Sometimes the strangest thing will send me off on one of my little adventures.
We needed to saw off an errant fig branch on our tree, and I finally got around to it this past weekend. As I carried the branch to the fire pile I remembered that you can wrap things in fig leaves (other than genitalia). So I plucked all the leaves off the branch and took them inside. Hmmm…now what?
I could cook fish in them, and probably will on my former site soon. But we have our annual Big Fat Greek Party coming up this weekend, so I wanted to do something Greek. And then I remembered about sykomaitha: Dried, nutty, spicy little ouzo-soaked cakes I’d read about. They are said to go perfect with ouzo. Problem solved!
Diane Kochilas talks about them in her book, and my former colleague Nancy Gaifyllia actually provides a recipe on her fantastic Greek food website. Naturally, I can’t let a recipe go without modifying it, so what follows is my version of sykomaitha, pronounced see-koh-mah-EE-tha. Here goes.
Makes about 20 fig cakes
Prep Time: 45 minutes
Cook Time: 2 hours
STEP ONE: Gather your stuff
- 1 pound dried figs
- 1 cup chopped walnuts
- Minced tops of a fennel bulb
- 1 tablespoon black pepper
- 1 tablespoon cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon ground star anise
- 1/2 cup ouzo
- A jar of saba, boiled-down grape must, or honey
- 20 fig leaves
Soak your fig leaves in ice water, and chop your figs fine. If they are as dry as mine were, this could take a while. Once they are minced, soak them in ouzo.
STEP TWO: Mix and mash
While the figs are soaking, mince your walnuts and fennel. When I say mince I mean it — you’re making little cakes here, so consider the consistency.
After about 15-20 minutes, your figs should be soft enough to work with. In a large bowl add the spices, the walnuts and the fennel. Mix and knead this mixture for at least 5 minutes. You want it to look like a meatball mix. And yes, it will begin to look disturbingly like meatballs at this point…
STEP THREE: Make the cakes
Gather your sykomaitha-making gear:
- string and scissors
- your fig leaves
- a little scoop to make the cakes (I used a 1/8 cup measure)
- Your saba or honey, and a paint brush to paint the cakes with
Form your little cakes with the scoop just like a meatball, and pat them slightly flat. Paint them with the saba or honey all over, then place one on the rough side of the fig leaf.
STEP FOUR: Wrap the cakes
Cut a length of string long enough to tie your cake.
Now that you have the painted cake on the fig leaf, take up one lobe of the leaf, then its opposite, and so on, using the largest lobe (the end of the leaf) for the end. It is a lot like wrapping a present or closing a folding box.
I cut off about 1/4 inch of the stem end of my fig leaves, which makes them more supple. You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.
Once you have the cake wrapped, you will need to tie it. Lay the string down on your work surface and place the wrapped cake on top. Bring up either side of the string and cross them over tightly. Switch the string’s direction 90 degrees, so now the string is headed down the other two sides of your little package.
Flip carefully while keeping tension on the string and tie tightly on the opposite side. You will get the hang of it quickly. A glass of ouzo tends to help this process go more smoothly.
STEP FIVE: ‘Cook’ your cakes
These cakes need to be cooked a little. Nancy Gaifyllia suggests 125 degrees for two hours. Well, it was pretty damn hot out yesterday, so I decided to cook my sykomaitha on the back of my truck (What? Stop making fun of me!) I didn’t get to 125 degrees, but I did get 119. Good enough.
How were they? Rich, sweet, slightly bitter and abso-freakingly perfect on a hot afternoon with a glass of ouzo. Opa!