Olives, Tears, and a Pastry From a Volcano

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“Where are we going today?”

The kids took a look at the atlas I had opened and placed on the table.

“Greece!”

“Yep. We’re still talking about early civilizations and how people developed their natural resources. Like the people of Mesopotamia and ancient China, the ancient Greeks took what grew around them and used it to their advantage.”

The kids took some guesses about what ingredient we’d be using in our lesson.

“Wheat?”

“A fruit?”

“The olive.”

An indigenous variety of olive was already growing in Greece before the first people settled there, but the fruit of the wild olive yields little oil. The tree was native to the Levant as well, and people in both places did what people do once they realize the potential of a resource — they domesticated it. 

Evidence suggests that by 4000 B.C.E., people along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean had already started cultivating the tree. Anyone want to take a guess which countries make up that area now?”

“Um…”

“Turkey?”

“Yes! But also, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. And then the Minoans, who settled on the island of Crete, also realized the value of the olive. Archaeologists have found olive presses and large jars for storing oil there.”

We talked about why olive oil was so prized: for eating and cooking, as fuel, taken as medicine, and used cosmetically. It also played a part in religious rituals.

“Which is why it was a major part of the economy and trade in the Mediterranean, and why the Greeks continued to breed more varieties of olives when they took over after the Minoan decline.”

I explained that olive trees need coastal semi-arid land. We consulted the map.

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“That’s a lot of coast.”

The ancient Greeks’ main trade items were oil and wine, and they spread out and colonized areas where the tree could grow — Italy and Sicily, the Iberian peninsula, and the coast of France. 

“Olives and olive oil are a huge part of Greek culture.”

Most of them remembered the myth of Athena and Poseidon, and some of them were very enthusiastic about telling it to those who didn’t.

I continued on with my list: “Olive oil still plays a part in the religious lives of the Greeks. The olive branch signifies peace and love. And yes, they consume a lot of olive oil.”

While the Greeks aren’t the largest producer of olive oil, they consume the most per capita.

“5 gallons?!”

We imagined people with very sleek hair.

“Most people think of olive oil as a savory ingredient, but Greeks use it in everything, even pastry.”

Melitinia are traditionally made the week of Easter — to be eaten once Lent is over — and come from the island of Santorini. 

The kids found the history of Santorini interesting, and we talked for a few minutes about how a caldera is formed.

They again took a look at the map, noticing that the archipelago that Santorini is part of forms a circle.

“Ohhh, I see it!”

“But the map says Thira.”

“You guys might remember from our history reading that the Minoans on Crete were impacted by a huge volcanic eruption, one that may have contributed to that civilization’s decline — that was Thira.”

On to the baking portion of the lesson.

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We had an extra little helper who wanted in on the action.

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“The melitinia is filled with sweetened cheese flavored with mastic.”

“What’s mastic?”

Mastiha (mastic) is the resinous sap that is exuded from the Pistacia lentiscus chia tree when it is wounded. Chian mastic growers make small cuts in the tree and collect the globules of sap, called tears. These “Tears of Chios” are used in food and drink, in the medical/pharmaceutical and chemical industry, and in cosmetics and perfume. They are a Protected Designation of Origin product.

The kids chewed away as we discussed the meaning of masticate.

“It tastes like forest.”

“I think I’ve got one stuck in my braces.”

Uh oh.

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Dental crisis averted, we returned to mixing the filling.

The kids took turns pulverizing the mastic tears with a bit of sugar.

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Then we began filling and pleating the pastry.

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The kids did a great job with their nimble little fingers, and the melitinia baked up into lovely little golden suns.

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While our pleating may not have been quite up to yia yia standards, the kids were proud of their Greek pastries, and even happier to eat them.

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Melitinia (adapted from several recipes)

Makes about 24

The pastry is traditionally made with olive oil, but can also be made with butter. The filling is supposed to be a Greek, usually homemade, unsalted goat cheese, or a soft, moist mizithra, neither of which are easy to find here. After consulting several recipes, I settled on a combination of homemade ricotta and a good Greek feta.

All the recipes I read included mastic, but if you don’t have mastic, the vanilla alone should do.

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 cup olive oil or melted butter (unsalted)

1/4 cup water

Combine the flour and salt in a large bowl. Add the oil while using your fingers to rub the mixture until crumbly. Add the water and mix until the dough can be gathered into a ball. Press the dough into a round and wrap it tightly in plastic wrap so that it doesn’t dry out. Set aside to rest for an hour or refrigerate overnight. Bring the dough back to room temperature before rolling out.

1/2 cup of the freshest ricotta you can find, (see above), or a good, soft goat cheese

2 ounces good quality feta cheese, crumbled

1 large egg, room temperature

1/2 cup sugar

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon vanilla

a rounded 1/4 teaspoon powdered mastic (we ground the tears in a mortar with a bit of sugar)

3 Tablespoons of unbleached all-purpose flour

When you are ready to form the melitinia, prepare the filling: combine the cheeses, egg, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, and mastic in a bowl. Whisk together until well blended. Beat in the flour until combined.

Heat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Divide the dough in half. On a floured surface, roll one potion as thin as possible. Use a round cutter to cut out as many rounds as you can. (I used a 3 1/4″ cutter and was able to get about 10, then another two out of the re-rolled scraps). Repeat with the remaining portion of dough.

Working with one dough round at a time, spoon 1 T of filling onto the center. You can dampen the perimeter of the dough round with a bit of water to help with the pleating of the dough. Use your fingers, (we used our fingers and a toothpick), to pinch and flute the dough around the filling. Here’s a video demo. Ours were not that tight or neat, but you get the idea.

Place the melitinia on a parchment covered baking sheet and a bake until golden and crisp, about 30 – 35 minutes. Let cool for few minutes before sprinkling with powdered sugar.

 

 

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Ancient Carbs, Part 2: The Year of the Dog

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The Yellow River Breaches Its Course ~ Ma Yuan

 

“The last time we were together we talked about first civilizations and Mesopotamia. Do you guys remember how people settled near the rivers there and started cultivating plants for food?”

“The Tigris and the Euphrates! They grew wheat there!”

“Right! Now we are moving east, to China, where people also settled near rivers. Anyone know which rivers those are?”

“The Yellow River!”

While they had a hard time identifying the Yangtze, they did remember that the people of the ancient civilization in the Yellow River Valley grew rice in the fertile soil near the perpetually flooding river.

Growing rice requires a lot of water, but millet, a naturally prolific crop in China, does not. The fast-growing, small-seeded grass thrives in warm, dry conditions, and is therefore especially well-suited for the more arid climate of northern China. In fact, scientific studies suggest that people there cultivated millet even before rice.

Some of the kids knew what millet was.

“It’s bird seed!”

I told them all about the exciting 2005 archaeological find at Lajia, an excavation of a Bronze Age site on the banks of the Yellow River in central China.

“So, the noodles they found in an upturned bowl were about 4,000 years old!”

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From BBC News (Image: Nature/KBK Teo/E Minoux et al)

 

“Ewww. I don’t think I want to eat noodles anymore.”

My son is sensitive when it comes to food imagery.

I explained how the airless conditions in the bowl had prevented the noodles from decaying. Scientific analysis proved that they were the same age as the excavation site and were made from both foxtail and broomcorn millet.

“So, this provided some evidence in settling a long running argument about the origin of noodles. The earliest record of noodles in China was written sometime between AD25 and 220. Up until the find at Lajia, the question of whether noodles were first invented by the Italians, the Arabs, or the Chinese, had still been up for debate.”

There seems to be an endless variety of Chinese noodles: cut, extruded, flicked, pulled or kneaded, and even shaved. Yet the most basic are made from a simple combination of starch flour, water, and sometimes salt.

We checked out a video of a cook making shaved noodles, and then another fascinating video about the art of making 9-foot long noodles by hand.

“The Lajia noodles were thought to be similar to a pulled type called la mian — la means to stretch, and mian means noodle.”

I showed them yet another impressive video of a la mian noodle master.

La mian noodles are made with flour derived from wheat; the gluten in wheat provides the plasticity and elasticity required for the repeated twisting and folding of the dough. I like to compare the process of kneading dough to straightening out a messy pile of yarn — the goal is to align the gluten strands just like one would line up the separate pieces of yarn.

“Ok, so we’re not making those. Nor are we doing a noodle dance.”

I told them they could go home and do the noodle dance in their own kitchens.

Instead, we would be making an easy pulled noodle based on this recipe.

I had mixed and kneaded the dough in advance because the gluten has to rest and sufficiently relax before it can be pulled.

I filled two pots with water, and while those came to a boil, I cut the noodle dough into strips.

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I showed the kids how to take a strip of dough, one end in each hand, and simultaneously stretch and pull it, bouncing it a little as it lengthened. Then, I took hold of one end and stretched it even more, pulling the noodle through my hands as if I were measuring out a length of ribbon.

“Long noodles are supposed to signify a long life. It’s ok if you break your noodle, but you’re never supposed to cut them.”

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The kids were a bit cautious at first, but they soon got into a groove.

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And then they started cranking out noodles like experts.

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I had them stand away from the stove while they pulled the noodles, moving in only to take turns gently lowering their long strips of dough into the pots of water.

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While we stretched and cooked, we talked about the importance of noodles in Chinese culture and the upcoming Chinese New Year.

“Hey, how can it be the New Year when it’s already February?”

Ah, but they already knew all about it, and informed me that the date of Chinese New Year is dictated by the lunar calendar. (I knew this)

Specifically, the first day of the new year falls on the new moon between January 21 and February 20.

“So it can be a different day every year?”

“Yep! Anyone know which animal is represented this year?”

“The dog!”

We continued chatting, noodling, and cooking.

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I fished the noodles out of the water as they finished cooking and placed them in a nearby colander set over a bowl. They stayed fairly warm until all of the rest were done, but a short dousing of hot water refreshed and reheated them enough to toss with some ginger-scallion sauce and quickly sautéed veggies.

The moment before we ate was a flurry of activity — the kids were absolutely dyyyying to eat the noodles they had so proudly stretched. I felt a little like Kung Fu Panda slinging noodle bowls onto the table in front of eager diners.

The kids further dressed their noodles with hoisin, tofu, and other assorted items.

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The noodles got a hearty thumbs up from all involved. My son requested that we make them again immediately. I guess the ancient noodles hadn’t put him off his lunch after all.

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Hand-Pulled Noodles

Maggie Zhu over at Omnivore’s Cookbook gives excellent and detailed instructions on making this type of pulled noodle. I followed her recipe, mixing the dough in my stand mixer for 15 minutes.

(I highly recommend making the dough the day before you plan on pulling the noodles. I did a practice run, cooking the dough the same day I mixed it, but the noodles made from the overnight dough turned out much nicer and thinner.)

Mix the dough, cover it and let it rest for two hours, then divide it into eight pieces. Lightly coat each piece with oil, cover tightly, and refrigerate overnight. Let the pieces come to room temperature, then pat each piece into a rectangle and place on a lightly oiled sheet pan. Keep pieces covered until ready to pull.

When you are ready to cook the noodles, cut each rectangle into strips on a lightly floured board — remember that they will get thinner as you pull them! Cook them in boiling water for 1-2 minutes. They are pretty much ready when they float. Drain and keep warm.

Maggie advises bringing the water to a “roaring boil” for the most authentic chewy texture. I didn’t do this for the kids’ batch because we had so many arms and hands about, but the noodles turned out just fine. They were a bit softer than my test batch, but nobody seemed to care!

I made a double recipe of Ginger Scallion Sauce that we tossed the finished noodles in. I also quickly sautéed some shredded cabbage and carrots with some chopped garlic and added those to the bowl. We placed extra sauce, some sliced red pepper, hoisin, tofu, soy sauce, and Sriracha on the table and let each kid dress their own noodles.

This was a hit with the kids, and super fun for all involved. Give it a go and make sure you share pictures with me if you do!

Ancient Carbs

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“Who wants to take a guess? How long have people been eating bread?”

Hands shot up.

“A million years!”

“A thousand years?”

“Ummm, hmm…”

The random, hastily shouted guesses were quickly followed by more thoughtful inquiries.

“They ate bread during Roman times, right?”  

“Are we talking prehistory?” 

“As long as people have been alive?”

The kids were surprised when I told them that humans have been eating bread for at least 30,000 years.

“But how do we know that?”

Several more guesses, then finally, “Is it the tools?”

Evidence of the processing of grain has been found in archaeological excavations of ancient sites.

“These stones, called querns, were used as grinding tools. Scientists have been able to obtain microscopic amounts of grain flour from the querns and carbon date them to 30,000 BP.”

The kids inspected and chewed on some wheat kernels.

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We discussed the digestibility of grain in that form.

“Eaten raw, those kernels will come out pretty much looking the same as when they went in.”

Knowing looks.

“Grinding might have made the grain easier to eat, but raw flour still won’t sustain a body for very long. But take that same flour and water and make bread. Now that will keep a person alive.”

I mentioned the cooking theory. Kind of science heavy for the youngest of our group, but still good food for thought.

“So these nomadic people, roaming around gathering wild grasses and grains–they start settling in an area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Why would they want to be near the water?”

“Plants!”

“Animals that eat the plants!”

“Animals that eat the animals that eat the plants!”

Ancient history is a new topic for a couple of the kids, so we took a little time here to review the Fertile Crescent and all of its offerings.

“Eventually, people started cultivating the plants for food–grains like barley and wheat.”

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I explained that the first breads were flat and unleavened. Leavened bread was discovered later and most likely by accident.

“Perhaps someone mixed some bread dough using the same bowl that had been used for a previous batch. If so, it probably contained wild yeast. Maybe they realized that this practice of incorporating old dough into a new batch of bread made their loaves lighter.”

While we don’t know for sure how it happened, we do know that the first leavened breads appeared around 6,000 years ago.

“Again, how do we know this?”

Most of the kids recognized cuneiform.

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We made some jokes about this very first collection of recipes.

“Since they were written on clay tablets, you wouldn’t be carrying them around your kitchen like The Joy of Cooking.”

No, these recipes weren’t meant as a “how-to” as the majority of the people couldn’t read anyway; Mesopotamian scribes were recording a culinary ritual.

“And the list of foods they recorded is pretty impressive: 20 different kinds of cheese, hundreds of kinds of soup, and 300 kinds of bread, many of which were leavened by wild yeast, also known as sourdough.”

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Wild yeast, saccharomyces exiguus, is a single-celled microorganism and the smallest member of the mushroom family.

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“It’s a fun guy! Eh, eh?” My son never gets sick of this joke.

The wild yeast is especially plentiful on the skins of fruit and grains. Grind some grain, add a little warmth and water and you create an environment in which naturally occurring lactobacilli bacteria break down the carbohydrates in the grain and allow the sugar-eating fungus to thrive.

“And just like us after we eat a big meal, the yeast will do what?”

“Burp!”

“Fart!”

Yeah, expel gas. Carbon dioxide actually. 

“But why doesn’t the gas just bubble out of the dough?”

And this is where gluten comes in.

“Gluten is a protein that is formed when wheat flour is combined with water. It gives elasticity to the dough, allowing the dough to trap the carbon dioxide and expand like a balloon. But not all wheat flours have the same gluten capabilities.”

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I measured two tablespoons of several different flours into labeled bowls: unbleached cake, bread, whole grain from hard red wheat, and two all-purpose grinds made from the ancient wheat varieties of einkorn and emmer.

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Then we added one tablespoon of water to each.

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I instructed the kids to mush and knead together the mixtures in their bowls.

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The differences were immediately obvious.

“Hey, I think mine needs more water. It’s a lot drier than hers.”

“Mine is really sticky.”

“The dark ones are stiffer.”

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We compared the resulting doughs. Some were soft and stretchy while some were crumbly.

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Each kid washed their ball of dough in a bowl of water. The range of gluten in the different flours became more visible once the starch was rinsed away.

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“You can see that some flours produce doughs that are really elastic while some flours produce doughs that stretch and break or don’t stretch much at all. This is why bread bakers usually mix their weaker flours with stronger flours, and why you would use a weak flour for cakes and pastries.”

“So, bread made with weak flour would be really flat and crumbly?”

“Exactly!”

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They compared and investigated and explored until stomachs started rumbling.

After seeing that both emmer and einkorn were weaker flours, they understood when I explained how I chose to mix each of those flours with bread flour to make the sourdough loaves we were about to eat.

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The emmer loaf was a bit darker and had a slightly grassier aroma. This wasn’t surprising since the flour had smelled really green when we opened the bag.

“It smells like hay.”

The einkorn loaf was warmer in color.

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Lacking gazelle and pigeon, I chose to offer more accessible items taken from the list of foods common in ancient Mesopotamia: yogurt cheese, honey, figs, grapes, and yes, sourdough bread.

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Overall, the kids slightly preferred the somewhat lighter einkorn loaf to the emmer. This however, did not stop anyone from devouring every scrap of bread on the table.

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Personally, I couldn’t tell much difference in the actual flavor of the loaves. It wasn’t until later, when when I ate my third snack that I could detect that slightly grassier flavor in the emmer. Maybe it had needed a chance to develop. Or maybe I was just not shoveling it in eating slower.

Whatever it was, it was delicious.

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I have not included a sourdough bread recipe in this post because, well, it’s a process. But! There are many sources online for getting a starter going and baking some bread. Here are two I would recommend:

King Arthur Flour

The Perfect Loaf

I would encourage anyone who is interested in the world of sourdough to make a starter.  Watch it. Feed it. Make some stuff with it. You don’t even need to bake bread right away–you can make pancakes or waffles. Just get used to having it around and taking care of it. Like a pet. A pet that will feed you for a change!