May 24, 2013

Where's Home, Mastiha?

As I've been packing up my apartment this week in anticipation of moving, I've been thinking a lot about comfort food. Some food is comforting to eat, such as mashed potatoes, or chicken pot pie or warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream. Textures and temperatures that calm a frazzled spirit. But other foods are comforting to make—my favorite of all being granola. I used to make granola as part of my "dorm-duty" in college. I lived in a co-op where we all took turns cooking, cleaning, and bossing each-other around and one of the roles that a person could have for the semester was 'granola-maker' where, once a week you were expected to make a huge 30-pound batch of granola for the entire co-op to enjoy for breakfast or late-night study sessions.

Out came the huge stainless steel bowls, the sac of old-fashioned oats, the jug of canola oil, the bottle of local honey. And from there it was your own creation. In went spices, dried fruits, cocoa, even strange additives like puffed rice or nutritional yeast powder. But the best part of the granola-making duty was the opportunity to fill the building with a fragrance that was distinctly homey: warm and spicy and comforting. As the trays baked in the oven, the oats and honey and spices sent out a tantalizing fragrance that is the olfactory equivalent of climbing under a soft blanket in your favorite arm chair with a good book. In the absence of home, spices have this incredible power to create the feeling of being at home through the warm and comforting fragrance they emit.

It rained all day today as I wrapped dishes in newsprint and piled strange objects into boxes. It felt a bit sad, as I slowly transformed my space into just any space, stripping the walls of paintings, clearing the shelves of colorful cookbooks. Moving out of a place involves depersonalizing it, and in so doing, the sense of 'home' falls away. Time to bake granola.

 Tonight I decided to make a batch of granola with one of my favorite Greek spices called 'Mastic' or 'Mastiha.' Used as an ancient chewing gum, it's where the verb 'masticate' (to chew) comes from. It's a resin or sap from an evergreen tree related to the pistachio tree harvested for it's aromatic properties and its unusual texture. It hardens into 'tears' or little rocks that can be chewed just like a piece of Trident or crushed into a fine powder to flavor food or drinks.

In this case I made a blend of spices for the granola that felt both comforting but also summery. Mastic has a piney, oceanic fragrance that I combined with lavender and cinnamon that I thought would be delicious with the honey. The smell of mastic and lavender is an incredible combination, one that reminded me both of my family's home in rural Maine (the pine-note) as well as the landscape of Greece, which holds a special place in my heart.

Claire's Greek-Style Granola
yield: about 8 cups

3 cups old fashioned oats
1/2 cup ground flax
1/2 cup chopped pistachios
1/2 cup chopped almonds
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/2 tsp mastic powder
1/2 tsp lavender buds, crushed
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp fleur de sel or sea-salt
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup olive oil
1 1/2 cups raisins or other dried fruits

Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the oats on a cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, combine flax, nuts, sesame seeds, spices and salt in a large bowl.

In a saucepan on low heat, combine honey and olive oil and heat for 4 minutes. Pour over flax-nut mixture and stir well, then pour in toasted oats and stir until all the oats are coated and everything is well mixed.

Spread mixture onto two sheet pans and bake for 35-40 minutes, stirring occasionally. The granola will harden as it cools.

Once cool, combine with raisins or dried fruit. 

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