Breakfast in Athens
One of my most fondest memories of Greece happened in 2006, as it was the first time I went to Greece as an adult. I remember one morning we were in Athens. My father, my brother, and I took a bus from our residence to Omonia Square. As I was checking out the sights, my father spotted a man with a long push cart full of what I could describe as “bread rings” covered in sesame seeds. He immediately bought three, shared a friendly word with the merchant, and handed each of us one.
These “bread rings” are known as koulouri ("koh-lure-ee"). They’re a staple breakfast for many Greeks, but I grew to like them simply for the “culinary culture connection” I found in them. While we Americans will start our mornings off with hot or cold cereal, fruit, toasted bread items, eggs with some kind of meat, some very unhealthy fast-food, or even cold pizza; many Greeks will keep it very simple. A cup of coffee and a koulouri in the morning.
Koulouri really ties in with the work-life balance many Greeks are still trying to hold on to in these tough times. In the past, one would get up early, dress, and head out to work. They would grab a cup of coffee and a koulouri for breakfast.
Their workplace would close around lunchtime, and everyone would head home for the most substantial meal of the day. I’ll never forget how it seemed everything was closed between noon and 3PM in Athens. For the Greeks it was important to have a family meal and even some rest time to stay sharp in the day. The businesses would reopen at 3 and work would resume until about 7PM. From there, it was off for coffee or drinks, or home with family.
The koulouri in itself is not difficult to make, but it is a process like when you’re making any kind of bread item. You’ll need to give time for the yeast to make the dough rise, and put in the work to knead and shape the dough. I can imagine bakers in Athens would probably work overnight to make sure the koulouri was fresh on the street carts by 5 or 6 AM.
Koulouri isn’t just for breakfast. You can enjoy it any time of day, but I personally would suggest heating it up before serving. I’ve found the rings taste much better when warm. Give it a shot and you might rethink how you do breakfast in the morning.
Here’s the recipe:
- 1 1/2 tsp of active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 cup of warm water
- 1 tbsp of honey
- 1 tsp of salt
- 1/4 cup of olive oil
- 3 1/2 cups of all purpose flour
- 2 tbsp of molasses
- 1 cup of water at room temperature
- 1 cup of sesame seeds
- Extra oil and flour for added purposes
Preparing the dough
- In a large bowl, mix the dry yeast with honey and 1/2 a cup of the warm water. Allow it to sit for 10 minutes to activate the yeast.
- Stir in the salt, olive oil, and the rest of the warm water.
- Add the flour in 1 cup at a time. Stir with your hands until the dough is no longer sticky.
- Sprinkle a little more flour on your counter, table, or whereever you will knead the dough.
- Place the dough on your floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Use your hands.
- Form the dough into a ball and place it back in your large bowl. Rub the ball with some of the extra olive oil to coat.
- Cover the dough and bowl with a kitchen towel and allow it to sit for at least an hour. The dough should rise to near double-size.
Shaping and baking
- Pre-heat your oven to 450°. Set up the shelves with one at the bottom and the one in the middle.
- Gather at least two baking sheets. Fill one with water and place it on the bottom shelf of the oven. Line the others with parchament paper.
- Set up a smaller bowl and mix the molasses with the 1 cup of room temperature water. Pour your sesame seeds on to a separate plate.
- Uncover the dough and punch it with your fists a few times to soften it.
- Pull a piece out a little larger than a golf ball, but smaller than a tennis ball.
- Roll the ball on the table rapidly until it extends into a rope about 12-14 inches in length.
- Quickly pull the two ends together to form a ring, and pinch the ends together.
- Dunk the dough ring into the molasses/water mixture, and then coat it with the sesame seeds.
- Place the finished ring on your baking sheet and repeat the process until you've finished.
- Bake the rings for 15-20 minutes or until just golden.
- Remove the koulouri from the oven and allow it to cool on a rack until slightly warm.
Do not overmix the yeast with water and honey. You just want the yeast to be wet, not dissolved.
If the 3 1/2 cups of flour aren't enough to remove the stickiness from the dough, then use more.
The pan of water on the bottom shelf is to provide moisture in the oven so your koulouri will not be too dry. As you're baking batches, be sure to add more water when you see it evaporate.
In my experiences, the dough would contract back as I tried to extend it. Hence why I suggested you move quickly when you manage to extend it to a long rope. If you happen to not have that trouble, then try braiding it.
Healthy It Up
My koulouri is actually a whole wheat version. I used 1 3/4 cup of all purpose flour with 1 3/4 cup of wheat flour. I've been told that if I used whole wheat pastry flour I could have skipped the all purpose flour altogether.
The traditional way to serve koulouri is with a nice cup of coffee. I would suggest heating them up in the oven or a toaster oven before serving, just to get that "fresh off the cart" taste.
You can also serve koulouri with preserves, marmalade, honey, or even spreadable cheese. Zuzana loved them with a Laughing Cow Swiss cheese triangle.