Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fresh chamomile cupcakes

There are many desserts I haven’t made before in my life. Doughnuts, tarte tatin, black forest cake, are just a few of them. What I have made many times is cupcakes.

I’ve told you about this before, I don’t get wildly excited about cupcakes, why go small when you can go big, right? Having said that, there is the time and place for a cupcake or two in my life and, when I was in Greece a couple of weeks ago, an opportunity to make and eat them presented itself.

Sometimes individual portions have a certain allure, especially when they come in the form of a fresh chamomile mini cake with a “anthomelo” (Greek flower honey) glaze.

I found fresh chamomile at the farmer’s market in Greece and I was extremely excited about it. Really, I began jumping up and down when I spotted it. People were staring, but I didn’t care one bit. I just love the stuff.

I began thinking about all the things I could make with it and I concluded that I wanted, nay needed, to use it in dessert.

I considered a simple pound cake flavored with the sweet-smelling flowers, then I thought about ice cream but my mom doesn’t have an ice cream machine and then, out of all the people, my grandmother came up with a perfect idea as she asked me to make cupcakes for her. I remembered Joy’s chamomile cupcakes, found in her book, and that was it. Cupcakes it was.

And they were divine, both in appearance and in flavor. It was the first time I had ever used fresh chamomile in a dessert and even though I was scared that it was going to taste grassy or too intense, it was the complete opposite. The chamomile flavor was subtle and paired harmoniously with the floral accents of the Greek flower honey I used.

The small cakes were fluffy and soft, the glaze was silky smooth and sticky in all the right ways, and they were devoured within a few hours which is the best kind of praise a baker can get.

P.S. The use of edible flowers reminded me of this dish with dried lavender that I make all the time and that’s one of my favorite chicken dishes. I actually made it again today.

Fresh Chamomile Cupcakes with Flower Honey Glaze
Adapted from Joy the Baker Cookbook

The original recipe calls for dried chamomile which you can also use, but I find that the fresh chamomile is so much better tasting. I also omitted the baking soda as I don’t particularly enjoy the flavor it imparts to desserts.
I found that the amount of icing sugar in the glaze was a bit too much for my liking, so next time I will add a little less sugar or add less glaze on top of each cupcake.

Yield: 12 cupcakes


for the cupcakes
120 ml fresh whole milk
1 large egg
½ tsp vanilla bean paste (or 1 tsp pure vanilla extract)
60 g unsalted butter, softened, cut into small pieces
150 g granulated sugar
125 g all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
3 Tbsp finely chopped fresh chamomile (flower heads only, not stems)

for the glaze
165 g icing sugar
1 Tbsp flower honey (must be clear and runny)
75 ml (5 Tbsp) heavy cream, full fat (35%)
Pinch of salt

Fresh chamomile flower heads, to decorate

Special ingredients: stand or hand-held mixer, a 12-cup cupcake pan, paper liners


for the cupcakes
Line your cupcake pan with paper liners.
Preheat your oven to 160 degrees Celsius / 325 Fahrenheit.

In a small bowl, add the milk, the egg and the vanilla and using a hand whisk, mix the ingredients together.

In the bowl of your stand mixer (or in a large bowl), add the butter, sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and chopped chamomile flowers and beat, using the paddle attachment (or with your hand-held mixer), on medium speed until you have a mixture that resembles sand. It will take 4-5 minutes.

Pour half of the milk mixture into the flour mixture and beat until just incorporated. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and beat on medium-high speed until well blended, for about 1 minute. You will have a creamy and slightly runny batter.

Empty the batter into the lined cupcake pan, filling each cup by 3/4.

Place the cupcake pan on the middle rack of the preheated oven and bake for 17-19 minutes or until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack. Once the cupcakes have slightly cooled, remove them carefully from the pan and onto the wire rack to cool. They need to be completely cool before you frost them, otherwise the glaze will melt.
Cut the pointy tops of the cupcakes off if necessary.

for the glaze
In a medium-sized bowl, add the icing sugar, honey, cream and salt and using a hand wire whisk, whisk until you have a smooth glaze.

Glaze the cupcakes and decorate with a couple of fresh chamomile flower heads.

You can keep the cupcakes for a couple of days, covered, at room temperature. If you don’t plan on eating them straight away, don’t decorate them with the fresh chamomile.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Octopus the Greek way

Many people, when they come to Greece, wonder why our food is so delicious even though it is made with simple and quite few ingredients. They are convinced that we’re hiding something, that we keep the secrets to our cooking well so they don’t leak out into the rest of the world.

That is certainly not the case. There is no secret, no tricks or obscure ingredients that we slip into the dishes behind backs or under tables. The only thing that separates Greek cuisine from any other cuisine in the world, is the land on which our food grows. That blessed land that produces such amazing ingredients that no alchemy is needed for them to give any dish their unique taste.

Olive oil, oregano, lemons, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, onions, dill. All these and more, taste so much better in Greece. It’s not chauvinism, don’t get me wrong, I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world and I do realize that, other places, especially in the Mediterranean, have similar quality in fruits and vegetables, but man, if you taste our wild thyme honey, our artichokes, even our meats, then you’ll know what I’m talking about. That is why everyone loves Greek cooking.

What I would like to see some day, is someone like Jamie Oliver who is crazy about Italy, to be crazy about Greece and convince people that they don’t need to go to Tuscany for mushroom picking but also to Grevena. That they can buy not only the Italian Bottarga but the Greek Avgotaraho (PDO) from Mesolonghi.

But let’s get to the recipe, to the octopus. This is something that we Greeks consider simple and unassuming fare. I understand that for many, octopus is a weird beast, sometimes perceived as exotic, others as frightening. This one was prepared and cooked by my grandmother. She is the master of making every single thing she touches taste absolutely divine.

Sweet, succulent octopus, with that distinctive, ever-so-slightly chewy texture and rich flavor. Prepared with just a few ingredients, the success of the recipe depends solely upon their quality and mainly that of the octopus. Fresh would be ideal but frozen can work as well. You don’t need to wait to find yourself in a Greek seaside taverna to have this meze. You can make it yourself.

See you again soon. I have so many recipes to share with you!

Htapodi Ksidato (Greek Octopus with Vinegar, Olive oil and Dried Oregano)
Recipe and execution by my grandmother

You can read a tutorial in this post on how you can clean and prepare a whole octopus.

When there is no need to keep the juices that the octopus releases while cooking, it’s best to boil it in water. This way the octopus also remains juicy.

Yield: 6 meze (appetizer) servings

1 large octopus (about 1½ kg), fresh or frozen
Extra-virgin olive oil
Red-wine vinegar
Dried oregano

Clean and cut the octopus according to the instructions in this post.

Fill a large pot with water halfway and place over high heat. Once the water boils, add the octopus and simmer over medium-low heat, with the lid on, for 50-60 minutes, depending on how tough the octopus is, until tender. Check it after 30 minutes because not all octopuses are the same. Some cook quicker than others, especially frozen ones. Even though you would never want your octopus to be tough and rubbery you most certainly do not want it to be mushy. It's even worse that way.

Once ready, remove it from the pot and place it onto a dish to cool. If you wish, you can remove the skin with your hands. It will come off easily. I rarely remove it and when I do so, I remove only the skin around the top of each tentacle where it is thicker.

Cut the tentacles and sac into small, bite-sized pieces and arrange on a serving platter. Pour olive oil on top (every piece of octopus should be well coated), vinegar (not too much but much like you dress a salad, and a little more) and oregano. Give it a taste and if you think it needs salt, add some. Octopus is usually salty on its own.

You can keep it in the fridge, covered with plastic wrap, for 2-3 days. This dish is served cold or at room temperature.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Greece in photographs

I returned to Holland a week ago but my mind is still back home in Greece. I had such a wonderful time, seeing my family and all my friends that it’s hard to adjust to everyday life here.

Before I start sharing with you some of the recipes for all the delicious sweet and savory things I showed you in my two precious posts, but also the tempting things I’m making currently, let me share some photographs of my country. Some photos of Greece.

I hope you enjoy them. You can click on each one to view a larger image.

Porto Rafti, Attica, Greece

Acropolis / Acropolis Museum, Athens, Attica, Greece

Pireaus, Attica, Greece

Monastiraki / Thiseio, Athens, Attica, Greece

Palaio Faliro, Athens, Attica, Greece