I know January’s the season for resolutions and abstention, but there’s no antidote to howling gales and drenching rain in salad or steamed vegetables. For me, the grey chill of Christmas-gone-by calls for unctuousness and soft textures, for slow-simmering, fragrant stews and heavily buttered carbohydrates, so resolutions be damned. I’m in the mood for the kind of comfort Greek winter food brings.
If you’ve read The Messenger of Athens, you’ll know the Greek islands can be bitter cold in winter. Our old stone house was draughty and damp, and to fight the chill I spent a lot of my time cooking traditional island dishes – stuffed cabbage leaves, chick-peas, lentils, soups, pasta and rice pudding. In winter, we ate very little meat; off-tourist-season, money was tight, and meat was expensive. By December, our boat was in dry-dock, so there was no fishing for us. The winter months were tough, time to be thrifty and resourceful, and to make use of what was plentiful, and cheap – oranges and lemons, wild greens we gathered ourselves, lettuce and onions from the garden, nuts and eggs from the backyard.
I felt the cold terribly, but I was resourceful in staying warm and keeping the electricity bill manageable at the same time. I had a cunning plan: I used to bake.
Greek women are wonderful bakers, especially at the major festivals of Easter and Christmas, where they turn their talents to intricate cookies, savoury pies and syrup-laden pastries. But for everyday consumption, the dish of choice is cake, one of the best of which is a moist, sticky orange and almond cake.
I love this cake so much, I served it to Hermes for breakfast in The Lady of Sorrows, along with fresh figs and a dish of chilled, creamy yogurt. Hermes ate his slice of almond cake at the height of summer, but it comes into its own at this time of year when oranges are at their sweet and juicy best. It’s comfort food as the gods intended. Try it, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
For the Cake:
1 big or 2 small oranges
125 g ground almonds
175 g softened butter
175 g caster sugar
3 large eggs
250 g semolina
4 teaspoons baking powder
For the Syrup:
5 tablespoons water
5 tablespoons orange juice
1 tablespoon lemon juice
A piece of cinnamon, or a teaspoon of ground
Preheat the oven to 180C. Prepare a 22 cm cake tin.
Remove the pips from the oranges. Cut the fruit into wedges and reduce to a puree in a food processor.
Blend the remaining cake ingredients until smooth and fold in the orange puree. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and smooth the top.
Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean from the centre of the cake. If the top is becoming too brown, cover with a piece of foil.
In the meantime, make the syrup by simmering all the ingredients until thickened but still runny. Allow to cool to just above lukewarm.
Leaving the cake in the tin, pierce all over with a skewer and pour over the syrup.
Allow to cool before removing from the tin.
Serve, if you like, with thick Greek yogurt or marscapone.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.