Citizens – as a loyal member of TFD Nation (if not, please submit yourself for re-education immediately!), you are fully cognizant that I have been traveling the Nordic regions and other parts of Europe as part of My clandestine monitoring of the dreaded fast food counter-insurgency! After weeks of surveillance, delicate manipulation of current events and other details too sensitive to share online, I have emerged triumphant on our behalf once again…but not alone this time!
My dear friend John Z. was kind enough to assist Me in this endeavor – and a better boon companion cannot be found! He is a man of Olympian intellect – further possessed of the stamina of Heracles, the eloquence of Homer and the droll wit of Aristophanes whilst striding like Zeus amongst the scattering throngs of the mediocre and the mundane! As you have surmised by My glowing description, he is Greek and very proud of the heritage of his forefathers! Today’s recipe for Greek pasteli is for him! 🙂
John never seems to sleep or rest, and I am firmly convinced it is because of pasteli – which is quite possibly the world’s first energy bar, dating back thousands of years and still enjoyed throughout Greece to this very day! At its most elemental, pasteli is typically just a simple mix of boiled-down honey and sesame seeds – but as always, the Hetman of History has unearthed additional details for the glorious Citizenry who ALONE are possessed of the impeccable taste to enjoy My culinary efforts!
As noted in an extremely well-researched story on greekreporter.com:
According to historical sources, the name of pasteli is derived from the ancient verb πασσω (paso), which means to sprinkle. This is, of course, inherent to the techniques involved in its preparation.
The first thing we know about this iconic Greek sweet is that it dates back to the Homeric era. In the Odyssey and in the Iliad, a sweet called ιτριον (itrion) is mentioned. A dish made of honey and sesame, it was used to give energy to Greek warriors who were battling in the Trojan War.
Even after Homeric times, it was recognized as a common meal amongst the Spartan military ranks before each battle.
A very different symbology from that of war began to be associated with the sweet with the arrival of the golden age of Athens toward the end of the sixth century BC, a period of great cultural growth in the Greek world.
In fact, the historian Herodotus, who is considered “The Father of History,” spoke in the fifth century BC about a dessert made of honey and sesame in the form of a kind of flat bread to be broken with the hands by young people at parties and dances.
This custom later became a recognized ritual in Greek weddings in which the bride and groom were offered cakes, always to be eaten as finger food. The honey symbolized love and passion whereas sesame recalled the seed of life, or fertility.
Incredibly, even to this day, the custom of eating pasteli as part of the wedding ritual remains, especially on the islands of the Aegean Sea.
Nowadays, it is possible to find many variations of pasteli, which has survived the test of time throughout the millennia, in different flavors and consistencies.
In the northern part of Greece, pasteli is likely to have a crispier texture thanks to the use of sugar in addition to honey, which, once crystallized, gives this characteristic to pasteli. In the southern part of the country, only honey is still used for a softer texture.
In order to enrich pasteli’s base of honey and sesame, many variants also add dried fruits, such as hazelnuts, almonds, and raisins.
Even in terms of taste, however, the sweet can vary according to the region. For example, on the island of Rhodes, pasteli is instead known as μελεκουνι (melekuni). It is spicier and fruitier with the addition of orange peel.
On Amorgo, the custom calls for pasteli to be wrapped in lemon leaves after cooking in order to give it a distinct aroma.
On Sifanto, the difference is in the preparation. As opposed to other regions and areas, on the southern Aegean island, it is not used to foam honey during boiling.
As further elucidated in this excerpted article from dianekochilas.com:
Although there are now countless regional and modern renditions of pasteli, in its purest form it is a kind of soft, chewy brittle made by cooking sesame seeds and honey together and letting them set. The ancient Greeks made two confections with the combination of sesame seeds and honey. The first, sisamis, was most likely composed of just those two ingredients, according the Greek historian Aspasia Miha-Lambaki in her book The Foods of the Ancient Greeks (Η Διατροφή των Αρχαίων Ελλήνων).
The second, sisamounta, may have had other ingredients, perhaps spices or other seeds and nuts. The 5th century B.C. Greek historian Herodotus mentions both and laments about never having seen the dance of sesame and honey in Corfu. The sisamon of the ancients lasted through the centuries and was known by a similar name in Byzantium.
Pasteli has seen something of its own renaissance in recent years, as modern Greeks came to appreciate their own culinary heritage these past two decades. There are countless local versions of pasteli. Those made traditionally in the Cyclades, Rhodes, and Kalamata in the Peloponnese are probably the most renowned.
In the Cyclades as well as the Dodecanese, to which Rhodes belongs, pasteli is the customary wedding confection and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. On the Cycladic islands of Tinos and Andros, for example, pasteli is made with sesame seeds and honey syrup, set onto traditional wooden boards and cut into trapezoids, which are then served forth on lemon leaves. The lemon leaves impart their own delicate, subtle flavor. It’s one of my personal favorite Greek traditions.
In the Dodecanese, namely Rhodes, where sesame was once an important crop, witnessed in the prevalence to this day of tahini in the local food lore, pasteli is called melekouni. Melekouni is also a traditional wedding sweet. Rhodes also has a long history of honey production, thanks to its lush interior, and is to this day one of Greece’s largest producers of honey. Combine these two and, yes, one can see how easily melekounia (pl.) are born.
Rhodians season their sesame-honey confection with a little orange zest, too. And since we’re at it etymologically, you should know that melekouni most definitely derives from the Greek word for honey, meli.
Another important place in the annals of pasteli was and still is Kalamata. Indeed, the largest commercial production is here. Kalamata’s pasteli is quite different from that of the islands, however, and it was served differently, too. It’s a harder brittle than that found in the Aegean; one version is made with honey and another, crunchy and firm, is composed of sesame seeds and sugar syrup, cooked to hardball consistency.
I am not sure if it was served at weddings, but I have been in Greece long enough to have seen it served at coffee shops (cafeneia) and little ouzo places (ouzadika), cut into finger-thick strips and served inside a glass of ouzo, a delicious, if unexpected, flavor explosion! Like so many quaint, local traditions, my generation was the last to know them.
Nowadays, Greece has been in the process of rediscovering and reinventing its culinary self. Pasteli has not escaped the attentions of creative kitchen sorts. It’s indeed a pleasure to find so many modern takes on this ancient bar, studded with all manner of nuts, spices, and dried fruits, in chewy as well as crunchy varieties.
The original ancient sisamon, né pasteli somewhere in its journey through time, was indeed the world’s first, or at the very least one of its earliest, energy bars. Whether there was empiric or ancient scientific proof of that is a big historical question mark. Modern nutrition science tells us that sesame, packed with calcium, vitamins, fiber and antioxidants is one of the healthiest foods we can eat.
As for Greek honey (almost always raw, by the way) that, too is a nutritional power house, thick with nutrients, antioxidants and antibacterial qualities. Combined, the marriage of sesame and honey is a time-tested way to boost one’s energy. Perhaps it’s not by chance, then, that islanders serve it forth at weddings, the better to wish upon the newlywed couple a lovely, sweet, and ahem, fecund evening!
In typical TFD fashion, after much research and ruminative thought (occasionally while enjoying a ruminant meal of A5 Wagyu beef, as I just did last night, in fact – Miyazawa A5 slices gilded with edible silver foil!)
I have devised a recipe worthy of Olympian feasts and Spartan heroes alike! It is in fact a modern-day take on pasteli sisamounta, with some eccentric, yet completely Greek touches of additional fruits, spices and other comestibles that add in a few unique touches. These add additional flavor depth and complexity as well as being VERY healthful indeed for both the body and mind!
First of all, I specify using only Acacia honey, which has a number of wonderful properties (as well as a range of highly symbolic associations to the Initiated!):
Acacia Honey has a a distinct appearance, with a light color and texture that can almost look transparent. Further, because of its high fructose content, Acacia Honey rarely crystallizes, so that it stays liquid for longer than other honey varieties – and this is a very important property for this particular recipe!
It is particularly rich in flavonoids and other plant compounds that act as antioxidants, including beta carotene. These act as protection for cells against the damage caused by free radicals, which may result in certain chronic illnesses such as some types of cancer and heart disease, among other issues. Acacia honey can also help lower systolic blood pressure when substituting for sugar. Other heart-related benefits include decreasing “bad” cholesterol, and lowering triglyceride levels.
Acacia honey also demonstrates antibacterial properties, as it releases small quantities of hydrogen peroxide in digestion, an acid that has been shown to eliminate certain bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. In other words, this is good stuff, please don’t substitute for it – you can easily buy the best-quality raw Greek Acacia honey here or from many other sources online.
As for the sesame seeds – they should be hulled, white and top-quality – this is a very good brand.
To make pasteli sisamounta, you need to add additional nuts and fruits – making it very much appear to be a modern energy bar (just way better for you and with better ingredients!). I call for chopped skinned hazelnuts and chopped skinned pistachios, and you can buy excellent versions of them from their respective links. You may not be aware that Greek peaches are considered some of the best in the world and I use jarred peaches of the best quality from Texas Mennonites here in My recipe as well!
There are also golden sultana raisins and dried currants (both of which are very much Greek ingredients!). Taking a cue from the lemon-scented Amorgo version of pasteli, I add the zest (only the zest, NOT the bitter white pith, please – use this zester to do it right!) of a Meyer lemon, as I prefer its more floral overtones – but a regular organic lemon works just fine. Be sure and wash the lemon thoroughly before using to get rid of any pesticides lingering on it!
Sisamounta was spiced and I have added My take on ancient Greek spices to add a little zip to the pasteli siamounta – and I have added two wildly optional additions that add additional health benefits and umami – but they are in no way, shape or form traditional in this recipe!
The first is a whisper of Greek wild oregano oil to add even more flavor and antibacterial properties to the pasteli and whose sharp flavor offsets a bit of the sweetness while harmonizing the spices – this is the brand I recommend. The last is an eccentric touch of porcini mushroom powder, whose umami richness tamps down the very high sweetness level as well and has even more health benefits – you can buy a great version from here.
Citizens, I have run this recipe by John and it has received an enthusiastic thumbs-up – and I’d like to think he had the same smile as he was reading My test recipe as his stone doppelgänger we discovered in Helsinki!
Battle on – the GeneralissimoPrint
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