Tsoureki, Oversized. And Other Traditions.
Where shall I start. I made that Greek Easter bread Tsoureki based on the recipe given to me by the Greek lady living on the other side of the earth, her name is Georgia, a name that resonates, and then I have prepared this little Easter tale for you.
I’ll give you the tale first. It’s a true one, mind. And this is how it goes:
When I was six I was a firm believer in the Easter Rabbit. Or perhaps less a believer, than a little person being reassured really that there’s things that exist in spite of us. Because as a matter of fact, once a year in spring, the Easter Rabbit would fill the nest I had prepared the other night in the hedge with nice things (such as chocolates and eggs. And golden ear studs in the shape of mice, occasionally.) Unlike Saint Nicholas, the Easter Rabbit wouldn’t ask for something in return, which raised it a tiny notch higher in my esteem. A generous chap after all, having naturally grasped the secret of giving which is to expect nothing in return (one of life’s possibly hardest lessons).
And then my cousin almost screwed it. He was a believer in the proper sense, not one to take things for granted. On the day before Good Sunday he came trotting up with a very concerned face. In fact, he said, he believed it was all made up, the Easter Rabbit, and the eggs and stuff. He said he had it from a reliable source, having overheard a conversation between grown ups. Said they were discussing who would hide the eggs the next day and so on. I was completely, inextricably shaken. Utter disaster. Albeit, when I thought of it after lunch, it occurred to me that grown ups probably weren’t as reliable a source as he believed. They were grown ups all right, apt at lying like a rug and swallowing their own nonsense with ease. Sure they knew my cousin was hiding on the oven. Everybody knew he hid on the oven all the time. Only him as thought no one knew. Very likely, they wickedly intended to steal the Easter Rabbit’s thunder. Which wouldn’t come as a surprise to me.
In any event, my cousin suggested to gather proofs. Very clever fellow cunningly intended to tie a piece of fine thread around the branches of the hedge where we had decorated our nests. Just about at knee height. So that any competent Easter Rabbit would pass below it (with ears cocked up, I asked, yes he said), while the grown ups would tear would they come near. But, I ventured, what if this is a very tall Easter Rabbit. And I thought of the heavy load it carried what with all us children and that in fact it was very unlikely that it was even remotely close to normal rabbit size. He pondered over this for a long while. After all it made sense. We still tied the thread around the hedge. And I think it was torn the next day. And there was chocolate and eggs in our nests and a most beautiful silver ring in mine, with an enamelled little red beetle on top. Ha! There you have it, I cried. I dearly wanted this ring and never told anybody I liked it except I wrote it on a piece of paper and put it out on the window sill for the Easter Rabbit to fetch and see to whether he could get it for me. Q.e.d. my friend. You go on believing or not it was the Easter Rabbit, but I know now. Because there’s things that exist in spite of us.
The Tsoureki was baking in the oven while I wrote these lines. Already I had forgotten to buy the yeast that day. Thank God the boulangère, the baker woman, who passes with her shop-on-wheels every two days to deliver the most savoury croissants to our door, would sell me a block. I squeezed and mixed and folded alright, following that marvellous recipe to the letter. Except for the baking paper to be placed on top (woe is me, my Tsoureki got, well, rather dark). And let the dough rest. One hour, two hours, two hours and a half and nothing. The beast wouldn’t stir. Rising to twice the size, I say, well it obviously wasn’t intending to. Woe is me! In order to maintain at least a hint at generosity alive, I made one tress instead of two as instructed. With a most wounded expression and my brows knitted. And then this happened: The Tsoureki exploded in the oven. Boum. Thrice the size, I tell you. At least. Woe is me again. An impossibly oversized massive Easter Bread. Shameless. And incredibly tasty. I may need to practice it’s looks but that taste, well, the Greeks definitely know where it’s at.
We ate it (and the lucky neighbours and passersby). Topped with crème fraîche and quince jelly I had made last autumn. With a glass of port to keep the brisk April wind at bay. Here:
Where I Come From
Where I come from, the sky is a vast stage for clouds devising mad plays with light. It’s a theatre for giants, the steep rocks of the mountains lining the valley. Imitating the frills and laces of the ladies’ dresses. You can tell the weather by its holes, by the way.
Where I come from, there is a singular dish. It’s said to be had only in the Rhine valley. Made from ground maize, very similar to Italian polenta, but not the same. Ribel we call it (or chicken feed, as my grandmother would say). Türggeribel. Turkish corn. Maize flour cooked for hours on end with milk and water, in an immense cauldron over the fire. Food for the poor it was. Almost lost in oblivion when the post war boom hit even our back then still very rural plains. Neglected patrimony when people endeavoured to seem well off, scorning the past, eagerly embracing progress and toast Hawaii.
I went to France for the unkempt landscapes of my past. To rediscover the particular mood of cultivated land seemingly untouched by the iron grip of optimisation and efficiency. I sought simplicity and quiet. And stumbled across Ribel in my new home. In a casual chat with the former village teacher. Gaudes, they call the ground maize in their local French patois. Or blé Turc, Turkish corn. It’s said to be had only in the Franche-Comté. Cooked for hours on end with milk and water, in an immense cauldron over the fire. A silky thread linking my origin to my chosen place of home. Defying me to pay it attention, transforming it into a (decent) dish, bearing in mind my grandmother’s somewhat accurate verdict. A dish that flatters the palate instead of making you choke on a seeming handful of sand. I relied on the well established risotto principle, using the bramata version of Ribel, which is of a bigger grain, less sandy. It worked out remarkably well, even earning me a surprised nod by my mother.
And this is how it goes:
Pour a generous puddle of sunflower seed oil into a large, wide pan, add 1-2 cloves of garlic and a laurel leave. Heat up slowly, you would not want to burn either of the ingredients. Pour a good handful of grossly ground maize per person and glaze gently for a couple of minutes and then add a sip off white wine. Enjoy the hiss and the steam. Throw in a piece of (very) old cheese rind if available, it will add flavour and savour. Cook and stir, clockwise, adding an occasional scoop of vegetable stock (homemade, I say you owe this to yourself), keeping the grains covered and nonchalantly simmering. It is the risotto principle, meaning that this isn’t a dish that tolerates negligence (or showing off your fabulous multitasking skills). It calls for your steady attention. Meditation in the steaming copper pan will do just perfectly. Thing with the Ribel bramata is that theoretically you can cook it forever, it won’t go over the point of being al dente. I find this very practical when we are having guests. Generally, it’s done after about 30 mins of cooking.
When the grains are cooked, add a helping of cream and some grated stout aged cheese. I took a Methusalem of a sheep cheese for the purpose. A nut of butter and cover and let it rest for a couple of minutes. You may have to taste whether it needs another bit of salt, depending on the seasoning of your stock.
Now top it with whatever your heart desires. I fancied some cooked chiccorino rosso and blue cheese. A dash of fiery black pepper. There you go.
I’m sure grandmother would have granted her approval. Chicken feed refined.
Sometimes things fall into place, just so.
I have been given a recipe for Greek Easter bread Tsourakis from a Greek lady living on the other side of the earth. Just so. A Greek lady who by normal standards is a complete stranger to me. Luckily I’ve got my own. Where she lives, tomatoes are now dangling from the branches like overfed languid birds. And the figs are ripening, oozing tiny golden bubbles of sugary juice down their deep purple skins. It is a family recipe. Family recipes are a peculiar thing, they are always much more alive than the mere list of ingredients they pretend to be. She gave it to me because a few weeks ago I have baked tresses bread for my homesick Monsieur who was lost in January dreariness bleak wind and cold and that bread looked familiar to her.
This Greek Easter bread Tsourakis is made with a peculiar mediterranean spice, rather uncommon here in rural France. Soft hearts of wild cherry seeds, dried, grounded. Mahlepi it is called. The smell of Easter in Greece, she says. I wonder what it tastes like. And because I’m a somewhat complicated person, it wouldn’t do to get it from just anywhere. It wouldn’t taste as it ought, I’m sure.
The other day the electrician brought me a tiny bottle of fig liqueur. Homemade, because, he said, he couldn’t eat them all up, the figs in his garden. Just so. The figs and the leaves and the sun. While figs taste of wild honey and sweet cream, the leaves add a rounded freshness, warm and balmy. It’s a sirupy golden soup, tasting of late summer and molten sugar right before the point it’s burnt. I made it into a teeming February cocktail, one you would drink after midnight, when the fire is slowly dying and the outside chill sneaks through the walls into your house. Fig liqueur, yellow ratafia. Almond milk, egg white. A dash of muscat, I will try with Mahlepi once it will have found the way to my kitchen. And a hint of bliss in Monsieur’s half smile.
My mother went to Cairo in Egypt to escape the iron grasp of our winter. To return to Europe in spring. A bit Demeter and Persephone except that she will be the one to bring back softer air. And Mahlepi. She will get it from the market in tawabel street, where everyone sneezes except the merchants, they must have gotten used to the spice dusted air. Where they sell powder as blue as the sky at nightfall. Colours, everywhere. An old man who looks like Hemingway but with grey eyes and a nasty smile, I wonder whether he is still there.
My mother will bring the Mahlepi in spring so that I can make Greek bread for Easter based on a recipe of a Greek lady and her mother living on the other side of earth. And a pinch on a midnight fig cocktail, smelling of warm cobblestones and stolen fruit and late summer in Greece. Sometimes things fall into place, just so.
Midnight philosykos cocktail:
- 25ml of fig liqueur
- 50ml white ratafia
- 25 ml of almond milk
- 1 whipped up egg white
- Mahlepi or muscat
Dry shake all ingredients, add ice and shake again. Carefully pour into a nice glass through a strainer. Add a dash of Mahlepi, if you have some. Or muscat. Relish.
January Comfort Food
Warm lentil salad. Comfort food. It’s January, dreariness raw wind and heavy clouds. The cold sneaks into your bones, it’s hard to shake it off your skin. Incredibly short days, the world seen through a sleepy foggy filter. January calls for some food remedy, an easy one, no exaggeration, simplicity instead. This is a fairly plain recipe but take your time nevertheless, don’t rush things. Winter food is of a slow cooking type.
In line with my philosophy, I use a local variety for the salad, called lentilles des Vosges. Green, flat and savoury. But any other variety should do too, feel free to make your choice. I like the green lentilles des Vosges for their buttery taste but after all because I usually get them from the decidedly most charming Fromager, the cheese maker, in the county. Sure he makes excellent cheese and sure he has a range of best quality products from the surrounding farms in stock. But to be honest, he is just such a flattering man, I can’t help it, I always feel a bit elated and very buttered up when I leave his little shop. To put my senses straight, I grab some carrots, leek and eggs from the farmer’s on my way home. That’s almost all the ingredients you will need to prepare a lentil salad for about four to six persons (depending on whether you’ll serve the salad as a starter or as a main course):
2 Picardie glasses of lentils (the organic green lentilles des Vosges usually need a little sorting out before put to use. A bit like Cinderella. So not to risk any broken teeth.)
1-2 nice carrots
A bit of oil (sunflower seed is a good choice because it stands the heat)
3 Picardie glasses of red wine (I like to cook with red in winter, while in summer I’d rather use white, as it’s lighter.)
3 Picardie glasses of water
Herbs to your taste (laurel, thyme and sage, and anything else your heart is telling you)
A bit of chilli
A few parsley leaves for the finish
Cut leek and carrots à la paysanne (meaning small little carrot cubes and finely sliced leek). Fry them 2-3 minutes in oil, medium heat only. We want them glazed and not burnt. Add the lentils and fry another 2-3 minutes, so that they shine and sparkle. Increase the heat in the last minute and add the liquids, wine and water, a noisy hiss and steam is capital!
Add some herbs of your preference. I always use 1-2 laurel leaves, a twig of thyme and 4-6 leaves of sage: Laurel to keep you strong and healthy, thyme to make your tread light and feathery, sage to make you speak wisely and truthfully. And a little chilli to make your heart beat warm in your chest. I leave it up to you how much you’ll need. I usually use half a chilli and add more in the end in case it’s not enough. And salt.
Cook it over low fire, covered, for a good hour at least. Stir occasionally, breathe the steam, smell. Taste. The lentils are done whenever they feel soft and buttery on your tongue. Season with Xerez vinegar while still hot and let them cool gently in a quiet spot.
For the poached eggs, fill a large pan with water, add a little vinegar and bring it to boil, gently. The tricky bit: crack the first egg and slip it carefully into the softly boiling water. Don’t worry if it gets jellyfishy. You may wrap the egg white around the yolk with a large spoon. Crack the rest of the eggs with equal care. In order for the eggs not to stick to the pan or to each other, it is important that the pan really is large and wide enough. And that the water boils happily while not overflowing. Poach them for 1-2 minutes, so that the yolk is creamy and smooth.
Arrange the warm lentil salad on the plates with a poached egg on top each, a whiff of pepper and salt and a couple of grossly chopped parsley leaves. Serve with a light glass of white, an elegant Pouilly-Fuissé for example. Enjoy!
About that Chocolate Tarte
About that Chocolate Tarte, façon Poissonchat. What gets into it and how and when. I’ve done it countless times, in countless variations. The last tweak I gave it is the one with the damsons or plums. Initially to keep it moist. But then our village vet fell heads over ears for my plum tarte, so I thought it would be worthwhile to repeat the experiment. Damsons dried in their juice, glistening sirupy black toads. I usually dry them in the oven of our wood fired stove. Slowly, at a low temperature, and for a long time. With their hearts left inside. Sometimes I put them in brandy or armagnac to soak. Sometimes not. And then into that tarte. How does it work, that tarte? Well, here is what gets into it, very simple:
4-6 eggs (depending on their size. I get mine from my neighbour who has hens who in all seriousness lay giant eggs. I once asked him whether he’s sure that he didn’t mistake his hens for geese.)
170g of sugar (my baking sugar has a faint perfume of vanilla, as I put the used stems into the sugar pot. You may as well add a little grated vanilla to the sugar but do try that continuous vanilla sugar production, it reduces waste and tastes delicious.)
200g of butter (sweet butter!)
200g of very dark chocolate, the darker the better (you may wish to adjust your sugar quantity based on the sweetness of the dark chocolate you choose)
A few spoonfuls of cocoa powder, the unsweetened one
Even less spoonfuls of flour
The tiniest pinch of salt (I usually use fleur de sel as it’s saltiness is tender, like the balmy air of the sea)
A sip of cointreau or brandy or armagnac (which would be the portion you’d serve your grandfather after dinner. Continental European, not Mexican, perhaps.)
8-10 splendid dried damsons. Heart in or out, depending on your eaters capacity to pay attention to your instructions not to bite on that stone (or the temper of their teeth).
Another couple spoonfuls of cocoa powder, for the final tweak
Now that is all very well, but how is it getting into the pot? Well, if I were you, I’d start with melting that dangerously dark chocolat . Melt it in the bain marie, which is in a pot which is in a pot of water. At a very low temperature, the water should not boil but steam graciously. Put the butter with the chocolate to melt, stir from time to time, benignly.
Take your time. Never ever rush. Be friendly and a little mischievous and have a light heart that leaps with glee when you see the dark oily chocolate melt into the golden yellow butter. You may as well do a little fortune telling now. Or Rorschach test. Smell. While the chocolate butter amalgamation advances, start separating the yolks from the egg whites. Carefully slitting the white thread that holds the yolk to the egg white. Then whip the yolks with 3/4 of the sugar. Whip and whip and whip until it is a creamy white. Or let your kitchen robot do it (which is what I do, there is, after all, glory in progress).
Depending on your oven, perhaps this is the time to start heating it up (mine is very slow, you know). Temperature 7-8 (corresponds to 210°-240°C) and fan. Butter the baking mould, butter it well and powder it with flour. I usually take a 25cm spring clip tin but you may also take a smaller, higher one. That would be a cake then instead of a tarte, works well as well.
And then my favourite part: slowly stir the chocolate butter into the white egg yolks. This I do myself, pot in one hand and wooden ladle in the other. Always stir in the same direction. Look at that colour, the lustruous shiny mass. If you haven’t already, please get yourself a nice little spoon and try. Taste, watch it rolling down your spoon. Relish. If you have seen something spooky in that pot earlier, rest assured that now everything will be alright.
I’m sure your kitchen robot meanwhile would be happy to whip up the rest of the sugar with the egg whites. And that tiny pinch of fleur de sel. Whip it white until the mass could be used to be towered up on your head, you know, like poor late Marie Antoinette’s hair. With sugar flowers sticking out of it. Brilliant.
Pour that sip of cointreau or brandy or armagnac into the black mass. It will give the dough a lift, put it into excellent spirits. Stir. Then slowly add the spoonfuls. Soup spoons, generous ones. I think I’ve given it three of the white flour and six of the black cocoa. In fact, the mass should have the texture of, well, of fresh mortar before you trow it at the wall perhaps. Or of sand the moment when waves recede to the sea, gurgling and bobbling. Heavy and sloggish but moist through and through. You might want to try again now, just in case.
Check that oven. As soon as the temperature is up:
Slowly stir that Marie Antoinette egg whites into this mass. I say really slowly. Carefully. Them white bubbles are very skittish. They hate coarseness, like to be caressed at any rate. No worry if your mass looks a little marbré, like marble. It will amalgamate later in the oven. Pour into the baking mould, put the damsons in, push them a little into the dough, gently. And quick into the oven, don’t waste the heat.
Clean the pot, I do this with a rubber spoon to ensure I get at all the residue. About this time usually, when the bitter sweet chocolate perfume is filling the kitchen, I start thinking about roquefort. Or hammock. After 7 minutes, take away the fan and bake for another 13 to 15 mins. Try whether it is done by sticking a knitting needle into the tin. If the dough sticks, it needs another couple of minutes. If it gets out greasy but tidy, the tarte is cuite, cooked. I usually leave it in the open oven for a while, given that the short time of baking leaves its heart still pulpy and soft. If you take it out too quickly, you risk a volcano crater in your tarte. Let it cool down gently, so that it may gain firmness.
Taking it out of the mould is most probably the most difficult thing about that tarte. Matters a lot when you do it. Because it should be cooled enough to get out easily but warm enough still to make the cocoa powder snow storm topping stay without taking grease. I usually remove the rim first. Then put the tarte on the cooling grid, upside down. Trying, from time to time, whether the bottom is coming off alright.
Put it into a nice plate and then the messy, exuberant bit, letting the black cocoa snow over the tarte. Until it looks like sumptuous velvet. Perhaps put two or three damsons in the middle. Put it in a dry and cool place, for it should be eaten cold.
Serve with lavender tea or port.