My first memory of cooking is from when I was about 7 or 8 years old. My school was in a Greek neighbourhood and so they offered the option of taking Greek language lessons. Being the precocious child that I was, I decided I wanted to take the class – even though I was far from being Greek.
Alongside the squiggly letters and funny pronunciations, our teacher taught us about Greek culture. We saw pictures of gorgeous, turquoise seas lined with stark, white houses, learned about the adventures of Heracles (not Hercules – that wouldn’t be the proper Greek way) and Zeus and of course, we heard all about Greek food, with frequent tastings of traditional sweets and cheese (and even a whiff of an Ouzo bottle!).
One afternoon, our teacher told us we would be making loukoumades. We wondered what such an exotic-sounding food tasted like a we piled into the school canteen. The teacher carefully mixed together yeast, flour, water, salt and sugar to make a sticky dough. She then heated up some oil in a big pot and dropped in spoonful after spoonful. As if by magic, the dough balls puffed up, rose to the top of the oil and turned golden. The puffs were piled onto a plate, drizzled with honey and dusted with icing sugar. We were then allowed to have one puff each. Our fingers got sticky with honey and I remember taking teeny tiny little bites, so I could savour the loukoumades for as long as possible. Crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and intensely sweet, I knew I had to have these again (It turns out I didn’t have to wait long. Being the teacher’s pet, I was beckoned by the teacher after the other kids had left, and I was given another one… but you know, I mean I wanted to have these again later).
That weekend, I pestered my mum to let me try to recreate the delicious puffs at home. I confidently went to the pantry and found the flour, sugar salt and honey and a trip to the fridge yielded milk. Yeast? Whatever. The teacher didn’t use much anyway. Measurements? I think there was about a cup of this, a few spoonfuls of that and I reckon it would taste good with a heap of this too. Whoops! Too much salt spilled in…never mind. How much oil? Well mum never uses more than a splash when she’s frying fish…I kinda remember the teacher using lots more though…
I got some help with the stove and instructed my mum to put spoonfuls of the batter into the pan. I waited for the runny mixture to magically puff up into golden balls…but they stubbornly sat in the pan – flat and lifeless. My mum fished them out of the pan and I hopefully bit into one. Surely they could still be OK?
They weren’t. It was sort of like eating a hard disc of warm cardboard. To save my feelings from being hurt, my dad ate some and declared they were delicious – especially with a bit of tomato sauce. Bolstered by this compliment, I made them again a few times, again to much praise.
Years later I found out the bitter truth that they weren’t delicious in the slightest (I sort of suspected anyway, to be honest!).
Thankfully over the years, I’ve learned the importance of the chemistry involved in cooking and to actually FOLLOW THE RECIPE (well, at least the first time)! I’m sure my younger self would be proud if she knew I would grow up and be able to cook something as delicious as the loukoumades I ate so long ago.
Try them for yourself – they’re pretty simple to make!
- 1 packet active dry yeast
- 1/2 cup warm water (from the tap – too hot and it will kill the yeast)
- 1/4 cup warm milk
- 2 Tbs white sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 3 tsp butter, softened
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups plain flour
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1/4 cup water
- 1 Tbs sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 4 cups vegetable oil, or as needed
To finish (optional)
- Icing sugar
- Chopped walnuts, almonds or pistachios
1. Combine the warm water and yeast in a small bowl. Set aside for 5 minutes until the yeast is frothy
2. In a large bowl, combine the milk, eggs, sugar and salt. Add the yeast water when it’s ready and stir to combine.
3. Add the flour and butter and beat the mixture until you get a thick batter. It’s OK if it looks lumpy.
4. Put a clean, damp tea towel over the bowl and let the mixture sit for about half an hour. The dough should have doubled in size
5. Stir the mixture and place the tea towel over the bowl again. Let it sit for another half an hour while the dough puffs up again.
6. While you’re waiting for the dough, put the syrup ingredients in a small pot over a medium flame. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until the sugar has completely dissolved
7. Once the dough is ready, heat the oil in a medium sized pot until it reaches 175 degrees (if you don’t have a thermometer, you can test the temperature by tearing off a small piece of bread and frying it. It should brown in about 60 seconds)
8. Wet two tablespoons, and scoop out some dough with one of them. Use the other to scrape it off into the oil. Add one or two more dough balls to the pot. Be sure not to add too many, as they will expand quite a bit.
9. When one side has browned, flip them over and continue to fry until they are golden all over.
10. Remove the loukoumades from the pot and drain on paper towels to get rid of any excess oil.
11. When all of the dough has been fried, place on a platter and drizzle with the honey syrup
12. If desired, dust with icing sugar and sprinkle with nuts
Note: Don’t be afraid of deep frying! I avoided it for years because I thought I’d end up with third degree burns. If you use a good heavy pot with high sides and drop stuff in close to the surface of the oil, you’ll be fine. It will open up a whole world of deliciousness for you 🙂
What are some of your childhood food memories?