Melomakarona

This week’s recipe was inspired by a class assignment brought home by my youngest daughter.  Affectionately called “Ellis Island Day”, the children pick a nationality from their family history and write an extensive report on that country, make a float for their country of origin and a choose a photo of one person from their family tree who immigrated from that country to display.  In addition, they may dress as immigrants from that country and bring food from that country to share with the entire grade.  So, of course, I volunteered to bake.  One of my daughters’ favorites is a Greek pastry called Melomakarona, pronounced meh-loh-mah-KAH-roh-nah.  In Greece, this pastry is typically a Christmas cookie.  But here in the States, we make them at all times of the year, for holidays and special occasions.

I volunteered to bake about a month ago and had sort of forgotten about it, until my little one reminded me that Ellis Island Day was this week.  I began to rethink my eagerness to help out yet again.  Really the last thing I wanted to do was spend a whole entire day baking cookies for grade-schoolers.  Really?  12 dozen cookies?  It’s not that the cookies are difficult to make, it’s just that the recipe, like many of my Greek recipes, makes so much food, which takes so much time.  When they decided to cook in the ‘old country’, they really cooked!  These recipes basically feed a whole village.   And, I could have used that time to go to yoga class, clean the house, or even catch up on my reading.

But I didn’t.  As I mixed the dough and shaped each cookie, I thought about my paternal grandmother, who must have made these cookies hundreds of times in her tiny kitchen in her little house in her small village. It got me thinking about how things used to be.  I’m sure she enlisted the help of at least one her four daughters to help with the baking.  While they baked, they would probably share with each other what was going on in their lives and the news of the day, maybe even throw in a little gossip.

So, what started out to be a daunting task of making literally over one hundred cookies each one shaped by hand, baked, then individually dipped in honey syrup, turned out to be quite a meditative day for me.  As I formed each cookie, I was repeating a task done by generations upon generations of Greek women before me.  It forced me to stop my busy life, if only for one day, and allowed me time to think about who I am, where I came from and where I’m headed.  And you know what?  I actually did draw a few conclusions on things that had been racing around in my head for a few weeks now.  So, who knows?  Maybe the goddesses of Mt. Olympus knew I needed this day to think and had this planned for me all along.  Thanks, Yiayia (Γιαγιά)!

Notes:  Please see recipe for Melomakarona on the Featured Recipe page.  These cookies will keep for up to 3 months.  And, the longer they sit, the better they taste!  Do NOT store in the refrigerator!  Store in an airtight container at room temperature.  Of course the goddess decided to dip a few of the pastries in chocolate.  And of course, they are out of this world.  Either way, traditionally plain or artfully dipped half in chocolate, you may be glad that the recipe makes so many cookies, because they disappear as quickly as a winged-footed god.

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Mother Knows Best

A hundred men may make an encampment, but it takes a woman to make a home. – Chinese Proverb

In honor of Mother’s Day, I’d like to tell you a bit about my mother and godmother, who have been the most influential women in my life and most encouraging of my epicurean abilities.

My godmother, Elizabeth, has long since passed away, but she was a remarkable woman.

My Godmother

She was a business owner, homemaker and mother of three girls, like me.  She was very dedicated to her church and quite frankly, probably the best cook ever.  She was in the restaurant business and she could single-handedly cook entire meals for church dinner dances serving hundreds of people in the basement of the church with little help from anyone.  She worked tirelessly, and she would bake for days and days on end.  There wasn’t any day that you could drop by her house unannounced and not have huge platters of sweets appear out of no where.  When I was little, our family would spend every Christmas Eve at her house.  The Christmas tree was in the back room next to the fire place with a crackling, roaring fire started by my godfather, Louie.  She had many grandchildren, so there were tons of presents under the tree.  But I knew that the biggest package under the tree was always for me.  Always.  She made me feel special each time I saw her.  I like to think that some of her cooking and baking talent was transferred to me in the olive oil she covered me with at my baptism.

Then there is my mother.  My mother is the most excellent cook and can create exquisitely delicious desserts.  There’s no one like her and there’s pretty much nothing she can’t make. No one – and I do mean NO ONE – can beat her Southern Fried Chicken with Sweet Gravy & Mashed Potatoes.  And she always made sure that every holiday and birthday was celebrated with an appropriate dessert.  (I won’t go into how mine always happened to be a cake with a pumpkin theme–that’s a blog post all on it’s own!)  She raised four children while at the same time helped to run a business.  She dedicated herself to her kids, driving us to lessons and clubs, sewing Halloween costumes and Easter dresses, helping with homework and somehow still managed to get everyone to sit down to a homemade dinner altogether most nights of the week.

So to these two women I say “Thank You!”  Thank you for teaching me your values, for your support and love, and for setting the best example of what it means to be a mother.

 

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What are friends for?

“An old friend will help you move. A good friend will help you move a dead body.” ~ Jim Hayes

I have this friend from college that I’ve known for what seems like forever.  The first time I met her, she was taking a blind fold off of me saying, “you don’t know me, but I’m going to be your best friend!”  Sure, there’s a story that goes along with that, but we’ll leave that for another day.

She is an absolutely amazing person!  And although her housekeeping habits drove me absolutely crazy, she taught me a lot.  One of the things she brought into my life is hazelnut Hazelnut spread with skim milk & chocolatespread.  I’m talking about Nutella.  There was always Nutella in our dorm room.  It was almost as if she’d have to give up her claim to being Italian, if we didn’t have a jar of the stuff somewhere.  I bet if you open her pantry today, there would be two jars of Nutella, one half empty and one waiting in the wings.

I remember the first time I tried it.  One morning as she was wading through the pile of papers and trying to get out the door for a class, she was eating Nutella.  The jar was open on the counter and we were out of bread, so she was eating it by the spoonful.  I sat and watched her with wonder.  Not only was she not making a sandwich out of this stuff, but she was eating it for breakfast!  Definitely not something a goddess would do.  After she left the room though, I took my own scoop of that creamy hazelnut chocolate spread.  I fell in love with it instantly.

Since college days I’ve discovered Pernigotti’s Nerogianduia.  If you like dark chocolate, Dark Chocolate Hazelnut Spreadthis will satisfy any craving you have.  It’s made with top quality hazelnuts and cocoa, like a dream in a jar.  There are tons of things that you can make with hazelnut chocolate spread, french toast, cookies, breads or cheesecake.  An old, simple favorite is spreading it on a slice of Italian bread with peanut butter.

But after all these years, my favorite way to enjoy it is sneaking a spoonful from the jar.  Boy does that bring back memories!  By the way, I’m not admitting that we’ve actually moved bodies, but there are some secrets that we’ll take to the grave.

Hazelnut Spreads

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The Dilemma

Remember that game that Joey and Phoebe played on Friends where you have two options and you have to respond with the first thing that comes into your head?  For instance, night or day, black or white, Coke or Pepsi, TV or radio, Facebook or Myspace?  You get the idea.

The Chocolate Muse’s version of the game might go something like this:  chocolate or vanilla, Hershey or Mars, nuts or plain, sweet or semi, milk or dark, red wine or coffee?

At the end of my last post, I suggested that you pour yourself a glass of wine to enjoy along with the ‘Scandalous Brownie’.  My choice was obvious.  Red wine over coffee with dark chocolate wins for me every time (provided it’s after 5:00 pm).  Maybe you don’t agree.  Okay, let’s look at it another way.  All evidence to the contrary, considering the line at my local Starbucks drive-up every morning, there is no god of coffee.  There is a god of wine, Dionysus.  He’s not only the god of wine, but also ritual madness and ecstasy.  He is credited as being the inspiration for Greek theater.  He represents things that are unexpected, outrageous or surprising.  He’s a fun guy!  How could you not choose wine over coffee?

But who am I kidding? I love coffee too!  Adding coffee to chocolate enhances the flavor.  And this goddess believes that you can really have it all.  Chocolate, wine and coffee!

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Scandalous!

So now that Easter is over, I asked myself this morning, “What should I do today?”  The answer is easy, of course.  Bake!  But after making truffles and cake pops for Easter, it would have to be something really special.  Something outrageous.  And chocolate.  After all, it is Easter Monday, the beginning of a new week and in many countries around the world, still a public holiday.  So, inspired by the small pile of dark chocolate candy my youngest set aside for me from her Easter egg hunt gatherings, I decided on Scandalous Brownies.  Using a basic recipe for a fudgy-type brownie, the goddess made a few changes and aptly named them “Scandalous”.  Why?  Because they are.  Even the making of this brownie is different.  The batter is not beaten, it is stirred.  And you watch them carefully, so as to not over bake.  This is not a chocolate treat in which to drown your sorrows or console your woes.  Oh no!  This brownie is exciting and sultry.  The anticipation of the exquisiteness of this rich treat begins about 10 minutes after you place them in the oven.  When the aroma of dark chocolate begins to fill the air, you know you have created something special:  a tasty work of art.

“The people no longer seek consolation in art. But the refined people, the rich, the idlers seek the new, the extraordinary, the extravagant, the scandalous.”  ~Pablo Picasso

So, pour yourself a glass of red wine, sit back and savor every bite.  Ahhhh…. absolutely scandalous!

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Confession

When you’re young, you’ll pretty much eat any brand or quality of chocolate.  Growing up in the Midwest, I’ve eaten my share of American milk chocolate, including Marathon bars and Chunky, a nostalgic favorite.  Yes, I know I’m dating myself!

But over the years I’ve developed a taste for really good dark chocolate and am always on the look out for new flavor combinations.  This past Christmas, Santa left a Lindt “A Touch of Sea Salt” Dark chocolate bar in my stocking.  Whoa!  It was out of this world.  And as luck would have it, I have apparently passed on my taste for chocolate to my girls.  Maybe ‘taste’ is the wrong word to use.  I would have to say it’s more like an I-need-chocolate-now-or-I-will-just-die craving.  A passion really.  So you can imagine how difficult it is to keep any chocolate stocked in my house.  I actually believe they have chocolate radar.  So, here’s my confession:  I keep a secret stash of chocolate.  Yep, a supply of chocolate just for me.  Except instead of Hershey and Nestles, the names have changed to the likes of Valrhona and Lindt.

Now, I wouldn’t call myself a chocolate snob.  I’m far from it.  But if you’re going to indulge, you should make it worth your while.  Sometimes that means enjoying a square or two of a Green & Black’s organic dark 85% while reading a book on a quiet afternoon.  Sometimes it means making a batch of chocolate chip cookies with your kids, and eating most of the chips before they get added to the dough while talking about events of the day.  Definitely worth it and both divine!

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My Chocolate Muse

“No Muse-poet grows conscious of the Muse except by experience of a woman in whom the Goddess is to some degree resident.” ~Robert Graves, British poet.

A muse is a deity that personifies various concepts like Force, Love, Harmony, Strength and Power. According to Greek mythology, there were three muses originally, and in later Hellenistic times society recognized nine muses, descendants of Zeus. Still other cultures allow for even more goddesses. Exactly how many there are isn’t important here. I’ll leave that to my brother, the mythology teacher.

What is important is that the concept is real. A muse is what inspires a writer or artist and guides their creativity, giving them the ability to do their best. Typically, the Muse is invoked at the beginning of an epic poem or major undertaking.

The Chocolate Muse is my personal endeavor to share my experiences. The goddess is present in me. My poetry is baking. And my Muse is chocolate. Divine. Innovative. Artful. Passionate.

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