Quince, Raisin, and Walnut ‘Sharlotka’

As I wrote in our November Newsletter, Apple Sharlotka had become our favorite winter dessert. This “…labor-saving, timesaving and space-saving [cake]” is how author Darra Goldstein, author of  “Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore” described sharlotka to Olga Massov, who wrote about it in the Washington Post.

This wonderful cake has become our go-to early winter treat and I was making it all the time.  To the apples I often added a cup of last year’s quince preserves, before making the new batch. Now that we have plenty of quince from our trees, I adapted Darra’s basic recipe for these fragrant fruit.

It takes a bit more time, since the quince need to be poached or slow-baked to soften, but the result is worth the extra effort, as you can attest if you try it…

For a 9-inch round cake –or equivalent square, or 1 large or 2 small loaves 



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Warming and Envigorating

Our neighbors Stathi and Ela always bring us wonderful aromatic tsai (or chai), the aromatic Mountain Tea, when they visit their southern Albanian village.  Called ‘tea’ by many Greeks and other inhabitants around the Balkans, the tisane is made of the herb we call Mountain Tea and it is the warm beverage of choice!


The English/Indian tea we had in our Athenian homes was not common in rural Greece. I remember on our winter weekend excursions, when I was a child, we were lucky to get tsai tou vounou (Mountain Tea) in the morning and not the more assertive, somewhat bitter sage tea, which for us kids wasn’t a favorite.


Since ancient times, Mountain Tea has been the favorite herbal beverage of Greeks; in many Balkan countries the word ‘tea’ still refers to this particular aromatic and beneficial herb and not to the well-known Indian leaves. Its delicately aromatic flavor and smell is immediately recognized by all those who remember it from their childhoods bringing back comforting memories.  When a few years ago our neighbors brought us a jar of honey from Albania, Costas was moved when he immediately recognized it as being honey made from Mountain Tea. When he was little, every year around the same time, Urania, an elderly lady dressed in black, would visit their home in Volos, Thessaly, bringing the humble products from her village on Mt Othrys: mountain tea stalks and deliciously sweet mountain tea honey.


Mountain tea is refers to the herb Sideritis, which is found in a variety of subspecies. The precious wild herb, which had started becoming rarer and rarer due to over foraging, is now cultivated; and although its taste is different from wild tea, it is still quite aromatic and comfortingly elegant. Many believe that it has many therapeutic and disease-preventing properties, as ancient Greeks had suggested.


In Greece today many chefs are reinventing tea, using it in various dishes.  But the wonderful herb is quickly becoming known all around the world: chef Michael Costa at Zaytinya restaurant in Washington DC makes a enticing mountain tea granita which he serves with fresh fruit as a light spring and summer dessert.  In the north of Greece, mountain tea is the main ingredient in a variety of soft drinks under the label Tuvunu which are also available in the US.






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The Most Delicious, Lemony, and Frugal Pie

This for me is the epitome of lemon pie and the simplest one to make.

It all started with a reference to an old pie created by cooks who adored lemons but did not have plenty, so they considered them precious…



This fruit/condiment which for us is trivial and almost worthless, was truly precious for the Shakers, the early nineteenth-century religious group living in communities throughout New England. “Shaker lemon pie uses the entire lemon, from yellow peel through white pith […] This means slicing two whole lemons absolutely paper thin and macerating them for hours in sugar. If you can drape them over the knife blade like the watches in Salvador Dali’s surrealistic paintings, you’re on the right track. The resulting pie includes a subtle sharp flavor from the pith, and the texture tends toward the chewy side, but it all works for the aforementioned lemon-lovers like myself,” writes Nancy McDermott in her book Southern Pies.


Away from New England, Shakers also established “…a vibrant fellowship in Pleasant Hill, Kentucky. Preserved as a living history museum, today’s Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill illuminates their traditions and creations […] Their restaurants serve this signature confection, Shaker Lemon Pie,” concludes McDermott in her introduction to the brilliant recipe that inspired me.


As soon as I came upon this incredibly simple, yet exquisite lemon cream, I felt compelled to try it. I had lemons, of course, and eggs from our neighbors’ hens. I wanted to make the pie fast, so I didn’t bother making a pie crust; just lined the pan and topped the cream with some leftover shredded phyllo (kunefe or kataifi) pastry that I happen to have in my freezer. Because it was not enough, I halved the recipe and after I baked the pie I didn’t even have the patience to wait for it to cool completely, and took a bite: it was even more delicious than I had imagined! And, strangely enough, the next days its flavor deepened and got even better.

Once I decided to definitely use the shredded phyllo, I followed the Serious Eats well described instruction for Kunefe, the traditional Middle Eastern sweet that basically uses it.


Knowing me and my affinity for substituting olive oil for butter –which I usually don’t have in my fridge– you probably have guessed that I rubbed the shredded phyllo well with olive oil before spreading it on the pan and topping the lemon cream. You can certainly choose butter if you like.

We have particularly sweet lemons, but the recipe works well with all kinds and, I assure you, it is foolproof.


Adapted from Nancy McDermott


Makes a 9-inch (23 cm.) pie (more…)


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Sykopita: Fig ‘Pie’

Using up the surplus of figs, the over-ripe fruit is mashed and mixed with nuts, spices and liqueur or sweet wine, then shaped as a thin flat cake and dried in the sun, as it was done since antiquity. Now you can dry it in a low oven or in a food dehydrator.



Wrapped in fig leaves and stored in a dry, cool place it keeps well for months; not in our house, though, as it has become Costas’ beloved snack, along our lightly toasted almonds. Traditionally it is cut into small pieces and enjoyed in the winter accompanied by sweet wine and/or paximadia (twice-baked, savory biscotti).

Similar fig ‘pies’ are made in Cyprus, in southern Italy, Spain, Malta, and all around the Mediterranean with variations in the spicing and the various favorite liqueurs.


For a 30 cm (12-inch) about 2.5 cm (1 inch) ‘pie’ (more…)


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