Perhaps it is odd for a chef known for her healthy "sweet & skinny" recipes to dedicate her first posting to loukoumades (pronounced loo-koo-mah-thes). But as I am currently traveling in Greece, preparing to film season 3 of The Cooking Odyssey, life seems to be less about sweet & skinny and more about the old Greek proverb "all is well when the honey is sweet."
For those of you not familiar with loukoumades, they are the most heavenly fried donuts; served warm, drizzled with honey syrup and cinnamon, sometimes sprinkled with walnuts or toasted sesame. They are served throughout Greece, where the history of this donut can be traced back to the first Olympic Games in 776 BC. In the original Olympic Games the Greeks honored the Gods and the victors' prize came in an edible form of "honey tokens," golden fried balls of dough, covered in honey. I guess even back then athletes liked to carbo load on occasion. And if you are going to be honoring Gods and indulging in fried dessert, I can think of no better way to do it than with a plate of loukoumades. Which makes me wonder, if the modern games stuck to this ritual, exactly how many loukoumades would Michael Phelps have been allotted?
The modern games might not award loukoumades to the winners, but in Greece this donut is still almost as sacred as the Olympics. No matter the time of day, you can travel along the streets in the city center of Athens, and find shops selling nothing but loukoumades. The freshly fried dough fills the air outside with the scent of honey and toasted yeast. Unlike most American donut shops, that fill the air with the scent of heavy, often rancid, oil. The scent of Greek Loukoumades are like bread just pulled from the oven, it is warm and inviting, making it almost impossible for passersby no to stop for "mia boukia" (just a bite).
There are two shops I particularly love for Loukoumades in Athens. Ktistakis, located near the Omonia neighborhood in Athens, is a hidden gem. Like an unpolished diamond, the worn façade and fading interior make it look like nothing special -- a shop easy to pass over, were it not for the wonderful fragrance that is often wafting out the doors. This Loukoumades shop is like stepping back in time, with a secret recipe and interior that seems to have been handed down for generations. They fry each batch of loukoumades to order, and serve them one way, with honey syrup, a little cinnamon, and a sprinkling of ground walnuts.
For a more modern approach to loukoumades, I like Aigaion, located in the Panepistimio neighborhood of Athens. Here the loukoumades are served in a contemporary setting, where you can choose to have them served in a traditional manner, with honey syrup and cinnamon, or you can taste them topped with Greek cheese, or even drizzled with chocolate. I am a purist when it comes to loukoumades, so I always have mine with honey syrup, only alternating between sprinkling them with ground walnuts or sesame seeds. Depending upon the time of day, I enjoy my loukoumades with a nice cup of coffee or an ice cold beer.
I have tried Loukoumades in the states, and have even made them at home, but like baguettes in Paris, it never tastes quite the same when you have them elsewhere.
I always say, everything in moderation, including moderation. So that is my mantra this week as I travel around Athens and think less about constraint and more about following the scent of warm loukoumades. They seem to be calling to me like a siren, luring me down every street, enchanting me with their aroma, and convincing me to say "I'll have just one more."
Note: If you can't make it to Greece to try loukoumades, try the Greek festival in Oakland. They have the best loukoumades I have tasted stateside.
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