25 January 2009

for mom

There are some things I think I can never write about. You can write around them and between them and maybe even through them, but I'll never really write them in the way they happened.

My mom has a brain tumor. Not a little wimpy pea-sized thing, not a meningioma or a cyst, a big, bad, scary cancerous brain tumor. I tried to write an email about it, but I thought if I actually typed the words then all of it would become irreversibly true, that this was no longer one long bad dream, no longer a simple problem a few vitamins could fix. It couldn't be my hands tapping tumor, and doctor, and craniotomy, and chemotherapy, those words staring back at me in harsh black against white tones from my computer.

In a way I was prepared, my uncle has had two brain tumors that I was intimately involved with. But then, I was second tier help, always there to assist but able to go home at the end of the day and sleep. Now, I'm first tier, the one who's there when she wakes up and when she goes to sleep, who fixes meals and adjusts socks and calls nurses. I told my uncle's partner, my uncle's first tier, and told him, "I had no idea." Few people do.

I can write about parts of it now, the tumor, the logistics of hospitals and neurosurgeons, the experience of being 25 years old and having your name placed on your mother's estate, paying property tax before you ever owned property. But the one part I can't write about is mom. I cant write about her because I can't get past how utterly unfair this is. About how this happened to the wrong person, how good my mom is, how hard she's worked in her life. About how it's always been just mom and me, no father, no siblings, of how scared I am of being alone in a very big world.

I made coconut cake this year for Christmas dinner because it's mom's favorite. She was diagnosed the next day. I was so glad to have that leftover cake in the refrigerator, not because either of us had any appetite, but because I had made it for her the day before- that we should capitalize on every good experience possible. It' a lesson I learn more and more each day, each good thought, each laugh, just as sweet as a slice of cake.

My mom insists that I not neglect the blog in her illness, but I hope you'll excuse me if posting is a little slower than usual. And in about 6 weeks I'll be looking for some good recipes to get us through radiation and chemotherapy.

Toasted Coconut Cake

1 cup (2 sticks, 8 oz) butter
2 cups sugar
3 cups flour
2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 egg whites (1 cup egg whites)
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-3 drops coconut extract
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut

for frosting:
2 cups heavy cream
4 oz cream cheese
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups sweetened flaked coconut

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease or line two 9" cake pans. Spread all the coconut (3 cups) on two baking sheets and toast until golden (watch carefully that it does not burn). Set aside to cool.
2. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar for about 5 minutes, until light and fluffy. Stir together flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. Combine egg whites, milk and vanilla and coconut extracts. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture then add half the milk mixture. Continue to alternate beginning and ending with flour mixture, until mixture is well combined. Working over the bowl, rub half the coconut (1 1/2 cups) between your palms so it is finely crumbled, stir the crumbled toasted coconut into the batter.
3. Divide the batter between the prepared pans. Bake cakes 25-35 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean. Set aside to cool.
4. In a large bowl, beat ogether the cream cheese and 1/2 cup sugar until combined. In a nother bowl, beat the cream to stiff peaks, sprinkle in the remaining 1/4 cup sugar and beat cream to stiff peaks. Fold cream into cream cheese mixture - taste for sweetness, it should be tangy but still slightly sweet.
5. Place bottom cake layer on a platter. Spread with some cream mixture and top with second layer of cake. Spread cream all over the cake, then use your hands to gently press the remaining toasted coconut around the cake. Refrigerate until serving.

18 January 2009

Baba Ghanoush (Moutabal)

One of the questions I get asked most often is, "how do you make baba ghanoush?" I always reply, "well, in Syria, it's called moutabal." In one of the culinary curiosities of the Middle East, eggplant and tahini dip is called baba ghanoush all over Lebanon, and as soon as you cross the border into Syria it's called moutabal. Even more confounding, if you order baba ghanoush in Syria, you will get a plate of chunky eggplant dip studded with tomatoes and sauteed green peppers, the identity of which has confused many a tourist seeking that smooth smoky eggplant dip.

The second thing I always tell people is that you have to roast your eggplants- whether under the broiler, in the oven (my preferred method), or over a good smoky grill (the best, if not always most convenient way), it's the roasted eggplant that gives the dip the characteristic smoky flavor. From there on out it's mainly a question of taste- a good mixture of tahini, lemon, and garlic, along with some salt, are really all you need. Usually that answers most of the questions on how to make the dip, what you call it is up to you.

Baba Ghanoush (Moutabal)
While small, slender eggplants are often preferred in cooking, baba ghanoush makes use of those huge oversize eggplants with all their flesh. Using a food processor to puree the eggplant helps crush any seeds.

2 large eggplants (about 2 lbs), pricked all over with a fork
2 garlic cloves
3/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup tahini
for garnish: olive oil, chopped parsley, red pepper flakes, pomegranate seeds, etc.

1. Preheat a grill or preheat the oven to 450 F and roast the eggplants for 40-45 minutes, until the skins are black and the flesh is soft and collapsed.
2. Meanwhile, smash the garlic with the salt in a mortar and pestle until paste-like. In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice and tahini until thick and lighter in color. Add the garlic paste.
3. When the roast eggplants are cool enough to handle, split them in half and scoop out the soft flesh. Puree the eggplant flesh in a food processor until smooth.
4. Add the eggplant puree to the garlic/tahini mixture. Taste for seasoning. Allow to rest until cool.
5. To serve, spread in a platter and drizzle with olive oil and any of your desired toppings.

01 January 2009

Bourbon Buttercreams

Mom: Do you have my buttercream recipe?

Me: No.

Mom: I can't find it. Are you sure you don't have it?

Me: No mom, I don't have it. But I know the recipe, do you want me to tell it to you?

Mom: I'm sure you have it.

Me: No, I don't. But listen, it's one box of powdered sugar, one-

Mom: No I want my recipe, you know, the one George Beechner wrote out.

Me: I know mom, I don't have it. It's probably in that cabinet of yours. But it's really easy, it's just...

Mom: I looked all through the cabinet, it's not there, and we have to have the bourbon buttercreams for Christmas...

Well, the original recipe was never found, but I've made these so many times I really know the recipe by heart. This makes about 40 buttercreams, and we almost always end up making a second batch. I brought some to my office last week and they were gone in under an hour.

An attempt by a less experienced buttercream maker- the buttercream balls should be rolled until smooth.

Bourbon Buttercreams
In my opinion, there are few things better than a bourbon buttercream. And I generally dislike bourbon (heresy for someone with a Tennessean mother). But you can also flavor them with lemon, orange, vanilla beans, and a myriad of other flavors. The mixture will seem dry at first but do not be tempted to add more butter- if you do they will be too soft at room temperature.

1 1/4 sticks (10 tbl) butter
1 box (1 lb) powdered sugar
3 tbl bourbon
10 ounces bittersweet chocolate

1. Cream the butter until smooth. Cream in the powdered sugar until the mixture is crumbly. Add the bourbon, then continue to cream the mixture until it comes together in a ball. It may seem like the mixture is too dry but don't worry, it will come together eventually. The mixture should be somewhat stiff and fluffy, you should be able to knead it with your hands. If it is too wet, add some more powdered sugar. Taste it to see if the bourbon is to you liking. I almost always add more :-)
2. Pinch off small pieces of the buttercream and roll into balls, about 1/2 tablespoon size (they are rich, so the size of about two small nibbles). Place on wax-paper lined baking sheets. Refrigerate the balls until firm and dry.
3. Meanwhile, prepare a double boiler. Place the chocolate in the top of the double boiler and melt, stirring until smooth. When the chocolate is melted, turn the heat to the lowest setting, so the chocolate just stays warm. Coat the chilled buttercreams in the chocolate. I use a spatula and a fork for this- drop a buttercream in the chocolate, use the spatula to turn the buttercream in the chocolate to coat, then lift the buttercream out with a fork and transfer to wax paper.
4. Transfer to the fridge to chill until firm. Buttercreams are best stored in the fridge and served chilled.