29 December 2009

p e a c e

Wishing You All Happy Holidays.

Here's some yummy reading to browse through while we all recover from our holiday indulgences.

Shwarma in Amman

Why You Should Make Stuffed Grape Leaves

Choice Tables Beirut

The Best Salad I've Made All Year

See you in the new year!

22 December 2009

Finnish Coffee Braid

You may have heard that the East Coast got a bit of snow this weekend. I don't think it's snowed more than an inch since I've lived in DC, and then I woke up one morning to find this outside my door:

At which point, I promptly shut my door and decided to stay inside baking and catching up on all the television I've missed in the past three months. Although, even that gets old after awhile, and there's nothing like a good walk in the snow to get your cheeks rosy.

I also wished I had been one of those crazy people buying milk on Friday as I gazed at my sparse refrigerator contents. No bread, no cheese, and very few green things. I flipped through my favorite bread cookbook looking for something to make, and settled on a Finnish Cardamom-Orange Bread. The recipe calls it coffee cake, but it's what we know as a sweet yeast bread.

I was a bit skeptical about the amount of cardamom, which can be unpleasant if overpowering, but the breads came out very subtly spiced. I baked the breads for the 45 minutes the recipe called for, but found that the bread was a bit drier and darker on the bottom than I would've liked, so I've adjusted the time below.

The recipe makes two ample braids, perfect for gifting this holiday season. I also have to give a plug to Menu for Hope, which has great gifts of foods around the world and benefits the UN World Food Program (my previous employer). There are a lot of good causes out there but this is one I can speak for personally. Then again, I'd be perfectly happy with a batch of cookies.

Finnish Coffee Braid

2 1/4 teaspoons (1 package) active dry yeast
3 tablespoons warm water
1 cup milk
6 tablespoons butter, cut into pieces
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
grated peel of 1 orange
about 5 cups all-purpose flour
for glaze: 1 egg yolk mixed with 1 tablespoon milk

1. Place yeast and water in the bottom of a large bowl and let sit.
2. Place milk and butter in a saucepan or microwave-safe bowl and heat until the butter is melted and milk is scalded but does not boil. Let cool to lukewarm.
3. Add the eggs and milk mixture to the bowl with the yeast. Add the sugar, salt, cardamom, and zest and stir to combine. Gradually add the flour to make a fairly stiff dough. Turn out onto a floured board and knead until the dough is smooth.
4. Place dough in a greased bowl, cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
5. Punch down and divide into two portions. Divide one portion into thirds and form each third into a rope about 18-24 inches long. Braid the ropes, pinching together the ends. Repeat the braiding with the second half of the dough. Twist braids into rings and pinch together to seal.
6. Place wreaths on a greased baking sheet, cover and let rise until almost doubled 1-1 1/2 hours.
7. Preheat oven to 350 F. Brush each loaf with the beaten egg/milk mixture. Bake 35 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool on wire racks.

13 December 2009


It is time, my friends, for that time of year. The time for cookie baking. There are currently boxes for 3 pounds of butter and 2 pounds of powdered sugar sitting in my recycling bin. The time for powdered sugar to fly and to use butter as a moisturizer, hand salve, packing material, and maybe for all those baked goods.

I've got bourbon balls and of course my mom's sugar cookies, and currently sitting on my counter are a lovely batch of ma'amoul. Ma'amoul are one of the most traditional of Middle Eastern cookies, made of a buttery semolina exterior and a date filling, they are shaped by pressing them into decorative molds. They are traditional for both Ramadan and Easter, and great for Christmas too.

The recipe comes together very quickly, with a dough with those whiffs of rose water and spices. The problem, at least in my case, was the molds. The first four or five cookies came out perfectly, and then they started to stick. I mean really stick, and fall apart, and there was a lot of damning and cursing and things that should not be said in the spirit of baking. Eventually I figured out that forming a ball of dough, filling it with the stuffing mixture, and then pressing it into the mold was the best technique. And if you don't have molds, you can always just use mini-muffin cups or simply do without.

So in addition to the family traditions, the requisite doses of chocolate and alcohol, my cookie assortment with have a little Middle Eastern flair this year.

While dates are traditional, you can experiment with different dried fruits. In this particular batch I used a mix of dates, dried figs, and hazelnuts for some added texture.

1/2 cup solid shortening (preferably a non-hydrogenated variety)
8 tablespoons or 4 ounces butter
1 cup flour, all purpose
2 cups semolina
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking power
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon rose flower water and
1 teaspoon orange flower water
7 tablespoons water

1 1/2 cups chopped dates (or other mixed dried fruit)
4 tablespoons butter

1. Prepare crust: Melt the shortening and butter in the microwave in a large bowl. Add the flour, semolina, salt baking powder and sugar and stir to combine. Add the rose and orange flower waters and gradually add the water, stirring to make a crumbly dough. Put the dough in the fridge to rest while you make the filling.
2. Place dates and butter in a saucepan and cook over low heat, mashing the dates with a fork. Cook about ten minuted, until dates are soft and mashed together. If the pan gets dry then add a splash of water.
3. Preheat oven to 325 F. Flatten a tablespoon of the semolina dough in the palm of your hand. Add a small amount of date filling. Fold up the semolina around the filling, adding a little more dough to enclose the ball. Roll into a ball and press into a mold, or simply place on a greased baking sheet and decorate the top with the tines of a fork.
4. Bake 12-15 minutes until solid but not darkened in color. Let cool, then shift powdered sugar over top.

06 December 2009

Shish Barak (Lebanese Meat Dumplings in Yogurt Sauce)

A friend called me yesterday to ask me why I haven't updated the blog? Oh dear, that is bad isn't it? I have a good explanation though- you see, I went to Texas for a lovely Thanksgiving, got home on a hectic Sunday and dumped my smelly jeans and farm boots into the laundry, refilled my suitcase with a couple suits and linen trousers, and headed to the Middle East for a work trip. Work trips being what they are, there was a lot of flying, a lot of meetings, and very little fun time, other than some good food and vodka-mint-lemonades.

But I'm happy to be home and I've had this recipe in my queue, eager to share it here. It's the Lebanese version of meat dumplings, called shish barak. Really, who doesn't like dumplings people? Especially dumplings filled with warm cinnamon and cumin spiced beef and bathed in warm yogurt sauce.

I've eaten shish barak before, but this was my first time making them. As I stirred the beef and onions, the dish just smelled right. Have you ever had that feeling, recreating a dish you've had before, when it just tastes like it should?

Traditionally the dumplings are made with a homemade flour dough and then baked. However, some people fry the dumplings, and I went with the slightly alternative method of steaming the dumplings. It's not as traditional, but I like the lighter texture it yields. Also, I have terrible dumpling forming skills. I need to go to dumpling remedial school. But if you're more talented than me, you can form the dumplings with little woven seams.

I shouldn't have needed any prompting to share this dish here, after all it's pretty tasty, but sometimes we all need a little encouragement.

Shish Barak (Lebanese Meat Dumplings in Yogurt Sauce)
Cheaters tip: if you don't want to make the dough yourself, you can use wonton wrappers instead. If you do use wonton wrappers you cannot bake the dumplings but must steam them.

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup cold water
1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon butter or ghee
1 lb ground beef (or lamb)
1 onion, minced
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice, and cumin
salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

yogurt sauce:
1 quart plain yogurt (not fat-free, not Greek style)
1 egg white
1 tablespoon cornstarch

1. Combine the dough ingredients in bowl until combined, knead lightly. Let rest 1 hour (while you prepare the filling). Roll out the dough as thinly as possible, then cut into 3" rounds and flatten with a rolling pin.
2. For the filling, heat the butter in a skillet. Add th eonions and saute until translucent. Add the ground beef spices, and cilantro and saute, breaking up the beef, until nicely browned and cooked through.
3. Form dumplings with the dough and filling, run a little water along the edge of the dumpling so you can pinch them closed in whatever manner works for you.
4. Bake dumplings at 350 F for 10-15 minutes, or until dough is firm and lightly golden, or steam them over boiling water for about 10 minutes, until dough is cooked through.
5. For yogurt sauce: Beat together egg white, cornstarch, and 1 tablespoon water until combined. Combine egg white mixture with yogurt in a saucepan. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until yogurt mixture is slightly thickened and warm.
6. Combine yogurt mixture and dumplings on a platter. Garnish with chopped cilantro or mint or sauteed pine nuts. Serve immediately.