Vyssino (Sour Cherry Spoon Sweets), Door County variety

29 Jul

Yiayia, making apricot marmalade on her balcony in Edipsos, 2007.  

My grandmother died this past December, a week shy of her 99th birthday.  In her last months, she told me what her mother, in her waning years, had told her:  “When I’m gone, you will think of me everyday.”  They were both, of course, right.

This weekend, fridge crowded with bowls of pick-your-own Door County sour cherries, I thought of Yiayia and wished she were here to show me how she used to make Vyssino, the sour cherry spoon sweet preserved in jars that she tucked away on the upper shelf of the china cabinet, ready to serve on small crystal plates with cold glasses of water to evening house guests. She was a very attentive cook, and I know she would have had a special ingredient or, more likely, a special technique, to make the dish that much more delicious, that much more appealing.

But needs must, I turned to the Internet and after searching and combining, I was able to make my first jar of Vyssino — and I do believe that Yiayia, her spirit in my kitchen, took a tentative taste,  then slowly nodded, and was proud.


Vyssino From Tart Door County Cherries


  • 2 pounds tart cherries, pitted
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • Juice from one small-to-medium lemon


Clean and pit the cherries, placing them into a large bowl.

Once all of the cherries are pitted, place a single layer of cherries in the bottom of a 4-quart saucepan then cover the cherries with some of the sugar.  Repeat with the remaining cherries and sugar.


Pour the 1/2 cup of water into the bowl that held the cherries and swish it around to collect any remaining cherry juices, then pour that into the saucepan.

Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Gently stir the sugar and cherries and bring to a boil over high heat.  Lower the heat and begin skimming off the foam that will rise to the top until no more foam appears.

Gently stir in the vanilla and continue to simmer until the syrup thickens.  This may take a half hour, it may take longer.  Greek grandmothers, I’m told, would take a spoon and dip it in the syrup. If the syrup dripped off the spoon readily, it wasn’t ready.  If the syrup clung to the spoon and dripped off in individual drops, it was thick enough.  One web site, kopiaste.org, suggested that the syrup was ready when a candy thermometer inserted into the pot reached 220 degrees Fahrenheit.  You can use your judgement.


When the syrup has thickened, gently stir in the lemon juice and continue to simmer for one or two minutes more.  Remove from heat, let cool completely, then pour into clean, airtight jars for storing.

Serve a teaspoonful of the sweet on a small plate, accompanied with a cold glass of water.  This is also amazing on vanilla ice-cream, over creme brûlée or in crepes, as a topping for Greek yogurt — among other uses.  So make several jars — they keep very well — and enjoy!



July 4th, Moroccan Style

25 Jun

July 4th is around the corner and my grocery store and local meat market are stocking up on ribs and burger buns, corn-on-the-cob and potato salads, cole slaw and watermelons, and of course, apple, cherry and blueberry pies, all in preparation for this weekend’s  Independence Day cook-outs.

While I enjoy traditional American fare, I was thrilled to serendipitously find a copy in our public library of Mourad New Moroccan (Artisan, 2011) — and in its pages, recipes that will work perfectly for a 4th of July BBQ with a Mediterranean flair (sidenote: Morocco, like Spain and France, is bordered by both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean sea).  Now, I can cook up a July Fourth picnic that is ethnically “blended” — in much the same ways as I am.

The menu, inspired by recipes in Chef Lahlou’s cookbook, includes Short Rib Tangia; Herb Salad; Roasted corn with Harissa butter; smashed potatoes with olive oil, garlic and salt; and Watermelon Granita.  Below are my improvised recipe for the ribs, corn on the cob using Lahlou’s Harissa butter recipe, and Lahlou’s granita.

And if you happen to be in San Francisco over the holiday weekend and don’t feel like cooking, you can visit Lahlou’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Mourad.


Chef Mourad Lahlou, Photo John Storey/Special to the Chronicle


Short Rib Tangia.  Lahlou’s recipe calls for brining short ribs overnight and cooking with preserved lemons, but I was in a hurry when I tested it out, so this is my shortcut (no brining, no preserved lemons), which I know borders on heresy, but my guests nevertheless declared it delicious.

Serves 6.

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees Fahrenheit.

Heat a film of oil (I used olive) in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat.  Add short ribs (1 pound per person) in batches, meat-side down, and sear until browned (about 4 minutes).  Turn over, and sear the other side until browned, and then quickly sear each narrow side.  Remove to plate.

Melt 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter in Dutch oven, then add one 3-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and diced, and 10 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced thin.  Sauté until fragrant, about 2 minutes.  Add 2-1/2 teaspoons ground cumin and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute.  Stir in 2 quarters preserved lemons (I substituted slices from one fresh lemon), then add the meat, bone side down, and 12 flat-leaf parsley sprigs and 10 cilantro sprigs tied with kitchen twine. Pour in enough beef or vegetable stock (about 8 cups) to cover the meat, add 1 teaspoon saffron threads, and bring to simmer.

Cover, place in oven, and cook for about four hours or until completely tender.  Remove from oven and let ribs rest in pot while you make the sauce:

Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

Ladle off any fat that rose to the top of the braising liquid.  Strain into a large saucepan and simmer for about 45 minutes to reduce to about 2 cups.  Stir in 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature.  Pour over ribs and serve.


Roasted Corn with Harissa Butter.  

Grill or steam corn on the cob, then rub with softened unsalted butter whipped with Lahlou’s recipe for Harissa Powder and chopped cilantro.  Make the butter before-hand, form into a log, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate.

Harissa Powder (p. 85 in Mourad New Moroccan):  Combine the following ingredients in a bowl, transfer to tightly sealed jar and store at room temperature for up to six months: 1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon Aleppo pepper, 1-1/2 Tablespoons granulated garlic, 1-1/2 teaspoons citric acid, 2-1/4 teaspoons Spanish paprika, 2-1/4 teaspoons ground cumin, 1-1/2 teaspoons roasted garlic powder, 1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt, 1-1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika, 1-1/2 teaspoons ground caraway, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne.


Watermelon Granita. Makes 6 cups.

Quarter 1 small seedless watermelon, cut off the rind, and cut the watermelon into small chunks.  Place in blender and blend on the lowest speed.  Strain the puree through a fine-mesh strainer into a medium bowl. Stir gently and skim off any foam.

Dampen piece of cheesecloth with water, wring it out, and line a strainer with it. Strain the juice into a bowl and add enough  simple syrup (combine 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in small saucepan, bring to simmer, stir until sugar dissolves, let cool to room temperature) to sweeten to your taste.  Pour into a 9-inch square baking pan, cover with plastic wrap, and place in freezer. After about one hour, when the granita has begun to set, remove pan from freezer and scrape it with the tines of a fork to break up the frozen juice . . . Cover and return pan to freezer.  Repeat this process every 30 minutes until granita is completely frozen (it may take three to four times).  Serve garnished with mint sprigs. 





Myzithra Mousse

6 Jul

We have had Myzithra sprinkled with fresh herbs, Myzithra drizzled with honey, Myzithra in Bougatsa, and Myzithra cake. I thought we had our bases covered. But then we visited Bakaliko, a new restaurant in the center square of Archanes, a village in northern Crete that has been thriving since at least Minoan times. After a fabulous lunch of Dakos (rusks topped with tomatoes, olives, olive oil, fresh herbs and crumbled Myzithra), rice pilaf with feta, toasted pistachios and pomegranate seeds, and chicken in a spicy yogurt sauce, we were presented with — Myzithra “mousse,” layered over a crumbled sesame-honey sweet, topped with quince marmalade.

Bakaliko is run by Agnes Weninger, her business partner Zsuzsa Andoczi-Balog, and Zsuzsa’s husband, Giorgos, who was born and raised on Crete. The restaurant is one of several facing the plateia or square, which is filled with tables, chairs and umbrellas guarding against the afternoon sun. Two dogs have adopted the place and they faithfully, if languidly, guard it, as they sprawl, mostly sound asleep but occasionally lifting a head and wagging a tail, along the cool marble steps leading into Bakaliko. The smallest dog, which we call Gingersnap because of his coloring, is quite the gentleman. He even spent one morning escorting three of my students on their shopping, walking with them from store to store and waiting patiently outside while they selected and paid for this and that.

Agnes, Giorgos and Zsuzsa have been just as generous with their hospitality. Twenty-two of us have eaten every breakfast, quite a few dinners, and even an unscheduled lunch or two at their restaurant, and each meal has been as good if not amazingly better than the last. When it came time for us to leave, we were reluctant to go. We bought some of the local organic olive oils, dessert syrups, and marmalades that Bakaliko stocks (you can taste the oils before making your selection) and waved goodbye hoping one day soon to return.

We also took with us Bakaliko’s recipe for Myzithra “mousse,” which I have modified a bit:

Beat together until light and well blended 1 cup Myzithra (Agnes says you can substitute Ricotta), 1 cup full-fat yogurt that you have strained in cheese cloth for at least 15 minutes, and 1Tablespoon of your favorite honey (more to taste). If you live near a Greektown, buy some honey-sesame Pastelli, crumble it into small pieces, and place it in the bottom of an ice-cream bowl. Place a scoop of the “mousse” on top, and add a dollop of your favorite marmalade. Enjoy!

Zsuzsa also publishes a blog, “Geocaching in Crete,” of which I have become an avid follower. You can find it at geocrete.wordpress.com. To join in the fun of geocaching,”the real world treasure hunt that’s happening right now,” visit www.geocaching.com



Bougatsa in the City of Herakles (Hercules)

23 Jun

Our fickle southern wind has returned, sending outdoor umbrellas crashing, tearing delicate buds from citrus trees, and making Crete’s usually playful dogs cower. But despite the gusts, the sun is out and we are sitting at the cafe Fillo. . .sophies overlooking the 16th century Venetian Fountain of Lions in the central square of the island’s capital Heraklion, named after Herakles in honor of his defeat of a ferocious bull that had terrified the ancient Minoan countryside, eating Bougatsa.

I love Bougatsa and have it way too often whenever I’m in Athens. But this Boutatsa is nothing like any I’ve had before, and I’m convinced it alone was worth the overnight ferry that we took to get here.

Most Bougatsas I’ve eaten have been pockets of sturdy phyllo dough enclosing custard, dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. They are served wrapped in a square of wax paper, perfect for snacking and strolling. This Bougatsa had all the essential ingredients — but it arrived cut into small pieces, its filling spilling out from airy phyllo sheets onto a small plate. And, better yet, we could choose between the creamy custard filling to which I have grown accustomed, or a Myzithra filling that has now become my hands down favorite.

I’ve been told that the two places offering the tastiest Bougatsas on all of Crete are the cafe where we are sitting, Fillo . . .sofies, and its next door competitor, Kirkor. Both cafes have been operating since 1922, when their original owners came as refugees to Heraklion from Smyrna. Fillo . . .sofies is now run by the founder Apostolos Salkinitzis’ grandson, Ioannis, who is deftly enticing five hungry-looking German tourists to one of his remaining open tables.

Giorgos Kteniadakis, whose wife Agnes and her business partner Zsuzsa run a fabulous restaurant in Archanes (more on that in the next post!) is from Heraklion, and he said that folks here eat more Bougatsas than those from the rest of Greece combined. “We eat them on Easter and Christmas and New Year’s, on saints’ days and civic holidays, on name days and wedding days,” he said. I calculate that that covers just about every day of the year, give or take a few sleepy Mondays in February.

Giorgos said his grandmother made dozens and dozens of Bougatsas at home for every celebration, holy and mundane. I will ask if he remembers the recipe and if he would be willing to share it. In the meantime, if you have your grandmother’s or grandfather’s or brother’s or aunt’s or maybe even your own recipe, please please please send it my way!





17 Jun

My students and I have been traveling through Greece for two weeks now, and the emerging theme of our journey seems to be Myzithra — the soft, creamy cheese made from goat and sheep milk that can be served savory or sweet.

We began by taking the bus from Athens to Port Lavrio. The students were looking forward to their first ferry ride, which I promised would be pleasant as the small craft navigated its way through calm, clear waters under a bright sky to the Cycladic island of Kea, or Tzia as it is locally called.

But before we could unload our bags onto the wharf, a strong southern wind arrived, stirring up heavy gray clouds and an agitated sea. Greeks say the southern wind is a strange wind, unpredictable and portentous. Most of us sat protected from it in the cabin of the ferry, but those suffering from queazy stomachs clung to the railing of the upper deck, ducking as the waves sprayed over the side.

Fortunately, the wind departed as swiftly and unpredictably as it had arrived, leaving us in peace to hike along the island’s many goat trails, swim its coves, visit its ancient temples, and learn to cook its specialities under the guidance of Aglaia Kremezi and her husband Costas Moraitis, who run the cultural cooking program Kea Artisanal from their family home and gardens.

Aglaia taught us how to make a number of savory pies before announcing that next we would learn how to make Myzithra. She came out carrying a large pot by its handles, filled with cow’s milk. Though Myzithra is traditionally made using goat and sheep milk, it was too late in the milking season and Aglaia’s neighbor’s sheep and goats had nothing left to offer. Besides, Aglaia assured us that it was perfectly fine to substitute our own local Wisconsin ingredients for those found on Kea, and instructed us to always remember that cooking is as much art as science.

Aglaia placed the pot on a flame and simmered and stirred, and added this and that, and soon the first Myzithra curds had formed. A few minutes later the cheese was wrapped in cloth suspended from a string over a bowl, straining away.

Myzithra can be served sprinkled with fresh herbs snipped from your outdoor or window sill garden, or drizzled with honey. At Aglaia and Costas’ table, we had the pleasure of tasting a variety of honey produced by bees that had pollinated thyme, sage, arbutus, chestnut, carob and a number of other flowers. The honey ranged in color from pale gold, to warm amber, to deep chocolate, and in flavor from mild and sweet, to bitter and bold.

To make about 1 pound Myzithra, Aglaia says you will need:

2.5 quarts full fat milk (a mixture of goat and sheep milk is preferable, but cow milk works just fine)
3/4 cup heavy cream
6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
pinch of salt

Place a colander lined with two layers of cheese cloth over a deep bowl.

Place the milk in a pot and bring it to a boil over medium heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring often. Let it cool to about 158 degrees Fahrenheit. Add the lemon juice, cream, and pinch of salt, and stir over medium-low heat. When the milk starts to form tiny clots, after about 20 minutes, stop stirring. Raise the heat to medium high and continue cooking for about 8 to 10 minutes, until the temperature reaches about 199 degrees Fahrenheit. The curds will be large and creamy. Lower heat and simmer for 8 to 10 more minutes, without stirring.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the lined colander. Allow the cheese to drain for 15 to 30 minutes. You can transfer the curds to a small basket to give it form, or a bowl. Cover and refrigerate. It keeps for 2-4 days.

More of Aglaia’s recipes can be found in her many English-language cookbooks, including her most recent “Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts.” You can also visit her blog, Aglaia’s Table.



Limes in Winter

12 Jan

When I woke up the other day, the Weather Underground told me the temperature outside had plummeted to minus 18 Fahrenheit, with the wind making it feel like minus 34.  It’s times like these that I think of the five winters I spent in Florida, with my friends Danaya and Kendal. We lived outside of Gainesville, as far away from the beach in any direction as you could get, which seemed to me a cruel irony.  But I was there, after all, to work on my dissertation, not my tan, and there was one great compensation — Danaya and her Dad made  the world’s best margaritas, which was our reward for completing a hard-at-work day.  They would haul out an enormous citrus press from a cabinet beneath the blue-tiled countertop and a huge bag of limes from the double-door industrial fridge (neither Danaya nor her Dad every did anything in a small way!), and get to work.  In minutes, pulverized lime rinds littered the counter and the scent of lime juice filled the kitchen.  Soon, we were sitting out back with our drinks, listening to the scratching palm leaves high overhead, squinting into the deep blue sky, sneezing at the orange blossoms, and thinking life, even in the dead center of the state miles from its famous beaches, was not so bad.

I have been thinking a lot about my friends, those late afternoons, and the scent of limes lately.  But I can’t bring myself to make a margarita when it’s minus 18 degrees and there’s a foot of snow on my deck.  I need to chop root vegetables and crank my oven up high.

So instead of margaritas, I bake a lime quick bread, and roast shrimp with garlic, cilantro and lime, and cook Brussels sprouts and leaks in lime-ginger butter.  I don’t even like Brussels sprouts, but these are divine.  Now, it may still be minus-18-feels-like-minus-32 outside, but inside it’s warm and my kitchen smells like Danaya’s did on those Florida winter afternoons — which will have to suffice until I can return to central Florida for the best company, and the best margaritas, in the world.


Brussels Sprouts and Leeks in Lime-Ginger Butter

Whenever I make this dish for company, I follow the recipe in Fine Cooking.  It calls for browning the butter in a separate pan, adding a nice nutty flavor to the vegetables. This step is definitely worth it.  But on a weeknight when getting one more pan dirty is just too much, I take the following shortcut.

  • 2 Tablespoons butter
  • 1 Tablespoon ginger root, peeled and diced
  • 1 Teaspoon fresh lime zest from one medium lime, washed and dried
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh lime juice squeezed from that same medium lime
  • 3 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1-1/4 pound Brussels sprouts, quartered
  • Kosher salt
  • 3 medium leeks, white and light green parts sliced into thin rounds, rings separated, thoroughly washed but not dried

Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium heat.  Add the Brussels sprouts, toss in the oil, and sprinkle with salt.  Cover the pan, leaving the lid slightly ajar, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sprouts start to brown, about 10 minutes.

Remove the cover from the pan, turn the heat down to low, add the leaks, stir.  Arrange the vegetables in as much of a single layer as possible, and cook until the leeks are tender, about 15 more minutes.

Cut the butter into small pieces and add to the pan, swirling and stirring until melted.  Cook for one minute. Add the ginger, cook for one minute more.   Add the lime juice and zest. Stir, season to taste with a bit more salt if needed, and serve warm.

Cupcakes and Roses

5 Nov

I ordered a bottle of rosewater to make loukoumia, or Turkish Delight, as the sweet is known outside of Greece.  But I quickly discovered that just a few drops of the extract go a long way.  And so I was faced with the challenge of finding more uses for the stuff.  Sachets?  Aromatic diffusers?  Martinis?

After much pleasant but idle thought, I hit upon cupcakes.  Surely someone somewhere had made rosewater cupcakes.  And so they had.

But the first recipe called for lemon icing. Promising, since lemon and rosewater get along so well in loukoumia.  This time, however, the lemon was loud and overbearing, drowning out the rosewater.

The second recipe called for ginger, cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg – a party too crowded with flamboyant guests for the shy rosewater to stand out.  I wanted a cupcake whose flavors mingled companionably, a quiet yet memorable affair.

And so I closed my eyes and auditioned a parade of flavors: almond, orange, pistachio, bergamot, cardamom. Cardamom.  That ancient spice from southwest India, traded by Greeks since the 4th century B.C.  Known as the “queen of all spices,” and still one of the most expensive.  Surprising, enticing, assertive – and never too loud.

I set to work.  Cardamom cupcakes with Rosewater glaze.  Perfect. Perfect for breakfast or with a cup of tea in the afternoon, or as a light dessert after a spicy meal. I ate seven in two hours – the first one hot from the oven.  Guess I’ll be making a double batch next time!

Cardamom Cupcakes with Rosewater Glaze (makes 18-24 cupcakes)

  • 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cups cake flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 stick butter, softened to room temperature
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs, brought to room temperature
  • 3/4 cup milk, brought to room temperature

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit. Place paper liners in muffin tins.

In a bowl, whisk together the all-purpose and cake flours, cardamom, baking powder, baking soda.

In a stand mixer with a paddle, beat the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, about 5-7 minutes.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating until combined.

Slowly add the dry ingredients to the mixer in three batches, alternating with two batches of milk, beginning and ending with the flour.

Pour the batter into the prepared tins, filling each cup halfway.

Bake about 20 minutes, just until a toothpick comes out clean. Check the cupcakes after 15 minutes.  Do not overbake.

Place tin on a wire rack and cool for 15 minutes.  Remove cupcakes, place on a wire rack, and let cool completely.

When the cupcakes have cooled, make the rosewater glaze. Place 1/4 cup whole milk in a bowl.  Whisk in confectioners sugar, a 1/4 cup at a time, until the glaze is thick enough that it falls slowly from a spoon.  Whisk in 1 teaspoon rosewater.  Taste.  If you like, you can add more rosewater, a 1/4 teaspoon at a time, until you are happy with its intensity.  Use a spoon to pour glaze over each cupcake.

You can decorate your cupcakes with sugared rose petals, or sprinkles — or enjoy them as they are!

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