Greece is a meeting place between East and West, its cuisine mixing classical Mediterranean cooking with "oriental" influences from the Middle East. Greek food remains true to its roots, like ancient philosopher Epicurus' dictum to "live well and enjoy the simple things in life."
There is nor doubt that most Greeks have a sweet tooth, but what follows a meal, even in restaurants, is usually a luscious piece of fresh seasonal fruit, whether it be figs and grapes in autumn, or peaches and watermelon in summer.
What we would normally call desserts are eaten as a separate meal in Greece. Most times these are consumed at the local zaharoplastio or pastry shop. Here many Greeks meet friends and family either during the day or late in the evening for coffee and sweet treats. The skills necessary to be a zaharoplastis (sugar sculptor) elevate cake and pastry making to a fine art. There is a breathtakingly enormous range of Greek desserts, cakes and pastries, which fall into several categories.
There are glyka tou tapsiou, "sweets from the baking dish", which are cakes or filo pastries such as baklava, sticky walnut cake and galaktoboureko. These are the baked sweet treats that are drenched in honey or sugar syrup, and they are often perfumed with orange blossom or rich spices.
Then there are glyka tou koutaliou, "spoon sweet," which are sweetmeats that are made between spring and early autumn. Almost any fruit or vegetable is preserved for these, with some of the most popular being sour cherries, orange peel, quince and eggplant (aubergine). Even highly perfumed spring roses are cultivated with a view to making a delicate rose-petal preserve.
There are also the very popular fried pastries. These range from diples and xerotiganites, to loukoumades or batter fritters, all of which are doused with a sticky honey syrup and sprinkled with cinnamon, crushed nuts or sesame seeds.
Finally, there are the puddings or desserts, most of which are made and served in individual bowls, to be eaten by whomever, whenever. These include rice puddings, halva and moustalevria or grape must pudding.
This style of cake has played a role in many family celebrations in many homes in Greece. Traditionally, it is served with lots of sticky lemon syrup, the type that only a cup of good Greek coffee could counteract.
1/2 cup (250 g/8 oz) raisins
100 mL (3 fl oz) brandy
30 mL (1 fl oz) ouzo
90 mL (3 fl oz) lemon juice
475 mL (15 fl oz) water
1 cup (250 g/8 oz) sugar
Sticky Yoghurt Cake
4 eggs, separated
1/3 cup (100 g/3 oz) caster (superfine) sugar
1/4 cup (100 g/3 oz) light honey
280 g (9 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
Finely grated rind of 2 lemons
90 g (3 oz) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
400 mL (13 fl oz) Greek-style yoghurt
Soak the raisins in the brandy and ouzo, preferably overnight. In a pan, heat the raisins and their syrup with the lemon juice, water and sugar. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Sticky Yoghurt Cake:
Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C (350 degrees F/gas mark 4). Grease and flour a 23 cm (9 in.) cake pan.
Beat the egg yolks with the caster sugar and honey until pale and creamy. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt together into a large bowl. Stir in the egg mixture and the lemon rind. Now stir in the melted butter and yoghurt, and incorporate well.
Whisk the egg whites until they form stiff peaks. Stir one-third into the cake batter to lighten. Gently fold in the remaining egg whites and pour the batter into the cake pan. Bake for about 35 minutes. Pour some of the raisin syrup over the cake and allow to soak through the cake. Serve the slices of cake with the poached raisins and more of the syrup.
Greek Cuisine: The New Classics
by Peter Conistis
Illustrated by Skye Rogers
Ten Speed Press, 1994
Reprinted with permission