Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Greek almond bars - a work in progress

My life in Athens had a sort of fairy tale quality to it. Partly because I didn't work and my classes were a lot less demanding than usual, so I had a lot of time. I would wake up and drink tea with evaporated milk and chat with my roommates. I would eat oatmeal with honey and walnuts (and also with evaporated milk). And, if nothing in particular was scheduled, I would head out the door and walk. I would wander all day, with no destination in mind. I would get lost, but it didn't really count because you can't get lost if you aren't trying to get somewhere specific. I was almost never trying to get anywhere specific. And the city is relatively small, if you don't count the sprawling suburbs. I learned Athens with the sort of intuitive sense you only get from your feet.*

This is going somewhere, I promise.

One of my favorite parts of the city are the little peripteros that you can find on almost every corner. The kiosks sell just about anything a wandering person might want. Water, naturally. A huge selection of candy and ice cream. Plenty of Haribo gummies of various types. And nut bars.

almond snack bar
{almond snack bar}

They are nuts (usually almonds or sesame seeds or both) bound together with honey or sugar syrup. So simple, practically virtuous. And much more effective walking fuel than the usual candy bars. Easier to toss in your bag than a container of yogurt and honey (also available at the periptero).

I find them here, sometimes. If you have a Greek market, you might see them. Oddly, Longs Drugs frequently carries them in their international section.

But with so few ingredients, why not make them? I dug out a recipe for sesame bars from my trusty Greek cookbook. It basically involves heating honey to the hard ball stage and then pouring it over roasted nuts. I did everything possible to mess it up. I heated the honey in the microwave (it's a long story) and I ignored the fact that it was raining. Rain + candy making are not a good match. My bars turned out sticky, difficult. But I have hope. The flavor was perfect and next time I will try increasing the temperature to hard crack, to get the sharper snap I want. I added salt to the recipe and I highly recommend that you do the same. The occasional flake of salt played beautifully with the depth of the honey (I used sage honey) and the slight bitterness of the orange rind.

wrapped up
{wrapped up}

I wrapped the sticky bars in wax paper. I nibble, and think of Athens. I will keep trying.

Almond-honey bars 
(adapted from The Food and Wine of Greece, still troubleshooting for my preferences)
Equal weights almonds and honey**
Freshly grated orange rind
Flaky sea salt, to taste

:: Toast your almonds in a 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes. Set aside in a bowl.

:: Heat the honey to 256 degrees (this is my biggest point of disagreement with the recipe - next time I think I'll be aiming for at least 300 degrees). You must measure this with a candy thermometer. Sugar follows rules, and the hotter it cooks, the snappier it is when it cools. You cannot eyeball candy making (unless you get really, really good at it and can recognize the different boiling textures).

:: Add the grated orange peel and the sea salt to the honey and then quickly pour it over the almonds. Stir briefly to mix and then pour out onto a lined pan and press the almonds into a single layer with a spatula. I just poured them onto my usual half sheet baking pan lined with a Silpat and I didn't care that it wasn't a perfect rectangle. Next time, I think I would choose an 8x8 pan and line it with parchment.

:: Let it cool for at least one day and then cut the bars and wrap them airtight. Share around, because you can't make a small batch of these. I had to use a full cup of honey because a smaller volume wouldn't have worked with the candy thermometer.

* I remind myself to do this in my own city as well. I'm so good about exploring aimlessly when I travel, but I tend to forget to do it at home. I've made a conscious effort to walk whenever I have spare time and I've found so many great little places in my area of Los Angeles that I never would have seen otherwise. Everything just looks different.

** They mean this - I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of honey, but you need it to make enough syrup. I ended up using a full cup of honey and approximately 2 cups of almonds, but I highly recommend using the weighing method if you have a scale.


  1. i loved everything about this post. the wandering, the trying. you'd make such a good travel buddy.

  2. genius! i practically lived on these in greece. i just love reading about your time there.

  3. Those honestly look PERFECT. So uniform and pretty, like the almonds lined up in little rows for you. Yum.

  4. It's so nice to read that you lived in athens -greece and enjoyed your time here! I've been following your blog for a while and really love it... and of course i love the almond bars!

  5. yum. i just discovered how great toasted almonds are (food immature, i know)

    now i want to try these out.

    greece is so lovely, i wish we had spent more time wandering there.

  6. These look great. I love making homemade energy bars so I know what goes in them. So many you granola and nut bars you get at the store aren't as simple and natural as you think.

    Can't wait to try these!

  7. oh lady. how i love how you incorporate stories into recipes.

    much love to you from a breezy, springy jaipur night.

  8. Your tone here is particularly lovely, Rachel.
    To honey and the wanderings it whispers.

  9. those look sooo good! Love almonds!

  10. you sound like just the sort of person i'd like to travel with. good luck with future wanderfuel bars! i'll think of them, and you, when we're strolling aimlessly around reykjavik next month.

  11. I'm completely defenseless when it comes to things folded up in waxed paper. Sticky or no, those look like absolute perfection.

  12. This looks so good! And I actually find using ice water + dropping the caramelized sugar into it is a better reflection of what stage I'm at, than using a thermometer. Or maybe my thermometer sucks! Regardless, looks so yum!

  13. Not only does the bar look good but also your morning routine during your Greek excursion. I can't think of a better combination that travel + food.

  14. I drooled a little looking at that first photo.
    please post your further experiments!

  15. @ kickpleat - I use that method too! When I'm making fudge, I really find that it is the most accurate measure, rather than a thermometer. But, I also have made enough fudge that I can tell by the boiling pattern when it is approaching the right temp. Maybe a sign of too much candy making?

  16. I can't believe you have been to my hometown!! What did you do here?
    I love that you liked it-let me correct the word: it's "peripteros" those little kiosks with everything on and in -haha, it's so nice that you remembered the word, it's a bit difficult to say it.xx

  17. @ kate - ha! thank you - i corrected it in the post! the funny thing is that i can say the word with no trouble, but i have such a hard time figuring out how to spell it in english. i had never seen it written in english!

  18. (I apologize if you have a million comments from me - I kept trying to comment, and would send it off into the ether and then it wouldn't appear. Normally I would give up, but I'm being persistent!)

    Just wanted to say that I'm happy to have found your site through APW. I lived in Athens for about 5 months last year (split with time in Agistri, a tiny island just across the way from Aegina). Athens is a magic city even if lots of people don't like it. Anyway, I'm loving reading through your archives about your time there...

  19. Yummie!
    Just found your blog and I am going trough your posts over an hour now :)

    xxx from Athens!

  20. I've visited this post once today, and promptly went and purchased almonds and an orange to go with some amazing honey that a friend gave me.

    And then it occurred to me: This is what I can pack to eat for my long runs while I'm training. So, Rachel, if I complete the half marathon this year, it's partially due to your time in Greece :)

  21. Yay kaitlin! They are perfect long run food - just make sure to get the temp up to at least 260 degrees. I still haven't re-tried them, so I don't have an exact recommendation, but I'm pretty sure 260 would be adequate.

  22. I'm pretty sure you're fearless when it comes to heating sugar. Anything above 238 freaks me out. I'm just sayin'.

    Also, when I made them (ahem, all of five minutes ago?), 1 cup of honey worked out to be over 300 grams, and I was using about 250g of almonds; I think it will work out alright.


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