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Sunday, 6 November 2011

Pastitsakia (Παστιτσάκια)

My mother, like most Greek-immigrant mothers of her generation,was a very welcoming host. It was of utmost importance to her that there was always a treat in the house that she could serve to any guest who dropped by with or without notice. In 1980s Wellington, many people were still dropping in to see their friends and neighbours giving no more than half an hour's notice - life was less complicated then: there were no mobile phones, no social computer networks and less junk food.

 In my desire to create a ,ore positive mood in the home amidst the gloomy political, economic and social climate that my country finds itself in, I decided to resurrect one of my mother's kitchen traditions: the three cookie bins. I found these glass jars at a home store in the town: 6.50 euro each. They are slightly smaller than my mother's. They are about to become Pensieves, catching memories from my mother's kitchen.

Once my parents got the kitchen cupboards installed, my mother then bought three large plastic transparent containers, each one with an orange lid. They looked like large flour and rice bins, but mother used them as cookie bins. Each one was filled with a different home-made Greek cookie. When we had guests, she'd ask one of her children to take out a cake plate from the wall unit and place one of each cookie on the plate. The plate was then placed on a silver serving tray (lined with a crochet doily), with a paper napkin folded into a triangle underneath the plate (to make sure it wouldn't fly away) and a glass of water next to the plate. This ensemble was taken to each individual guest, placed beside him or her, on one of two sets of nestled tables (three in each set) that were in our lounge (a room used only when there were guests).

The cookie bins were kept under the kitchen worktop in a corner cupboard. Mother made it clear to everyone in the house that their contents were not for us; when we wanted to eat a biscuit, we had to look for the Griffins Round Wine or Super Wine biscuits which she bought from the supermarket. We were only allowed to eat one (not all three) when we had guests.

These cookie bins were kept filled all year round. As one emptied, she'd make a new batch of its former contents to fill it. All year round in our house, we had kourambiedes and melomakarona (often called finikia in Crete), two sweet biscuits that we only see for two months of the year in the local stores; in Hania, they are specifically associated with Christmas (although kourambiedes are considered a wedding or even everyday biscuit in other parts of Greece). 

The third cookie bin contained a cupcake biscuit which we called 'pastitsaki'. A ball of dough was moulded into a paper patty case. A cavity was created on the top of the dough ball, which was filled with a meringue mixture, and sprinkled with chocolate snow. I have never seen it served in other people's houses, and I haven't seen it anywhere since I came to Greece. I looked up recipe books, searched the internet, asked other cooks, but to no avail. No one knew what I was talking about!

My mother's cookie bins didn't survive the journey to Greece (I remember that one had broken, another had become chipped and the last one was given to a relative), but her cooking journals did. I was about 12 years old when my mother's old recipe journal became tattered and she had asked me to transcribe all the recipes into a new book. Looking through my mother's recipe notes, I found a listing for pastitsakia. My mother only kept a record of the ingredients list, not the method. To add to the confusion, her idea of measurements was quite unique: eg 'a packet of butter minus one line'! To make this recipe, I had to rely entirely on memory. The following notes come directly from my mother's cooking journal: I halved the recipe and got 20 pastitsakia.

For the dough, you need:
a packet of butter minus one line (my mother always bought NZ butter in 500g blocks, which were marked for every 50g by lines, hence 450g)
6 egg yolks
a glass of sugar (my mother's idea of a glass was a tall slim one usually used to serve water, hence 300ml)
a teaspoon of baking powder
όσο αλεύρι σηκώσει - a classic phrase in the Greek cook's terminology, meaning: "as much flour as needed" (and just how much flour is 'as much as needed'?! That all depends on whether the mixture will be a dough or a batter!)

Thankfully, I remember making these with my mother, so I could remember the consistency. I decided to soften the butter, cream it together with the sugar, then beat in the egg yolks, and finally add enough flour to get a soft dough. The dough was rolled into balls large enough to fit into medium-sized cupcake cases, depressed in the middle to form a cavity.
 

For the filling, you need:
a packet of icing sugar (they came in 250g packaging)
a packet of almonds (I remember small packets of nuts, around 150g)
some coconut (this could mean anything - I used a fistful)
6 egg whites

The only note I had about the filling was that the mixture must be stiff. So I mixed together the icing sugar, (grated) coconut and the (blanched and finely ground) almonds, which I added to the lightly beaten egg whites. The consistency of the mixture was quite liquid, but very thick. The cavity in the dough balls was filled with this mixture - it doesn't matter if the mixture runs over into the paper case. The meringue mixture was topped with chocolate snow. 

The biscuits are baked in a moderate oven until the meringue sets and they turn golden brown (about 25 minutes).

During the recent political turmoil in Greece, meaning the episode that caused the whole world to turn its eyes on Greece and forget about the G20 summit meeting in Cannes, transforming Sarkozy's turn to host it into a circus of parading monkeys (του την κάναμε του Σαρκοζή), I went on a baking (not banking) frenzy to keep myself awake so that I could hear the outcome of the Greek Prime Minister's confidence vote; I wanted to know what kind of dawn I'd be waking up to the next day...

In this way, I filled one of my new cookie jars with memories of my mother's kitchen. My pastitsakia tasted just like I remember them. On the same night, I also made some kourambiedes, in readiness for the festive season; some shops have already put Christmas decorations on display. Only the third cookie jar remains to be filled; I'm sure I will get round to filling it some time soon.

These biscuit cupcakes can also be made with olive oil instead of butter; the texture and taste are not the same, but they are just as good.

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