Thank you to everyone for your encouragement and good wishes for this blog. I'm really excited about sharing some of my thoughts, photos and of course recipes with you here. There are lots of Greek vegetarian dishes that people just don't know about, and so many meat-based dishes that can be converted into vegetarian ones with a little creativity and imagination. I can't wait to share all this with you.
It goes without saying that this blog will also feature plenty of Greek desserts, and I thought I'd start with a favourite of mine that reminds me of my childhood.
A thousand years ago I was a little kid living in the then very brand new anglo-saxon Melbourne suburb of Mount Waverley. Our family was the only Greek clan in the street. My sisters and I (and one other boy) were the only Greek kids at our school. We kind of stood out a bit.
My parents were on the 1956 boat to Australia, bound for a land that promised greater opportunities and freedom. They made a committment to their new country and chose to assimilate with the Australian culture as much as possible. They anglicised their surname, had backyard barbeques with the neighbours, and didn't teach their children to speak Greek. I didn't even know I was Greek until I was 8. I thought "Papou" was my grandfather's name. My two sisters and I only had one aunty and one cousin, also with anglicised names. This is not Greek at all.
But there was another relative. Great Aunty Betty. And she was definitely Greek. This was the dead giveaway for us as children that we weren't the skips we thought we were. Great Aunty Betty was my mum's mum's sister. My mother's Aunt. Our Great Aunt. But everyone just called her Aunty Betty.
Aunty Betty lived in Australia with us for a few years when we were growing up. She didn't speak much English but the unspoken "grandma" language was understood by all. And Aunty Betty was just like a grandma to us. She would teach us Greek words, show us how to play card games, and knit "sosonia" for us (woollen booties to keep our feet warm at night).
She was a black-clothed widow with no offspring but seemed content living a solo life. She was very independent and travelled back to Greece several times during her time with us in Australia, eventually moving back to her hometown of Volos in the early 80s.
One of my most vivid memories of Aunty Betty was her morning ritual for breakfast. A few cigarettes, some tablets and a whisky. After breakfast she would spend the morning in the kitchen cooking Greek biscuits and sweets.
The house always smelled of cinnamon, freshly ground nuts and cakes baking in the oven. Many of the recipes I'll write about on this blog will be inspired by my memories of Aunty Betty and the little treats she used to cook up in the kitchen.
The syrupy semolina cake, "Halvas" as she called it (sometimes known as "Revani"), was one of my favourites. Spongey cakey goodness made from semolina and almonds, soaked in a lemony sugar syrup, served with a large dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream.
Halvas (Semolina Syrup Cake)Adapted from Recipes from Limnos by Ourania G. Vayakou
Makes 8 ramekins
- 250g fine semolina
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 125g butter, softened
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 4 eggs, separated
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/4 cup brandy
- 1/8 cup of milk
- 3/4 cup ground almonds
For the syrup
- 1 1/4 cups sugar
- 1 1/2 cups water
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- One sliver of lemon peel
- Mix the semolina, cinnamon and ground cloves together in a medium bowl and set aside.
- In a new bowl, whisk egg whites and a pinch of salt until stiff and set aside.
- Cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer (or hand beat if you so desire!). Add egg yolks and beat until the batter starts to lighten.
- Mix the brandy and baking powder together in a small glass and add to the batter.
- Continue to beat and add the milk then slowly add the semolina.
- Use a wooden spoon to carefully fold in the almonds, followed by the egg whites.
- Pour the batter into oven-safe ceramic ramekins (no need to grease) and bake at 170 degrees celsius for 30 minutes. Insert a knife into the centre of one of the cakes – if it comes out clean, the cakes are cooked. Allow to cool.
- Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. Combine the water and sugar in a small saucepan and simmer for around 12 minutes, stirring very carefully and only very occasionally to test consistency.
- When the simmer bubbles start to look a little sticky, the syrup is ready. Do not allow the syrup to change colour.
- Carefully spoon syrup over cakes, a bit at a time. Give each cake time to soak up the liquid before adding more syrup. You will need to do this a few times until the cakes are saturated.
- Decorate the top of each cake with a blanched almond* and enjoy with a large dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream.