Welcome back to my extremely delinquent post on Athens. For as brief as my trip was, it’s certainly taking a long time to publish my favorite dishes. But they were too good not to share. “Athens: Part I” was about the iconic Greek dishes most of us think of: horiatiki salata (Greek salad), gyros, spanakopita, grilled seafood and souvlaki. And these next few won’t surprise you necessarily, but there were some twists.
But let’s talk about geography/agriculture of Greece first real quick, especially from a historical context. (Don’t fall asleep! It’s interesting, I promise!) Remember my “dream vision” of Greece and the rocky beach? I didn’t mention the mountains in the vision… there are lots mountains everywhere (Greece is nearly 80% mountains!). It’s a lovely vision, but it’s lousy for agriculture — especially way back when. That meant that home-grown grains like wheat or barley were in short supply, but walnuts and almonds and pistachios and olives and sesame thrived. And nuts could be ground into flour, supplementing a wheat flour. So is it any wonder then that nuts and olive oil are so prevalent in Greek food, especially baking?
I’ll answer that for you: it’s not a wonder at all. And here is a great example of a delicious nut-based treat: καρυδόπιτα (a.k.a. karithopita or walnut cake). Around Μοναστηράκι square, there are several bakeries, which is super convenient when it’s late at night and you want a treat. One night, I opted for καρυδόπιτα. Normally, καρυδόπιτα is drenched with a sweet honey syrup and doesn’t live in a pastry shell; however, mine was a little lighter (there was barely any honey syrup), had a thin layer of chocolate on top, and was in tart form. Traditionally, it’s made with olive oil instead of butter, and I wasn’t able to tell in this one what the shortening was. But it still had the two requirements for something sweet in Greece: honey and nuts. The flavor was so nutty and it’s just sweet enough. Καρυδόπιτα is such a beloved Greek dessert that it was one of the two desserts that represented Greece at the 50th birthday party of the European Union in 2007.
On my birthday, Keith and I drove down the Attica coast and stopped for lunch about three-quarters of the way down the peninsula at a little place called Akrogiali. It was a fantastic meal (I had the grilled octopus), and at the end, we were presented with the typical complimentary dessert plate. Ours had oranges, apples and a block of sweet paste that turned out to be a halva. I had no idea what it was originally. The texture was so different! When we started to eat it, I was confused by the gelatin consistency and what I thought was semolina (I was correct). Halva crossed my mind at the time, but I dismissed it since it didn’t look the same as what I was used to seeing; the only halva I’ve ever encountered has looked more like nougat since it’s been made from sesame paste (tahini) and garnished with a lot of pistachios. Halva (which actually means dessert in Arabic) is eaten in so many parts of the world, from the Balkan penisula to Eastern Europe across the Middle East and the Horn of Africa all the way to India and West Asia. So, there are many ways to make halva, but most ways fall under two categories, either with flour (what I had here, mainly using semolina) and with nuts (the more commonly recognized halva, at least where I’ve been concerned, mainly made from sesame or sunflower butters). And in writing this, I’ve realized that by using flour instead of nuts, I’ve contradicted what I originally said about Greek desserts needing only nuts and honey. But that’s okay, because there was still honey, and it was still delicious.
And of course, we also were served plates upon plates upon plates of super thick, strained yogurt. Like halva, eating strained yogurt has been commonplace throughout the Mediterranean and Central Asia for years, but it’s now so commonplace in the US too (where we know it as Greek yogurt). Strained/Greek yogurt is marketed the US/UK as a healthy food—with more protein and less sugar thanks to the fact that is is strained of whey—but unfortunately in the US, the non-fat version is über-popular (apparently 2/3 of Fage’s sales are from non-fat yogurt). Even the “full-fat” version of Fage Total reduced its fat percentage from 10% to 5% a few years ago. The result? Yogurt that doesn’t hold a candle to the good stuff. [This is why I like to make my own strained yogurt… I’ll post on that later.] We could have bathed in the luxurious cream, it was so rich and satisfying. We had it all sorts of ways: drizzled with honey and topped with nuts, decorated with a dose of prunes or sour cherries, garnished with candied quince, or as tzatziki! Mmm tzatziki…
For my birthday dinner, we had some modern twists on classic Greek food at a lovely restaurant called Kuzina. It was fantastic! Keith and I started out with some spring rolls filled with lamb, eggplant, and sun-dried tomatoes accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce. Then we had some dumplings filled with feta cheese mousse and spearmint, topped with a pomegranate sauce and pistachios. And then, of course we had lamb for the entree, made with spearmint sauce and caponata. It was delicious! I loved seeing how the flavors of Greece were updated into something contemporary. As much as I love trying out the classics like spanikopita and greek salads, it’s nice to balance that out with a meal or two that was well-thought out and executed. Happy birthday to me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you my birthday μπακλαβά (baklavá), or any baklava for that matter. [The picture is admittedly the worst picture ever, but it was midnight and we were again in Μοναστηράκι square). Normally, I have pie to celebrate another year, but there isn’t a whole lot of pie in Greece, and birthday baklava sounded too good to pass up. So after our decadent meal at Kuzina (and a little break), I ended my first day of being 30 with some indulgent baklava. If you don’t know what baklava is, all you need to know is it’s made with layers of flaky phyllo dough, chopped nuts (walnuts in this case), and sweetened with copious amounts of honey. My hands were so intensely sticky afterwards, but it was completely worth it.
I’ll leave off with a few more pictures of some καταϊφι (kataïfi) dishes I had while in Greece. Kataïfi itself is another rich Greek dessert made with shredded phyllo dough and doused with a sugar syrup. I didn’t have the actual pastry, but I did have a savory cheese pie made with kataïfi pastry and an ice cream version of kataïfi . Both were quite tasty, and good looking… enjoy the visual treats!