Sunday, April 29, 2012

The fifth sense

I'm in my living room, sitting in front of my computer. I have a cold, one of those colds that you least expect to get because the past few days have been so sunny, spring was in the air and flowers were blooming and the idea of going out when you've just had a shower and your hair was all wet, was a good idea.

But now, some days later, my nose is running, my throat hurts, my ears are buzzing, I have a slight fever and I can barely keep my eyes open. Outside, the weather seems to be in sync with how I feel. It is raining like it never rains in Holland, with thunders that you rarely hear when you're living in this part of the world. How I miss that sound.

The worse thing of all, apart from the fact that I can hardly speak let alone sing, is that I can barely taste a thing. Not that I have much of an appetite but even my tea is devoid of flavor, even after I've poured in it more than enough of my favorite honey. I'm daydreaming of food that tastes bold and bright and adventurous and new but, alas, I can only eat chicken soup.

I'm one of those people to whom food is not just for survival. I love food with all my heart, and being in this state saddens me. I know it sounds weird but it does and, all I'm dreaming right now, is the food I had a couple of days ago, when I still had all five of my senses, the last thing I cooked and photographed for the blog; hummus.

I love hummus; with the garlic and the chickpeas and the tahini and my own personal touch, the sumac. Oh, it's torturous to have in the fridge and not being able to taste it. Torture, I tell you! But that can't stop me from writing about it or sharing it with you.

So, let me start by setting things straight and by demolishing another false idea about Greek food. Hummus is not Greek. Many people think it is, but we don't usually eat it in Greece, at least not too many people do. It is a Middle Eastern recipe which is also very popular in Cyprus.

I like my hummus thick and creamy, not stodgy. It needs to have some miniscule legume pieces still intact, giving it some added texture; it needs to have a lot of garlic and lemon juice balancing the sweetness of the chickpeas, and a generous amount of that divine sesame paste that is beyond amazing in flavor; it needs to be highly aromatic, taking my senses by storm and not just be another dip you simply dunk your bread in; it needs to be creamy enough to be able to scoop with a piece of pita but thick enough that it doesn't run down the side of my hand.
I hate runny hummus, or runny any dip for that matter.

I know, there are so many recipes for hummus out there, who needs another one, right? Well, I don't care. I love hummus and I need to share this with you now. So, since I can't just go open my fridge and savor my own, please make this for yourselves, and enjoy it for me, will you?


If you choose to make the hummus with dried chickpeas, something I always do since it results in a superior-tasting dip, you'll need to start the night before by soaking the chickpeas. I know it sounds like extra work, but seriously, it is worth it. Of course, using canned chickpeas is easier and you can be more spontaneous, preparing it whenever you feel like it. Your choice, really. Below, I include instructions for both.

It's the perfect mezes to accompany either meat or fish. Serve it with fresh baked pita or plain bread, or an array of fresh seasonal vegetables.

You can halve the recipe if you want a smaller yield.

Yield: around 1 ½ kg hummus, enough for many people

500 g dried chickpeas (that'll yield around 1 kg cooked chickpeas), or 1 kg canned chickpeas
1 tsp baking soda
4 medium-sized garlic cloves, peeled and roughly chopped
160 ml tahini, stirred well
160 ml lemon juice (from 3 lemons), freshly squeezed
200 ml liquid from the cooked chickpeas
130 ml extra virgin olive oil, plus a little for drizzling on top
½ tsp salt
Sumac, for sprinkling on top

Special equipment: colander, large food processor or blender


if using dried chickpeas
The night before, put the dried chickpeas in a large bowl, add the baking soda and 2 liters of water. Stir with a spoon and leave the chickpeas to soak overnight. They need 12-14 hours of soaking.

The next day, empty the chickpeas into a colander and rinse them well under cold running water. Place them in a large pot and add 2 liters of tap water. Bring to the boil over high heat. You will notice that once the water starts to boil, the chickpeas will start to create a white foam that will come up to the surface of the water. Remove the foam with a large spoon and drain the chickpeas in a colander. Return the chickpeas in the pot and add 2 liters of boiling water. Bring them to the boil over high heat, then turn heat down to low and cook chickpeas for 20-30 minutes, or until they soften. Not all chickpeas are the same so you need to keep an eye on them. You want them to be tender but not mushy. One way to check doneness, apart from simply tasting one of the chickpeas, is by pressing one with your finger; if it breaks easily, it is ready, if not, you need to cook them for a while longer. The chickpeas must not be tough otherwise your hummus will be grainy.

When the chickpeas are cooked, reserve 300 ml of the cooking liquid (you'll need 200 ml but you might need more) and drain them in a colander. Allow them to cool before continuing with the preparation of the hummus.

if using canned chickpeas
Make sure you keep the liquid when you open the can of chickpeas. Measure it and add enough water to reach 200 ml of liquid.

make the hummus
In the food processor or blender, add the drained, cool chickpeas (or the canned chickpeas) and then add the chopped garlic cloves, the tahini, the lemon juice, 200 ml of the cooking liquid (or the canned chickpeas-liquid along with the water), the olive oil and the salt.

Process until smooth and check the seasoning, adding more salt if needed. Check the texture of the hummus. If it is too thick, add a little more cooking liquid or water to thin it out.

Transfer as much as you want into a serving bowl, drizzle some olive oil on top and sprinkle with a little sumac.

You can keep it in the refrigerator, in an airtight container, for up to 5 days. Take it out of the fridge half an hour before serving and stir it very well with a spoon or spatula to make it creamy and to fluff it up.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The best things in life are free... and easy

Sunday, noon.

Two hungry people.

Fresh bread from our neighborhood bakery.

Fresh baby spinach in the fridge, fresh broccolini, lots of feta, and just a small piece of Parmesan.

When hunger strikes, creativity ensues.

Quick lunch, inspired by the Greek spanakopita (for which a recipe is coming really soon, I promise).

Tartines aka open-faced sandwiches.

Spinach, feta, dill, spring onion.

Broccolini, parmesan, black pepper.

Greek extra virgin olive oil poured over both.

Sunday, afternoon.

Two full, utterly satisfied and very happy people.

Spinach and Feta Tartines

You can use wild instead of baby spinach but I would advise you to use just the leaves and to blanch them, as they tend to be a little tough.
Use any kind of fresh bread you have on hand but please don't use white sliced sandwich bread.
I used white sourdough and multigrain bread.

Yield: enough for 2 people

2 large and thick slices of country bread
A couple of handfuls of baby spinach leaves
1 spring onion, sliced
A handful of dill leaves, chopped
Feta cheese, crumbled
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and place it on the middle rack of the oven. Toast the bread for about 7 minutes until it becomes crunchy.

Rinse the spinach under cold running water and pat it dry with some paper towels.
Arrange the spinach leaves on top of the toasted bread.

Mix together the sliced spring onion, the chopped dill and the crumbed feta, and place the mixture over the spinach.
Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and drizzle some olive oil on top.

Broccolini and Parmesan Tartines

Broccolini (or bimi in Dutch) is extremely popular in The Netherlands and is swiftly becoming one of my favorite spring vegetables. If your broccolini is very delicate and tender, you don't need to blanch it like I did.
You can substitute with purple sprouting broccoli (scheutjesbroccoli in Dutch).

Yield: enough for 2 people

2 large and thick slices of country bread
8-10 broccolini, trimmed
Parmesan cheese, shaved
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Extra-virgin olive oil

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.
Place the bread slices on a baking sheet and place it on the middle rack of the oven. Toast the bread for about 7 minutes until it becomes crunchy.

Fill a medium-sized saucepan with water by 2/3, and bring it to the boil over high heat. Rinse the broccolini under cold running water and drop them in the boiling water. Blanch them for 2-3 minutes, empty them in a colander and rinse them under cold running water. Pat them dry with some paper towels.

Arrange the broccolini on top of the toasted bread and sprinkle with a little salt. Place the shaved Parmesan on top, sprinkle with a little black pepper and drizzle with olive oil.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The remains of the day

What I love about Greek tsoureki, besides it being the most delicious sweet bread there is, is all the things I can do with it.

The simplest thing to do is slather it with a decent, or better yet obscene amount of butter and my favorite jam, which is and will always be strawberry.

Make French toast, of course, where all you need to do is dip your stale tsoureki slices in a mix of eggs and milk, fry them in butter, pour honey all over them and finish them off with a good sprinkling of cinnamon.

And then there's this dish. The tsoureki bread and butter pudding; the ultimate option.
I have to be honest. This dessert is all very new to me. It's not typical in Greek cuisine and certainly not something my grandmother would make the day after Easter but, when I gave it a try, I just couldn't believe how incredible it was.

You take your stale tsoureki, still fragrant and full of promise, you slice it and arrange it on a well-buttered baking dish. You prepare a rich custard, eight egg yolks mind you, you pour it all over the tsoureki and you top the whole thing off with fresh strawberries, dried currants and demerara sugar.

I guarantee your mouth will water even before the dish is out of the oven. The intoxicating aromas of the vanilla, the strawberries and the mahlepi in the tsoureki will penetrate your nostrils and you'll be filled with anticipation for what you're about to taste. And once you do, you will certainly be amazed.

Amazed by the luscious texture and flavor of the tsoureki, the juiciness of the sweet strawberries, the soft and gooey bottom of the pudding and the beautifully crusty, caramelized top. You'll want to eat more than you can handle which is only natural but you'll have to control yourself. It's a rich dessert, I don't want you to regret it afterwards. Then again, well, we only live once, right?

Tsoureki Bread and Butter Pudding with Strawberries, Vanilla and Currants
Adapted from Donna Hay

My Politiko tsoureki is ideal for bread and butter pudding simply because it ages well. It retains its structure when it gets stale and has a well-browned crust and robust crumb.
You can substitute of course with other types of sweet bread like brioche or challah.

Instead of vanilla extract, I used vanilla bean paste which is my new find. What an amazing flavor it has! If you haven't tasted it before, the time is now. Buy a jar, you won't regret it. It is vanilla flavor x 2.

I love using demerara sugar (like in this dessert) because it has such a deep flavor but you can also use caster sugar.

Yield: 8-10 servings

30 g unsalted butter
15-17 slices of stale tsoureki (or any other sweet bread)
620 ml cream, 35% fat
500 ml fresh, whole milk
8 medium-sized egg yolks
110 g caster sugar
2 tsp vanilla bean paste or extract
600 g fresh strawberries, hulled and cut in half lengthwise
40 g dried currants (I used Black Corinth)
20 g demerara sugar (or caster sugar), for sprinkling over the top before baking

A little caster sugar for sprinkling over the top after baking

Special equipment: large baking dish with a 2-2.5 liter capacity

Grease the baking dish well with the butter. Arrange the tsoureki slices in the baking dish in such a way so that one slice leans on the other.

In a large saucepan, add the cream and milk and stir to combine. Heat over medium-high heat until it starts to steam. Remove from the heat and allow to cool slightly. You need it to be warm and not hot.

In a large bowl, add the egg yolks, the caster sugar and the vanilla bean paste or extract and whisk until well combined.

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius.

Pour the warm cream mixture in the egg mixture very slowly, whisking quickly and continuously, being careful not to scramble your eggs. Pour the custard over the tsoureki slices, making sure you pour it over every single slice and not in the middle of the dish.
Add the currants and the sliced strawberries on top. Sprinkle with the demerara (or caster) sugar and place the baking dish on the middle rack of the oven.
Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top has taken on a golden brown color.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the pudding to cool slightly. Sprinkle the top with a little caster sugar, serve it in individual plates and eat it while it's warm from the oven.
I also like it the following day, at room temperature, but I wouldn't advise you to keep it longer than one day.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Eggs, eggs, eggs

Today was the second day of Easter and my fridge was full of eggs. I had no idea what to do with them.

I'm not a fan of eggs. They're not my favorite food in the world, to say the least. Especially hard-boiled eggs.

The only way I can bring myself to eat a hard-boiled egg is if I camouflage it. Take the egg yolk out of the egg white, mix it with a number of delicious ingredients and then spoon it back in. Now, that I can handle.

I know, I'm difficult. But this is not. These deviled eggs with avocado, crème fraîche and salmon roe are simply delicious.
I was a happy little picky eater today.

So, dear reader, if you have some Easter (or other) eggs on hand, give this a try.

See you very soon!

P.S. I think I ate too many of these. I should've known better.
Be warned. They're addictive.

Deviled Eggs with Avocado, Crème Fraîche and Salmon Roe

The combination of the egg yolk, the avocado and the crème fraîche is extremely pleasing to the palate, and the gentle saltiness of the salmon roe on top works really well against the dull richness of the egg.

Needless to say, these eggs are perfect for a dinner party, served as an appetizer or amuse bouche. There, I said it.

Make these just prior to serving because once you cut the avocado, it tends to darken after a while. If you want to make these ahead, see note at the end of the recipe.

You can use herring roe in place of the salmon roe but the latter has a superior flavor.

Yield: 14 deviled eggs

7 medium-sized, hard-boiled eggs
1 small, ripe avocado (about 200 g), flesh scooped out and roughly chopped
3 ½ Tbsp crème fraîche
1 Tbsp lemon or lime juice, freshly squeezed
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1-1 ½ Tbsp salmon roe

Peel the eggs and cut them in half lengthwise using a sharp knife (not serrated). Remove the egg yolks gently with the help of a teaspoon and place them into a medium-sized bowl. Add the roughly chopped avocado and mash together with a fork. Don't mash them completely but leave some bits of yolk and avocado to add texture to the dish.
Add the lemon or lime juice and a little sea salt and pepper to taste and mix well with the fork. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Take each egg white half and, using a teaspoon (or even a piping bag if you're comfortable using it), fill them with the egg yolk mixture. Top each egg half with the salmon roe and arrange the deviled eggs on a platter.

Serve immediately.

Note: If you want to make these ahead, prepare the egg yolk mixture without adding the avocado and place it in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap. Keep the egg white halves refrigerated and covered with plastic wrap as well. Just before serving, mash the avocado, add it to the egg yolk mixture and mix everything together with a fork.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The tsoureki

For us Greeks, Pascha (Easter) will be this Sunday. Lent is finally in its last days and come the end of the week, the whole country will be roasting lamb on a spit or in the oven and eating kokoretsi. After Easter lunch, the tsoureki will make its appearance.

I have been meaning to post about tsoureki the past couple of years but I never got around to it. Thankfully, this year I prepared it just in time and I can share it with all of you. Tsoureki is a sweet, braided, Greek Easter yeast bread that is traditionally made on Holy Thursday (along with the dyeing of the Easter eggs) and eaten on Easter Sunday. It is made with eggs and sugar and it is flavored with mastiha (a mastic-tree resin from the Greek island of Chios) and mahlepi, a highly aromatic spice made from the seeds of wild cherry trees.

Every family in Greece has their own recipe for tsoureki and of course my family has its own. Our version is called Politiko tsoureki (Politiko refers to the type of Greek cuisine I grew up with, of which you can read all about here) and it is one of two types of Greek tsoureki. The second type, called simply tsoureki, bears a strong similarity to brioche, having a very soft and stringy texture and is customarily sprinkled with blanched slivers of almond before baking.

The Politiko tsoureki is by far the best of the two in my opinion; but of course I'm biased. This is the tsoureki I grew up with; this is the tsoureki my grandmother taught me to make; this is the only tsoureki for me. No, this is not a wannabe brioche bread, it is the authentic Politiko tsoureki. There mustn't be confusion between the two.

Politiko tsoureki is a slightly dense and chewy sweet bread with a beautiful brown semi-soft crust. It's not overly sweet, it has a rich and full flavor of mahlepi and mastiha, and just before baking, it is glazed with a mixture of egg and milk and sprinkled with lots of sesame seeds. When you put it in the oven, the intense aroma of all the sweet spices permeates the house and disappears only after the last piece of tsoureki has been consumed. That characteristic smell always makes me miss my home and family.

This is for all of you out there who long for this type of tsoureki and of course for those of you who have yet to discover its wonderful flavor. Have fun making it!

Kalo Pascha (Happy Easter) to all my fellow Greeks and to everyone who will be celebrating Easter this Sunday!

Politiko Tsoureki - Greek Easter Sweet Bread

This tsoureki will last at least 3-4 days in top shape, without getting hard or stale or dry. The flavor will actually improve and it will be even more delicious as days pass.

Some useful tips about tsoureki baking:
1. Don't buy pre-ground mahlepi. The taste and smell can't be compared to that of freshly ground mahlepi which is by far superior.
2. The same goes for mastiha.
3. Use hard-wheat bread flour. This type of flour has a higher protein content 12-14% and more gluten, which helps the tsoureki rise and hold its shape and elasticity.
4. Use fresh yeast; don't be afraid of it. It will give more flavor to the tsoureki and a better rise.
5. If you have a stand mixer, don't waste your time kneading the dough by hand. The dough for the Politiko tsoureki is a stiff dough that needs a lot of muscle to handle. If you need the workout then go for it.
6. The dough should not be wet; it should not be sticking to your hands. It must be firm, pliable with a shiny and smooth texture.
7. Allow the dough to rise properly. Don't rush it. Leave it in a warm place but not in, near, in front, or on top of your oven or radiator. Wait patiently for it to rise. It may take 3 to 4 hours.
8. Make sure you leave the dough to rise in a draft-free place.
9. When you start shaping the ropes for the braided tsoureki, the dough shouldn't be sticking at all to your hands. If by any chance it does, sprinkle a little flour on your work surface and try to shape the ropes again. Sprinkle a little flour at a time, just enough to be able to shape the dough into ropes.
10. Don't braid the ropes too tightly because they need space to rise during the second proofing of the dough.

11. Braid the ropes of the tsoureki on a large piece of baking paper. It will be easier for you to transport your tsoureki to the baking sheet.
12. It's best if your baking sheet or tray doesn't have a dark color. Dark-colored trays retain more heat which may cause the bottom of your tsoureki to catch or burn.
13. If you apply two layers of glaze before baking the tsoureki, it will have a darker, richer color. If you want your tsoureki to have a lighter-colored crust, glaze it only once.
14. Once baked and cooled, keep the tsoureki covered with a clean kitchen towel. This way it will keep a nice and moist texture. Don't cover it with aluminum foil or keep it in a plastic bag.
15. Finally, I would like to point out something that I never enjoy saying but that's extremely important to keep in mind. Not all ingredients are or behave the same. We all use different brands of flour, sugar, butter, milk that do make a difference in the end product. What you need to do is follow the recipe but also trust yourself and your instincts when you're baking a tsoureki. Use your sight and touch to tell if there's something wrong with the dough. For example, if you feel that the dough is too dry, add a little more melted butter, or if the dough is sticking too much to your hands, add a little flour and knead it again. Whatever you do, don't panic and don't do anything rash. If you add extra flour to the dough, add a little at a time, knead it and judge if it needs more. Remember, you can add ingredients but you can't take them out.

- In Greek, the sponge (wet batter that has yeast added to it) is called prozymi (pronounced proh-zee-me)
-Tsoureki (singular) - Tsourekia (plural)

Makes 2 large tsourekia, about 1.2 kg each, or 4 smaller ones

1,150 g white strong bread flour (12-13 g protein) - if you're in Greece you can find flour that's sold especially for tsoureki
84 g fresh yeast (or 22 g instant dried yeast)
250 ml fresh, whole milk, lukewarm
400 g caster sugar
9 g sea salt
6 g mastic, freshly ground
8 g mahlepi, freshly ground
5 medium-sized eggs
230 g unsalted butter, melted

1 egg yolk for glazing the tsourekia
1 ½ Tbsp fresh, whole milk for glazing the tsourekia

Sesame seeds for sprinkling over the tsourekia

Special equipment: mortar and pestle or spice grinder, stand mixer (optional), baking paper, two large baking sheets or trays, soft pastry brush

Before you start making the tsoureki, read the recipe through carefully. Then weigh your ingredients, heat the milk, melt the butter, grind the mahlepi and the mastic.
If you grind the mastic with a mortar and pestle, add a tsp of the sugar. It will be easier to grind and it won't stick to the pestle.

make the prozymi (sponge)
In a large bowl, add the fresh yeast and crumble it with your hands. Add 2 Tbsp of the sugar, 2 Tbsp of the flour and 200 ml of the lukewarm milk. Mix with your hands, dissolving the yeast in the milk.
Cover with a clean kitchen towel and leave the bowl in a warm place, away from drafts. If your kitchen is too cold, find the warmest place in your house and keep the bowl there.
Allow the dough to triple in volume. This will take about half an hour.

make the dough
In the meantime, in the bowl of your stand mixer, or in a very big bowl if you're going to knead by hand, add the flour, the sugar, the salt, the ground mahlepi and ground mastic. Stir the ingredients with a spatula to mix and make a well in the middle. Add the eggs, the rest of the lukewarm milk, half of the melted butter (it should be warm and not hot) and the proofed prozymi. Attach the dough hook to your mixer, or if you're going to knead by hand, prepare your hands for the workout.

If you're using a stand mixer, start the machine on a low speed until the ingredients mix and come together as a dough. Add the rest of the melted butter little by little and then switch to a high speed. Keep mixing at high speed for 8-9 minutes. If you're kneading by hand, you'll need to knead the dough for approximately 15 minutes. You should end up with a dough that is not sticking to your hands, a dough that is firm yet pliable and elastic, smooth and shiny.

Cover the dough with a clean kitchen towel and leave in a warm place to proof and double in volume. This will take 3-4 hours. The tsoureki dough is very heavy, that's why it needs so many hours to proof.

Once proofed, empty the dough onto a clean working surface and knead with your hands for 1-2 minutes. Divide the dough into 2 pieces. It is preferable that you weigh the dough and divide it by weight. Take each piece of dough and divide it in 3 equal pieces.

shaping the ropes and braiding the tsoureki
Take the first set of dough and one-by-one, shape each of the 3 pieces into a 45cm-long rope, 5-6 cm in diameter (check note No9). Place the 3 ropes on the baking paper, connect the 3 ropes on one end and braid them, making sure not to braid too tight otherwise they will not have room to rise. Tuck the ends underneath. If desired, place one red-colored egg at one end of the braid.
Take the second set of dough and do as above.

Transfer the two braided tsourekia on two different baking sheets or trays and cover them with clean kitchen towels. Leave them at a warm place for 1-1 ½ hours, until the rise by 1/3 (not doubled).

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

glaze the tsourekia
In a small bowl, add the egg yolk and the 1 ½ Tbsp of milk and mix well with a fork.
Once the braids have proofed, using a soft brush, apply the glaze over the braids carefully as to not deflate the dough. See note No13.
Sprinkle with lots of sesame seeds.

bake the tsourekia
Place the baking sheets on the low rack of the oven and bake the tsourekia for 25 minutes. Then transfer the sheets on the middle rack of the oven, cover the tsourekia with a piece of aluminum foil so they don't catch on top and bake for 20 minutes more. They should have a golden-brown color.
If you have a small oven, like myself, then bake the tsourekia one by one.
Note: If you make 4 smaller tsourekia, the total baking time will be around 30 minutes.

Remove the baking sheets from the oven and allow to cool slightly in the sheets. Then move the tsourekia on wire racks to cool completely. Move them carefully so they don't brake apart. They will be a bit soft at this point. They will firm up as they cool.
Once they cool completely, cover them with a clean, thin kitchen towel.

If you try the tsoureki hot or warm from the oven, it will taste unsweetened to you. Don't worry about that, it's natural. As it cools down and especially the second day, its true flavor will come out and it will be perfect.

You can keep it for five days to a week. On the fourth day it will begin to harden a bit and it will be great with some butter and jam (especially strawberry). Also, you can toast it or bake it with a custard and cinnamon, use it to make French toast, make a strawberry and currant tsoureki bread and butter pudding, or simply dip it into your morning coffee.