Serve immediately over rice, mashed potatoes or triple cooked chips.