Sunday, March 24, 2013

On the first day of spring

The sun was out on the first day of spring, March twenty-first. The temperature was still low, it was terribly cold out, but there was something in the air that made me acutely aware of the change of seasons and what that would bring.

More sunshine, more light, more open windows and the sweet smell of flowers wafting in, berries, spring vegetables, and all the possibilities for delicious and colorful plates of food.

I turned my gaze to the dining room table and my eye caught a glimpse of the fruit basket. It was filled with grapefruits, tangerines and blood oranges and I immediately became aware of yet another thing. Of all that I would be missing once spring would arrive for good.

The citrus fruits, the cold nights sitting by a warm fire, the citrus fruits. Yes, I know I’ve said that twice but really, that’s all I’m going to miss from winter. The rest I’m sick of already.

I never get tired of citrus fruits and I always seem to rediscover their beauty once their season is almost over. I feel like I need to get the best out of them to last me for a whole year. I love their versatility, their aroma and vibrant color, their unique flavor and all that they can bring to a dessert, a cake, a granita.

On the first day of spring, I made a cake; a blood orange and Campari cake that was dreamy and everything it promised it would be. A luscious semolina and almond cake with Greek yoghurt and zest of the citrus fruit; with a syrup made with blood orange juice and the highly aromatic apéritif that soaked the cake, balancing the contrasting flavors and rendering a slight bitterness.

Filled with the sweet and acidic taste of blood oranges, the bitterness and spiciness of the Campari, the crunch of the semolina and ground almonds, it was overwhelmingly flavorful, so much so that S and I couldn’t stop eating it. And the color, oh the color, it was something truly inspiring.

Without a doubt, the best dessert I’ve tasted in a while, it surely deserves a place in your heart as well. Hurry now, grab those last blood oranges and make this.

Blood Orange, Campari and Semolina Syrup Cake
Slightly adapted from Polpo

Even though this is a syrup cake, it is not too sweet, as the bitter and acidic notes harmonize its flavors. Make sure to pair it with clotted cream (if you can find it, thankfully I can) or vanilla ice cream.

I always grind my own blanched almonds because the already ground ones are more expensive and not as fresh. You too can grind your own almonds in a food processor, being careful though not to turn them into a paste.

Yield: 10-12 servings


for the cake
Zest of 4 blood oranges
350 g Greek strained yoghurt, full-fat
300 g caster sugar
4 medium-sized eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
250 g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
350 g fine semolina
100 g blanched ground almonds

Unsalted butter for greasing the pan

for the syrup
680 ml fresh blood orange juice (from about 8 fruits)
110 ml Campari
300 g caster sugar

Special equipment: round springform pan 22-23 cm in diameter, rasp grater


for the cake
Preheat your oven to 170 degrees Celsius / 340 Fahrenheit.

Prepare your pan by greasing the base and sides with butter.

In a large bowl, add the zest of the blood oranges, the yoghurt, sugar, the lightly beaten eggs and the melted and cooled butter. Stir well with a spatula until you have a homogenous mixture and add the semolina and ground almonds. Mix well with the spatula and empty the mixture into the prepared pan. The mixture will be thick and you will need to level the top with the spatula or the back of a spoon.

Place the pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, until a cake tester or toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven and onto a wire rack. Leave the cake to cool in the pan.

for the syrup
While the cake is cooking, prepare the syrup which should be poured hot on the warm cake.

In a medium-sized, heavy-based saucepan, add the blood orange juice, Campari and sugar and place over a medium heat. Stir with a spoon until the sugar melts and bring syrup to the boil. Turn heat down to low and simmer the syrup for 30 minutes, or until you have a slightly thick syrup, skimming the white foam that gathers on top.

Prick the cake all over with a skewer and pour the hot syrup over the top in two batches, waiting until the cake absorbs it before adding more. Allow the cake to absorb the syrup and cool down completely. Then remove the interlocking side band of the pan and serve the cake, cut into slices.

Serve with clotted cream, whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

The cake will keep for 4-5 days, covered, at room temperature and it doesn’t lose its wonderful flavor, on the contrary it becomes even better.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Lagana

Tomorrow is Kathari Deftera, which means Clean Monday (you may know it as Ash Monday), and it is the first day of the Orthodox Lent. It is a moveable feast which occurs always forty-eight days prior to Easter Sunday and it’s a day of purification, both spiritual and physical as the great fasting period begins.

Kathari Deftera is a public holiday in Greece, and people traditionally go out for a picnic and to also engage in the custom of kite flying. If you are ever in Greece on this day, you’ll see the sky filled with kites of every size and shape and children as well as adults running around, trying to fly them as high as they can.

As with all holidays in Greece, this one too revolves around food. No fish, meat or dairy products are permitted but we can have shellfish since they don’t have any blood. The traditional foods that are eaten on the day are the sweet tahini halva, or the one I always make, semolina halva, shellfish like octopus, shrimp, mussels, calamari and squid, prepared in various ways, taramosalata which is a carp roe dip, olives and of course the main attraction, the lagana.

Lagana is a large, flat, elongated rectangular bread with rounded sides and sesame seeds on top, and it is made and consumed only on Kathari Deftera. The word lagana (plural: laganes / Greek: λαγάνα) derives from the ancient Greek laganon (Greek: λάγανον) meaning a thin, flat and unleavened bread. Once upon a time, lagana used to be unleavened as well, but today yeast is added to the dough to make it lighter.

Lagana is reminiscent of focaccia and it has a crunchy crust and a soft and airy crumb. It is ever-so-slightly sweet in flavor, with nutty accents from the sesame seeds, and sometimes spices such as aniseeds are added to the dough mixture.

On Kathari Deftera, lagana is sold in every bakery in Greece but many people choose to bake their own. In Greece, I rarely make my own lagana, there are so many foods to be prepared on the day it’s quite difficult to make bread as well, and the truth of the matter is, the ones from the bakeries are excellent.

Ever since I moved to Holland five years ago though, if I want to enjoy lagana, I have to make it myself. That’s the curse of the expat. Thankfully, it is not at all difficult to prepare and besides, I always enjoy making my own bread. This one in particular is among my favorites and I crave it throughout the year. I never liked the fact that it is only consumed on Clean Monday but, well, I suppose it gives me something to look forward to.

Have a good Kathari Deftera!

Lagana (Greek Lenten Yeasted Flatbread)

This recipe for lagana gives you the perfect, authentic and traditional flavor of the unique Greek bread; crusty, with a soft and open crumb and nutty sesame seeds on top.
Eat it with dips of any kind and know that it makes the best vehicle for every type of sandwich. This is exciting bread.

Lagana is a large-sized bread but my oven is small; I can’t fit one large lagana so I make two smaller ones. You can choose either, depending on the size of your oven.

Yield: 1 large or 2 small laganes

250 g all-purpose flour
250 g semolina flour (from durum wheat)
9 g instant dried yeast
1-2 tsp caster sugar (add 1 tsp if you prefer not to taste any sweetness)
1 tsp sea salt
30 ml (2 Tbsp) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the bowl
330 ml lukewarm water
Sesame seeds for sprinkling over the top

Special equipment: stand mixer with dough hook attachment (optional), plastic wrap, pastry brush, large baking sheet or two smaller ones, baking paper

In the bowl of your stand mixer or in a large bowl, add the yeast, all-purpose and semolina flour, the sugar, salt (making sure it doesn’t come in contact with the yeast), olive oil and the lukewarm water.

If you’re kneading in a stand mixer, attach the dough hook and knead for about 7 minutes, on the lowest speed, until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl, remains moist and it is smooth and elastic. Empty it onto a lightly floured surface and knead it a little to see how it feels. It should feel a little sticky to the touch.

If you're kneading by hand, once you have mixed the ingredients together into a rough dough (it will be quite runny and sticky), take the dough out of the bowl and onto a clean surface and knead well. It'll take 10-12 minutes. What you're aiming for is a soft and pliable dough that's sticking slightly to your hands and that remains moist but not overly so that you can’t knead it.
The reason you want the dough to be moist is because you want a soft and airy crumb. If the dough is heavy, the bread will be heavy as well. Furthermore, in combination with a good kneading, you will accomplish many large and small holes in the crumb.

Note: Not all flours are the same, so if your dough is very wet, don't be afraid to add more flour (all-purpose flour). Add a little at a time though, testing the consistency of the dough. You don't want to end up with a stodgy, stiff dough.

Shape the dough into a ball, lightly grease the bowl of your stand mixer (or a large bowl) as well as the dough ball with olive oil and place the dough inside the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place it in a warm place, allowing the dough to proof and double in size. It will take about 1 hour to proof, depending on how warm the room you leave it in is.
During the winter, I always leave my dough next to a working radiator. Not on top of it but on a chair and right in front of it.

Note: If you want to test whether your dough has proofed correctly or not, do the finger-poking test. Gently poke the dough with your finger and a) if the dough springs back immediately, it is under-proofed, b) if the dough springs back halfway, it's perfectly proofed.

Line your baking sheet(s) with baking paper.

Once the dough has proofed, take it out of the bowl and knead it for a couple of seconds just to deflate it a bit. It should feel smooth, pliable and soft.

If you want to make two smaller laganes, divide the dough into two equal pieces.
Using your hands (or a rolling pin), form your laganes into an elongated rectangular shape with rounded edges with about 1.5 cm thickness.
You can either form the laganes on a clean surface or on the baking paper (they will be easier to transfer). Transfer the breads onto the baking sheets and cover with plastic wrap.
Leave them to proof in a warm place (they will not double in size though just proof a bit), for about 30 minutes.

In the meantime, preheat your oven to 200 degrees Celsius / 390 Fahrenheit.

Once the breads have proofed, remove the plastic wrap and brush them lightly with water, using a pastry brush. Then, poke the tops of the laganes with your fingertips to make indentations, being careful not to pierce through the dough and deflate it, and sprinkle liberally with sesame seeds.

If you make one large lagana, place the baking sheet on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 30-40 minutes. If you make two smaller ones, place one baking sheet on the low rack of the oven and the other baking sheet on the middle rack. Bake for 15 minutes and then switch positions and bake for further 15 minutes, until the laganes have taken on a golden-brown color.

Remove the baking sheets from the oven, place laganes on a clean surface and allow them to cool.

Enjoy them!!

More Lenten recipes

Thursday, March 14, 2013

This chocolate mousse

I’m not a practitioner of molecular gastronomy; I am, frankly, scared of all the weird names, ingredients and techniques and I feel like I must have a PhD in chemistry to even read about it. And don’t let me get started on the liquid nitrogen. The thought of having it around me scares the shit out of me. I’m so clumsy, I could easily drop it on my hands and, you know, I’m kind of fond of my hands. Perhaps the only thing I would really like to give a go is sous-vide, if I can ever get the chance to have access to the equipment.

Olive oil powders and red wine spheres sound very cool, but I’m afraid I’m not interested in making them. Tasting them, absolutely. I saw this video the other day showing how to make spherical tzatziki and even though it sounds bizarre and not at all what a Greek would make in their kitchen, I’m curious about the taste and texture. I’m not going to buy sodium alginate any time soon though, so I’ll just have to admire the little spheres from afar.

So, when I found out about a technique developed by Hervé This, the father of molecular gastronomy, where you can make a chocolate mousse, or chocolate chantilly as This calls it, by simply whipping melted chocolate and water together, I thought this is perhaps my only chance to say that I too, practice molecular gastronomy.
I saw the technique a couple of years ago, watching a Heston Blumenthal program on tv and I was fascinated. I had my misgivings and it took me a while to finally bring myself to try it but you know what? It worked, and it was beautiful.

Not quite there yet

The process is extremely simple. You heat water and chocolate in a pan and you stir until the chocolate melts. You pour it into a bowl that’s been sitting on top of another bowl filled with ice cubes and you whisk the heck out of it until it turns into mousse. Very little can go wrong with this process and whatever does go wrong, can be easily fixed.


The result very much depends on the quality of the chocolate and the percentage of cocoa solids in the chocolate that you use. I experimented with different kinds of chocolates, from milk to dark with various percentages in cocoa solids, mainly from 55% to 72%, and what I realized is that first, milk chocolate doesn’t really work and second, the higher the percentage of cocoa solids, the easier and quicker the mixture comes together into a proper mousse.

When I used the 55% cocoa solids chocolate, the result was more of a chocolate cream or pudding. No matter how long or hard I whisked, it didn’t turn into a mousse. What I had to do was reheat the mixture, add a little more chocolate and whisk again. When I used the 70-72% cocoa solids chocolate, everything worked perfectly. Every single time, the mousse came together effortlessly and rather quickly, and the texture was exactly what I wanted. A full-bodied, smooth and airy mousse.

There are ways to correct any mistakes you make along the way. If you overbeat the mixture and it becomes grainy, you can return it to the pan, melt it and start again. If it is too stiff, you can remelt it, adding a little more water as you do, and then whisk again. If it is too runny, you can return it to the pan, add more chocolate, remelt the mixture and whisk again.

You can also flavor the mousse according to your liking, or sweeten it if bitter chocolate isn’t to your taste. Adding liqueurs, vanilla, coffee, or even spices, makes the mousse more interesting and adds another flavor dimension to it. My favorite version is with a simple addition of flaky sea salt, sprinkled on top just before serving.

Pudding-like consistency when whipped less; still amazing

I’m addicted to this mousse. I’m addicted to the fact that it takes no more than ten minutes to make, that it is the most inexpensive mousse there is, that it has only two ingredients and one of them is water, that the result is the most amazing chocolate mousse ever. Being a chocolate fiend, this is my dream come true. Unadulterated chocolate flavor with a creamy, smooth and light texture and, very little work. Perfection.
Merci, Monsieur This.

Watch Heston Blumenthal’s video to understand the science behind this mousse.

Chocolate Mousse (Chocolat Chantilly)
Adapted from Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor by Hervé This

Don’t try whisking the mixture with an electric hand mixer or whisk unless you want to redecorate your kitchen; it will splatter on everything, not a good idea. Use a regular hand wire whisk and put some elbow grease. If you don’t have the strength to go on full speed the whole time (if all goes well it takes about 3 minutes for the mixture to turn into mousse), nominate an official helper and take turns. The secret to accomplishing the right texture is to whisk fast and without stopping, because the mixture gets cold quickly, it solidifies before you get the chance to whip air into it, and you end up with a stodgy cream rather than a mousse.

Keep in mind that with this technique, if you stop at different points while whisking, you can have a thick chocolate pudding that is simply divine and which I really love, a light, creamy mousse, or a thicker mousse. Try them all.
If you refrigerate the mousse for a couple of hours, it sets, and you can use it to fill cakes, profiteroles, éclairs, anything you can imagine.

If you want to add any other liquid in order to flavor the mousse, like a liqueur, then subtract that amount from the water so you end up with the same amount of liquid. (The amount of water in the recipe is 180 ml. If you add for example 10 ml of liqueur then you must add 170 ml water).

I always add sugar to the mixture because I prefer my mousse to be sweet, but if you enjoy the bitter flavor of the chocolate then skip it.

Yield: 4 small bowls or glasses

200 g good quality dark chocolate, 70-72% cocoa solids, chopped
180 ml water
3 Tbsp caster sugar

Fleur de sel (optional), for serving

Special equipment: large hand wire-whisk, two bowls

In a large bowl, add enough ice cubes and cold water to fill it by two-thirds, and place a slightly smaller bowl on top. The top bowl must sit on top of the ice because you want it to be cold when your pour the chocolate inside.

In a small saucepan, add the chocolate, water and sugar, and heat over medium-low heat stirring with a whisk until the chocolate melts and you have a homogenous and smooth mixture.

Immediately pour the mixture into the top bowl and using your hand wire-whisk, start whisking quickly. The mixture will start to thicken after 1 minute and it will take 3-5 minutes to have a thick mousse.
Keep an eye on the texture, you will actually feel it in your arms as it is thickening because it will be more difficult to whisk it. Be careful not to overbeat as it will become grainy. (I have of course mentioned the solution to the problem in the main body of this post).

When it’s ready, divide it between small bowls or glasses and serve it with a small sprinkling of fleur de sel, if you wish.

You can also serve it with whipped cream, shaved chocolate, cocoa nibs or nuts of your choice.

The mousse is best served the moment you make it; that’s when it has the best texture. But you can also keep it in the fridge for 2-3 days. Keep in mind that it will harden in the fridge. When you want to serve it, you must take it out of the fridge 30 minutes prior to serving.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Inspiration: March 2013

Inspiration is something so abstract, intangible and elusive; it comes and goes in the blink of an eye; it surprises and excites. For me, inspiration can come from the most unexpected places and I never underestimate its source.

I’m a very visual person and these videos are truly inspiring to me. Music, video, storytelling, animation, food preparation, colors, sounds, motion, voices, textures.

I hope you find something in them that will inspire you as well. Do watch (and listen to) them if you have the time.

Scratch Massive – Paris: Music video.

Sigur Ros – Valtari: Music video, dance.

What if money was no object – Alan Watts: If only…

The known universe – American Museum of Natural History: Fascinating. Puts everything into perspective.

Oscar-nominated Fresh Guacamole, and Western Spaghetti – PES: Food, or something like it. Animation.

Cotton candy making in China: The next time I have cotton candy, I want it to be a flower.

Don’t swim after lunch - Jens Blank: Animation.

Diane Kochilas, Eat Greek, Live well - TEDxAthens Talk: I love Diane Kochilas, a chef and cookbook author. She is a great ambassador of Greek food abroad and truly inspirational.

Beet cake – Tiger in a jar: Food video. And in one word, yum.

Also, I have to share with you three movies I watched recently and really enjoyed: Adam, The Words, The Trip.

PS. To my fellow Greeks, have a good Tsiknopempti tomorrow, and try not to eat too much!

See you soon with a recipe!

Previously: Inspiration November 2011, March, July and October 2012.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The soup

I didn’t want to complain about the weather. Not again. But I can’t help it when it’s so incredibly cold outside. I used to think I enjoyed the cold weather but now I believe I’ve had enough. I can’t stand it anymore. It’s minus degrees Celsius, it’s snowing every other day making it difficult to walk around the city and, I slipped.and fell.on my mobile phone. Which is kind of funny really but damn it, I might have broken it and what would I do then? Huh?

I know, I complain too much, but I can’t help it. If I’m not free to complain in this little space of mine where am I supposed to let off steam? Well, since I started, let me say one more thing that’s been on my mind. I have never mentioned this before, but I once thought that everyone liked Greece with its beautiful beaches and breathtaking scenery, with its delicious food and open-hearted people, but I realized that’s not necessarily true, and these last couple of years, with the economic crisis, things have changed completely.

I have been living in the Netherlands for more than five years now and I have noticed a gradual shift in some people’s view of my country. I see people reacting in a negative way whenever I say I’m from Greece, people are more than willing to point out everything that’s wrong with my country, making snide remarks that are meant to be offensive rather than constructive. They conceal their resentment behind humor, making nasty comments and then laughing about it.

I’m so tired of hearing it. It’s hurtful and unfair, and we Greeks have become the easy target for anyone who wants to blame someone else for their own misfortune. I’m sick of listening to malicious comments and ironic remarks that totally disrespect me and my people. I’m on the verge of saying something really bad to the next person who insinuates anything in my presence, and I’m really not the kind of person who likes doing that.

Of course, to avoid any kind of misunderstanding, not all Dutch people are like that, no. I’m talking about the ignorant and uncultivated few who have come down with the disease called xenophobia caused by the crisis and their own feeble minds, but they’re enough of them out there to upset me and spoil my mood.

Anyway, enough with my ramblings and little outburst, which I’m certain have managed to overshadow this soup. So let’s focus on food. This soup has become my winter solace. My way of battling through the rough, cold days that linger even though March has arrived. A soup that reminds me of home even though it’s not a Greek recipe but an Italian one.

I love legumes and especially chickpeas. I usually cook them in a tomato sauce because that’s the way my boyfriend likes them, but I prefer them “white” as we say in Greece, meaning in a sauce made from the chickpea liquid, olive oil and some lemon juice. This recipe, which is very close to the way I usually cook chickpeas, is from Polpo, which S gave to me as a birthday present this past November. The first time I tried it, I followed it to the letter but found it to be a little bland and lacking in depth of flavor. So the next time I made it, I added my magic ingredients, parmesan rind, a few garlic cloves, a couple of dried bay leaves and some fennel fronds that did the trick marvelously. That’s the version I’ve been making ever since.

It is a soup rich with flavor, with an interesting texture since half the amount of it is blended, with a strong umami taste and a delicate flavor of fennel and leek. So if you’re desperately looking to warm yourself up and you’re craving something seriously delicious, do try this soup. I highly recommend it.

Chickpea Soup with Fennel and Leek
Adapted from Polpo

Fennel is a vegetable that I love and use often. I realize that not many people enjoy its aniseed flavor so let me reassure you by saying that its presence in the soup is discreet, not at all overpowering and it doesn’t mask the flavor of the rest of the ingredients.

The addition of parmesan rind may sound strange to some of you and I totally get it but, trust me, it gives a wonderful flavor to the soup; don’t hesitate to use it.

In Greece, we eat this type of soups as main meals; I suggest you do the same. Serve it with lots of crusty bread, feta and some anchovy fillets on the side.

Yield: 6-8 servings

500 g dried chickpeas
1 tsp baking soda
110 ml extra virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
2-3 garlic cloves, mashed
1 large leek (about 200 g), cut into small pieces
1 large fennel bulb (about 300 g), cut into small pieces
1½ liter* chicken or vegetable stock (or 1½ liter water and 2 chicken or vegetable stock cubes)
Parmesan rinds (from a large piece)
2-3 dried bay leaves
¼ tsp boukovo or dried chilli flakes
Black pepper, freshly ground
Juice of ½ lemon, freshly squeezed, plus extra for serving
Fennel fronds, for serving

* The level of stock/water should be about 3 cm above the chickpeas and not more than that otherwise the soup will be too runny. Keep in mind that you may need less or more liquid so don’t add it all at once but check how much is needed.

Special equipment: colander, immersion or regular blender or food processor

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, white foam will rise up to the surface of the water. Remove the foam with a large spoon and drain the chickpeas in a colander.

In the same pot, add the olive oil and heat over medium-high heat. Add the onions and sauté for 2-3 minutes until they soften. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 minute and then add the leek and fennel and sauté for a couple of minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir them around so they get covered with the olive oil and add the stock, or water and stock cubes (making sure it is almost 3 cm above the chickpeas and not less or more than that), the parmesan rinds, bay leaves and boukovo or chilli flakes. Stir everything around and bring to the boil. Then turn heat down to low, put on the lid and allow to simmer for about 1 hour or until the chickpeas are tender and done. Not all chickpeas are the same so you need to keep an eye on them and check them after the first 30 minutes of cooking. You want them to be tender in the end but not mushy.
Have a taste and add salt if necessary, followed by a little freshly ground black pepper.

Using a slotted spoon, remove a quarter of the chickpeas and vegetables from the pot and place them in a bowl. Remove and discard the parmesan rinds and bay leaves from the pot. Using an immersion blender, blend the rest of the soup directly in the pot until you have a smooth and creamy soup. If you don’t have an immersion blender, transfer the soup little by little to a food processor or regular blender and process it there until you have a smooth and creamy soup.
Return the whole chickpeas and the vegetables you reserved earlier back to the pot, add the lemon juice and stir well.

Serve the soup hot, garnished with some fennel fronds and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Add an extra squeeze of lemon and a little black pepper if you wish.

The following day, the soup will taste even better, as all soups do.