Friday, November 6, 2009

Salty Cake (Easy Cheese Bread) (Kέικ Αλμυρό)

Greeks are famously hospitable.  Visitors to Greek homes are warmly welcomed and showered with treats of all kinds.  Coffee with sweet pastries, ouzo with savory delicacies, water with preserved fruits; no matter your beverage, a Greek hostess quickly puts together a tasty accompaniment.

For some of us, enjoying Greek hospitality comes with a cost: overeating.  Before I spoke Greek, this was more of a problem. Because we couldn’t converse, people communicated love and affection by giving me double portions. Since everything was delicious, and I didn’t know how to decline, I ate it all.  Unfortunately, I was gaining 5-10 pounds for every month we spent in Greece, and dieting for 2 months afterwards so my clothes would fit again.

I finally learned how to say no. This is more difficult than it sounds.  It’s nearly impossible for a Greek hostess to accept “no” for an answer. The more you decline, the more you’re offered.  It’s also slightly rude on my part; if I were a more polite guest, I’d graciously accept some of the tasty tidbits.

After ten years of declining all snacks (and apologizing for being such a difficult guest), our friends and family have grudgingly accepted this peculiarity of mine – at least when it comes to sweets. Diabetes is rampant in the village and, in the last few years, turning down sweets has become a medical necessity for many.  Since so many can’t eat sweets, village hostesses now keep a supply of “salty” (almyro-αλμυρό) snacks on hand.

In the village, salty snacks aren’t things like potato chips, pretzels, and peanuts. Salty, in this context, just means not sweet.  Salty cookies (koulourakia) look identical to sweet cookies but, without the sugar, taste like thick crackers. Salty cakes include ingredients like cheese, olives, or ham; in the US, they’re called quick breads.

Lately, when I decline something sweet, a hostess may triumphantly declare that she has something salty instead.  Surely, I can try a few bites of a salty treat, something with absolutely no sugar? No, I sadly say, I can’t manage anything salty either, even though I’m sure it’s absolutely delicious.

Although I’m a difficult guest, I happily fulfill my duties as a hostess. In our village house, where visitors constantly stop by, the refrigerator is stocked with beverages, pastries are in the cupboard, and there’s even a salty little something for those who don’t eat sweets.

Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Personal Recipes from the Women Members of the Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum and Their Friends (Khartoum 1983), the Sudanese-Greek cookbook I recently wrote about, has an interesting recipe for Salty Cake.  This recipe is quite simple, but produces a rich, cheesy quick bread with wonderful flavor and a hint of mint. It’s tasty served to visitors as a snack or for brunch, but it also makes a nice accompaniment to soup or chili.

Salty Cake (Easy Cheese Bread) (Kέικ Αλμυρό)
Makes 1 9”x9” square bread or 1 9”x5” loaf
Adapted from Lefko Tsanakas and Lucy Vassiliou’s recipe for “Cake Almiro” in Treasured Recipes: A Collection of Personal Recipes from the Women Members of the Hellenic Athletic Club of Khartoum and Their Friends (Khartoum 1983)
Lefko and Lucy call for either feta or a combination of various cheeses, but emphasize using some “feta cheese is essential.” The recipe may be doubled and baked in a Bundt pan for an attractive brunch offering (when doubling the recipe, use 7 whole eggs and no egg yolks). This bread is best served warm. If you bake it ahead, wrap it in foil and refrigerate; to serve, warm in a 350°F oven for 20 minutes.

3/4 cup softened butter
3 large eggs
1 egg yolk
2 cups crumbled feta or 1 cup crumbled feta and 1 cup grated graviera, asiago, or other cheese
2 Tbsp. dried mint, crushed
1 3/4 cup flour
1 1/2 Tbsp. baking powder
3/4 cup milk

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

Butter a 9” square pan or 9”x5” loaf pan, dust bottom and sides with flour, tap out and discard any excess flour.

Beat the butter until creamy. Beat in the eggs and yolk, one at a time.  Add the cheese and mint and mix to combine.  Stir together the flour and baking powder.  Add flour to the cheese mixture one third at a time, alternating with additions of milk (one third at a time), until all is combined. Pour batter into the prepared pan. Smooth out the top to evenly distribute the batter.

Bake for 45-60 minutes, or until the bread has a nice brown crust on top.  Let cool for 30 minutes and remove from pan. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Mediterranean kiwi said...

i am with you all the way in what you write about greek hospitality. it is a weird feeling declining food in a greek home. the hosts will even make up a platter for you to take home after your visit, kind of like a doggy bag (I'm sure you have had this happen to you too!)

interesting salty cake - i think remember something like this being made by some greeks in new zealand, which they used to serve with soup (like you explain). as we are having more european soups in my houjse, i think i will make it to accompany a nice creamy soup. i can imagine you can add more herbs to it

Bijoux said...

Oh dear...I know the persistence of the Greek hostess all too well...Once when I was leaving the island and I went to say "good-bye" to all my friends and family...I ended up going to 6 or 7 houses and eating not only sweets but also fried fish and fruit and whatever else the hostess had on hand...I seriously felt ill afterward.
On the topic of diabetes now, offering the guest some cheese or some nuts instead of a sweet or salty high carb offering, is probably a good way to go.
I now know plenty about Type 1 diabetes, as I married someone who has it. I also came to understand that just because something is labeled as having "no sugar" does not mean that it will not spike your blood glucose level...many items that contain flour also have the effect of raising a diabetics blood sugar...despite all the literature out there, I don't think diabetes if fully understood by some people in small towns and villages, as my husband came to realize on our last trip to aunt in Northern Greece made a huge tray of tyropita and kept insisting that my husband eat more of it claiming that there was "no sugar" in the pita - LOL! As for me, I like it all...sweets are my all-time favourite but I will never say no to a freshly baked cheese or olive bread either :)

VaD said...

Καλημέρα, προτιμώ το γλυκό κέικ:)
Σου έστειλα email...

Maria said...

I'm glad I am not the only one with this problem! I too gain a bit of weight whenever we are in Greece as we are always expected to taste and try things during our visits. But it all tends to be a bit excessive as everyone's excuse is, "we hardly see you so now we want to offer you as much as possible," and we end up returning home with an extra 5 to 10 pounds!

I love quick breads as this as they provide a quick snack or accompaniment to a light meal.

Bellini Valli said...

When last in Greece, as with travelling to most countries, I learned how to to say hello, thankyou, etc...but also "small portions please."No one ever listened:D

Laurie Constantino said...

Maria, yes I've definitely had the doggie bag treatment! And yes, more or different herbs would work nicely.

Bijoux, I've been so much happier since I've started saying no - it means I can actually enjoy visits without worrying about all the food I'm packing in. And you are SO RIGHT about the lack of understanding about diabetes not just being about sugar. I'll bet it's frustrating for your husband.

Hey VaD! I got your email and will write you back soon.

Maria and Val, so nice to hear from you both!!

FoodJunkie said...

I think what you describe probably applies to rural Greece than Athens. My grandmother for example, who comes from a small village in Messinia, belongs to this generation where, due to the war and hunger, it was polite to first decline and then accept an offer for food, so that you didn't look hungry. However, she knows I will never ask her twice, as my generation doesn't do that any more (plus everyone is on some kind of diet, in Athens at least) and she always accepts my food without any further negotiation.

tasteofbeirut said...

I can totally relate! It is the same hospitality and social customs in Lebanon and this makes it so difficult to turn down what is offered, whether you speak Arabic or not! I still haven't figured out how to avoid eating the tons of food offered!

daybreak said...

This looks wonderful! I love hearty breads and Greek cuisine.