My mother told me they’d steal a jug of cream, sugar and a cooking pan and sneak off into the fields. The eldest would make a fire and attend to it while the younger ones gathered dead branches and pinecones. She was the only girl and therefore was bestowed with the honour to do the cooking, stirring diligently with a stick, clockwise. What they were attempting at making: Nidelzeltli.
Nidelzeltli are a Swiss classic, caramel cream candies that melt on your tongue if done right.
Obviously, as it goes with children, they generally hadn’t been patient enough to wait until the mass was sticky and ready to be poured out to cool. Instead they’d spoon the hot caramel cream directly from the pot.
I can’t possibly imagine anything more delicious than that.
What you’ll need
2.5dl whole cream, 250g of sugar, one teaspoon of butter, a wide stainless steel pan, a morning without any plans and a free mind.
How to cook it
Heat the sugar and the cream in the pan while continuously stirring until the mixture rises, reduce the heat to have it gently blubbering away. Stir frequently and keep an eye on it. Oh and keep temperature constant. As a rule of thumb, after half an hour the mass will start caramelising. Keep on stirring until the mass has the consistency of, say, sand and water ready to build sand castles. Thick and languid and slightly friable. Pour on a tray laid out with parchment paper and flatten to about 1cm thick. Cut into even cubes while it’s still warm. It is recommended to eat all the waste rim right away.
How to enjoy it
What you’ll need
About 20 sage leafs, 1dl of sunflower seed oil, 1.5dl of beer, 100g of all purpose flour, pepper, salt.
How to cook it
Mix all ingredients in a shaker. The dough should be as liquid as thick cream. Dip each leaf in the mixture and deep fry in sunflower seed oil. Drain well.
How to enjoy it
These are perfect apero treats. Why not with a glass of icy cold Lillet-and-soda.
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:
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.