There’s nothing quite like the aroma of freshly baked bread, or pita for that matter.
For Penelope Efthimiadis, it’s that very smell that to this day transports her back to her earliest and fondest memory of her yiayia.
She recalls sleeping over on a Friday night, and waking up early on Saturday morning to find the house transformed into what can only be likened to a bakery.
“Every couch was taken up by bread!” Penelope tells Neos Kosmos.
“I would wake up to a warm kitchen, a plentiful amount of church prosphora, bread rolls – my favourite Saturday morning breakfast with butter melting on top – and pita just coming out of the oven!”
There’s no denying the special bond held with her maternal grandmother; her relationship with her namesake was all about ‘making’, whether it was cooking or sewing clothes. With Penelope having gone on to study fashion design, she acknowledges that it was far more than just a name that was passed on.
“She loved using her hands, and I guess I would have to say I hold the same gift of working with my hands and ‘making’ just like her,” she says. “I can still remember her kneading the dough like it was yesterday.”
Born in Lakkia, Greece with Pontic roots, yiayia Penelope was what you would today call an artisan baker, before such terms were considered trendy and carried a heavy price tag. She never cooked with precise measurements, but rather decided me to mati.
“So it’s also hard to replicate her cooking exactly; it’s like a personal touch, which I like to think is like the spark, and most special and unique way to cook. It’s so personal and levelled by the person making it,” she says.
One recipe that she holds particularly dear since yiayia Penelope’s passing is her vegetable curry pita, or what she has since dubbed “Greek pita with twist”.
“I selected this recipe because not only do I miss eating it, but also the way she would make it. It’s a recipe that is unique to her in both her filo – the use of Nuttelex butter and soda water instead of water, using a technique combining both puff pastry and shortcrust pastry that was crispy on the outside and would crumble once eaten, and her inspired curry flavour filling.”
And it’s that filling that really tells a story: one of migration and coming into contact and merging with new cultures.
“Pita is so famous amongst all our Greek yiayiades, but this one has a modern multicultural twist. The filling being curry vegetable is a combination I like to think came to life from moving to Australia, exploring new flavours and experiencing life in Melbourne. Greek food is so transformable,” she observes.
Since her yiayia‘s passing, for Penelope it is this rich tapestry of intergenerational experiences that continues to fuel her own love of food.
“What I love about cooking is the celebration of sharing, eating and being together; enjoying the same experience and flavours,” she says.
“When I cook, I do the same as my yiayia: I always taste during the process and barley follow a recipe – call me lazy, but I just like to play and see where the flavours take me. Although I have a fair way to go before I master her filo combo, I’d like to someday bring back the Saturday morning tradition of baking in the kitchen and keeping those early Saturday mornings alive.”
Lenten Vegetable Curry Pita
4 cups all purpose flour
Approx. 1-2 cups (measure with the eye for more or less) soda water
A pinch of salt
1 Greek coffee cup’s worth of sunflower oil
Nuttelex butter (lots)
500 g frozen mixed vegetables (including peas, corn, capsicum, carrot, potato)
1 onion, diced
1. In a large mixing bowl combine flour and salt.
2. Add soda water slowly to the flour and knead until a dough is formed. Add oil and continue kneading.
3. Continue kneading, the dough will be sticky. Add small amounts of flour and knead until dough isn’t sticky.
4. Rest dough for 45 minutes in a warm place.
1. In a pan, fry the onion in olive oil.
2. Add frozen mixed vegetables.
3. Add curry powder, salt, pepper and cook until veggies are soft.
1. Preheat oven to 185°C.
2. Sprinkle flour on the table and knead out eight balls of dough – four for the bottom layer of the tray of the pita and four for the top layer.
3. Roll each dough ball out with a rolling pin into a large circular thin piece of filo, and add a full teaspoon of butter with your hand over the sheet. Leave aside. Repeat this process and add another open rolled filo sheet on top of the other until you have two sets of four sheets on top of each other.
4. Add the one set of four filo sheets on the bottom of the tray. Stretch the sheet until it meets the edge of the tray.
5. Add the curry vegetable filling into the tray.
6. Repeat with the last set of filo sheets on top of the tray.
7. Add butter to the top layer.
8. Slightly cut with a knife a diagonal diamond shape across the filo.
9. Fold over the edge filo from the bottom layer of the pita, to the top of the filo and lay it over the top filo.
10. Cook until pastry is golden brown.