Saturday, April 23, 2011

Easter chocolate extravaganza

Each year, I start my Easter baking with such high hopes, such determination, so much positive thinking that I am absolutely convinced that nothing can go wrong.

I am confident that there will be no glitch in my plans and that I'm going to produce a flawless tsoureki (a brioche-like Greek Easter bread), one that will make my grandmother proud and declare me her worthy successor as the family's tsoureki baker, and that I'm going to whip up the most beautiful and aromatic Greek Easter cookies that ever came out of a little expat kitchen.

And then reality strikes. Something always seems to go wrong. My tsoureki either does not rise, like last year, or the flavor is sub par because I decide on a whim to experiment with some of the ingredients and add a number of twists to the recipe, like this year. When will I learn not to mess with a good thing?

S says that I'm intentionally sabotaging myself because deep down I want to break free of tradition and prepare something completely different for Easter, like last year, when I made a honey bee chocolate cake.

Well, I believe that S, who incidentally hates tsoureki (and who is obviously nuts), will find any excuse to avoid eating it. These little disasters are exactly what he needs in order to support his case of a tsoureki-free Easter. He's always trying to persuade me to make anything with chocolate instead. Not that my arm needs any twisting with that.

So, the traditional Greek cookies have been substituted by chocolate truffle eggs and the tsoureki by a rich, two layered, chocolate cake. And you know what? I think I'm gonna start a new tradition (even if that is an oxymoron). Every Easter from now on, I will be baking a chocolate cake. And a tsoureki. And cookies. Sorry, I can't help it.

I'm sure I've told you this before but I'm a hard-core chocoholic—it's sickening, I can't live without the stuff—and this cake is my dream come true. It has dark chocolate and milk chocolate and white chocolate and blue chocolate and speckled blue chocolate. Well, the last two kinds are my own doing. What a little food coloring can do-ooh-ooh.

Making this cake was admittedly kind of hard. Not so much technique-wise but time-wise. It was a two-day affair for me. The first day I made the chocolate egg truffles and the second day I made the actual cake. Why it took me two days, you ask? Well, that's what happens when you have a small kitchen, one very small counter top, and a small fridge. No place to chill, cool, refrigerate, rest, store, put stuff.

The egg truffles are pretty straightforward. You make a ganache with butter, chill it and then shape it with your hands into small eggs. You melt the white chocolate, add blue food coloring, dip the glorious truffles in it and voilà—blue and speckled blue chocolate truffle eggs.

The actual cake has three components. The baked chocolate cake, the whipped ganache frosting and filling, and the chocolate glaze. Triple chocolate attack. And then, because all this chocolate cannot possibly be enough and because this is an egg-nest cake, milk chocolate shavings are added on top to form the nest and the pretty little eggs are placed inside. Ah, the chocolate extravaganza!

Needless to say that when I finished preparing the cake, I was covered in chocolate from head to toe. That will teach me for being smug and always refusing to wear an apron. When S came home from work that day, the first thing he did when he laid eyes on me, was laugh. He was mocking me, people. Well, in a good way. He knew there was chocolate cake at stake.

When I was done, I knew I had accomplished something good. It was gorgeous. I loved it; not only its appearance but also its flavor. The cake was so moist and had an incredibly rich texture, and the frosting was so light and chocolaty. The glaze was sweet and shiny and the truffle eggs were dense and utterly delicious; the perfect two-bite chocolate truffle. Without being overly sweet, without giving you the feeling that you overdosed on chocolate (although some chocolate-haters might disagree with me on that), my own little Easter-egg nest cake was a complete success. Now you go and make your own!

Two-layered Chocolate Easter Egg Nest Cake with Truffle Eggs
Adapted from Martha Stewart

This cake might look complicated but it is not. I mean, if I can do it, you can do it. And you know what else? I made this whole cake, plus the truffle eggs, without using any kind of electric mixer. Yes, you heard me right. I used just a simple wire whisk. You gotta love wire whisks. They're the perfect tool. That and offset spatulas. If you have those two tools, you're set.

This cake need not only be for Easter. Exchange the truffle eggs on top of the cake for simple, round truffles, or use only chocolate shavings, and make this a birthday cake or any other kind of celebration cake you like.

Yield: 1 cake/ 8-10 servings


for the cake
230 g unsalted butter plus extra for greasing the pans
45 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder plus extra for sprinkling the inside of the pans
2.5 g (about 1 Tbsp) instant espresso powder
60 ml water
420 g sugar
2 large eggs
30 ml pure vanilla extract
120 ml full-fat, fresh buttermilk
310 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt

for the ganache frosting
230 g good quality dark 55% chocolate, roughly chopped
120 ml cream, full-fat

for the chocolate glaze
230 g good quality dark 55% chocolate, roughly chopped
120 ml cream, full-fat
30 ml Lyle's Golden Syrup or mild-flavored runny honey

for decorating the cake
250 g good quality milk chocolate
Chocolate truffle eggs (see recipe below)

Special equipment: 2 round spring form pans, 18 cm in diameter and 7-8 cm deep, baking paper, wire whisk, small offset spatula (optional)


Make the cake
Butter both pans well and line the bottom with baking paper. Butter the baking paper and sprinkle the bottom and sides of the pans with cocoa powder. Tap out excess.

Preheat your oven to 175 degrees Celsius.

In a medium-sized bowl, stir together flour, baking soda and salt with a spoon.

In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the espresso powder, the cocoa and the water and whisk until completely dissolved. Add the sugar and whisk until you have a smooth mixture. Remove saucepan from the heat.
Let stand for 5 minutes and add the eggs, one by one, whisking vigorously after each addition. Add the vanilla extract and buttermilk and whisk well. Add the flour, baking soda and salt and whisk until combined.

Divide the cake batter equally between the two prepared pans. Place them on the middle rack of the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, until a knife or cake tester inserted in the middle of the cakes comes out clean.

Place both pans on a wire rack and let cakes cool for about 20 minutes. Remove cakes from the pans, remove baking paper, and place on the wire rack to cool completely. Be careful how you unmold the cakes because they will be soft. Be careful not to break them.

Make the ganache frosting
While the cake is cooling, prepare the ganache.

Place dark chocolate and cream in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the pan does not come in contact with the water. Melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth.

Transfer the ganache into a clean bowl and place it in the fridge for 40-45 minutes. Every 10 minutes, take bowl out of the fridge and stir ganache well with a rubber spatula. You will end up with a ganache that has the consistency of thick cream cheese. Take ganache out of the fridge and whisk vigorously until smooth and fluffy.

Coat the cake layers with the whipped ganache
Trim tops of cake layers level. (The pieces you cut off will serve as a perfect breakfast the following day).

Place one cake, cut side up, on a wire rack set over a rimmed baking sheet. Measure ½ cup of the whipped ganache frosting and spread it over the top of the cake, smoothing it out with the help of a small offset spatula (or a regular spatula). Place carefully the second cake on top, cut side down, and coat the top and sides of the cake with the remaining ganache frosting.
Place in the refrigerator until the frosting firms up, for about 20 minutes.

Make the chocolate glaze
Place dark chocolate, cream and golden syrup (or honey) in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the pan does not come in contact with the water. Melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove the bowl from over the pan and let glaze cool for 5 minutes.

Take the cake out of the fridge and pour the glaze over it. With the help of an offset spatula, spread the glaze around and let it drip down the sides of the cake. Smooth it out and put cake back in the fridge so the glaze can set, for about 20 minutes.

Decorate and serve the cake
In the meantime, make milk chocolate shavings or curls by using a knife and scrapping the back side of the chocolate bar. You will need approximately 1 ½ cups of chocolate curls and shavings to make the nest on top of the cake. Place curls in the fridge until ready to use.

Take the cake out of the fridge and transfer it carefully from the wire rack onto a serving dish or cake stand.

Form a nest using the chocolate shavings and place 3 small eggs in the middle.

Serve the cake. Cut thin slices because the cake is tall and fulfilling.

Keep the cake covered, at room temperature, for 2-3 days.

Chocolate Truffle Eggs
Adapted from Martha Stewart

The filling of these truffle eggs is a ganache made with butter. It has a super rich flavor that pairs beautifully with the white/blue chocolate coating.

The secret to making fingerprint-free truffle eggs is to use toothpicks or small wooden skewers to hold the truffles and dip them into the melted chocolate.

Yield: 18-22 truffle eggs (depending on the size. I made 18 ping-pong ball-sized eggs)

230 g good quality dark 55% chocolate, roughly chopped
115 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
90 ml cream, full-fat
700 g good quality white chocolate, roughly chopped
Sky-blue gel paste food coloring

Special equipment: latex disposable gloves (optional), 1 packet strong toothpicks

Place dark chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the pan does not come in contact with the water. Melt the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove the bowl from over the pan. In the meantime, heat the cream in a small saucepan (do not boil it). Pour cream into the melted chocolate and butter, and stir until it is incorporated.

Empty the ganache in a clean bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until it is very cold and set but still pliable, for about 2 hours.

Using a tablespoon as a measure, scoop balls of ganache, placing each one on a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Put them in the fridge for 30 minutes to firm up.

Using your hands (preferably wearing latex gloves to make your life easier) and working quickly, shape the balls into small eggs and place them back on the baking paper. Put the eggs in the freezer until very firm, for about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, place white chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water, making sure that the bottom of the pan does not come in contact with the water. Melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth.

Divide the white chocolate equally between two medium-sized bowls. Add some drops of blue food coloring to one bowl until you have your desired shade of blue, stirring well with a spatula.

Add some drops of blue food coloring to the other bowl but don't stir with a spatula. Using a toothpick, swirl the food coloring around.

Take the eggs out of the freezer and stick a toothpick in one end of each egg. Holding the eggs by the toothpicks, dip them one by one into the blue or speckled blue chocolate. Coat the eggs well and let the excess chocolate drip off back into the bowl. Place eggs back on the baking paper and once you're done with all of them, place them in the fridge for 10 minutes. Take them out of the fridge and remove carefully the toothpick from each egg. Put eggs back in the fridge for 50 minutes to set completely.

Use the eggs to decorate the cake.

Keep the rest of the eggs in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Note: if there's any blue chocolate left after you have finished coating the eggs, make small chocolates like I did, using chocolate molds.


Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Strawberry fields forever: Part II

I don't know what's been going on these last couple of weeks but Holland is starting to feel a lot like Greece as far as the weather is concerned. The temperature is sky high and the sun is beaming relentlessly on everyone's face, creating freckles on noses, turning cheeks bright red and making Dutch women extremely happy because elke dag is Rokjesdag (every day is Skirt Day).

Rokjesdag (Skirt Day) is the first day of the year in Holland when the temperature is high enough for women to wear mini skirts and sandals and bare their legs to the world and, to be truthful here, I don't get what the big deal is. The weather is good, you wear your mini skirt. The weather is bad, you don't.

I mean, in Greece we just wear our skirts and go about our days and don't have to dance in the streets to celebrate it. You need to understand that, in Athens, when temperatures are higher than normal for the season, we're just worried that a heat wave will hit us and that we're going to have to cling to our air conditioners to avoid a heat stroke.

Instinctively, this uncanny heat doesn't make me wanna wear skirts and flip flops but go to Media Markt and buy another fan.

What this heat also does to me, is turn me into a maniacal consumer of anything fresh and fruity. It makes me want to enjoy all that early spring has to offer—peas, spinach, artichokes, strawberries, asparagus— cooked in every imaginable way.

It is a special moment for me when I spot the first strawberries of the season at the market. It's almost like when you're at a party and you make eye contact with a guy you really like and then he comes over to talk to you. Well, it's like that with me and strawberries. I want to ask them what they're doing later.

So, last week, I got a kilo of the most beautiful strawberries I have ever seen. Big, juicy, redder-than-red strawberries that were not too sweet but were ideal for my favorite everyday cake; strawberry cake with cinnamon.

I have been making this cake for years and it's always been a big hit with anyone who has ever tasted it. They all ask me for the recipe and now is the time for me to share it. This is the type of cake that is easy to make, that doesn't require any crazy ingredients and has a taste that is absolutely amazing.

It is full of succulent strawberry chunks that ooze out of the cake when you take a bite. It has a deep cinnamon-y flavor without being too sweet and it's so aromatic, so moist, so delicate that I feel I have to warn you; it is hard to restrain yourself and not eat a couple of slices back to back. Then again, I guess that's not such a bad thing.

Everyday Strawberry Cake

This is not a complicated affair but rather simple and quite quick, just as an everyday cake should be.

You just need to make sure you coat the strawberry chunks well with the batter before emptying it into your pan so that they don't sink to the bottom during baking.

Yield: 8-10 pieces

120 g unsalted butter, at room temperature (plus extra for greasing the pan)
150 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
4 medium-sized eggs
260 g all-purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp cinnamon, ground
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
125 g crème fraîche, sour cream or Greek strained yoghurt (full fat)
220 g fresh strawberries

Special equipment: a loaf pan (23 x 9 x 8 cm), stand or hand-held mixer, sieve

Rinse the strawberries under cold running water and cut off the stems. Chop the strawberries into bite-sized pieces.

Butter the inside of the loaf pan, line it with baking paper and butter again.

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon together over a bowl.

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

In the bowl of the stand mixer or in a large bowl, beat the butter on medium speed with the paddle attachment or with your hand-held mixer, until softened and creamy, for 1-2 minutes. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy.
Add the vanilla extract and the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

With your mixer working on low speed, add 1/3 of the sifted ingredients and once incorporated, add half of the crème fraîche, sour cream or yoghurt. Incorporate and then add another 1/3 of the sifted ingredients. Incorporate and add the rest of the crème fraîche, sour cream or yoghurt. Incorporate and add the last 1/3 of the sifted ingredients.
Mix only until combined and not more!

With a spatula, stir the strawberry chunks into the batter gently, being careful not to crush them, but at the same time making sure you cover them completely with the batter so that they don't sink to the bottom of the pan during baking.

Transfer the batter to the prepared loaf pan and place it on the middle rack of the oven. Bake the strawberry cake for about 50 minutes, until it has taken on a golden brown color on top and a knife or cake tester inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Place the pan on a wire rack so the cake can cool and then remove the cake from the pan.

Keep the strawberry cake for 3-4 days at room temperature, lightly covered.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Saganaki

There are dishes that you aspire to cook, dishes that intimidate or unnerve you and then there are other dishes, those that effortlessly happen in your kitchen. They come together easily, unassumingly, they ooze comfort and smell and feel like home.

It's the kind of food that is cooked for and meant to be shared by family and friends. It is food prepared on a whim, when you're all sitting at the backyard on an early spring evening and you suddenly realize everyone's hungry and you could use something to eat.

Fresh soutzouki

It is familiar food that your mom would cook, food over which fights would start once upon a time at the dinner table between you and your brother, when you'd fight over the last bite. This is one of those dishes.

This is Politiko Saganaki; a dish that is the epitome of my family's comfort food. Politiko refers to the type of Greek cuisine I grew up with (of which you can read all about here) and the saganaki, well, if you don't know what saganaki is then I'm your girl.

Anyone who is familiar with Greek food knows saganaki. The word saganaki (σαγανάκι in Greek) is a diminutive of sagani (σαγάνι) which means two-handled frying pan or dish so, essentially, saganaki is a small round frying pan. Saganaki also refers to a number of dishes in Greek cuisine that are cooked in this type of pan.

And now that we've gotten over with the formalities and definitions of the word, let's get down to business. Saganaki is simply awesome fare. It is a traditional mezes and one of the ultimate types of food that all Greeks love. Saganaki dishes are always present in any large Greek feast or intimate gathering and are served at the table directly in the pan, with a side of good wine, beer or ouzo. Since the saganaki is a small pan, the portions are rather small, usually one or two servings.

Most people are under the misconception that saganaki is fried Greek cheese but, even though fried cheese like kefalograviera, kefalotyri or feta is a saganaki dish (and among the best ones of the kind), it is not the only such dish there is. There's garides (shrimps) saganaki made with whole shrimps, tomato and feta cheese, mydia (mussels) saganaki, and different vegetables or meat saganaki, in which case the limit is only your imagination.
Oh, and something else, saganaki is not a flambé dish. Just setting the record straight.

And then we have my kind of saganaki, the Politiko Saganaki. At first glance, this may seem like just a dish of fried eggs and sausage. No, it's far more than that. There are juicy tomato slices hidden underneath the eggs, sizzling in the clarified butter. There's crumbled feta on top and hot red pepper. But the secret of all this, is the sausage, which is not an ordinary one. It's soutzouki*; a thick, fresh, spicy and hot beef sausage that is traditional in Politiki cuisine and is what makes this dish extraordinary.

Fresh soutzouki

The flavor of the soutzouki is deep and unique. It has a spicy quality that slightly burns the tip of your tongue as you savor it and along with the creamy eggs, salty feta and fresh tomato, you have the quintessential Greek fried saganaki. A dish you should try simply because it will be one of the best Greek dishes you will ever have.

*Not to be confused with soutzoukos, which is a Greek sweet made with grape-must and almonds.

Politiko Saganaki (Greek Saganaki with Eggs, Tomato, Feta and Soutzouki)

Not all Greeks are familiar with soutzouki—it is a fresh sausage used predominantly in Politiki cuisine—and many are not used to its spiciness and piquant flavor. It contains cumin, sumac and hot ground pepper and is usually made with beef although you can find some that are made with pork. It's fairly fatty and you can add it not only to this saganaki but also to pizzas and sandwiches.

It is really worth the effort of tracking down soutzouki. The dish will not be the same without it and you'll be missing out on a good thing. You can try it at Greek, Armenian, Lebanese or Turkish food stores. I can't really suggest a substitute for it because there's nothing else like it but you can try a hot and spicy beef sausage of your choice. What I can suggest though, if you're living in Athens, Greece or even if you're just visiting, is that you go to the store* that sells the best soutzouki and pastourma in the world. The store that has been in the same location for more than 50 years and from which my grandfather used to buy his soutzouki since the '60s.

You can either use clarified butter** or vegetable oil in this dish but I would strongly suggest you use clarified butter. Even though it's not the healthiest thing out there (who are we kidding, this dish is not a health conscious dish but we can still be friends, right?), it is the best choice for this saganaki.

Yield: 2 servings

3 Tbsp clarified butter (or olive oil)
3 slices of fresh soutzouki, thickly sliced (casing removed)
4-5 tomato slices, thinly sliced
3 large fresh eggs
50 g feta cheese
Boukovo (Greek hot red pepper) or cayenne pepper, ground

Special equipment: saganaki (small, round frying pan with two handles) or small frying pan

Heat the clarified butter (or olive oil) in the saganaki or other small frying pan, over medium heat and when it starts to shimmer, add the soutzouki slices. Brown them on both sides (they will brown very quickly because the soutzouki is a fresh sausage, it will take about 20 seconds per side).

Take the soutzouki slices out of the pan and add the tomato slices. Sauté them for 1 minute until they soften a bit, carefully crack the eggs on top and arrange the soutzouki slices between them. Fry the eggs over medium heat to your liking.

Turn the heat off and crumble the feta cheese on top. Season with a little salt (keep in mind that soutzouki is fairly salty) and boukovo or cayenne pepper.

Serve immediately, directly in the saganaki.

*The name of the store is "Ο Γιώργος" (O Giorgos) and the address is
Δ. Γούναρη 21-23, στοά Πολίτου, Πειραιάς (D. Gounari 21-23, stoa Politou, Piraeus)

**Clarified butter is butter from which the milk solids and moisture have been removed. What remains is pure butterfat. Clarified butter can be heated to higher temperatures than regular oil. If you want to make your own clarified butter, you can follow David Lebovitz's superb recipe.