Saturday, November 27, 2010

One Year

Time flies when you're having fun.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Meat and pasta, the western Greek way

When people think of Greek food, their minds immediately go to souvlaki, gyros, tzatziki and spanakopita. I've had about a dozen people asking me a recipe for spanakopita the moment I set foot in Holland and since then I've been handing out recipes for my souvlaki left and right. Well, this is partly my own fault. The first dinner party I ever threw in Holland, included souvlaki and two trays of tyropita (Greek cheese pie) so I had it coming.

But seriously, I know that Greek food is known and loved the world over but it is not limited to those dishes. One of the reasons I started this blog was exactly that. To show people how diverse and rich Greek food is and how geography and the influence of neighboring countries have shaped traditional Greek food culture.

Greece is a country with great geographical diversity. Its enormous Mediterranean coastline and vast seas provide ample space for fishermen to catch unique fish and shellfish that have been part of the Greek diet since ancient times. Dishes of the Greek islands like garides saganaki (sautéed prawns in tomato and feta sauce) and grilled fish with ladolemono (olive oil and lemon dressing) are examples of the simplicity that characterizes Greek island food.

Parts of mainland Greece are rocky and mountainous areas where meat is consumed in great amounts, with goat, lamb and veal being the meats of choice. Hearty goat stews, thick-crusted minced veal pies and whole roasted baby lamb, are being prepared in every household all year round—even during the summer months when in other parts of Greece lighter dishes are preferred—and this uncomplicated yet sophisticated style of cooking has been passed on from one generation to the next.

Vegetables, fruit and legumes were always a big part of Greek cuisine but during the Byzantine period, spices and sugar were introduced and with them new techniques and ways of cooking. Politiki cuisine, the type of Greek cooking I grew up with, is a direct descendant of the Byzantine gastronomy.

Greek cuisine has also been influenced by other cultures. In its long history, Greece has been occupied by the Romans and the Venetians, the Ottomans and the Catalans and they all affected the culinary history of Greece, introducing novel ingredients and combinations of flavors.

The Ionian Islands, situated off the west coast of Greece, and particularly Kefalonia, have been greatly affected by the Venetian occupation and their culinary history has been shaped by this north Italian influence. The Venetians were the ones who brought the tomato to the island of Kefalonia and because they consumed large quantities of olive oil, they were responsible for the planting of a great number of olive trees on the island. Olive trees were already grown there since ancient times but the Venetians rewarded with money the islanders who planted more of them all around Kefalonia. Today, quality olive oil is still an important product of the region.

"Kefalonitiki Pastitsada" or, if this is all sounding Greek to you (you know I had to say it at some point), beef (or veal) stew with tomatoes and spices on top of thick, tubular pasta from the island of Kefalonia, is a dish that can be found in most of the Ionian Islands. Each island has its own version, with the one from Kerkyra (Corfu) being the most widely known but to me, the one from Kefalonia is the best.

The last time I was in Kefalonia, in the summer of 2009, I must have eaten at least five different versions of this dish, either in restaurants and tavernas or at friends' homes. That and Kreatopita, a meat pie, were the dishes I craved the most when I returned from Kefalonia. I had to savor them again and the only way to do that was by recreating them myself and coming up with a recipe. So I did.

Pastitsada is an earthy and highly aromatic beef stew with a thick tomato sauce that is packed with flavor, which is imparted by the fresh tomatoes, the garlic and olive oil, the red wine and the addition of a number of spices. It's an unpretentious dish that comforts and soothes the senses. Served always with thick, long tubular pasta like bucatini and a generous sprinkling of Greek mizithra or kefalotyri cheese, it is gratifying, robust and synonymous with pure and authentic Greek flavor.

Kefalonitiki Pastitsada (Greek Beef Stew from Kefalonia with Tomatoes and Spices on top of Tubular Pasta)

Greeks always choose veal over beef, we don’t particularly enjoy the mature flavor of beef, but you can use either.

In traditional Greek cuisine, onions are usually grated in a large grater rather than chopped. This gives a different texture to the resulting sauces, making them thicker and richer. If you can't bother grating the onions in this recipe, you can whiz them in the food processor until they are almost puréed.

The best kind of cheese to sprinkle on top of this dish is the Greek hard cheese called mizithra, a white sheep's and goat's milk cheese. The next best thing would be the Greek kefalotyri, a hard yellow cheese made again from goat's and sheep's milk but if you can't find either one, you can use Pecorino Romano instead.
In the Ionian island of Zakynthos where a friend of my mom's is from, once this stew is almost cooked, they add small cubes of kefalograviera, a Greek yellow hard cheese, which imparts a peppery, umami taste to the dish and is still visible in the sauce since it doesn't melt easily. Needless to say, you don't need to add any more cheese after that.

A glass of Xinomavro, which is a superb Greek red wine variety, would be the perfect pairing for this dish but you can also use a good French Syrah or an Italian Nebbiolo. Use the same wine to enrich the sauce as well.

For those of you who live in The Netherlands, the meat you should use is runderriblap.

This stew needs a total of 2-2 ½ hours cooking.

Yield: 6 servings

1 kg boneless beef or veal stewing steak like chuck steak
100 ml olive olive
2 large onions (about 200 g), grated
3 large cloves of garlic, sliced
4 allspice berries
3 cloves
1/8 tsp nutmeg, grated
1 large cinnamon stick
Pinch of sugar
Freshly ground black pepper
50 ml red wine like Xinomavro, Syrah or Nebbiolo
550 g fresh tomatoes, cut roughly into small pieces (or canned diced tomatoes)
70 g tomato paste, good quality
150 ml hot water

700 g long, tubular pasta like Bucatini
100 g butter or vegetable oil shortening

200 g Greek hard Mizithra, Greek Kefalotyri or Pecorino Romano Cheese, grated

Special equipment: grater, colander

Take the meat and cut with a knife the large pieces of fat off, leaving a fair amount of fat on in order to flavor the dish. Cut the meat into pieces, about 7 x 6 cm each. Place them on paper towels and pat them dry. This is an important step because the meat will not brown properly if it's damp.

Note on tomatoes: It is preferable to use fresh tomatoes rather than canned. You don't have to skin the tomatoes and it is best if they are firm fleshed.

In a large, deep, heavy-bottomed pan or preferably in a Dutch oven, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. When it starts to shimmer, add enough beef pieces to cover 2/3 of the bottom of the pan (do not overcrowd the pan because the beef will boil rather than brown) and brown the pieces on both sides. Remove pieces from the pan and place them in a bowl. Brown the rest of the beef pieces in the same manner and place them in the bowl.

Add the grated onions to the pan and sauté them on medium heat for about 4 minutes and then add the garlic slices. Sauté them for 1 minute and add all the spices (allspice berries, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon stick) and a pinch of sugar. Stir continuously for 1 minute and then add the browned beef pieces along with the juices accumulated in the bowl you kept them in. Stir well and add some freshly ground black pepper. Turn heat up to medium-high, stir and add the wine, the chopped fresh tomatoes and the tomato paste. Then add the hot water (hot so the cooking process doesn't stop) and stir well. Put the lid on and let it come to the boil. Then lower the heat to the lowest setting and let the meat stew for 1 ½ - 2 hours or until it is tender. Check the meat every 20 minutes or so, stirring it around a bit. About 15 minutes before the meat is done, season with salt. The reason you're adding the salt now is because if you add it at the beginning of the cooking process, the beef will become tough and chewy.

In the end you will have tender, melt-in-the-mouth meat with a rich, thick tomato sauce.

While the meat is cooking, prepare the pasta. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil over high heat and add the bucatini. Cook until al dente (firm but not very hard), about 8 minutes, or cook to your liking. Drain the pasta in a colander, discarding the water. Melt the butter or vegetable oil shortening in the pot over medium-high heat and when it starts to foam, return the pasta to the pot. Turn off the heat and quickly stir the pasta around so that it gets coated with the butter or shortening.

Serve immediately, dividing the pasta between 6 dishes. Top with the beef stew, adding a generous amount of sauce. Sprinkle with lots of grated kefalotyri, myzithra or pecorino cheese.
Make sure you have lots of crusty bread on the table and some feta cheese.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The recipe

It's no longer my birthday but the memory of my birthday cake still holds. There is a small piece left in the refrigerator which will be eaten tonight, shared between S and me, but I can assure you that there will be a fight over the last bite.

I'm certain you've been drooling over this amazing cake and I wouldn't dream of leaving you without a recipe—it wouldn't be fair. It's one of the best cakes I have ever tasted and as I've said many times before, a good thing needs to be shared.

This is a triple chocolate cake. The bottom layer is a dark chocolate flourless cake with a subtle coffee flavor that comes from the addition of espresso powder. The middle layer is a dark chocolate mousse without eggs that is as light as a mousse can get and the top layer is a white chocolate mousse, again without eggs but with the addition of gelatin which holds the mousse together. Since white chocolate has more fat in it, it's more difficult to set in the form of mousse and become easily sliceable, so the gelatin works wonders in this respect. It also gives the mousse a more dense texture, distinguishing it from the more fluffy, airy middle layer of dark chocolate mousse.

The textures and flavors of this cake are unbelievable. There is a complete balance of flavors without any one layer overpowering the other two, each chocolate flavor being distinct and utterly delicious. The textures of each layer are all different from one another thus composing the perfect sweet cake bite.

Admittedly, this cake is not easy to prepare. The fact that I have a stand mixer surely helped me a lot but that doesn't mean that you can't complete the task with only a hand held mixer. It will just be more time consuming.

What's great about this cake—apart from the fact that it tastes and looks divine and that it is the best birthday cake ever—is that once you've made it, you realize that you now know how to make not one, but four different types of desserts. a) The actual cake, b) a flourless chocolate cake which you can make all on its own and serve it drizzled with melted chocolate or you can spoon some créme fraiche on top, c) a light, easy dark chocolate mousse that you can whip up in no time, since it doesn't have any eggs in it, chill it in the fridge in individual ramekins and serve it with a dollop of whipped cream and, last but not least d) a white chocolate mousse which you can serve in small bowls with dark chocolate shavings sprinkled on top. Is that fantastic or what?

Triple Chocolate Cake
Adapted from America's test kitchen

It is best that you make the cake the day before you want to serve it because it needs to be refrigerated for several hours.

It is important that you use good quality chocolate for all three layers.

Yield: 1 cake / 12-14 servings


for bottom layer (flourless chocolate cake)
85 g unsalted butter, cut into small pieces plus extra for greasing the pan
200 g dark 70% chocolate, cut into small pieces
1 tsp espresso powder
4 large eggs, separated into egg yolks and egg whites
Pinch of salt
75 g soft light brown sugar

for middle layer (dark chocolate mousse)
2 Tbsp Dutch-processed cocoa powder
75 ml hot water
200 g dark 55% chocolate, cut into small pieces
350 ml cream, full-fat, cold
20 g (1 Tbsp) caster sugar
1/8 tsp salt

for top layer (white chocolate mousse)
1 gold gelatin leaf (2-2.2 g)
250 ml water
170 g good quality white chocolate (at least 28% cocoa butter), cut into small pieces
350 ml cream, full-fat, cold

Dark and white chocolate shavings or cocoa powder for garnishing the top of the cake

Special equipment: 24 cm round spring-form cake pan with height at least 7.5 cm (and a 22 cm spring-form pan—see update), stand mixer or hand held mixer, offset spatula


for bottom layer (flourless chocolate cake)
Butter generously the sides and bottom of the spring-form pan.

Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius.

Melt butter, chocolate and espresso powder in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring often and making sure the chocolate doesn't burn. The bottom of the bowl must not come in contact with the simmering water. Once the mixture is smooth and melted, remove bowl from the top of the pan and set aside to cool slightly, about 5 minutes.

In a large bowl, add the four egg yolks and beat them lightly with a whisk. Add a spoonful of the melted chocolate mixture to the egg yolks and whisk just until incorporated. Add little by little the rest of the melted chocolate to the egg yolks, whisking just until incorporated. If your mixture looks lumpy or a bit curdled, do not worry. Once you incorporate the beaten egg whites into it, it will be ok. Set aside.

Note: You can add the egg yolks directly to the slightly cooled melted chocolate but you run the risk of having a lumpy mixture or, even worse, a split mixture.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl and with a hand held mixer), beat the four egg whites and salt at medium speed until frothy, for about 40 seconds. Add half of the brown sugar, after you have crumbled it with your hands to remove any lumps, and beat at medium speed until combined, for about 20 seconds. Add the remaining brown sugar, after you have crumbled it with your hands to remove any lumps, and beat at high speed until soft peaks form when you lift the whisk, for about 1 minute longer.

Using a whisk, fold one-third of the beaten egg whites into the chocolate-egg yolk mixture in order to lighten it up. Switching to a rubber spatula, fold in carefully the rest of the beaten egg whites until no white streaks are visible.

Transfer the batter carefully into the buttered spring-form pan, tap it gently so that it spreads evenly around the pan and smooth the top using an offset spatula. Place the pan carefully on the middle rack of the oven and bake until the cake has risen and is firm around the edges and soft but springy to the touch in the middle, for 13-17 minutes.
Transfer cake to a wire rack to cool completely, about 1 hour. Don't remove the cake from the pan and keep in mind that the cake will collapse as it cools.

Note: My cake, apart from collapsing, it also shrank considerably, leaving a gap between the edges of the spring-form pan and the cake. I have no idea why this happened but I had to move my cake to another pan in order to be able to create the other layers on top of it. I moved it carefully (I had buttered the bottom and sides of the pan well so this helped) in a 22 cm spring-form pan and continued with the rest of the layers.

Update 06.11.2011: I have made this cake several times since I posted the recipe, and I have to say that every single time, the cake shrank. That's the nature of the cake. So, I suggest you bake the cake in a 24 cm pan and then, once cooled, move it to a 22 cm pan. Continue building the mousse layers of the cake into that pan.

for middle layer (dark chocolate mousse)
Dissolve cocoa powder in the hot water inside a small bowl and set aside.

Melt the chocolate in a bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, stirring often until smooth. Remove bowl from the top of the pan and let cool slightly.

In the clean bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl and with a hand held mixer), beat cream, granulated sugar and salt at medium speed until mixture begins to thicken, for about 40 seconds. Then increase speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when you lift the whisk, for about 1 minute.

Whisk cocoa powder mixture into the melted chocolate until smooth and using the same whisk, fold one-third of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture to lighten it up. Switching to a rubber spatula, fold in the rest of the whipped cream until no white streaks are visible.

Transfer mousse into the spring-form pan, over the cooled cake, and gently tap the pan on the counter in order to remove any large air bubbles. Smooth the top of the mousse with an offset spatula and wipe clean the inside edges of the pan to remove any drips.

Put pan in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour in order for the mousse to set.

for top layer (white chocolate mousse)
Place the gelatin leaf in a small bowl and add the water on top. The water must cover the leaf completely. Soak for 15-20 minutes until the gelatin softens.

Place white chocolate pieces in a medium-sized bowl.

In the meantime, pour 120 ml of the cream inside a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Don't let the cream boil. Remove the pan from the heat and add the softened gelatin to the cream. Stir with a rubber spatula until the gelatin dissolves completely.

Pour cream mixture over the white chocolate and whisk until chocolate is melted and you have a smooth mixture. Let it come to room temperature, stirring every 5 minutes or so. The mixture will slightly thicken.

In the clean bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl and with a hand held mixer), beat the rest 230 ml of cream at medium speed until mixture begins to thicken, for about 40 seconds. Then increase speed to high and whip until soft peaks form when you lift the whisk, for about 1 minute.

Using a whisk, fold one-third of the whipped cream into the white chocolate mixture, in order to lighten it up. Switching to a rubber spatula, fold in carefully the rest of the whipped cream until no white streaks are visible.

Transfer white chocolate mousse into the pan, on top of the set dark chocolate mousse. Smooth the top with an offset spatula and return cake to the refrigerator to set. Chill the cake for at least 4 hours but it's best if you leave it in the fridge overnight.

serve the cake
Once set, remove cake from the fridge and run a knife around the sides of the pan in order to release the cake. It is best if you do this in one smooth motion so the cake doesn't have markings from the knife, especially since it is a mousse cake thus being more delicate.
Remove the sides of the pan. You can run a clean knife along the outside of the cake to smooth the sides. Don't remove the cake from the bottom of the pan.

Before serving the cake, you can add dark and white chocolate shavings on top or even sprinkle it with cocoa powder. Cut the cake into slices—it would be best if you didn't use a knife to do that but a cheese wire or even dental floss.
Serve and enjoy!

You can keep the cake in the refrigerator, covered with cling film, for up to 5 days.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Happy Birthday to me

Take a look at this...

Τhis rich, triple chocolate, decadent cake I made for...!

'Cause today is my birthday!