Saturday, March 31, 2018

Paschalina Koulourakia (Greek Easter Cookies) with mahlepi and mastiha

I love Easter cookies —I’m referring to the Greek ones of course, pascahalina koulourakia— and each year, I can’t wait to bake them so that my house will fill up with the aromas of Easter.

I have already shared with you my classic Greek Easter koulourakia a few years ago, but this year I am sharing something a little bit different.

For me, Easter is synonymous with the flavors of mahlepi (a highly aromatic spice, reminiscent of bitter almond, made from the seeds of wild cherry trees) and mastiha (a mastic-tree resin from the Greek island of Chios) which are present in the Politiko tsoureki (a type of sweet, yeasted bread made for Easter in Greece), and even though I am going to bake tsoureki, as I do every year (actually, I have already baked my first batch, testing yet again a new recipe), I wanted to incorporate these flavors into my koulourakia as well.

It took me a couple of tries to get them where I wanted them to be not only in terms of flavor but texture too, and finally I hit the jackpot! These, ladies and gentlemen, are now officially my favorite Greek Easter cookies.

They’re buttery and slightly crispy but not hard, with a shortbread-like texture inside but lighter. They have the distinct aroma and flavor of mahlepi, mastiha and orange, and they’re sweet but not overly so. They are perfect for dunking in your morning or afternoon coffee, in fact they will cause you to drink more coffee than usual because you’ll want to keep dunking these cookies in it, and great to eat on their own when you simply want to have something sweet and buttery.

I’m sharing these with you along with my best wishes for a wonderful Easter for those of you who celebrate this Sunday. We Orthodox Greeks celebrate next Sunday, so we still have a week to go, which means more time for baking!!

Hope you enjoy and I’d love to see photos of them if you make them!

Paschalina Koulourakia (Greek Easter Cookies) with mahlepi and mastiha

I use Greek mastiha (mastic) from the island of Chios in the form of tears (little solid pieces), not already ground mastic, because its flavor and aroma is far better and more intense when freshly ground. The same goes for mahlepi (mahleb); I use the whole seeds that I grind myself. I would advise you to do the same if possible.

These koulourakia taste better the next day as the flavors have had time to develop and infuse into the cookies even more. Not that they can’t be inhaled on the same day; just sayin’.

Yield: 20 cookies

200 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into small pieces
130 g icing sugar
1½ heaped tsp (8 g) ground mahlepi
5 mastic tears, ground together with ½ tsp white granulated sugar*
Zest of 1 orange, grated
1 medium-sized egg
2 Tbsp (30 g) fresh milk (full-fat or 2%)
400 g all-purpose flour
1½ tsp (7 g) baking powder
Pinch of salt

1 small egg beaten with ½ tsp fresh milk, for glazing the cookies

*To grind the mastic you need to add a bit of sugar, otherwise it will stick to the blade of your spice grinder or your pestle (if using a mortar and pestle).

Special equipment: spice grinder (or pestle and mortar) for grinding the spices, stand mixer (optional), plastic wrap, baking tray, baking paper, pastry brush

Add all the ingredients (except those that are for glazing the cookies) in the bowl of your stand mixer and using the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl and using your hands) beat for 1½ minute on low speed. At first, the mixture will look like crumbs, then it will start to come together and in the end it will gather around the beater. The dough should be soft and pliable and it should not be sticking to your hands. If you’re making this by hand it will take longer to come together.

Transfer the dough onto a large piece of plastic wrap, shape it into a large disk, wrap it tightly and place it in the fridge for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Preheat your oven to 175°C.
Line your baking tray with baking paper.

Remove the dough from the fridge, unwrap it and cut it in half so you have equal sized pieces (I always weigh the dough). Wrap one half with the plastic wrap and return it to the fridge. Keeping the dough cold ensures that the cookies won’t spread too much during baking.
Divide the other half of the dough into 10 equal pieces (again, I weigh to be concise; it ensures that all my cookies bake uniformly and at the same time).

Working on a clean surface (which you don’t need to flour because firstly, the dough shouldn’t be sticky at all and secondly, you need friction in order to shape the balls into ropes), take each piece of dough, shape it into a ball and then, using your hands, roll it into a 20 cm long rope. Fold it in half and then, holding the ends, twist on opposite sides three times to create the final shape of the cookie.

Place cookie on the prepared baking tray and continue with the next. Space them apart because they will spread during baking. Using a pastry bush, glaze each one with the beaten egg and milk mixture.

Bake on the middle rack of the preheated oven for 19-20 minutes, until golden and there are some cracks on top. Turn the tray around halfway through baking time.

Remove the tray from the oven and leave cookies on the tray for 2-3 minutes before transferring them to a wire rack to cool.

Continue making and baking the second batch of the cookies.

When they have cooled completely, transfer them to a cookie tin. They keep at room temperature for a couple of weeks, although I seriously doubt they’ll last more than a couple of days.


Monday, March 26, 2018

Chocolate and Dutch stout cake with white chocolate-cream cheese frosting

A good chocolate cake recipe to have in your back pocket is one of the greatest things for anyone who loves to bake, and even though classic chocolate cake recipes are all pretty much the same, this one is somewhat different.

It has a couple of ingredients that make it extra special, Dutch stout beer and yoghurt, that transform its flavor and texture, making it much more interesting than your average chocolate cake.

I love adding beer and particularly its dark and malty cousin, the stout, in all kinds of chocolate-based desserts as it has the magical ability to bring out the flavor of the cocoa even more, as evidenced in this cake; a dense (but not heavy) and moist cake with a deeply chocolatey flavor and a subtle bitterness from the stout that balances the sweetness of the luscious, creamy frosting.

It’s the sort of cake that can stand on its own, without the topping, but pairing it with the white chocolate and cream cheese frosting that’s buttery, creamy, smooth and perfectly complementing the flavors of the cake, makes for an excellent combination.

It’s the kind of cake that you can’t resist having more than piece of, which means it’s rather dangerous, so consider yourselves warned. Oh, and apologies to those of you avoiding sweets. #sorrynotsorry

Without being too fussy or difficult to execute, it’s a cake fitting for a celebration or special occasion, see Easter Day to close out the feast with something chocolatey and delicious, birthdays, name days or anniversaries, but also for an everyday occasion, see afternoon coffee or tea, or just when you want something sweet to have around the house for those nagging chocolate cravings.

Chocolate and Dutch stout cake with white chocolate-cream cheese frosting

This is the sort of cake that tastes better the next day, so you could easily bake it the day before, let it cool completely, store it in an airtight container or wrap it tightly with plastic wrap and continue the next day with the frosting. This is especially handy if you are making the cake for a celebration and you need to prepare as many dishes as you can in advance.

Stout is a dark and quite bitter and strong beer. I used a Dutch, dry, extra stout, that has an even stronger taste, but you can use a dry, regular stout as well, preferably Dutch.

This is the second time that I’m sharing with you a chocolate cake for Easter. The first one was back in 2011 and was this wonderful two-layered chocolate Easter egg nest cake with chocolate truffle eggs!

Yield: 10 servings (or more if sliced thinly)


for the cake
300 g unsalted butter, cut into pieces, plus extra for greasing the pan
100 g Dutch-processed cocoa powder (sifted if lumpy)
150 ml dark, dry, extra (or regular) stout, preferably Dutch, measured without foam
250 g all-purpose flour
375 g white granulated sugar
10 g (2 tsp) baking powder
Pinch of sea salt
3 large eggs
150 g thick Greek yoghurt, full-fat (I use Total Fage)
15 ml (1 Tbsp) pure vanilla extract

for the frosting
200 g white chocolate (at least 32% cocoa butter content), cut into small pieces
125 g unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
225 g cream cheese, full-fat, at room temperature
225 g icing sugar, sifted

Special equipment: fine sieve, 23 cm round springform pan, baking paper, wooden spoon, stiff rubber spatula


for the cake
Preheat your oven to 180°C.

Butter the sides and bottom of a 23cm round spring-form pan and line the bottom with a round piece of baking paper. (See here how to cut a round piece of baking paper).

In a small saucepan, add the butter and melt over a medium heat. Turn off the heat and add the cocoa powder and stout. Whisk to combine. You should now have a smooth and glossy mixture (see photo right below).

In a large bowl, add the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt, and mix with wooden spoon. Make a well in the center and crack in the eggs. Add the yoghurt, the butter-cocoa powder-stout mixture and the vanilla, and using a large wire whisk, mix well until you have a smooth and shinny batter, for about 2 minutes. You could use an electric hand-held mixer to do this if you find it difficult to whisk by hand. In this case, mix for just a minute until the ingredients are totally combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking pan and place on the lower rack of the preheated oven. Bake for 40 minutes, then transfer to the middle rack and bake for a further 10 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. It’s a good idea to start checking for doneness at the 45 minute mark since not all ovens are the same. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool for about 30 minutes before removing the cake from the pan very carefully, leaving the cake on the rack (with baking paper still attached at the bottom) to cool completely before frosting it. It will take about 5 hours for the cake to cool completely. Don’t frost it before it cools completely because the frosting will melt over the cake.

for the frosting
In the meantime, prepare the frosting. Melt the white chocolate in the microwave, being careful not to overheat it. Let it cool.

In a medium-sized mixing bowl, add the butter and cream cheese, and beat using a stiff, rubber spatula or a wooden spoon until the two ingredients are combined and there are no visible streaks of butter or cream cheese in the mixture. Pour the melted and cooled white chocolate in the butter-cream cheese mixture and beat well with the spatula or wooden spoon until you have a smooth mixture without any lumps. It needs a bit of elbow grease to become smooth, but it’ll get there. Don’t be tempted to use an electric mixer for this as it will soften the frosting too much and you’ll end up with a runny instead of a fluffy frosting. Finally, add the sifted icing sugar and beat with the spatula or wooden spoon until you have a smooth and fluffy frosting.

Assemble the cake
When the cake has completely cooled, remove the baking paper from the bottom and transfer it onto a cake stand or cake platter. If there’s any doming of the cake (there usually is - there is also going to be some cracking on top), there’s no need to cut it off because the frosting will do a great job of covering it. Add the frosting on top of the cake, a spoonful at a time, spreading it right up to the edges. Make swirls using a small spatula or a palette knife to give it volume.

You can store it in the fridge for a day, covered with plastic wrap. The frosting will firm up in the fridge.

Serve and enjoy!

• Adapted from Donal Skehan

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Wild garlic tzatziki

Since we started talking about wild garlic and those flaky flatbreads on my last post, let’s now move on to the serious stuff. Let’s talk about tzatziki; wild garlic tzatziki.

For those of you who don’t know what tzatziki is, it is a Greek sauce/dip that’s served alongside all sorts of meats and fish, as a mezes together with other small plates to dip your bread, pita or crunchy, fried vegetables in, and it is an integral part of souvlaki.

It is made with thick Greek yoghurt, garlic, cucumber, dill, olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. That is all.
In Greece, by the way, what the rest of the world calls Greek yoghurt, we call strained yoghurt, which denotes its thickness in contrast to the other yoghurts we have in Greece. We have many kinds of yoghurt to choose from in my homecountry. ;)

It is one of my favorite sauces and one that I make almost every week to accompany my meals and I invariably use regular garlic to make it, but not this time; because this time I had my wild garlic find that I couldn’t wait to use in my tzatziki. And it was dreamy.

The wild garlic is a worthy substitute for the regular garlic cloves, adding a herby flavor and a more gentle garlic aftertaste without, however, being any less sharp or properly garlicky which is exactly what you seek when you crave tzatziki.

Wild garlic tzatziki

The amount of garlic you use is a matter of personal taste, some people like their tzatziki stronger than others, but tzatziki should have a garlic flavor, that’s the point, so don’t be prudent and follow my lead. You can always taste as you go and if you reach a point where you think it’s enough, just stop adding.

I used mainly the little stalks of the wild garlic in my tzatziki as they have the more pungent garlicky flavor but I added some wild garlic leaves as well that have a more herby flavor and that’s what made my tzatziki even more special.

Others will have you strain the cucumber before adding it to the tzatziki but I have never done that in my life and my tzatziki is always thick and proper. Yes, cucumber has a high water content and some of it will leak into your tzatziki making it a bit thinner, seeing, though, that real Greek tzatziki is made with thick, full-fat Greek yoghurt, the cucumber liquid leakage, especially in the time it takes from making the tzatziki to serving it on the same day (I wouldn’t advise you to make it in advance, it’s best served the day of) is minimal. The yoghurt is thick enough to not really be affected by this negligible amount of cucumber liquid. What would be ideal, however, is if you scooped out the center of the cucumber where all the seeds and most liquid are, before using it, even though I don’t do that every time and really don’t have an issue.

Yield: enough for 4 people (or 2 if you’re anything like my boyfriend and me)

500 g Greek yoghurt, full-fat
10-12 wild garlic little stalks, finely chopped
4-5 wild garlic leaves, chopped
Small handful of fresh dill, finely chopped
70 g peeled (and deseeded preferably) cucumber, cut into small cubes
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
¼ tsp red-wine vinegar
Freshly ground white pepper, 5-6 turns of the pepper mill
Salt, to taste

Olive oil and extra dill, for serving

I advise you to always prepare tzatziki right before or no more than 1 hour before you need it. It’s ridiculously easy to make and you can always prep the ingredients beforehand and put together the sauce at the last minute. Trust me, it’s the best way to go when it comes to tzatziki.

In a large bowl, empty the yoghurt and add the chopped wild garlic (both stalks and leaves), the cucumber, olive oil, vinegar, pepper and a little salt. Mix well with a spoon to combine all the ingredients and give it a taste. Add more salt if needed.

Transfer to a serving bowl/plate, drizzle with a little more olive oil, sprinkle a little extra dill on top and serve.