February 2, 2018   - Vol. X No. 3
Mediterranean Desserts: A Little Touch of Sweetness
Mounds of bright green pistachios, chopped fine. Thin sheets of phyllo dough, twenty times the size of those sold for home use. Round pans holding a hundred or more golden, bite-size pastries. That’s what a group of Oldways travelers witnessed a few years ago, when we organized a trip to Gaziantep, Turkey , the city that supplies 90 percent of that nation’s baklava. At the aptly-named Baklava House, we learned how this delectable dessert is made—and saw firsthand how Mediterranean desserts differ from those typically found on American tables. (And if this sounds intriguing, you should consider joining us on one of our upcoming trips to Italy !)

Three key characteristics distinguish Mediterranean desserts: They’re high in healthy ingredients, they’re traditionally served in small portions, and they’re not an everyday occurrence.

The baklava in Gaziantep illustrated this approach perfectly, brimming with pistachios and cut into tiny portions. Compare that to what commonly passes for dessert in the American diet: a huge slab of chocolate cake with a thick layer of frosting…a three-scoop hot fudge sundae…5” diameter sugar cookies. All too often, American desserts offer nothing but a big dose of sugar and refined grain, without any redeeming ingredients.

Fruit is the classic Mediterranean dessert. In fact, the human sweet tooth probably originated to help us seek out and enjoy fruit at the peak of ripeness, when it’s at its sweetest. Cultures around the Mediterranean have a long and wonderful tradition of dressing fruits up to add that special ending to any meal. A few dates stuffed with almond paste, lemon zest, and cinnamon might make up dessert in Morocco. In Italy, fresh berries might be paired with a custardy zabaglione sauce. Chilled fruit soups —possibly brought there from the Baltic—are a favorite in Israel.

Nuts and whole grains also feature in many traditional Mediterranean desserts. In Greece, a dish of thick yogurt topped with walnuts and honey might finish a meal, for instance, and in Sicily, marzipan —made from ground almonds and sugar—has long been sculpted into fruit shapes and enjoyed for its small burst of sweetness and flavor. Pastiera , a pie made from ricotta mixed with soaked wheatberries, is a traditional favorite in Italy.

Fruits, nuts, and whole grains have long been at the center of Mediterranean desserts. One of the earliest known cookbooks— De Re Coquinaria, loosely translated as the Art of Cooking— gives us a window on desserts enjoyed by ancient Romans, more than 1500 years ago. The book includes recipes for pear soufflé, flavored with cumin and salty fish sauce; black-pepper stuffed dates and pine-nuts stewed in honey and red wine; and spelt pudding, made with almonds, raisins, and wine. These recipes remind us how many of the same ingredients have always been at the core of sweet dishes from around the Mediterranean—even though, thankfully, we’ve moved away from seasoning them with fish sauce and black pepper!

We all like a little something sweet at the end of a meal. The key is to save elaborate pastries and cakes for infrequent special occasions and turn to plain fruits or small servings of Med-style desserts the rest of the time. Here are two of our favorite easy approaches to happy meal endings:

  • Add a dash of liqueur: While a perfectly-ripe piece of fruit is delicious in its own right, adding a dash of liqueur elevates fruit to the next level. Sprinkle a bowl of raspberries or strawberries with amaretto (almond) liqueur. Drizzle chunks of melon with Chambord (raspberry) liqueur. You can often buy tiny bottles of different liqueurs at your liquor store, so that you can keep a variety on hand.

  • Dip it in chocolate: A thin skim of chocolate can also enhance fruits and nuts. Melt some bittersweet chocolate chips in a double-boiler or on low heat in the microwave. Dip the bottoms of whole strawberries into the melted chocolate, then let them cool on parchment or wax paper. Dried apricots are delicious dipped half-way into chocolate, in the same fashion. Or, coat walnuts with melted chocolate, let cool partway, then dust with unsweetened cocoa powder, for a nutty, truffle-like flavor.

Need some more inspiration? Check out the recipes below and other recipes on the Oldways website.

Click on a title or photo below to go to the recipes.

Reminiscent of a cheesecake, this light and airy Turkish dessert features a number of healthy Mediterranean ingredients, including Greek yogurt and dried fruit. Enjoy it with cherries on the side for an extra punch of sweetness!

Recipe adapted from  Turquoise  by Greg and Lucy Malouf. An iStock photo.

Oldways enjoyed this recipe on one of our culinary trips to Spain. Our version included apricots, mango, peach, melon, and pomegranate seeds, but feel free to use any fruit that you wish!

Recipe adapted from Mar Luchetti. An Oldways photo.

This recipe is a simple, tasty way to feel indulgent while enjoying a nutritious crunch. Not only are walnuts delicious—they also contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the plant-based omega-3 fatty acid.

Recipe and photo courtesy of the  California Walnut Board .
Fresh Fridays is a bi-weekly celebration of Mediterranean eating and living. We hope our Friday recipes will remind you just how easy and delicious eating the Mediterranean way can be.