Eat & Drink
Wheat Berry Breakfast & Dessert
So my name day is coming up on December 4th. (My mother said she prayed to St. Barbara for a girl, and - completely bucking Greek naming tradition and causing no small amount of family drama - named me after the saint rather than my grandmother. Hoo boy.)
Anyway, it got me thinking about this delicious treat.
When I came across this recipe I wondered why I had never heard of it, nor why either of my grandmothers had ever made it. This was never served in my house, probably because it has northern Greek roots, while we are Pelaponnesian, island and Asia Minor people. It was a dish served to neighbors to honor St. Barbara, to wish for the good health of the neighborhood children.
Varvara's close relation - kollyva - of course, was something we were very familiar with. It is the traditional funeral and memorial cake, broken up and handed out in paper bags at Greek Orthodox churches. I remember the painstaking way my Yiayia Anna used to carefully spread the wheat berries out to dry for hours on clean towels. Kollyva were an absolute favorite our ours growing up, and it uses most of the same ingredients as varvara, except that the berries are supposed to be drier rather than creamier. And happily, varvara isn't nearly as time-intensive! (You will need to soak the wheat berries the night before, though, so plan for that.)
The recipe is defined as a breakfast, but it's so good I've also had it as a dessert! It's like an ambrosial version of oatmeal, if that humble dish got a delicious Greek glow-up. Wheat, fruit, nuts, seeds - what's not healthy and breakfast-like about any of that? It's even vegan!
While the traditional recipe is made in December and requires pomegranates (and you really should try it at least once that way), I don't see any reason you couldn't make it other times of the year with other fruit like dates or prunes, if poms aren't in season. Pomegranates have a lamentably short season in my part of the world, but this will be delicious with just the raisins and nuts. I'm even considering making it with finely diced apples, because I think that will be amazing with the cinnamon and other ingredients!
There are a few different versions; I've made mine with less sugar than is usually called for, and frankly it's perfectly sweet to me. The cinnamon, fruits and nuts do the heavy lifting in this dish anyway.
Makes 10-12 servings
16 oz. bag/2 cups of wheat berries
1/2 cup all purpose flour
4 oz. sesame seeds
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon, plus extra to dust over the finished dish
5 oz. chopped walnuts
5 oz. slivered almonds; reserve some for garnish
2 oz. pine nuts; reserve some for garnish
5 oz. golden raisins
1 cup pomegranate seeds; reserve some for garnish
enough water to cover the wheat berries when boiling, plus an inch or so.
1. Prepare the wheat the day before by putting in a large pot, pouring enough water in to cover the wheat and covering the pot with plastic wrap. Leave it to soak overnight. (I soaked mine for 24 hours, but I'm not sure I needed to do it that long. It didn't hurt it, though.)
2. The next day, remove the plastic wrap and strain out the water using the finest strainer/colander you have, as the wheat berries are very tiny.
3. Wash the wheat berries a few times until the water runs clean.
4. Put them back in a large pot and cover with fresh water. Add the salt and set to boil.
5. Once the pot has been boiling for 10 minutes or so, turn down the heat and let simmer for another 10-15 minutes. You want the wheat berries softened, but not cracked open. You should be able to pierce the berries with a fork when done.
6. In a dry pan over medium heat, add the flour and sesame seeds to toast. Spread them as evenly as you can. You can do this while the wheat is boiling.
7. Stir frequently so they don't burn. You'll need to pay attention to this bit, as they go from raw to burnt very easily if you don't.
8. The flour and sesame will go from white to beige, and you'll begin to smell the toasting. At this point it's done. Turn off the heat and let sit.
You can see the difference in the color of the flour once it's been toasted for a few minutes.
9. While wheat is still simmering, add the sugar and stir to blend.
10. Add the cinnamon and stir to blend.
11. One large spoonful at a time, add the flour/sesame mixture to the wheat. Stir as each spoonful is added. You'll see it begin to thicken considerably. You may need to add a tiny bit more water if it's too thick. You don't want it cement-like. Make sure it's very well mixed, with no beige pockets of flour showing.
12. Add most of the pomegranate seeds, most of the chopped nuts and most of the raisins in the pot and mix them all in. Reserve some of each ingredient for garnish.
13. Once these are added and mixed, turn off the heat and let cool.
14. Scoop it into small pudding cups or bowls, garnish with the remainder or the nuts and pomegranate seeds, and enjoy!
This can be eaten warm, cold or room-temperature. I like it heated for breakfast and cool for dessert. It will keep in the fridge for a few days. You don't need to just eat it for St. Barbara's day - try it year-round!
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