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Creating old-world taste with a new twist
By Annie Overboe | Daily Herald Columnist
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Published: 11/4/2009 12:16 AM

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I love a good baking story and the tale that my friend, Mary Kapolas, once shared about her mother rolling phyllo dough with a broom handle was a good one indeed. Now that's culinary ingenuity.

Greek bakers know how to get the job done and they know how to deliver authentic old-world flavors.

Baklava is the perfect example, pairing the multilayered nuances of honey with chewy and savory walnuts. A splash of zesty lemon and earthy spices elevates this dessert to an old-world classic.

I got thinking about Mary's mom the other day and what I might learn from that tale. Could I meld that experience with my ingenuity and create a new dessert? Could I bring to life all those tantalizing concepts that seemed perfectly sound in my mind and bake them into a dessert brimming with great flavor and spot on texture? The possibilities enticed my taste buds as I decided to take on the task.

Not wanting to compete with baklava, I explored other baking venues while staying close to the honey and lemon flavor theme. Pie could come off cloying sweet, but a bar-style presentation, now that offered serious potential.

For bakers like me who often wander over to the culinary wild side, ovens provide a much needed reality check. After a few trials of my Greek honey nut bar, I raised the white-floured flag. Without phyllo dough for structure, the dessert puddled into a swirl of sweet disaster.

I had concentrated all my efforts on taming the honey, walnuts and spices that I broke a cardinal rule of baking - I neglected to consider how the ingredients in the original recipe contribute to the structure and texture.

My dessert needed a lift and more foundation. Paging through some vintage cookbooks, I ran across a few recipes for old-fashioned honey walnut cake. Solutions began to percolate in my kitchen.

Boosting the flour content in tandem with cutting back on the sugar provided much needed structural integrity. I replaced fresh lemon juice in the cake with the tang of plain low-fat yogurt and stirred citrus zest into the batter. To deepen the finished hue of the cake top, I substituted light brown sugar for granulated in the batter.

Cinnamon and clove play an important role by providing what I refer to as a dominant background flavor. In this batter less is more; scaling back the spices created a subtle, yet noticeable edge to the cake.

Honey brings a multifaceted sweetener to the soaking syrup. Unlike granulated sugar, liquid honey provides layers of distinctive flavors and as a bonus, adds moisture to the cake's crumb. This nicely contrasts against the coarse and chewy texture of walnuts.

Fresh lemon takes on the role of secret ingredient in today's recipe and classic baklava by tying honey and cinnamon flavors together while keeping the sweetness in check.

Imitation is the sincerest form of appreciation and while today's dessert cannot compare to authentic baklava, it pays homage to the Greek culinary traditions and tastes so effectively showcased in old-world classics.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lines in Villa Park. Write her at food@dailyherald.com. Questions will not de responded to personally.