Old and new, intertwined
Taking a traditional Greek recipe for a cake and adding some modern takes to it
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During our recent holiday on the Greek island of Corfu, one day we took a break from beach hopping to take a trip inland to Old Perithia, a 14th century village nestling beneath the island’s highest peak, Mount Pantokrator.
The village, Corfu’s oldest, was once the wealthiest on the island, surrounded by vines, olive groves, walnut, almond and fruit trees, boasting eight churches and four substantial mansions in the Venetian style. By the 1960s and 1970s, families began to leave Perithia to work in the tourist industry in other parts of the island and the school, shops, houses and tavernas gradually all closed.
Now most of the buildings are uninhabited and crumbling, but in recent years the village has seen something of a revival, with tourists flocking to look at the remains of the village school and bakery. Perithia’s buildings are now being slowly renovated, but for many years the main activity has been tourists strolling around admiring what used to be, before repairing to one of the half-dozen tavernas that have sprung up in the village.
There is intense competition for custom between the tavernas, particularly between those run by old Perithian families and those who are seen as incomers. We stopped at The Old Perithia, a vine-canopied establishment that is the oldest original taverna in the village. As we looked out over one of the village’s main churches, we tried their local specialities, a syrupy walnut cake and orange pie, washed down with home-made ginger beer, all of which were delicious. The walnut cake was so good I asked the owners if they would let me have the recipe. They seemed delighted and invited me to return and watch them make it a few days later.
On the agreed day I arrived excited to be bagging an ancient local recipe, only to be told by the owner that his sister wasn’t available to show me how to make their walnut cake because she’d had to go into town for an emergency. I was disappointed because I knew that their recipe would be an authentic traditional one but I decided to enquire at one of the newer tavernas to see if they could help me.
No sooner had the owner of The Capricorn Taverna agreed to share her own recipe for walnut cake with me than the owner of The Old Perithia came running over, saying his sister miraculously was back and would now show me her version.
It was a tricky situation for an obsessive recipe hunter like myself. Should I overlook the wiliness of The Old Perithia’s owners in the interests of authenticity or embrace the enthusiasm of the relative newcomers at The Capricorn? In the end I decided to watch them both. Their recipes were very different. At The Old Perithia the flavours are very straightforward, from a recipe developed from their ancestors’ use of produce that they grew or harvested—walnuts, olives, honey—whereas the lovely lady at The Capricorn had added newer flavours like orange.
Both the cakes were delicious but I do think the orange was a welcome addition to the village traditions—like The Capricorn taverna itself. In the interests of village harmony, and not wishing to take sides in taverna politics, I have decided to combine their two recipes.
The Capricorn Old Perithia Orange and Walnut Cake (Karidopita)
Serves at least 20
The recipe uses “village measures”, that is to say, The Old Perithia taverna’s old coffee mug—approximately 300ml capacity. I’ve also given the equivalent metric weight. You might want to halve the quantities, though, if you’re not catering for hordes of tourists.
For the cake
3 mugs (400g) walnuts
1 mug (200g) plain flour
1 mug (200g) semolina (suji)
1 mug (100g) breadcrumbs
1 and half tbsp (20g) baking powder
1 dessert spoon ground cinnamon
3 mugs (900g) caster sugar
2 mugs (600ml) milk
Half mug (150ml) olive oil
Finely ground zest and juice of 1 orange
For the syrup
2 mugs (600ml) honey
2 mugs (600ml) water
3 tbsp brandy
Grease and line a 35x25cm baking tin. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Chop or grind the walnuts but leave some small pieces to give the cake texture. In a very large bowl, add the walnuts to the flour, semolina, breadcrumbs, baking powder and cinnamon. Mix well.
In another large bowl, mix together the sugar, milk, olive oil, eggs and grated orange zest and juice. Beat well for about 5 minutes.
Add the egg mixture to the dry ingredients and mix well. Pour the batter into the prepared tin, then bake for 40-45 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
Meanwhile, make the syrup. Put the honey, water and cloves in a large pan, bring to a boil and leave to boil for about 5 minutes until it thickens slightly. Stir in the brandy.
When the cake is ready, take out of the oven and leave to cool for 5 minutes, then poke several small holes in the surface with a skewer. Gently spoon the syrup over the cake and let it soak through.
Serve slices of the warm cake with thick yogurt.
Pamela Timms is a New Delhi-based journalist, food writer and author of Korma, Kheer And Kismet. She blogs at Eatanddust.com.
Also Read | Pamela’s previous Lounge columns