Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Monday 28 February 2011

Galaktoboureko - Greek custard pie (Γαλακτομπούρεκο)

Once in a while, I like to make a traditional Greek dessert using filo pastry. The family favorite is galaktoboureko, the Greek version of a custard pie, sweetened with syrup. I had a sudden craving for a little while ago, as I was surfing the web and came across the Chatzis website, a zaharoplasteio based in Thessaloniki, where we ate some of those syrupy creamy desserts during our visit there. Nearly everything we tried there, both sweet and savoury, was encased in various kinds of pastry. So on my next visit to the supermarket, I picked up a packet of filo pastry to make some galaktoboureko, which is in fact the one dessert that I remember my ninety-year-old grandmother making when I first came to Greece.

politiko pastry shop XATZHS thessaloniki
Xatzis zaharoplasteia prepare 'politiki kouzina' creations - nearly all their recipes come from the Constantinople of former times, which is why the names of the specialties advertised on their billboards outside the shop sound very Turkish. They serve the full gamma of bougatsa, pites and traditional Greek syrup-drenched desserts, including one called Trigona Panoramatos, triangle-shaped pastries first made in the Thessaloniki suburb of Panorama by Asia Minor refugees who flooded into the city after the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1922.Our waitress was very knowledgeable, and explained a host of things to us about politiki kouzina.
politiko pastry shop XATZHS thessalonikitrigonaki panoramatos politiko pastry shop XATZHS thessaloniki

Greece makes a wide range of filo pastry, but the most popular one is what's known as 'kroustas' (κρούστας), which gives a crusty but light finish to pies. It resembles cigarette paper in texture. There is also thicker filo pastry available, which is more often used in Crete than the crusty type. It is good for denser fillings which may not be able to withstand the weight of the thin type of pastry. You can get an idea of the various filo pastry varieties available in Greece here.

filo pastry varieties
The difference in the thickness of the filo shows even here - the top sheet is thicker (and less transparent) than the bottom sheet

I chose my galaktoboureko recipe from the Chatzis website which includes a number of recipes in Greek for traditional sweets. The recipe sounded simple, which is what appealed to me initially, even if it was meant to be made in a large quantity, so I halved the original recipe and added a few twists of my own, which were necessitated when I ended up buying the wrong kind of pastry by accident - the packaging fooled me into thinking that I'd bought kroustas sheets, when in fact, I'd bought horiatiko! I thought I'd just ruined my galaktoboureko, but I can honestly say that it tasted better made with this variety of filo pastry. The only problem with this recipe is in the cleaning up afterwards: you will be using quite a few pots and pans...

To make the pie, you need
450-500g of filo pastry (I used paradosiako/horiatiko, but you can use kroustas, which is the one usually used to make galaktoboureko, as in the photo on the Chatzis recipe)
200g butter (as the original recipe states: I used our own production of extra virgin olive oil - if you don't know what kind of olive oil you buy, then it's best to stick with butter, since you will need a lot and the taste of store-bought olive oil may not be as exquisite as my own local supplies)
750ml of milk
60g fine semolina
1/2 cup sugar
1 whole egg and 1 yolk
the grated zest of 1 lemon
2 vials of vanilla sugar (or 1 teaspoon of vanilla essence, whatever you have handy)

For the syrup, you need
3 1/2 cups of water
2 1/2 cups sugar 
1/2 cup lemon juice
2 tablespoons of honey

Before I placed the galaktoboureko into the oven, I scored the top layers of pastry with a knife. Filo pastry becomes quite crusty when cooked, and doesn't cut in a tidy way; scoring it before cooking makes things easier.

First place all the syrup ingredients in a small pot (number 1) and let them boil away for 15-20 minutes at high heat. The syrup will have cooled down slightly by the time it is needed. At this point, if you are using butter, melt it in a small saucepan (number 2 - now you can understand why I used olive oil instead).

While the syrup is being made, place the eggs, semolina and half the sugar in a larger pot (number 3) and mix them till well blended. Now place the milk, vanilla and remaining sugar in a saucepan (number 4 - and no more!) and heat them till the sugar has melted and the milk is very hot. Then pour the milk into the egg mixture, place this pot (not a new one!) on the element (at medium heat) to heat up, and keep beating quickly till the mixture is well-blended, thick and creamy. Turn off the heat and let the custard cool down.  

Galaktoboureko out of the oven, drenched in syrup: this softens the filo and makes it easier to cut tidily.

Now grease a 20x30 pyrex dish or baking tin (at least it's not a saucepan!) and lay one sheet of filo over it in the centre, so that the edges overflow over the rims of the vessel. Generously brush butter or olive oil over the filo, but don't create a dripping effect! (If you were making the bigger version of this pie, as in the original recipe, you would use two overlapping sheets, greased in between, so that each sheet overflows on one side of the vessel.) Now lay another sheet of filo and repeat the process. You should use half the filo sheets in the packet for the bottom layer of the pie, which amounts to 6-7 when using kroustas filo or 3 when using horiatiko/paradosiako (as I did). The other half of the packet will be used for the top layer. 

Within a few hours, the syrup seen in this photo was soaked up by the remaining pie.

At this point, pour the custard into the pie. Smooth it down so that it has an even finish on the top. Now close all the extending pastry over the pie in a tidy way. Place a whole sheet of pastry over the pie and brush it with butter/olive oil. Repeat the process with the remaining sheets of pastry. Tidy up the edges of the top filo sheets and close the pie. With a sharp knife, score across the sheets before cooking - this will make cutting the cooked pie easier, as filo pastry (particularly the kroustas variety) tends to flake and break up easily. Place the pie in the oven and cook for about an hour in a moderate oven (180C). 

My photography skills were lacking when I took this photo of a serving of galaktoboureko, but I'll let you imagine its taste...

When the pie is ready, bring it out of the oven and mark deep cuts into the pie, without lifting any piece out of the baking vessel. Then pour the syrup over the pie: listen for the whistling sound as the cool syrup splashes onto the hot custard! You may think that the syrup is too much for the pie, but this is because the pie soaks up the syrup gradually, so pour all the syrup over the pie. This dessert is hardly ever eaten warm, so when the pie is cooked, don't cut it until it has cooled down considerably, when it will also be more manageable to lift the pieces out of the baking dish.

Serve this pie with a glass of cool water - that's all it needs.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Bedtime story (Πες μας μπαμπά μια ιστορία)

"The past is a different country; people did things differently then." The Go-Between by LP Hartley.

σάρωση0023I never lived in a village when I was your age, I always lived in the town, and I never lived in a big house like you did, I always lived in the old cold dilapidated houses that my parents used to rent, so it was a dream of mine to build a big warm house one day and live comfortably in it, like you do. And because I didn’t have any brothers and sisters like you do, I felt very lonely. So I would look forward to the end of the week on Friday, and I'd get all my homework done, and I'd be a good boy because then I'd be allowed to go to the village in Fournes to stay with Yiayia in her house. Every Saturday morning, my father would put me on the bus by myself and send me off to Yiayia where I would stay for the weekend. The bus would stop outside the kafeneia, and Yiayia was always there, waiting to pick me up. I'd always tell her that it wasn't necessary for her to wait for me, and that I could get to the house by myself, it was only a short walk, but she was always waiting for me at my stop, and when I got off the bus, we'd walk back to her house together.

"It's traumatic to rub old wounds, but if you don't know where you came from, you won't know what heights you can reach."
This photographic video sequence depicts scenes from my husband's family's roots in the village of Fournes, both past and present. The narrative is told in a very old-fashioned style, but the photos depict very well the old grandeur that once characterised this village, the last one located on flat terrain on the road to Samaria Gorge before it begins to bend and turn.
Segment 5.00 shows a war memorial with all the names of the villagers of the region who died in WW2.
Segment 5.23-5.35 shows two brothers whose bodies my mother-in-law first found in a ditch, killed by the Nazis.
Segment 7.07 shows what malnourished Cretan children during WW2, after all the island's food was confiscated by the Nazis.

My cousins lived in the village too, so I'd have someone to play with whenever I visited. There was never any shortage of company, and time flew by so quickly that before I knew it, it was time to go back home. I was a little older than D, but just a little younger than G, so we all played together in Yiayia's yard. It always felt like a big yard to me because I was so small then, just like you, but the house was very big, it had many rooms on two different floors, so it was really like two houses in one. That's where G and D lived with their parents, my uncle and aunt. We played hide'n'seek in the different rooms, we played games in the yard, we visited other children in the neighbourhood, we kept ourselves warm by the open fire in the winter, we went for walks to the orchards, we picked fruit straight off the trees and ate them there and then. I loved going to the village. It was my second home, and all my cousins lived there, like most still do now.

My husband's mother's family lived in this house; below the house is a basement, which was his grandmother's home. The entrance opened to the kitchen and stables, where the hearth (παρασιά) was located. Another small room, with an indoor staircase, lead to the οντά, the top room of a Cretan house (οντά is a Turkish word); to get there, you open the hatch door (known as a ρεμπάρτα - probably another Turkish word).

In the evening, whenever I went to stay with her, Yiayia always cooked a batch of fried potatoes in the parasia especially for me. Potatoes fried in olive oil in the parasia taste so good, better than how we cook them on a gas stove. I don't know why they tasted so good. My parents used to say that the air was better there, and it gave the fried potatoes a better taste. The parasia also kept the house warm, because in the past, winters were much colder than what they are now. So the fire cooked our food and kept us warm. Yiayia's house didn't have electricity when I was very young. Even when electricity came to the village, she still preferred to use a λυχναράκι for light. She'd light one up with olive oil when it got dark. There was no television, so at night, we'd all go to sleep. There wasn't anything else to do after that, anyway.

The παρασιά is usually an outdoor fire used for cooking, although it can also be found indoors as in the photo set above.

At night, I slept in the οντά, which is what we called the upper room of a village house, if it had a second floor, and most did. Some houses had stairs inside the house to get to the oda, but Yiayia's house had indoor stairs. To get to the top floor, we had to climb up the stairs and then open a hatch, which is where Yiayia had her bedroom. She always told me to sleep on the bed, while she slept on the floor, but I never wanted to sleep on the bed. I loved sleeping on the floor in her house. I never remember it as uncomfortable. It's just like how I sleep in the mitato when I go away for hunting weekends in the mountains.

mother and son
Mother and son

One day, I was playing with my cousin S at his house. S was born and raised in the village. He was a bit of a rough boy, as most boys are when they grow up in the countryside, where there aren't a lot of people, and the neighbours aren't close by, and you can shout all you like, because nobody will hear you. S was also a big boy, he was a bit stronger than I was. On that day, we played a little rough, and he ended up throwing mud at me. I didn't get to throw any mud back onto him, because, as I said, he was bigger than me, and when he squeezed my hand, it felt like he was kneading it into bread dough, really!

botanical park restaurant fournes-lakki hania chania
Cousin S, watching me take his photo at the Botanical Park Restaurant on the village road out of Fournes.

So after he threw the mud at me, I left his house and went back to Yiayia's, and I remember G came out and saw me crying, and when she asked me why I was crying, I told her that S threw mud at me, and I got my trousers dirty. I always liked to keep my clothes clean, because in those days, we didn't have a lot of clothes like you do in your wardrobes, and we didn't even have washing machines to keep them clean regularly. My mother – your yiayia – had to wash all my clothes by hand. So when I got my clothes dirty, I got very upset about it because I didn't have any other clothes to change in. G was very good to me, just like she still is to all of us, and she told me she’d clean my trousers for me. But I told her I wouldn't take them off because I had no others to wear. But she said it didn't matter, she'd give me some clothes to wear, and she'd make sure my trousers dried very quickly. So I took off my trousers and G took them and began washing them. Then D came in carrying a skirt. She told me to wear it, because neither of the girls had any trousers. Girls never wore trousers in those days in the village. So I had to wear a skirt until my trousers were dry! G washed my trousers and hung them out to dry. D went outside to play in the yard and told me to come out with her, but I said to her "Are you nuts?" If I went out to the yard to play with her, S might come by and see me wearing a skirt, and then I'd be dead meat, so I stayed in the house that day.

goat roast cooked by 85-year-old yiayia
My husband's yiayia cooked like my children's yiayia still does, even now that she's in her eighties.

On Sunday morning I’d go to church with Yiayia and then when we came home, we’d eat roast meat with potatoes which she'd cooked in a wood-fired oven. That was my favorite meal of the week - it still is! - even more delicious than the fried potatoes we'd have the night before. On Sunday afternoon, I’d take the bus back to the town, and go back home to my parents. And then, for the rest of the week, I always looked forward to Friday, so that I could go back to Yiayia's house and play with my cousins at the weekend.

As promised today, the winner of the CSN gift voucher. I used to generate a number from 1 to 9, and the lucky winner is No. 7, Debbie! Thanks to all for taking part.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Friday 18 February 2011

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (To Κορίτσι με το Τατουάζ Δράκος)

There's still time to take part in the giveaway - click here!

Lately, I have not been writing many stories at all. My regular readers will have seen a regular weekly posting coming up, but it is usually based on a recipe rather than a story. It's not that I haven't run out of ideas; in fact, it's quite the opposite - I am full of ideas for (what I consider) good stories. But these days, my time is limited, constrained by family and work duties. Instead of writing, I'm doing a lot more reading. A good friend presented me with a set of books that I would never have chosen to seek out and read, had the selection of bedtime reading material been left up to me. Dark mysteries filled with violent sex acts have never enticed me. But I found the first book in the late Stieg Larsson's trilogy about the intertwined lives of a series of dysfunctional people so compelling that I read every word of every page, which came close to 600.

The Girl with the Dragon TattooThe Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is set in the cold north of Sweden, and the main characters in the story all have highly active or very strange sex lives. They are not family-oriented at all, although some have children. And above all, they are hopeless cooks. Even crime novel characters need to eat, and for various reasons, this 'mundane' task must, in some case, be narrated. Obviously, the culinary references were not that many in this book, but their significance lies in the way that they help us to better understand certain characters, keeping in mind the phrase 'we are what we eat'. Apart from the general idea of a smorgasbord, I have no knowledge of Swedish cuisine; reading this book, I can surmise that Swedes probably enjoy well-cooked meals consisting of various kinds of game meat accompanied by potatoes and other root vegetables and/or berry sauces - but they end up eating a lot of sandwiches instead. And they drink endless cups of coffee, all made in a coffeepot. Interestingly enough, not one mention was made of a smorgasbord in the book.

swedish cuisine
A classic of Swedish cuisine, provided by Wikipedia: Swedish meatballs are a well-known dish among international culinary experts, potatoes and pickles feature prominently in the food of the characters in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and berry condiments (in this case, the Nordic specialty, lingonberry) were mentioned during more formal dining experiences.

Mikael Blomkvist is divorced, has a daughter who he doesn't see very often, lives alone (most of the time) and has no qualms about sleeping with any woman he keeps regular company with (although they seem to be the ones making the first move). His busy life as a high-powered journalist and his desire to keep fit don't allow him much time for mundane tasks such as cooking, so he often goes out for brunch (he's not a morning person), where he'll order sandwiches. When he's home, he buys some basic groceries from the local Konsum and makes his own sandwiches (how original), containing ingredients like pickled herring in mustard sauce with chives and egg. Being an urban dweller, he is used to modern comforts. His year-long stay in a remote northern Swedish village made him realise how difficult rural life can be: butter freezes and doesn't spread easily; cheese slicers suddenly take on a new appeal. But the reader will also understand that Mikael likes to eat good food: when his long-time girlfriend comes to visit him, he cooked lamb cutlets with potatoes in cream sauce; during his long cold spell in a lonely island village, he discovered how much he liked fried sausage with potatoes and beets; and when his daughter came up to see him during a surprise visit, he said: "You should have given me some warning so I could buy some good food or something."
meatballs maroule
The Greek equivalent to the Swedish meatball dish above would be something like baked meatballs (or bifteki) cooked in tomato sauce. Berries do not fare well in the hot Cretan climate, but creative Cretan cooks are helping Cretan cuisine to constantly evolve by developing recipes using local produce in new ways that often reflect modern food fashions: seasonal pomegranate and nuts in salads have become a staple in local cuisine, and sweet tart salad dressings using balsamic vinegar and honey products are now very popular.  

 Lisbeth Salander (who is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) eats whatever she can lay her hands on, while her appearance makes most people think she's a chronic anorexic (she must have a good metabolism). She dresses like a punk, never cleans her house, and certainly doesn't cook. Her disconnection to the world around her allows her to become totally absorbed in whatever activity she is involved in. Food is simply something that sustains her. She remembers to eat when her body reminds her that she is hungry, or when someone brings her food. When Mikael first met her, he bought some sandwiches to share with her: she wolfed down a bagel filled with roast beef and another half of a vegetarian one filled with avocado. Although she doesn't cook, she can make sandwiches. She likes them with liver pate and cucumber. She also has some idea of which ingredients pair well with each other: when Mikael became incapacitated, she quickly took over the reins, whipping up a dozen thick rye bread sandwiches filled with cheese, liver sausage and dill pickles.

The classic kiwi sandwich: cheddar cheese, marmite (or vegemite) and lettuce. Although the square-bread triangular-shaped sandwich has gained popularity in the larger urban centres of Greece, it's not really very popular; the only place where you're likely to see a ready-made symmetrical sandwich in Hania, for example, is at the airport. The same sandwich style is more popular toasted. Filled rolls are also very popular, both cold and toasted; fast food outlets make them fresh according to the customers' choices of filling.  

Henrik Vanger is a rich old man with a fixation on the 50-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet. Although he is lucky to have his housekeeper Anna preparing much more enticing food than what Mikael and Lisbeth are eating, he cannot enjoy his meals because he is weak, ill and melancholy. Anna is probably a good cook: roast hare (game meat is popular in Sweden) with currant jelly and potatoes sound very tasty.

Wild hare is the most prized game meat in Hania; hunters are many, but the hare are few, hence it's not often that I get a chance to indulge in (or make) λαγό στιφάδο (lagos stifado - hare stew).

If this book is your first introduction to Swedish culture, then you might be wondering how representative Larsson's views of Swedish cuisine are. Swedish food is often given a cursory reference in global culinary terms, and the collocation 'Swedish restaurant' is not exactly a common one: googling 'Swedish' together with 'restaurant' will tell us that such establishments do exist - but most of the customers don't really know what to expect from such a place, while the Swedes among them will not have been totally enthralled by the meals they were presented with. However, it does share one element with Cretan cuisine: it is constantly evolving, and local chefs are modernising it by showing great respect to the inclusion of local products in new combinations.

pikilia greek  mixed grill
The Swedish smorgasbord sounds similar to the Greek idea of mezedakia - everything is served in small doses, just enough to leave some space for a large range of dishes. When appropriately presented (rather than a mountain of different bit and pieces all piled haphazardly onto one plate like it usually is), the Greek pikilia could probably prove to be the most popular Greek food among the Swedes and other Northern Europeans holidaying in Greece.

Judging from internet sources alone, through the personalities of his characters, Stieg Larsson has unwittingly portrayed Swedish cuisine accurately. Various websites tell us that Swedish cuisine is basically simple, based on meat (and fish) and root vegetables, with fresh produce playing a more prominent role in the southern part of the country. Mikael's simple cooking reflects simplicity: meat, potatoes and some kind of vegetable. This is understandable when the Swedish climate and location are taken into consideration; it follows that a lot of Swedish food in the past will have been prepared from ingredients that had been preserved in some way before refrigeration and easy access to imported food rid the people of dependence on stored food. No wonder sandwiches are popular in this culture. Swedish culinary tradition was once based on people’s need to eat in order to live, as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo showed us. When the Swedes want to jazz up their food, they use stark contrasts in colour and taste, for example with the use of berries to accompany a meat or fish dish, as Anna did with the roast hare. It's no surprise that all the characters in the story drank a lot of coffee; apparently, Sweden ranks second in the world in the coffee-drinkers' stakes.

The Greek frappe is quite a different coffee experience from heating up a coffeepot and making coffee. It can be a very refreshing and relaxing drink in hot weather. Frappe has never really caught on in my life, even after two decades of living in Greece; I still prefer a hot cup of percolated coffee any time of the day.

You may be wondering why I'm showing such a keen interest in Swedish cuisine. There's no real reason, other than that I like to find out about other people's food. But living and working in Crete also plays a small role: Swedes form a good part of our major summer tourist groups. If we know what and how they like to eat, then we can be better prepared to offer them local dishes cooked/presented in a way that will appeal more to them. This kind of knowledge also helps us to know which elements of our cuisine we can export to them. Their love of herbs to add flavour to their generally bland cooking, along with their increased interest in olive oil as an alternative source of fat, are obvious choices for promotion. Their smorgasbord is akin to our mezedakia; portion control is taken more seriously in Swedish cuisine, hence an emphasis on plating is desirable. They will probably like our fiery tsikoudia, as a change from their aquavit habit (the characters in the novel also drank a lot of this, during more formal occasions). What the Cretans need to concentrate on is the packaging and presentation, to suit the more refined tastes of their Northern visitors.


It's easy to understand what attracts the Swedes to Crete, which is undoubtedly the opposite of what they have access to in their own country. Theirs is a quieter darker colder world compared to the noisy bright hot one that we know in Crete. That's one thing that still can't be exported, not even through globalisation.

*** *** ***
Here's a recipe for meatballs cooked in the Greek fashion that is bound to please our Northern European tourists. The meatballs are baked, making them light in taste and calories, and the tomato sauce gives them an unmistakeable Greek accent. The recipe has been adapted from a book my husband bought because he liked the photos of the finished recipes.

For the meatballs, you need:
500g beef mince
500g pork mince (mixing different mince meats is also common practice in most recipes for Swedish meatballs)
2 medium onions, finely minced

4-5 cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 cup of dry breadcrumbs
a few sprigs of mint, finely minced
a wineglass of olive oil
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 cup of grated cheese (preferably a strong tasting one like graviera or regato)
sea salt and freshly ground pepper

For the sauce, you need:
2 cups of freshly grated tomato (or the equivalent in tinned tomatoes)
2 tablespoons of tomato paste
a teaspoon of dried oregano or thyme
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 wineglass olive oil
5 medium potatoes, cleaned and sliced into quarters


This dish can be started the night before cooking it, by mixing all the ingredients for the mince very well, so that all the flavours blend. The next day, before you shape the meatballs, turn on the oven and set it to high heat (200C). Clean the potatoes and slice them into quarters. Place them in the roasting tin (your largest tapsi), season them with salt and pepper, and pour the oil and a cup of water into the tin. Then place them in the oven to start cooking. The potatoes and meatballs will cook together, but the potatoes need to be started before the meatballs because they need more cooking time.

Now shape the seasoned mince into elongated (rather than round) meatballs. After the potatoes have been cooking for half an hour, add the meatballs to the roasting tin. Mix the ingredients for the sauce well, and pour over the potatoes and meatballs. Roast on high heat (200F) for another hour. While cooking, make sure that the sauce does not dry out: if it does not look liquidy, add half to one wineglass of water to make it runny.

This dish is best served with a fresh green fruity salad and some crusty bread to mop up the juices.

*** *** ***
UPDATE:  Since I originally wrote this post, I've read the remaining books in the trilogy.

The second book contains a tiny snippet of the Greek holiday element, familiar to most Swedes who fly to the south in summer. A policeman is interviewing a lesbian about her relationship with a suspect:
... "Stop screwing around and answer the questions." [he said to her]
"And what was the question?" [the lesbian asked]
Faste closed his eyes for a second and thought about a visit he had paid to the police in Greece when he was on vacation some years earlier. The Greek police, despite all their problems, had one big advantage compared to the Swedish police. If this young woman had taken the same attitude ovr there he would have been able to bend her over and give her three whacks with a baton... (which all goes to show, they're all the same underneath).

Foreign food is eaten throughout the trilogy by various characters when they dine out. The author seems to have chosen different cuisines in a democratic fashion, never mentioning them twice. In the third book, the characters go to a Greek restaurant and order 'calamari with Greek potatoes'. Greek potatoes? What image comes to your mind when you read this? I have no idea what the author meant here, but I assume he meant 'fried' potatoes; hardly a Greek dish...

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Saturday 12 February 2011

International Cuisine Saturdays (Διεθνή κουζίνα)

I have the travel itch, but I won't be travelling quite as soon as I would like. If travelling is in your plans, you might be in need of a new suitcase. CSN's luggage stores have offered me a $45 gift voucher* to give away to one of my readers, valid at any of their online stores. Leave a comment on this post and you will be in for the draw. The winner will be announced in 10 days' time. Good luck and have a safe journey!

As I'm writing, I'm dreaming of going on a mini-break to an urban centre where I could browse through the shelves of bookshops with multiple floors, feel the veins of history by visiting well-known monuments, admire architectural feats while sitting by the window of a train, and eat my choice of any kind of international cuisine that takes my fancy. This time last year, I was in the midst of planning an exciting trip to Paris and London. Holidays abroad aren't possible every year, even without an economic crisis, so this year, I'll content myself by browsing through our holiday shots.

filo wontons samosa
What started off as a creative way to use leftovers has now become an institution in our home. I began presenting regular Greek tastes in unknown forms, as with the wontonson the left. It's riskier to present regular Greek forms with unknown tastes, as in the samosas on the right; the appearance fooled my family into thinking they were Cretan pasties, kalitsounia.

Travelling for pleasure was not quite as common for Greeks as it is now, even though Greece has generally been (and looks set to continue to be) a land of emigrants. Popular holiday destinations for Greek people were Dubai and Thailand before the economic crisis; till recently, Greek students formed one of the largest foreign student groups in the UK. But even before Greece joined the EU, Northern Greeks (in particular) regularly travelled in and out of neighbouring countries, both for business and pleasure: they set up firms in many Balkan countries, they get cheaper medical care in FYR Macedonia, they take daytrips to Turkey to acquire cheap goods, and they go on skiing holidays in Bulgaria, now an EU member with euro currency, where a sizeable number of Northern Greeks are also retiring, due to the more affordable lifestyle (Bulgaria's cost of living is lower than Greece's, which stretches the Greek pension well beyond the limits of its Greek value).

fusion? spring rolls
Spring rolls are now becoming more popular in global food outlets in Hania, like pizzerias. The spring rolls I ordered at such an outlet were made with Mediterranean tastes. When I made them at home, I used bottled Asian sauces to add a bit of foreignness to my otherwise Med-flavoured filling.

Apart from seeing some of the greatest monuments of the world from close up, travelling outside the limited environments of our island home also means the possibility for my family to try new tastes and for me to indulge in some old favorites, the kind of international cuisine I was used to eating out when I lived in Wellington. Trying new food doesn't just mean eating something you haven't tasted before, and it's not only about seeing the differences in the cuisines of the world. Eating 'other people's food' familiarises you with a new kind of eating style; and as you eat your way around the world, whether it's in an unfamiliar environment or the comfort of your own home, you realise that there is a great deal of similarity involved the food we all eat. For example, which culture doesn't have some kind of small 'hand-held pie', made with some kind of pastry containing some kind of filling? Is there any country in the world that doesn't eat any kind of 'bread', no matter what grain it's made of? Does a society exist that doesn't eat a 'sandwich' in some form, even if it doesn't actually call it a sandwich?

falafels falafel
Pita with falafel resembles the Greek souvlaki filled with bifteki instead of meat slivers, but the taste is very different.

Global food outlets in Hania exist in both Greek and multi-national forms: there's Starbucks cafe, Domino's pizza, Goody's burgers, Roxani's pancakes, Grigori's sandwiches, to name but a few, but they all sell roughly the same kind of food: some kind of bread, filled or spread with similar fillings, which always include a milk-based product. There are very few international cuisine outlets in the town, apart from a couple of Chinese restaurants, which don't actually seem to be gaining ground (which may also have to do with the price). This frightens me somewhat: eating foreign cuisine is an educational experience, it helps break the racial divide. It also helps to know the sometimes subtle, sometimes major differences involved in other people's food to alleviate the initial 'shock' factor usually involved when experiencing the unknown. For example, I got a big shock when I tried wasabi paste for the first time, nothing like the exhilaration of a hot curry...

making lasagne wilted cabbage with capers and spices
Some international cuisine looks, smells and tastes almost exactly the same as the Greek equivalent, eg lasagne and pastitsio; on the other hand, a Greek lahanosalata (cabbage salad) has little to do with sauerkraut, which I made by wilting the cabbage and adding various spices to give it a sour taste (it was not one of my more popular dishes). My cottage pie was very successful - the mince was flavoured with well-known Greek spices, while the potato layer provided similar carbohydrates as pasta does in a Greek makaronada. Cottage pie could be described as the English version of pastitsio or lasagne. 
cottage pie

At some point in their lives, my children will probably leave their island home and go abroad, whether for study or work. I won't be around to provide Cretan cuisine for them. I doubt that I'll be one of those mothers that will cook meals for them and fly them by courier to their student address abroad (like some people do, packing them together with ION chocolates and cigarettes, as if they don't have access to similar products where they are, and/or they are vital to their survival). We learn about the history and geography of the world, foreign languages, the importance of global technology in our lives, the necessity to acculturate to global norms and trends, but we rarely learn about the food of the world, only about our 'own', as if the food we eat is the only kind that everyone will recognise.

stir fry beef stir fry rice
If I could cook whatever I want whenever I want, I would cook stir-fries. They can be as vegan or carnivorous as your preferences deisre, and they take little time to cook (they need more preparation time for chopping ingredients into small pieces). My stir-fry beef and fried rice was a winner. 

What started off as a way to use up leftovers during one of my freer moments over the Christmas holidays has now become an institution in my home. Since the beginning of the year, I've launched International Cuisine Saturdays. Every Saturday, when I have more time available to cook a meal creatively (as opposed to during the week when I cook on automatic pilot), I prepare a meal that veers away from Greek cuisine (what I typically cook at home), either in taste, texture or appearance, in the hope that one day, when my children become ambassadors for their countries in their circle of foreign friends, they'll be knowledgeable global citizens, accustomed to eating other people's food.

blueberry muffins ala elise
To date, I can only make blueberry muffins (and pancakes) when friends from abroad present them to me as a gift; apart from strawberries, berry fruits are not easy to grow in Crete due to the dry climate.

International Cuisine Saturdays doesn't involve buying novel ingredients or new cooking equipment (although I will admit to going through my supply of soya sauce rather quickly these days and have now resorted to buying it in 1-litre bottles). I usually don't know what I'm going to cook until the actual day, when I look into my fridge to see what's available, and make a decision according to my energy levels. Today's 'foreign food', for example, will form part of our dessert, blueberry pancakes, using a present I received in the post yesterday from a Canadian friend yesterday. We generally eat the same food all over the world; it's the preferred processes, combinations and flavours that differ. It's an educational experience on the most part for my family, and it also gives me a chance to cook food that I have always enjoyed (and greatly miss) eating. These are the times I feel gratified that I am able to cook well.

*CSN delivers to the US, Canada, UK and Germany; postage and packaging costs apply outside the US. 

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Monday 7 February 2011

Birthday cake (Κέικ γενεθλίων)

for a more traditional Greek birthday cake, make karidopasta tourta.

I'm not much of a baker. I bake when I have to. My baking exploits usually run as far as making a batch of biscuits once a month and mixing up a cake batter once a week, which is nearly always turned into muffins rather than a cake, for the purposes of portion control. In this way, it's also easier to put it into the children's lunchboxes (which begs the question: when the children aren't children any more, will I stop bothering to make cakes?). Another bonus about these 'healthy' low-in-sugar cakes is that no one else in the house eats them; my husband believes that they are simply not sweet enough. Good thing, in my opinion; some of us do not need to eat cake much these days. Since my baking is done mainly for functional reasons, I never ice cakes and biscuits. I find just the idea of icing anything exceedingly tiring, not to mention extra fattening. I usually think: "Why bother"? All that work, on top of all those calories, just to impress. Is it really necessary?

chocolate beetroot muffins apple pie muffins
Chocolate beetroot muffins; apple pie muffins -  the kids never complain, which gives me a good excuse to carry on with the same old routine. Even this year's vasilopita got a muffin makeover.

I recently held a birthday party for my son, and decided that this time, I would have to bother, it is really necessary to do something different, and yes, I was out to impress. Commerically bought birthday cakes are expensive: such a cake, yielding 20 servings, will cost about 35-40 euro at a zaharoplasteio, plus, it's likely - no, 'it will' is more correct - to contain artifical flavourings, artificial colours and fake cream.

I have no culinary decorating/icing skills, so I was a bit sceptical if I could pull it off myself. I decided to stick to family favorites, using the same cake recipes that I usually make. Here's how I turned an ordinary banana/zucchini cake into something more spectacular.

You need:
1 banana cake, made according to the recipe, and baked in a 20x30cm dish/tin
1 zucchini chocolate cake, made according to the recipe, and baked in the same 20x30cm dish/tin
orange marmalade - I had some home-made stuff; whatever you use, make sure it's high-quality! (raspberry or strawberry jam can also be used instead)
chocolate icing - this needs a bit of explanation...
decorations of your choice - mine were overly simple, yet very effective

Special healthy birthday cake

Make up each cakes, and let them dry overnight. In this way, they will be firm and more easy to play around with. If they have risen too much, they need to be flattened: I did this once they had cooled down by slicing off their tops and making them look like flat rectangular slabs. Don't worry too much if you break up a corner; this can be repaired.

In the morning, place the darker (chocolate zucchini) cake on a prepared base. (I made mine from a large piece of cardboard which I covered in aluminium foil.) Spread a thin layer of jam/marmalade over the top of the cake. Now place the lighter (banana) cake over the chocolate layer and press it down firmly. Any broken bits can be repaired at this stage by 'sticking' them with jam/marmalade. Leave a light weight (eg a baking tin with a packet or two of beans or rice) over the cake slabs to ensure a more even finish.

Icing is a challenge for the health-conscious (and amateur) cook.  Ready icing (of the type that we read about in US/UK blogs) is not easy to find in Hania. In any case, icing invariably involves sugar, fat and chocolate, all of which I try to avoid as much as possible. Such ingredients are found in excess in the food that my family consumes outside the home, at any rate. The Little Laughing Olive Tree happened to be visiting me at this stage and she suggested that I use a packaged chocolate glaze for the cake which she says she's used before with great success. "You'll only need about 2 packets," she said helpfully, "and it spreads in minutes." We went shopping together to find it. When I saw the size of the packets at the supermarket, I began to doubt her advice (and culinary experience). I bought 6 packets (instead of the 2 that she suggested).

Since the Little Laughing Olive Tree was in town, I decided to make some afghan biscuits, a rich favorite Kiwi dessert which is usually topped with chocolate icing. I never ice them, but on this occasion, I thought of the experience as a trial run for my debut icing foray. Boy, am I glad I did: After applying 5 of the 6 packets of the ready glaze, the sides of the birthday cake were still bare! At the last minute, I then made up a batch of this icing (1 cup icing sugar, 5 tablespoons of very hot water, 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder), which turned out to be more than enough to finish the cake. Spreading the icing wasn't as difficult as I thought it would be, while the decorations were all made according to simple designs. We also managed to place a white ribbon round the edges of the cake to give it a clean fnished look; all's well that ends well!

birthday cake
Birthday cake with a sapce theme (see slideshow for instructions on how to make the planets)

When the time came to cut the cake, I realised that, because the cake was 'tall' and very filling (it tasted almost as rich as a fruit cake, which it practically was with all the fruity flavours of so many organic ingredients), the children only needed a small piece to satisfy their taste buds (before they disappeared from the bowling alley where the party was held, and got lost in the electronic games parlour of the establishment where the party was held), so about half the cake was left over, which we took back home with us. 

I thought I'd be able to get away with putting the cake into the kids' lunchboxes for the rest of the week, but that's not the way things turned out for the leftovers at all. Instead, I found my husband hiding pieces of the cake to ensure that he would get his fill (we're talking about the only person in the house who rubbishes my healthy cakes). Obviously, the zesty orange marmalade filling and the sweet chocolate icing gave those banana/zucchini cakes a whole new lease of life...

birthday cake
I didn't expect this cake to end up looking so perfect, both inside and outside.

This cake reminded me of the kind of cakes we used to have in New Zealand with coffee. It didn't need refrigeration, unlike the store-bought Greek birthday cakes from the zaharoplasteia. Because it turned out so well, I am actually looking forward to making something similar and more elaborate, but no less healthy, for my daughter's birthday. I'm not alone in the quest for cheap and healthy fancy cakes: they are less costly and  healthier, and in the end, the cook feels good about her efforts.

Much as I ultimately enjoyed this experience, I have to say that my own birthday celebration will be a much quieter one; if you are in the vicinity of MAICh today, I'll shout you a coffee!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.