Thursday, 24 January 2013

WHOLE WHEAT RAISIN WALNUT BREAD


A very delicious and nutritious whole wheat bread, loaded with raisins and walnuts, with a crunchy, sweet taste. The kind of bread you can't say no to. Freshly baked bread on a winter's day, what a special treat!


First off, I bought a bag of 10-grain bread mix, which is made by Bob's Red Mill and makes great bread. This brand can be found at most supermarkets and it can also be ordered through Amazon. I added some whole wheat flour, some high gluten bread flour, some sunflower seeds, and some wheat germ. By the time I got through combining, I think my bowl contained pretty much every type of flour available. This was a very easy bread to make; I just had to be patient while the dough was rising. The wait was worth it!  


Ingredients:

1 bag (19 ounces) 10-grain bread mix (remove the yeast package that comes inside the bag)
10 ounces whole wheat flour
6 ounces bread flour
5 tablespoons sunflower seeds
4 tablespoons wheat germ
 tablespoons active dried yeast (use the envelope that comes with the bread mix, that’s one tablespoon, and then use more active dry yeast from your own supply)  
4 tablespoons honey
Approximately 20 ounces of warm water
8 ounces roughly chopped walnuts
6 ounces raisins
some bread flour for dusting


Directions:
  • In a large bowl mix the flours with the sunflower seeds, wheat germ and salt. Add the walnuts and raisins and mix again.
  • In a small bowl, using a spoon, mix the yeast, honey and warm water until well incorporated.   
  • Add the yeast mixture to the flour and knead by hand. When a dough has formed turn onto a surface sprinkled with bread flour and start kneading. 
  • Add a little extra water if needed to produce a soft but not too sticky dough, or add a little flour if the dough is too sticky. Continue kneading until the dough is smooth and springs back when pressed with a finger.
  • Place in a large bowl, brush the top with a little oil and cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel.  
  • Leave in a warm place and let rise until the dough has almost doubled in size. For me, it took 4 hours. It was a very cold day, with the temperature around 20°F. The kitchen was warm, but I think the low outside temperature had an impact on the time it took for the dough to rise. 
  • Lightly dust with bread flour and knead again, pressing down on the bubbles that have been created in the dough.
  • Preheat the oven to 325°F/150°C.
  • Shape into loaves, and lay on a baking sheet that has been sprinkled with a little bread flour or cornmeal. Sprinkle the loaves with some flour and score them. Cover and let rise for about an hour.
  • Place the tray on the middle shelf of the oven, spray the interior of the oven with a quick spritz of water (or place a small ovenproof dish filled with water on the floor of the oven).  
  • Close the oven door and immediately raise the temperature to 350°F/180°C.
  • Bake for 30–35 minutes or until crisp and dark golden in colour. 

Sunday, 20 January 2013

TRAHANA SOUP


Trahana soup! I like its milky, somewhat sour flavour (think of sourdough bread), and its thick, creamy consistency.  I'm getting over a cold and each spoonful of this soup I take feels like soothing balm for my achy throat.  

Trahana is not well known outside Greece. It’s a popular pasta-like product that’s turned into winter soups or used to thicken recipes. Today’s  Greek chefs have devised novel ways of cooking it. One way is to use it as a side dish with meats such as lamb.  They combine it with tomato sauce and a little cinnamon, and it’s quite delectable that way. However, nothing beats trahana made into soup! 

Trahana is a healthful grain product made from crushed wheat and milk. As far as food groups go, it falls under the category of pasta, but it’s a type of pasta that is very high in protein due to its milk content.  Made by Greek farmers since antiquity, it’s a way of preserving milk for the winter. Its unique sour taste is achieved through fermentation and drying. The fermentation produces lactic acid which lowers the trahana’s pH. The drying process reduces moisture content. Therefore, fermentation and drying allow trahana to be kept for a long time because it has been rendered inhospitable to pathogens. 

The time to start making trahana is in early fall after the harvest is done. Milk, usually goat’s milk, is poured into churns and made into yoghurt. It’s switched into clean churns daily with more and more milk added each time. Once the milk has fermented, wheat is mixed in along with lemon juice and a few spices. In some regions vegetables are also incorporated into the mix. The concoction is then boiled until it sets and forms a solid dough. The dough is cut into small pieces and placed onto large tables covered with cloth. Protective tulle is used to cover the dough. The tables are taken outside so that the trahana can dry in the hot sun. Usually, there is a designated person such as a child whose job is to guard the trahana from the elements and from animals. If there is no one to guard it, the trahana is moved indoors.
    
Trahana Dough made by my cousin!

Setting it out to dry

Below, the trahana has been ground up over a sieve and allowed to dry one last time.  This tahana was lovingly made by my cousin Serafia who lives in Greece.


One of its distinctive properties is that when it’s cooked it becomes creamy and thick.  


These days, trahana is available commercially. Look for it in Greek and Middle Eastern markets, or find it through the internet. It’s just as good as the homemade variety (well, almost), and it’s not expensive at all. I should note that in certain regions of Greece a second variety is made, one that's sweet. The most popular and best sweet trahana comes from the island of Crete. There’s no sour taste to it, it’s made from whole wheat, and has actual pieces of wheat kernels in it! Excellent, but not easy to find unless one goes looking for it while in Crete.
Trahana comes in sweet and sourdough varieties. In my opinion, sourdough is the best way to go! Above, a bag of trahana sold by Greek Internet Market.  
It's also available through Titan Foods, a large Greek grocery store in Astoria NY. 

Ingredients:

4 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion chopped well
1 or 2 scallions chopped
6 ounces mushrooms, chopped, pick your favourite varieties
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves
1 cup sour trahana
1/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons grated Pecorino Romano cheese
black pepper to taste
6 cups of liquid, a combination of vegetable broth and water or use plain water
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil



Directions:

  • In a skillet heat the olive oil and add the garlic, scallions and onions. 
  •  Cook for a few minutes, and then add the mushrooms and the thyme.  
  • Cook, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes, until the onions have started to get brown and the mushrooms are soft. 
  • Remove from the heat and reserve.
  • Into a soup pot, add the liquid and bring to a boil.  
  • Pour in the trahana and lower the heat.  
  • Simmer for about 15 minutes until the soup thickens. Stir occasionally so that no lumps are created. 
  • You're looking for the consistency of soup, therefore, if it gets too thick, add some more liquid.
  • Add the cheeses, the olive oil and the reserved mushrooms and continue cooking for another 5 to 10 minutes. 
  • Ladle it into soup bowls and serve it while it’s hot.    
I don't mind leftovers ... Tarama tends to thicken because it keeps absorbing its cooking liquid.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

SPICED PUMPKIN CHEESECAKE with ORANGE-GINGERSNAP CRUST



Mr Cardinal, what do you think of my pumpkin cheesecake?  Is it rich, sweet and moist, with a velvety cream cheese softness and with pumpkin and cinnamon-spice overtones?  Is it all that and more, is it exactly what a pumpkin cheesecake should look and taste like?  I think Mr Cardinal is saying yes. 

  
Last year this recipe came out kind of mushy. Good taste but mushy texture. Lovely topping, lovely crust, but the pumpkin and cheese part secretly wanted to be soup and were only pretending at being a cheesecake. I learned a valuable lesson: Don't rush when baking. Allow yourself plenty of time. Measure ingredients carefully. And if you only make pumpkin cheesecake once a year like I do, rely on your notes for the recipe and don't try to wing it.  Because if a year has gone by since you last made this, chances are you won't remember what you're supposed to be winging.
  


Ah, the joy a two-year-old brings to one's life...  Gracie and dad Joe are opening up Christmas presents!




Our Layla celebrates her birthday on December 26th.  That's one of the several cakes she got for her 17th birthday.  And my nephew, Alex, would not let go of the Bauer hockey stick I gave him for Christmas.  Had it taped and ready to use.  My brother had to hide it so that we could all sit down to dinner.

Starting as early as late August, a large variety of pumpkin flavoured foods begin to make their appearance.  There's pumpkin coffee, pumpkin bread, pumpkin ice cream or yoghurt, my supermarket even sells pumpkin-and-spice flavoured almonds.  How about some beef stew in a pumpkin?  Forget all that. In my opinion, when it comes to pumpkin, nothing beats the comforting and familiar taste of pumpkin cheesecake.  I make one either at Thanksgiving or Christmas, perfect times in the year to enjoy the flavour of pumpkin. The recipe I use is one I've stayed with for a long time because it makes a sumptuous, rich, large cheesecake, perfect to enjoy with company. It has a smooth and velvety texture into which is incorporated the subtle flavour of pumpkin. Complementary spices and an orange flavoured gingersnap crust harmonize together to enhance the taste of the cheesecake.  The topping is made with vanilla scented sour cream.  What could be better?  So now, without further ado, here's the recipe:


Spiced Pumpkin Cheesecake with Orange-Gingersnap Crust


1 cup graham cracker crumbs
1 cup crushed good quality gingersnap cookies
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup finely chopped pecans
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

For the pumpkin cheesecake filling:
2 cups canned solid pack pumpkin (plain pumpkin, not seasoned pie filling)
2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin
3 tablespoons water
1/2 cup heavy whipping cream
3 (8 ounce) packets cream cheese
1 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
6 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the sour cream topping:  
1 cup sour cream
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions:

To make the crust:
  • Preheat the oven to 350°F, with the rack in the centre of the oven. Keep the oven on while making the cake.  Have all the ingredients ready and at room temperature.
  • Grease a 9-inch springform pan and wrap the outside well, using 2 layers of heavy-duty aluminium foil.  
  • In a medium-sized bowl combine the graham cracker crumbs, crushed ginger cookies, sugar, and melted butter.  (If you like, save about 2 tablespoons of the mixture to use as decoration for the top of the cheesecake). 
  • Press the crumb mixture evenly on the bottom and sides of the pan.  Bake for 10 minutes, until the crust is almost firm when pressed.  Transfer to a wire rack to let cool while the filling is prepared.
To make the filling:
  • Wrap the springform pan base with aluminium foil; the cheesecake will be baked in a water bath, therefore the foil will keep water from entering the pan. 
  • Remove the excess moisture from the pumpkin: line a large colander with several layers of paper towels. Spoon the pumpkin onto the towels. Top with more layers of paper towels and press down to squeeze as much liquid as possible from the pumpkin. Repeat until the pumpkin resembles a paste. 
  • In a microwave safe bowl add the water and over it sprinkle the gelatin. Stir and let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in the cream and microwave for 1 minute. Make sure the gelatin is completely dissolved. Stir again and set aside.
  • In the bowl of a mixer combine the cream cheese, the sugars, the ginger, the cinnamon and the allspice. Beat on low, gradually increasing the speed to medium. Beat for 5 minutes, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl as needed.
  • Beat in the eggs one at a time, until smoothly incorporated.  
  • Add the pumpkin, beating until incorporated, about 2 minutes.
  • Beat in the cream-gelatin mixture and the vanilla. Keep beating until everything is well incorporated.  
  • Pour the filling into the crust, spreading it evenly. Tap the pan on the counter a few times to release any air bubbles. Place in a roasting pan and transfer into the preheated oven. Add hot water to the pan, enough so that it comes about 1 inch up the sides of the (foil covered) springform pan.  
  • Bake for half an hour. Reduce the oven temperature to 325°F and continue baking about 60 minutes longer or until the filling barely jiggles in the centre and springs back when the surface is tapped.
  • Turn off the oven and transfer the cake to a wire rack.  For safety, don't remove the pan from the hot water until the water has cooled down. 
  • Once removed from the water, let the cheesecake stand for 15 minutes and then run a paring knife around its circumference to loosen it from the sides of the pan.  This will help prevent the cheesecake from cracking.  Cover it and let it cool overnight.  
It's Christmas morning, and it's time to put some makeup on this cheesecake!
  • Remove from the springform pan and decorate with the sour cream topping. (Recipe for the topping is below). Additional decorations can be used, such as pecans, chocolate bits, or cookie crumbs. 

To make the sour cream topping:
In a small bowl add the sour cream, the brown sugar and the vanilla.  Mix thoroughly, until the sugar has dissolved and the topping is well blended.

This recipe is based on one from "The All American Dessert Book," by Nancy Bagget © 2005 (pp. 80-82).

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

VASILOPITA: For Saint Basil and for the New Year!


Wishing everyone a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year!  Sending  my love to you all!!!
If it’s January 1, and you are Greek, it’s time for vasilopita.  Grab your plate and your fork and get in line.  Perhaps this is the year you will be lucky.  Perhaps this year you’ll get the coin!  Because, as all Greeks know, inside every vasilopita there’s hidden a coin.  Come on, dad, you’re thinking, slice that vasilopita and pass around those pieces.  First you’ll pretend that you are interested in eating your piece.  Then you’ll do what everyone else does and dig around for the coin.  Crumbs on the tablecloth, on your lovely new outfit, on the floor.  Who cares?  Where is that coin?  “Ohhh, it’s me!  I have it!!!” Laughter and shouts from your least favorite cousin.  She is the lucky one this year.  So there is nothing left for you to do but to gather up your crumbs one by one, and if they are still eatable to eat them.  While that cousin of yours (who by the way has really hairy arms and a big nose, how come you didn’t notice that before?), smiles from ear to ear as she recounts the play by play of how she found the coin.  “I cut into my piece, and I felt something that I thought was the coin but it turned out to be a raisin.  I put a bite of vasilopita in my mouth and started to eat it, but I had the feeling that I should forge ahead in looking for the coin.  I knew in my heart this was going to be my year!  I cut another piece off my vasilopita and yes, I could see something shinning.”  “Another raisin?” you have the temerity to ask.  “Nooo!” my cousin impervious to my sarcasm, imperiously replies.  “It was the coin!” she gasps.  “It was mine!  Oh, this is going to be such a great year!”  So your little brother, whom you love dearly, eyes the coin sitting on the side of her plate and in one slick move removes it and deposits it into his pocket.  Then he leaves the table and heads for his room.  Now you’re washing dishes and you know why your cousin with the hairy arms and big crooked nose and huge nostrils who snores like a truck driver and really needs a CPAP has started to scream.  “Where is my coin???”  She wants to know where her coin is.  Oh, just another New Year’s Day at chez Grecque maison.  
Keep going, the recipe is at the end of the post.... I had a lot to say...
For Greeks, January 1, is a day when secular and religious traditions are combined to celebrate the coming of the New Year.  In addition to New Year’s Day, January 1, is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great, one of the most important saints in the Greek ecclesiastical calendar.  Saint Basil was born into a wealthy family but gave away his money to the poor.  Because he was a pious individual and champion of the underprivileged, myths and traditions slowly developed to commemorate his memory.  It’s interesting to note that another saint of the same period, Saint Nicholas, was also known for his generosity.  Over the centuries the legends of Saint Nicholas and Saint Basil blended together to form one “big” legend associated with none other than Santa Claus.  However, Saint Nicholas is associated with the Santa of the Western churches, and the Eastern Santa is Saint Basil.

Yes, Saint Basil is the Greek Santa Claus.  On January 1, his feast day, children receive gifts brought by the saint, New Year’s carols are sung, and families gather around the vasilopita, which is a cake made in Saint Basil’s honor.  Recipes for vasilopita vary with regions and family traditions.  In some places it takes the form of a pie, in others it is a cake, and yet in others it is a yeasted sweetened bread.  That which makes vasilopita a vasilopita, is that it's round in shape and has a coin hidden inside.  The head of every Greek family makes the sign of the cross over the vasilopita and then slices it.  The slices are distributed to family members and guests, starting with the eldest and ending with the youngest.  Whoever gets the slice with the coin is blessed by Saint Basil, and has good fortune for the year to come.  The round shape of the vasilopita symbolizes the unity of the church and the concept that God is without beginning or end. Many cultures have the custom of hiding trinkets into celebratory cakes.  I believe the custom predates Christianity, and was probably associated with the pagan festival of Saturnalia, which celebrated the renewal of light and the coming of the New Year.  As the Roman empire came under Christian rule, some of its customs were incorporated into the seasonal celebrations of the church.  Thus, for Greeks, the celebratory cake became the vasilopita.  Inclusion of an actual coin is unique to Greece, and that's because Saint Basil is associated with the giving away of money for the protection of the poor.

Beyond the myth, who was Saint Basil?  He was born around 330 CE in Asia Minor, which at the time was under the control of the Roman Empire.  He studied philosophy and rhetoric in Constantinople and Athens and then settled in Caesarea of Cappadocia, Asia Minor.  He was baptized as a Christian in 358 and joined the priesthood, eventually being appointed bishop.  He wrote important ecclesiastical works, some of which regard monastic life.  These became pivotal in the development of the monastic tradition.  He gained prominence for successfully defending the Nicene Creed against the Arian theology supported by the Roman emperor Valens, who denied the relationship of the Holy Trinity.  St. Basil was also a humanitarian and a philanthropist.  He built a sprawling complex, unique for its time, which included a hospice, a poorhouse and a hospital, and which was open to all free of charge.  This became a model for other institutions of similar nature.  He was a famous preacher, noted for his sermons on ethics and morality.  He died on January 1, 379.  It is for that reason that January 1 is celebrated as his feast day.  All I can say is, we need a few individuals like him today. 
My wonderful nephew Alex was the lucky winner of the coin this year!!!
I love Saint Basil.  Not only because I admire him for his intellect, piety and goodness, but because I have loving associations with his name itself.  My most beloved uncle was named Basil, and I remember how we visited him on New Year’s Day, his name day.  We would arrive at his house which was filled with flowers, gifts, and boxes upon boxes of confections, all brought by well wishers.  I would sit and listen to the grownups talk: family stories, stories of surviving wars, political discussions, gossip, jokes, so many conversations I remember to this day, so many memories that envelop me in joy and warmth.

VASILOPITA  for NEW YEAR’S DAY (makes 16 servings)

Ingredients:

2 cups powdered sugar (480 grams)
3 cups almond flour (320 grams)
1 ½  cups flour (200 grams)
4 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
16 egg whites  (just protein here, it's the yolks that contain the cholesterol.  I threw my egg yolks away.  Some markets sell containers that contain egg whites only.  In that case, you will need to weigh 560 grams of egg whites)
18 tablespoons melted butter  (520 grams)
Rind from 2 medium oranges

Directions:
  • In a large bowl add all the dry ingredients and mix them well.  
  • Add the egg whites and mix gently. 
  • Add the butter and mix gently.  
  • Place into a greased 10 inch spring-form pan that's resting on a baking sheet.
  • Take a clean coin such as a quarter and wrap it in aluminum foil.  Drop the coin into the batter.
  • Bake at preheated 350º F for ½ hour, lower to 325º F and bake for another ½ hour to 45 minutes depending on the oven.  Don’t open the oven door for at least the first half hour.  
  • Let cool and remove from the pan.  Decorate the top with powdered sugar, and tie a pretty ribbon around it until it's time to cut it.  I added some melted white chocolate and chocolate chips on top just to make it fancier.  
  • This vasilopita is very easy and quick to make, and it tastes really good too.  The recipe is from chef Parliaros, who is a Greek master pastry chef.    I don't understand how he can work with all that sugar and butter and stay so thin.  But, he says that if you have small portions of everything the calories are less significant.  Below I include the You Tube video in which he and his sous chef make this recipe.  The video is in Greek, but even if you don't understand Greek you can get a general idea of how he makes the vasilopita.  The amounts for the ingredients are given in the metric system, and chef weighs everything.  I weighed everything also, and then I converted the amounts to to cups.  Do you see that tiny crack on the chef's vasilopita?  Mine had a crack also, only it was much larger and deeper.  Truth to tell, that's why I covered the top with both powdered sugar and melted white chocolate.  The melted chocolate covered the crack beautifully, and made the vasilopita look pretty fantastic too.  What can I say?  My vasilopita may get a crack, but my cheese cakes never do!  How about that???
  • Signing off now, and once again I wish you a happy and healthy 2013!