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In Zakynthos, my grandmother’s island, we make the round “Kouloura” on Christmas Eve. It is a lovely Lenten sweet ceremonial bread. Every year since I got married, we gather around the table, raise the Kouloura together in our hands, over the incense burner and chant this Byzantine church hymn. We pour a mixture of wine and olive oil crossways over it, which puts out the incense. These 3 elements symbolize the gifts of the Maggi, frankincense, myrrh and gold. Kouloura is the Star leading the way to the manger, the flame of the incense represents Christ’s love. We cut it in equal pieces to the participants and someone will find the “evrima” in his piece, a lucky coin representing baby Jesus. Invited guests are very close and dear to the family. Participation is believed to bring love, strength and renewal for the year ahead.
Yaya Christina, my father’s mother, was born in Athens, but on Christmas Eve we celebrated as Zakynthians when I was a child. And we continue to keep the custom, with all its rituals every year, in our own home too.
Let’s go to the recipe. I have measured and converted grandma’s quantities (1 waterglass and 1 finger of oil, 1 espresso cup of cognac etc.) into ml, grams and measuring cups. In my own kitchen, of course, I keep a few of her cups and glasses to be used exclusively for measuring out her original recipes.
Recipe for Kouloura
1.5 kg bread or all-purpose flour
330 ml lukewarm oil
75 g fresh yeast
1 tbsp sugar
280 ml orange juice
60 ml cognac or cointreau
1 tablespoon anise seeds
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon ground cloves
1 cup finely chopped orange peel
1 cup currants
1 cup raisins
1 cup walnuts, coarsely chopped
Boil the anise seeds with 60 ml of water, strain and keep the tea. Dissolve the yeast and 1 tablespoon of sugar in lukewarm water. Mix together the remaining sugar with the juice, cognac and anise tea in a bowl, until dissolved.
Add half the flour in a separate large mixing bowl and make a hole in the middle. Pour the lukewarm oil into the hole and rub it into the flour little by little with your fingers, until it resembles crumbs. Pour in the yeast with about half of the remaining flour and mix well. Dissolve the baking soda in the liquids and add them all together in to the flour along with the cinnamon, cloves and orange peel. Knead well, adding the flour little by little, until the dough is smooth, elastic and does not stick to the hands. Add in the raisins and walnuts and knead a little until incorporated in the dough.
Grease and flour a very large, 36 cm d baking pan. Wrap a tin with aluminum foil and oil it and flour it as well. You can also use a small tall cake ring. Shape the dough like a ball and pierce it in the center. Using both hands, widen the hole with quick movements and place the dough in the in the baking pan. Place the ring or can in the center so the hole doesn’t close as it rises during baking. Let it rise while you preheat the oven to 170 C / 340 F.
When it has almost doubled, after 30′-40′, bake it for about 50 minutes in the preheated oven. Towards the end, remove the ring or can from the center so that it cooks through. Check after 50′ with a toothpick, then lower the temperature to 140 C / 290 F and let it bake until done, checking every 10 minutes. When ready, take it out of the oven, allow to cool for about 10 minutes, then carefully remove it to a wire rack to cool completely.
You can brush on a little syrup or honey, while hot and sprinkle it with colored sugar or drizzle with icing when cool. I prefer to dust it with some icing sugar, so that it looks a little like snow. Don’t forget the lucky coin!
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Although “gemista” (stuffed oven-baked vegetables) are served in every Greek house during the summer, with infinite variations, stuffed casserole peppers can be made all year round. The only difference is that in winter I prefer to fill long red sweet Florina peppers, while in summer I use classic bell peppers or, even better if you can find them, sweet dolma peppers, which are small and thin skinned, ideal for stuffing as their Turkish name suggests.
I first tried these peppers made by my mother-in-law, who in turn learned this recipe from her own mother-in-law when she moved to Athens from Turkey. Stuffed peppers cook much faster on the stovetop and turn out juicy, shiny and silky. The secret of this dish’s success is to allow the bottom of the pepper to caramelize, leading to a dark, sticky, spicy sauce, without allowing it to burn of course. To achieve this, requires patience: once the rice is done and the water in the pot has all but evaporated, allow the peppers gently simmer in the oil and juices left for 5-6 minutes over a low heat.
This recipe makes a large quantity, to be cooked in two pots and shared over Sunday lunch. I actually squeeze them all into a large oblong casserole dish I have and rarely split them in two. You can do half the amount if you are only cooking for a few people, but you’ll probably regret not having the leftovers. Besides, peppers are the easiest and fastest vegetable to stuff. You could also add firm tomatoes, but the truth is that I prefer these in the oven. I wash the rice and soak it from the night before. If I forget, it’s no big deal as the taste will turn out the same. However, it’s a good habit to adopt, as soaking eliminate most of the arsenic contained in rice.
You can serve the peppers lukewarm with feta cheese and olives or even cold, as an appetizer. We also eat them as a side, as a snack, if we ever had any left the next day, we would probably eat them for breakfast.
Stuffed casserole peppers – Recipe
1 glass of short grain rice, washed and soaked
4 onions, minced
4 tomatoes, minced
2/3 glass olive oil
60 Gr. raisins
3 tbsp min leaves, finely chopped
2 tsp allspice, ground
Juice from 1 lemon
Half a glass of water, hot
In a large frying pan, gently sauté the onion over low heat with half the oil and a pinch of salt. Stir regularly and simmer until it becomes a paste, about 10 minutes. During this time, cut the lids off the peppers and remove any seeds and white membranes. Once the onion is cooked, add the rice and stir. Let it soften for another 3-4 minutes. Meanwhile, combine the tomatoes, raisins, mint, allspice and lemon in a bowl. Add the onion and rice to the bowl and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning.
Fill your peppers with a tablespoon, one by one and place them in the pot. Just fill to the brim without pushing down on the stuffing and cover with the lid. Drizzle the rest of the olive oil over them, add the hot water, cover and let them cook and soften over medium heat. In about 20-25 minutes, the rice will be done and the peppers will have softened. Remove the lid and simmer to allow the water to evaporate. Once there is only oil and cooking juices left at the bottom of the pan, let them caramelize over a very low heat. As soon as the sauce turns brown, remove from the heat immediately so that it doesn’t burn and turn bitter. Serve the peppers lukewarm or cold.
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This pea soup is fast, delicious, nutritious and is made with minimal effort and prep. We all have days when we just don’t feel like cooking, but still want something healthy, tasty and good value with household staples.
I’ve used frozen fine peas here. If you happen to have fresh ones, podding them is a fun chore for the kids. If you’d like to check out some more pea recipes, you can find them here. You can also add a leek along with the onion to the soup to enrich it with more vegetables. If you don’t have a potato, a handful of split peas will help the soup thicken. Broth also helps with this. I almost always use homemade bone broth. In addition the taste, it helps add “body” to all sauces and stews.
I usually serve this soup with some good quality ham. What I always have in the freezer is artisan bacon with no preservatives and additives from here. Sometimes I use leftover Easter (or Christmas) ham, or traditional Greek “apaki” ham from Crete. You just slice it and pass it through the pan for a couple of minutes.
You can also serve this soup cold. In that case, you can add a couple of tablespoonfuls of chopped mint when blending the soup, then chill it for at least 2 hours in the fridge.
1 tbsp ghee or preferred cooking oil
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups cauliflower or 1 potato, roughly chopped
1 liter homemade bone broth
500 gr. petit pois peas, frozen or fresh and podded
To serve: 250 g of any cold cuts you prefer and a little yogurt, or coconut milk (canned)
Place a medium saucepan over medium heat and melt the butter. Sauté the onion until soft, without changing colour. Turn up the heat and add the potato, broth and peas. Cover and bring to the boil. Then lower the heat again and let it simmer for about 15 minutes or until the vegetables soften. In the meantime, prepare the ham, sautéing it, finely sliced in a frying pan. Once the soup is done, liquidize in batches in the blender or straight in the pot using a hand blender. Serve with the ham in the middle of the dish and a couple of tablespoons of cream around it.
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