Do you like sesame? Normally we get discreet tastes of it on bread or burger buns. You might be using its oil on salads or scooping up dollops of houmous on pita bread for its distinct flavour. In Greece we are very well acquainted with the humble sesame seed and we have a very soft spot for golden sweet honey. We use them both to make pasteli and this preparation is so old, it is only fair to call them the energy bars of the Gods.
The nutritional value of sesame seeds and honey are no secret, ancient Greeks used them in abundance. It appears that sesame came to us from East Africa and was largely cultivated in the ancient Greek world. It formed a base for ‘pies’, plakountas or sesames a combination of sesame seeds, honey and sometimes oats. We get scattered references for pasteli from Herodotus, Aristophanes, Homer’s Iliade and the Odyssey. As for the honey, Greek mythology teems with references to it. We owe it all to Aristaeus, an agricultural deity who tamed the bees and taught bee-keeping to the people of Kea. Honey is alleged to be in ambrosia and nectar, foods of the Gods and Ippocrates thought it an excellent remedy for fatigue. Honey is not used idly either, it becomes part of their religious ceremonies: honey and wine is offered to the Gods, honey and milk is a burial offering.
Whilst honey becomes a symbol of abundance, euphoria and longevity, sesame is a good match to it, it symbolises fertility. These two ingredients could not but stick together, forge Greek traditions and follow us until now, especially in the islands of the Aegean and the Peloponnese. In Rhodes, pasteli goes by the name melekounia; it is made as a treat for weddings, christenings and all happy occasions, wrapped in fragrant lemon tree leaves and offered to the guests.
As for the Peloponnese, I have a very dear memory of my uncle’s wedding. His bride coming from a beautiful little village of Mani, on their wedding day, she brought with her a preparation of honey, sesame and almonds. They fed each other a spoonful as they passed the door of their new home. If you ask me, it beats cake hands down!
But there is no need to have a special occasion to celebrate. Pasteli is full of energy and a great alternative to sugary and chocolatey snacks. It is actually the energy bar, before the concept of an energy bar even existed.
There are also two types of pasteli, one that is hard to the bite and the other that is soft and sticky. It depends on the ratio of honey and sesame, more sesame you get a solid bar, more honey you get a softer bar. You might find some recipes that use sugar too. I prefer to leave it out as it tends to crystallise. I also added some pistachios and almonds for an extra crunch. Here is what you will need:
Ingredients for 24 pieces
- 200 gr sesame seeds
- 120 ml honey
- 100 gr nuts of your choice e.g. almonds, pistachios
- a bit of olive oil or other mild vegetable oil
What to do:
- Toast the sesame seeds and nuts using a frying pan over medium heat. This takes approximately 10-15 minutes. Be very careful to not brown the sesame seeds as they get really bitter.
- In a pot, put the honey and bring to the boil.
- Lower the heat to medium and after 5 minutes add in the sesame seeds and toasted nuts of choice
- Stir well so that the liquid honey has covered all your ingredients
- Remove from fire and place on an oiled baking parchment
- Get a rolling pin and run it under tap water.
- Using the rolling pin roll out the honey, sesame and nut paste into an even sheet.
- You can straighten the unruly edges with the aid of a large knife, gently pushing inwards.
- Cut in diamond shapes and you are ready to store.
- Use cling film to wrap each piece and place in an air tight container.
- These little sweet bites can last an eternity, but experience says they will just about last a couple of days.
This is part of my challenges for VIMA food blog competition, delicious food using humble ingredients. Have you voted? Here is the link, just click on the image below to get directed to my profile.
With love from Athens
PS These specific pasteli batch was not consumed by my person (honest). I packed them for Madame Ginger and they are now travelling to Lesvos along with many other foodstuff as a relief to Refugees. May all of them travel well and reach their destination safe.