Greece Part II: Santorini!

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After a few days in Athens, we flew to Santorini, which I had been dying to visit since I read and watched The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants as a kid in 2005. I knew it only as the beautiful island where Lena Kaligaris spent a summer visiting her grandparents and falling in love with Kostas Dunas, and now I know it as the land of many waffles and terrifying cliffside bus rides.

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I was surprised at how many legs there were to the journey from Athens to our hotel in Santorini; we took a cab from Athens to the airport, a bus from the airport gate to the plane, a plane to Santorini, a bus from the plane to the airport, a bus from the airport to Fira, a bus from Fira to Oia, and a cab from Oia to our hotel on Baxedes Beach. By the time we arrived at our hotel, there was no question in my mind that we had found a remote paradise to spend the second half of our vacation. Oddly enough, this paradise also was overflowing with tourists. Since there was absolutely no food to be found near our hotel, we spent our days in Oia and Fira, which are cities higher up on the cliff that are teeming with tourists, souvenir shops, and restaurants.

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Luckily, as an experienced scourer of TripAdvisor by this point in our vacation, I quickly found the most critically acclaimed dessert and gelato spots. Lolita was the most highly recommended gelataria and Melenio was raved about for desserts. Fortunately for us, both were located in Oia, which was the closer of the two cities.

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We tried Lolita first, and returned almost every day to experience as many of the flavors as we could. I immediately gravitated toward the biscuit gelato, remembering my outstanding experiences with cookie/biscuit-flavored gelato and other desserts in Athens. I paired it with a honey gelato, and the combination was excellent. It reminded me more of super premium ice cream because of its texture and the way that it melted than the gelato at Da Vinci did, which had the stretchy quality that I usually associate with gelato. Lolita’s various nut flavors cleanly and potently tasted like their namesakes; I tried the hazelnut, pistachio, and peanut butter dream (which also included some dark chocolate pieces) gelato.

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They’re known for their baklava gelato, which I was hesitant to try because of how vehemently I disliked the baklava I tried in Athens, but I got a small scoop anyway. It was a vanilla or sweet cream base mixed with small pieces of broken up baklava. The baklava was in such small and well mixed in pieces that it was not at all overwhelming. Instead of being hit over the head with butter and honey, the sweetness, richness, and slight crunch evenly permeated the entire gelato. Even though I’m still not a huge baklava fan, I was definitely able to enjoy it as the star of this cold, melty treat.

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Melenio reminded me of Cookie Land (in Athens) in that it had a surprising variety of menu options, including plated desserts, gelato, and crepes (as well as some savory dishes). While Cookie Land was playful and kitschy, Melenio’s atmosphere and desserts were more refined. Their caramel cake and strawberry cake were the first two desserts we tried, and they had many of the same components: chocolate sponge cake, chocolate mousse, and dark chocolate shavings. The caramel cake was topped with caramel mousse and an apricot glaze, while the strawberry cake was topped with a strawberry mousse and strawberry glaze.

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Both desserts tasted good, but neither had a strong taste. The chocolate and caramel were surprisingly mild, and the strawberry mousse and glaze were the most recognizable components. I was underwhelmed with Melenio based on that first visit (except for the view, which was fantastic), but we decided to return the next night since there were so many options.

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We got a to-go box containing a slice of apple pie, cream puff cake, and mille-feuille. The apple pie was nothing special, but the cream puff cake and mille-feuille took ingredients that I was familiar with and arranged them in a way that I hadn’t seen before. I’ve never been particularly fond of cream puffs on their own, since I find the taste and texture of choux to be slightly unpleasant, but when they are nestled in an outer layer of vanilla pastry cream and covered in chocolate ganache, the overall effect is a light and airy slice of cake/pie hybrid that is reminiscent of Boston cream pie. The mille-feuille was our favorite dessert of the bunch. It was a layer of puff pastry topped with a mousse-like pastry cream tinged with citrus notes and another layer of puff pastry, and then the whole thing was surrounded by a soft, sweet meringue and covered in shards of puff pastry dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar. The dessert was light in texture, yet flavorful and satisfying. The closest dessert I’ve had to it is a Napoleon, but Melenio’s mille-feuille had a higher ratio of cream to puff pastry, a layer of meringue, was easier to cut and eat without it falling apart, and was round in shape rather than rectangular.

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The next night we got the mille-feuille again (of course!) and tried their pyramid cake, chocolate torte, and walnut pie. The pyramid was lemon mousse with chocolate cake and ganache, and I was not fond of the combination. The chocolate torte tasted more of cocoa (think of a Panera brownie) than the high quality dark chocolate I’m accustomed to in that kind of dessert.  Unfortunately, the walnut pie was soaked in some kind of honey and/or simple syrup that made it too cloyingly sweet for me to eat more than a few bites of it. I definitely had a lot more luck with their non-chocolate desserts and was more than happy to undertake a few days of decadent exploration to find two desserts that I loved!

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Even though my mother and I saw a laughable number of crepe and waffle-serving establishments in Athens, we only ate crepes for lunch on the first day and a vaflaki as part of our gelato dessert on a subsequent evening. It wasn’t until we arrived in Santorini that the number of these shops unbelievably multiplied and a waffle, crepe, or vaflaki became a part of our daily routine.

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The Corner in Fira was the first and most memorable crepe and waffle place that we tried, since it was most highly recommended on TripAdvisor. Most of the crepes and waffles we found tasted similarly high in quality and had a nearly identical array of toppings to choose from, but it’s clear why The Corner was so highly rated. They go above and beyond when it comes to plating their food. They create designs with the fruit, chocolate, and whipped cream, and finish everything off with a single animal cracker.

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It made for a photogenic plate that was that much more fun to eat. Unsurprisingly, crumbled biscuits were a typical add-on for a waffle or crepe. Several types of praline sauce were also available, including milk chocolate, white chocolate, Bueno, banana, and strawberry. In Greece, praline seems to refer to a thick, sweet sauce that involves some kind of chocolate incorporated with the advertised flavor. Whenever I’ve ordered a waffle or crepe with sauce in the States, I usually wish there was more and complain about its skimpiness, but in Greece I found that they were overly generous with the toppings. So much so, that I scraped chocolate sauce off my breakfast or lunch on more than one occasion. This ran counter to my assumption that all things European are less over-the-top and indulgent (in terms of portions at least) than all things American. A vaflaki with bananas, Bueno sauce, and hazelnuts was my favorite combination.

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I was elated to find such an abundance of dessert inspiration while in Greece, and needless to say, I must invest in a vaflaki maker and several boxes of LU Le Petit Beurre Cookies (like the ones used in all of the biscuit flavored treats) immediately so that I can recreate my favorites at home!

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A Grecian Getaway and Unexpected Inspiration

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“Guess we won’t have much dessert for two weeks,” I said as we left our house for the airport, assuming that baklava was all that awaited my voracious sweet tooth in Greece. “That’s okay. I’m going for the sights anyway, not the food,” I considerately reassured my mother.

When we arrived in Athens the following morning, hungry and tired and desperately in need of some quick food, we followed the advice of our hotel concierge and walked to Monastiraki Square. Before even crossing the street to get to the main square area, we spotted a gelateria and a creperie. Too exhausted to explore in depth before making a decision, we headed straight for the creperie with plans of gelato for dessert. To my surprise, their menu of sweet crepes had options that far exceeded any I had found at similar establishments in the U.S. – both in terms of variety and originality. It was a hard choice, but we settled on a white chocolate praline, Oreo, and strawberry crepe and a milk chocolate caramel, banana, and biscuit crepe. They tasted just about as good as they sounded. The gelato next door (I had bannoffee and brownies and cream) was a little icy in texture for our tastes, but still passable. We were just happy to find a creperie and gelateria in Greece at all, let alone next to each other and within walking distance from our hotel.

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Once we began our walk around the square, we passed several more gelatarias and creperies, many claiming to also serve waffles. We literally couldn’t travel a few feet without finding another dessert shop. I had attempted some research before leaving for Greece, but I must not have even known what to look for, since the existence of all of these places came as a total surprise. After that first day walking around Athens, I did a lot of research at our hotel so that we wouldn’t miss out on the very best desserts. People raved about Da Vinci Artisan Gelato online, which we had passed that day after we had already eaten, so we chose that as our next culinary destination.

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I got marzipan gelato and “Da Vinci’s Blend” gelato (sweet cream, chocolate cake, and honey) topped with Bueno sauce the first time we went. It was divine. I gave it the highest praise one could give to gelato and exclaimed, “This is as good as Grom!” We hadn’t even been able to find a second gelateria in Italy that rivaled Grom.

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Of course, convinced we had found the best gelato in Athens (and maybe Greece), we went back the next night. This time we were more adventurous. We ordered vaflaki. I am forever grateful to Greece for introducing me to vaflaki. Imagine a waffle. Now imagine each pocket of the waffle enlarged and separated so that they can be enjoyed on the go with one hand – all you need is a fork! I got cookies and cream gelato and stracciatella gelato topped with caramel and chocolate pearls.

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Cookie or “biscuit” flavored gelato – and pretty much all other desserts for that matter – were everywhere. As a cookie lover who is obsessed with cookie ice creams and cookie crusts (I famously requested m&m cookies to be mixed into the buttercream that filled the center of my 12th birthday cake), I was in heaven. And I was simultaneously appalled that the U.S. shows such little cookie love in comparison. Something else to note – whenever you see “cookies and cream” gelato in Greece, it usually refers to chocolate chip cookies, while gelato containing Oreos is simply called “Oreo.” This vaflaki topped with high quality gelato was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.

As my mother and I walked around the Plaka and its various squares, we repeatedly passed a restaurant called Cookie Land. There weren’t multiple locations; we just really had no idea where we were going and had zero luck following our map. Despite its suspiciously American title, we finally decided to try it.

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I was immediately intrigued when I looked over their menu and realized that they had cookies, gelato, waffles, pies, cakes, and “bowls,” which they used to refer to their layered dessert cups. I made the obvious choice, a cookie bowl from Cookie Land. Before they served it, they even brought a few complimentary cookies to our table.

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I’ll take that over a bread basket any day of the week! I’m still dreaming of their cookie bowl. It has secured a coveted spot toward the top of my list of favorite desserts ever. Its base was a mix of chocolate mousse and chocolate cookie crumbs, which was topped with cookie flavored custard (that was so airy it was like a mousse), a hidden star-shaped shortbread cookie and some more chocolate mousse, another layer of cookie custard, and then a final layer of milk chocolate ganache and a star cookie to finish it all off. The combination of crunchy and creamy textures and chocolate and cookie flavors was perfection. Basically, it is the dessert I would have created if I had been asked to design my ideal dessert. It’s the dessert that I didn’t even realize my life was missing. I plan to recreate it at home as soon as possible.

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I also tried their mille-feuille bowl, which was whipped cream layered with puff pastry coated in powdered sugar, and it was also great for what it was, but not nearly as complex and potently flavorful as the cookie bowl.

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By a stroke of unprecedented luck, we left Athens right before Greek banks started to close and ATM withdrawals were limited to 60 Euro a day. We escaped to Santorini, an idyllic island driven by tourism that remained seemingly unaffected (at least to a couple of foreigners only there for a few days) by the financial crisis. More desserts awaited us there! Stay tuned…

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