31 December 2007

The Maple Syrup Conundrum

Where I grew up and where my mom still lives, our neighbor is a grandmotherly lady who spends her summers in the cool air of Canada. Each year as she prepares to flee Baltimore’s hot weather, we assure her we will keep an eye on the mail and the elaborate system of timers that water her hundreds of prize orchids. And each year, in return, she brings us a bottle of the most wonderful maple syrup you ever did taste. Not pancake syrup, not imitation flavor stuff, but sweet scented liquid gold.

Now, my family loves maple syrup, but it seems we don’t make enough pancakes, because each year when she brought us a new bottle we still had half of last year’s left. Over the years my mom devised several recipes to whittle down our supply, a maple-glazed salmon is still a favorite. However, it seems we’ve been lax once again because between my mom and myself, we’ve got three bottles of maple syrup. Oh, the difficult problems we face. I briefly considered giving one of them as an emergency Christmas gift, but this stuff is so good that even with our surplus I couldn’t bear to let it go. After all, if I had only one bottle in the pantry I might start to get a little nervous, it’s a long way to next August.

Instead, I started searching for a recipe that called for maple syrup, not just a few measly tablespoons, but something by the cupful. I came across a recipe for maple-walnut cake that sounded just right, except for one thing. Problem is, I don’t love nuts in my cakes. Ground nuts, sure, but what I love about cake is the soft texture, something nuts just interrupt. I know, I know, trivial once again. However, I had an idea: I could use chestnuts, which have a nutty taste but a softer texture, and I could chop them very finely so that they sort of melted into the cake.

I suppose if you pour a few cups of fabulous maple syrup into something, you should expect it to be good, but this cake exceeded even my expectations. It smells as good as it tastes, supremely maple-y, with just the right soft nubby texture from the chestnuts. Keeping the chestnut theme, I made a frosting with sweetened cream cheese and chestnut paste, which is now one of my favorite new variations on cream cheese frosting. I have only two qualms with this cake: one, my cake lost some of its maple flavor after a few days, but this could be because I didn’t store it properly. Second, with the good maple syrup, chestnuts and chestnut paste, it can be a bit pricey, but I think it would be worth it for a special occasion. If you’re lucky enough to be able to afford candied chestnuts (marrons glacee) they would make a wonderful decoration on the top of the cake.

I love doing a fancy dessert on New Years, when you can serve some cute appetizers, skip the entree, and head straight for the sweet stuff with your glass of Champagne in hand. After all, it’s only tomorrow that you swore off sweets and committed to salads. Until then, why don’t you have another piece of cake?

Maple-Chestnut Layer Cake
This layer cake is best the first day it's made, that is, if you can resist the smell of the cake coming out of the oven. The frosting is delicious, but you could also use a maple buttercream frosting if you prefer.

1/2 cup (4 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ginger
1 1/2 cups pure maple syrup
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped cooked chestnuts
Chestnut Cream Cheese Frosting, recipe follows

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease two 9" cake pans. Place chestnuts in a food processor and pulse to make a coarse meal (alternately, if you don't have a processor, you can chop them as finely as possible). You should have 3/4 cup chestnuts.
2. Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, and ginger.
3. Beat butter and maple syrup together until combined. The mixture may look slightly curdled, that's ok. Beat in the eggs and vanilla. Add the flour mixture in two additions, stirring to combine. Fold in the chestnuts.
4. Divide batter between prepared pans. Bake 40 minutes. Let cool on a rack.
5. Place bottom cake layer on a platter. Spread the top with some of the chestnut frosting. Top with second cake layer, frost top and sides of cake with remaining frosting.

Chestnut Cream Cheese Frosting
12 oz cream cheese
4 oz (1/3 cup) chestnut puree
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups sifted powdered sugar

1. Cream together the cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add the chestnut puree and vanilla to combine. Slowly sift in the powdered sugar until the desired consistency is reached.

30 December 2007

Where I Come From

These are my people. This is where I come from. Sometimes it's good to remember where you come from, even if you never lived there, even if it's only where your mother grew up. Roots, deep, buried. So deep, sometimes we forget them. Even if you know you'll never live there, if you don't fit in there, if it's different than your memories have painted it. It's good to hear the accents, the drawl that can turn "bill" into a three-syllable word. Bi-iieee-uulll. The rocky landscape and the mountain springs, the smell of barbeque, the taste of country ham and biscuits, sorghum syrup, tomato aspic and green beans cooked all day long with a bit of fatback.

With all the wonderful gifts this year, the fancy phone, the camera lenses, backup hard drives, more books than I could dream of (yes, I was truly spoiled), it was a little teacup wrapped in tissue paper that brought tears to my eyes. The gift of my Grandmother's china set, bequethed from my aunt, the antique cream soup bowls with their delicate double handles that speak of responsibility and roots. I promise I'll give them the care they deserve.

We fed the horses and the burrow, played with the dogs and were entertained by a four-year-old on the trombone. We drove through towns with names like Lebanon, Smyrna, and Carthage, New World versions of Old World titles. I told my cousins about how I went to the original Smyrna, Ismir, in southern Turkey; they looked at me like I was crazy. We ate caramel cake and fought over the Sunday crossword puzzle while sitting by the fireplace. It's good for a city girl to get her boots muddy sometimes. I hope your holidays were as enriching, belly-filling, and relaxing as ours. We're looking forward to the new year!

Grapefruit, Avocado, Pomegranate Salad
Every year my uncle sends us a whole crate of Texas pink grapefruit and so begins our annual quest to use all 18 of them before they go bad. The one thing they are destined for is this salad with avocado and pomegranate seeds that my Grandmother always made around the holidays. In our family it's simply thought of as "the Christmas salad."

1 large pink grapefruit
1 large ripe avocado, peeled and sliced
mache or butter lettuce, about 6 cups
1 cup pomegranate seeds
3 tablespoons champagne vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil
pinch salt

1. Section the grapefruit: Cut off the peel from the top and bottom of the grapefruit. Working from top to bottom, remove the peel and pith in strips, so that the grapefruit flesh in completely exposed. Discard peel and any white pith. Working over a bowl, use your knife to cut between the white membrane so that the grapefruit flesh is released into the bowl in sections. Squeeze juice from remaining flesh and discard.
2. Get another large bowl and whisk together the vinegar, oil, and salt in the bottom. Toss the lettuces in the bowl to coat. Divide lettuces among four serving plates or leave in the bowl. Arrange grapefruit sections and avocado over lettuces. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds over salad. Serve immediately.

28 December 2007


Note to self: Cheese should be served at room temperature.

I'm not much of a cheese eater, despite the fact that pretty much everyone else around me can be found digging wedges of stinky Epoisses or cutting hunks of Cotswold before and after the dinner hour. Me, I occasionally have a sprinkling of cheese as an accent in salad, but for some reason last week I found myself craving big hunks of fermented dairy products. Wheels of brie and camembert, carrying the odors of sweet lettuces from spring's milk, are just ripening to perfection around now. Which brings me to the reminder: cheese should be served at room temperature so it oozes perfectly across the plate. Not I-took-it-out-of-the-fridge-five-minutes-ago and not baked in one of those pastry cases. I usually set mine out an hour to half an hour before serving. We had this Camembert with thin slices of baguette and some leftover cranberry-orange chutney. Delicious.

22 December 2007

Run, Gingerbread Man, Run

My holiday rolling pin has been put to good use, its barber-pole red-and-white stripes pressing out cookie doughs which have been cut, baked, packaged and shipped. Tomorrow, we will be following the same path as our cookies, scattering to family across the country. We're packing, packing, packing and soon we'll be going, going, going in the season of giving, giving, giving. No matter what holiday you celebrate I hope you have a good one, full of family and fun and cheer. In the meantime, if you need any last minute treats or sweets for sharing, I've listed a few selections from the archives below. Happy holidays!

Bourbon Balls
Cardamom Wheat Cookies
Chocolate Cookies (with Peppermint Sandwich variation)
Chocolate-Coconut Tartlets
Custard-Filled Baklava
Date Bars
(Mom's) Chocolate Chip Cookies
Honey-Nut Caramels
Pecan Pralines
Pistachio-Cranberry Cookie Sticks
Peppermint Ice Cream
Guinness Gingerbread

19 December 2007

Why I Love Tomato Aspic

I love tomato aspic. It only took me twenty years to figure it out.

You see, as much as I've lauded the cooking of the American South, the culinary traditions of my mother's family and many others stretching across Tennessee, the Carolinas, and Texas, I'm afraid it's easy to romanticize things. Somewhere in the past half century the ease of open-a-can-of-this-and-combine-with-a-can-of-that has crept into the vernacular. Like kudzu vine, culinary traditions have been entangled in processed cheese and smothered in creamed soup. Sometimes it's scary.

Don't get me wrong, the barbeque's still great, there's real cornbread and fresh shucked oysters and plenty of pie. But one year we were in Tennessee for the holidays, doing the usual rounds of Christmas parties and visiting. Everywhere people were pressing little cheese biscuits and pecan tassies in your hand, all of them delicious, but after awhile I was starting to crave a vegetable. Or just something, anything, that resembled its fresh natural state. At the dreaded bank Christmas party, amid the ladies in their Christmas sweaters, I looked in desperation for something not slathered in mayonnaise or cream cheese. Finding nothing, I resigned myself to another ham biscuit.

This is how I came to discover tomato aspic. Aspic is just a fancy word for a savory gelatin; aspics were popular in the fifties (think of those molded salads), but in my family and many others' across the South aspic never went out of style. Specifically, tomato aspic. There is no family gathering to be had without tomato aspic, my family is so passionate about it. It was always on every dinner and buffet table growing up but I had never actually eaten it. Few things could be less appealing to a child than a wobbly block of solidified tomato juice.

Then came the holiday of vegetable depletion, and as I surveyed the buffet I saw the tomato aspics my aunt had made, perfectly shaped in Christmas tree molds and decorated with green olives for the season. I took one, along with a heaping salad, and promptly fell in love. It's hard to describe what's so wonderful about tomato aspic, even now I can't really put words to something which sounds, on paper, so unappealing. Maybe you have to be born into the tomato aspic tradition, but I didn't discover it for the first twenty years of my life, so I think there's hope for you too.

Today, tomato aspic is one of my favorite foods. As often as fresh sliced tomatoes make up my lunch in the summer, a wedge of tomato aspic is sure to be on my plate in the winter. I've even packed a whole tray of it in ice to take to the refrigerator at work so I can have it all week long. But more than that, those funny red blocks remind me of home and the holidays, my mom always has a plate of aspic in the fridge when I'm coming to visit. Sometimes it's decorated with green olives or scallions, other times it's plain, simply tomato juice spiced with a bit of Worcestershire and spice. We're headed to Tennessee next week where I'll be eating ham biscuits and bourbon balls and where my aunt is already getting out the molds, so that when the need for a vegetable strikes, the aspic will be ready. In my family, it wouldn't be the holidays without it.

Tomato Aspic
I've made this with both 2 and 3 packages of gelatin and I prefer the firm yet melting aspic that comes from using 2 packages. However, if your aspic will be part of a buffet or sitting out at room temperature for a while, I'd recommend using 3 packages for a very firm gel.

4 cups tomato juice, preferably low-sodium
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 bay leaf
1 cup chopped onion and celery
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
dash of Tabasco or other hot sauce, optional
1/2 teaspoon salt (omit if not using low-sodium tomato juice and use your judgement)
2 packages (1/2 oz.) gelatin
2 tablespoons mild vinegar, like apple cider vinegar
optional: chopped scallions or sliced pitted green olives
for serving: butter lettuce leaves, homemade mayonnaise

1. In a large bowl, combine 1/2 cup of the tomato juice with the gelatin and the vinegar, stir to combine and set aside.
2. Place the remaining tomato juice, lemon juice, bay leaf, onion, celery, worcestershire sauce, and salt (to taste) in a sauce pan. Bring the mixture to a boil, then let simmer for 20 minutes.
3. Pour the tomato juice through a sieve into the bowl with the gelatin, discard the vegetables. Stir the tomato-gelatin mixture well so that the gelatin is completely dissolved. Transfer the mixture to a 9 inch pie plate or decorative molds and place in the refrigerator to set. If using olives or scallions, press them into the aspic after about 30-45 minutes (when the gelatin is half-way set), so that they are suspended in the aspic. Refrigerate the aspic at least 4 hours before serving.
4. Serve the aspic chilled, on a bed of lettuce leaves, with mayonnaise on the side. Aspic keeps well in the refrigerator.

16 December 2007

Pistachio-Cranberry Cookie Sticks

A lot of people say that bakers, because they follow recipes that rely on precise weights and measures, are the more precise (dare we say rigid) of the kitchen staff, while cooks have the liberty to be more free spirits and daredevils in the kitchen. While I do think cooking and baking are different arts, I don't think this classification is at all true. When I read a baking recipe, I read it for the bones of its structure: the proportions of ingredients, the technique, the temperatures. But when it comes to flavor, I say it's open season on experimentation and creativity. You can take a good base cookie or cake or cheesecake recipe and extrapolate it into a million different flavor variations.

I am saying this because experimentation is how I discovered one of my favorite cookie recipes. I came across a recipe one day for Almond-Cocoa Nib Cookies from the lovely Alice Medrich, whose recipes always come out brilliantly. But I had neither almonds nor nibs, and somehow an almond cookie wasn't really tickling my fancy anyway. I do, however, always keep a good supply of pistachios around, and when brainstorming what to combine them with, dried cranberries seemed like an obvious good choice.

When I first made them, back in the summer, I immediately knew they were destined for my holiday cookie box. First of all, they are red and green colored, and I love the long cookie sticks, I can just see them sticking up out of a cup, waiting for Santa. Second, they are supremely easy to make, just blitz in a food processor and cut with a pizza cutter. I've rarely had a cookie so full of flavor and perfectly crisp, there are plenty of pistachio cookies out there, but few made with pistachio meal (ground pistachios). When I was making these for holiday packages, I ended up cutting them into bite size pieces, and then drizzling the cookies with some white chocolate to make them even more festive. My friend joked they were no longer cookie sticks but cookie stubs, but I think anyone who tastes them will simply call them yum.

Pistachio-Cranberry Cookie Sticks
These colorful cookie sticks are perfect for dipping in a glass of milk. For an extra festive touch drizzle with melted white chocolate.

3/4 cup whole pistachios
1 cup+ 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 tablespoons water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon almond extract (optional)
1/3 cup chopped dried cranberries or dried cherries

1. Combine the pistachios, flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor and pulse until it is a fine meal. Add the butter and pulse until the dough looks crumbly. Combine the water, vanilla, and almond extract and add it to the bowl, pulsing until it just looks damp. Add the dried cranberries and pulse until evenly distributed.
2. On a piece of parchment paper, roll out the dough into a 6x9 in rectangle that's 1/2 inch thick. Refrigerate for 2 hours or overnight. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Using a pizza cutter or a long knife, cut 3/8 in thick slices and place them on parchment lined cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart. Bake 12-14 minutes, until golden at the edges. Do not over bake, they will continue to firm as they cool.

13 December 2007

Tamarind-Glazed Pearl Onions

Tamarind is a sweet-tart fruit that comes from the pods of tamarind trees. Though native to Africa, tamarind is used in Middle Eastern cuisine, most commonly in the form of a tamarind drink. Aleppo, in northern Syria, is famous for its highly developped cuisine which is quite distinct from other parts of the region. The Arab name for Aleppo is Halab, derived from the word for milk (haleeb) on account of its excellent dairy products, it seems Aleppo has always been associated with great food. There are several key ingredients that are hallmarks of Aleppian cuisine: smoky-hot spices in the form of Aleppo pepper, plenty of red peppers, tart tangy pomegranate molasses, and the use of tamarind concentrate. These aspects of Aleppian cuisine developped as a result of many factors: Aleppo was a major city on ancient trade routes like the Silk Road, also the presence of Armenian immigrants, nearby Kurds and a strong Jewish community (though no longer extent) have all contributed to a unique repertoire of dishes.

Tamarind came to the Middle East by way of India, where it is popular, hence its name in Arabic tamr hindi, or Indian date. In Aleppo, the tamarind concentrate made by extracting the thick viscuous syrup from the fruit’s pulp is known as ou. Ou is an important ingredient in everything from soup broths to tomato sauces to bulgur salads. In a uniquely Aleppian dish called mehshi basal, onions are formed into rolls stuffed with a meat mixture, and then simmered in a tamarind sauce. A simpler version involves small baby onions simmered in that sweet-sour sauce.

I prefer this second (albeit less traditional) version, not only because it’s easier, but mainly because I love pearl onions. We always have little baby onions at the holidays, and the poor person who volunteers to help me in the kitchen usually gets stuck with the task of peeling them (and I wonder why they stop asking?). These tamarind glazed onions are quite similar to the popular Italian cippoline in agrodolce but I like the way the sauce is even thicker and tangier than those made with balsamic vinegar. The recipe’s provenance may be far away, but spearing them with a fork as they slippery-slither across the plate, crashing into the potatoes, the onion layers bursting from inside each other, and finally using the last bit of sauce to coat your entree, it tastes like the holidays to me.

Tamarind-Glazed Pearl Onions
Tamarind concentrate is available at Whole Foods and international markets, it keeps well and has many uses so it's a great addition to your pantry. This Syrian version of sweet-and-sour onions has a great thick and tangy sauce.

2 pounds white pearl onions (about 30)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons tamarind concentrate
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3-4 tablespoons sugar, to taste
pinch of salt

1. Heat a large pot of water to boiling. Trim off the base and tips of the onions. Submerge the onions in the water and let boil 7 minutes. Drain the onions into a colander and rinse with cold water. Slip the peels off the onions.
2. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Add the peeled onions and saute over medium heat for 5 minutes, until just browned. Add the tamarind, lemon, sugar and salt and cook until the mixture caramelizes and turns sticky, 3-5 more minutes. Taste for seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

P.S. If you don't have tamarind concentrate on hand, the recipe works perfectly well using balsamic vinegar instead.

10 December 2007

Menu for Hope

I spend a lot of time here extolling the virtues of delicious dishes, some are simple, others more complicated, some call for fancy or expensive ingredients. But the fact of the matter is, I’ve spent part of my professional time figuring out how to feed some of the world’s poorest people. People sometimes ask if this is difficult, how I can reconcile designing food budgets on 5 cents a person a day and serving fancy cheese at a dinner party. I reply that my food philosophy can be summed up in one word: nourishment. Nourishment is the simplest bowl of porridge for a food-insecure person, nourishment is the dinner mom puts on the table every night, nourishment is splurging on that fancy ingredient for a holiday, and scraping together the scraps when the budget is tight. Nourishment is the love, the care, the thought we put into each dish we make. Nourishment is the food that feeds the soul as well as the stomach.

For a long time, I saw my work as completely seperate from my culinary exploits. I worked for the World Food Programme in Syria, designing a food for education program, a women’s empowerment program, doing emergency relief during the war in Lebanon and for Iraqi refugees. The flour we ordered came in metric tons measured according to extraction rates and our main concern about vegetable oil was that women could carry the tins. It was probably the most intellectually stimulating and rewarding job I’ve had, but the food part of it had little relation to the way I thought of my daily sustenance.

Slowly, though, I’ve come to realize how influential that experience is on how I cook in my own kitchen, and it’s not just using every last scrap of the roast chicken. There were the staff meals we shared everyday, a wealth of Syrian homecooking. Typing up surveys of our program's participants, I learned about the daily food production in rural areas; meeting with sheep farmers in the Badia I learned about feeding and raising livestock. On a larger scale, I also learned about procuring aid, the difficulty of tight budgets and international strictures and biased agriculture subsidies. The same agriculture policies that impact the food you buy and eat also impact the world of international aid. Many of the U.S. protectionist trade policies are highly detrimental to the work of aid organizations (by hampering local procurement thereby slowling relief efforts often by months). It is yet another reason I believe strongly in supporting local farmers and products, by supporting farmers in your own area you are making in impact in the larger global economy.

The holidays are coming, and we’ll be buying gifts and baking goodies, and I’ll be the first to say go ahead and celebrate to the fullest. But it’s also a time to think about those well off, which is why I couldn’t be more excited to support this years Menu for Hope. This annual event consists of food bloggers offering raffle prizes to raise money for the World Food Program. Last year, Menu for Hope raised $62,925 for WFP, this year the proceeds will benefit a WFP school lunch program in Lesotho, Africa. Take a look at some of the faces from Lesotho's program, and find out more about Menu for Hope.

Here’s how it works:
1. Head over to Chez Pim and scan the whole array of prizes on offer. Make sure to choose prizes in your geographic area (code UE for U.S. East Coast, UC for central U.S., UW for the west coast, UK, EU, etc.).
2. Go to Firstgiving to buy a $10 raffle ticket, specifiying any prizes that appeal to you in the “personal message” section. Buy as many tickets as you like!
3. The campaign runs from December 10-21. After that, check back with Chez Pim and check out if you’ve won.

08 December 2007

Qurban (Lebanese Holy Bread)

Several afternoons a week I rush out of work, heading across town for my Arabic tutoring session, which is really just an excuse for Wael and me to gab about the ongoing saga of his engagement and other such gossip. I tap my fingers on the window of the service, the van stuck in the smog-filled traffic of Damascus' rush hour. Finally reaching Bab Touma, I leap out and hustle into the winding alleys of the old city. Bab Touma is the Christian quarter of the old city and right at the entrance, between the chicken vendor and the kunafe maker, is a small bakery selling small twisted cookie rings and puffy round breads and sesame breadsticks. When my stomach grumbles I stop quickly, paying a few coins for one of those soft breads, pressing it to my nose to inhale its orange water scent before hurrying on my way.

The bread is called qurban, which means sacrifice, and it is the bread used during communion for the Orthodox Christian churches of Syria and Lebanon. But don't worry, my afternoon snack isn't sacrilegious, qurban are often for sale for public consumption. You can literally smell this bread baking from blocks away, the scent of orange flower water and yeast hooking your nose like a ring though a cow's nostril. They are best when your nose draws you to them, fresh out of the oven, the sweet rounds marked in the center with a stamp in Aramaic, soft and lightly sweet.

I had forgotten about qurban until I picked up a copy of Annisa Helou's Savory Baking from the Mediterranean (I am a Ms. Helou groupy and all her books are fabulous, including this latest one). Ms. Helou, who is Lebanese Christian, describes rediscovering qurban years later as her "madeleine moment," and I can understand why. Since the first time I made them at home they've been in high demand, and I have no objection because I love the way it makes the house smell. Plus, I've had plenty of practice to tweak and streamline the recipe to be more in line with my memory. These are perfect breakfast breads, toasted and spread with sweet butter, or they make a great sweet-savory sandwich with some salty halloumi cheese. And you need not be religious nor observant to enjoy them, though if you have a cup of wine alongside you could pretend you were.

Qurban (Lebanese Holy Bread)
These wonderfully scented breads are best served warm from the oven or lightly toasted with sweet butter.

1 package (2 1/2 tsp) active dry yeast
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 tsp mahlep, if available
2 tbl unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tbl orange blossom water
for brushing: 2 tbl butter melted with 1 tsp orange blossom water

1. Place the yeast in a small with 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Add 1/3 of a cup of warm water and set aside for 5-10 minutes, until bubbly.
2. Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the flour, remaining sugar, salt, and mahlep. Add the butter and rub it into the flour mixture with your finger tips until well distributed. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, add the yeast mixture and add 1/2 cup warm water. Knead until you have a rough ball of dough.
3. Knead the dough in the bowl for 3-5 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Rub the inside of the bow with oil to coat, place the dough bal inside. Cover with a kitchen towel and leave to rise until doubled in volume, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Divide the dough into 8 equal pieces and shape each piece into a ball. Let rest 10 minutes. On a lightly floured surafce, roll each dough ball out into a circe about 6 inches in diameter. Place on a greased or lined baking sheet, cover with a kitchen towel and let rise one hour. Preheat oven to 400 F.
5. Press each dough round with the tines of a fork to make a square in the center. Make sure to press deeply as this will prevent the dough from puffing too much in the oven. Place in the oven and bake 15-17 minutes, until golden. Meanwhile, prepare the glaze. When the bread comes out of the oven brush generously with the butter-flower water mixture. Let cool slightly before serving.

03 December 2007

Marya's Date Tart

Despite the fact that I read and speak Arabic, despite the fact that I write my grocery lists half in Arabic and that there is usually a copy of al-Ahram strewn across my desk (though it’s probably a week old and I’ll confess to only understanding half of it), there is one item of which I am immensely proud. It is a small notebook page scribbled in Arabic with my friend Marya’s recipe for date tart. Nothing could make me feel more like an insider, like an adopted Arab, as many of my friends would joke, than this little recipe. I have a few others, scribbled recipes from friends for things like kabsa and molokhiyya and roast fish, and I treasure them just as dearly. Let’s face it, there’s just something cool about pulling out a recipe in another language, not to mention another alphabet.

I should also mention that Marya’s date tart is very good. Marya is from one of the most well known families in Syria and though she’s traveled all over the world and lives in a beautiful apartment on Damascus’ poshest street, she’s also as humble and generous as can be. She made this tart for a party one weekend, “my mom taught me to make it, it’s really easy.” She even offered me the recipe (oh joy, A Syrian who actually writes down a recipe!). Of course I accepted.

This is the kind of recipe that many Syrians of all social strata make at home today. The introduction of products like canned milk and blenders and the little recipe booklets that accompany them have had an impact on Arab home cooking. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, everyone I know still makes classic Arab dishes the old-fashioned way, chopping miles of parsley for tabboule, but they also make quick and delicious treats like this tart. One of my pet peeves with Middle Eastern cookbooks written in English is the tendency to feature medieval recipes. These recipes are fascinating from an academic standpoint, but they have little relation to how people actually cook today and little use in the modern kitchen. Furthermore, there is a tendency in the West to view Arab culture as less-developed or somehow stagnant, and publishing medieval recipes while ignoring the truly delicious modern Arab foods perpetuates this misconception.

Ok, my Edward Said rant is over, so let’s go back to that tart. I’ve adapted it slightly to be made in an American oven and with local ingredients (substituting creme fraiche for ‘ashta). I will say it’s not the prettiest tart I’ve ever made, but nothing a little dusting of powdered sugar won’t cover if you’re concerned about such things. My friend once called this "the candy bar tart," and it is sort of sweet and dense and crumbly like a good candy bar. It's one of those recipes that just slips itself into your regular repertoire because it's so tasty and easy to make and just a tad unusual. And now you don't even have to read Arabic to make it yourself, though it's not nearly as fun.

What’s up with all the sweet recipes lately? I had fully intended to write about a savory recipe (I do eat those too, you know) but I’ve just realized today is this blogs one year anniversary. What better way to celebrate than with a date-themed dessert, this blogs namesake. I started this project on a whim a year ago, and I had no idea it would grow into such a meaningful and enriching part of my life. Thank you to everyone who has been reading along, stopping by to comment, and even tried a recipe or two; your feedback is invaluable. Here’s to the first year!

Marya's Date Tart
1 sleeve (6 oz, 175 grams) tea biscuits
8 tablespoons (4 oz) butter, melted
1 tsp cinnamon
24 medium-sized dates (or 18 medjool dates)
7 oz (200 grams, about 1/2 a can) sweetened condensed milk
6 oz (170 grams, 3/4 cup) creme fraiche*

1. Preheat the oven 350 F. Pit the dates and place them in bowl. Add very hot water just to cover them and let sit 20-30 minutes to soften.
2. Meanwhile, pulse the biscuits in a food processor to form a coarse meal (alternately, place in a heavy duty bag and bash with a rolling pin). Add the cinnamon and drizzle in the butter, pulsing to mix. Press the crumb mixture into a 9" round tart pan. Place the pan in the oven and par-bake the crust for 7 minutes.
3. Drain the dates and place them in a blender or food processor. Add the condensed milk and the creme fraiche and blend until the mixture is smooth. Pour the mixture into the tart crust. Bake in the center of the oven for 20 minutes, until the filling no longer jiggles. Remove from the oven, then place the tart under the broiler for 2-3 minutes to brown the top, watching carefully the edges don't burn. Let cool completely before serving, dusted with powdered sugar if desired.

*Make your own creme fraiche or substitute half sour cream and half heavy cream. Also, I imagine you could make a lower fat version using yogurt or low-fat sour cream but I haven't tried it yet.

30 November 2007

Honey Nut Caramels

Oh my friends, all the news out there is bad these days, global warming, rising gas prices, dying bees, bird flu. If your tainted meat doesn’t kill you then your toys from China will. Aren’t you ready for a little bit of good news, a touch of holiday cheer? I certainly am, and you’re in luck because today I’ve got it. Perhaps you remember our dear friend, the poet, and his hives of honey bees? Last year, his hive suffered, the bees dying mysteriously like many other hives across America.

We met for dinner recently, our purpose to rehash recent trips to the Middle East, but walking into Lebanese Taverna, he plunked down a giant, massive jar on the table. Honey! A quart of golden honey! Homemade honey so beguiling that I wanted to display it on the table all through dinner, though I eventually tucked it away so we wouldn’t confuse the waiters. Or get strange stares. And there’s the good news: not only are his bees alive and well, but they produced a record 18 gallons of honey this year. Eighteen gallons, I swoon with glee just imagining it.

Opening the jar at home, with its little swirl of white air bubbles on top, I considered the possibilities. After all, when faced with such a large jar of something, one tends to think big. My first thought was to make helva, that crumbly sweet made from tahini. But really, helva’s hard to make, unless you make the kind using flour, and I really didn’t want to do that. Then it struck me, why not make caramels with the honey, but instead of using cream or butter, as one usually does, I could use tahini. A helva-flavored caramel! A honey-nut caramel!

Making caramels is not exactly a beginners kitchen task as it involves boiling sugar syrup, but it is not a particularly difficult one either. You just need a candy thermometer, watch it closely, and follow the recipe. Personally, I find the whole chemistry aspect of it rather exciting. Whipping the tahini into the hot honey syrup, the whole house smelled like sweet toasted nuts. I poured it into a pan to cool, and pressed some chopped pistachios on top for crunch. Wrapping them was a bit of a messy proposition, but the bits that stuck to my fingers made a delicious snack, and there is something immensely satisfying about seeing that whole line of wrapped candies sitting on your counter.

And looking at them all, with their twisted wax paper ends and with December peeking around the corner, I realized I’m ready. I’m ready for the cooking and the shipping, the shopping and the sighing, the carols and the cold. I’m ready for the holidays, the travel and the hassle, the hustle and the bustle, the wrapping and the packing, and hopefully some snow. I’ll be getting into the holiday baking soon, and I’m sure these caramels will be part of it, I can’t think of a tastier way to share the good news and some holiday cheer. It’s a good thing we’ve got a lot of honey around.

Honey-Nut Caramels
I have a big bowl of these sitting in the fridge and I can’t help rooting around and finding the biggest one each time I open the fridge. You could use almonds in place of the pistachios or simply omit the nuts all together if you prefer.

1 1/2 cups honey
1/4 cup water
1 tbl lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 cup chopped pistachios

equipment: candy thermometer, parchment paper, wax paper

1. Line a square baking pan with parchment paper and grease the paper with some oil.
2. Place honey, water, lemon juice, and salt in a heavy bottomed saucepan and bring to a boil. Let boil over medium heat until it reaches hard ball stage, 260F on a candy thermometer (about 15-20 minutes).
3. Remove from the heat and quickly whip in the tahini. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the pistachios over the surface. Set aside in the refrigerator to cool and harden.
4. Use a greased knife to cut the caramels into pieces. (if they start to get soft or sticky, quick-chill them in the freezer before continuing). Wrap each piece in a square of wax paper and twist the ends to secure. Store in the refrigerator, as they tend to be a little melty at room temp.

27 November 2007

Tuscan Kale and Black Lentil Soup with Crispy Pita Chips

It's getting cold now. I have to put on gloves when I get up early in the morning, soon I'll need a scarf too. The dog is learning to walk on a leash, though it's a stop-and start process. She knows when we walk past the hardware store that Jeff will come out and give her a big bear hug and rub her belly. On Sundays when they're closed she pulls at the leash, ready to roll over at any moment, always a little disappointed. We've pretty much put the garden to bed now. The morning after the first frost we came out to find the elephant ears, previously six feet tall, slumped over like wrinkled old men. There's still hardy kale and broccoli growing. Maybe because I'm a procrastinator too, I've got a soft spot for those very last crops of the year. Other people rave about spring and asparagus or summer tomatoes, but there's something to be said about deep earthy greens, about hard round squashes. Solid. Things that don't emerge until the very end of the year and that sustain through the coldest months. I read somewhere that kale tastes sweeter after the first frost, you're supposed to pick some before and after the frost and compare them. I forgot.

I also haven't raked the leaves in the front yard, they fall bright yellow and red at first, slowly shriveling to brown. I like that I can hear the children walking by on their way to school in the morning, crunch, crunch, kicking up footfuls of leaves. It's the time for soups, for the fortification of dark leafy things and the warmth of broth. In these few weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, before the sweets and the presents and the snow, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Taking stock of what's in the pantry, cleaning out the closets for Goodwill, planting narcissus that will bloom for the holidays. Winter always seems to bring out the ascetic in me, as the rest of the world is ramping up the commercialism of the holidays, I need to burrow into the pantry for a moment. This soup, with winter greens and a smattering of lentils floating a lemony broth, is the perfect thing to burrow with. It's a good thing, because soon I'll have to get out a scarf and go rake the leaves.

Tuscan Kale and Black Lentil Soup with Pita Crisps
Umm Hana used to make this soup often, it was her take on a Syrian classic "adas bi hamud," but with the addition of pasta pieces it strikes me as the Syrian version of minestrone. My friend Michael, who lives on a diet of chicken, rice, and potatoes, loves this and it's about the only vegetal thing I've seen him eat with gusto. Don't skip the pita crisps, they're our favorite part.

2 tablespoons olive oil
6 garlic cloves, smashed
8 cups water*
1 cup black or brown lentils, like beluga or lentilles de puy
8 leaves cavolo nero (Tuscan kale) or 12 leaves Swiss chard, ribs removed and leaves roughly chopped
1 teaspoon mild vinegar
1/2 cup broken up egg noodles or small pasta shapes
juice of 2 lemons
for the pita chips: pita bread, 1 cup olive oil

1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic cloves until softened but not browned. Add the water and the lentils and bring to a boil. Season with salt and pepper and add the kale leaves and vinegar (if using swiss chard, do not add until later). Lower the heat and simmer 30 minutes, until lentils are soft.
2. Meanwhile, make the pita chips. Break the pita into bite-size pieces. Heat the olive oil in a deep pot until hot. Add the pita chips and fry until golden brown, a few minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. If frying the pita chips is not to your taste, you can brush them with olive oil and toast them in a hot oven until crisp.
3. After the soup has simmered, add the noodles (and swiss chard, if using) and simmer another ten minutes until noodles are soft. Add more water if the soup is too thick and taste for seasoning. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice- don't skimp, it should be very lemony. Serve immediately, with pita chips.

* I am a strong believer that using water is usually better than using canned chicken stock. The Syrian way to do this would be to toss a few bones in the soup pot for flavor than fish them out before serving. If you have soup bones go ahead and use them, or use a homemade (not purchased) stock. I find the liquid gets body from the lentils and greens, and flavor from the lemon, so using water is just fine.

24 November 2007

Pecan Pie

In my opinion, the only dessert you need for the holidays is pecan pie. Oh sure, I make other desserts, pies and crumbles and cookies and cakes, but really, I’m just holding out for the pecan pie. It’s in my genes. The problem is that good pecan pies are hard to come by, most of the time they are too sweet or too rich and after my fourth bite I’m ready to keel over in diabetic shock. Some pies are runny, others gewey, too few pecans or too many, and for the love of goodness please don’t put chocolate in it. And so for years, rather than tackle yet another pecan pie recipe, I simply gave up and ordered one. You see, my uncle introduced us to Goode Company Pecan Pie, a Texas pie so famous they set up drive through pick ups over the holidays. And people, that pie is damn good, and with all the other things to do over the holidays, it was one less thing to worry about.

But it slowly started to irk me, the fact that I wasn’t making my own pie for Thanksgiving. So I started culling through recipes again, reading and searching and testing recipes. As a base I started with a recipe from the venerable Craig Claiborne which was inherited from his mother. I've made several small tweaks, the most important being: I add a teaspoon of vinegar and a splash of lemon juice. Don’t worry, you won’t taste the vinegar at all, but the acidity just cuts the sweetness and brightens the flavor perfectly. You could use bourbon in place of the lemon if you prefer, but since we usually have another bourbon-flavored dessert at the holidays, I’ve always avoided it in pecan pie and now I really prefer it without. For the crust, I took a hint from that Goode Company pie, and made a more shortbread-like crust that stands up to the pecan filling. Finally, I made sure to bake the pie as long as possible without burning it, this makes sure that the eggs set which prevents a runny pie, and I tented the top with foil to prevent burning.

I felt confident about my pecan pie, but by the time Thanksgiving rolled around, I was just plain nervous. Would my family, spoiled by years of Goode Company pies, reject this homemade specimen? Would one of the other two desserts steal the show? It’s always fun when you make a bunch of dishes to see which one is people’s favorite, will the caramel ice cream hog the spotlight, will the pumpkin cheesecake be the run away hit?

Well, I am pleased to report that there is no question which dessert stole the show. The pecan pie. The crumbly shortbread crust, the pecans just shy of being burnt so that they were instead toasted to caramelly crunch, and that one-wedge shy of empty pie pan at the end of dinner. Which leaves me with only two small problems: a scarcity of leftovers and the realization that I’ll be making a lot more pecan pies in the future. I can’t wait.

Pecan Pie

for the crust:
1 1/2 cups flour
10 tablespoons cold butter
1 tbl sugar
1/4 cup ice water
for the filling:
4 eggs
1 cup dark corn syrup (like Karo)
1 cup (packed) dark brown sugar
4 tbl unsalted butter, melted
1 tbl lemon juice or bourbon
1 teaspoon mild vinegar
1 cup chopped pecans
1 cup whole pecans

equipment: a 9 inch pie pan, preferably deep dish ceramic

1. Prepare the crust: Place the flour and sugar in a bowl. Add the butter and rub with your finger tips until the mixture forms coarse crumbs. Sprinkle in the cold water until the mixture comes together, form the dough into a ball. Flatten the ball slightly, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the fridge to chill for at least half an hour.
2. On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out into a 12 inch circle. Transfer to your pie pan and trim the edges. Place in the freezer to chill until ready to use.
3. Make pie: Set an oven rack in the lower third of your oven. Preheat oven to 375 F. In a bowl, beat the eggs with brown sugar until combined and thick. Add the dark corn syrup, melted butter, lemon juice and vinegar. Add the chopped pecans to combine. Get the pie crust out and scrape in the filling. Put the whole pecans in the bowl that had held the filling, and toss them around to coat with the remains of the corn syrup (they won’t be completely covered, but it’s a nice gesture). Arrange the pecan halves over the filling. Bake the pie for about 50 minutes, until the filling is set and only jiggles slightly in the middle. You will probably have to cover the pie with foil in the last 15 minutes of cooking to prevent the top from burning, keep an eye on it. Uncover and cool to room temperature.

Recipe Notes:
1. In my opinion, there's no real substitute for dark Karo, however, if you live somewhere where it is unavailable, golden syrup(like Lyle's) or treacle are good alternatives. I'd also like to point out that while it is corn syrup, it is made by a different process than high fructose cornsyrup.
2. I skip blind baking the crust and simply bake the pie in the lower third of the oven, and I find no harm is done. If you are using a metal pie pan you should keep an eye that the bottom doesn't burn.
3. If buying the pecans by weight, you'll need about 8 oz pecans total.
4. If you are the kind of person who really likes the custardy layer underneath the pecans (I know who you are), then you can omit the chopped pecans or reduce them to a half cup. If you are the kind of person who likes your pie to be full of pecans, leave it as written, and if you think pecan pie should really be more like a pecan tart or a pecan bar you can even increase the chopped pecans to 1 1/2 cups. Personally, I think it’s just right as written.