Sticky aubergine tart, sea bass with pistachio pesto, baklava cheesecake – Greekish recipes by Georgina Hayden

<span>Baklava cheesecake, from Greekish by Georgina Hayden.</span><span>Photograph: Laura Edwards</span>
Baklava cheesecake, from Greekish by Georgina Hayden.Photograph: Laura Edwards

When it comes to dreaming up new dishes for cookbooks, Georgina Hayden’s sternest critic is her grandmother – her yiayia as she affectionately calls her in Greek. “I spend days with her in the kitchen,” says Hayden, who still lives close to her Greek-Cypriot family in north London. “She can be quite scathing. She’ll tell me very easily if something’s not right.” But occasionally – as with a baklava cheesecake that Hayden was developing last year – all criticisms fall away. “She’s like: ‘I’ve got nothing. It’s perfect.’ And honestly, I cannot tell you what it feels like when your mentor, the person who’s trained you your whole life, says that. It’s just the best.”

The baklava cheesecake is one of many standouts from Greekish, Hayden’s hugely appealing new cookbook whose imaginative takes on Greek cuisine will have yiayias everywhere nodding in admiration. It’s her fourth book and, Hayden reckons, her most accessible to date. “It’s nice to be able to write something with real people in mind, working mums like myself who are like: ‘We’re busy, do you have something we can make quickly? And can we do it in just one pan?’”

As the title suggests, this is not an entirely faithful representation of Greek cuisine. “Whenever I explained it to someone, that was the word that kept coming up: it’s Greek-ish. You know, with a wobble of the hand. It’s where I can be flexible, it can be my interpretation. And if someone’s up in arms because it’s not exactly how their granny did it” – as with her one-pot pastitsio, for example, where the pasta goes right in with the ragu and bechamel – “that’s OK. Because this is how I do things. It mirrors my life.”

It’s a life that has revolved around food. Hayden’s grandparents ran a Greek-Cypriot restaurant in Tufnell Park – you can see photos of it in her second book Taverna – and her parents lived upstairs. “I joke about My Big Fat Greek Wedding but the similarities are ridiculous,” she says of her exuberantly epicurean family. Her mother was (and still is) a terrific cook. It took Hayden until her teenage years to realise that not everyone shared her obsession with food.

A brainy, arty child, she studied fine art and art history at Leeds and had aspirations to be a designer but the lure of the kitchen was too strong. “My other 21-year-old friends were reading Grazia and I’m reading food mags, so I thought, OK, I need to probably look into this.” Cheffing didn’t appeal so she did an internship at Delicious magazine. “On my first photoshoot was that epiphany moment. I saw this woman working as a food stylist and I thought, that’s exactly what I want to do.”

On a later shoot, she met Jamie Oliver’s food stylist, who clocked her resourcefulness and offered her a job. Over the next 12 years, Hayden went from scrubbing pans to helping Oliver with recipe development. “He’s a top, top man,” she says of her former boss. “I’ve not got one bad word to say about him. He really cares.” Oliver taught her the importance of “testing, testing, testing” until a recipe is perfect. “If you’re writing a book, and someone’s paying for that book, and paying for the ingredients, you need to make sure that recipe is the best it can be.”

That lesson informs her own recipe writing and it’s what makes you inclined to trust Hayden, even when she advocates something counterintuitive such as, in Greekish, crumbling feta into white chocolate and cherry cookies. “I can’t even tell you how many times I tested that recipe,” she says. “I just wanted them to be perfect.” (I’ve tried them: they’re excellent.)

With Taverna andher 2022 book Nistisima, about fasting food in the Orthodox world, which skews vegan, Hayden was in scholarly mode. “There were a lot of traditions involved and a lot of crossing of Ts and dotting of Is.” In Greekish, she’s indulging her more playful side: in one sub-chapter she remixes the spanakopita, marrying the classic spinach and cheese combo with risottos, fritters and jacket potatoes. Another section is pleasingly entitled “Things on Sticks”.

She has also settled into life as a regular on food TV, whipping up feasts on Sunday Brunch and This Morning, as well as reconnecting with Jamie Oliver on Channel 4’s recent The Great Cookbook Challenge. “My two rules are don’t swear and don’t chop your finger off,” she says. “Other than that, I’m OK. As you can probably tell, I can talk for England.”

Hayden found Greekish more nerve-racking than previous books. “I think it’s because I can’t hide behind my ancestry: the recipes are all mine – I’m accountable and I want people to love them. Whereas if someone’s got a problem with a recipe in Taverna or Nistisima, you can take it up with my granny or my priest.” It’s a reasonable concern, but one taste of that magnificent baklava cheesecake should set anyone’s mind to rest.

Tuna, egg and caper salad

I ate a very similar salad to this in Thessaloniki, a Greek salad niçoise if you will, and nothing has ever tasted more like a Mediterranean summer. I make mine with fresh tuna when I can, but it works as well with good-quality tinned or jarred tuna in olive oil.

Serves 2
waxy potatoes 300g, Cyprus variety ideally
eggs 2 large
red onion ½
red wine vinegar 3 tbsp
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
capers 2 tbsp
honey 1 tsp
extra virgin olive oil 3 tbsp, plus a little extra
avocado 1
tuna steak 250g
dried oregano a couple of pinches
wild rocket 40g

Wash the potatoes and place, unpeeled, in a saucepan. Cover with water and bring to the boil, then reduce the heat a little and simmer for 12-15 minutes or until the potatoes are tender. As soon as they are done, drain and leave them in the hot pan to cool slightly. I add the eggs to the pan at the same time as the potatoes, then lift them out after 7 minutes and plunge them into cold water.

Meanwhile, peel and finely slice the red onion. Place in a large mixing bowl and toss with the red wine vinegar and a generous pinch of sea salt. Stir the capers and honey into the onion, followed by the extra virgin olive oil. When the potatoes are cool enough to handle but still quite warm, cut them into 1.5cm slices and toss through the onion and caper dressing. Halve the avocado, remove the stone and cut into 1cm slices. Gently stir into the potatoes.

Place a large frying pan on a high heat. Rub the tuna steak with a little olive oil and the dried oregano, and season well. Pop the steak in the pan and sear for 3 minutes on each side, so it has a lovely deep crust but is still slightly pink in the middle. Transfer to a chopping board and leave to rest for a couple of minutes. Meanwhile, toss the rocket with the potatoes and avocado. Peel the eggs and cut into wedges. Slice or flake the tuna into pieces and stir both into the salad. Serve straight away.

Sticky aubergine, pomegranate and herb tart

There was a time in this country when aubergines weren’t getting the full love and cooking attention they need. It was a time of tough, rubbery, undercooked aubs (often seen with stuffed peppers and abundant, very average mushroom risotto). This was confusing for teenage, vegetarian me, as I’d always eaten delicious, tender aubergines at home. My yiayias (grandmothers) knew they needed fat (and lots of it) and a long cooking time. Although I haven’t been served a rubbery aubergine for a while, for many people they’re still an intimidating vegetable to cook at home. Fear not. This upside-down tart is a simple way to nail the dense but yielding texture that makes good aubergine dishes so desirable. It is vegan, if you use dairy-free pastry, and in no way lacking (but you could crumble over some feta if you like) and makes a fantastic centrepiece to impress guests.

Serves 4
aubergines 2 large or 3 medium
flaked almonds 20g
olive oil 4 tbsp
garlic 2 cloves
green chillies 1–2
pomegranate molasses 3 tbsp
red wine vinegar 2 tbsp
caster sugar 2 tbsp
puff pastry 500g
pomegranate ½
coriander ½ bunch
mint ½ bunch

Preheat your oven to 200C fan/gas mark 7. Trim the aubergines. Use a peeler to remove some of the skin in strips and slice the flesh into 2.5cm slices. Place a large ovenproof frying pan or shallow casserole (about 30cm diameter) on a medium heat and toast the flaked almonds for a few minutes, until golden. Remove from the pan and set aside. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil to the pan and, in batches if needed, fry the aubergine slices for about 3 minutes on each side until lightly browned. Add more oil as you go, if needed.

Peel and finely slice the garlic and finely slice the chillies. Whisk the pomegranate molasses, red wine vinegar, caster sugar, garlic and half the chilli together in a small bowl. When the aubergine is ready, remove to a plate. Pour the pomegranate sauce into the pan, bring to the boil, then simmer for 2 minutes, until reduced and sticky. Remove from the heat and replace the aubergine slices in the pan. Roll out the puff pastry so it is a bit larger than the pan, drape it over the top and carefully tuck down the inside of the pan. Prick the top with a fork and place the pan in the oven for 25 minutes, until deep golden on top and bubbling at the edges.

While the tart is in the oven, pick the pomegranate seeds and pick and roughly chop the herbs. Toss with the remaining sliced green chilli and toasted flaked almonds. When the tart is ready, remove and leave to rest for a minute before carefully turning out on a board or platter. Sprinkle over the herby pomegranate and nuts, then slice and serve.

Barbecued sea bass stuffed with pistachio and caper pesto

I started making this recipe for my pescatarian family when they’d come over for a barbecue. They love a prawn kebab, but it’s nice to mix things up and sea bass is glorious cooked over hot coals. Serving a whole fish feels decadent, like you’ve gone to great effort, but it’s very straightforward – the end result tastes more complex than the method.

The pesto can be used in myriad dishes, cooked or not.

Serves 2
mint ½ bunch
garlic 1 clove
fennel seeds ½ tsp
pistachios a large handful
capers 2 tbsp
Aleppo pepper ½ tsp (or ¼ tsp dried red chilli flakes)
lemon 1
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
olive oil 3 tbsp, plus a little extra
sea bass 2 whole, gutted, cleaned and scaled (or 4 sea bass fillets, which you can stuff then tie together with string)

Start by making the stuffing. Pick the mint leaves. Peel and chop the garlic. Roughly crush the fennel seeds. Place the pistachios in a food processor with the chopped garlic, crushed fennel seeds, capers, Aleppo pepper and most of the mint leaves. Finely grate in the zest from the lemon. Season generously. Pulse everything together until roughly chopped. Add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and pulse again until you have a rough paste – chopped enough to hold together and not too fine. Taste a little and adjust the seasoning.

Place your sea bass on a chopping board and slash the skin on each side 2 or 3 times. Rub all over with a little olive oil and season the cavity and skin. Keep the stuffing in the food processor bowl and spoon a few tablespoons into the middle of each fish, really stuffing it in. Tie the fish up with string, to stop the filling falling out. Squeeze the juice from half the lemon into the food processor bowl, add another tablespoon of olive oil and blitz the remaining pistachio mix into a smooth paste. (You can do all this ahead of cooking; just cover and store the fish in the fridge until needed.)

Get your barbecue ready. Cook the fish over hot coals for 8-10 minutes on each side, until charred and cooked through; keep an eye on them. Alternatively, preheat your oven to 190C fan/gas mark 6½, and roast your fish for 20-25 minutes. Spoon the smooth pistachio paste on to a serving platter and place the charred sea bass on top. Cut the remaining lemon half into wedges, serve next to the fish and finish by scattering over the remaining mint leaves.

Roasted lemon, oregano and feta potatoes

You know when something is simple and obvious and so good that you kick yourself for not making it more often? These potatoes are just that. My yiayia Martha makes them as a massive tray and I can never stop picking at them – I think it’s because she uses a bit more salt or lemon or seasoning than I do. Lesson learned.

Serves 4
waxy potatoes 1kg, Cyprus if possible
stock cube 1 (chicken or vegetable)
olive oil 100ml
dried oregano 2 tsp
lemons 2
garlic 6 cloves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
feta 100g

Preheat your oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Peel the potatoes, then cut them into large wedges. Place in a roasting tray large enough to hold them all in a single layer.

Dissolve the stock cube in a jug with 250ml of boiling water. Whisk in the olive oil and dried oregano, then squeeze in the juice from both the lemons. Crush or finely grate in the garlic and then season generously. Whisk again to combine, then pour over the potatoes, and turn a few times to distribute all the flavours. Shake out the potatoes so they’re in one layer.

Place the tray in the oven and roast for 1 hour, then carefully turn the potatoes over. The stock at this point should have cooked away. Cook for a further 25-30 minutes, until the potatoes are golden and crisp. Finish by crumbling over the feta, and serve.

Spiced lamb chops with hummus

In terms of instant dinner gratification, you can’t get much better than this. It takes such little effort for such a lot of flavour — especially if you buy good ready-made hummus. You can, of course, make your own.

Serves 4
lamb chops 8
garlic 2 cloves
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
ground cumin 1 tsp
ground coriander 1 tsp
olive oil
lemons 2
shallots 2
green chillies 2
mint a few sprigs
pistachios or almonds 30g
hummus 200g, shop-bought or homemade

Place the lamb chops in a mixing bowl or dish and crush in the garlic. Season well and add the ground cumin and coriander. Pour in enough olive oil to coat and squeeze in the juice of one lemon. Really massage the flavours into the chops, then cover and leave to marinate in the fridge for as long as you can, bringing it out 20 minutes before you want to cook. If you don’t have much time, just leave to one side on the kitchen counter for at least 5 minutes.

While the lamb is marinating, peel and finely slice the shallots. Place in a small bowl with the juice of the remaining lemon and a good pinch of salt. Halve, deseed and finely slice the chillies. Toss through the lemony shallots. Pick the mint leaves and roughly chop. Finely chop the pistachios, then set aside. Spoon the hummus out on a serving plate.

Place a griddle pan on a high heat and get it hot. Grill the lamb chops for about 4 minutes on each side, this will give you just-blushing lamb. You can cook them for less or more time depending on your taste. I like to finish by propping them up on the fatty side to get it crisp (this was always my mum’s favourite bit). You don’t want to crowd the pan, so you might need to do this in two batches; if so, rest the cooked chops in a very low oven while you cook the others. As soon as all the chops are ready, place them on top of the hummus. Toss the mint through the shallot mixture and scatter over the top with the pistachios.

Baklava cheesecake, I love you

I don’t want to gush too much about this recipe, but I must. I’m obsessed. It combines all my favourite flavours (honey, nuts, rose, cinnamon) and textures (crunchy, creamy, chewy). And it looks so great. I’ll never forget the first time I made it and presented it to my family, my harshest critics. First there were intrigued looks, then lots of nodding. My yiayia, usually the first to dish out constructive criticism, was speechless – she had nothing. Nothing but smiles. That was it, that was when I knew I’d hit peak baklava.

Serves 12
caster sugar 225g
lemon 1
rose water 1 tbsp
unsalted butter 60g
walnuts 100g
ground cinnamon 1 tsp
filo 250g
white chocolate 200g
feta 200g
full-fat cream cheese 280g
double cream 200ml
honey about 3 tbsp
chopped pistachios to serve

First, make a syrup. Place 100g of the caster sugar in a small saucepan with 125ml of water and two strips of lemon zest (use a peeler for this). Bring to the boil on a medium heat, swirl to dissolve the sugar, then reduce the heat a little. Simmer for 5-8 minutes, until you have a thick, but not coloured, syrup. Stir in the rose water and leave to cool completely.

Preheat your oven to 180C fan/gas mark 6. Grease a 20cm springform cake tin with a little of the butter. Place the walnuts in a dry frying pan and toast for a few minutes on a medium heat. Once they start to smell nutty, stir in the ground cinnamon and 25g of the caster sugar. Let the sugar caramelise slightly, then tip the nuts out on to a chopping board. When they’re cool enough to handle, finely chop.

Melt the rest of the butter in a small pan. Lay two sheets of filo over the cake tin, overlapping slightly, so they completely cover the base and sides, then brush all over with the melted butter. Sprinkle a quarter of the chopped walnuts over the bottom, and repeat the process twice more with filo then butter and walnuts (keep the remaining walnuts aside). Top with a final layer of filo, really push it into the bottom and sides, then brush with butter. Trim off any excess pastry around the top with scissors and bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until crisp and golden.

When the filo shell is ready, remove from the oven and drizzle the cold syrup over the hot pastry, particularly down the sides. Leave to cool.

For the cheesecake filling, break the white chocolate into small, even pieces and place in a heatproof bowl. Either melt in a microwave or over a pan of simmering water – be careful that the bowl doesn’t touch the water in the pan or the chocolate will seize up. Stir occasionally until the chocolate is just melted.

Meanwhile, break the feta into pieces into a large bowl. Add the remaining 100g of caster sugar and blitz with a stick blender till smooth. Add the cream cheese and finely grate in the remaining lemon zest. Beat with a whisk, not a stick blender, until smooth (electric beaters would be best if you can handle more washing up). Add the double cream, whisk until light and then finally stir in the melted white chocolate.

Spoon the filling into the baked and cooled filo case, loosely cover and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, overnight if possible. Just before serving, drizzle with a little honey and scatter over the reserved walnuts.

Greekish by Georgina Hayden is published on 25 April (Bloombury, £26). Click here to order your copy for £22.88

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