Now with 15 years of experience as a TV chef, Dina Nikolaou laughs to recall her trepidation the first time she appeared on screen. She had 13 minutes to prepare a chocolate dessert and, she says, “The instructions I had from the director were clear: the TV does not love silence, so you must talk constantly.”
“I was sweating. I felt I didn’t have enough oxygen,” she says. “The last thing I was thinking about was talking.”
But the camera started rolling, and “at that moment, everything magically changed,” she says. “It was me, my chocolate, and my passion, and I just shared it with the audience.”
Nikolaou’s passion for the cuisine of her native Greece has earned her a reputation as Greece’s gastronomic ambassador. She studied culinary arts at top schools in Paris, and her restaurant, Evi Evane, is also in Paris. But her tastes remain truly Greek.
In 2017, prominent food critic Gilles Pudlowski declared Evi Evane the best foreign-cuisine restaurant in Paris.
Many “Greek” restaurants abroad have menus that are actually more Mediterranean, Nikolaou says. They prepare foods from other Mediterranean countries with “some Greek touches,” for supposedly wider appeal.
But she and Maria Nikolaou — her sister and Evi Evane’s co-owner — decided from the beginning to keep their kitchen truly Hellenic. They have drawn on the diverse foods available in different regions of Greece, “without succumbing to the sirens who have advised us to go with the Mediterranean cuisine,” she says.
Nikolaou takes us on a sweeping tour, naming some characteristic foods in various regions of Greece. On the island of Syros, she has savoured louza — preserved pork similar to the Italian prosciutto, but flavoured with cinnamon and clove. Each Greek Island puts its own touch on the process of curing the pork. For example, instead of cinnamon and clove, the islanders on Tinos add fennel seeds and strong red wine.
In general, she says, key ingredients in a Greek kitchen include olive oil, aromatic plants, and leafy vegetables. “A Greek kitchen is wise, intelligently managing its vegetables and pulses,” she says.
Her cooking isn’t just about being Greek. It’s also about being Dina Nikolaou, an individual who leaves her personal touch on traditional favourites. “The dishes that every cook makes are her mirror,” she says. “[My dishes] show my journeys, my femininity, my dreams.”
Kataifi with Cream
Preparation: 45 minutes. Cook time: 15 minutes. Chill time: at least an hour. Makes one 8″ round kataifi.
For the custard: 650ml milk / 125g sugar / 70g fine semolina flour / ½ teaspoon vanilla powder / 2 eggs / 150g butter / Zest of 1 lemon
For the whipped cream: 400g heavy whipping cream / 100g powdered sugar
For the base: 100g kataifi dough / 60g melted butter
For the syrup: 100g sugar / 200ml water / Juice of ½ lemon
For the garnish: 50g unsalted, chopped pistachios / 1 teaspoon sweet (or “true”) cinnamon
For the custard: Heat the milk and half the sugar in a medium saucepan on low.
Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix the remaining sugar, semolina flour, vanilla, lemon zest, and eggs with a hand mixer until well mixed. Then, while mixing constantly at low speed, pour the warm milk, a portion at a time, into the bowl, mixing after each until smooth. Pour the mixture into the saucepan and stir briskly with a wooden spoon on low heat until the cream coagulates and starts bubbling. Remove from heat. Add the butter and stir well to homogenize, then set aside to cool.
For the whipped cream:In a clean bowl, mix the whipping cream and powdered sugar with the mixer until fluffy.
For the syrup: Put the sugar, water, and lemon juice in a medium saucepan and boil for 5 or 6 minutes. Remove from heat and let the syrup cool completely.
For the base: Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly butter a glass baking dish, and spread the kataifi dough with the hands to cover the bottom. Pour the melted butter over the dough, and bake for 15 minutes, or until just beginning to brown and dry out. Remove from oven, and while hot, pour the cooled syrup over it. Let sit for 5 minutes.
Assembly: Spread the kataifi and syrup onto the bottom of an 8″ round cake pan with a removable bottom. Alternatively, use a baking sheet and an 8″ cake ring.Pour the custard over the kataifi, and smooth it with a spatula.
Spread the whipped cream on top, lifting it with a fork to make peaks, or it can be piped on. Chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour, until the custard is firm.
Remove the circular sides of the pan (or lift off the ring) and sprinkle the surface with grated pistachios and sweet cinnamon. Add several small tufts of cotton candy for extra flavour and colour (optional). Serve immediately.