Greek-American Stories: Nuts For Greek Desserts

November 16, 2019
Phyllis “Kiki” Sembos

Whenever I remember my Yiayia Aspasia, my first memory would be the desserts she made. I used to watch her in her kitchen in upper Manhattan as she threw together various ingredients into a ceramic bowl, mixed it with enthusiasm and then baked them. The results were simply beautiful. Born in Limnos, she and her parents along with her five sisters and two brothers moved to Smyrna when she was a teenager and her father was promoted to the main post office headquarters as an interpreter of five languages. It was there, she told me, she learned more recipes thereby adding to the ‘one hundred recipes’, she boasted she knew.

I tried to remember how and what ingredients were put together. But back then, measurements were made by memory, by intuition, or by the eye. Since she knew her recipes by heart and from tradition, she had no need for cook books. But, I wondered how could she pass down any of those luscious goodies to her progeny if they weren’t standing there with paper and pencil? It was all show and tell!

I tried to recall what she tossed into that famous ceramic bowl. But, it was always a matsw of this, or a preza of that, ligaki of the other, four or five couftes of flour, maybe more, depending on how many she expected were going to savor them. How could I expect to repeat any of those fabulous recipes when they were in code? I watched her, carefully. Sometimes after school, I used to help her crack the nuts that she used to put away preceding those baking days.

My mother gifted me with a Greek cook book, and I copied quite a few of them. Published by professional chefs they were all ok. But, the recipe for diples didn’t compare with yiayia’s. I was told that I was over-imagining my memories. It’s part of nostalgia. Kids do that! Maybe that’s true. But, I’m guessing that cooks of that day just had to ‘know’ those things, having watched their mothers at the time since girls stayed home after school. No volley ball practices or meeting friends at the ice cream parlor for a Lime Rickey.

She used to make them, especially knowing they were my favorite and brought me a plate on every name day, St. Basil’ (Basiliki – But that’s another story). She’d bring a plate heaped high with those wads of dough shaped into chrysanthemums, petal by petal they were pinched together and centered with a tiny knot of dough, drizzled in honey and sprinkled with the ground nuts I had helped to prepare. I thought I’d never again enjoy such a treat until my daughter Ellen, came one day with a plate of her version of diples that were about four inches long, folded into ‘U’s, drizzled in honey and nuts on top. “Diples” she announced, surprising me. Not shaped into chrysanthemums, but I have to admit they were enough to bring memories back to Januarys past. I marveled at their taste and texture. “Where did you find the recipe? How did you manage to make dough so thin,” I asked, amazed. She told me she bought a pasta maker machine to make her own noodles and pasta. “All I do is push the dough through certain sized blades I choose, wind the handle and they iron out flat for me.” I have to confess the thinness of each piece was exactly the thinness of yiayia’s delicacies. Gee! I thought, poor Yiayia! Just think! If that gadget had been invented then, she could have saved herself hours of exhausting kneading and kneading until she got the right flatness. More to the point she could have made many more diples for me, right?

My second favorite Greek desert, karidopita, was another of her masterpieces. They weighted a ton. Only then, she had me sitting in her kitchen with a nut cracker, cracking a million nuts for that recipe. It seemed endless. It was endless. Maybe, it was nice of me to help her out, my contribution for the cause. But, with every c-r-a-c-k, I kept thinking about my girlfriends waiting for me at the ice cream parlor. That’s when, handing her the barrel of cracked nuts, I’d say, “Yiayia, I have homework!” Hey! Karidopita is delicious. But, a Lime Rickey is friendlier.



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