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Help me figure out this cheesecake from Sifnos
I’m still noodling with this recipe, and I’d love your help.
Before I get to the story behind this cake, here’s the punchline: I’m not sure that the cake I made — as tasty as it was — is THE cake. If you know about this cake, if you or your Greek grandmother made this cake, or if you’ve got ideas about just how it should be made, please jump in. I’m convinced that this is a case (a cake?) where many cooks can only make things better.
Michael and I are just back from spending a week in Greece, a place we’d dreamed about, but only went to now because Joshua forwarded news of a flash sale on flights from Paris to Athens. It was, as the cliché goes, too good to miss. Then, as long as we were going to Athens, how could we not jump over to an island? And that’s when things got complicated. Greece has more than 1,000 (some say 6,000) islands, and I can barely decide what color socks to wear in the morning, so the prospect of choosing one paradise over 999 others was daunting. When we finally decided on Sifnos, no one I talked to had heard of it. And then it seemed like everyone had! My Instagram feed showed picture after picture of friends on Sifnos. Oh, and the day we got there, the Obama family turned up with Tom Hanks. Maybe that was the reason I couldn’t get a reservation at Cantina! Although I have nothing to complain about because we ate at Cantina’s new sister, Pelicanos, and it was terrific — so terrific that we ate there again the following day. (I just read that the Obama/Hanks crew ate at Cantina twice — nice to know that we’ve got something kinda-sorta in common.)
If I were looking for a place to live on Sifnos, I’d want to find one within steps of Pelicanos and sign up for a standing reservation.
I’ll put more about Pelicanos and the food of Sifnos on Instagram, but today, I’ve got melopita on my brain — in my Paris kitchen, too.
Sifnosian Cheesecake — An Island Specialty
As soon as we got to Sifnos House, our hotel, I riffled through You Are Here, the gorgeous magazine that was in the reception area and, of course, it was the story about melopita that stopped me. Just my kind of cake — plain and simple, unfussy and just a little offbeat. When it was served for breakfast one morning, I was delighted.
The name melopita is translated as honey pie, where “melo” means honey and “pita” means pie, even if, in this case, the pie is a cake. Like chickpea stew, which is only served on Sundays in Sifnos, melopita is considered an island specialty. A little Googling revealed that the people of Crete claim the cake as their own too. My thinking? The more the merrier.
The cake is in the tradition of ricotta-type cheesecakes most often made for Easter, but I was told that melopita is so popular on Sifnos that it’s served in every season. And while I happily had it for breakfast, it strikes me as an anytime-cake. For summer, I can see it paired with berries or soft stone fruit and served after dinner, or, most charmingly, outdoors — the way we ate all our meals in Greece.
The Ingredients // What I Did // What I Didn’t Do + Some Thoughts
The ingredients are minimal and basic: cheese, eggs, honey, sugar and cinnamon. The article recommended thyme honey and suggested ricotta as a stand-in for local anthotyro cheese. I used a simple wildflower honey because that was what I had. Since there’s so much honey and since the flavor of it intensifies in the oven, I’d suggest you choose a honey that you really love.
I used ricotta, which I drained briefly. I might have drained it longer had I planned further ahead. I added a little salt, even though it wasn’t in the recipe, and 1 1/2 teaspoons of pure vanilla extract. I’d keep those for the next try.
A signature of the cake is a heavy dusting of cinnamon. Alas — and shockingly for me — I didn’t have any! Neither did my two nearest stores. I think some cinnamon on the top or in the cake would be nice, but I loved the cake without the spice.
I baked the cake in a 9-inch square pan. The recipe said that it should be 2- to 3-cm high, and it was. But you can get that height (or slimness) in other pans. It also said to cut the cake into diamond-shaped pieces, which is so pretty. But you could bake it in a pie pan and cut traditional slices (that’s the way I had it) or use a rectangular pan and cut bars or triangles.
The recipe called for oiling the pan and dusting the bottom with flour or semolina, and I did that (I used all-purpose flour). Then, at the last minute, I decided to line the pan with parchment paper and I was glad I did: It meant that I could lift the cake out of the pan and onto a board — I hate cutting in a pan (and the pan doesn’t like it either).
Oh, and I whirred the batter in a food processor. I’m sure it could have been made with a mixer, a blender (immersion or stand) or by hand.
And I baked it in a convection oven (it’s the way my Paris oven bakes best). It baked to a gorgeous, burnished brown, bordering on mahogany. I wonder if the color was the work of the oven’s fan or if the honey would do this in a conventional oven. Either you’ll tell me when you make it, or I’ll find out when I bake it again in my American oven.
I loved this cake, and I was surprised by it. I was surprised by its texture — firmer than a cream cheese cheesecake (of course) and so, more snackable. And I was surprised by its flavor — it reminded me of crème caramel or caramel flan. Of course the flavor of the honey was front and center, but the heat had transformed it, adding that baked, caramel taste.
What Would You Do?
I had looked at other recipes that had more ingredients before deciding to start with the one in the magazine. I’m going to fiddle with the recipe, but I want to know what you think? What you’d do? What, if you know this recipe, do you do?
Would you consider eliminating the sugar? I ask because I saw some recipes that didn’t have sugar.
Would you add cinnamon (or another spice) to the batter?
Would you add grated lemon or orange zest? (I think orange or tangerine could be nice.)
Vanilla? No vanilla? Another extract?
Would you add a few teaspoons of flour or cornstarch to the batter? I saw that in other recipes and I’m tempted to try it — it would even out the texture a tad.
Would you consider adding dried fruit to the batter? (Dare I suggest raisins? Maybe raisins soaked in something?)
What, if anything, would you top it with?
I’ll be in Paris for just a little while longer, so I won’t get to play with this recipe again, but I hope that you will. I’m looking forward to seeing what you bake and hearing your suggestions. σ’ ευχαριστώ (S’ efcharistó)!
GOOD TO KNOW BEFORE YOU START
A NOTE: As I mentioned above, I made this in Paris, in my convection oven, following the recipe from a magazine I saw in Sifnos, Greece. I consider it a work-in-progress, since I haven’t tested it in America, with American ingredients, in a conventional oven. As you know, this isn’t my usual way of doing things when I’m sending you a recipe. That said, what I made was great and I think your cake will be too. Please take a look above, where I’ve listed a bunch of questions that I’d love to have your help on.
ANOTHER NOTE: The recipe was printed with metric measures and I’m giving you those and some rough volume equivalents. If you can, please weigh the ingredients in metric.
600 grams (1 1/3 pounds) (fresh) anthotyro or ricotta, at room temperature (I used ricotta and drained it a bit; see above)
5 large eggs, at room temperature
180 ml (2/3 cup) honey (Tip: oil the cup lightly before pouring in the honey and it will slip out easily)
180 grams (1 cup) minus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Butter or oil, for the pan
Flour or semolina, for the pan
I lined the pan with parchment paper
Cinnamon, for sprinkling
Makes 8 servings
Center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 350 degrees F. (I baked the cake in a convection oven set to 165 degrees C.)
Choose a pan. I used a 9-x-9 inch pan, but you could make this in a pie plate or a 7-x-11 inch pan — just pay attention to the baking time. The recipe says to butter or oil the bottom and sides of the pan and then to coat it with flour or semolina. I did that and then decided to line the pan with parchment. It released from the parchment easily.
Put all of the ingredients, the cheese, eggs, honey and sugar, into a food processor. (I used a processor, but I think you could use a mixer or a blender of any kind; I’m sure you could do this by hand, because I’m sure that that’s how it was made for years.) Process, scraping the bowl as needed, until the mixture liquefies and is smooth. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. (I rapped the processor bowl on the counter a few times to pop the bubbles in the batter, but I don’t think it’s really necessary.)
Bake for about 1 hour (I’m not on terra firma here). Start checking at 45 minutes. You want the top of the cake to be deeply golden brown; it should pull away from the pan or paper easily; and a tester inserted into the center should come out clean. The cake puffs as it bakes and I waited until the center puffed just the way the sides had.
Transfer to a rack and sprinkle the top generously with cinnamon. (I didn’t because for the first time in my life, I didn’t have cinnamon.) Cool completely before cutting and serving.
STORING: I wrapped leftover cake and tucked it into the fridge. It’s been there 3 days and it’s still good.
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