Friday, January 22, 2016

Two awards and one dulce de leche cheesecake

Last Saturday was the award ceremony for the first ever Greek food blog awards organized by VimaGourmet and for those of you who don’t follow me on social media, I’m happy to announce that I won two awards! Best Cooking Blog, Critic’s award and People’s award. It made me so happy, and I want to thank everyone for supporting me.

I couldn’t travel to Greece for the ceremony so the experience may not have been the same for me as it was for the rest of the contestants and winners who had the chance to enjoy the festivities and be part of the celebration, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of receiving the awards one bit. My mom was there to accept them on my behalf and she was so thrilled and proud of me which filled me with even more joy.

I celebrated here in the Netherlands in a major way and of course I made something sweet; a dulce de leche cheesecake. It was actually the same one I made to celebrate my feature in The Guardian early last week, and because it was such a huge hit, I had to make it again. There’s no such thing as too much cheesecake, right? Especially when dulce de leche is involved.

It was everything you’d expect a cheesecake to be, and more. Creamy, smooth, dense and veeeery rich, with a buttery, thin base made with digestive biscuits and a hint of cinnamon, sweet, with a slightly milky and sharp flavor from the cream cheese and a subtle, caramel flavor from the dulce de leche. It is calorific, sinful and indulgent, and, seriously, the best dessert to share with friends when you win an award, or two.

Dulce de leche cheesecake
Slightly adapted from David Lebovitz

This cheesecake, as scrumptious as it may be, it is also heavy. So serve thin slices and you will enjoy it more.

Back in May 2010 (when no more than 20 people followed my blog), I shared a recipe for homemade dulce de leche and a recipe for chocolate-dulce de leche bars with shortbread crust and Fleur de Sel that to this day is among my favorite sweet treats.
I used homemade dulce de leche for the cheesecake but if you don’t have the time or don’t want to bother making your own you can use ready-made. Bonne Mamman is my favorite because it’s not overly sweet.

David Lebovitz, whose recipe I slightly adapted here, adds also a dulce de leche glaze on top. The cheesecake in my opinion has enough sweetness and it doesn’t need it, but if you feel like adding it, head on over to his site to see the recipe.

Keep in mind that after baking and cooling the cheesecake, it needs to go in the fridge for several hours (ideally overnight), so if you want to serve it at a party/gathering then you need to bake it the day before.

Yield: 12-14 pieces (thin slices)


for the base
185 g digestive biscuits
85 g unsalted butter, melted
20 g caster sugar
⅛ tsp ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt

for the filling
905 g cream cheese, full-fat, at room temperature
150 g caster sugar
4 large eggs, at room temperature
280 g dulce de leche (homemade or store-bought), at room temperature
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
A big pinch of salt

A little unsalted butter for greasing the pan

Special equipment: 23 cm springform pan, aluminum foil, rimmed baking sheet, food processor (optional), stand mixer (or hand held mixer)

Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Butter the bottom and the sides of the springfrom pan. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil and place the springform pan on top. This will ensure that while baking, no fat will drip to the bottom of your oven and it will be easier to move around the pan.

for the base
Make crumbs out of the digestive biscuits by pulsing them in a food processor or by putting them inside a plastic bag that you can seal, and pounding them with a rolling pin. That’s easier and it saves you from washing up the food processor.

Place the crumbs into a medium-sized bowl and add the melted butter, sugar, cinnamon and salt and mix well with a spoon until all the crumbs are moistened by the butter. Add the crumbs to the springform pan and press them evenly on the bottom and 1/3 up the side of the pan. You can dampen your hands with some water if you’re having trouble making your crumbs stick. Also, you can use a tamper or a flat-bottomed glass to help pack the crumbs tightly.

Bake the base on the middle rack of the preheated oven for 10-12 minutes or until it has taken on a light-brown color. Remove from the oven.

for the filling
In the bowl of the stand mixer (or in a large bowl) add the cream cheese and sugar and using the paddle attachment (or a hand-held mixer), beat until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spatula before each addition, and then add the dulce de leche, vanilla and salt. Beat to incorporate and then empty the mixture in the springform pan.

Bake on the middle rack of the oven for about 1 hour, until the mixture is just set in the center. If you gently shake the pan, the outer area of the cheesecake should not move and the center should barely jiggle.

Remove the pan from the oven and place it on a wire rack. Using a thin knife, gently run it around the edge of the cheesecake to release it from the sides (this will help prevent cracking while cooling). Let the cheesecake cool completely (for at least 2 hours) and then remove the outer ring of the pan carefully. Theoretically, you could serve the cheesecake at this point if you want, however, cheesecakes should be eaten cold and firm from the fridge. Their flavor and texture is better when eaten cold. So, once the cheesecake has cooled completely, cover it loosely with plastic wrap and place it in the fridge for at least 5 hours (or, ideally, overnight) to properly chill and to firm up.

Serve chilled and enjoy!

You can keep the cheesecake in the fridge, covered lightly with plastic wrap, for 4-5 days.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

A meze meal: Pistachio-stuffed tiny lamb meatballs | Orange and date salad with date molasses vinaigrette | Tahini, garlic and lemon dip with pomegranate seeds and parsley | Greek yoghurt dip with garlic, harissa and petimezi

I know I’m a bit late but…Happy New Year, friends! I wish you whatever your heart desires and more for 2016. Let’s have a year filled with colorful and inspiring food, tantalizing aromas, fresh and bold flavors, and heartwarming meals to share with our loved ones.

The good thing about skipping the first two weeks of the year here on the blog means that I can skip the whole boring, uninspired and totally banal talk about healthy stuff and green things, not that I have anything against them but I just hate talking about them when it is expected. So, I’m changing things up and going with a meze theme instead —I am Greek after all— and with mezedes that are full of calories, full of flavor and, just between you and me, healthy as well.

A collection of small savory plates, called mezedes in Greek, is my favorite thing to eat. It is so interesting and enticing to have varied flavors and different dishes that you can sample from in one meal, which means you never get bored. It takes some skill to put up a great spread of mezedes; nothing is haphazard when you create such a meal, even though it may seem so to the untrained eye. All the dishes you prepare or put together should complement each other and pair well with one another in order to have a balanced spread, and once you have figured out whether you want to go with fish, meat or vegetarian mezedes —not all mezedes were created equal— then it’s easy to come up with a menu.

This one here is a small spread, for a few people you may have over for dinner or lunch and it’s also perfect for two. Lamb meatballs stuffed with toasted and chopped pistachios, orange and date salad with sumac, dried chilli and a date molasses vinaigrette, tahini and lemon dip with fresh pomegranate seeds and parsley, and Greek yoghurt dip with garlic, harissa and grape molasses (petimezi). All delectable, all extremely delicious and all of them pairing harmoniously with each other to create a scrumptious meze meal.

The scene is centered around the tiny, juicy, lamb meatballs flavored with cinnamon and garlic. The faint, warm sweetness of the cinnamon complements the lamb nicely and the toasted, aromatic pistachios provide a nutty crunch, while the squeeze of lemon on top adds a pleasant acidity. The refreshing and sweet orange and date salad with acidic flavors of the lemony sumac, a spicy kick from the dried red chilli flakes and the complexity of the vinaigrette, is the perfect accompaniment to the meatballs, as is the rich tahini, garlic and lemon dip with its earthy, sharp flavors. Finally, the luscious, garlicky (yes, garlic again) Greek yoghurt dip topped with the ultra-piquant harissa, is the ideal accompaniment to the umami-filled, bite-sized, fried meatballs, bringing freshness, tanginess and welcomed heat.

These particular mezedes are more Middle-Eastern than Greek but they feel so familiar. It is only natural, seeing that Greek cuisine, in many ways, has much in common with the cuisines of the Middle-East. The flavors, methods of cooking and indeed the way we eat is built around the same ethos of celebration, hospitality and enjoyment of the food and the company we share it with. Besides, the use of the same word (mezes/meze, which is actually of Persian origin) among all these cultures to describe the small dishes and the idea behind them, reflects these similarities.

P.S.1 A little Greek lesson: μεζές/mezes (singular), μεζέδες/mezedes (plural).

P.S.2 Recipes are inspired/adapted from the sumptuous book by Ghillie Basan, Mezze: small plates to share.

P.S.3 More mezedes here.

P.S.4 Monday started as a totally shitty day when I heard about the death of one of my favorite artists of all time, David Bowie. I have numerous albums of his that have been the soundtrack to some of the happiest moments of my life, and I cherish the time when I saw him play live many years ago. I was so sad Monday morning, but as it always happens in life, something else came up later on that day to make me smile and feel proud and honored; my feature in The Guardian. Yes! I was featured in The Guardian —yay!!— in Dale Berning Sawa’s Kitchen Encounters. I didn’t get the chance to see the printed copy because I couldn’t get it in the Netherlands, but thank god for online publications. So, if you want to have a look and a read, please click here.

P.S.5 David Bowie’s cover of “Wild is the wind” from his 1976 album Station to Station is perhaps my favorite of all his performances. It even rivals Nina Simone’s cover of the song. RIP, DB.

P.S.6 This Saturday, 16 January, is the VIMA Gourmet Greek Food Blog Awards ceremony in Athens. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to be there because I can’t travel to Greece this weekend (I will, though, send representatives), but if any of you living in Athens are willing to join in the party and eat some good food, go here to see the details and here to register (all in Greek).

A meze meal: Pistachio-stuffed tiny lamb meatballs | Orange and date salad with date molasses vinaigrette | Tahini, garlic and lemon dip with pomegranate seeds and parsley | Greek yoghurt dip with garlic, harissa and petimezi (Greek grape molasses)

Along with these mezedes you could also serve: Kalamata olives, grilled pita bread and grilled spicy sausages (Greek pork sausages and Moroccan beef/lamb merguez sausages would fit perfectly). And if you get thirsty, have some Greek ouzo or a cold beer.

In the same spread, I also served dolmadakia (Greek stuffed vine leaves) which I made some days before. I’m not sharing the recipe today because it is a post all in itself and I need to take detailed photos of the process to show you. Soon, I promise.

Pistachio-stuffed tiny lamb meatballs

The meatballs are bite-sized and they disappear in no time. If you plan on making them for a crowd, make more than you’d normally serve, because they are hard to resist and you’ll find that your guests will be asking for more. Also, make sure to use lean minced lamb rather than fatty so they won’t be too heavy.

Yield: for 4-6 people / about 23 meatballs

35 g (3 Tbsp) shelled pistachios
270 g lean ground lamb
1 red onion (about 90 g net weight), finely chopped or processed
2 garlic cloves, mashed
2 tsp ground cinnamon
A small bunch of fresh parsley (about 15 g), finely chopped
Freshly ground black pepper, 5-6 turns of the pepper mill

Sunflower oil, for frying
1-2 lemons cut into wedges, to serve

Special equipment: absorbent kitchen paper

To toast the pistachios, add them to a dry, small pan and place over medium heat. Toast them, stirring regularly so they don’t burn, until they become fragrant. Empty them immediately onto a plate and let them cool. Then, chop them roughly.

In a medium-sized bowl, add the ground lamb, onion, garlic, cinnamon, parsley, salt to your taste and some freshly ground black pepper.

Note: If you want to check the seasoning of your meatballs, fry a small piece and taste it. Season more if needed.

Mix well with your hands, kneading the mixture with the palm of your hand for 10 minutes. Then, shape mixture into tiny balls, the size of a cherry, and place them on a large plate.

Note: Of course I’m completely OCD with these things and I weighed the meatballs. So, if you too are OCD, each meatball should be 15 grams. You’re welcome.

Take one by one the tiny lamb meatballs and indent with your finger each ball in the middle to create a hollow space where you must add a good pinch of chopped pistachios. Then seal the meatball by squeezing the mixture over the pistachios, being careful not to expose the pistachios, and roll once more to perfect little round balls.

Note: You will have leftover chopped pistachios which you will use to garnish the meatballs.

In a large frying pan or skillet, add enough oil to cover the base by 2 cm and heat over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, shallow-fry the meatballs on all sides until they are nicely browned, 5-6 minutes in total. Be careful not to overcook them or they’ll be dry.
Transfer them to a plate lined with kitchen paper to absorb the extra oil. Fry the rest.

Serve while still warm with good squeezes of lemon and a sprinkling of the rest of the chopped pistachios over the top.

Orange and date salad with sumac, dried chilli flaked and date molasses vinaigrette

I wouldn’t use any other kind of date than medjool in this recipe. You need those large, soft, juicy dates with caramel flavor and not the small flavorless ones. I know they are pricey but they are totally worth it.
This salad is rather sweet, so if you do not pair it with the rest of the mezedes make sure to serve it with dishes whose flavors will counteract that sweetness.

Yield: for 4-6 people

4 ripe, large oranges
2-3 large medjool dates (about 50 g), cut in half lengthwise and then sliced into thin strips

for the vinaigrette
4 tsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp red-wine vinegar
1 tsp date syrup
1 tsp ground sumac
¼ tsp dried red chilli flakes (Greek boukovo if you can find it)


for the vinaigrette
In a small bowl add all the olive oil, vinegar, date syrup, sumac, dried red chilli flakes and a little salt and whisk well to combine.

To cut the oranges, using a large, sharp knife, cut off the peel, then the white pith all around the fruit, exposing the flesh, and finally, cut into thin-ish circles (about 1 cm thick). Make sure to catch the juices.

Arrange the orange slices in a large plate and pour the juices over them. Then scatter the sliced dates over the oranges. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve.

Tahini, garlic and lemon dip with pomegranate seeds and parsley

Yield: for 4-6 people

150 g tahini (stirred well before measuring it out of the jar)
Juice of 2 lemons, freshly squeezed
2 garlic cloves, mashed
Freshly ground white pepper
A small bunch of fresh parsley (about 15 g), finely chopped
Seeds from ½ pomegranate

In a medium-sized bowl, add the tahini and lemon juice and mix with a spoon. You will immediately notice that the mixture will thicken, but then it will become looser as you mix. Add several tsp of cold water to lighten the mixture, until it is creamy, smooth and light. You can control the thickness of the mixture with the amount of water you add, depending on your personal preference. I opted for a looser consistency.
Then, add the garlic, salt and pepper and mix well. Mix in ¾ of the chopped parsley and empty the dip in a clean serving bowl. Serve with a good sprinkling of parsley and pomegranate seeds.

Greek yoghurt dip with garlic, harissa and petimezi (Greek grape molasses)

Harissa is a hot paste with chillies and spices and it comes from Tunisia.

Yield: for 4-6 people

500 g Greek yoghurt, full-fat (I always use Total)
2 garlic cloves, mashed
Freshly ground white pepper
1 Tbsp harissa
1 tsp petimezi (Greek grape molasses)
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil

Fresh parsley leaves, finely chopped, for sprinkling on top (optional)

In a medium-sized bowl, add the yoghurt with the garlic, a little salt and pepper and mix well with a spoon.

In a small bowl add the harissa, petimezi and olive oil and whisk to combine.

Transfer yoghurt to a serving bowl and swirl in the harissa mixture. Sprinkle some chopped parsley on top (optional).