PAXIMADIA: barley biscuits’ past, present, and future…

 

I revisited paximadia last week because my friend Defne Koryürek from Ayvalık, on the other side of the Aegean, organized an e-workshop as part of the two-day interdisciplinary conference on Food Futures. She used my basic recipe for her lively presentation, and she invited me to take part and speak about the history and uses of paximadia, or peksimet as they call them in Turkey. It was a lovely experience that made me re-think paximadia as an ideal sustainable staple. It is time to revive the way our ancestors used this crunchy, twice-baked bread not just to accompany cheese and meze spreads –as I had suggested in the article I did for Eating Well magazine —   but also instead of pasta in broths and soups, and of course in salads.  

 

 

When, in the fifties, Ansel Keys and his colleagues studied the eating habits, the state of health, and life expectancy of various peoples in seven countries, they decided that the inhabitants of Crete were faring best of all. Paximadia (barley rusks) in those days were the staple food of the Cretans. But when their traditional eating habits became the model for the now famed Mediterranean diet, the barley biscuits were translated into “whole wheat bread” for the unaccustomed and refined Northern Europeans and Americans. Barley flour has now completely disappeared from the shelves of the supermarkets in big cities, and one can only find it in health food stores or at wholesale distributors of animal fodder. But on Kea as on other islands we can get a pound or two from the local bakeries which still bake the traditional hard and dark paximadia.

 

1-Barley-Paximadia

Paximadia–barley rusks–in various shapes from the Greek islands and Crete.

 

An old man from Mykonos told me that in the old days merchant ships preferred his island as a stopover because sailors loved to stock up on paximadia from the local bakeries made with a combination of barley and wheat flour. Similar biscuits are baked in most islands of the Aegean and the ones from Crete are still the most popular throughout Greece. One can get various kinds of Cretan paximadia in food stores and supermarkets. Although people belonging to the generation that traditionally fed on this kind of dried bread has either died or switched to more refined foods —like fluffy supermarket, crustless, sliced bread– there is a new generation of consumers who have tasted paximadia during their summer vacations in the islands and loved them. Once back in the city they started to look for them in their local bakeries, so now in most Athenian neighborhoods one can find darker or lighter paximadia, baked using mixtures containing more or less barley flour in addition to the wheat flour that makes lighter and crunchier biscuits, which need no soaking.

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Spicy Festive Bread with Orange, Squash, and Raisins

Greek festive, Christmas and/or Easter breads (tsoureki) are similar to Jewish challah but have less fat and more spices.  In this, my newest Vegan version, I began experimenting starting from the Raisin Bread from the island of Mykonos, a recipe that I had included in my very first book The Foods of Greece.

 

This much lighter festive bread is in fact an interesting variety of the traditional raisin bread (stafidopsomo).  It comes from Mykonos, the now cosmopolitan Cycladic island, and was given to me by Anna Sigala, my old neighborhood baker from the days I used to live under the Akropolis.

 

Anna had told me that she learned to make it from her grandmother. Now that Koukaki –the area around Acropolis– has become extremely popular with both locals and foreign visitors, Takis, Anna’s son, transformed the old bakeshop into a much-written about  bakery where tourists line up to get sandwiches, pies, and sweets.

My mother and father hated raisin bread because, for a period during the 1930s, the Greek government made it compulsory for everyone buying any kind of bread to buy some raisin bread, too.  The Ministry of Agriculture had bought all the raisins from Corinth to keep the growers satisfied, for political reasons, and then invented this method to get rid of the surplus.

Later, when this stupid regulation was no longer applied, raisin breads disappeared from the bakeries because no one would buy them.  Only recently, more than three generations later, raisin bread has again become popular.

Athenian bakeries often slice tsoureki and other flavored breads and bake them again, to make delicious, light biscotti; you can do the same with this one, if you have any leftover.

I love it with spicy cheese, like Rockford and Gorgonzola, or simply with coffee or tea; I also use as a base for English trifle or summer pudding, much like my older version of pumpkin and tangerine bread.

 

Makes 3 small loaves (more…)

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Leonidas’ Almond and Lemon “Cigars”

 

My late cousin Leonidas loved sweets, but he had health problems that meant he had to avoid butter and eggs. At some point, inspired by rolled baklava, he created these wonderfully simple, vegan crunchy, almond, and lemon phyllo rolls.

They are more like cookies than a real dessert dish, but they are dangerously addictive.

Leonidas used to bring them to our festive lunches and dinners, and he was proud to share the recipe with anyone who asked—and most people did. See at the bottom my savory variation, with cheese.

 

Makes about 85 pieces  (more…)

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Grape and Fig Harvest Tart

Six years ago, during our September 2014 Kea Artisanal Cooking vacation classes I made this pizza-like tart for the first time.

 

 

It was the day we devote to bread and the different, sweet and savory variation one can create with just one basic dough; I had just happened to see Cali Doxiadis’ recipe and decided to try it with some of our leftover dough, after we made loaves, the cheese-stuffed buns, and the tomato or pepper-topped lagana (flat breads) we usually make.

 

Cali recently shared the FaceBook photos had posted ‘6-years ago’ during my very first try on the Harvest Tart.

In her recipe Cali writes: “…the original inspiration for this sweet and somewhat savoury tart is an Italian recipe for Schiacciata con Grappoli d’Uva, but several adaptations later, it is nearly unrecognisable. It has become a sort of crisp but chewy round flatbread, or sweet peppery pizza…”  In that first harvest tart my bread crust –I did not use Cali’s recipe– was OK, but not ideal, as the fruits were not well-incorporated on top, while the bottom was somewhat soggy. But it accompanied ideally the aged cheeses we served it with, especially the particularly spicy Sifnos Manoura, which ages in wine sediment.

 

 

When I made the tart again I chose to use instead of bread or pizza dough, the olive-oil-and-orange pastry that is so wonderful in my vegan olive pies. (more…)

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TAHINOPITES: Tahini, Cinnamon, and Walnut Cookies, in Lemon Syrup

Traditionally made in Cyprus before Easter, during the spring Lent – when all foods deriving from animals are prohibited – tahinopites are 6-7-inch round, syrupy breads, coiled and stuffed with a tahini mixture. As the coiled tahinopites bake, the thin layer of dough cracks and the stuffing oozes out, caramelizing; these crunchy, darkened, sugary tahini bits are the best bites.

Why not have more of the best parts of the pie? I decided to shape the dough differently in order to increase the caramelized area. The results are bite-size, cookie-like tahinopites — a kind of Eastern Mediterranean Cinnamon Rolls. It is important to get the highest quality tahini paste for these cookies. They taste best made a day in advance.  As they cool, they absorb and fully incorporate the lemony syrup.

Adapted from Mediterranean Vegetarian Feasts

Makes about 56 cookies

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