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.