One last recipe for paximadia (for this month, at least!)

Yet another recipe for paximadia? Yes, because in Greece the variety of these twice-baked sweet and savory rusks and biscuits is dizzying and I wish to provide you with a few of my favorites from the lot. I promise, I’ll take a break from the subject after today. (But I won’t promise that I won’t return to it again!)

This recipe from Diane Kochilas‘ excellent The Glorious Foods of Greece produces a paximadi (singular for paximadia) somewhere in between the two paximadia recipes I’ve posted so far: one for a basic barley rusk made with a yeasted dough, the other for a sweetened rusk (or, more appropriately, biscuit or cookie) made with a quick dough. Diane’s recipe calls for a yeasted dough, one that is sweeter than the basic barley rusk and is spiced up nicely with cinnamon, cloves, brandy and quite a lot of citrus.

Rusks like these are commonly baked along with bread and pites (savory, sometimes sweet pies) in the outdoor, wood-fired ovens of my friends and neighbors in the village the children and I call home part of each year. On those days, the air fills with an intoxicating mix of scents: olive wood burning, wild greens and touloumotiri (the mother of feta) melding within the layers of handmade pita dough, bread dough rising and baking, and the spice of these delicious paximadia.

Diane advises eating these with a little cheese and coffee. Yum. I concur.

Rusks with Raisins and Spices

  • 3 pounds bread flour (about 12 cups), or more if necessary
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 heaping teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 heaping teaspoon ground cloves
  • 1 envelope dry yeast
  • 2 cups warm water, or more if necessary
  • 1 ½ cups olive oil
  • 1 cup strained fresh orange juice (I often add the grated zest from the orange)
  • ½ cup brandy
  • Juice and grated zest of 1 large lemon
  • 4 cups golden raisins
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Mix the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and cloves together in a large bowl and sprinkle with the yeast. Make a well in the center. Add the warm water, olive oil, orange juice, brandy and lemon juice. Using a wooden spoon, fork, or your hand, work the flour into the liquid from the periphery of the well inward, until most of it has been incorporated. Knead in the bowl until smooth, adding more flour or water if necessary to make a pliant but silky dough. Add the lemon zest (and orange zest, if you’ve chosen to use it), raisins and walnuts and knead into the already formed dough until they are distributed evenly. Form into a large ball, place in an oiled bowl, cover, and set aside to rise in a warm, draft-free place for 2-3 hours, until doubled.

Divide the dough into 4 equal balls and shape each into a loaf about 4 inches wide. Oil 2 baking sheets and place 2 loaves on each. Cover and let rise for another hour or two, unttil nearly doubled in bulk. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Using a pastry cutter, score the loaves into 1-inch-thick slices, being careful not to cut all the way down to the bottom of the loaf; the pieces shouldn’t separate. Bake until golden, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly on racks.

Turn the oven temperature down tot he lowest setting. Cover the baking sheets with parchment paper and place the slices on the paper. Place in the oven and bake until the paximadia are completely dry and rock-hard, 3 to 12 hours, depending on your oven. Turn during the baking so both sides get some color. Remove from the oven, let cool, and store, either in cookie tins or in lint-free cotton sacks in a cool, dry place.

Makes about 3 dozen paximadia.

To soften these rusks, hold them briefly under running tap water.

Sweetened paximadia with aniseseed and walnuts

ImageUnless it’s mid-afternoon at high summer, when the heat of the day sends nearly everyone to the cool shelter of their homes, it is unusual to walk through the village and not receive an invitation to sip a cup of coffee, right there and then. No plan or date required. Even during this time of economic crisis, spontaneity and open-heartedness are at the essence of life in rural Greece. If you’re in the mood to visit, you do. If you’re not, “Telos pando,” it will happen another time.

Whether sipping coffee or something stronger, such as ouzo or wine, Greeks tend not to drink without something to nibble on (or eat without something to drink). Thus, a plate of goodies will invariably appear alongside those tiny cups of Greek coffee. Often the goodies are various types of paximadia, the twice-baked rusks (or, in this case, cookies) I’ve been blogging about for the past two weeks.

Traditional paximadia are usually made with barley flour and, because they are so hard, require softening in water or wine before eating. But today the word paximadia is used to describe to a dizzying variety of rusks and cookies, from the traditional barley rusk often used as a base in Dakos to the slightly sweet cookies my neighbors serve with coffee.

Here is a recipe for one take on the latter type of paximadia. Made with a quick dough, it is adapted from a recipe given to me by my friend, the powerhouse home cook, Diamando Xerakia, who refuses to feed her family or friends anything that isn’t made, grown or gathered by her own hands. Tomorrow I will post a recipe for another sweetened paximadia, made with a yeasted rather than a quick dough. From Diane Kochilas’ extraordinary tour de force of regional Greek cuisine, The Glorious Foods of Greece, it is spiked deliciously with cinnamon, cloves, brandy and lots  of citrus.

Diamando’s Paximadia

  • 8 ½ cups all-purpose flour
  • 3 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 ¾ cups sugar
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 5 eggs, beaten
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • ½ tsp ground aniseed
  • 2 ½ cups chopped walnuts
  • 1 egg yolk, beaten with 1 tbsp water
  • ¼ cup sesame seeds, or more to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Make a well in the center, add the sugar, oil, eggs, vanilla, walnuts and aniseed and work into a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into two balls and then shape into loaves. Place the loaves on an oiled baking sheet, or on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Brush with the beaten egg yolk, sprinkle both sides with sesame seeds and bake for 30 minutes.

Allow to cool and then cut into slices. Return the slices to the oven and bake for 15 minutes until the paximadia begin to color. Allow to cool completely. Kept in an airtight container, these paximadia will keep for up to one month.

Paximadia: the humble rusk that stood the test of time

In my post two days ago about the history of transhumance in my region of the Peloponnese, I promised a series of recipes for paximadia, the twice-baked rusks that have been a staple in Greece since antiquity. Historically made with barley flour, paximadia are still a staple food for my friends and neighbors in the village. While most women I know do add a little wheat flour to lighten the flavor and texture of their paximadia, they still use barley as a base. Twice-baked to ensure a long shelf life, paximadia are hard as rocks and must be softened in a bit of water or wine before eating.

How does one eat traditional barley rusks? While they serve as a tasty substitute for bread to eat with lunch, dinner or as a snack with a hunk of cheese, a sliced tomato and a bit of wine, my favorite way to eat paximadia is in a bread salad from Crete called Dakos. To make Dakos, dampen a rusk in water or wine, break it into bite-sized chunks, and place the chunks on a plate. Onto the paximadia, heap chopped tomatoes, red onions and feta. Top the lot with olive oil, capers and olives, perhaps even some chopped garlic and most definitely sea salt, pepper and oregano and you have Dakos. So delicious…thinking of it now makes my mouth water!

My friend, the cookbook author and food and travel writer Diana Farr Louis, wrote a fine essay on the subject of paximadia for the magazine, “The Art of Eating.” In a comment on my post of two days ago, Diana mentions that she sometimes prefers paximadia to fresh-baked bread. I believe several of my neighbors in Poulithra would agree.

I should note that the term paximadia is also used to describe the sweet biscuits flavored with cinnamon, anise seed, orange, lemon, even ouzo that are often served with coffee in many a Greek household. I will post recipes for a few of those delicious little morsels later this week.

This is my spin on a recipe for barley rusks I found in the Greek cookery tome, Vefa’s Kitchen or Η κουζίνα της Βέφας, by Vefa Alexiadou. It is basic and can be played with a bit by adding seasonings, such as anise seed, oregano or thyme.

Traditional Barley Rusks or Paximadia

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting

2 tbsp dried yeast

2-3 cups lukewarm water

6 cups barley flour

1 tbsp sea salt

4 tbsp honey

½ cup olive oil

Olive oil for greasing pan

Combine the all-purpose flour and yeast in a bowl and add enough lukewarm water to make a thick batter. Allow this to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.

Into a large bowl, sift together the barley flour and salt. Make a well in the center. In a cup or a bowl, mix the honey with a little of the remaining lukewarm water and pour into the well, adding the olive oil and the yeast mixture.

Incorporate the dry ingredients, adding enough of the remaining lukewarm water to form a soft, sticky dough. Knead until the dough comes away from the side of the bowl and is smooth and elastic. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size. Meanwhile, grease 2 or 3 large cookie sheets with olive oil.

When the dough has risen sufficiently, punch it down and knead it for 6-7 minutes on a lightly floured work surface. Divide the dough into 16-20 pieces. Shape these as you would a bagel by rolling each piece into a rope about 10 inches long and joining the ends together, overlapping them slightly.

Place the rings, spaced well apart, on the cookie sheets. Cover with a dish towel and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled in size. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

After the rings have risen, use a sharp knife to score a line horizontally around them so they can later be easily divided in half. Bake for 1 hour.

Remove from the oven and let cool. Cut the rings in half horizontally along the scored lines. Place the oven on its lowest setting and bake the split rings for 2-3 hours to dry out completely.

Let cool and store in airtight containers. Stored this way, your paximadia will keep for up to 6 months.

Makes 16-20 rusks

To soften barley rusks, hold them briefly under running tap water until dampened, but far from soggy. Eat whole, as you would bread, or use as a base in Dakos.

Ancient pathways and paximadia

A footpath, or monopati, in the mountains of the southeastern Peloponnese Peninsula.

When I am in Poulithra, not many days in a row pass before friends and I are drawn to make the 20-minute (or so) drive into the mountains above the village. In winter and early spring, we go to forage for wild edibles–greens, mostly, but also  wild asparagus and onions–or to spend long evenings by the warmth of a fireplace or woodstove in one of our favorite mountain tavernas. In summer, we go to check the grapes (nearly every family in the village has a small vineyard up-country), to search for mountain oregano, or—again—to eat, usually under the stars in the courtyard of a taverna or at a friend’s summer cottage.

During these trips, we rarely pass Amygdalia, a tiny mountain village eight miles from Poulithra, without stopping. Comprised of humble stone cottages, a school (now closed), two churches, a restaurant and a coffeeshop (both open only in summer or on occasional weekends), Amygdalia is the village to which the residents of Poulithra have historically migrated each spring. There, they spend the hottest months of the year and, as in Poulithra, live off nature’s plenty, cultivating grapes for wine, growing summer gardens, pasturing their goats and sheep, and tending bees as well as pears, figs, walnuts and the almonds after which the village is named. “If you live in Poulithra, you live in Amygdalia,” says my friend Lakis, who was born in Poulithra and, like most denizens of the village, shares–with his family–a house and a small vineyard in Amygdalia. “They’re basically the same place.” Today, despite the money to be made catering to summer visitors to coastal Poulithra, some villagers still make their annual migration to Amygdalia; others shuttle back and forth between the two villages, maintaining their lives and work in Poulithra, but drawn to the mountains anyway–by family, by tradition, and by the culinary riches of their gardens and fields.

This migration my friends and neighbors engage in has a technical name. It’s “transhumance”—from the Latin trans for “across” and humus for “earth”—and it is defined as “the seasonal movement of people and their livestock from fixed summer and winter pastures, typically to lowlands in winter and highlands in summer.” For centuries, transhumance was a way of life throughout much of rural Greece (indeed, it’s occurred throughout the inhabited world, according to Wikipedia) and centuries-old stone-paved footpaths, called monopatia in Greek, snake through the Greek countryside to prove it. These monopatia form an ancient network of sorts, one that linked the people and villages of each region well before the advent of the car, the phone and the Internet. Merchants traveled them to sell their wares from village to village, a father might walk a path from his community to the next to check out a potential husband for his daughter, a woman to visit her sister, and so on. And for hundreds of years the residents of Poulithra walked the steep path to Amygdalia every spring, carrying their possessions on their backs or on horse or muleback, usually with a herd of goats and sheep trailing behind them. At 55 years old, Lakis recalls making trek as a child and as a young man. “It took the better part of a day for my family and I to move from one village to the other. But as I got older, sometimes I’d walk down to Poulithra to fish and return to Amygdalia by evening with my catch,” he told me. “We walked everywhere, all the time, then. It was just the way things were.”

This flow of people and animals from Poulithra to Amygdalia and back again was so engrained in the culture that it carried with it the village priest and the school teacher. The latter would pack up the Poulithra school in spring and walk to Amygdalia, where he would set up shop to complete the academic year and, come September, begin the next, only to pack up again in October to return to Poulithra. Most of my peers in Poulithra attended school in both communities.

The trek between Poulithra and Amygdalia was long and steep (the footpath connecting the two villages ran about 13 kilometers). For Lakis and his family, typical trailside sustenance included olives, cheese, and his mother’s paximadia, twice-baked rusks made with a combination of barley and wheat flour.

Traditional paximadia are hard and dry and, because they are easily portable, were baked in preparation for those twice-yearly journeys. They were also (and still are) often found in the shepherd’s trovas, or shoulderbag (and, more commonly today, stashed for roadside picnics in the trunk of many a Greek’s car). This kind of paximadia we re-hydrate with a little water, wine or oil before eating in place of bread with salad, soup or stew, or as a snack with a little touloumotiri (the mother of feta cheese), a sliced tomato, a handful of olives, and a bit of wine.

Greeks have eaten paximadia since antiquity. Today, the rusks are experiencing a resurgence of sorts and come in all shapes, flavors and sizes. Some are made with barley, others with ground chick pea, rye or wheat, or a combination of those flours. Some are sweet and crumbly, others are savory. Some are flavored with orange or lemon, others with anise, sesame, even chocolate; still others are seasoned with sea salt and herbs.

This weekend I will post a recipe for paximadia similar to the rusks my neighbors in Poulithra baked for their seasonal treks into and out of the mountains, and I will take a brief but delicious departure from all things Peloponnesian to post a recipe for a scrumptious bread salad from the island of Crete called Dakos, in which paximadia is an ingredient. In the days to follow, we will explore other variations on the paximadia theme.