Monday, August 18, 2008

Greek Wild Thyme Honey with Recipe for Cinnamon-Honey Tart (Melopita – Μελόπιτα)

Thyme Covered Hillsides at Tigani BaySandy beaches and rocky promontories alternate along the island’s irregular coastline. Mounds of wild thyme cover the hills sloping down to the sea, and scent the sea air with their heady aroma.

Harvesting Wild Thyme

Harvesting Wild Thyme

By the start of summer, the wild thyme is in bloom. Yiannis, our beekeeper friend, has already moved his hives to fields near the shore and the abundantly blooming thyme. The bees spend their summer making thyme-flavored honey that Yiannis harvests and sells to locals and tourists alike.

I fell in love with thyme honey years ago at a galakatopoleio, a type of Greek store that sells milk, yogurt, and desserts like rice pudding (rizogalo) and custard pies (galaktoboureko). We’d stopped for a late breakfast and I ordered yogurt.

Used to American yogurt, which has a much thinner consistency than its Greek counterpart, I was surprised to see the galaktopoleio’s proprietor slice off a thick slab from a long yogurt loaf. He served the yogurt slice with liberal drizzlings of thyme honey. Despite its simplicity, the combination was utter perfection. Thyme honey, unlike the bland clover honey I grew up with, has a robust flavor.

When we return from Greece each year, we always have a supply of wild thyme honey in our baggage. However, in Alaska, Greek yogurt is difficult, and usually impossible, to find. When available, it’s too expensive for my budget.

Greek Yogurt and Honey
If I crave Greek yogurt and honey in Alaska, I buy plain, whole-milk yogurt (Pavel’s Original Russian Yogurt, available at Natural Pantry in Anchorage, is my favorite brand), and strain it for at least an hour through a paper towel set in a colander. Strained American yogurt mimics the texture of the yogurt we buy in Greece. I like straining yogurt right when I bring it home from the market; that way, it’s ready to eat at my convenience. All I need do is drizzle a scoop of strained yogurt with Yiannis’ honey, and my favorite breakfast is ready to serve.

Honey isn’t a newcomer to the Greek table. It’s been an important ingredient in Greek cooking throughout recorded history and continuing to the present day. In
The Deipnosophistae of Athenaeus, which includes excerpts from the earliest Greek writings about food and cooking, honey appears regularly. Among other uses, the ancient Greeks combined honey with wine, added it to savory sauces, and drizzled it over all kinds of sweets.

Athenaeus (circa 200 AD) catalogs “cheesecakes of every sort and every name,” including many that contain honey. In a recent post, Mariana of History of Greek Food wrote about her version of one cheesecake described by Athenaeus.

Cinnamon-Honey Tart (Melopita), a dessert using many of the same ingredients as the cheesecakes documented by Athenaeus, is still popular in Greece today. There’s also a Greek honey cake called Melopita; for clarity, I’ve translated the cheesecake-style Melopita as Cinnamon-Honey Tart.

On some Greek islands, and notably on
Sifnos, Cinnamon-Honey Tart is traditionally made for Easter feasts. It’s worthy of a place at any special occasion table.

Cinnamon Honey Tart(Melopita)Cinnamon-Honey Tart (Melopita – Μελόπιτα)
Serves 10 - 12
The texture of Cinnamon-Honey Tart filling is similar to pumpkin pie filling, and is better when made with whole-milk ricotta. In Greece, fresh, unsalted myzithra is used instead of ricotta, but this product isn’t available in Alaska. The myzithra sold in most US supermarkets is dried, salted, and not suitable for a sweet tart filling.

I like making Cinnamon-Honey Tart in an 11” tart pan with a removable bottom to increase the crust to filling ratio. Use a 9” springform cake pan if you prefer cheesecake to tarts (more filling, less crust), a 9”x13” pan if you want to serve the dessert as bar cookies (great for potlucks), or pastry-lined cupcake tins or tartlet pans to make individual-size servings. In developing the recipe, I baked various versions of the filling as custards (without the crust) in a water bath at 325°F for 30 minutes. The custards are tasty, dead simple to make, and may be made ahead (the flavor develops over time).

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 Tbsp. finely grated lemon peel (peel from 1 lemon)
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup cold butter (1 stick) cut in chunks
2 Tbsp. lemon juice

15 – 16 ounces ricotta, preferably whole milk, or fresh, unsalted myzithra
2/3 cup thyme honey or other full-flavored honey
3 large eggs
1 Tbsp. cinnamon, preferably true Ceylon cinnamon (see About Cinnamon below)
1/8 tsp. salt

Make and Bake the Crust: Put the flour, sugar, lemon peel, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to mix the ingredients. Add butter chunks to the processor bowl, and process until the butter and flour are evenly mixed. Sprinkle in the lemon juice and process until the dough just holds together. If the dough is too dry, add 1 – 2 Tbsp. ice-cold water.

Dump the dough onto a sheet of plastic wrap, and knead lightly to form a flat disk. Wrap and let rest for at least 30 minutes before using.

Preheat the oven to 450°F.

Roll out the dough into a round with a diameter 3” wider than the tart pan (or enough to cover the bottom and 1” of a 9” springform pan’s sides). Use the rolling pin to lift the dough and place it in the pan; press the dough firmly into pan’s sides and bottom. Trim the dough’s edges so there is just enough to fold under and cover the sides of the tart pan with a double layer of dough (if using a springform pan, trim the dough so it goes 1” up the sides. Prick tiny holes all over the crust with a fork.

Press a double layer of aluminum foil directly onto the dough-covered bottom and sides. Bake the crust for 15 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for 5 minutes or until the crust is set and lightly golden. Remove from oven and place on a cooling rack. Reduce the oven heat to 375°F.

Make and Bake the Filling: Mix all the ingredients together to form a smooth batter. Pour the batter into the pre-baked pie crust. Bake for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the sides of the tart are set and the middle is still a little jiggly; residual heat will finish cooking the filling (because the springform pan is deeper, the filling in it will take a little longer to cook). Overcooking Cinnamon-Honey tart causes the filling to crack.

About Cinnamon:

I tested the filling recipe multiple times, using a different kind of cinnamon each time (Ceylon “True” Cinnamon, Korintje (Indonesian) Cassia Cinnamon, China Tung Hing Cassia Cinnamon, and Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia Cinnamon), as well as a mixture of “True” Cinnamon and allspice. My favorite was the version made with “True” Cinnamon; the citrus notes in this variety blended perfectly with the lemon-flavored crust. Although Vietnamese “Saigon” Cassia Cinnamon is the cinnamon I prefer in most dishes, its flavor was too overpowering for this dish. I order my cinnamon online from The Spice House, Penzeys, or World Spice Merchants. Supermarket cinnamon is just fine for this recipe.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Scenes from the 2008 Anchorage Greek Festival

Dancers waiting to perform.

Dance Group

Antonia packaging pastries for sale (wearing our new Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska apron).


Melomakarona (Honey Spice Cookies)

Holy Transfiguration Greek Orthodox Church just before the 2008 Greek Festival opened. Before it was sanctified as a church, this was a personal residence. The building is much too small for our parish, and must be replaced. All the proceeds from the cookbook, the apron, and the car raffle go directly into our Building Fund. Part of the funds raised by the festival go towards church operating expenses, and the rest go into the Building Fund.

Raffle prize (drawing to be held just before Greek Festival closes on Sunday August 17).

Thursday, August 14, 2008

You are Invited to the 2008 Anchorage Greek Festival!

John Maroulis Cooking Lamb on the Spit - 2004 Greek FestivalJohn Basting Lamb on the Spit at the 2004 Greek Festival

The famous Anchorage Greek Festival starts tomorrow morning (Friday August 15) at 11 am and continues through 8 pm Sunday evening (August 17).

This is a “must attend” event, rain or shine (we have tents), for anyone who loves Greek food and music. The women of the parish have been cooking for months: folding spinach pies and cheese pies, making baklava and galaktoboureko, baking cookies, and rolling grape leaves.

Souvlaki is being skewered today and the salad ingredients washed and prepped. Trays of moussaka are in the cooler, along with mountains of lamb, gallons of tzatziki, and plenty of gyro fixings.

Dancers at the Greek FestivalWe’ve brought a wonderful Greek band up from California to entertain attendees with traditional Greek music. Parish dance groups will perform during the afternoon and festival attendees can join in rounds of Greek dancing.

Our parish cookbook (written by yours truly), Tastes Like Home: Mediterranean Cooking in Alaska will be for sale at the festival. The festival and cookbook proceeds help support our parish and grow our building fund.

Admission to the festival is free, as is the parking.

Stop by the raffle booth, where you’re likely to find me signing cookbooks or selling raffle tickets for a 2009 C300 Mercedes Sedan.

Hope to see you there!

Sonia, Laurie and Salwa at the 2004 Greek FestivalSonia, Laurie, and Salwa in the Dinner Booth at the 2004 Greek Festival