I LOVE ANNIVERSARIES—any excuse to celebrate a milestone, light a candle, or bake something sweet in which to stick said candle. The year draws to a close, and it’s time to do two things: articulate plans for the future, yes, but not before putting the workaday world on hold just long enough to honor yourself (or selves) with a pat on the back. You made it through another year.
In our tough economy, “making it through” has had particular significance for small businesses, so today I decided to pause in my holiday preparations in order to say a heartfelt CONGRATULATIONS to one of my favorite culinary shops, the MastihaShop, whose doors opened for business on this day in 2007, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. I’m sure the past two years have had their share of triumphs and tribulations, but somehow I am not at all surprised that the shop’s owners, Artemis and Kalliopi Kohas, have persevered. They are, after all, daughters of Greek immigrants, and the entrepreneurial successes of this community are certainly well known.
It also helps to have a great product to sell. Here it is—Chios mastiha, in but one of its many forms (crystallized “tears”):
I plan further writing on mastiha in the new year, but to avoid leaving you hanging, I’ll say this much: mastiha is a unique spice in the Greek pantry, a natural product (resin from the pistacia lentiscus tree [var. Chia]) that is harvested only on the Eastern Aegean island of Chios. It is traditionally used in festival breads and sweets, both at Christmastime and during Orthodox Easter. Its mysterious aroma is intensely herbal, evergreen. Using it to perfume sweets at this time of year puts me in a “winter wonderland” state of mind: it’s as though I’ve found a way to make edible all the splendor of our bejeweled Christmas tree.
The depth of flavor and exotic nature of the spice make it a perfect pairing for chocolate. To celebrate MastihaShop’s second-year anniversary, I created these decadent little brownie bites, each one studded with a dried cherry soaked in Metaxa brandy. The large brownie pictured at top with the candle . . . well, my son and I devoured that one in a hasty (but thoroughly satisfying) tribute to our friends from Chios. Xronia Polla, MastihaShop; happy anniversary. May there be many, many more.
Mastiha Brownie Bites with Metaxa Cherries
Yield: 24 bite-size brownies
24 dried cherries
2 Tablespoons brandy (preferably Metaxa)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon mastiha powder (see note for grinding your own powder from small or medium-size mastiha “tears”)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 2 Tablespoons unsweetened (Dutch process) cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
Preheat oven to 350. If desired, insert paper liners into 24 (1 and 3/4-inch) mini-muffin wells. Whether using liners or not, greasing the muffin pans should not be necessary.
Combine cherries and brandy together in a small bowl. Set aside for about an hour, allowing the fruit to get nice and plump.
In a large bowl, whisk together eggs and granulated sugar (I use a fork for this), until well blended, light, and slightly foamy. Whisk in the brown sugar, using the back of the fork to press out any hardened “rocks.” The mixture should look slightly thick, smooth, and caramel-colored. Add the vanilla and mastiha powder; incorporate well. Add the melted butter, whisking vigorously with the fork. The mixture will remain separated for some time; keep working it until it comes together and is completely blended.
Into a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add the flour to the egg-and-sugar mixture, using a wooden spoon now to stir in a figure-eight motion, scraping down the sides of the bowl as you go. The batter will become quite thick and will look almost dough-like at times. Keep stirring until all the flour is absorbed.
Fill prepared muffin wells with brownie batter. Be generous. Drain the cherries and place one in the center of each brownie.
Bake for 10-13 minutes, or until the brownies are puffed, the tops have a thin glossy crust, and the edges are beginning to pull away from the pan (if using paper liners, you may not see this). The brownies should still be quite soft to the touch; they will appear barely set, but they will firm up upon cooling.
Remove to cooling racks. Try to eat just one—I dare you.
To make mastiha powder if you have purchased the raw crystals known as “tears,” simply measure a teaspoon of the tears (they should be small or medium-size) into a mortar and add a bit of granulated sugar (1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon) from the recipe before pulverizing with a pestle. The sugar will prevent the resin from becoming too sticky. It also helps to freeze the tears ahead of time; the more frozen the tears, the more easily you’ll turn them to powder.
You can purchase mastiha tears, powder, essence, or prepared foods featuring this ingredient from: MastihaShop at http://www.mastihashopny.com/