Greek Spoon Sweets: A Dessert with a Touch of Hospitality
The end of a meal at a Greek taverna usually means a serving of a sweet something – a free dessert of sorts. Sometimes it's a piece of portokalopita, a syrupy orange cake, other times it's a square of semolina halvah, and yet other times – most often during the summer – it's a piece of watermelon. But the offer that transcends seasons and evokes the ancient concept of Greek hospitality is a portion of what's known in Greece as "spoon sweets," a spoonful of preserves offered on its own with a glass of water on the side.
While classified as preserves, spoon sweets are different than jams and marmalades. The main ingredient is usually whole or sliced with its color and texture preserved; to keep the latter, Greeks often soak it in whitewash (lime and water) or lemon. The syrup is thick yet transparent and to maintain the shape of some ingredients, like figs or baby eggplants, peeled almonds are inserted into the pulp.
Spoon sweets are made all over Greece but some regions and islands are famous for their specialties. Pistachio spoon sweets are the domain of the island of Aegina known for its production of pistachios; on Santorini, islanders make a spoon sweet of small tomatoes stuffed with almonds and seasoned with clove; Chios is known for its mandarin spoon sweet; Naxos, for the basil flavoring of its quince spoon sweet; and in the Epirus region a spoon sweet with the rind of the Greek citron is quite common.
A boiled perfection of fruits (or vegetables or nuts) with sugar, spoon sweets are a Greek way to make someone feel welcome and at home. The Mir Hotel in Ioannina serves them on check-in -- each guest receives a small plate with whatever spoon sweet Helen Zazos has prepared, accompanied by a customary glass of cold water. For her and her husband Aris, the hotel owners, this small token of hospitality "allows for a small chat and for people to relax, to feel they walked into somebody's home and not in an establishment." At other hotels, breakfast buffets always include jars of spoon sweets -- sour cherry, quince, and grape being the most common -- next to a large bowl of Greek yogurt.
Although they're usually fruit-based, spoon sweets can also be made from vegetables -- Helen makes one from baby eggplants -- as well as from unripened nuts; the rinds of lemons, bergamot oranges, and watermelons; and even from mushrooms. Vassily Katsoupas, the owner and the creative force behind mushroom-themed restaurant Kanela & Garyfallo in the Zagori village of Vitsa makes a spoon sweet from chanterelles, foraged in the surrounding forests. "[After I] saw a mushroom dessert in Grevena, the mushroom capital of Greece," says Vassily, "I developed my own recipe which is quite different in that it incorporates ginger -- very unusual in Greece -- and uses a lot less sugar."
For Vassilis Kallidis, a Greek celebrity chef and the author of the recent Athens Food Guide, spoon sweets are a childhood memory. One of his favorites is a variation of retseli, a pumpkin spoon sweet common in western Macedonia. Fairly easy to make it uses sundried figs instead of pumpkin and pure, concentrated grape juice. "Irresistibly sweet and pungent, full of summer aromas, [they had] the same taste as the juices dripping off the ripe fruit," Kallidis says remembering how he used to steal retseli figs from a jar in his grandmother's kitchen.
Symbols of home, warmth, and hospitality, Greek spoon sweets are delicious regardless of the primary ingredient. Try making one of these recipes and serving them next time you welcome a guest -- or need a dessert to complete a meal.
Chanterelle Spoon Sweets
Recipe by Vassily Katsoupas
1 kg (2.2 lb) fresh chanterelle mushrooms, washed and patted dry
250 gr (2 1/4 cups) granulated sugar
20 ml (4 teaspoons) lemon juice
Peel of 1 orange
1 spoonful of ginger cut julienne style into thin strips
Put all ingredients in a pot and bring to boil, turn down heat to simmer for 40-50 minutes, skimming with a wooden spoon often. Serve with ice cream or Greek yogurt. Keep in a sterilized jar.
Fig Spoon Sweets
Recipe by Vassilis Kallidis
25 whole sun-dried figs
1 1/2 cups granulated white sugar
1 lt (4 1/4 cups) warm water
2-3 cinnamon sticks
12 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
500 ml (2 1/8 cups) petimezi (grape molasses)
Boil sugar, spices and water in a saucepan for 10 minutes. Take off the stove and place figs in the warm syrup. Cover with a plate so all figs are submerged in syrup. Let cool and sit overnight. Next day add petimezi in the saucepan and boil everything to the point that almost half the liquid has evaporated. The remaining syrup still covering the figs must have the texture of runny honey and be dark in color. It will get thicker as it cools down. Place retseli in sterilized jars (submerged in boiling water, lids too and then dried with a clean cotton towel) seal quickly with the lids, trying not to touch their inner parts with bare fingers, and flip jars upside down when still hot. Let cool all night. Flip jars again. Store in a dark place.
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