If I remember correctly, it was during spring break of my first year of grad school that one of my closest friends made “the prophecy.” It was one of those whirlwind New York trips I used to take in those days: trips to the theater, an evening dancing at Beauty Bar, enough sugar in two or three days to last for the whole month. This trip in particular was a bit different, though: 1) I wasn’t supposed to be there as I was supposed to be in California both establishing and documenting my residency (never mind the fact that “real” Californians travel all the time; this logic didn’t count when you were trying to get reduced in-state tuition) and 2) a few of my friends and I got on New Jersey transit for an overnight visit a friend who was working in publishing at the time in Princeton. While the trip was generally fun, I remember emotions were running a little high when we were making our way back to New York. One friend wouldn’t go anywhere without getting coffee and, though the train was coming, decided to leisurely debate the many coffee choices at Walla Walla, which caused us to miss the train (the famous Princeton Dinky) and have to take a cab to the nearest New Jersey transit station. No matter. As my grandfather always says, “People get mad and then they get glad again.”

This was the mood when we found ourselves at a Mexican restaurant in the East (or maybe the West?) Village that day; because we had gone in there mainly to escape from the brisk winds that can accompany spring in New York and were in no mood to go back outside, we decided to linger over our burritos and chips and salsa by talking, as we inevitably did in those days, about “who we would end up with.” We were a gaggle of 23-year-old girls (women?) and we thought we knew each other well–well enough to be able to say with certainty what our romantic lives might turn into (I should mention here that we were all generally single–perpetually single–in these days). We had a lively debate about how things would go: who would be the first to marry would be (we were wrong), who would be a heartbreaker (again, wrong) and who would never marry (the jury is still out on this one). I’ll confess here that I was one of the heartbreakers. One of my friends predicted  that I would have a long relationship with a Greek–someone who she claimed could appreciate my femininity and love of frilly things–but would then get cold feet after he proposed…Then, after going “my own way,” around five or maybe ten years later, I would find myself with a Spaniard living out my days in some food paradise on the coast of Spain. I think it’s pretty safe to say that this isn’t going to happen, but still it’s funny to think that statements that were once made off the cuff in a so-so New York Mexican restaurant have turned out to contain some truth.

At the time, I vehemently rejected my friends’ prophecy, although it did remind me of one of my college crushes, Filippos, the handsome dark-haired, dark-eyed Athenian astrophysicist who lived on my floor sophomore year. He was the kind of guy who treated a crummy urban dorm like it was a Greek beach; he would, much to my horror, run around barefoot (think of the mice, roaches and rats that probably scurried about when nobody was looking) and sit in the lounge and soulfully strum a guitar. Once my friend Chris and I were sitting in the lounge, which was right next to the bank of elevators, and saw Filippos standing there waiting for one. We were both rather smitten with his fine Greek looks and spent a solid two minutes voicing our admiration to each other; it was only when he was getting into the elevator that we saw Filippos give us a bemused stare and began to wonder if we had made a colossal mistake. We looked at each other in horror. I don’t know who then told the other to go into the hallway to see if we would be audible from inside the glass-contained lounge, but lo and behold, one of us spoke, was heard by the other and we simultaneously gasped at our utter transparency and died of embarrassment . Until the Greek, this was the only Greek guy I even knew. It’s no wonder I wasn’t convinced by my friends’ words.
[A note on today’s form: I realize there’s little continuity to this post, but I’m trying something new here. I feel sometimes that, when writing these posts, I leave out the better part of the story. I ask myself, am I writing about food, am I writing about experience, am I writing about my life as it ties into food? I don’t think I have a firm answer to this question, although I suspect that it’s answer c) all of the above. I realize that this may be unsatisfying to some of you (if you visit this blog, I believe you all come for your own reasons and not every post will tie into those reasons), but I feel that stories are more jagged and splintered than we often allow them to be. Although we often try to condense it, one story inevitably ties into a hundred others. This isn’t to say that imposing a form on our stories and memories–some kind of linearity and structure–is a bad thing; it just means that we’re often forced to leave something out. Today I’m trying not to leave anything out.]

Years went by and I didn’t even think of this “prophecy” again until I met the Greek and decided I liked him. But I still think that my friends, at least in part, got it wrong. I think their need to pair me off with a European (or, as I now understand it, Balkan) guy was not so much the fact that he would appreciate a wardrobe of lacy shirts and flowery patterns, but that I would be kept on my toes by being compelled to immerse myself in another culture. It’s been almost five years, but even now I keep learning new things: what a fricassee means in Greece (it’s delicious. I will share soon; I promise), how frustrating it can be to deal with Greek verbs (I’ve studied many languages, but Greek is hard–harder even than Japanese. Or perhaps my thirtysomething brain just isn’t as pliable as it once was) and all the different desserts Greece has to offer, from its bracing mastic ice cream to crumbly halva(s).

When Americans think of halva(s), they tend to envision the sweet foil-wrapped candy that you can get from Middle Eastern grocery stores. This is the same halva I was introduced to in Russian in 2004 and consists of sesame paste (or any nut butter) and sugar; it’s wonderfully oily and melts in your mouth (I wrote about it before in the context of a Persian loaf cake; in Plenty More, which is largely inspired by Persian flavors and ingredients, Ottolenghi offers a version of this same cake). But there is the other kind, the “Greek” kind; this one, like many Greek, Turkish and Middle Eastern sweets, depends on a sugary syrup and toasted semolina. I consulted several Greek cookbooks to get a sense of its history, but in The Country Cooking of Greece Diane Kochilas says only that “stove-top semolina halvas…are pretty standard fare, known to all Greek home cooks as one-two-three (one part semolina, two parts sugar, three parts water). In Vefa’s Kitchen, the eponymous Vefa (Alexiadou), whom the Greek calls the Julia Child of Greek cuisine, offers a recipe for halvas with only the briefest of headnotes: “This typical Greek dessert is a taverna favorite all over the country.” Because I wasn’t getting the answers I was looking for in the Greek cookbooks (where is Evie Voutsina, that bastion of Greek culinary knowledge, when you need her?), I turned to Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food. In a description of a dish (ma’mounia) that sounds no different from the Greek halvas presented by Vefa and Diane, Roden digs into the dessert’s history, explaining that it was a “medieval sweet which was probably invented for the Caliph Ma’Moun in the tenth century.” She calls it a Syrian and Aleppan specialty that can be eaten for breakfast (this, I can promise, is recommended; it pairs well with strong coffee or black tea) or as a “delicious dessert” (broken up over vanilla ice cream, it’s three shades of heavenly) Supposedly, it is also the food that is served to a new mother to help her regain her strength (believe me when I say that, baby or no baby, this is worth eating).
Considering that the Greek has made halvas many times throughout our relationship, first for a Slavic Thanksgiving celebration and then at other moments when we’ve craved something sweet and fast, I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to write about it. I suspect it’s because “humble” daily fare sometimes doesn’t seem to be a thing worth writing about; these days, however, I’ve come to think  that these are the best kinds of dishes and there will be many more of them coming soon. The beautiful thing about halva(s) is that it comes together in a flash: you make the syrup and set it aside, then you heat the oil and add the semolina; while stirring the mixture, you add the syrup slowly and then cook for another five minutes. Although halvas can be eaten soft and in a bowl (it resembles a more textured pudding) we like to scrape ours into an ungreased Bundt cake pan with an intricate design; this way, when the halva has cooled and been removed from the pan, it will have taken on its  shape and, through really humble Greek fare, will sit as pert and pretty as the finest cake.

Because this is, in a way, the Greek’s post more than mine (as most people will tell you, the real substance of my writing occurs in parenthetical asides, so it is here that I will reveal that this post is scientifically celebratory: the Greek got a job offer in Delaware and, come the late summer/early fall, in yet another unexpected life twist, we will be moving to the “First State!”), he prepared a small history of halvas written in the style of a scientific paper–his preferred genre. I’ll offer a more “traditional” recipe below for those who prefer more of a step by step layout.

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The existence of semolina or tahini and oil-based desserts in Southeastern European and West Asian cultures has been well documented [1] [2] [3]. Herein we present a recipe for the preparation of halva with semolina, according to traditional Greek culinary practices [4].

Traditional mainland Greek cooking requires the use of clarified butter as fat for this recipe, presumably because of the broad availability of milk and butter [1]. However, in later literature, vegetable oil is preferred [5], due to the cost, the ease of handling and the lower saturated fat content [6].

Syrup for the halva was prepared by mixing 720 mL (3 cups) sugar (C&H) and 960 ml (4 cups) water (EBMUD). A cinnamon stick was added to the mixture to impart a cinnamaldehyde flavor, and then the mixture was heated to boiling temperature and stirred manually until all the sugar was dissolved. Then, 240 mL (1 cup) vegetable oil was heated in a 6 L (6 quart) stock pot to approximately 423 K and 480 mL (2 cups) semolina and 100 grams (3 ounces) raw almonds added to it. The mixture was stirred manually with a silicone spatula until the Maillard reaction [7], proceeded to a satisfactory extent, evidenced by the color change of the semolina to golden brown [8]. At this point, the syrup was added to the semolina mixture. This step should be performed with care and appropriate personal protective equipment, as hot oil and semolina might escape from the pot causing injury. After the addition, the halva is stirred for additional 5 minutes and then poured into a Bundt cake pan and cooled down. After cooling, the form is removed and the solid gel deposited onto a plate by reversing the form onto it. The sweet is further seasoned by ground cinnamon and consumed.
 

References

[1]
V. Alexiadou, Vefa’s Kitchen, London: Phaidon Press Ltd., 2009.
[2]
Ethnographic Museum of Thrace, “Sweets,” [Online]. Available: http://www.emthrace.org/ekthemata/zaxaroplastiki/glyka/. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
[3]
R. Vered, “Four stops for halvah,” Haaretz, 7 February 2008. [Online]. Available: http://www.haaretz.com/travel-in-israel/four-stops-for-halvah-1.238844. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
[4]
G. Grandmother, Interviewee, How to make halva. [Interview]. 2005.
[5]
Aleksandra, “Halva with perfect proportions,” Sintages tis pareas, 30 October 2009. [Online]. Available: https://www.sintagespareas.gr/sintages/xalbas-me-teleies-analogies.html. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
[6]
Medline Plus, “Butter, margarine, and cooking oils,” National Institutes of Health, 6 September 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/patientinstructions/000095.htm. [Accessed 1 March 2015].
[7]
L.-C. Maillard, “Action of Amino Acids on Sugars. Formation of Melanoidins in a Methodical Way,” Comptes Rendus, vol. 154, p. 66, 1912.
[8]
S. Everts, “The Maillard reaction turns 100,” Chemical and Engineering News, vol. 90, no. 40, pp. 58-60, 2012.
Greek Halvas
Yields about 10-12 servings
For the syrup: 
 3 cups sugar
4 cups water
1 cinnamon stick
In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, water and cinnamon stick. Heat until boiling, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat and set aside.
For the halvas:
1 cup vegetable oil (or 1 cup clarified butter)
2 cups semolina 
100 grams (3 ounces) raw almonds (optional)
Using a deep pot (this will help to prevent oil splatter), heat the oil gently (it should not sizzle) and then stir in the semolina and raw almonds. Keep stirring the semolina and almonds with a silicone spatula until golden brown and fragrant. 
Add the syrup slowly, stirring all the while. Once all of the syrup has been stirred in, keep cooking and stirring for another five minutes; the mixture with thicken until golden waves. Scrape into an ungreased Bundt cake pan and let cool. 

Once cool, place a plate or cake stand over the Bundt cake pan and quickly invert the pan. The halvas should slide out easily. Dust with cinnamon and enjoy.

12 thoughts on “Humble Greek Fare

  1. Ah, I love so many things about this post! But the baby is crying, so let me just say congratulations! And that for me your writing has always been like the loveliest afternoon cup of tea: always warm, always a treat:)

  2. I love this post so much — I found myself smiling all the way through! The grad school travel memory, the uncanny prophecy of friends, the halva lesson and recipe (it looks divine, and I love that you said “baby or no baby” because I don't want to have an excuse to eat this — it looks so perfect in texture and flavor, and so beautiful in the bundt pan!). Kosta's scientific excerpt is not only humorous, but actually makes me feel more open to scientific writing, since it's here on a topic I am actually excited about! And most of all, your impending new chapter in Delaware! I am so excited for you both, and wish you all the very best. (No more BART!) I'm glad I'll get to follow your story there via your blog, with a few more months of Berkeley first 🙂

  3. You are really too sweet to say that…I hope that if and when you do have time to stop by here, that it's with a cup of tea in hand and maybe some cookies or cake, too. 🙂 I'm sorry poor Micah was crying (is he teething? is it too early for such things?).

  4. So glad you enjoyed it! I think he had a lot of fun writing it. It's also nice to be able to show that this blog is 99.9% of the time a collaboration of tastes, tempers and writing styles. Hope E enjoyed it!

  5. I'm so glad to know I made you smile, Moriah! And to know that you're tempted by the beautiful simplicity of halva (so different from the other kind we both love, but equally good); no excuse is necessary for enjoying this treat!

    And I'm happy Kostas' blog appearance was so well received; I think it was fun for him to write it (so much more fun than his dissertation!) and really interesting for both of us to see how scientific writing translated to the medium of the blog–and also how a recipe could be written in a different way (needless to say, I was asking a lot of questions!).

    As for the chapter in Delaware, it's so hard to imagine, but I'm excited to think about a different landscape…and all the flavors that are potentially in store for me. 🙂 It is definitely a reason to keep up the blog and to be doubly happy about the blogs of friends. And who am I kidding? The end of my BART tenure will perhaps be the most exciting thing of all…. 🙂

  6. I know, completely unexpected, right? But the winds of change have finally come my way. 🙂

    Thanks, Ann! Kostas is happy his scientific writing has been such a hit…

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