02 February 2007
A Guide to Syrian Kitchens and a Maple Tart
I had just moved into my flat in Damascus, excited over its wonderful views of the city, its wide kitchen, the nice furnishings, and most importantly the amount of space a transplanted New Yorker could only ever dream of at a fraction of the rent. (a patio, a washing machine, $200/month!) Relieved to be done with the hours of negotiations and the headache of trying to read through and sign a 5 page contract in Arabic, I surveyed my surroundings. The beautiful kitchen, my kitchen, with that gleaming 6-burner range induced dreams of home-cooked aromas. However, it turns out that stoves, or more specifically ovens, in Syrian kitchens are more like nightmares to any well-intentioned cook. Should you ever find yourself in this predicament, I offer A Guide To Your Syrian Stove:
1. The stove runs on gas, the tank for which is tucked somewhere underneath or behind the range. The tank will run out about every 1-2 months, at which point you have to go through the adventure of replacing it (that will have to explained another day). Just hope it doesn’t happen when you’re giving a dinner party or on a Friday, or you’ll be eating yogurt and raw carrots. Now, the burners don’t light automatically, so you’ll need matches or a lighter which should sit by the stove. And since there’s no pilot light, that means your oven doesn’t light automatically either.
2. Perhaps you are realizing with trepidation that you are going to have to light the oven by hand. Yes. Now, there are two dials on the range, one for the top of the oven and one for the bottom. The best way to do this is with a long candle, or find one of those lighters with a very long handle, rolled up newspaper will do in a pinch. Light your candle, open the oven, turn on the burner for the top of the oven, and light with the candle. Poof! There, have you successfully done that without catching yourself or your clothing on fire? Good. Now you have to light the bottom of the stove by pulling out the broiler tray. This can be a bit harder to reach, but you’ll get the hang of it.
3. And just when you thought your oven adventure was over, well, you may have noticed that your oven has no temperature markings. That’s right, you are the temperature regulator. You can adjust the top and bottom parts to high and low, which is precisely what you will be doing the whole time you are baking. Standing by the stove, peering through the little window, adjusting the flames in a desperate attempt to maintain at least a consistent temperature, whether it’s 300 or 400 degrees you’ll never know. At some point, you’ll turn the flames down too low and they’ll go out, so you’ll have to open the oven and go through that lighting process again. At another point, they’ll get too high and you might end up with a very blackened top or a crusty bottom.
It is at this point that I offer you my most salient advice. Bake casseroles, bake small cookies, things that you can leave in the oven at a low flame for a little while. Do not attempt delicate cakes. Abandon all hopes of soufflés. Trust me, you’ll be happier, and keep your sanity, which in this situation can be a precious thing.
Of course, upon moving into my kitchen, no one had warned me. I decided that I could use some of that lovely maple syrup a fellow expat had given me by making a maple tart. I pressed the tart dough, soft with freshly made butter, into its round pan. I stirred up the batter, the syrup like liquid gold, into the pan. And then I encountered the oven.
I fiddled with the oven’s knobs, I crouched and peered through the glass. At one point, the filling bubbled up into a huge dome, then immediately collapsed again. My stomach made a similar turn thinking I had wasted all that wonderful syrup. By the time I had taken it out of the oven, I had to be careful not to let the sweat that was literally dripping from my brow drop onto the tart.
However, my spirits were revived as the tart cooled and looked pleasingly unharmed. The kitchen was filled with the aromas of sugar and pastry. And when I could wait no longer, I took a bite. The sweet dark taste of maple recalled deep forest and snow, the tart crust redolent of French patisseries. In short, all the things missing from my life in Damascus. I looked over at my stove, sitting quietly in the corner. A battle, and a tart well won.
Use good quality maple syrup, it makes a difference in the flavor and texture of the tart. This tart is very sweet, so it is best enjoyed in a small slivers with a nice dollop of whipped cream or creme fraiche.
paté brisée for a 9” pan
1/2 cup buttermilk
2/3 cup maple syrup
3/4 c. brown sugar
2 tbl butter
3 tbl flour
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp lemon juice
- Prepare the paté brisée and press into a 9” tart pan, refrigerate.
- Preheat the oven to 375. Place the maple syrup and butter in a saucepan and simmer so that the butter is melted. In a medium bowl, stir together the brown sugar and the eggs until light and thickened. Stir in the buttermilk, maple syrup, flour, vanilla, and lemon. Stir until well combined, the batter will be thin. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and place in the oven. Bake the tart 30-35 minutes, until the filling is just set. Remove and cool on a rack. If desired, dust the top with confectioners sugar, serve slightly warm or at room temperature with whipped cream.