--- See koulouri-making and much more in brand-new series For the Love of Bread, Sundays 5.30pm 7 March-25 April on SBS Food and the via SBS On Demand ---
“Koulouri was my treat once a week while going for walk with grandma. I was five years old, back in my hometown Drama, up north in Greece. We used to walk about two kilometres from home to the city centre to go to the weekly market and that was my treat,” recalls Melbourne baker Despina Genimaki, who now makes hundreds of these sesame seed-coated bread rings each week.
“Back then, the old guy that used to sell them, he had them on a huge tray, strapped around his waist with stripes around his neck to hold it, and it was full!”
For many Greeks in Australia, including customers at Genimaki’s Greek Bakery in Melbourne, a koulouri, a bread ring with a crisp crust and soft inside (quite different to the similarly named Greek Easter biscuit), is a taste of home.
“I take pride for our koulouri ‘cause it's an easy way for all Greeks to have an instant way to be taken back to Greece with a bite,” says Genimaki, who came to Australia a decade ago, and opened her bakery in 2015.
“Koulouri is the most popular product from day one. There has not been a day we didn't make it.” The bakery sells 800 to 1000 a week, from the classic sesame ring to variations including ones studded with olives or sultanas, or filled.
Fans of the Greek Bakery’s koulouri include Melbourne’s Kelly Michelakis, owner of The Hellenic Odyssey, which runs cooking classes and food tours.
“The koulouri is the iconic bread ring of Greece. As soon as you get off the aeroplane in Athens, and you take your first stroll down the main street in Athens, you'll see the little carts that only sell koulouri… Upon arrival, the first thing you want to do is grab your iced frappe and your koulouri.
“About two years ago, my aunty bought me a koulouri from the Greek Bakery, and when I first tasted that it transported me straight back to Athens, to when I have the koulouri there.
“So then I wanted to replicate that in my own home and started trialling a few recipes … because nothing beats what your kitchen smells like when you bake these. And nothing beats that first bite when you bite into it and it's still warm - or hot because you can't resist! That is how I started to bake koulouri, in my own home,” says Michelakis, who has shared her recipe on her Instagram account, and has added koulouri to her online cooking class program.
These sesame-coated bread rings are said to have originated in Thessaloniki, then spread to Athens and other parts of Greece. And in Athens, one of the most popular places to eat them is Takis Bakery, where if you are lucky, you might meet Takis Papadopoulos, a baker originally from Thessaloniki who came to Athens with his father, also a baker, in 1961.
Andrew Connole, one of the founders of Sydney’s well-known Sonoma bakeries, is one of the lucky ones. Connole is the host of the brand-new series, For the Love of Bread, which travels to a series of European cities and across America, meeting great bakers along the way. And in the first episode, which explores Athens, the show visits Takis and his son Artemis at Takis.
“In 1961, Takis and my grandfather, his father, they came from Thessaloniki. They were working with koulouri in Thessaloniki and they said, ‘Why don't we take the recipe down to Athens. Athens needs koulouri’,” Artemis explains in the show.
Connole, who is currently living in Athens, first tried a koulouri in 2012. “It was my first Greek trip with my father-in-law. We grabbed a koulouri, quick and easy, then went to hang out at Takis Bakery because for me it’s the most respected little bakery in Athens. The owner told us stories of how he moved to Athens from Thessaloniki and used to sleep on a bag of flour when he arrived. It reinforces to me that there’s a lot of passion and sacrifice that goes into a koulouri and bread, to be able to give customers a great, consistent, honest experience every day,” he says, when SBS talks to him about these iconic bread rings. [You can hear more about Takis' long days, and sleeping on bags of flour in the bakery, in For the Love of Bread, where Connole also visits another bakery putting a modern twist on the classic koulouri.]
“The whole premise of the documentary is to go and visit the people who make this bread and learn what they’re about. Most people will visit Takis Bakery and not understand the history or the heritage but the owner is still there and has stories that can give the whole process more depth to something that otherwise might seem so simple to the customer.”
So it a koulouri now a daily habit, we asked? “Not quite a daily habit for me, but it certainly is for my daughter. Lola and Irene, my wife, both love the koulouri.”
In Sydney, a morning koulouri has proven hugely popular at The Good Filo since the Greek patisserie opened in Ramsgate in 2018 and more recently, in Double Bay.
Good Filo, co-owned by Nicholas and Martine Delaveris, sells the rings both as the classic breakfast bread as is and also filled.
“We sell the koulouria individually because a lot of the traditional Greeks will order one of our famous frappe, or freddo espresso, which are the cold coffees, and they will have that with a koulouri or with one of our famous pastries, like the tiropita, which is the cheese pastry, or the spanakopita, which is the spinach and feta pastry,” explains Nicholas Delaveris.
“And depending on the mood that the bakers are in, and our chefs, which are all Greek, we will make a larger koulouri. The larger koulouri that we make has still the traditional Thessaloniki taste with the sesame seed on it, and we fill that with all sorts of fillings.”
Good Filo’s head baker Kiriako Metaxotos, a third-generation baker, is the man responsible for that traditional Greek koulouri taste.
“My grandfather established his bakery using his amazing homemade recipes and techniques that were practised to feed a family of nine and surrounding neighbours which went on to become a household name on the isle of Kalymnos,” says Metaxotos, who had made koulouri at the bakery his family set up in Sydney’s Belmore for many years before he helped to set up Good Filo.
“All our sweets, all the bread that we make… have brought the traditions from back home,” says Delaveris. “Kyriako, when we started the Good Filo, he went to Thessaloniki and compared recipes with the first guys who did the koulouri.”
If all this talk of these sesame-coated rings has you craving a koulouri, but you can’t nip off to a nearby Greek bakery, Kelly Michelakis encourages you to try making your own.
“People think that baked goods are really hard to make, [but] this recipe of mine, you can pretty much have it done in an hour and a half, two hours. And the result, having this koulouri come out of the oven-fresh, is so worth it. It's really worth giving them a shot, they're not difficult to make at all. The result of it is worth every minute of effort that you're going to put into it. This is really simple and I think it's something nice to make as a family as well.”
Like many traditional recipes, there are variations. Michelakis, for example, uses grape syrup to baste the dough rings, while some recipes, such as the one shared by Sydney’s Peter Georgakopoulos at Souvlaki for the Soul, use water, and some offer both options.
“One thing to note about the koulouri is, it's actually very soft on the inside, but very crunchy on the outside. And the way that that texture is achieved is the outside of the koulouri is basted in either a honey syrup, which is just honey that's been diluted with water or the way that I do it, is a petimezi basting. Now, petimezi is literally grape molasses. Petimezi is a product that's used more so in Crete, which is the island that I'm from, so that's my take on doing it more of the Cretan way.”
Like many businesses, the focus of Hellenic Odyssey changed in 2020. Instead of guiding a culinary tour to Greece last year, Michelakis switched her focus to the other side of the business, the cooking classes, firstly online and now with some in-person too. Koulouri appear in both an online Greek baking class she’s just introduced (first up on March 2, but with more to follow – keep an eye on the events list on her website) and a demonstration class on March 6.
Does she like her koulouri plain or filled, we asked?
“I eat them plain, the way you eat them in Athens. The koulouri is something that you eat sto cheri, which means by hand. So you can just have your coffee in one hand, and your koulouri in the other.”
No matter how you eat a koulouri, it seems there’s a little bit of Greece in every bite.
Spinach, leek, herbs, eggs and two types of cheese come together inside layers of golden pastry.
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