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.

23 November 2007

America: Please Make More Pies.

Dear America,
I’m worried about you. I’m worried you’re loosing your culinary traditions. I went out to buy a pie pan Monday, I’ve got a couple nice ones but I wanted a deep dish pie pan to make that chock-full-of pecans-pie for Thanksgiving. First, I went to Crate and Barrel, and when I asked about pie pans I was directed to one terribly shallow, glass Pyrex pan for $6. Not only was there no deep dish pan, there were no other pie pans. One lousy pan, for the whole store. Don’t you think there would be at least one decorative ceramic pan, what with the holidays around the corner?

I moved on to Sur La Table with high hopes, and there again I was confronted with the same one lame glass pan. America, I’m getting worried. You are not making pies. You are not making enough pies. Oh, you are making pies, but I know your secret. You’re buying those pre-made crusts, aren’t you? The premade crusts with the disposable tin pans, don’t tell me it’s so. If you were making pies regularly, you’d know that homemade pie crust is so much better, and cheaper too. If you were making pies regularly, you’d want that nice solid pretty pie pan, the one you can use over and over again.

I did finally find a pie pan, and a deep dish one at that, at Williams-Sonoma. But even then, there were only two types of pie pans on offer, and I had to pay a boatload for it and it was made in France. She’s a beauty, and I love her dearly, the way her fluted edges craddle that gooey filling. But I’m worried about you America, you must embrace your pie heritage. When I lived outside the U.S. I wanted to make a pie, but the only options were a cake pan or a tart pan, and neither does a pie make. Ever since then I’ve been rather passionate about the pie pan. Appreciate the uniquely sloped sides that make pie such an American tradition. Please go buy a pie pan, a good solid one that has the promise of years of use to come, and then make yourself a pie.

Until I get around to telling you about that pecan pie, here's a delicious Apple-Cranberry Crumble Pie we love around the holidays. It's even better served with caramel ice cream.

Apple-Cranberry Crumble Pie
I always thought the idea of combining a pie and a crumble sounded excessive until I made this one Thanksgiving and discovered how delicious it is. The bursts of tart cranberries are perfect foil for the sweet-crunchy crumble.

1 pie crust, prepared, fitted into a 9" pie pan, and refrigerated
3 large (or 4 medium) Granny Smith apples
2 cups cranberries, fresh or thawed if frozen
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup flour
1 tbl lemon zest
1 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp nutmeg
pinch salt
for crumble:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oats (not quick-cooking)
1/3 cup flour
pinch salt
4 tbl butter, chilled and cut in small dice

1. Preheat oven to 375 F, arrange a rack in the lower part of the oven. Have your crust chilled in the refrigerator.
2. Place sugar, flour, lemon zest, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt in a bowl and toss to combine. Peel, core, and thinly slice the apples and add to the sugar mixture. Add the cranberries and toss to combine. Let mixture sit 10 minutes while you prepare the topping.
3. For the crumble topping, combine the brown sugar, oats, flour and salt in a bowl. Add the butter and rub the mixture with your fingers until it forms a coarse meal.
4. Pile the filling into the chilled crust. Scatter the crumble over top. Place the pan on a baking sheet to catch the drips and bake in the lower part of the oven for 55 minutes, or until golden and juices are bubbling. Let cool a few hours before serving.

19 November 2007

Nutty Pumpkin Dip

People are often surprised by the use of pumpkin and winter squash in Middle Eastern food. Perhaps because pumpkin is often looked down upon in other cuisines, or because many people associate the Middle East with a warmer climate, or simply because we associate it with American pumpkin pie, but winter squashes are quite beloved from Algeria to Lebanon to Yemen. There's even a saying about how the Prophet Muhammad loved pumpkin, though this is not possible because pumpkin is a New World crop. (I use the term pumpkin loosely, as the preferred squash in the Middle East is the similar large turban squash). Today, roast pumpkin seeds (bizr) are probably the most popular snack in the region, and pumpkin finds its way into Moroccan lamb tagines, Lebanese pumpkin dumplings, and is caramelized in chunks as sweet treats and grated and transformed into jams and desserts.

This recipe is basically the pumpkin version of hummus, and it is one of my favorite uses of pumpkin in Middle Eastern cuisine. Instead of chickpeas, the recipe combines cooked pureed pumpkin with tahini, garlic, and lemon. You’ll often find this pumpkin dip on tables as an appetizer, perhaps garnished with flecks of parsley or jewels of pomegranate seeds, and its nutty sweet aroma makes it as delicious as it is beautiful. But as wonderful as it is as a dip, I actually love to serve this as a side dish at dinner, much like you might serve a butternut squash puree, and I even like to thin it with a bit of broth and serve it as a soup. Which means that you have three very good serving options for one very good recipe. And actually, sometimes when I serve it as a dip I add a few chickpeas to the mix, keeping that hummus inspiration, option four.

In our house, we’ve adopted this Middle Eastern pumpkin dip as an appetizer at Thanksgiving or at a buffet over the holidays, it looks so festive with its sparkly pomegranate seed garnish. I'll stop now before I give you yet another serving idea, so you can go forth, spread the love of pumpkin, and some cheer as the holiday season is just beginning!

Nutty Pumpkin Puree (Mouttabal al-Yaqteen)
This versatile puree is usually served as a dip and it makes a delicious winter appetizer. I also like to serve it as a side dish at dinner. This makes a lot, so you can halve it depending on the crowd.

2 lbs fresh pumpkin or other winter squash
2 garlic cloves
3/4 cup tahini
juice of 2 lemons
1 tsp ground cumin
pinch salt
3/4 cup pomegranate seeds, or pomegranate molasses, or parsley, for garnish

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Cut the squash in half, place cut side down on a greased baking sheet, and roast until completely tender, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly.
2. Meanwhile, place the garlic, tahini, lemon, salt, and cumin in a blender or food processor and pulse until the mixture is well combined and lightens in color slightly.
2. Use a metal spoon to scoop out the squash flesh and transfer it directly to the blender jar. Blend the mixture until smooth. Adjust the consistency with a little bit of water if necessary. Transfer to the refrigerator to store until serving.
4. To serve, spread the dip in a serving bowl and sprinkle pomegranate seeds and a drizzle of pomegranate molasses over top.

Variation: Pumpkin Hummus- add one cup cooked chickpeas to the mixture before pureeing.

16 November 2007

Lida Lee's Cornbread Dressing

In the South, no meal would be complete without some form of cornbread, and no holiday can be had without cornbread dressing. Unlike in the North, where it is known as stuffing, this dish of crumbled bread moistened with broth is always baked outside the bird in a casserole dish (I realize this may be confusing, as it was when my boyfriend came to dinner, people kept offering him more dressing, but he couldn't figure out what he was supposed to put it on). You can think of it as stuffing, but around here, we call it dressing. My grandmother, Lida Lee, was born and raised in Tennessee and this is her recipe. The key to good homemade dressing is proper Southern cornbread and plenty of freshly made giblet stock. Though at its heart it is a simple, dish, in my experience it takes a bit of practice to a get a feel for making good dressing.

I've done the recipe as a pictorial, you can also get the printable version.

First, get out the 10" cast iron skillet and make your good old fashioned Southern cornbread. My grandmother kept about 20 different cornbread preparations in her repertoire, she called this kind of bread "egg bread" because it included eggs, unlike many other corn pones, corn cakes, hot water corn bread, etc. Basically, combine dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, bake at 450 F for 20 minutes.

It's best if you make the cornbread one or two days ahead, so it can dry out slightly. Of course, if you make it ahead, this will probably happen:

Cornbread, toasted, with honey drizzled on top, makes very good breakfast. Oops. But, for the purposes of the recipe you will be needing all the cornbread. Consider yourself warned.

Now, on Thanksgiving morning you get those giblets, you know the funky looking things that you had to stick your whole forearm up inside the turkey to dig out (fyi- if you have a kosher turkey you won't have giblets. We made this mistake one year and spent half of Thanksgiving day running around to butchers trying to find giblets). Giblets are your nuggets of gold here. Put them in a stock pot, I usuallly toss in the turkey neck too. Add 32 oz purchased low-sodium stock and 4 cups water and barely simmer for as long as possible, at least an hour and up to 3 hours. Then, dump in 1 cup each of chopped onion and celery and simmer for another 1/2 hour, until completely soft.

Meanwhile crumble your cornbread (get your fingers messy now). Also add 5-6 slices of stale sandwich bread, even if you didn't snack on your cornbread. You can use white or whole wheat, we like to use the heels. Add 1/2 cup chopped parsley (if you like sage you can add some of that too) and some black pepper. Now, here is where we deviate slightly from Lida Lee. Grandmother's recipe uses only stock to moisten the bread. But for years my version was never quite the perfect texture, so I started adding an egg to ensure fluffiness. My mom is like the genius of dressing makers and she uses only broth, but until I figure out the secret to her technique, the egg trick works nicely.

So, stir in a beaten egg, the proteins in it will help keep the perfect texture. Then, add the super-soft vegetables into the bread. This is the part where lily-gilders will add things like sausage and oysters and the like, in our family we do not practice such heretical acts.

Now, slowly ladle in the stock, this is the make-or-break part of your dressing. You do not want dry dressing, dry dressing is a true tragedy. I live in fear of dry dressing. To prevent this, add more stock than you think you should, if your dressing is too dry, there's no going back; however if the dressing is too wet, you can simply keep baking it to dry it out. So, add enough stock to make a soft porridgy consistency.

Presumably, you've timed this so you are now taking your turkey out of the oven. Pat the dressing into a greased baking dish, and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of those turkey drippings over the dressing (I say a couple in the "really I'm probably pouring on more like a 1/4 cup but I don't want to admit it" sense). If you don't have turkey drippings you can use melted butter.
Bake dressing at 350 F for about 20-25 minutes. Meanwhile, you're tenting your turkey with foil and running around like a mad woman trying to get the other dishes onto the table. After 20 minutes, test the dressing to make sure the bottom isn't too soupy, it should be golden and moist. If it needs a few more minutes, tell them to start carving the turkey, that part always takes forever. Serve hot, and enjoy.

Lida Lee's Cornbread Dressing

for the cornbread:
2 cups cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda, pinch salt
2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
2 tbl shortening 

for the dressing:
5-6 slices stale sandwich bread, white or whole wheat, preferably the heels
32 oz low-sodium chicken stock
4 cups water
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped celery
black pepper
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup chopped parsley
3 tbl turkey drippings or melted butter

1. Make the cornbread: Preheat the oven to 450 F. Put the shortening in a 10 inch cast iron skillet and place in the oven to preheat. Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the milk and eggs and stir to blend. Remove the hot skillet from the oven and swirl it around so it is well greased. Pour any excess oil into the batter, then pour the batter into the hot skillet. It will sizzle. Bake in the oven for 20-22 minutes, until golden. Let cool completely. Best if done 1-2 days ahead. I usually go ahead and crumble the cornbread 1-2 days ahead so the crumbs can dry out.
2. Make giblet stock: Place the giblets in a pot, if you want you can toss in the turkey neck too. Add the stoc and the water. Bring the mixture to a boil, skim the surface, then lower to the lowest possible simmer. The mixture should steam but not bubble. Simmer for at least one hour, or up to 3 hours, the longer the better. It will reduce slightly, but not too much. Add the chopped onion and celery and simmer another 1/2 hour until the vegetables are very soft.
3. Crumble the cornbread with the sandwich bread in a large bowl. Add the egg and stir to distribute. Using a slotted spoon, add the onion and celery to the mixture. Gently ladle the stock into the mixture, moistening it to a soft porridge like consistency. It is always better to add too much stock than risk your cornbread being dry. Season with pepper, salt, and add the chopped parsley.
4. Spread the cornbread mixture in a greased casserole dish. (presumably, you've timed this so that your turkey is now coming out of the oven and is going to rest while you bake the dressing and reheat all those other dishes). Drizzle about 3 tablespoons of the turkey drippings over the dressing (or more, as you like), then place in a 350 F oven until for 20-25 minutes, until nicely browned. Check to see that the dressing is the desired consistency: moist but not soupy, if it seems too wet you can bake it 5 more minutes, but be carefully not to make it too dry. Serve immediately.

13 November 2007

Kamut, Candied Pumpkin, and Hazelnut Cake

This recipe arose from a mistake. I was making a Middle Eastern sweet, candied pumpkin in syrup, one of my mom's absolute favorite desserts. She always buys it in jars and I thought it would be nice to make it for her myself, but despite the fact that I've seen the concoction made before, my attempt didn't come out perfectly. Hmph. The proper version of candied pumpkin is so coveted because the pumpkin edges stay very firm, almost crunchy, but the interior of the pumpkin cube is soft and syrupy, I realize it may be hard to imagine but it's really, really good. Apparently, it takes a deft hand to get just the right consistency, because my version was a bit too soft. It was still very tasty, but it didn't have the nice crunch that I wanted, the oomph that lets it stand on its own. Instead, the syrupy pumpkin was a great accompaniment to pancakes and poured over ice cream and I had the idea it would be good scattered over a simple cake batter, much like you'd make a cake with other fruits.

So I got out my standard cake recipe, and I fiddled and tweaked and practiced, and the result was this Egyptian-inspired version. I used kamut flour, a grain similar to wheat, in place of some of the regular flour. Kamut is traditional in Egypt, it is very nutritious, very easy to grow, and a much-higher yield crop than wheat (I don't know why it isn't more widely grown in America, but I suspect U.S. agriculture subsidies have a lot to do with it); the flour has a light yellow color and a slightly sweet buttery note. If you don't have kamut flour, and really, why on earth would you, whole wheat flour will work just as well. Hazelnuts also went into the mix, hazelnuts aren't widely used in the Middle East, but they are popular in Egypt where they go into the local spice mix dukkah. If you don't like the crunch of nuts interrupting your cake experience (a sentiment I totally understand), you can omit them, the cake will still be delicious. Which it is, did I mention this cake is delicious? It is. It's maybe-I-should-mess-up-candied-squash-just-so-I-can-make-this-again good. The cake has these nice toothsome chunks of sweet squash, which are soft but not at all mushy, the soft texture of cake with the scent of cinnamon and the occasional hint of nut. This cake is staying my repertoire, which means it's a good thing I've got all that pumpkin around.

Kamut, Candied Pumpkin, and Hazelnut Cake
Kamut is an historic grain grown since the time of the Pharaohs in Egypt, where it is still used. You can find kamut flour at health food stores and Whole Foods. The extra syrup from the candied squash can be drizzled over the cake and is great with pancakes.

for candied squash:
1 1/2 cups cubed butternut squash or pumpkin, in about 1/2 inch cubes
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cup water
1 teaspoon orange blossom water or lemon juice

for the cake:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup kamut flour or whole wheat flour
1 teaspoon baking powder, 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 scant teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon allspice, pinch salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup pumpkin poaching syrup (from above)
2 eggs
6 tablespoons (1/4 cup plus 2 tbl) vegetable oil
1/3 cup milk
1/4 cup finely chopped hazelnuts, optional
candied pumpkin (from above)

1. For the candied squash: Place the sugar, water, and orange blossom water in a medium-sized saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring so that the sugar dissolves. When it is clear and boiling nicely, add the cubed squash. Let boil for precisely 8 minutes, or until the squash is tender when pierced with a knife but still firm in appearance. Remove the squash with a slotted spoon to a bowl and set aside to cool. Let the syrup continue to boil over medium heat for about 8-10 more minutes, until it is slightly reduced and drops thickly from a spoon. Set aside syrup to cool separately.
2. For the cake: Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease a 9 inch cake pan or springform pan. In a large bowl, combine the flour, kamut flour, leavenings, spices, and sugar. In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup of the cooled syrup, eggs, vegetable oil, and milk. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients, and combine them with several swift strokes. Fold in the chopped hazelnuts and 1/3 of the candied squash. Pour the batter into the prepared pan. Scatter the remaining candied squash over the top of the batter. Bake for 35 minutes, until the top is golden. Cool on a rack. Serve with extra syrup on the side, if desired.

Other recipes with Kamut:
Kamut Pouncake from Alice Medrich
Kamut and Cheese Muffins in the LATimes

10 November 2007

Crispy Duck Legs with Apples

duck w/ apples (batta tufahiyya)
In medieval Baghdad, pomegranates were considered food for the poor. I know this because for a college Islamic art class I had to design an Abbasid palace with certain stylistic specifications. In addition to what seemed like thousands of assigned readings, there were extra optional readings which were intended to give us a feel for the lifestyle of the period: after all architecture is functional, and it would help us to envision the furniture and textiles which would fill the space and the daily lives of the people who would inhabit it. Being the complete nerd that I am, I stopped in the library reserves to get one of those extra readings, the first and I am sure only person to check out the musty cloth-bound papers crumbling with age. Flipping through the book I found a section devoted to the great cuisine of the caliphs and, fascinated, I spent the next hour under the awful florescent lighting of the library basement absorbing every detail.

This is how I know that pomegranates were so plentiful they were distributed to the poor, while the most prized fruits were apples and quince, which were used in stews with lamb or poultry. Later, I found that Charles Perry wrote a lovely little book translating those medieval Baghdadi recipes into modern English. But what I find even more fascinating is that those apple dishes, called tufahiyya, are still made across the Middle East today, from Syrian lamb stew to Moroccan chicken tagines. This recipe of duck and apples hews closely to the classic tufahiyya, which always use apple juice in addition to the fresh fruit. I've used small apples simply halved, but for an even more aesthetic presentation you can use whole tiny baby apples which are so prized by Arabs (if you can find them). You just eat around the seeds, and it's fun to pick up the apples by their little stems. The only change I've made is to do the braise in the oven (ovens are used very sparingly in the Middle East because they use up a lot of expensive fuel). This is where the real beauty of this dish lies: the duck legs are nestled in the liquid so they become meltingly moist, but the top peaks out so you also get perfectly crispy duck skin. There's nothing like crispy duck skin.

It may seem odd now that apples were considered the food of kings, but their deliciousness here is certainly convincing. No matter where you live or what century you're in, I think this is an autumn recipe everyone should have in their repertoire. And if you ever have to design an Abbasid palace, remember to put in a good apple orchard, and a pond for ducks. And maybe a few pomegranate trees, to distribute to your less-fortunate subjects.

On Cooking Duck: If you are at all intimidated by the idea of cooking duck, I urge you not to be. Duck legs have all the wonderful things that chicken does not: it's dark, moist, and full of meaty flavor. Duck has a bad reputation for being fatty, but most recipes call for the fat to be trimmed away. It is unfortunate that many places only sell duck whole, since the breasts and legs are really suited to different preparations. If you have a good relationship with your butcher, he may cut up a duck (or two) and sell you just the legs. If not, I urge you to go ahead and buy a whole duck: it's like a culinary treasure trove. Set aside the breasts for another use, render the fat and store it in the fridge for roasting potatoes or frites, use the skin to make duck cracklings for salad, and use the bones and giblets for amazing duck stock.

Crispy Duck Legs with Apples
A modern interpretation of a centuries-old Middle Eastern recipe. You can double or triple the recipe as needed, the only difference will be you have to transfer to a larger roasting pan. It can also be made using chicken (reduce cooking time to 45 minutes) and also with quince (poach the quince first to tenderize). Serves 2.

2 duck legs
3 very small red apples
1 cup apple juice
1 small onion, sliced into half moons
1/2 cup water
2 cinnamon sticks or 1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp coriander
salt pepper, to taste

1. Preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the apple juice in a bowl, cut the apples in half (leaving the stems intact) and place them in the bowl with the apple juice.
2. The duck legs will probably have a good amount of fat and skin on the underside of the leg- trim away this fat, leaving only the skin on the outer surface of the duck legs (though you don't need the fat in this recipe, I urge you to save the fat and render it for another use). Heat a cast iron skillet or dutch oven until hot. Add the duck legs, skin side down, and cook until nicely browned. Turn over and cook for only one minute, then transfer to paper towels to drain.
3. If there is a lot of fat in the skillet drain off all but one tablespoon of it. Add the onion slices and apples, cut-side down, and saute them over medium heat until onions are softened, a few minutes. Pour in the apple juice and water, add the coriander and cinnamon sticks. Nestle the duck legs in the pan so that just the skin surface is exposed, arranging the apples around them. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the surface.
4. Transfer to the oven and braise for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until duck is tender. Check it a couple times during the process to make sure the pan isn't looking dry, you may want to add a touch more water. Serve warm.

If you are as nerdy as I am, I recommend you check out Jean Bottero's "The Oldest Cuisine in the World: Cooking in Mesopotamia" (U of Chicago Press), Lilia Zaouali's "Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World" (USC Press), or Charles Perry's "A Baghdad Cookery Book" (Prospect Books).

07 November 2007

Kleeja (Cardamom-Wheat Cookies)

I like to a keep a good biscuit around the house. I use the word biscuit in the British sense: not one of those puffy buttermilk biscuits in America but rather some cross between a cracker and a cookie, a digestive biscuit or a tea biscuit, call it a snack cookie if you must. They're good for nibbling as a 3:00 sweet fix, a 5:00 pick-me-up, after dinner as dessert, or a midnight snack. And if you tend towards hypo-glycemia, tucking one in your bag is essential.

My favorite biscuit to have around is a cardamom-wheat version, they're called kleeja and they're from Iraq. You can find similar biscuits all over the Middle East but I like to think that they are uniquely Iraqi. Northern Iraq is believed to be the first place wheat and barley were cultivated and planted as crops, and wheat continues to be a staple grain and a symbol of prosperity and fertility. Sheaves of wheat are hung from balconies in Baghdad and their image imprinted on the dinar. I like the slight coarseness of the wheat in these biscuits, and I love the liberal use of cardamom, so particularly Iraqi: Iraqis scent their coffee, rice pilafs, soups, cookies and breads all with heaping spoonfuls of cardamom.

Kleeja are quite popular in the Gulf where they are mass-produced and packaged to be sold all over the Middle East. That's where I first tasted them, but now I've discovered they are just as easy to make at home, and I do, quite often. I've served them with coffee, tea, or wine, sent them in care-packages, and people always love them. I know the recipe by heart, which is good, because people often ask me for it. I've put them here as well so friends don't have to read my recipes scribbled on the back of paper napkins. I think it's the cardamom that gives them that special air, and their satisfying crunch. I hope you'll think they're just as good to have around as I do.

As you can see, I've varied the size and thickness of these cookies, and my favorite version is that rolled 1/4" thick and cut with a biscuit cutter. Feel free to play around, but make sure not to roll them too thinly, as the thickness contributes to their charm.

Kleeja (Cardamom-Wheat Cookies)

3 cups whole wheat flour.
1/2 cup vegetable oil or 9 tbl melted butter
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 egg beaten with 2 tbl water, for glazing

1. Preaheat oven to 350 F. Grease 2 baking sheets or line with parchment. Combine sugar and milk in small pan, stir over heat without boiling until sugar dissolves, set aside to let cool.
2. Combine flour with baking powder, salt, cardamom in a bowl. Mix in the oil/butter until crumbly and well combined, then add egg, sugar and milk, mix well to form a dough. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.
3. Roll out the dough with a floured rolling pin (you do not need to flour your work surface) to 1/4" thick. Cut out rounds with a biscuit cutter, rerolling until all the dough is used. Make a cross-hatch pattern on the cookies with a knife if desired. Transfer to baking sheets and brush the cookies with egg wash. Bake 15-20 minutes, or until just golden and firm on top (the bottoms will brown, but keep an eye that they don't burn). Cool on a rack, store in a cookie tin.

I should mention that the term "kleeja/kleicha" is used widely in the Middle East to refer to an array of things- it can also refer to a brioche roll stuffed with dates or other kinds of cookies.

04 November 2007

Creamy Autumn Chestnut Soup

With Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it might be nice to talk about a recipe that could grace your table, as it will mine. I use the word grace because this recipe is elegant and satisfying, yet it's not at all pretentious or fancy.

If you were me, growing up chestnuts were something you sang about in a song, and that was it. Sure, you knew they were supposed to be eaten (or at least roasted on an open fire), but mainly they just dropped their prickly shells from trees and never made it to your own table. It wasn't until I went to Italy when I was twenty that I actually realized what a chestnut was and how it was eaten. It was a bitter cold January and I bought some from one of the many of the streetside vendors, holding their hot roasted shells as hand warmers in my new Sermoneta gloves. And if you are expecting some sort of chestnut-epiphany, I'm afraid I was rather disappointed with that chestnut, and promptly disregarded whatever culinary merits it offered.
Later, on a different cold winter afternoon, I went to browse New York's Neue Gallerie, and then decided to treat myself to lunch in their cafe. Cafe Sabarsky is probably one of my favorite places for a sophisticated bite, and though I swoon over their Austrian pastries, this particular day I had a bowl of chestnut soup. And here, my friends, is where the chestnut-epihpany happened. Ever since then, I've made all sorts of chestnut soups, stuffings, ragouts, and cakes, determined to make up for lost time. New York Magazine even published the recipe for the cafe's chestnut soup, and I made that too. The soup was good, but it didn't quite capture the magic of that first one I had, and the recipe was terribly complicated- it even calls for making porcini foam.

Each autumn over the past four years I've fiddled and tweaked with that chestnut soup recipe, simplifying and adjusting the components. I think I've finally got it. The result is good enough to cause your own chestnut-epiphany, but it's also easy enough to make and eat during the week. I've made this both roasting the chestnuts myself and buying bottled-peeled chestnuts, and though I do think it is most flavorful with fresh-chestnuts, it's excellent with the prepared kind, and you'll save yourself the pain of peeling them yourself (is there a way to peel chestnuts without loosing a few fingernails?).

To call this simply chestnut soup would be to simplify it's other components- the mushroom broth, the sweet fennel, the hints of wine and nutmeg, so I called it creamy autumn chestnut soup, embodying the warmth of the season. It's just as good in winter, too. And whether you choose this for your Thanksgiving table, or simply for any afternoon, I'm sure you'll be thankful you made it.

P.S. If you subscribe to this blog via Bloglines, I know there's a problem with a feed and am working to fix it (advice, anyone?) In the meantime, I hope you'll be patient enough to click over here as I am still updating regularly.
Creamy Autumn Chestnut Soup
This is the soup I look forward to every autumn. If fennel is not to your taste, a thinly sliced celeriac bulb also works nicely. For a fancier presentation, serve garnished with creme fraiche or an Armagnac-soaked prune.

4 cups light vegetable stock or broth
12 oz button mushrooms, roughly chopped
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 a fennel bulb, cored and sliced
16 oz shelled roast chestnuts, roughly chopped (bottled or fresh-roasted, see below)
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup white wine, preferably Riesling
salt, nutmeg, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Put the stock and mushrooms in a saucepan, bring to a boil, and simmer for 15 minutes. Set aside and let cool completely. Strain the out mushrooms and discard or set aside for another use.
2. Melt the butter in a large pot. Add the fennel slices and saute for a few minutes, until beginning to soften. Add the chopped chestnuts, sprinkle the sugar over top, increase the heat to high for a couple minutes until the mixture begins to caramelize. Reduce the heat back to medium and deglaze the pan with the white wine. Stir the mixture for one minute, then add the mushroom stock. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Bring the mixture to a boil, then simmer the mixture over low heat for 20 minutes. Stir in the cream and remove the pot from the heat. Let cool slightly.
3. Blend the mixture with a blender until completely smooth. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve. Reheat, season to taste, and serve.

To prepare fresh chestnuts: Preheat oven to 375 degrees. With a sharp paring knife, cut an X into the flat side of each chestnut. Place the nuts in a single layer on a baking sheet, and roast in the middle of the oven for 10 to 12 minutes, until the shell curls. Remove from oven, and allow to cool. Peel and discard the shells, reserving the chestnuts.