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.