Greek-American Stories: Deciphering Yiayia’s “Houftes”

Anyone lucky enough to have inherited recipes from yiayias or other relations may have a non-standardized measurement guide. Back then, measurements were done by intuition or by the eye. To make matters more complicated, there were inconsistencies in measuring that are now written in stone.

My yiayia, born in Limnos but raised in Smyrna, cooked and baked with the same ease and assurance that Martha Stewart displays in her magazine and TV shows.  For instance, watching yiayia bake cookies, pies, or cakes she’d move like a master chef, speaking in a soft voice while taking down the necessary ingredients needed. She’d say, ‘mia houfta zahary,’ which meant a handful of powdered sugar. For butter, it was ‘the size of an almond’, meaning one teaspoon. Or, butter, the size of a walnut which meant 2 tablespoons. A scant cup of coffee meant a cup the size of the Greek demitasse. A teacup was a full cup. A pinch of salt was what could be pinched up between two fingers and then the ovens were: ‘Siga’: 200-250 F. ‘Metrio’: 350F. ‘Zesto fourno’: 400-425F. This took years to decipher without having to involve the National Bureau of Standards.

Those vague directions, however, produced delectable dishes. She was well known, at the time, for the trays she’d brought to the cathedral on 74th Street for special occasions like a memorial service for someone deceased or to honor a name day for someone she liked. Am I glad I was on her ‘most favored’ list. Faithfully, on St. Basil’s Day, she’d make the world’s best diples, my very favorite sweet – dough shaped like Chrysanthemums, deep fried, dipped in syrup and sprinkled with crushed nuts. Mmmmm! Neither snow nor hail nor sleet or dark of night would deter her from bringing them to my door. She’d, especially, honor Agios Fanourios, the patron saint for lost items or lost causes. She’d swear he came to her rescue time and again. Each time he’d come to her aid, she’d then, quickly, get out all the necessary ingredients and bake the Fanouropita cake and take it to church. But, I have a confession to make. I once begged the saint to help me find my lost house keys. Well, Hells Bells, I found them when I truthfully never expected to get any results being non-religious. They were shining on the grass in my backyard. Ah, come on! Just a coincidence! I, too, had baked a Fanouropita for thanks and brought it to church. Then, getting greedy, I asked him to come through with a lottery winner for me. Well, that never happened. But, maybe it was retaliation for the lousy fanouropita I baked. I asked yiayia, what would happen if the saint didn’t come through for her. Her eyes would widen like an owl’s and she’d make her cross and tell me, in a hoarse tone, “you’d be making new keys! That’s what!”

Well, believe me; I’ve tried to emulate her wonderful creations. Hers were always masterpieces; mine would be appreciated only if they were on sale on Poverty’s Row. But, there was a devious side to her. If someone had crossed or criticized her in some way, she didn’t forget or forgive, easily. When they’d asked for a recipe, it would have an ingredient missing or a houfta too much.  I’d tease her. “Yiayia, Maybe, there’s a saint that will punish you for doing that. You’re supposed to “love thy neighbor,” and “forgive those who trespass against you.” Looking thoughtful, spreading out her hands, she’d say, with compassion. “I don’t hate her!” Then, she’d snap, “but, she trespassed first!” I’d trudge along, following the recipes that are featured in those Greek cook books I get as gifts. (Or, hint: there were times when I’d add waaaay too much of something.)  I wouldn’t enter any cooking contests, and, for public safety, I don’t contribute any baked goods to the church bazaars when asked. But, there’s a winning side to that. The church benefits from me being a purchaser of goodies for me and my husband. One woman approached me and said, “Oh! I see you’re a fan of my delicacies. You know what’s good!” I responded, “Oh, they’re really good – ALMOST like my Yiayia’s.”




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