Saturday, February 19, 2011


I wasn't sure that I wanted to write this post. I wasn't sure at all.

I wasn't sure that I wanted to share this with you.

I didn't know if I should write this or how it would make me feel afterwards.

Then I thought that this blog is a part of me, and apart from the recipes that I share with you, it reflects my personality, my interests, my idiosyncrasies, my joys and sometimes my sorrows.
I share all that with you.

Still, this is very hard for me to write...

My dad died suddenly two weeks ago of a heart attack. He was still young and had so much to offer.

The trip to Greece was the worst of my life.

It's a difficult time for me. This experience is numbing and painful but with the support and love of my family, my friends and of course S, I'm going to be alright. I'm grateful to have them in my life.

My dad and me. Summer 1985

Thursday, February 3, 2011

My kind of sweet

If you have been reading my blog for a while, you are undoubtedly familiar with my proclivity for sweets. I haven't tried to hide it, not for a minute.

Quite the contrary, I have been trying to drag you down this road with me. A road paved with chocolate truffles and mango tiramisu, chocolate dulce de leche bars and triple chocolate cakes, Greek saragli and ravani. I know. I'm shameless. I am without shame.

And because I'm like that and I'm not going to change in the foreseeable future, I have something else for you, for me, for everyone. Another Greek sweet. A Greek sweet that will however make you feel a little less guilty for eating it, since it doesn't include a speck of butter or cream. No, those wicked ingredients will be included in my Valentine's Day sweets.

This Greek dessert is a traditional semolina halva with cinnamon and blanched almonds and trust me, it may be lacking in fat but it is certainly not lacking in flavor. It is a recipe that is categorized under Politiki cuisine, of which I have written about in a previous post. Politiki cuisine is a specific type of cooking of the Greeks who came from Poli (Constantinople) and it is the type of cooking I grew up with—it is my family's way of cooking.

This semolina halva is the one I have been eating ever since I was a little girl. It is the one I yearn to savor every time I go to my grandma's house and the one I have learned to prepare by watching her cook it a million times for my brother and me.

Semolina halva has only a handful of ingredients that yield one of the best desserts. Some of you may have not eaten it before so let me explain how this works. The semolina is first browned in some vegetable oil, while a simple syrup of water and sugar is prepared. The syrup is poured over the hot semolina, making it bubble up and sizzle, and after a few minutes, and through stirring, it calms down, now having the consistency of thick polenta. It is left covered for a while to absorb all the liquid and it is then fluffed up with a fork, like one would do with couscous, and sprinkled with ground cinnamon and blanched almonds.

There are versions of semolina halva that have a very gelatinous texture due to the addition of large amounts of syrup and milk, which I don't like at all. My family's recipe is somewhat different, not to mention better, in both texture and flavor.

The halva has a slight bite to it, being a little granular rather than sticky and has a deep, nutty flavor from the semolina. It is sweet but not overly so, it has a spicy, gentle finish of cinnamony awesomeness and the blanched almonds render a crunchy texture and a beautifully milky taste to the dessert.

Have it after dinner with a cup of coffee or tea or, if you are like me, enjoy it spoonful after spoonful, while you're sitting in front of your computer, reading your favorite blogs.

Politikos Halvas (Greek Semolina Halva with Cinnamon and Blanched Almonds)

Make sure you use good quality semolina because it makes all the difference in this dessert.

I usually buy blanched, halved almonds from the super market but there are times when I can only find raw ones, with skins on, which I need to blanch myself. It is extremely easy to do, believe me, and here's how you do it.
Put them in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them stand for 1 minute (not more as they'll lose their crunchiness), drain them, rinse them under cold running water so that they're cool enough to handle, and drain them again. Place them on a clean kitchen towel and squeeze the skin off with your fingers. Pat them dry and they're ready to use.
If you want, you can cut them in half lengthwise but you can use them whole too.

Yield: 6-8 dessert servings

590 ml water
275 g sugar
70 ml corn or sunflower oil
250 g fine semolina
2-3 Tbsp ground cinnamon (or more depending on your taste)
35 g blanched, halved almonds (read above on how to blanch them)

In a small saucepan with a lid, add the water and sugar. Set aside.

In a medium-sized, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, heat the oil over medium heat until it starts to shimmer.
Add the semolina and stir continuously with a wooden spoon until it has taken on a golden-brown color. This will take about 10 minutes and this is the tricky part of the recipe. You need to stir the semolina the whole time otherwise you run the risk of burning it. You also might need to moderate the heat. If you notice that the semolina is starting to burn rather than brown evenly, then you might want to turn down the heat a little.

While you're browning the semolina, place the small saucepan with the water and sugar over high heat in order to prepare the syrup. Stir with a spoon until the sugar is dissolved and let the syrup come to the boil. Remove from heat and put a lid on the saucepan.
Note: You need to pour the syrup over the browned semolina while they are both hot. So prepare the syrup as late as possible.

Once the semolina has taken on a golden-brown color, take the pan off the heat and pour the hot syrup slowly over the semolina. Be careful, it will splatter as it bubbles up and sizzles. Stir continuously with a wooden spoon while you're pouring the syrup. It would be wise if you'd wear an oven mitt on your hand while doing that, so that you don't get burned by the bubbling up of the semolina. The mixture will have a liquid texture at this point.
When it stops bubbling and sizzling, put the pan back on the heat (low heat) and cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring continuously. As you stir the semolina, it will thicken and create large lumps.
Take the pan off the heat, place a clean kitchen towel on top of the pan and put on the lid. After 5 minutes, take the lid and kitchen towel off and allow the halva to cool slightly in the pan.

Using a spoon, break up the halva into smaller pieces and fluff it up a bit, using a fork. Add the ground cinnamon and mix it through. Alternatively, you can sprinkle some cinnamon on top of the halva when you serve it.
Add the blanched almonds on top of each plateful.

The halva is best eaten warm but it can also be eaten at room temperature. I actually prefer it at room temperature myself.

You can keep the halva in an airtight container, at room temperature, for up to 4 days.