About theshepherdandtheolivetree

I’m a mother, a writer, and an enthusiastic gardener, forager, and cook. With my two children, Jasper and Sylvie, I live in two rural communities on opposite sides of the Atlantic: one at the edge of the mountains in southeastern Montana, the other where the mountains meet the sea on the southern Peloponnese Peninsula in Greece. As a writer, I try to stick to subjects that center around food, but like most freelancers, my stories hit on a wide variety of subjects, from travel to rodeo, yoga to an interview in long-form of the New Jersey-born kirtan wallah, Krishna Das. My work can be found in The Boston Globe’s Travel section, The Art of Eating and Afar. I have also written for Saveur, Culture, the Utne Reader, The Sun Magazine, Natural Home and Garden, Yoga, Yoga Journal and for Slow Food’s online news service, Sloweb. To reach me, email poulithra AT gmail DOT com

Fava: Greek Yellow Split Pea Puree

Fava (a bit confusing, I know—there aren’t any fava beans in this) makes a great side dish or appetizer and is a common addition to the Lenten table. You can also serve it as a dip. Fava is one of the few dishes my 90-year-old friend Panagiota will allow me to cook for her. She doesn’t make it herself anymore, for some reason, but when I bring her some, she says it reminds her of the old days and she eats a plateful with relish. There are many ways to prepare and serve this dish, including by “marrying” the peas with sauteed onions and tomatoes. I prefer it sketo, or straight, and simple.

Fava
1 cup dried yellow split peas, picked over, rinsed and drained
5 or more cups water, as needed
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Toppings
Olive oil
Lemon
Chopped red onions
Chopped garlic
Capers

Place the rinsed and drained peas in a large pot and cover with several inches of cold water. Bring to a boil on the stove top, and then reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, skimming if necessary. As the peas cook, add water as needed to keep the peas covered. When the peas are completely disintegrated, remove from the heat.

Drain the cooked peas, reserving the cooking liquid. Mash the peas with a fork or blend in a food processor. Add olive oil (and a little of the cooking liquid if you prefer a thinner consistency), mashing or blending until the fava is smooth. Season with salt and pepper.

To serve, place the fava in a bowl, drizzle it with olive olive oil and top with any combination of the toppings above.

Kαλή όρεξη! (Good appetite!)

Mid-morning scents, olive oil stews, and a recipe from the Greek Lenten table

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For my neighbors in Poulithra, the Μεσημεριανό, or midday meal, is the most important repast of the day. And from my apartment, tucked into a quiet side-street halfway between the sea and the village’s crest, I can often smell the beginnings of that meal. By about 10 or 11 in the morning, the intoxicating aromas of lunch being cooked in kitchens and outdoor ovens around the neighborhood begin to waft through my open window: garlic and onions simmering in rich, green olive oil, savory pites, or pies, made with wild greens, herbs and handmade cheeses, meat or seafood stewing in an aromatic sauce of tomatoes, garlic, cinnamon and allspice.

This time of year, when many of the villagers are fasting, the heady aroma of garlic and onions cooking in olive oil prevails. Although the combination serves as the base for many Mediterranean dishes,  when I smell that mouth-watering, mid-morning scent during the “Great Fast” before Easter, I tend to assume that my neighbors are making one of the most common dishes from the Greek Lenten repertoire—lathera—and usually I am right.

Not unlike the words “stew” or “soup” in English, lathera is the name of a category of simple, one-pot dishes made with fresh vegetables and pulses and lots of olive oil. Translated into English, lathera means “oily” or “oiled,” but I find the translation to be a bit misleading, if not off-putting. Lathera aren’t greasy at all. Instead, they are aromatic and rich, with a complexity of flavors that results from stewing the freshest of garlic, onions, vegetables and herbs in the freshest of olive oil. Olive oil is used both as the base of lathera—for example, to saute onions and garlic—and again at the end, when uncooked oil is poured over the dish to add additional flavor, nutrients and depth. The result is delicious and between the oil, which is rich in antioxidants and healthy monounsaturated fats, and the vegetables and pulses, very nutritious.

There are many variations on the lathera theme. One may include chickpeas stewed with onions and garlic while another might be made of of white beans stewed with tomatoes, wild greens and aromatics. Another is a sort of casserole of spinach and rice. The common thread among them all, of course, is lathi or olive oil. This lathera recipe is a common lunchtime dish in Poulithra during the fasting season and during a time of year when body still yearns for a bit of hardy fare, provided in this case by the potatoes.

Potatoes Stewed in Olive Oil (Patates Lathera)

1/2 – 3/4 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
2 pounds new potatoes, peeled and quartered
3 medium onions, finely chopped
5-6 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon dry red pepper flakes
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 cups finely chopped or grated fresh or canned tomatoes
Salt and coarsely ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a deep skillet, saute the onions until soft, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and chili pepper flakes, stir. Add the potatoes and stir until all of the contents are coated in oil. Add the wine, the oregano and tomatoes and stir. Cover and simmer until the sauce is thick and the potatoes are tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, adding a little water if needed. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with olive oil, to taste. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve either hot or at room temperature.

While my friends in the village tend not to add olives to this stew (or any stove-top dish, for that matter), I find they’re a delicious addition. If you care to do so, add about a cup of them, pitted. Since olives are salty, however, you may want to adjust the amount of salt you add.

Serves 2-4.

P.S. Lest all this talk of the mid-day feast (often followed by the mid-day nap) suggests that Greeks are in any way lazy, consider this: In Greece, the work day traditionally begins early in the morning. Shops and other businesses typically open at 7 or 8 am and while they close at 2:00 for the midday break, many reopen at 5:30 in the afternoon until about 9. My fishermen friends rise at 4:00 to bring in their nets, returning to the village to sell their catch in late morning and then going back to sea in the late afternoon or early evening to start the process all over again…

“The graces that come through fasting are countless….” (Or one woman’s fast is another’s feast, plus a recipe for Fasolada)

Gifts from the neighbors. Photo by Jim and Sylvia Rostron.

In the village I call home part of each year, being a single, foreign mother of two children attracts a certain curiosity. It also, beautifully and perhaps surprisingly, attracts food. In our early days in the village, the children and I would return home from swimming or school or a trip to the nearby town of Leonidio, where we do most of our shopping, to find a plastic bag or two hanging from our doorknob stuffed with oranges or lemons picked that morning or, on truly fortunate days, tender young artichokes. It took only a month or two for our neighbors to dismiss all formalities and begin leaving their offerings inside our apartment on the kitchen table. This is when the eating got good. Bread fresh from a wood-fired oven, handmade hortopita, cake sweetened with honey, a plate full of papoutsakia or “little shoes” (eggplants stuffed with a clove-spiked mixture of lamb, tomatoes and onions and topped with bechamel). Around the various holidays the food only grow more elaborate. But it is during the Greek Orthodox fasting periods that we most enjoyed the generosity of our neighbors.

On the Greek Orthodox liturgical calendar, fasting is not limited to Lent. Indeed, the devout fast approximately 180 days a year. This includes four major fasting periods: the last two weeks of June, the first two weeks of August, the 40-day Nativity fast, observed from November 15th until December 24th, and the Great Lent, which begins seven weeks before Easter. Throughout the year, fasting is practiced every Wednesday and Friday (except for during certain, special “fast-free” periods) and there are other (sometimes colorfully named) fasting days scattered across the calendar, such as the Beheading of the Forerunner on August 29th and the the Exaltation of the Cross on September 14th.

During these times, those who choose to fast eat nothing that contains or is derived from any creature through which blood flows. This means no meat, fish, dairy or eggs, and this includes sweets and pastries made with eggs or butter. (Shellfish, octopus and squid are fine as they are said to have no blood.) On some days, even the use of olive oil, arguably the foundation of the Greek diet, is forbidden.

Paximadia, or twice-baked barley rusks, make for delicious Lenten fare.

Paximadia, or twice-baked barley rusks, make for delicious Lenten fare.

One might look at the prospect of fasting with disdain, and some do. But for others, fasting periods are veritable feasting times. They are days filled with a diversity of simple but flavorful dishes. This especially true during the fasting periods before Christmas and Easter when Greek kitchen gardens are a riot of delicious greens, tender young artichokes and other winter and spring vegetables. This, too, is when the wild edibles are at their peak. From November through March or April, horta, wild onions, even asparagus grow prolifically on the terraced hillsides and mountain meadows above the village.

Horta or wild, edible greens.

Horta or wild, edible greens.

My friend Sotiris Kitrilakis, a food historian and the founder in the United States of Peloponnese Foods, grew up in Athens in the 1940s and remembers fasting with a certain fondness: “Contrary to the general perception of Lent as a time of sensory deprivation and the accompanying hardship that leads to godliness, my memories are very different. I remember anticipating Lent with pleasure because it was a time when some of my favorite goodies became available. I always liked pickled things, so the appearance at the table of volvoi (pickled wild hyacinth bulbs), all kinds of olives, peppers, and other pickled vegetables, taramasalata (a purée of fish roe, lemon and olive oil), halva and smoked fish was a feast of the senses. And all of this started with a bang on Clean Monday. What could be more enjoyable than flying your kite and then sitting down to a lovely country picnic including lovely yialandji dolmas (meatless stuffed grape leaves). This attitude may have done permanent damage to my soul, but I do confess that I’m once again looking forward to Lent and the pleasure of it.”

There are many wonderful Lenten recipes available online, and I will provide some of my favorites here over the coming weeks to add to the mix. In addition to my suggestions, I recommend visiting Diane Kochilas’ excellent website and the delightful Kalofagas by Peter Minakis. Until next time, Καλό Μήνα! (Greek for “Good Month!”) And a recipe for Fasolada, or bean soup:

Fasolada
A  staple in the Greek household during Lent, Fasolada is one of my favorite dishes any time of year:

  • 1 pound of white navy beans
  • 2/3 c. up olive oil
  • 3 large onions, peeled and chopped
  • 4 good-sized carrots
  • 3 stalks of celery
  • 6 cups water
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the beans overnight. Rinse and drain them. Heat the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat and saute the onions, carrots and celery until softened. Add the beans and water. Increase the heat and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and allow the beans simmer, skimming the foam off the top, for about two hours. Cook until the beans are very tender. Just before serving, add the salt and pepper. Enjoy.

P.S. The quotation I included as part of the title of today’s blog post is from Saint Nikolai of Zicha.

P.P.S. If you enjoy my blog, please subscribe. Thank you!

Butter: The shepherds’ fat of choice (and a recipe for Tiropita, a savory cheese pie)

Photo credit: Alise Sjostrom

One of many dishes made in the village using touloumotiri, the cheese I described in my past two blog posts, is tiropita, or cheese pie. Since touloumotiri is difficult to find outside of Greece (and, indeed, authentic touloumotiri is difficult to find within Greece), feta makes for a good substitute. There are many varieties of pites (pies) in Greece, both savory and sweet, and many recipes for tiropites made with many different types of cheese. This recipe calls for several cheeses: feta as its base, ricotta or, preferably, the Greek cheese, anthotiro, and parmesan or kefalograviera to add sharpness and depth.

To make this pita, you may use store-bought phyllo dough. For a more rustic pie, try making your own phyllo. (This recipe, from an article I wrote for the magazine, AFAR, is delicious.)

The use of the other fat in this recipe—butter—may come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Greek cookery, for isn’t olive oil the predominant fat used in healthy Mediterranean cooking? Yes and no. Most of my neighbors in coastal Poulithra, where olive trees grow prolifically, use olive oil in their pies. But the shepherd families in the mountain villages above us use quite a lot of butter in their cooking because, for them, butter is more common than olive oil. Olive trees don’t generally grow well at high altitude and, of course, shepherds have access to quite a lot of milk, so butter tends to be one of their fats of choice. The cheesemaker I wrote about last week, Thomae, makes butter nearly every day using milk from her flocks of goats and sheep.

And so, a recipe for Tiropita:

Ingredients:

  • 1 (1 lb) package frozen phyllo dough or your own, handmade dough
  • 6 tablespoons butter
  • ½ cup flour
  • 1⁄3 cup milk
  • 6 eggs
  • ¾ lb feta cheese, crumbled
  • 1 cup grated parmesan or kefalograviera cheese
  • 2 cups ricotta (or anthotiro)
  • 8 ounces butter, melted

Directions:

  1. Thaw phyllo dough completely. Preheat oven to 375°F.
  2. Melt the 6 tablespoons butter in a large saucepan.
  3. Whisk in the flour and cook slightly (1-2 minutes).
  4. Slowly whisk in the milk. Over medium heat, whisk constantly, until sauce thickens. Remove from heat and allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  5. Whisk the eggs into the sauce one at a time and stir in the cheeses.
  6. Grease a 13 by 9 inch baking dish.
  7. One sheet at a time, layer 6 sheets of phyllo dough in the baking dish and brush the top layer generously with butter.
  8. Add 1/2 of cheese filling.
  9. Layer 3 more sheets of phyllo (brushing each one with butter) and then top with remaining cheese filling.
  10. Finally, layer 6 sheets of phyllo on top (brushing each one with butter) and fold the edges decoratively.
  11. Brush the top with remaining butter.
  12. Score the pie’s top carefully with the point of a sharp knife, just cutting through the pastry into the size of pieces you will want to serve. (Only cut through the top layers of pastry; do not cut all the way down to the bottom layer.)
  13. Bake for about 45 minutes to one hour, or until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature.

A visit to Thomae’s and my search for an ancient cheese

Thomae in her cheese room.

Tucked into an outbuilding on her farm outside the shepherd’s village of Vaskina, Thomae Kattei’s tiny cheese room is impeccably clean. Its walls are dark, blackened by nearly a century of woodsmoke. Permeated by the earthy smell of goat’s and sheep’s milk, it is a comforting place to be. As Thomae slowly stirs milk in an enormous copper kettle over a single propane burner on the floor, she lists off the dairy products she makes each milking season: yogurt and butter nearly every day, a winter’s supply of trahana (a dried blend of cracked wheat and sheep’s milk). For special occasions she makes kefalotiri — a hard, aged cheese used for grating or to make the popular appetizer saganaki, or pan-seared cheese. She crafts a whey cheese called mizithra, and she makes a cheese she calls touloumotiri.

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I am here today for the touloumotiri. The cheese shepherds tuck into their bags for long days of roaming the hillsides with their flocks, it is the cheese I taste most often in the dishes made by my neighbors and friends, and it has become a bit of an obsession of mine. A mystery, a grail of sorts, if you will.

To make touloumotiri, Thomae uses equal parts sheep’s and goat’s milk. Other cheesemakers use different ratios, or all one kind of milk or the other. Between the kind of milk used, the temperature to which it is heated, and the animals’ forage, the texture and flavor of touloumotiri varies widely from producer to producer, from region to region.When it is fresh, it is soft and moist and is used in salads, stews, and pites, or pies. Over time, the cheese dries and hardens, its flavor sharpens considerably, and it is grated over pasta and other dishes.

The root of the name, touloumitiri, is this: Since the days of Homer—and likely before—shepherds have been society’s principal cheesemakers. In Vaskina and throughout rural Greece, they still are, migrating with their flocks from lower-altitude grazing lands in winter to mountain pastures in summer, following ancient migratory trails called monopatia. Until the use of wooden barrels became common in the second half of the 19th century, shepherds poured milk from their flocks into the tanned and heavily salted skins of sheep or goats. There the milk turned itself into cheese and the cheese ripened inside the skin. Thus touloumotiri, from touloumi, modern vernacular Greek for the skin of the animal, and tiri, which means “cheese.” Many cheesemakers throughout Greece produce a cheese they call touloumotiri, but few use animal skins.

And neither does Thomae. When I ask her about storing the cheese in a goat’s or sheep’s skin instead of barrels, she laughs: “The touloumi left when electricity came to Vaskina.” That was only 15 years ago.

Since first meeting Thomae, I’ve become overwhelmingly curious about those few producers who still use the touloumi. Why do they? How do they do it? And what does the cheese taste like? I knew that at least one producer on the Peloponnese still crafted his cheese that way, and I suspected others did too, but finding those people was proving to be difficult. I had learned through my godmother that a shop on her island carried touloumotiri in the touloumi. When she asked the shopkeeper about the cheese, he replied that its producer lived “somewhere above Monemvasia.” When I called him for more details, he said that the cheesemaker lived “somewhere outside of Sparti.” After that, I tried to ignore the question of the touloumi, but every time I sat down to eat a salad or a pita, there it was, staring me in the face. I had to find touloumotiri in its native habitat, the touloumi.

Why all the fuss over cheese? In the process of my searching for touloumotiri in the touloumi, in the process of hearing people’s memories and stories of eating the cheese from the skin, of the foods they ate with it, of the occasions and meals that included it, and of the cheesemakers who crafted it, touloumotiri has gradually become a symbol of what I love about this region and the people who live here. It’s become a symbol of tradition, a symbol of a place where food is time-honored, steeped in history, myth and ritual, a place where food is still sacred and still absolutely central to people’s lives.

My search for touloumotiri in the touloumi has altered, subtly, my perspective when I am in Greece. When I see balls of mizithra–often made from the whey of touloumotiri—hanging in bright mesh bags under the rafters of some veranda, I peer over the whitewashed wall to see whether there is any sign of mizithra’s mother cheese. When I wander the streets of a village or city for the first time, I visit the cheese and butcher shops to see whether there is a tanned leather bag hanging from the ceiling or slumped upon the floor.

On that day in Vaskina, after Thomae left the cheese she was making to drain, we sat down in her one-room house (where she raised 10 children) over over diples (sweet ouzo-spiked fritters) and tiny cups of Greek coffee, and I asked her again about touloumotiri in the touloumi. She laughed at my persistence. “You must know of someone who still uses the skin,” I said. While she had an idea or two, she said, of some trelos (“crazy”) who might, she couldn’t be certain. A cousin, for example, a shepherd near the Laconian village of Kremasti, may still use the touloumi, but he was a confirmed bachelor and only had a cell phone, and, because he spent most of his time in the mountain meadows well beyond his village, his cell phone usually didn’t work, she explained. In the end, Thomae sent me on my way with a short list of names, a kiss on each cheek, and a hefty hunk of cheese.

Despite my leads from Thomae, I still haven’t found a cheesemaker who crafts touloumitiri in the touloumi. When I return to Greece this spring, I’ll continue my wanderings in search of the cheese of the skin.

I can almost taste it.

Thomae and her neighbors. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis (diemphoto.com).

In the mountains of the Peloponnese, a cheesemaker crafts her own version of economic stability.

In the mountains above Poulithra, wild oregano and thyme grow prolifically around remnants of once-thriving agrarian communities: threshing circles made of stone, terraced hillsides bolstered by crumbling rock walls, orchards of almond and chestnut trees, an occasional hilltop windmill. Among these communities is Vaskina. Once a thriving shepherds’ village known for its production of traditional mountain cheeses, today Vaskina is home to a dozen or so people, most of them elderly. Its square, set on a hill, enclosed by a few houses, a taverna and a church, looks down upon the village with its shuttered farmsteads and a dairy, now closed, its slate roof sagging heavily.

Like many of the mountain villages of Greece, Vaskina’s population plummeted in the past 20 years, its villagers leaving for opportunity in towns and cities along the coast, in Piraeus or Athens, or venturing even farther, to northern Europe, Australia and the United States. Some return to Vaskina faithfully, usually in summer when the harsh winter winds have stilled and the mountain meadows are filled with flowers; others return only in their dreams.

Those villagers who do remain hold fast to their traditions, speaking their native dialect, Tsakonian, derived from ancient Doric, maintaining the shepherd’s way of life, and crafting rich, earthy cheeses from the milk of their goats and sheep. One of these shepherd-cheesemakers is Thomae Kattei.

Thomae, with greens from her garden.

Nearly 70 and descended from a long line of shepherd-cheesemakers, Thomae is almost always smiling and quick to laugh. Usually dressed in a handmade shift with wool knee-highs and a bright calico apron, the small, dark-haired woman could have easily stepped from the pages of a mid-20th century story in National Geographic on Greece.

Every morning for fifty-some years, Thomae and her husband Theodoros have risen before sunrise to milk their ewes and does. Theodoros then leads the herd into the mountains to feed on wild grasses and herbs, and Thomae proceeds with her day according to the season: tending a prolific vegetable garden, making wine, keeping chickens for eggs and meat, baking bread and paximadia in her outdoor wood-fired oven using flour from the grain she grows, occasionally slaughtering a lamb or goat for a special meal.

In addition to all of this, every morning during the milking season—from early November until late spring—Thomae makes yogurt, trahana, butter and cheese. Some of the cheese she keeps for her family’s consumption; the rest she sells to people like me who think nothing of making the hour-long drive to her house to buy it, in part because the cheese tastes so good, but also because the warmth of her hospitality and kitchen are so fine.

And, because a trip to Thomae’s is an experience; it’s a trip back in time; it’s a sensory delight. And, in my eyes, it’s a lesson in sustainability. Thomae’s life and her farm, where electricity is a relative newcomer and cell phone service does not exist, is as removed as possible from the rest of the modern-day country with its dazzling tourist destinations and its economic woes. Every time I visit Thomae, her kitchen table is filled with seasonal culinary projects: berries to be made into preserves; wild greens, herbs or chamomile foraged from nearby meadows; walnuts and almonds from the trees in her yard; grapes from the arbor that shades her front stoop. Apart from the bag of coffee sitting on the kitchen counter, there is not a sign of packaged food to be seen in Thomae’s house.

Thomae is not a “locavore” bucking the trend of corporate, global foodways; she is one of thousands of people in the region who live this way, and always have. Likewise, eating locally isn’t a movement to be embraced here; it’s a way of life that was never left behind. Policy makers, travel writers and others describe the economy of this remote region of Greece as “peasant-based.” I prefer to call it “human-scale,” “rooted” and “durable,” for it is this very way of living—one that is based in tradition, one that is modest in scale, but rich in flavor and experience, one that is handmade, one that is truly local—that has allowed Thomae and our neighbors a certain sense of security and well-being, even as the country is starved by austerity, even as it teeters on the brink of default.

This week, as riots spread across Athens, as buildings burn (according to the news, at least ten are ablaze as I type these words), as policymakers debate even harsher austerity measures, I will place my focus on Thomae and her farm. Next time, a post about Thomae’s touloumitiri, the cheese that’s been my obsession for nearly two years now, and some recipes. Until then, a few images from Thomae’s corner of the world:

Making cheese. Photo by Dimitris Maniatis.

The road to Vaskina.

Icons. At Thomae’s.

A threshing circle.

Vaskina’s dairy. Overgrown, long closed.

Yesterday’s Storm

This morning, I was planning to write a post about Thomae Kattei, an extraordinary woman and a cheesemaker I met while writing an article for Culture magazine about traditional cheesemaking in our region. Since I made my first visit to her mountain farm near the shepherd village of Vaskina in the winter of 2010, Thomae has become if not a friend then certainly a mentor and a great source of information and stories about the traditional foodways of the Peloponnese.

But today I’m finding it difficult to concentrate on the subject of cheese (or much of anything). Not sure if it’s the second cup of extra-strong French-pressed coffee I’m drinking, a little bit of worry about Jasper, my son, who is home sick with the flu for the second time in two weeks, or news of yesterday’s severe weather in southern Greece…more than likely, it’s a combination of all of these things.

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The harbor at Plaka. February 6th, 2012. (From Leonidio.gr.)

The children and I are in Montana now, so we missed the storm, but the photos and reports from friends are impressive. Yesterday, severe weather swept through much of Greece, including our region of the Peloponnese, causing flooding and mud slides in the mountains and knocking down trees and damaging piers and harbors up and down the coast.

Also at Plaka.

There’s something about a storm at sea that I find incredibly exhilarating and, depending on the circumstances, occasionally frightening. Yesterday’s storm, I’m told, was some of both.

I’m not sure there’s a much better reminder of the power of nature than a storm at sea. OK, tornadoes are sound reminders, yes, as are avalanches, blizzards, but there’s something about the heaving grey waters, the winds whipping from all directions, the waves, the spray…I love standing at the edge of the water’s highpoint and feeling all of these forces at work together. It’s an orchestration of sorts. A wild and beautiful and, occasionally, frightening concert of the elements at their wildest.

The ferry dock, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

The dock on Spetses. Where we sit to wait for the ferry or, especially in summer, people-watch. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

Today, in lieu of recipes or tales about our region’s foodways, I’ll post a few photos of yesterday’s storm.

The waterfront on the way to the Old Harbor, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

The images from Plaka, the harbor for the town of Leonidio, which is the county seat for our district, are from an excellent website offering news and images from the area. The rest, from Spetses, the island that sits across the water from us and where Mom and I lived off and on in the 1970s and 80s, are by Mixalis Kokorakis. (Thanks, Mark Beer, for the links!)

Between the Dapia and the Old Harbor, Spetses. By Mixalis Kokorakis.

I’ll return to write about Thomae and her delicious cheese soon. In the meantime, batten down the hatches and enjoy winter’s tumult, and her wonders, wherever you may be.

After the storm. The Plaka pier.

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.