Pasteli (παστέλι) the ancient Greek dessert, has very few ingredients, but it has a great deal of history behind it.
A very ancient sweet indeed, it is a symbol of fertility and love; its recipe is traditional but it still differs according to region.
By Giorgio Pintzas Monzani
In this fourth article in this series, we continue to retrace the journey of Greek cuisine and the effect is has had on culture the world over.
According to historical sources the name of pasteli derives from the ancient verb πασσω (paso), which means to sprinkle: this is of course inherent to the techniques involved in its preparation.
The first knowledge we have about this iconic Greek sweet dates back to the Homeric era, when in the Odyssey and in the Iliad a sweet called ιτριον (itrion) is mentioned. A dish made of honey and sesame, it was used to give energy to Greek warriors who were battling in the Trojan War.
Even after Homeric times, it was recognized as a common meal amongst the Spartan military ranks before each battle.
A very different symbology from that of war, began to be associated with the sweet with the arrival of the golden age of Athens, toward the end of the sixth century BC, a period of great cultural growth in the Greek world.
In fact, the historian Herodotus, who is considered “The Father of History,” spoke in the fifth century BC about a dessert made of honey and sesame, in the form of a kind of flat bread to be broken with the hands by young people at parties and dances.
This custom later became a recognized ritual in Greek weddings, where the bride and groom were offered cakes, always to be eaten with their hands: the honey symbolized love and passion, whereas sesame recalled the seed of life, or fertility.
Incredibly, even today the custom of eating pasteli as part of the wedding ritual remains, especially in the islands of the Aegean Sea.
Pasteli today has many variations
Nowadays it is possible to find many versions of the same cake that has survived the test of time throughout the millennia, with different flavors and different consistencies.
In the northern part of Greece it is likely to have a crispier texture thanks to the use of sugar, in addition to honey, which once crystallized gives this characteristic to pasteli. In the southern part of the country, only honey is still used, in order to have a softer sweet.
In order to enrich pasteli’s base of honey and sesame, many variants also add dried fruits such as hazelnuts, almonds and raisins.
Even in terms of taste, however, the sweet can vary according to the region, for example, on the island of Rhodes, pasteli is known instead as μελεκουνι (melekuni); it is
more spicy and fruity with the addition of orange peel.
On Amorgo, the custom calls for pasteli to be wrapped in lemon leaves after cooking in
order to give it a distinct aroma.
In Sifanto the difference is in the preparation: as opposed to other regions and areas, in the southern Aegean island is not used to foam honey during boiling.
Today I will share a recipe without the addition of sugar but with a condiment that will make your friends and relatives go crazy when they taste it.
Pasteli with Acacia honey, hazelnuts, pepper, raisins and yellow peaches
● 500 gr Acacia honey
● 500 gr white sesame
● 80 gr hazelnuts
● 1 yellow peach
● 80 gr raisins
● pinch of pepper
Or, in imperial measurements:
1/2 cup of white sesame
1/2 cup of honey
1 yellow peach
1/2 cup of raisins
1/2 cup of hazelnuts
pinch of pepper
In a baking dish lined with parchment paper, lightly toast the
sesame seeds at 150 degrees C (300 degrees F) in the oven, being careful not to burn it.
Cut the peaches into small cubes, about 1/2 inch.
In a saucepan with a thick bottom we put the honey on to heat, over medium-low. Once it begins to boil we remove the foam with a sieve, then lower the flame slightly and leave it for 6 or 7 minutes.
Then add the sesame, raisins, chopped hazelnuts, peaches and pepper.
We let the mixture stay on medium low heat for a few more minutes.
To make sure it’s ready to be rolled out, we take a teaspoon of it and dip it in cold water; if it doesn’t melt immediately then the mixture is ready; otherwise we continue to cook it.
Spread the mixture in the baking dish lined with baking paper with some white wine on the bottom to prevent it from sticking.
Roll out to the thickness you prefer and wait for it to cool completely. Cut and serve and enjoy a sweet slice of history!
Giorgio Pintzas Monzani is a Greek-Italian chef, writer and consultant who lives in Milan. His Instagram page can be found here.