Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In a Greek Village: Opening Lessons (with Recipes for Hilopites and Trahanas / Χιλοπίτες και Τραχανάς) (for Apples & Thyme)

Froso and Kyria Fani Shaping TraxanasWorking Together: Froso and Kyria Fani Shaping Traxanas

The day Froso and Kyria (Mrs.) Fani were going to teach me the art of making hilopites (skinny egg noodles) and trahanas (tiny granular pasta), there was no milk to be found in the village. Several days later, enough sheep’s milk had been located and I was instructed to appear at Kyria Fani’s house at 7 a.m. sharp the next morning for my lesson.

The weather had been hot the afternoon before, but that morning the sky was overcast and a light sprinkle of rain fell. The cobblestone streets were empty of traffic, and the village was quiet, save for the sounds of roosters crowing and birds singing.

Taciturn men sat silently in front of the kafenion having their morning coffee. The bakery was closed and dark. A woman at work in the dim sweet-shop was rearranging trays of cookies and pastries.

When I arrived at Kyria Fani’s, it appeared no one was home. I gave the door a good tock-tock. After a long delay, Kyria Fani opened the door, welcoming me warmly and enthusiastically, as is her way. She quickly ushered me to the garage-turned-storeroom in the back of the house.

Froso Rolling HilopitesFroso and Kyria Fani had begun making hilopites an hour earlier. The women had already mixed and kneaded the dough. Froso was deftly “opening” the dough (opening is the word Greeks use instead of “rolling out”). Her hands moved with skill and speed over the dowel she used as a roller.

Opening dough with a dowel is harder than it looks. I started using the stick like a rolling pin, pressing down as I rolled. This did not work. Froso explained the dough needs to be stretched, not rolled.

I tried again. I thought I was doing it right. Kyria Fani came over and began roughly massaging my shoulders. I jerked up, startled. “When your husband touches you,” said Kyria Fani, “you want him to be gentle and tender.” She changed her motion from a brisk massage into a soft caress. “You don’t want him to be aggressive or rough. It’s the same with opening dough.”

Kyria Fani’s advice helped me get the amount of pressure correct, but as I moved the stick back and forth over the dough, it still wasn’t opening. Froso patiently explained my technique was the problem, and would never work to stretch the dough sufficiently.

She demonstrated. Instead of keeping her hands in one position as she moved the stick back and forth, she moved her hands quickly forward and then to the sides of the stick, using a motion similar to the breast stroke. This motion stretched the dough out to the sides, as it finally began to get thinner.

Kyria Fani Laying Out DoughEach time Froso rolled the dough up on the stick, she gave it a quarter turn before she laid it back on the table. By doing this, she ensured the dough opened evenly, and the hilopites would be of uniform thickness.

As each round of dough was finished, Kyria Fani carried it on the dowel and laid it on a bed covered with a clean sheet. When all the dough had been opened, it was time to start cutting the hilopites.

Froso Cutting HilopitesUp until ten years ago, Froso and Kyria Fani had painstakingly cut the hilopites by hand, but now a pasta machine helps with the task. The rounds of dough are hand-cut into one inch strips, and then to the width of the pasta machine. These strips are run through the machine and cut into hilopites. After they are cut into skinny pieces, the hilopites are returned to the sheet-covered bed to dry.

Kyria Fani Cutting HilopitesFroso said it takes about a week for hilopites to dry, depending on the weather (if there is a lot of humidity, it takes longer). Kyria Fani said she lets her hilopites dry for two weeks: “Why not get them good and dry?” she asked.

The women next turned their attention to trahanas, a tiny traditional pasta usually used in soups or savory pies. On the island, trahanas dough is made with fresh milk and either hard-wheat flour (similar to semolina) or cracked wheat. Chunks of dough are dried in the sun if the weather cooperates, or in the oven set at 200°F if it doesn't.

At Kyria Fani’s house, chunks of trahanas dough had been drying all day, but were still a little soft. Froso mixed in more flour to get it the consistency she desired. Once the consistency was correct, the dough was ready to shape into trahanas. A large sieve called a koskino is used for this task.

Froso and Kyria Fani Shaping TraxanasKyria Fani and Froso rapidly rubbed the dough back and forth across the koskino’s screen, breaking the chunks into tiny pieces of pasta. Like the hilopites, the trahanas was laid out on a sheet-covered bed to dry.

Hilopites and trahanas are usually made once a year, between July and September, when the weather is hot enough to dry the dough, and there is plenty of eggs and milk. Froso and Kyria Fani make enough hilopites and trahanas to last a year for themselves, their children, their grandchildren and, luckily, for my family.

HilopitesHilopites (Χιλοπίτες)
10 eggs
1 cup sheep’s milk
2 Tbsp. salt
Yellow hard-wheat flour (or semolina)
Olive oil for oiling hands and bowl
Cornstarch for opening dough

Mix the eggs, milk, and salt together. Add enough flour to make a stiff, but not dry, dough. Knead the dough 10 - 15 minutes, until it is very elastic. Cut the kneaded dough into three pieces. With oiled hands, shape the pieces into balls; knead each ball again for one minute. Place the balls into an oiled bowl and cover with a dish cloth. Let them rest, unrefrigerated, for 30 minutes.

Lightly sprinkle a clean table with cornstarch, flatten a dough ball, and sprinkle it with cornstarch. Open the dough with a clean dowel into a large thin round, and place it on a bed covered with a clean cotton sheet while you roll out the remaining dough balls.

When all the dough is rolled, fold one of the rounds in half, and then in half again, and cut it into one-inch-wide strips. Open up the strips, and cut them into lengths the width of a pasta machine. Cut into hilopites, and spread the cut hilopites on the bed to dry. When dry, store in an air-tight glass container.

TraxanasTrahanas (Τραχανάς)
5 eggs
1/2 cup sheep’s milk
2 Tbsp. salt
Yellow hard-wheat flour (or semolina)

Mix the eggs, milk, and salt together. Add enough flour to make a stiff, but not dry, dough. Break the dough into large chunks and let them dry in the sun, or in a 200°F oven. If the dough is too soft when you are ready to begin working with it, mix in more flour. Use a sieve to break the dry dough chunks into tiny pieces. Spread the trahanas on a bed covered with a clean cotton sheet. When dry, store in an air-tight glass container.

NOTE: Trahanas may also be made with cracked wheat. Cook the cracked wheat with milk until it is thick and the consistency of rice pilaf. Break this mixture into large chunks and proceed in the same manner as for traxanas made with flour.

The first picture is my entry for Click - this month's theme is noodles. The round-up of Click entries is here.

This is my entry for Apples & Thyme #2 co-hosted by Passionate Palate and Vanielje Kitchen.


Peter M said...

Good read Laurie. Although I'm not big on Traxana, I do still bring some back along with Hilopites from the Panagyri.

Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks Peter. On not liking traxana, there are several varieties. Traxana on the island where we are is made with sweet (regular fresh) milk, and is quite tasty. Other places, it is made with sour milk -- sort of sourdough pasta -- and lots of people don't like it. In Epirus, it is often made with red pepper in it, which is an entirely different take on the ingredient.

Last night I made some excellent traxanopita -- as soon as I have time, I'll post the recipe (and also sources for sweet milk traxana) -- maybe you can try it and change your mind about whether traxana is good or not!

bee said...

what a wodnerful blog you have !!!
thanks for participating in CLICK, and for a glimpse into life in a Greek village.

Katie Zeller said...

The thought of making enough of anything to last a year is min boggling...but pasta, and by hand.. Wow!
Lovely story and photos!
Lovely blog!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post, Laurie. I miss having a few women in the kitchen helping to make the pasta.

Valerie Harrison (bellini) said...

Thanks for sharing these experiences with us!!!

Kribha said...

First time here and I truly enjoyed reading your post. Very informative. The pics look great.

chemcookit said...

It's the first time I come on your blog and it's really great. This post is amazing - all the pictures could have been entries for the 'click' event!

Laurie Constantino said...

Bee, thank YOU for organizing and running click -- what a great event! The village is a wonderful and interesting place, and I'm glad to share it.

katiez, it takes all day to make that much pasta! I'm so glad you like the blog. Thank you!

Maryann, that is one thing hard about Alaska and great about the village -- women working togther in the kitchen.

Bellini Valli, you are so welcome.

Kribha, I hope you come back again, and hearing people like you enjoy it is so nice. Thanks!

Laurie Constantino said...

Thanks chemcookit - I couldn't decide which picture to enter. Glad you like the blog!

Lucy said...

Utterly fascinating. A scene set rather beautifully too!

VERY pleased to have found you and your blog. Off to have a thorough look around!

Ivy said...

Hi Laurie,

I am glad we have communicated and I can see some friends commenting on your site as well. Fantastic job. I am amazed seeing people in distant parts of the world doing all these traditional and difficult things which tend to be forgotten in Greece and Cyprus. Keep up the good job.

Ivy, www.kopiaste.blogspot.com

Laurie Constantino said...

Thank you Lucy and Ivy!

african vanielje said...

Thank you Laurie. What a beautiful story and amazing pasta. I'm sorry I never came visiting earlier, I've not been doing much blogsurfing this week, but now I see what we missed out on. This is a great story to add to apples & thyme.

The Passionate Palate said...

Laurie - what a labor of love! It's a good thing they are only made once a year. A beautiful story and incredible pictures. Thank you so much for entering this in Apples & Thyme!

Laurie Constantino said...

African Vanielje and Passionate Palate, I'm glad you like the story. I'm very happy to join Apples&Thyme; I love reading about those who have influenced others in the kitchen. Thank you for organizing it!

Jack said...

Fascinating post, and very nostalgia-inducing for me as I spent many months traveling around Greece in the eighties and nineties, and often saw women tirelessly preparing thin sheets of phyllo using those long dowels.

I really need to find an excuse to get back there.

Jack at Redacted Recipes

Laurie Constantino said...

Glad you liked it, Jack, and hope you get back to Greece soon.