There’s a story I fondly recount, about the time my grandpa got me drunk on ouzo (sorry, Papou!). For those unfamiliar, ouzo is a clear, licorice-scented spirit that Greeks love to sip – straight or topped up with a little water to turn the liquid milky white, as if by magic.
One winter night we were engaged in a particularly animated gave of tavli, or Greek-style backgammon. I was maybe all of eight years at the time, and loved anything anise-flavoured: black jellybeans, licorice, Indian mukhwas (candy-coated fennel seeds)… suffice to say, I was keen to get my little hands on a thimbleful of ouzo. All the old men around the coffee table had a tumbler – some filled white and opaque, others with no-nonsense clear liquid – and the scent wafting from those glasses was cruel, cruel company to a licorice lover.
The details are blurred, but I eventually sweet talked a shot out of my Papou an drank it down like an especially potent juice… and then another from some unsuspecting old man too focused on tavli to realize I was tipsy. Before anyone could clink their glasses stin yia sas, a second-grader was vomiting her anise-scented dinner down the toilet.
For about 10 years Post-Ouzo, I couldn’t handle anything licorice. Those beloved jelly beans and my other grandpa’s coveted stash of bridge mix lost all previous appeal. My stomach turned and I was queasy at the very thought of anything with that horrid sickly-sweet medicinal scent.
My distaste wasn’t meant to last. Along the way, a delicious Krinos ouzo candy (the pungent little ones we serve at my folks’ restaurant) was popped in my mouth, and I was back. It’s been said that you’re born to either love or hate licorice, and I couldn’t deny my true self forever.
Teenage me would be aghast to learn my very favourite snack these days: cold, crisp fennel slices piled high on a plate, filling the whole room with a bright aroma. Fennel’s one of those neglected and overgrown supermarket specimens – braised beyond recognition or shaved into salads by Italian nonas. But it really shines on its own, where nothing masks its celery texture and snap of candy-like flavour. Fennel is incredibly cleansing, too, thanks to anethole, the aromatic in its essential oil that also makes it taste like licorice. Sidelined by a nasty bout of food poisoning these past two days, fennel was my antidote, the first thing I reached for. Cleansing and calming, it eased my whirling stomach.
I still steer clear of the ouzo for my own good, but any bag of jelly beans sent my way will be mysteriously missing the black ones before long.
Just making up for lost time.
A while back over at Five Lovely Things, I wrote about some glorious French-style nougats I happened upon on Etsy from a little company called Have It Sweet. Well, this evening, a whole great box of them – three kinds – were waiting for me at the post. Pistachio, hazelnut and almond, to be precise, carefully wrapped in parchment, tied with butterscotch-pudding ribbon, tucked in tissue for safe keeping.
To this I say: my best friend is the most wonderful person in the universe and ohmygoodness you need to order this nougat for yourself. Immediately. Toothsome and chewy, not painfully hard, delicately floral, just sweet enough, almost airy, and brimming with fresh nuts, it’s the best nougat I’ve ever had. (And I’ve eaten a lot of nougat in my days – French, Greek, Lebanese, Italian – I’m well-versed in pillowy nut-studded candy.)
Thankfully, a box of nougat this heavy should last a very long time.
Try as I may to convince myself otherwise, I’ll never be much of a baker. I’m impatient. Can’t follow a recipe to save my life. Hate measuring cups. Never have flour in the cupboards. Or eggs in the fridge. I think box mixes are kind of scary, and don’t like fussy things – mixers and fondants and whipping buttercream until my arms turn to jell-o.
I’m a cook at heart, who stirs and braises and chops and substitutes and judges cookbooks by their photos and stories, ’cause I know I’ll never actually follow a recipe as I find it.
That said, I do have a sweet tooth – and despite my love of mangoes and apple slices with almond butter – sometimes only butter and sugar do the trick. This recipe was born of that necessity and ingredients I always have kicking around: oats, brown sugar, cinnamon, unsweetened coconut, salt and butter. They get tossed together, spread on a cookie sheet and baked in a medium oven – and the result is magical. 10 minutes later, I have crunchy and sweet and buttery little pieces of candy, which hint at salted caramel and apple crumble topping. They’re at once incredibly complex and completely unfussy.
A couple pieces with Earl Grey tea make the perfect snack on a rainy afternoon or after-dinner sweet.
(makes 10 small pieces)
The eight-minute bake is a very rough guide. Depending on your oven’s temperament, it could be slightly more or less. Just watch for edges that are slightly golden, and a toasty smell that pulls you toward the oven. If you have it, unsweetened coconut is a star ingredient in this candy. And don’t omit the salt!
1c quick-cooking rolled oats
1/2c brown sugar
3Tbsp unsalted butter, melted (or salted, just omit the pinch of salt)
heavy pinch of sea salt
cinnamon, to taste
coarse sea salt, to finish
optional: shredded unsweetened coconut, chopped nuts, chopped dried fruit
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In bowl, combine all ingredients. The butter should just barely coat the dry ingredients so they stick together. Spread mixture about 1/4 inch thick on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper, pat firmly into place. Sprinkle with coarse salt. Bake for approx. 8 minutes, until just golden. Remove from oven and lift parchment off cookie sheet to a counter to cool. While still warm, score with a knife for even pieces. Alternatively, keep in one large piece and break off bites as needed.
Will keep, covered, for a few days in a cool cupboard.