Monday, May 23, 2011

Greek Feast

One night over drinks at a bar, I was lamenting ot a good friend the demise of the "dinner party." Case in point, we were out at a bar having drinks, instead of at someone's house enjoying a lovely meal. I explained how I am always up for hosting a dinner party, but often can't find anyone who will come over! She agreed that we could host a party together, and since her family is Greek, we decided on a Greek-themed meal using family recipes from her grandmother.

I ended up getting the very sweet end of this dinner party deal, with my only responsibilities being cake (my favorite!) and ouzo. She purchased most of the appetizers, but then made all of the rest of the meal herself. A third friend offered up her kitchen and dining room for the festivities, kindly dispersing the clean-up duties, and we all enjoyed a massive Aegean indulgence.

Purchased spanakopita, olives, meatballs, and pita bread
accompanied homemade tzatziki for the first course.

 I don't know the secret recipe for the leg of lamb, but it was moist and tender, and had some delectable surprise garlic cloves tucked deep into the roast at unexpected places!

The complete spread, from back to front, includes roast leg of lamb, roast
chicken thighs with oregano, orzo baked with tomato sauce and topped
with fresh feta, Greek salad (horiatiki), and green beans sauteed with tomatoes
and garlic. Not pictured are roasted potatoes in lamb drippings.
For dessert, I was considering making bakalava, but honestly I've never used phyllo and it's a little intimidating. Besides, what you can buy is so good and so easy, and cakes are really more my specialty. When I came across this recipe for samali, "one of the great sweets of Thessaloniki" I knew I had my contribution. The Semolina and Ground Almond Cake recipe appears on Epicurious from Diane Kochilas's The Glorious Foods of Greece cookbook, so I assume that she knows something about traditional recipes. However, I believe this to be an interpretation of a more classical recipe, because I'm not sure how widely brandy would be used as a flavoring syrup, and some commenters on the recipe spoke of often having this cake flavored with rose water. Though many people dislike the strongly floral aroma of rose water in baked goods, I would have liked to try it, or at least know what the traditional recipe calls for before I made modifications. Nevertheless, this cake has an excellent texture, crumbly from the almond meal, but still moist and succulent from the soaking syrup.

We ate the cake with chilled ouzo, a Greek anise-flavored liquer.
Even if you think you don't like licorice flavor, ouzo has a unique
and delicious flavor that is definitely worth experiencing. It's also a
 built-in parlor trick, because while it's crystal clear in the bottle, when it's
chilled or served over ice, it turns a milky white. How does it do that??
I followed the recipe exactly as directed, except that I don't own a 12x18" pan so I baked it in a 9x13" pan. I think that was better anyway, because another reviewer mentioned that it was very shallow, and wished it had been a little higher. My finished cake was a standard 2", and surprisingly baked in the same amount of time - 35 minutes. I take away points on presentation for any cake that must be served in the baking dish. While incredibly delicious, it's perhaps a little more "homey" than my usual style to have to bring the cake to the table in the same pan in which it baked without being able to transfer it to a serving platter. Similarly, squares of cake are not as attractive to me as a sliced, layered wedge. When in Thessaloniki, I can certainly do as the Thessalonikians do, but next time I make it (and there will be a next time!) I will probably bake in a couple of round pans, and perhaps fill with a light lemon custard. I would also like to try a modification with the syrup... the recipe says to cook it until viscous, but I've never seen that happen with a soaking syrup, and I'm not sure it's necessary. I cooked mine the specified 10 minutes just to boil it down about 1/3. Use caution when pouring it over the cake, because I poured mine on too quickly and it washed off part of the pretty golden top crust. I both scored (as recommended) and poked holes all through the cake before pouring over the syrup, and baked an additional 8 minutes. But the change I'd like to try is to replace the syrup flavorings with whole anise seed and ouzo liqueur instead of the lemon, cloves, cinnamon and brandy.

If any of you dear readers have an opportunity to make this before I get around to it again, try the adjustments I've incorporated below to Ms. Kochilas's recipe.

Semolina and Ground Almond Cake
1 cup (2 sticks) plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter, softened
1 cup confectioners' sugar
4 large eggs, separated
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups coarse semolina
2 scant teaspoons baking powder
1 cup almond meal (available at Trader Joe's)
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

With stand mixer, whip butter until soft. Add the confectioners' sugar a little at a time and whip until fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each addition. Add the vanilla and continue whipping for about 5 minutes.

Combine the semolina, baking powder, almonds, and lemon zest in a small bowl. Slowly add the semolina mixture to the butter and sugar, beating to combine thoroughly.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Line two 8" (or 9") round baking pans (NOT with removeable bottoms, or the syrup will leak out) with parchment, and butter parchment and sides of pans. In a medium metal bowl, place the egg whites, salt, and lemon juice and whip with an electric mixer until stiff peaks form. Fold the meringue into the semolina mixture, incorporating well, but gently to not deflate the egg whites. Spread the batter into the prepared pans and bake until set, about 20-25 minutes (watch carefully, because I am guessing on the timing at this point and you don't want it to burn or dry out).

While the cake is baking, prepare the syrup:

2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 3/4 cups water
1 teaspoon whole anise seeds
1/4 cup ouzo (Greek anise-flavored liquer)

Combine the granulated sugar and water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. As soon as the sugar dissolves, add the anise seeds. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the ouzo.
When the cake is done, pull it out of the oven and reduce the oven temperature to 300°F. Poke holes through cakes with fork or skewer and slowly and gently pour over the hot syrup. Return to oven and bake until the syrup is absorbed, another 5 to 7 minutes. Let cool completely.

Lemon Cloud Filling
from Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Cake Bible, page 266.

3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/4 cup lemon curd

Have ready near stove a 1-cup heatproof glass measure.

In small heavy saucepan, stir together 3/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water. Heat, stirring constantly, until the sugar dissolves and the syrup is bubbling. Stop stirring and turn down the heat to the lowest setting.

In a mixing bowl, beat 4 eggs whites until foamy, add 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, and beat until  soft peaks form. Gradually beat in the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until stiff peaks form.
Increase the heat and boil the syrup until a thermometer registers 248 - 250 degrees F. Immediately pour into the glass measure to stop the cooking.

If using a stand mixer, pour a small amount of syrup over the whites with the mixer off and then immediately beat at high spped for 5 seconds and repeat until all syrup is incorporated.(This is to prevent the beater from flinging the syrup onto the sides of the bowl.) If using a hand mixer, pour the syrup into the whites in a steady strem, avoiding the beaters to keep syrup from spinning onto sides of bowl. Use a rubber scraper to remove the syrup from the measure, and beat at medium speed until cool, then fold in the lemon curd.

Layer the filling between the two cake layers, allowing some to drip down the sides if desired. Sprinkle top layer with a light dusting of powdered sugar (use a mesh sifter to get a fine, even dusting) and serve.


  1. I feel ambivalent about dinner parties, but I love potlucks... Although they are basically the same thing -- one just feels less snooty and awkward than the other. ;) Anyway, after traveling, I wanted to do a regular themed potluck/dinner party around international themes and holidays, but it never materialized!

  2. It can still happen! We'll host a potluck where everyone has to bring their favorite dish that they first ate in a foreign country.