30 October 2009


I was baking at a young age.

24 October 2009

Swedish Limpa Bread

I remember picking up the first care package in the dingy basement of my college dorm. Sure, I'd been to summer camp before, but now I was on my own, taking the subway with my roommates, dashing across the traffic of Seventh Avenue, pretending like was a real New Yorker, and hoping I would really be one someday soon. And a few weeks went by, and there was that box, with my mom's handwriting on the top, and I opened it and all these colorful things just spilled out. Polka dotted tissue paper and cards and a little stuffed animal and brochures from the last art exhibit my mom went to and extra bobby pins. And right in the middle was a big round loaf of bread, all swaddled in plastic wrap and pink plastic cellophane like you wrap cookies in at Christmas.

In the seventies, when it was trendy to make everything from scratch, my mom knitted blankets and pressed homemade paper and cooked yogurt in little cups and she baked bread. She had the Sunset Book of Breads, and over the course of a year she made every single recipe. Even the danishes, she'd always tell me. But her favorite was the Swedish Limpa bread, the thick crumbed bread flavored with dark rye, molasses, cumin seeds, and orange peel. She loved it because it made great toast, crusty and warm and swathed in butter.

I had had mom's Limpa bread before, but sitting on the floor of my dorm room holding that loaf up to my nose it was as if I was smelling for the first time. And tasting each bit of rye and caraway and orange with each bite. And like mom, it's still one of my favorite breads, perfect for those first cool days of autumn, when the leaves are falling and turning on the oven is just what you want to do.

Swedish Limpa Bread

1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup cracked wheat (aka bulgur)
1 teaspoon crushed fennel or anise seed
1 teaspoon crushed cumin seed
1/4 teaspoon crushed caraway seed
1 1/2 teaspoons grated orange zest
2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup molasses
3 tablespoons butter
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) dry active yeast
1/4 warm water
1 cup milk
2 cups unsifted dark rye flour
about 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (sift before measuring)

1. Place cracked wheat, fennel, cumin, caraway, orange zest, salt, molasses and butter in a very large bowl and pour boiling water over top. Let sit about 5 minutes, until cooled to lukewarm.
2. Meanwhile, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let sit until foamy.
3. Add the yeast mixture to the cracked wheat mixture and add the dark rye and the milk. Add enough flour to make a moderately stiff dough. Turn the douh out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Yes, I sad 10 minutes.
4. Place in a large greased bowl, turning to coat. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in a warm place to rise for 2 hours, until nearly doubled in bulk.
5. Punch down the dough and form 1 large or 2 medium size loaves. Place on a greased baking sheet and allow to rise until almost doubled, about 1 hour.
6. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes for the large 12 " loaf, or 35 minutes for the smaller 9" loaves.

18 October 2009

Musakhan - Bread-Wrapped Roast Chicken

There is a chicken carcass simmering in a pot of water on my stove and my house smells wonderfully of burgeoning chicken stock. But the cause of this smell is something even more excellent and tasty - bread-wrapped roast chicken. This is a Palestinian dish found across the Levant called musakhan. Musakhan, which literally means "warmed," consists of chicken pieces and caramelized onions wrapped up in swaths of of flatbread and baked until the chicken falls off the bone and the bread absorbs all those good chicken juices.

You'll see many different versions of this across the Middle East, including fast food versions that include flatbread dough with onions and chicken baked on top. But the traditional version wraps the chicken in a kind of bread called marquq, a very thin flatbread made on a saj grill. A good Middle Eastern grocery will have marquq, but other thin flatbreads, like shraq or lavash will also work.

When I once described this dish to a friend, she exclaimed, "bread-wrapped roast chicken, that sounds like a dream!" And indeed, it is excellent. The bread, which is soft and full of chickeny juices on the bottom and crisp and crackly no top, the deep flavor of caramelized onions, the fleck of sumac, the tender meat. It's the sort of weeknight comfort food you can eat all week long.

While you can include the chicken wings in the pan, I find the wings are boney and take up too much space in the pan, so I usually set them aside from another use. I like to double or triple the bread on the bottom, so that it absorbs chicken and onion juices, but I like only one layer of crispy bread on the top.

1 chicken (about 3 1/2 lbs), butchered into 2 legs, 2 thighs, 2 breasts
good quality olive oil
2 large sweet onions, or 3 medium size ones
1/4 cup sumac
3-4 sheets marquq bread
salt, pepper

1. In a large, wide skillet, heat a small glug of the olive oil, then lightly brown the chicken on all sides over medium heat, removing to a plate as they brown. Remove and set aside. Add some more olive oil to the skillet and cook the onions until translucent, about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sumac and cook for 2 minutes to mix.

2. Preheat the oven to 325F. Grease an 8x8 inch baking dish or large casserole, then line with two or three stacked sheets of marquq bread, or two halves of Arabic-style bread. Spoon half the onions over each, then arrange the chicken on top of the onions and cover with the remaining onions and the juices from the casserole. (You want the chicken and onion to be crowded in the pan, this prevents the bread from burning.) Cover with a single sheet of marquq bread or halves of Arabic bread, tucking in the sides crusty side up and sprinkling some water over top. Place into the oven.

3. After the first 20 minutes, cover the dish with aluminum foil. Bake until the chicken is very tender and almost falling off the bone, a total of about 1 1/ 2 hours. Keep an eye on the bottom of the pan, if you see juices bubbling in the bottom of the pan add some water to the bottom of the pan so they don't burn.

3. Let rest a few minutes, then serve. Makes good leftovers.

Note: The size of marquq bread varies, so use common sense.

16 October 2009

Currently Cooking:

Swiss-Chard and Walnut Ravioli in Lemony Homemade Pasta Dough

I made a batch of pasta dough (per the Babbo Cookbook basic recipe), and flecked it with lemon zest. The ravioli filling was slivered swiss chard with I cooked quickly in a skillet until wilted, then I tossed in a handful of walnuts and a pinch of chile flakes to toast. Put the chard and walnuts in a food processor with salt and parmesan and pulse until finely chopped. Use the mixture to fill cut out ravioli squares, form raviolis, boil them 3-5 minutes in water, toss with a little browned butter in a skillet. Voila, dinner.

08 October 2009

Writer's Block and Margaret's Eggplant

Every time I sit down at the computer in the last month, it seems I can't figure out what on earth I want to tell you. It probably doesn't help that I've been home approximately 6 of the last 30 days, traveling for work and pleasure, packing and unpacking suitcases. But that's not the excuse, really. Words come into my head on the airplane or often while I'm driving, but as soon as I go to put them on paper (or laptop, more likely), they vanish as quickly as they came. I carry a Rhodia notebook everywhere, but it seems to collect random phone numbers and half-thought-out sentences more than anything else.

I am sad to hear of Gourmet closing, and frustrated with the lack of strategy in the Afghan war, and I've even been doing a decent amount of cooking in the few days when I have a chance. We had a dinner party with whole grilled rockfish and raspberry souffles with peach creme anglaise (ooh, how wonderful they were), and I made chocolate chip cookies to take on the road with me. But when it comes to writing and sharing with you all, well I'll admit I'm coming up empty.

I sold my mom's house a few weeks ago, and have a sudden feeling of homelessness. The house is mainly cleaned out, but I left mom's recipe cabinet for last. Everyone says how hard it must be to clean out mom's house, but frankly a lot of the stuff in there is just stuff to me. I'm not as attached to objects as some people. But the recipe cabinet is a different story.

My mother clipped every Sunday NYTimes recipe since about 1975. I'm not kidding. I went through every single one- great stuff from the times of Craig Cliaborne and Patricia Wells. And that's all on top of the other clippings, the Times and the Post, and Gourmet, my grandmother's recipe box, and at least 30 recipes for pulled pork barbeque. My mother was a great cook, but after I left home she didn't cook much,with just herself to feed. But she kept clipping, and she'd always say that when she retired she'd make every single one of them. Going through them, it made me terribly sad that she never got the chance.

We went to Baltimore last weekend, to harvest grapes at a vineyard and stroll around the Walters and eat excellent Afghan food at the Helmand. We stayed with a friend Margaret, who is an excellent cook. When my mom was staying with her, she would often make this fried eggplant dish- they loved it so much the two of them would eat a whole eggplant in one sitting. I totally understand, this stuff is addictive. I made the recipe, simple pan-fried panko-crusted eggplant, for my last dinner party, and 3 whole eggplants were devoured in minutes. You could add some plain yogurt as an accoutrement, but this dish can really stand alone.

I don't know if this writer's block will continue, or what all do with that big stack of mom's recipe, or how much longer I'll feel that accute stab of orphanhood on a daily basis. But I know I'll keep cooking, because it's as intrinsic to me as sleeping and breathing, and I hope I'll figure out how to share that here as well.

Margaret's Eggplant

peanut or canola oil, for frying
2 eggplant, about 3" to 4" inches in diameter at the widest point
2 eggs, beaten with 1 tbl of water
panko for crusting

1. Slice the eggplant very thinly and spread on paper towels. Sprinkle throroughly with salt on both sides, then leave eggplant to drain for 20-30 minutes. Press the eggplant well on both sides to absorb moisture and brush off any excess salt.
2. Meanwhile, place the beaten egg mixture in one wide bowl and the pank in another shallow bowl or plate.
3. In your widest skillet or pan, heat about 1" of oil, enough for shallow frying, until shimmering.
4. Dip the eggplant slices in egg, then in panko to coat. Add the eggplant slices to the pan a few at a time (do not overcrowd) and fry until golden brown on both sides. Transfer to paper towels to drain. It will take several batches and you will probably have to replenish the oil in the pan.
5. Serve immediately.