A tale of Olympian gold centers on world-class pastries
Published: Saturday, January 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 4, 2004 at 2:22 p.m.
BEDFORD HILLS, N.Y. - If you can't make it to Athens for the Summer Olympics but crave authentic Greek sweets, I have a solution. It's a lot closer than Greece, could be as close as your own home kitchen, and you don't even have to know how to pronounce "galaktoboureko" or "baklava."
Here's the back story. In New York City's Astoria district, in the borough of Queens, there's a lively enclave of Hellenic shops and tavernas. Among them is Artopolis, in the Agora Plaza, where you'll find enough sublime Greek breads, honeyed phyllo confections and other desserts to quell even the most serious yen.
Partners Angelo and Regina Katopodis and Nick Pantelatos opened the 2,700-square-foot bakery and patisserie last November. Artopolis translates as "Bread City," and its creation includes some feats worthy of Homer.
In 1980, Greek-born Angelo and his Greek-American wife Regina opened their first Cookie Odyssey store in New York City with her recipes. When Angelo hired a former baker at the royal palace in Athens, the baker mentioned that he could make croissants.
Katopodis saw this as a great opportunity. Even though they didn't yet know the correct word for the crescent-shaped pastries, they were the first to sell them as street food in Manhattan. By the time the company was sold in 1990, there were five stores.
The entrepreneurial Katopodises next returned to Athens to launch "New York's Best Brooklyn Bagels." What did Greeks know about bagels? Not a lot. But they soon fell in love with them, and visitors to the Olympics will find bagels in all local supermarkets.
Meanwhile, in 1985 Angelo had met Nick Pantelatos, who was in a similar business in Manhattan. Ironically, Pantelatos is from Kefalonia and Katopodis is from Ithaca. Since time immemorial, the two Ionian islands have each claimed to be the birthplace of the mythological Ulysses (Odysseus). That rivalry notwithstanding, they decided to work together, but friendly sparring between the pair carries on the tradition.
Nick, his brother Panaghi and another partner, Costas Tzaras, already owned Agora Plaza. A Mediterranean market and Greek butcher were in place but they wanted to complete the agora (market) theme with a bakery. The Katopodises, again in America, also harbored the desire to create a genuine Greek bakery.
On a trip to Athens in 2002, Angelo Katopodis had seen a trendy restaurant designed by noted architect Fanurios Malaspinas. Within a few months he had an entire shop designed by Malaspinas and built, then disassembled and shipped to Agora Plaza in New York in two huge containers.
The sparkling reassembled space is authentic down to the last detail. Its ocher walls and white trim are lacquered pine. Some counters are Penteli marble, the white stone used for the Acropolis. Open trays of glistening pastries and cookies line the shelves as they do in Greece, and refrigerated confections are displayed in the center island.
Angelo spent several years gathering the recipes throughout his country. Typically it was talented home bakers, including family members, who shared them. The creamy rizogalo (rice pudding) is from his mother. Karithopita (Kefalonian walnut cake) is from Pantelatos' mother. Galaktoboureko is another specialty of Ithaca. The custard pie is encased in several layers of phyllo brushed with melted butter.
In Greek baking, butter is generally clarified. It is slowly melted and the foamy surface and milk solids are removed. The pure golden liquid adds a rich, nutty flavor that can't be achieved with melted sweet American butter alone. It also keeps longer and helps prevent burning.
For some savory pastries, olive oil is brushed on the phyllo. It is also used in delicious olive cookies from Lefkada called ladokoulouro.
Depending on the filling, different thicknesses of phyllo are used. Savories like spanikopita (spinach pie) and tyropitta (cheese pie) are wrapped with slightly thicker dough.
The thinnest leaves are for sweets like galaktoboureko, kataifi bourekakai (caramelized nuts rolled in vermicelli-like strands of pastry) and baklava, the most famous Greek dessert. At this bakery, there are ten different kinds of baklava filling, including walnuts, almonds, chestnuts and figs.
Many Greek desserts have lemon-honey syrup poured over them after baking. In classical mythology, the golden syrup was said to be food for the gods. Adding lemon juice to honey prevents it from crystallizing, Angelo Katopodis explains.
Honey is also used in preserving fruits. Along one of Artopolis' walls are large glass canisters filled with candied cherries, peaches, figs and quince, among others, mostly from Pilio, a region famous for fruit.
Regina Katopodis says that long before Greeks had refrigeration, preserved fruits were served as dessert. Even in the poorest homes, you will be offered a small ladleful of fruit with a tumbler of ice water. On your saint's day, along with the fruit you get a shot of brandy, she adds.
Fruit remains a popular way to end meals. Often it is served with thick, tangy Greek yogurt. Richer desserts are usually eaten in a cafe like Artopolis, with afternoon tea or coffee.
For breakfast, ring-shaped breads sprinkled with sesame seeds, called koulouri, are as popular at this bakery as they are in Greece. They originally come from Thessaloniki. Every morning, the fragrant warm circles are piled high in a wide basket atop the bread counter awaiting early morning customers. There are tables and chairs where you can sit down and savor the sweets, including a few outside under an eave.
The demand for tsoureki, the traditional butter and citrus-scented raised bread with red eggs, is enormous at Easter. Artopolis sold more than 13,000 loaves during Holy Week this year.
With the bakery sailing full steam ahead, what is Angelo Katopodis doing now? He is off selling pound cakes in Greece. The company, called My Cake, uses American recipes.
2 quarts milk
4 egg yolks
3 cups sugar
2 cups fine-grain semolina (farina)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 pound phyllo, defrosted according to manufacturer's directions
1 cup clarified butter or 8 ounces unsalted butter, melted
For the syrup:
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
Rind of 1 lemon, cut into strips
In large saucepan, heat milk to just below boiling. Remove and set aside.
In a bowl, beat egg yolks, sugar and semolina until pale yellow. Whisk in milk. Return mixture to clean saucepan and set over low heat. Cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens and comes away from the sides of the pan, about 5 to 6 minutes. Stir in vanilla and lemon zest. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan. Lay half the phyllo sheets in pan, brushing each one with butter before putting it in the pan, and letting them come partially up the sides. Do not butter last layer.
Pour custard over phyllo, taking care not to disturb the pastry. Gently smooth with a spatula. Lay remaining phyllo over custard, brushing each layer with butter. Carefully tuck excess phyllo into sides of pan. With a sharp knife, score top few layers into 3-inch squares. Bake 45 to 50 minutes until golden. Lower temperature if it browns too quickly.
While pastry bakes, combine water, sugar and lemon zest in heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes, or until it lightly coats a spoon.
Remove pastry and cut though score marks to bottom of pan. Let cool completely then pour on hot syrup and serve.
Makes 12 squares.
Anthoula's Rice Pudding
1 cup water
1/4 cup Carolina rice
1 quart whole milk
3 egg yolks
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Pinch powdered cinnamon
In a saucepan, combine water, salt and rice and boil until tender, 15 minutes. If water remains, drain it. Add milk to pan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove and set aside.
Beat egg yolks and sugar until pale yellow. Stir a couple spoonfuls of hot milk into egg yolk mixture. In another bowl, dissolve cornstarch with a tablespoon of hot milk. Beat cornstarch into egg yolks along with lemon zest. Whisk into boiling milk, stirring over low heat until thickened, 8 to 10 minutes. Scrape into large serving bowl, dust with cinnamon and refrigerate.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Karithopita (Kefalonian Walnut Cake)
5 eggs, separated
6 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons brandy
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons finely chopped walnuts plus 9 walnut halves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Grated zest from 1 orange
6 tablespoons fine semolina
2 teaspoons baking powder
For the syrup:
1 1/4 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 lemon rind, cut into strips
1 cinnamon stick
Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease an 8- or 9-inch round pan.
Beat egg yolks with sugar until pale yellow. Stir in orange juice, brandy and vanilla. Combine semolina and baking powder and fold into egg yolks.
In separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold in walnuts, nutmeg and orange zest. Fold 1/2 of whites into yolk mixture, then fold in remaining whites. Spread in pan and bake for 30 minutes. Cool on rack
Combine water, sugar, lemon rind and cinnamon in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and cook until sugar is melted. Set aside to cool. Pour hot syrup on cake, place 8 walnut halves around the top outside edge and 1 in the center and serve.
Makes 8 servings.
Olive Oil Cookies With Anise and Sesame Seeds
6 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 tablespoon aniseed
1/2 tablespoon sesame seeds
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
2 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/2 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Sliced blanched almonds for topping
Cinnamon sugar for topping
Preheat oven to 375 F.
In a saucepan, heat oil, aniseed and sesame seeds over medium-low heat for 5 minutes. Cool. Add sugar, lemon juice, lemon and orange zest. Combine flour and cinnamon. Stir flour, 1 cup at a time, into oil mixture. Work dough with hands until smooth. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes.
Roll dough out on lightly floured board to a thickness of 1/4 inch. Cut with a 2-inch round cookie cutter and place on ungreased cookie sheet. Decorate with almond slices, pressing so they adhere. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until light brown. Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar and cool on racks.
Makes 4 dozen cookies.
(Recipes adapted from "The Complete Book of Greek Cooking," by the Recipe Club of St. Paul's Greek Orthodox Cathedral, Harper & Row, New York, 1990.)
Artopolis, Agora Plaza, 23-18 31st Street, Astoria, NY 11105. The bakery is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Telephone: (718) 728-8484; Fax: (718) 728-0066.
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