Monday, 26 March 2012

GREEK LENTIL SOUP (Fakés Soupa, Φακές Σούπα)

I have been trying to get around to making Greek lentil soup for a month now. Today was the day. I added lots of soup vegetables to compliment the lentils. I used parsnip and leeks which are not found in traditional versions of Greek lentil soup, but why not amplify its flavour a bit? The amount of tomato used depends on the cook. If you like a really strong lentil flavour, cut down on some of the tomatoes and tomato paste. The important lesson is that anyway it's cooked, lentil soup is always fragrant and tastes oh so good. 

Lentils are very high in protein, dietary fibre, thiamine and iron: they are a very healthy food. Before cooking them, be sure to soak lentils for about an hour. Soaking not only makes them softer for cooking, but also increases their nutritional potency. 


2 cups green lentils
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 onions, divided, chopped
2 leeks, washed very well, white and light green parts, chopped
4 or 5 cloves garlic, smashed, peeled, chopped…I love smashing garlic!
6 stalks celery, chopped
4 carrots chopped
2 medium size tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
optional - 1 parsnip, chopped very thinly, or better yet, grated 
4 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 or 2 tablespoons tomato paste, depending on how "red" you want the soup to be
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (well, I may have used a little more) 
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon dried Greek oregano  
6 cups of vegetable stock or filtered water, plus additional liquid  as needed
optional - vinegar to be served on the side 
optional - some grated Pecorino Romano cheese to top the soup if you're like me and do not like vinegar 

Lots of vegetables in this soup...  More than can be seen in the photograph! 

  • Pick over the lentils to make sure there are no small rocks or other debris mixed in.  Rinse them and place them in a large bowl.  Cover them with water.  Let them sit in the water for about one hour.  Drain and reserve. You'll notice that as the lentils soak and absorb water they will start to turn greener than they were in their dry state.
  • Heat the olive oil in a large heavy Dutch oven and sauté one of the onions, the leeks, and the garlic for 10 minutes.  (You may think we are using a lot of leeks and onions, but you'll see that they will decrease in volume as they are being  sautéed). Turn off the heat. 
  • Add the other onion, the celery, parsnip, tomatoes, carrots, thyme, and 2 tablespoons of the parsley. Mix well
  • Add the drained lentils and mix well.  
  • Add the liquid, the tomato paste, and the bay leaf.  Season with salt and pepper, turn up the heat and bring to a boil. 
  • Cover, reduce the heat and simmer for about an hour. If the heat is on low and you are using a heavy Dutch oven, you don't even need to lift the lid and stir the soup. Just let it simmer.
  • After an hour check on the soup, give it a good stir and add the oregano. Taste it and season with more salt and pepper if needed. It will probably need to cook for another 15 to 20 minutes.
  • At the end of the cooking time add the rest of the parsley.  You may need to add more liquid to bring the soup to the consistency you prefer.
I served it with toasted olive fougasse bread.  It was bakery bought and  excellent!
  • Serve the lentil soup hot.  Offer some vinegar at the table because it's a tradition to top the soup with vinegar. 
  • This was a great Sunday dinner!  

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


This fruit salad which I served as dessert was a big hit at my house!  If you're looking for a quick dessert, this is it: fresh, healthy, sweet, delicious! Everyone had seconds.  There was only a small portion left, and it got polished off the next day for breakfast.  Here's how to make Tropical Fruit Salad:


1 pineapple, peeled, cored and sliced into chunks
1 mango, peeled and sliced into chunks
1/4 cantaloupe, peeled and sliced into chunks
3 kiwis, peeled and sliced into rounds
1 pound of strawberries, hulled and cut in half if they are too large
2 bananas, sliced
juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons honey, or use a vegan substitute
1/2 cup sweetened coconut,
1/2 cup dates, pitted and cut in pieces


  • In a large bowl combine all the pineapple, mango, and cantaloupe.  This is the base. 
  • Mix the strawberries and kiwis and add on top of the base.  
  • Cover and refrigerate the bowl if you want to make the fruit salad ahead of time for company.  
  • Right before serving, slice the bananas and add. You want to add the bananas at the last minute, otherwise they will become mushy and start to get discolored.  
  • Carefully fold in the dates, lemon juice, honey, and coconut.  
  • Guess what?  That's it!  You're done!  Serve and enjoy! 

Tuesday, 20 March 2012


I've read a considerable amount about Sri Lankan cooking and Sri Lankan ingredients. I feel comfortable enough to call this recipe my own, although I borrowed ideas from about a dozen sources. However, the final combinations are mine, and I am so happy I was able to do this. I loved the way it tasted. The key here is not to overcook the vegetables. 

When having dinner, Sri Lankans set the table with a variety of dishes that range from mild to really spicy. Usually, vegetable curries are mild but they do provide an another type of heat; the combination of spices tends to raise the body's metabolism. Vegetable and Cashew Curry is a nice accompaniment to Aromatic Sri Lankan Rice. Or vice versa. 


3 tablespoons avocado oil
5 curry leaves
2 cloves garlic, chopped well
1/8 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 cup water or vegetable broth

1/3 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup cashew nuts
1/4 teaspoon turmeric

2 carrots, cut up
1/2 medium head cauliflower, cut into florets 
1 cup of frozen peas (or fresh peas if available)

1 red onion, chopped

Sri Lankan Garam Masala; What follows is a basic combination. Sri Lankan Garam Masala is not roasted so it can be prepared on the spot, no need to make it way ahead of time (unless you want to): 
1 stick of cinnamon, cut into about 4 pieces, a few ground up black peppercorns, 1 ground up clove, 1 ground cardamon pod

2 tablespoons cilantro, chopped, or use Italian parsley (sorry) if you are (as I am) allergic to cilantro (for life). 
Juice of one lime
Rind from one lime

  • In a medium saucepan add about one tablespoon oil and saute the curry leaves, garlic and mustard seeds. Sauté until the mustard seeds begin to pop.  
  • Add the water or vegetable broth, coconut milk, turmeric, and cashews. Mix and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat and cook for 15 minutes until the cashews are soft. 
  • Add the carrots and cook for 5 minutes. Add the cauliflower and cook until it starts to soften. Last, but not least, add the peas; they will not require a long cooking time.
  • Don't overcook the vegetables. Remove from the heat.  
  • Meanwhile, as the vegetables are cooking, get a large saucepan and add the rest of the oil to it. Place it over a medium-high heat, and when the oil gets hot add the onions. Sauté, mixing occasionally, until the onions are soft.
  • Add some all or all of the Sri Lankan Garam Masala.  
  • Add the cauliflower mixture and shake to combine. 
  • Add the cilantro (or parsley), lime rind and lime juice, and fold gently. 
  • Ready!!!

Monday, 19 March 2012


This Sri Lankan Aromatic Rice is one of the best rice dishes I have ever made or tasted! Highly recommended! It is truly fragrant, and truly delicious. The stars of the dish are, I think, the coconut milk and the curry leaves. These two ingredients are also the stars of Sri Lankan cuisine. They are used in most dishes and contribute excellent flavours.

 A curry tree with its beautiful leaves.  The area around these trees must be really fragrant!  Will I ever visit? (picture from Wikipedia).

Curry leaves should not be confused with curry powder. Curry leaves grow on curry trees and are used as an ingredient in curries. Their flavour is unique and citrusy, a little bit reminiscent of limes. Some people say one can substitute bay leaves for them, but I don't think the tastes are even close.  

Curry leaves are available in Indian markets. Since I live in one of Philadelphia's western suburbs, I visit the nearby township of Upper Darby and buy my curry leaves at a very nice shop called "Indian Super Market and Grocery." It's located on Market Street, near the 69th Street Terminal. 

Let me digress for a minute: Below I have some pictures of historical 69th Street!

That's a newer pedestrian walkway bridge at 69th street, and behind it is the McClatchy building, built in 1926. This building is the cornerstone to a large open shopping area built around the same time; It was the first shopping area of its kind in the US.

A very fine example of art deco architecture: another view of the McClatchy building.  

The 69th street terminal when it was first constructed in 1908.  It was known as the gateway to Philadelphia's western suburbs, which saw a great surge in development after the terminal was built.  The Philadelphia El, or Elevated Railway, the interurbans, trolleys and streetcars all passed by here. The nearby shopping area was a convenient stop for those passengers changing trains. Today most all trolley routes are gone. Only two remain: 69th Street to Media, Pa, and 69th Street to Norristown, PA. The El also remains. Buses are abundant. The facade of the Terminal looks the same but the interior has been renovated. The trolley tracks seen in the foreground have been removed. 

If you don't live near an area where you can find an Indian supermarket, do an internet search. I found a nice site with very reasonable prices that will ship spices and curry leaves from Hawaii. 


2 cups white basmati rice
10 curry leaves
1 cinnamon stick, cut in half
5 cloves
1 onion chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, grated
4 tablespoons avocado oil
1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 cup of coconut milk
5 cups water 

a few cashews and some peas for decoration


Tear up some of the curry leaves. During cooking this will readily release their oils, allowing them to better perfume the rice. 

Place the rice in a strainer and wash it well. Allow it to drain for about 20 minutes so that it can dry. While the rice is draining prepare the mise en place. 

In a large pot heat the oil and add the curry leaves, cinnamon stick and cloves. Cook for about a minute until fragrant.

Add the onions, ginger and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes. 

Add the rice, turmeric and cardamom.

Sauté for about 3-4 minutes until the rice turns opaque in colour. Stir frequently so that it does not burn but rather has a chance to become toasted. 

Add the water and coconut milk, bring to a boil, cover and lower the heat to simmer.

Cook until the liquid evaporates and the rice is soft. 

Near the end of cooking I added a few cashews, and later I added just a few peas 
for decoration.

You may need to adjust the amount of liquid that used. It all depends on the rice, I suppose. Taste it and make sure it's soft. You don't want a crunchy rice, so if it's still crunchy keep adding liquid. Also, make sure your heat is on medium. Not too high, not too low.

When done, fish out the cinnamon stick pieces and the cloves if you can find them. Or, you may decide to leave them in and to eat your way around them, because they look kind of pretty and decorative in the rice. 

This rice will serve about six hungry people. You can serve it just as is, or garnish it further with some cashew nuts, sautéed onions, and peas. In my case, I chose to serve it with a Vegetable and Cashew Curry.

Sunday, 18 March 2012


This is my contribution to Novel Food, a quarterly literary/culinary event hosted by Simone from Briciole.  We prepare a dish of our choosing that has a connection to a published literary work, and then we publish a post about it. Show the food, talk about what we have read. Simple as that. Well, I went outside of my comfort zone this time. No, not where the reading was concerned. I read Michael Ondaatje’s beautiful novel “The Cat’s Table,” a subtly powerful work conveyed in language that reached into the core of me, there to stay.
Michael Ondaatje 

The author, made famous when he published “The English Patient,” is a native of Sri Lanka. So I thought I would try to cook a few dishes of Sri Lankan origin. Sorry to say, I had never before tasted nor cooked Sri Lankan. I went on a culinary adventure, one outside my comfort zone, and I am glad I did. I learned quite a bit about southern Indian cooking ingredients and cuisine. 

“The Cat’s Table” is about an 11-year-old boy, “green as he could be about the world,” who takes an indelible sea voyage in the early 1950s.  If the captain's table is the sought after place to sit on a sea voyage, then Ondaatje's cat's table is just the opposite: one of the least privileged dining assignments aboard the cruise ship Oronsay. The table is populated by an assortment of eccentric characters, and the invisibility that the cat's table bestows upon them allows them to behave more or less as they wish. The ship is sailing from Colombo, Sri Lanka, to England, a twenty-one day journey by way of the Suez Canal. Among the nine passengers at the cat's table sit three dissimilar boys sailing toward a reunion with parents they have not seen in years.  The young "Mynah" or Michael, is the narrator, Cassius, is a seemingly tough guy, and Ramadhin, is a frail and thoughtful type. The three become fast friends and join together to form a feral group that becomes the terror of the ship. They seem to be everywhere; they can be found having breakfast in a lifeboat or wandering around the furnace rooms. Somehow they know everything that goes on in the ship, and they slip in and out of adventures and dangerous situations. They snoop, they eavesdrop, and whatever they cannot understand due to lack of maturity, they store in their imagination and allow it to come to fruition there. What they see and learn on the Oronsay shapes their adult lives. The Cat's table is a novel of painful journeys and passages: Away from childhood into an adult world, and away from home into a strange country. Highly recommended!
I made three dishes to celebrate this wonderful novel, and they are as follows:

All these recipes appear in separate posts. Just follow the links!

Friday, 16 March 2012


Do you like green eggs and ham? If you do, I have the perfect green egg salad for you. It turns green when avocado is mixed in the recipe. The other day I mixed half an avocado with an egg and a little mayonnaise. It tasted pretty good, so I got the idea of combining the ingredients to make a salad. Below you'll find the recipe I came up with. Now you might say that the salad looks like guacamole, but it doesn't taste like it. It has its own unique taste. Mild. There is no garlic, there are no spices. Also, because of the eggs, the salad is high in protein. my green egg and avocado salad is tasty, mild, and can be had as a sandwich or it can be scooped on a bed of lettuce leaves and enjoyed that way. There's enough to make 4 sandwiches.

Green Nutrition: Avocados are very high in potassium, vitamin E and fibre. Studies show they can lower blood cholesterol in both LDL and triglyceride levels. Currently, avocados are under research for potential anti-cancer activity. 

3 or 4 hard-boiled eggs 
about 2 tablespoons olive oil mayonnaise 
½ teaspoon Dijon mustard 
2 tablespoons lemon juice 
1 stalk celery, chopped 
2 scallions, chopped, white and light green parts only
1 teaspoon capers, rinsed and chopped 
1 ripe avocado, chopped 
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon dill, chopped
salt and pepper to taste 
Romaine lettuce and tomato slices 
Whole wheat bread slices, which are my favourite, or use your own favourite, toasted if you like 


  • In a large bowl mash the eggs and fold in the avocado, celery, scallion, dill and parsley. 
  • Stir in the mayonnaise, mustard, and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. 
  • Toast the bread slices and then top half of them with egg/avocado salad. 
  • Add the lettuce and tomato and top with the rest of the bread.  
  • Enjoy it!!!

Thursday, 15 March 2012

EGGPLANT TURNOVERS – Bourekas de berengena or Borekitas de meredjena

Before we get on with the recipe, why not enjoy a special treat? Keep reading my darlings...
Today is March 15. Which means that...
It's the IDES OF MARCH today!!!
Let's take a few minutes to commemorate this very important day! First, we'll read a few lines from Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," and then we'll listen to a lovely song.

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry "Caesar!" Speak, Caesar is turn'd to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

What man is that?

A soothsayer bids you beware the ides of March."

Yes, it's the ides of March, today!  A day made famous by the "bard of Stratford-upon-Avon."  Why not spend the day brushing up on your Shakespeare?  "Start quoting him now! Brush up your Shakespeare, and they'll all kow-tow! Forsooth!!!"

And now, for the cooking part of today's post:

I am a native of Thessaloniki Greece, as some of you who read this blog may know.  That’s why I was interested in this recipe for eggplant turnovers or bourekas.  They are a specialty of the Sephardic community of Thessaloniki, and anything Thessaloniki related intrigues me!  

Recently I was doing a Greek web search for appetizer recipes, and I came upon a post which announced the publication of a Sephardic cook book (written in Greek), titled “Tastes from Sephardic Thessaloniki, Recipes of the Jews of Thessaloniki,” by Nina Benroubi, published in 2002.  The author shared this bourekas recipe, which includes eggplant, a vegetable that she characterized as the “star” of Sephardic cooking. 

There was other information in the post as well, and I’ve translated some of it so that I can include it here.  The Sephardic Jews moved to Thessaloniki in the 15th century, after they were expelled from the Iberian peninsula.  With them they brought a plethora of knowledge that had up to then eluded Ottoman held lands, such as was Greece.  (The Ottoman Turks were never interested in intellectual pursuits, and under their authoritarian rule progress was stifled. This led to the exodus of learned Greeks, who fled westward and were responsible for the flowering of the Renaissance).  The Jews brought with them to Greece knowledge in textile making, printing, medicine, and map making among other things. Soon they breathed new life into the city of Thessaloniki. The Sephardic community developed to such a degree that Thessaloniki was referred to as “Madre de Israel.” The Jews flourished there until World War II and the German occupation, when sadly, 96.5% of them perished. 

Here are some characteristics of Sephardic cuisine: a limited use of spices, a total absence of garlic, a coating of ingredients with egg before frying, and preparation of dough in hot water and oil.  It’s a Mediterranean cuisine, with Greek, Arabic, Spanish, Italian and Ottoman influences (the word bourekas has its roots in the Ottoman language, where it means pastries). All these facts combine to provide one of the more interesting chapters in gastronomic history.

I made the dough as per instructions, by adding the flour in hot water and oil. The final result was fantastic.  The dough was supple and smooth and soft. Lovely!  It didn't disappoint after it was cooked.  A great tasting dough, that can be used with many different fillings. Below I include the recipe for these bourekas. In English.  Translated and cooked to perfection.  By the way, in Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews, the name of this recipe is Borekitas de meredjéna.  

For the dough:
½ cup canola oil
4 tablespoons butter
½ cup water
3 to 3 ½ cups all purpose flour
2 ounces Greek yogurt
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 egg yolk beaten with a small quantity of water, to use as eggwash
Sesame seeds for topping
  • Place a medium pot over low heat and add the oil, water and butter.  Leave on the heat, mixing occasionally until the ingredients are warm and the butter has melted.  Mix in the sugar and salt.
  • Turn off the heat and gradually stir in one cup of the flour.  Mix in the yogurt and then gradually add the rest of the flour to make a soft, slightly greasy dough. Mix only until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl.  Do not over-mix. Gather the dough into a ball and cover it with plastic wrap.  Initially I used a fork for mixing, and then, as more flour was added, I let my hands take over.
  • Let the dough rest while preparing the filling.

Make the filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil
2 eggplants
1 small onion, chopped fine
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
¾ cups feta cheese
¼ cup ricotta cheese
1 egg, beaten
salt and pepper to taste
about a tablespoon of breadcrumbs(optional)

  • Place the eggplants on a sheet pan and roast them at 400°F for 30-40 minutes, or until their flesh is soft.  Cut them open and scrape out the flesh, then place it in a colander.  Squeeze the eggplant flesh with your hands to press out as much excess liquid as possible.
  • Chop the eggplant into small pieces and put it into a bowl. 
  • Sauté the onions in the olive oil until they are very soft.  Add them to the eggplant, leaving behind any oil that has not cooked off.  Add the parsley, the salt and pepper, and mix.
  • Add the cheeses and the egg.  Mix everything really well.
  • If the filling is too moist, mix in a few breadcrumbs so that they can absorb the moisture.
 To assemble:
  • Tear small pieces from the dough and roll them into balls, each the size of a walnut. Roll each ball into a circular shape 3 inches in diameter. No need to use flour when rolling out the dough.    
  • Place a tablespoon of filling at one end of each circle. 
  • Then fold the other end over.  Press down the edges and decorate them with a fork.

    • Place the bourekas one inch apart on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Prick them with a fork to allow steam to escape while baking. 
    •  Brush them with eggwash and sprinkle some sesame seeds over them.  Bake at 375° F for 30–35 minutes until golden brown and crisp.
    • Serve hot or at room temperatureAlternately, you can make the bourekas ahead of time.  Once they have gone on the baking sheets you can cover them with plastic wrap and freeze them, taking them out and baking them a day or two later. 

    Monday, 12 March 2012


    Limes and pistachios...  There's lots of green in the recipe, so it's a perfect dessert to make for St. Patrick's day. Cut it into small pieces and serve it to all your friends who truly are or pretend to be leprechauns!  This creamy, smooth dessert with a crunchy pistachio and graham cracker crust is a cross between a Key Lime Pie and the traditional Lemon Bars. It has a citrusy flavour and it's both sweet and tart. I repeat: it's citrusy and it has that lime aroma and taste which lend to it a unique and complex flavour. The coconut and the pistachios provide crunchiness. There are lots of flavours and textures mixed in these bars, and I recommend them highly! They're delicious! 

    about as fancy as I can get with my photo editing talent ...


    • For the Crust

      • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled, plus more for the pan
      • 1 cup shelled pistachios 
      • 1 cup (4 ounces) graham cracker crumbs 
      • grated lime zest from 3 key limes 
    • For the Filling

      • 3 large egg yolks
      • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
      • 2/3 cup fresh lime juice
      • grated zest of one lime
      • chopped pistachios 
      • 1 or 2 tablespoons of grated coconut


    • Preheat the oven to 350° F. Brush an 8-inch square baking dish with melted butter, and line the bottom with parchment paper. The butter will hold the paper in place. Cut the parchment paper 8 inches wide and at least 12 inches long, so that it hangs over the sides of the pan. This will help lift the bars out easily. It's important to have the parchment in place, otherwise, the dessert won't lift out of the pan. Also, do use an 8-inch baking dish, because there won't be enough topping if the pan is larger.
    • Break up the graham crackers into small pieces and place them in a food processor. Add the pistachios and the lime zest. Grind finely and then blend in the butter. 
    • Press the mixture into the bottom of the prepared pan. 
    • Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes.  
    Make the filling: 
    • In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and the condensed milk. Add the lime juice and lime zest and whisk until smooth. 
    • Pour the filling onto the cooled crust and carefully spread to the edges.  The filling will be a thin layer, but it will puff up during baking. 
    • Bake until set, about 15 to 20 minutes. About five minutes before the dessert is done baking take it out of the oven and sprinkle the coconut and pistachios over the top. Finish baking. 
    • When done, cool in the pan for 30 minutes. Then, move to the refrigerator and chill for two hours before serving. Once you're ready to serve, use the parchment paper overhang and lift the dessert out of the pan. Transfer to a cutting board and using a serrated knife cut into 16 to 20 squares, wiping the knife with a paper towel between each cut.  

    These key lime squares are based on a recipe by Martha Stewart.

    Thursday, 8 March 2012


    What's in the packets?  I got some parchment paper and wrapped my lunch in them.  Looking, cute, my delicious wrap sandwich, all wrapped up! Here's a picture of what's inside:

     I made these for lunch twice.  The first time without feta cheese, and the second time with feta cheese. With is the way to go!

    Get your favourite sandwich wrap and lay it flat on a cutting board. Spread the surface with hummus, then sprinkle chopped parsley on top. Meanwhile toast some sunflower seeds, a few pumpkin seeds and some pine nuts. When they become fragrant take them out of the oven and scatter them on the surface of your wrap.

    Top with olives that have been pitted and cut in half.  I used Kalamata, olive cured, and green olives from Mount Athos. 

    Peel and slice half an avocado.  Spread that on one side of the wrap.

    Top the avocado with half of a sliced tomato. Season the whole surface with oregano, and some freshly ground black pepper.

    Get some feta cheese, crumble it, and spread it on top of the tomatoes. Try not to buy pre-crumbled feta. It is made up from whatever pieces have been leftover or sank to the bottom of the cheese barrel and it's usually dry and very, very salty. Instead, buy feta that is sold in blocks (do you know that you can desalinate feta by soaking it in water for about fifteen minutes to half an hour? If you find that feta is too salty for you, soak it in some water and then rinse it well. Store it in an airtight container in the refrigerator, so that it stays fresh and doesn't dry out). 

    Top the feta with salad greens.

    Now comes the time to wrap.  Start with the end that has all the vegetables on it, and wrap the sandwich firmly.  Remember: you're the boss!

    Trim off the edges and cut in half.

    Get some parchment paper and some kitchen twine and make two nice parcels out of the sandwiches.

    Take them with you for lunch. Eat one for lunch and give the other to a friend. Or, save the second piece for the end of the workday, to eat before your drive home. That way you won't be too ravenous when dinner time comes. And ...


    Thursday, 1 March 2012

    ONE LAGANA, TWO LAGANES (λαγάνα, λαγάνες): A Greek Bread for Lent

    Every year, on Clean Monday, comes the time to make laganes (that's the plural form of the word lagana). Laganes are a type of crunchy, semi leavened bread that's eaten by Greeks only once a year, on Clean Monday. But what does "Clean Monday" mean?

    Let's set up the scene:  Apokriés, Αποκριές (the word means "saying goodbye to meat"), is the name for the Greek Mardi Gras (Carnival). It's a time of revelry, eating, dancing, drinking and masquerading. Pranksters rule. Carnival has its roots in pagan antiquity when it was a celebration of spring and rebirth. The early Christian church incorporated Carnival into its calendar, therefore, two millennia later it's still one big, huge celebration, lasting for almost one week and ending late into the night on Cheese Sunday. Yes, I said Cheese Sunday. No, there are no contests to see who can cut the most cheese (forgive me) although who knows, now that I have mentioned it, it may become a trend. Cheese Sunday is so named because the custom is to eat cheese and dairy products as a final treat prior to the beginning of Lent.  

    As the next day dawns, it's time to greet Clean Monday, a day of fasting. After all that partying, a day of fasting is sorely needed. A nice long bath too, so that one is really clean on Clean Monday. However, bathing is not the raison d'etre for Clean Monday. The day ushers in the Greek Orthodox Great Lent, which lasts about 40 days. For those who observe it, Lent is a period of fasting, reflecting, and repenting. It ends on the movable feast that is Easter Sunday. Therefore, Clean Monday is so named because it's a day to cleanse the soul. In Greece, it's a public holiday. The weather is still nippy and windy, and since people have off from work they venture out to parks and to the countryside, and it's a custom to take the kids along and fly kites. What's on the dinner table? Well, Greek fasting is a very serious business. During a fast, the Orthodox church forbids eating meat, dairy or eggs. Basically, one has to become a vegan during religious fasts. On major feast days such as Clean Monday, the eating of shellfish is allowed. One popular dish to eat is mussels with rice. Another eating tradition is the lagana, a bread which contains a only a small amount of yeast.  

    Laganes are eaten once and only once a year, on this day, and are kind of synonymous with Clean Monday. People line up at bakeries early in the morning to buy them, hangover or no hangover left over from "Cheese" Sunday. By mid-afternoon, the laganes are sold out and the bakery shelves are empty. Here in the US, we have to make due by baking them at home, a job which is really not that hard. The result is so worth it! This was my first try at baking laganes and they came out great!!! Even my mother loved them, and she's very hard to please. She said they were better than hers, and now she wants my recipe. Well, mother, I got the recipe out of a cookbook that you gave me as a gift all those years ago. Remember? That large volume with the beautiful pictures I asked you to buy for me in Greece? Here's the recipe: 


    1 tablespoon yeast
    1 cup warm water
    4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more flour for dusting
    1/2 cup of good vegetable oil
    2 teaspoons sugar plus a pinch of sugar
    1 teaspoon of salt
    3 tablespoons sesame seeds
    olive oil for brushing the loaves

    Decorate by pressing your fingertips into the dough so that dots are formed. Push hard to make deep indentations that won’t disappear as the laganes bake. Prior to baking, brush the tops of the loaves with olive oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. 


    • Sprinkle the yeast into the warm water and add the pinch of sugar. Leave it for about 20 to 30 minutes until the yeast comes alive and begins to foam.
    • Into a large bowl sift the flour with the salt and sugar.
    • Make a well in the centre of the flour and pour in the oil plus the water with the yeast. Mix with your hands to incorporate, and start creating the dough.  If it’s too dry you will need to add a little more water.
    • Move the dough to a floured surface in order to begin kneading it. Keep kneading until it’s soft and no longer sticky; at that point, it's ready to be formed into loaves. 
    • The loaves can be round or oblong in shape, but they have to be flat, about ½ an inch high. Place them on baking sheets and cover them with clean kitchen towels. In about an hour they should double in size. If not, let them sit a while longer. The leavening process depends a lot on the temperature of the room.  
    • Decorate the loaves by pressing the tips of your fingers into them so that dots are formed. Push hard so as to make deep indentations that won’t disappear as the laganes bake.  Brush the tops of the loaves with olive oil and sprinkle with sesame seeds. 
    • Bake in a preheated 375ºF/190ºC oven for about 35 minutes, until they are golden. Halfway through baking rotate the pans, and if you like, brush a little more oil on the tops of the loaves.  
    • The laganes will have that unbelievable, indescribable freshly baked bread aroma. Isn't irresistible? Eat them the same day while they are fresh. They won't taste as good the next day. If you have some left over, what you can do is freeze them. They will last in the freezer for a good two months.