31 March 2009

Kunafe and Aish al-Saraya

There are some dishes that just never seem to reach across cultural divides. If you didn't grow up with it, cold squid salad for breakfast, like they serve in Japan, is something that's pretty hard to get used to. I'm an adventurous eater, I'll try anything once, but there are some things I think I'll never quite catch on to. I lived in Lebanon and Syria for years, I ate bowls of fetteh served with cows hooves on top, tried flatbreads cooked on dusty roadside grills, and discovered grains I'd never heard of. But one thing, one thing everyone seemed to love, I could never get used to.

Kunafe has as many different variations and definitions as there are cooks in Jordan. Basically, a crust of either buttery semolina, bread crumbs, or shredded phyllo is spread in the bottom of the pan, then some kind of cheese is layered on top, and then topped with more of the crust mixture. This is baked and then covered in sugary syrup. Traditional Palestinian kunafe is made a with a crumbly semolina crust, often dyed a fake orange, while in Syria you're more likely to see the kind made with shredded phyllo curls billowing like big hair. Usually the cheese is something chewy like halloumi or akkawi, and sometimes it's sweeter and softer like ricotta or clotted cream ('ashta).

My main problem with kunafe is that it sits in your stomach like a ten pound dumbbell, and my other problem is that I really don't like stringy melted cheese covered in syrup. Something about it is just kind of wrong to me, a clash of savory and sweet I can't stomach. In Lebanon, they serve kunafe for breakfast by plopping the whole sugary cheesy slice in the pocket of a pita bread. My friends in college swore by it as a hangover remedy, but I'm pretty sure it would make me queasy even on a sober stomach.

There is, however, a very similar desert called aish al-saraya or "bread of the mansion." In it, bread is soaked in a syrup mixture until soft and moist, and served cold with a big dollop of clotted cream ('ashta) on top. I always think of 'aish el saraya, sometimes translated as Middle Eastern bread pudding, as Egyptian, but you're just as likely to find it in Lebanon or elsewhere. My recipe, taught by a 2nd generation Lebanese friend, is sort of like a cross of aish el saraya and kunafe. The bread crumbs are moistened with syrup but not made heavy with butter, and the cheese is not stringy but a light and fluffy whipped ricotta. It's layered like kunafe but served cool, not warm, and very easy to make ahead of time.

A friend of mine swears her mother makes a version of kunafe even I would like, and another friend just back from Jordan says I have to try the new trend of "rolled kunafe," which she claims is lighter than the traditional version. But I've heard these claims before, so until a kunafe wins me over, I'll stick with my recipe.

Middle Eastern Bread and Cream Pudding

12 slices white bread or challah bread, something soft and mild
1 1/2 cups fragrant syrup, recipe follows
16 oz ricotta cheese
1 cup heavy cream
1/4-1/3 cup sugar

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Lay bread slices on two baking sheets and toast in the oven until golden brown. Process the bread in a food processor until you have fine textured crumbs.
2. Beat together the ricotta and 1/4 cup sugar. Add in the heavy cream and beat the mixture with an electric mixer until smooth and thick. Taste for sweetness- it should be pleasantly sweet with a hint of tang. Adjust sugar if necessary.
3. In a bowl mix the bread with the 1.5 cups syrup till you have a crumbly loose sticky mixture.
4. In a round 9 inch cake pan or spring-form pan, layer half the bread crumb mixture and pat with your hand to compact a little. It should not be as compact as pie dough.
5. Layer the cream on top of the bread crumbs. Add the rest of the bread crumbs on top of the cream and pat them down as much as possible without squashing the cream.
6. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving and serve it cold, with an extra drizzle of syrup if desired.

for syrup:
2 cups sugar
1 cups water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tsp rose water
1 tsp orange blossom water

1. Mix the sugar, water and lemon juice in a saucepan and heat until it boils and all the sugar dissolves. Let it simmer for 5 to 10 minutes till a little syrupy. Remove from heat, add the rosewater and orange blossom water, cool and store in a jar.

26 March 2009

Ham Biscuits

In the radiology waiting room a man stands, with trouser socks pulled up to his calves and shiny leather loafers, wearing nothing other than a droopy hospital gown. He has a laptop in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and he paces back and forth furiously, determined to do work up until the last minute he has to enter the radiation room. These are the prostate cancer patients.

There is a very pretty young woman, head wrapped in an elegant scarf with thick blush on her cheeks, sitting while milky white liquid drips into her veins. She has shiny silver flats that match her silver bag. There are middle-aged women too, many walking about slowly, many flat-chested, waiting outside radiology. These are the breast cancer patients.

There is a young man with a brace like my mom's, he has multiple myloma, with tumors along his spine. His mother comes each day in a different shalwar kameez, tunic and scarf perfectly placed, a perfect shade of sunset orange one day, a black and gold embroidered ensemble the next.

There are patients who carry buckets for vomiting in their laps, and those with perfect hair and those with none. These are the cancer patients.

No one looks like the brain cancer patients. No one has to be arranged on the table just so, wincing as their disabled body is laid on the hard surface. No one has to have a wire mesh mask clamped over their entire head and shoulders so tight that they can barely breathe or talk. No one else has the mask's "waffle face," the indentations that last for an hour after the mask has been released.

My mom has maintained a good appetite through her treatment, a side effect of the steroids, she happily eats most anything we put in front of her. Starches are best: pizza, mashed potatoes, pie, and pudding. Nothing too acidic or vegetal, the wine aficionado has lost her taste for anything except half glass of Lillet.

My aunt sent Tennessee country ham, super-salty thinly sliced cured ham, and I made biscuits for serving. Ham biscuits are less of a recipe and more of a Southern tradition. My grandmother called them "hambiscuit," one word and always in the singular. They are found at every family party I ever attended, and these days they are pretty comforting, wrapped in foil and tucked in your bag, snacked on in the sterile halls of the radiology waiting room.

Ham Biscuits

thinly sliced country ham (I recommend these guys)

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter—chilled and cut into small cubes
1 cup buttermilk, chilled
additional melted butter for brushing the tops

1. Preheat the oven to 425° and position a rack in the lower third of the oven. In a large shallow bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda and fine salt. Add the chilled butter and use a pastry blender or 2 knives to cut the butter into the flour until it is the size of peas. Stir in the buttermilk just until the dough is moistened. Lightly dust a work surface with flour. Turn the dough out onto the surface and knead 2 or 3 times, just until it comes together. Pat the dough into a 1/2-inch-thick disk.

2. Using a floured 2 1/4-inch round cookie cutter, stamp out biscuit rounds as closely together as possible. Gather the scraps and knead them together 2 or 3 times, then flatten the dough and stamp out more biscuit rounds. Pat the remaining scraps together and gently press them into a biscuit.

3. Transfer the biscuits to a large baking sheet and brush the tops with the melted butter. Bake the biscuits for 20 minutes, or until golden. Let the biscuits cool slightly on the baking sheet.

4. Split biscuits, fill each with a nice, but not too thick, pile of country ham. Serve as soon as possible.

19 March 2009

Broccoli Bacon Cheddar Tart

I've been able to cook a little bit this week, which is refreshing. Yesterday I made this orange-olive oil cake, only with grapefruit instead of orange. It came out beautifully, burnished brown on the edges, with this perfect golden crack down the middle. I made a ginger-lemon snow pea stir fry the other day that was good enough to make you forget everything else on the table, and I made rice mixed with black sesames, sesame oil, and crumbled nori.

Cooking is a good grounding point in my day not rushing around nibbling this or that, a time to stop and actually prepare a meal for yourself, something all too infrequent in my life these days. I've had this hunk of chipotle gouda in my fridge that was on its last legs, entering the mold danger zone, for quite a while now. But while it's good, it's so spicy that I can only handle a few pieces in a sitting.

I was a going to make a quiche, but my pie pan being otherwise occupied (I made a chess pie for a party), a tart pan would suffice. So the spicy gouda got tossed in with some broccoli and crumbled bacon in an eggy bath for a tart.

This tart is fabulous, plenty of green broccoli fills it up, but then with smoky bacon and that warm heat of spicy cheese. A pepperjack would be great here or, if you are wary of spicy cheese, a nice sharp cheddar would do equally well. Cut into a large wedge, with some salad and a handful of grapes on the side, it is an imminently transportable lunch. If you can find the time to sit down and eat it.

Broccoli Bacon Cheddar Tart

one pastry crust, prepared a fitted into an 8" tart pan and chilled
1 large head broccoli, just the florets
4 strips bacon
1/2 cup small cubes of sharp cheddar, chipotle-gouda, pepper jack, of cheese of choice
2 large eggs plus one egg white
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 425 F. Saute the bacon in a pan until crisp, drain on paper towels and let cool. Crumble the bacon.
2. Prepare a steamer. Steam the broccoli florets until just barely tender- remember you don't want mushy broccoli and it will cook more in the oven. Rinse broccoli under cold water to stop cooking. Break into even smaller florets.
3. Scatter the bacon, broccoli and cheese in the tart shell. In a bowl beat together the eggs, white, milk, and salt. Pour the egg mixture over the tart filling.
4. Place the tart on a baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake 30-35 minutes, until the top is slightly golden and the center only jiggles slightly when shaken. Allow to cool before cutting. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.

06 March 2009

Apricot "Sunny-Side Up" Pastries

I guess I thought this would be easier. The surgery is one thing - long, scary, difficult, but in the end it ends. And mom gets moved out of intensive care and the scar heals and I think my life can resemble normalcy again. Only it can't. This long haul part- the weeks of chemo, the 24 hour nursing, the constant complications and medications, I don't know how to do this. I don't know how to support my mom, work at my job, maintain my household and some semblance of my own life, while constantly commuting between two cities. If I'm not with my mom consistently, I'm out of the loop, I hear about doctors visits only after they happen and crises only after they're fixed. But I can't just abandon my job and my friends because I'm afraid when I need them they might not be there.

So I'm not good at this. I'm trying but I'll be the first to admit I haven't quite found a balance that's working. And in the meantime, the little things I am good at - my job (hopefully), feeding people, knowing about obscure spices, those little things help remind me that I'm competent at something.

I made this recipe for my office the other day, after a rare weekend when I had time to bake. They're very simple little pastries with apricots placed over puff pastry so that they end up looking like sunny-side eggs. They're very easy and I think quite cute. When so many things in your life are disappointing, there is something so satisfying about watching people enjoy something you made, and even ask you for the recipe. So here you go:

Apricot "Sunny-Side Up" Pastries
Extrapolated from something I saw Julia Childs make once.

1 box puff pastry, thawed
1 recipe vanilla pastry cream, recipe follows, (or substitute prepared/purchased vanilla pudding)
2 cans apricot halves or 16 poached halved fresh apricots
1/4 cup apricot jelly

1. Preheat oven to 400 F. Use an overturned glass or circle cutter to cut the pastry into rounds. Use a rolling pin press down on the center of each circle so that it is more of an oval shape (the edges will be thicker than the center of the pastry, this will enable the pastry to puff up around the apricots.

2. Place rounds on a greased or lined baking sheet and top with a dollop of pastry cream/pudding, spreading the cream slightly into a circle. Top each round with one apricot, cut side down, or two apricots for bigger "double-yolk" pastries. (at this point assembled pastries can be refrigerated, covered, overnight). Bake 25-35 minutes, or until puffed and golden and brown on the bottom.

3. Warm the apricot jelly in the microwave/small saucepan until warm and liquid. Use a pastry brush to brush the top of the apricots with jelly so that they remain moist and shiny. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Pastry Cream:
2 cups milk
1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Pinch salt
1/2 vanilla bean or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cornstarch
2 eggs, beaten to combine

1. Bring the milk, 1/4 cup of the sugar, butter, salt and vanilla bean to a gentle boil in a medium saucepan. Remove from heat.
2. Whisk together the cornstarch and the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Add the eggs to the cornstarch and mix into a smooth paste.
3. Slowly, and in small amounts, whisk a little of the hot milk into a the egg mixture. (this is called tempering the eggs, which you need to do to get them to the same temperature of the hot milk in the pan, so they won’t curdle.) Once the egg mixture is warm to the touch, pour it back into the milk in the pan.
4. Return the custard to the stove and bring to a boil, whisking continuously for 2 to 3 minutes, so that the custard is thick and does not taste grainy. Optional: press pastry cream through a sieve for ultimate smoothness.
5. Refrigerate with plastic wrap pressed directly on the surface until ready to use.