The week before Easter it is customary throughout Greece to bake biscuits; but these bright yellow, spicy ones were very different from the sweet, laden with eggs cookies I was familiar with…
Ever since I tasted these yellow biscuits in a bakery in Astypalaia–the butterfly-shaped, first island of the Dodecanese–about twenty years ago, I’ve been addicted to their slightly peppery taste and crunchy texture. When I first sampled the original, made with yeasted dough, I was startled by their lightness. The ring-shaped cookies were fragrant with allspice, nutmeg and another aroma that I couldn’t make out. The baker told me it was saffron that the women of the island collected from the hills each November, especially for these Easter cookies.
The week before Easter it is customary throughout Greece to bake Easter biscuits, but the ones I was familiar with were sweet and laden with eggs. As I learned later saffron biscuits are found only on this tiny island.
In the ancient texts of Athenaeus bread with saffron is described as one of the foods served at symposia, but in modern Greece—although we produce and export excellent saffron from Kozani— we use hardly any of the precious spice in our traditional dishes.
I believe that this recipe must be a very old one, and probably this is the reason it contains no sugar. The women of the island keep the tradition and bake large quantities of biscuits every Easter, which they form into large rings (about 5 inches across). They bake and dry them in the communal oven and send some to their relatives in Athens, storing the rest in large tin boxes; they keep for a long time.
It was these cookies that triggered my interest in island cooking. They were so unlike anything else I had ever tasted! The fat in the original yeasted dough was a creamy chlori, the ricotta-like fresh cheese produced by shepherds from the milk of the island’s semi-wild goats. I’ve experimented with various soft cheeses in the dough, since it’s impossible to find anything like the Astypalaian chlori. Ordinary ricotta didn’t work. My best results were with a combination of yogurt, cream and butter. I use sheep’s milk yogurt in my Yogurt Bread and you can bake this variation for exquisite saffron paximadia, which are closer to the ones women baked in the old days.
I start with the baking-powder version, a variation on the original yeasted biscuits, which produces very good results quite fast. These biscuits are great as snacks, with coffee or drinks, and are an ideal accompaniment to soft cheeses, both sweet and creamy ones, like manouri and ricotta, and sharp ones, like Gorgonzola, Roquefort or any other blue.
See the Recipe: Saffron, Allspice and Pepper Biscuits