Sifnos: land of comfort food
This summer I went to the island of Sifnos, which is a tiny island in the Cyclades known for its dramatic scenery, pottery, and local cuisine. It did not disappoint: in five days, we had some of the most satisfying meals- the kind that this blog tries to capture. The kind that leave a warmth in the pit of your stomach, a little bit like butterflies, but without being nerve-wracking. Like reverting back into the womb, where nothing can hurt you and your only job is to be nurtured.
Slow cooked savouries
One such local specialty which epitomised this is revithada (chick pea casserole), which we were lucky enough to sample at a taverna set back from a shady beach called Fassoula (coincidentally, the latter’s name derives from the Greek word for bean: hot on the pulse??) in the south of the island. Every Sunday, the taverna fires up its wood burning stove to cook the traditional revithada.
What I found so compelling about the dish is how savoury it was and yet so simple. I’m pretty sure the ingredients can’t have been more than 4 (olive oil, chick peas, onion, lemon) but the flavours imparted were as rich as any animal based stock I’ve encountered.
While the oven was on, they also cooked some other things, like lemon-marinated pork and potatoes.
(as an aside, have a look at those chips. We must’ve eaten chips twice a day on that island, and each time they were the Best Chips Ever. The Sifnians must grow some seriously bitchin’ potatoes.)
Sifnos, although one of the smaller Aegean islands, has some amazingly dramatic and mountainous scenery. The light that bathed the mountain sides at Magic Hour would have made an art-house filmmaker wet themselves I’m sure.
We had a great spot on the top of one such mountain above the main town of Appollonia. I wasn’t sure what to expect from ‘a working lavender farm’ but it was operating at a pretty relaxed and aromatic pace.
Sifnian sweet tooths
The Sifnians certainly have a sweet tooth. You can’t go 2 minutes without being encountered with a hand-made amygdalota (marzipan cookies) shop, complete with old ladies grinding the almonds by hand, a home-made ice cream parlour, or in the more glamorous parts of town, a ‘vaffla’ place selling disgusting waffles smothered in chocolate syrup - to each his own I guess!
My favourite were the baked amygdalota, where ground almonds are mixed with egg whites and sugar to create a chewy, moist cookie with a satisfying crusty outer shell. These are so sweet though, just half of one would keep me wired. Imagine what that plate did to us with a coffee to boot!
Lavender, almond and tahini cookies (adapted from Jerusalem)
I love the tahini cookie recipe in Jerusalem, and its clever take on shortbread. But like shortbread, I find those cookies a bit too crumbly and wanted something a bit chewier and lighter. I didn’t have double cream in the house so I substituted Turkish yoghurt, and supplemented ground almonds for some of the flour. The result was a soft, moist cookie with the creamy, smoky tahini flavour and a bit of tang from the yoghurt. A smattering of crushed lavender blossoms make these a heady tribute to my Sifnos holiday, recalling nibbling amygdalota on the sunny terrace of the lavender farm.
- Preheat the oven to 180C. In a deep bowl or stand mixer, beat the sugar and butter together until combined. Add the tahini, yoghurt or cream, and vanilla and mix until they are all combined.
- Add the flour and ground almonds and with a metal spoon, mix together until the dough is smooth. If it looks a bit too soft, you can add a bit more flour or almonds. Take a pinch of lavender blossoms (about 1/2 tsp) and rub them in your palms into the bowl.
- If you have the foresight and the time, wrap the dough in plastic wrap and leave in the fridge for a little bit to firm up (this will make it easier to handle). If you’re impatient, sprinkle a bit of flour on your work surface and gently roll the dough out to about 3-5mm thickness. Using a small round cookie cutter (or whatever shape you like), cut out round cookies and place on a tray lined with baking parchment.
- Bake in the oven for about 10-15 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cookie. Leave to cool on the tray and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely before storing in an air tight container.
The cookies should keep for several days if you can make them last!