Sweet, Greek and Healthy
Natural sweeteners and other Greek ingredients make the dessert course good for you.
By Georgia Kofina / Photography: Vassilis Stenos/ Food Styling: Tina Webb
Natural sweeteners such as honey and fruit have always been part of the Greek diet. Honey and nuts were served at the end of ancient symposia as a calmative, expressing ancient notions regarding the harmony between food and health. The combination of honey and nuts became the basis of other, more complex sweets despite the advent of sugar, which was introduced to Greece in the 7th century by Arab traders.
Today, many of the raw ingredients in ancient confectionery are still the basic components of the Greek sweets tradition. Today, we’ve all been conditioned to associate desserts or any sweets, for that matter, with dishes that are filled with milk, cream or butter, eggs and sugar.
We forgo dessert out of the fear of fat. Yet Greece’s tradition of healthful sweets offers a great alternative to desserts made in a more western tradition. The basic raw ingredients that have remained unchanged over the eons include: grape molasses, raisins, figs, honey, nuts, sesame seeds and paste, olive oil and wine.
Homemade spoon sweets are now produced in state-of-the-art workshops that meet all international standards.
The raw ingredients of Greece’s healthful sweets are nutritional powerhouses. Take honey, revered by the Greeks since at least 2500 BC, for example. Honey is a known antioxidant that is extremely rich in vitamins, minerals and complex carbohydrates. Dried fruits, which were served with wine at the ancient symposia, are also a rich source of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants.
Another ancient sweetener still used extensively in the traditional kitchen is petimezi, or grape molasses, which is made by boiling down fresh must from crushed grapes to a syrupy consistency. It is stored in airtight jars. Petimezi has a wide range of uses: it goes into cakes, such as the Cretan petimezopita, a simple cake made with grape molasses, olive oil, orange juice, spices and sesame seeds that harks back to the ancient tradition of making an offering to the gods right after the grape harvest. Petimezi is a main ingredient in seasonal puddings and cookies, but nowadays has found dozens of uses in both the sweet and savory Greek kitchen.
It is delicious and extremely nutritious when mixed with tahini (sesame paste) and spread on good, whole-grain bread.
Unfermented grape must—mousto—is also popular in traditional sweets, and at least two such sweets take their names from it. One is moustalevria, a kind of pudding of grape must thickened with flour and sprinkled with walnuts or sesame seeds. Moustalevria serves as the gelling agent in one of the great Greek confections, a sausageshaped sweet called soutzouki, in which threaded walnut halves are repeatedly dipped in warm moustalevria.
The resulting confection does, indeed, look like a sausage, and like a sausage it is hung out to dry. It is chewy and intense.
It is served cut into thick rounds. Hearty cookies are also made with mousto. These are called moustokouloura (koulouri refers to a donutshaped biscuit or bread). Moustokouloura are popular during the grape harvest and also during winter fasting periods.
ANCIENT SWEETS FOR A MODERN SWEET TOOTH
While the raw ingredients of many Greek sweets are the same today as they were in the ancient world, pastry techniques are more complex now. Basic Greek sweets were transformed into highly specialized and artful delicacies in the well-equipped and well-staffed kitchens of the Byzantines. Unusual, celebratory and ritual sweetbreads, which were part of ancient pagan traditions, were co-opted and developed. Spongy cakes and phyllo pastries, often filled with nut-andhoney or grape molasses-and-driedfruit combinations, were born then. One ancient confection which hasn’t changed much over the eons is pasteli, a thin brittle-like sweet made with sesame seeds and honey. Homer mentions it in the Iliad and it was thought of as an aphrodisiac. Pasteli is arguably the world’s first energy bar, packed with calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium and vitamin E.
Sesame seeds also have long been an ingredient in cakes and sweet breads. Another group of ancient sweets that seem uncannily the same now as they were 2,000 years ago are the various regional confections made with dried figs.
One of the most exotic is the sykomaida of Corfu, made with dried figs, nuts and spices kneaded with ouzo (not an ancient elixir!). Such dried fig pies are made all over the islands, and often flavored with herbs such as bay leaves and oregano, or with sesame seeds and nuts. The dried fruit is the only sweetener in these fiber-filled snacks.
Koufeto, an almond-honey confection from Santorini.
NUTS FOR HEALTH
Almonds, walnuts and hazelnuts are all popular ingredients in a wide range of Greek confections.
They provide energy and are good sources of unsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and fiber. They are also antioxidants and contain no cholesterol. Ground nuts and nut pastes are common basic ingredients in many of the sweetmeats in the Aegean islands. These might be the myriad selection of ground almond and sugar confections called amygdalota or the rozedes of Kythera, which are a mixture of ground nuts, sesame seeds, honey and tsipouro (a distilled spirit), shaped into tiny balls or small cylinders. Amygdalota are the Greek island sweet par excellence, served at weddings, made and sold locally, the stuff of regional pride. They are made with a coarse marzipan and seasoned with rose or orange blossom water and dusted with powdered sugar. They might be log-shaped or pear-shaped or balls; in many of the Cyclades they are served at weddings or baptisms.
The whole category of Greek spoon sweets, basically whole fruits and a few vegetables preserved in syrup, traces its roots to the Byzantine era. Nuts, especially immature pistachios and walnuts still in their soft, green shells, are an important main ingredient in several unique spoon sweets. Nuts, especially almonds and walnut kernels, have been served with or preserved in honey since antiquity.
Arguably one of the most unusual, exotic nut preparations is the milky almond syrup called soumada, which is made on Chios, as well as in many of the Cyclades islands, Crete, Lesvos and Lefkada. It is sometimes used as an ingredient in other desserts, especially in the contemporary pastry kitchen, and served as a beverage at many Greek island weddings and christenings.
Another basic ingredient found in many traditional sweets is tahini, or sesame seed paste. It is the basic raw ingredient in a specific type of halva from northern Greece, which is sometimes also studded with nuts or laced with cocoa, vanilla or honey. Sesame paste halva is typically shaped into a block, sliced, drizzled with lemon juice and enjoyed as a classic Lenten sweet.
It provides a tremendous energy boost of protein and calcium during fasting periods.
Because tahini is so nutritious it’s widely used in many traditional Lenten sweets. Crisp tahini cookies often flavored with mastic are rolled in sesame seeds before baking and moist tahini cakes with nuts, dried fruit and honey are standards during fasting periods. “Tahinopita” is yet another nutritious treat made with a yeast dough, tahini, sesame seeds and spices, pulled and swirled into a flat round bread. It belongs to the traditions of the old Greek communities of Asia Minor but now can be found in many health food stores throughout the year.
Last but not least, olive oil is the fat of choice in numerous traditional Greek sweets. Even some of the fried sweets are cooked in olive oil, which has a higher smoking point that of vegetable oils and retains both flavor and nutrients more readily.
MODERN HEALTHY GREK SWEETS
Contemporary Greek pastry chefs have embraced the gamut of natural sweeteners and, using modern techniques, have created a range of great new confections and desserts unthinkable just a few years ago. For example, Stelios Parliaros, one of Greece’s top pastry chefs, has developed spoon sweets with various dried fruits using honey instead of sugar syrup; he makes sorbets, creams, even crème brulee with soumada; and, he has created a whole repertoire of sweets based on olive oil, tahini, and more. His combination of tahini and chocolate is brilliant. Another pastry chef, Dimitris Giourgoulis, who works at the five-star StratosVasilikos Hotel in Athens, has developed rice pudding recipes with tahini, dried fruits and nuts; phyllo desserts filled with dried fruits and drizzled with honey; and bread with petimezi, olive oil, honey and nuts. One of his signature desserts is a pistachio-honey pasteli topped with light cheese mousse. The combinations are endless. All one needs is a wealth of great, healthy raw ingredients and natural sweeteners. Greece is blessed with both.