Forget splitting the atom or realising that the Earth wasn’t flat – who was the bright spark that invented bread? We all know about Einstein and Fleming and there are those who think that Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee changed the development of Mankind – but who invented bread?
I mean where would we be without it? Who was that inquisitive and experimental wizard that thought about grinding up the seed heads of grass, mixing it with water and a bit of fungal growth and baking it? Hang on – step back a bit. Who thought about sticking some wood in an enclosed space and call it an oven? Of course, probably it was never a ‘light bulb’ moment, I don’t think there was actually a baking version of the Archimedes/Bath/Eureka moment. Having said that, it is really amazing how complex the daily foods, that we take for granted, actually are.
Take pasta for example, that staple of the twenty-first-century diet. It must have taken someone with a bit of foresight to think of making an egg enriched dough, cutting it into various shapes and then dry it for long term storage. And olives – that rock-like, bitter fruit – someone had a flash of inspiration and realised that it was possible to speed up nature’s work, and make this bitter fruit not only edible but unctuous too. I think you get my drift.
So who on earth invented kataifi pastry?
I mean, it’s not exactly a natural development. I mean, If you see grapes wizened on the branch you can work out that raisins are a possibility – but kataifi? I mean that’s food imagination on another level.For those of you not fully acquainted with this curious foodstuff, kataifi is a fine, threadlike form of pastry popular throughout Greece and the Middle East and of all food inventions, it really doesn’t seem obvious.
I’ve tried to find out the origins of kataifi pastry with little luck, and although we think of it as a type of pastry, it is in fact made from a liquid batter. Traditionally this batter was trickled through a sort of funnel onto a large, hot spinning disc. Now there are machines that produce the strands in a much less labour intensive process. But as to who thought about giving it a go for the first time… well, that’s lost in the mists of time I fear.
Although it looks very much like ‘Shredded Wheat’, on the upside, that’s where the resemblance ends – there is nothing worthy about kataifi. These spider’s web, wispy strands are usually drenched in melted butter and then wrapped around chopped nuts. After baking they are soaked in syrup; these kataifi rolls are crisp and soft and very sweet. This is definitely not a dessert for the calorie-conscious but perfect for a little self-indulgence once in a while.
The incessant march of food development continues and kataifi has found a new role in savory dishes and I’ve tried a few. You can soak the kataifi in an eggy-cheese mixture and then bake it to golden perfection, to make a sort of tiropita (cheese pie). Another recent discovery was a very big hit – and for this, I have to take my hat off to Mr. Ottolenghi again.
Although melitzanópita – aubergine pie – does appear in Greek cookbooks from time to time, it’s usually made with standard filo pastry. In ‘Plenty More’ Yotam gives us a version made with kataifi and I think it’s absolutely divine. Having cooked it twice now, I did make a few minor alterations to the original recipe.
I hope it’s not too cheeky to share it here, along with my slight changes.
Kataifi Melitzanopita– inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s ‘Aubergine Kadaifi Nests’ from ‘Plenty More’.
I chose to roast the aubergines as wedges – I didn’t like the texture of the aubergine when roasted whole as instructed in the original version. Also, I think you need to be prepared to make more of the melted butter/oil mixture * – I didn’t find the original amount was enough.
4 Aubergines – about 1.2kg in weight
100 ml olive oil
250 gm ricotta
65 gm salty hard cheese – either a parmesan, pecorino or Greek kefalotiri
25 gm chopped parsley
1 egg, lightly beaten
Salt and black
200g kataifi pastry
*110 gm unsalted butter, melted, plus a little extra for greasing the baking tray (you may need more – also applies to the sunflower oil.)
*80ml sunflower oil
Preheat the oven to 220°C
Cut each eggplant in quarters lengthwise and then slice across to get wedges about 3cm wide and 10cm long.
Put them in a large mixing bowl along with the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of salt. Mix well, then spread the aubergine wedges out on two parchment-lined baking sheets skin-side down—try not to overcrowd them.
Roast in the oven for about 40 minutes, until soft and starting to go brown.
Remove from the oven and set aside to cool. Turn the oven down to 200C.
When the wedges are cool enough to handle, peel the skin away from the cooked aubergine flesh – discard the skins.
Mix the cooked aubergine flesh in a bowl with the ricotta, parmesan, parsley, egg, half a teaspoon of salt and a good grind of black pepper.
Now prepare the kataifi nests.
Mix together the melted butter and sunflower oil.
Remove a 25g bundle of pastry from the packet and place in a small bowl. Add a tablespoon of the melted butter and oil, and toss so the kataifi threads are well-soaked.
Transfer the bundle to a work surface and spread it out flat into a roughly 5cm x 5cm rectangle. Spoon a heaped tablespoon of the aubergine mixture on to one end of the pastry, then roll it up very loosely into an airy ball. They won’t be very neat!
Repeat with the remaining pastry and filling – you should make about 12 balls.
Lay them snugly in a buttered ovenproof dish or tray (21cm x 28cm), so they’re just touching each other.
Drizzle over all the remaining butter and oil, and bake for 30 minutes, until the tops of the nests are golden and crunchy. Serve at once.
Kataifi being made https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3hSqkpY2Yo