Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cranberry Trifle and Warm Wishes for a Happy New Year

I was off cooking duty on Christmas as two of my lovely aunts hosted Christmas Eve and Christmas Day respectively. But I did dabble with dessert and as I had some fresh cranberries on hand I wanted to use them to add a festive red color to whatever I was to finally make. Knowing that I had a new package of Savoiardi cookies in the pantry I decided to put together a cranberry trifle with a Savoiardi twist. I "spiked" the cream with a bit of Marsala and fell in love with this Zabaglione-like cream filling (I could have spooned the entire bowl--no joke). And not to brag or anything but ... this festive cranberry trifle was enjoyed by all on a most joyful Christmas Day.

And here's to a Happy and Healthy 2009! Kali Xronia!

P.S. My cranberry trifle was by no means the only dessert set out on Christmas. As you can see here, it was surrounded by a multitude of sinfully rich desserts from my mom's baklava, to my aunt's karydopita, to another aunt's (our generous hostess') coconut macaroons, chocolate chip biscotti, melomakarona, kourabiedes and her insanely good pumpkin cheesecake topped with fresh whipped cream and a generous dusting of cinnamon.

Cranberry Trifle

About 24 ounces of fresh cranberries
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 cups water
1 bar (8 ounces) cream cheese, at room temperature
1/2 cup packed light-brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup dry Marsala
12 to 15 Savoiardi (depending on your trifle bowl)

Combine cranberries with the regular sugar, ginger and water and bring to a simmer. Cook until thickened, about 10 to 15 minutes. Let compote cool completely.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat cream cheese, brown sugar and vanilla on high until well combined. With mixer on medium, gradually add heavy cream and Marsala; continue beating until soft peaks form.

Arrange a layer of Savoiardi in a trifle bowl. Spoon 1/3 of compote over, gently spreading to sides of bowl. Dollop 1/3 of cream filling over compote, also gently spreading to sides of bowl. Repeat twice, ending with cream filling. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 4 hours (or up to 1 day).

Mini Zucchini and Feta Frittatas

I bought a mini muffin pan back in November and have been in love with it ever since, experimenting with different recipes every chance I get ... mini pancetta cornbreads, mini phyllo cups, mini cupcakes and these mini zucchini and feta frittatas. They're extremely simple to make, insanely versatile and the perfect portion size to hold guests over before a friendly dinner party. Added bonus: they are just as good at room temperature so you can make them a little ahead of time.

Mini Zucchini and Feta Frittatas
Makes 36

1 large zucchini, diced
3 scallions, finely chopped
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup feta, crumbled
5 eggs
1/3 cup heavy cream
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Heat the oil and butter in a skillet and stir in the scallions and zucchini and cook until slightly softened. Add the garlic and cook for a minute longer. Set aside to cool.

Brush the mini muffin pan with olive oil. Cut small rounds of parchment paper and place into the base of each muffin slot.

Stir the feta into the zucchini mixture and season lightly with salt and freshly ground pepper. Place a portion of the zucchini/feta mixture into each muffin hole. Whisk the eggs and cream together, season with salt and pepper and pour the egg mixture into each hole about 3/4 full.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden. Allow the mini frittatas to sit in the muffin tin for a few minutes then take a knife and gently ease each frittata out (remember to remove the parchment from the bottom!). Serve warm or at room temperature.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Festive Gemista

Gemista are a staple for us. As children, my mom and Giagia would stuff peppers and tomatoes with ground beef and rice but in my own kitchen I've grown accustomed to stuffing the vegetables simply with rice and various herbs.

This time I sauteed the rice with some white wine and added some pine nuts to the mix. The end result was deliciously moist and delectable. Be sure not to overstuff the peppers as the rice needs room to expand--loosely filling the peppers only about 2/3 full should do the trick.

I'd like to think the green of these peppers and the red tomato sauce are in line with the festive spirit of Christmas. Alternate between bright green and shiny red peppers and the dish will be even better.

Happy Holidays!

Gemista (Stuffed Peppers)

6 green peppers
1/2 cup olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 scallions, finely chopped
3/4 cup rice
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups chopped tomatoes
Small bunch parsley, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped dill
Pinch of dried mint
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon tomato paste

4 medium potatoes, peeled, halved and then quartered

Wash the peppers and cut a "cap" from the top of the pepper. Remove seeds and arrange peppers in a baking dish. Season inside of peppers with salt and pepper and drizzle with some olive oil.

Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add onion and scallion and cook until softened. Stir in pine nuts and rice and heat through for a minute or so. Turn heat to high and stir in the wine. Stir until most of the liquid is absorbed. Add 1 1/2 cups of the tomatoes and toss in the herbs. Simmer for a couple minutes longer.

Remove from heat and spoon into the peppers, making sure not to overstuff. Replace caps taking care to fully cover peppers. Pour remaining oil and chopped tomatoes over tops and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Heat oven to 375. Toss the potatoes with additional olive oil, salt, pepper and a pinch of oregano. Add the potatoes to the baking dish in between the peppers. Dilute the tomato paste in about 1/2 cup water and add to the baking dish, shaking slightly to incorporate the liquid with the oil already in the dish. Bake in the oven for about an hour, or until the potatoes are fork tender and the rice is done. (Add water as necessary if the dish seems to be drying out.)

Friday, December 19, 2008


I grew up in a three family home (Giagia and one of my aunts lived downstairs; my parents, three sisters and I in the middle; and my aunt, uncle and two cousins upstairs) where doors were never closed and privacy was never an option. We did everything together and we loved it ... well, some of us did anyway.

My fondest childhood memories are of baking various family recipes for Christmas and Easter with my Giagia, mom, sisters and aunts. We'd gather in one of the three apartments and make three batches of whatever it was we'd set out to bake and end up with dozens (and dozens) of cookies and biscuits for us to devour. My sisters and I would wait patiently while my Giagia would knead the dough for koulourakia or kourambiedes, lazarakia or paximadia so that we might get a piece of dough to "work" with as well.

I made our koulourakia with my four-year old daughter the other night. She's "helped" me bake a number of times before but this time I've got to say she did a really good job. I handled the traditional shapes and she used our holiday cookie cutters to make some cute Christmas tree, gingerbread men and candy cane shapes.

It's just not Christmas for me if we don't have a huge batch of these koulourakia to dunk in our milk or coffee. I am now officially in a festive mood ... how could anyone not be sitting here with a hot cup of coffee, a plate full of koulourakia and this picturesque blanket of white snow outside?

2 sticks of butter, softened
2 1/4 cups sugar
4 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 cup milk
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
5 to 6 cups of flour
1 egg, beaten (for brushing koulourakia prior to baking)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
Whisk baking powder into 1 cup of the flour.
Beat butter with sugar until very light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time. Stir in vanilla and then slowly add milk. With mixer on low begin add the first cup of flour mixed with the baking powder then begin adding the remaining flour in batches, incorporating well after each addition. The dough will be ready when it seems to bunch up into a ball while mixer is working and no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl. (I usually use 6 cups total.)

Take small rounds of dough, roll into long "strands" and shape into braids, curled "S" shapes or anything else you desire. Or roll dough out with a rolling pin and use cookie cutters to shape. Place about two inches apart on the parchment lined baking sheets and brush with the egg wash.

Bake for about 15 to 18 minutes or until light golden.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Seker Pare

For days now I had been trying to get myself into the spirit of the holidays. The house had been decorated for about two weeks but I still hadn't gotten into that Christmas-y swing of things.

But nothing says Christmas for me like the smell of cookies and sweets baking away in the oven. So what better way to get into the Christmas mood than to start baking? By the end of the week, I should have ready our traditional family recipes for koulourakia and kourambiedes but to start things off today I decided to try my hand at a new recipe.

This weekend I found myself devouring an issue of a Greek food magazine called "Gastronomos;" an issue which I perused a number of times before but which really grabbed my attention the other day. I was salivating over many, if not all, of the dishes illustrated on the vibrant pages--it was the December 2006 issue of the magazine so, of course, it was dedicated to holiday cooking and the rich food set out against the rich Christmas color palette really brought out the holiday spirit in me.

One of the issue's articles featured Kaiti Koufonikola, owner of Cafe Avissinia in Athens' Monastiraki, cooking at home for the holidays. Kaiti Koufonikola's cooking, according to the article, combines the distinct cuisines of Constantinople and Northern Greece. I think her simple dishes spoke to me the most as the article so successfully illustrated her passion for cooking traditional, no frills recipes and sharing those heartwarming dishes with a large group of family and friends. I related not only to her style of cooking but to her style of entertaining and giving back to those who surround her through life's simple pleasures.

It is my daughter's "name-day" today--Dec. 15--as it is the feast day of St. Eleftherios and I've decided to prepare some of Kaiti Koufonikola's dishes for our family and friends who will visit us this evening. I'll share the rest with you later this week as I have yet to begin cooking (speaking of which, I really should get back to the task at hand) but today I wanted to share this recipe for Seker Pare which I adapted from Kaiti Koufonikola's recipe I found in the pages of "Gastronomos." Seker Pare are delightful "cookies," if you will, made with fine semolina, baked until golden and then soaked in sweet syrup. I love the texture of desserts that call for semolina (ravani being among my favorites) and plan on adding these simple seker pare to our family's holiday baking repertoire.

P.S. I'd like to send these cookies to Susan of Food Blogga for her Eat Christmas Cookies event. All the entries look absolutely delicious and it's a great way to swap cookie recipes and get into the spirit of the holidays. Have a look here!

Kali Orexi!

Seker Pare
(Adapted from a recipe by Kaiti Koufonikola featured in "Gastronomos")
Makes about 36 pieces

2 sticks butter, room temperature
1/2 cup powdered sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 to 3 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/3 cup fine semolina
1/3 cup whole blanched almonds

Whisk together 2 1/2 cups of the flour and baking powder in a bowl and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, incorporating well after each addition. Stir in the semolina and mix until just combined. Add the flour and mix until the dough no longer sticks to the sides of the bowl (use more of the remaining 1/2 cup flour as necessary--I finally used about 2 3/4 cup total).

Heat the oven to 375 degrees and line a cookie sheet with parchment. Form the dough into balls about the size of a walnut shell and place on the parchment lined cookie sheets. Place a whole almond in the center of each ball, pushing it in so only half the almond is showing.

Bake until light golden. In the meantime, heat 2 cups of water with 2 cups of sugar and bring to a boil. Add a 3-inch piece of lemon peel and two vanilla beans, opened and scraped, and simmer mixture until the seker pare are done.
Once the seker pare are removed from the oven, spoon about half the hot syrup over and allow the cookies to sit for about 5 minutes. Spoon the remaining syrup over the sweets and serve at room temperature.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

It's a Pirate's World

As you can probably guess, the theme of my son's birthday party last weekend was ... PIRATES! I had so much fun making invitations, decorating the house, the cupcakes and the cake for this theme--and my son's satisfaction with everything we did and the grisly "AARGH!" he'd exclaim every time he saw a skull and crossbones (he just turned "2" so the way he says it is just so darn cute), was the icing on the cake.

We had quite a few guests: I reiterate, we are a BIG family; add to that a plethora of friends and you've got yourself a kid's birthday party of 17 little ones and 25+ adults (and, for the record, some people didn't make it). Anyhow, we had a great time and I just wanted to share a piece of that with all of you through some of the goodies I got to serve up that afternoon.

There was my version of kopanisti (a cheese spread) which included 1 cup well crumbled feta, 1/2 cup crumbled gorgonzola and two finely chopped hot cherry peppers, mixed well and topped with about 1/3 cup of olive oil (stir the oil in until just barely incorporated). I served this slightly spicy kopanisti with some crackers and toasted pita triangles. I initially made a variation of this on Thanksgiving Day--that version included the feta, gorgonzola along with 4 or 5 pureed roasted tomatoes (cut in half and seeds removed before roasting) and some olive oil. It had a more mellow flavor as opposed to the peppery taste of the other dip.

I also had a white bean dip with thyme, lemon and olive oil; mini pancetta cornbreads; and not letting all those turkey leftovers go to waste, I put together these really yummy wraps of roasted turkey and cranberry apple chutney rolled in a flour tortilla and sliced into thick rounds.

As for the main event, there was beef roasted with thyme and honey, glazed baby carrots, roasted potatoes, turkey tetrazzini, chicken roasted with thyme and oregano, kreatopita and my sister's butternut squash casserole.

I know, I know ... it was a kid's party and yet none of what I just described was kid friendly per se, but my kid's eat things like this on a daily basis so why shouldn't others?! In all honesty, I saw many of the kids enjoying a little bit of everything that was out and that made me happy.

**It was all buffet style and nothing was plated as shown ... that's just for your viewing pleasure!!

Beef Roasted with Thyme and Honey

1 beef rump roast, about 6 1/2 pounds
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium onions, sliced
1 head of garlic, each clove peeled and mashed
5 carrots, cut into large chunks
2 cups red wine
3 cups broth
4 tablespoons thyme honey
6 sprigs fresh thyme

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Rinse beef and pat dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper. Heat oil in large Dutch oven (or roasting pan over two burners) on high heat and then sear the beef until well browned on all sides. Remove the beef to a plate and keep warm. Add the onions, garlic and carrots to the Dutch oven or pan and saute until the onions are softened. Add the wine and deglaze the pan. Stir in the broth, honey and thyme and cook for a minute or so.

Place the beef back into the pan and cover tightly. Once covered, place the pan in the oven and roast for about four hours--turning the meat over a couple of times--until fork tender.


1 pound ground lamb
1 pound ground pork
1/3 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon allspice
5 garlic cloves, minced
Thyme from 4 to 5 fresh sprigs
2 onions, chopped
1/3 cup red wine
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano or Kefalotyri
Grated orange zest (about 1/2 teaspoon or more if to your liking)
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
10 sheets of phyllo
Oil for brushing phyllo
Combine the lamb and pork with half the olive oil, the allspice, the garlic, the thyme, salt and pepper to taste and let sit for about 15 minutes (or 2 hours in the refrigerator, time permitting).
Heat the remaining oil in a large skillet and saute the onions until soft. Transfer the onions to a bowl and the meat mixture. saute until browned. Add the wine and tomato paste and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Add the meat mixture to the reserved onions and stir. Mix in the grated cheese, parsley, orange zest, cinnamon, additional salt and pepper as well as the eggs and mix thoroughly.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 9-inch springform pan. Line the pan with one sheet of phyllo, keeping most of the phyllo to one side of the pan, and brush lightly with oil. Layer pan with remaining sheets of phyllo, alternately overlapping one side of the pan and then the others, brushing each sheet lightly with oil. Add the filling to the pan. Fold the overhanging phyllo up and over the filling, brushing lightly with oil.
Bake for about 1 hour and 20 minutes (if the phyllo browns too quickly, cover with foil). Allow to cool for about 20 to 30 minutes before cutting.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Ready, Set ... Holidays!

Thanksgiving came and went as did my son's second birthday party. Of course, I overcooked, overextended myself and over-thought everything. But in the end I am thrilled that my family and friends all were left satisfied with my efforts and more so with being in each others' company.

I'll admit I was exhausted this Sunday. Cooking and baking for what I thought was going to be a party of just over 20 on Thanksgiving day and then doing it all over again for a party of 45 two days later proved quite tiring. But with a little organization and planning I managed--from decorating; to baking a bunch of desserts, as well as a birthday cake and cupcakes; to cooking up a storm of appetizers and entrees. Not that I didn't have any help: my mom and sisters each brought a bunch of yummy side dishes and desserts on both occasions, but I'll be the first to admit that I am a bit of a control freak and a tad of a perfectionist, so you'll find me at the stove even as my guests are walking through the front door.

As I mentioned the day before Thanksgiving, the highlight of our holiday table was--of course--the turkey (a 24 pounder!) and our traditional stuffing. The stuffing, or "gemisi" as we call it, of Kalymnos is not at all similar to the stuffing of bread cubes and various other ingredients found on most Thanksgiving tables across America. Ours is a combination of rice, ground meat and pine nuts flavored with cinnamon. It is the gemisi we use to stuff the lamb which graces our Easter table every year. But we, as most Kalymnians do, also use it with poultry on other very special occasions. Only I didn't think it wise to stuff my oversized turkey as it already took nearly 5 1/2 hours to cook and most certainly would have needed even more time had it been stuffed. So I made our gemisi as a side dish and, in all honesty, it was just as flavorful. Beyond taste, however, our gemisi is rich with meaning and memories and a much needed staple on our holiday tables.

I kept the turkey simple: placing some butter combined with chopped fresh herbs (parsley and thyme) under the skin; filling the cavity with as many onions, carrots, celery, apples and oranges as it could fit; sprinkling it generously with salt and pepper; and leaving it to cook--without even basting--for nearly 5 1/2 hours. I also let the turkey "rest"--covered with foil--for almost an hour. It was moist and flavorful and I will definitely be making it this way again (maybe just add another herb or two to the butter next time).

Below I'll share my family's recipe for gemisi. Be advised though that our recipe is somewhat of an undocumented family tradition that's been passed on simply by watching grandmothers and mothers use these same ingredients time after time. So in terms of amounts and exact quantities of ingredients, we really go by heart (or gut) and determine what's suitable to each occasion we make this for.

P.S. There were a ton of appetizers out on Thanksgiving Day and a number of other side dishes to accompany our turkey (from this cranberry apple chutney, to thyme roasted potatoes, to my mom's yummy candied sweet potatoes) but ... I failed to take pictures of everything! I'll try to touch on a few of the recipes tomorrow though, when I post a little about all the goodies served for my son's birthday.

Traditional Gemisi from Kalymnos (Rice Stuffing)
Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 medium onions, finely chopped
1 1/2 pounds ground beef
1/2 pound liver (I used turkey/chicken for Thanksgiving, but we use lamb's for Easter), diced
2 cinnamon sticks
3 cups long grain rice
6 tablespoons butter
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper to taste
5 to 6 cups of water (this is if you're only making this on the stove top as opposed to stuffing a chicken or turkey)

Heat olive oil in a large pot and toast pine nuts until just golden. Add the onion and cook until softened. Stir in the liver and ground beef and brown well for a few minutes.
Add the cinnamon sticks and rice, stirring until the rice is well coated. Stir in the butter and the tomato paste and season with salt and pepper. Stir in the water one cup at a time, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and let simmer about 25 minutes until rice is done.