Sunday, September 25, 2011

4. afghanistan: shir berenj [and turning twenty]

Time never ceases to amaze me. Sometimes fleeting, sometimes unending, never enough, and so many names. Seconds, minutes, hours. Days, weeks, months. Years. Decades. Centuries. Millennium. Clocks, wristwatches, pocket watches, timers. Calendars, planners, schedules. Deadlines.

Wibbly-wobbly, really.

It's been, what, two weeks since my last post? A while, comparatively speaking. A lot can happen in two weeks. Attending a concert [Mat Kearney], writing a few papers [political theory and Spanish], reading a few books [class assignments], finishing another season of television [Torchwood], a trip out of town to attend another concert [Fleet Foxes in DC], starting a new job [tutoring], volunteering [soup kitchen], screaming with joy when a favorite screenwriter gets nominated for an Emmy [Steve Moffat for Sherlock, obviously], turning twenty.

Twenty years old. It's a strange feeling. I mean, I started school early so I'm the last among friends and peers to turn twenty. Many of them are already twenty-one, if not much older as is [taking a course with grad students makes one feel rather little, particularly when one is invited to go out for drinks with course professor and said students]. But still. One-fifth of a century. Two decades. Twenty years. 1,040 weeks. 7,280 days. 175,316 hours.10,518,975 minutes. 10,483,200 minutes. 631,138,519 seconds.

A lot can happen in twenty years.

But this isn't the time to reminisce about it.

I am, though, fortunate. Extremely so. For knowing the people that I've met, having the friends that I do, and a family that is always there. I sometimes forget it, but I'm always reminded. Particularly when I'm confronted with three different birthday cakes in the span of two days, an all-expenses paid dinner [parents are indispensable when you're in college], some meaningful gifts, and a load of well-wishes.

Cake from mother? Check. Cake from friends? Check. Life-size cardboard cut-out of the Tenth Doctor? Check.

You know, I'm pretty damn happy.

Birthday weekend started out like all great weekends should: a phenomenal dinner cooked by Mr. Sparta [I still dream about those mascarpone-stuffed dates...] and spectacular birthday carrot cake by Mrs. Sparta [orange-zested cream cheese frosting is such a revelation!]. I spent the beginning of the weekend in DC with Chelsea's family, Matt, Rudhdi, and Liz for a Fleet Foxes concert, and Chelsea's family graciously offered to prepare a birthday meal beforehand. The dinner was absolutely amazing, the concert was incredible, and there was tons of hilarious conversation on top of it all.

What did I say before about being blessed to have the friends that I do?

Came home Saturday afternoon, during which Farnoosh refused to let me open the fridge, as she and Tommy spent Friday afternoon baking a birthday cake for me. So I was forced to keep to the couch, having all fridge-items brought to me by Noosh, until going out for a delicious Thai dinner with Zack and Jerm in tow. Once we got home, Tommy came over and I finally got to see the dessert: an absolutely gorgeous chai cake with honey-ginger cream cheese frosting. It was beautifully constructed and tasted phenomenal in its complexity and similarity to a chai tea latte. And thus day two of the birthday weekend ended, yet again, in tummies full of sugar.

As for today, the 'rents drove in for the afternoon [as they always do] to take us out for a lunch of kebabs [as they always do]. I love the familiarity, especially since it means that mom has prepared a rich, dark chocolate torte to celebrate [as she always does]. They stayed for a while, we caught up since I hadn't seen them in over a month, enjoyed some of the cake from yesterday, and then cut into another one. And now, lying on the couch with a knit blanket, best friend by my side, flicking through channels on the new television [present courtesy of my father], and plates of cakes just eaten skewed across the coffee table, I can safely say that I am in a good place.

Twenty years old, and in a good place. A surreal feeling, but one that I think I will enjoy getting used to.

As for this dessert [because God knows that after three cakes I really just need another pound of sugar to throw me into a coma], I cooked it up earlier today before my parents arrived, and after a breakfast of leftover chai cake with milk. In the style of Middle Eastern puddings, which I love dearly, shir berenj is a Persian rice pudding. This one I've made in honor of Afghanistan, with a quite a bit of help from Noosh as well.

Shir Berenj
Adapted from Turmeric and Saffron, alongside some of Noosh's expertise.

You'll need:
  • 1 cup basmati rice, rinsed and soaked in 2 cups water
  • 1 cup water
  • 5 cups milk [whole milk preferred, though 2% will do as well]
  • cinnamon, to garnish
  • honey, if desired
  • fruit preserves, if desired

Rinse and soak the rice in cool water for at least two hours (preferably overnight). Then, rinse water and pour the rice into a deep, nonstick pot. Add the water and heat over medium flame until the water comes to a boil. Reduce heat to a gentle simmer, and stir occasionally until the rice absorbs all of the water, 10-15 minutes. Slowly pour in the milk and continue stirring over low flame until the rice has soaked up the milk, 30-40 minutes. Be sure to stir occasionally as to prevent the milk from burning.

Once pudding has cooked [the rice will be soft, but shouldn't break apart], remove the pan from the heat and let the pudding cool for 10-15 minutes. Pour the pudding into serving dishes and flatten the tops using a spoon. Sprinkle cinnamon over top of the pudding. Serve immediately with honey or fruit preserves to sweeten, or cover the tops with clingwrap and refrigerate until serving.

It's an easy dessert, really. Cooks for a while over stovetop, similar to seviyan, and the end result is a thick and creamy custard. Milk-based puddings are, for the most part, all made in this way: slow-cooked over a low flame for the milk to thicken to sweet, melt-in-your-mouth goodness. In other words, delicious.

You know, turning twenty has made me think about how quickly time goes by, and how much can happen in just a few years [if not two weeks]. But perhaps it's time to stop thinking about time. Time means that these cakes won't last forever. And that means that I'll have to stuff my face now and savor each moment.

Monday, September 12, 2011

sunday brunch and oatmeal raisin scones

Out of the hundred or so cookbooks I purchased this summer [okay, maybe just 11], I'd have to say one of my favorites is Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles. I mean, I'm already madly in love with Tony's dry, sardonic wit, and to see that so eloquently translated in a cookbook was a match made in heaven. It's not one that I've actually used for recipes yet [I'm not exactly a connoisseur of bistro-style cooking, let alone have hours upon hours to make my own demi-glace], but it's one that I enjoy reading as though it were a novel.

Which, you may know by now, is a quality I think is essential in a good cookbook. Not just recipes, but vignettes. Not just photographs, but memories of places and emotions felt there. Not just cooking tips, but life advice.

And in Les Halles, Tony is brilliant.

[I promise I'm not going to spend this post just propagandizing this book.]

Anyway, the point is, one of my favorite things Tony says is that his book is not going to teach you how to cook.

Well, then, what's the point of buying a cookbook, right?

Well, "to teach you how to love food."

...Or at least, something to that effect, with a little less fluff and a little more cursing thrown in. So I've been trying to look at recipes as more guidelines than actual rules, giving me an idea of proper ratios for flours and baking powders, spices and vegetable stocks, and kind of letting my mind run wild with ideas. Yesterday when Tommy popped by to help with the basbousa, we decided to do some baking for today's Sunday brunch, and settled on one of my favorite treats in the entire world.

Although, crepes filled with butter and sliced strawberries and topped with powdered sugar are a damn-close second.

Scones, of course. Oatmeal-raisin scones, this time. The base recipe comes from Breakfast, Lunch, Tea, but has been adjusted to suit my own tastes. The end result was something hearty, not-too-sweet, with a consistency in between that of a scone and a biscuit. Perfect with a slather of butter and a drizzle of honey. And of course, some good company.

Oatmeal-Raisin Scones
Original recipe
Recipe yields 10-12 scones, depending on the size

You'll need:
  • 3 cups of flour
  • 1 cup of oats
  • 2 heaping tablespoons of baking powder
  • 2 tbsps sugar
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 stick of butter, cold and cut into cubes
  • 1 1/4 cups of heavy cream
  • 2 tsps vanilla
  • 1 tbsp lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.  In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, baking powder, sugar, and salt until well-mixed. Cut in butter until incorporated [you can use your hands here]. In a separate bowl, combine cream, vanilla, and lemon juice. Make a well in the middle of the dough and pour in the about two-thirds of the cream mixture. Using your hands, mix the flour and cream mixture until the batter comes together. It shouldn't be sticky; if too wet, add more flour; if too dry, add more liquid [you may not use all the liquid, which is fine]. Finally, add in raisins and give a quick mix with your hands.

Form discs of dough and spread them out across the baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes until the tops of the scones are light golden-brown. Let cool at 10-15 minutes before serving. Scones are best served warm, but can be kept airtight at room temperature for up to a day. Serve with butter, jam, honey, or clotted cream, as they are not very sweet.

I'd have to say, scones are the best way to start a day. Particularly when paired with amazing crepes, made perfectly by Noosh, and scrambled eggs with onions, tomatoes, and feta, courtesy of Tommy. I'm thinking this needs to become routine...

What can I say? My friends know how to eat.

Great minds and all that.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

3. arab peninsula: basbousa

Yeesh, I've been feeling like crap lately. Tired beyond belief, totally zapped of energy, headaches, utter lack of motivation, etc. etc. etc.

I think it's a case of the I-can't-believe-it's-already-been-three-weeks-of-term-my-God-what-have-I-learned.

[The answer being, much less than what one should know a third of the way into a semester of classes.]

This weekend was [ideally] going to be one of mental and physical rejuvenation [i.e. catching up on sleep], but unfortunately did not pan out that way [i.e. watching Torchwood all night has been cutting into my sleep time].

Nevertheless, today was relaxing in the sense that I did absolutely nothing productive, save visit the Farmer's Market, attempt to take a nap [read: end up reading cookbooks for about an hour and a half (shutup, I enjoy it)], and do a bit of baking and video-game playing with my darling housemate and my darling sous-baker.

So today, I bring you a continuation of my "Around the World in 50 Sweets", a visit to the Arabian Peninsula with this phenomenal cake, basbousa. This dish actually appears in variations all across the Eastern Mediterranean as well as the Peninsula, probably because it's so gosh-darn amazing. It's one of my all-time favorite foreign desserts, and I'm so thrilled to be able to share a rather authentic version of it with you all.

Stereotypical camel statue situated alongside an Arab dessert? OH YES.

Adapted from my khala

For the cake, you'll need:
  • 1 cup semolina flour [also called sooji]
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 cup dry milk powder
  • 1 cup dessicated coconut, unsweetened
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 pinch ground cardamom
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten

For the sugar syrup, you'll need:
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 drop rose water

Line and grease an 8x8-inch pan. Pour all cake ingredients in a bowl and mix with a wooden spoon until blended. Pour cake batter in the prepared pan. Let sit for an hour, and then bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes.

In a medium-sized saucepan, heat sugar and water to boiling. Whisk in rose water and blend. Remove pan from the heat and let the syrup cool for 5-10 minutes. Using a fork or toothpick, poke holes over the top of the baked cake. Pour the syrup over top of the cake. Let the cake cool completely before removing from the pan. Slice into diamonds and serve.

I had mom mail me this recipe after getting a hold of it from my aunt. She lived in the UAE for quite some time before moving to Canada a few years ago, and her cook's husband was a rather established chef at the time [I do believe he actually worked in a palace, if I recall correctly]. Consequently, she prepared some pretty amazing dishes for my family while she worked for them, and taught this one of basbousa to my aunt. I'm ecstatic to have it in my hands, now.

Basbousa can be made without coconut, and technically [I think], the traditional version is just semolina flour and sugar. Nevertheless, my favorite version is chock-full of delicious coconut, made absolutely irresistible with the sugar syrup. The end result is a sticky, dense cake, almost difficult to eat too much of, but even more difficult to make yourself stop. One bite is enough to transport you to sandy deserts, colorful bazaars with yells of haggling and bearded shop vendors, shisha and kebabs, scorching suns and cool evenings.

It is, in a sense, ethereal.

Tomorrow will be spent brunching with apartment-mates, attending orientation for a new part-time job, writing Spanish papers, and meeting old friends for Thai food.

I suppose this 'feeling like crap business' can't last forever.

Monday, September 5, 2011

2. india: gulab jamun

I've always been fascinated with India. It's an enormous country and Pakistan's neighbor, so it's a wonder I haven't been before [taking into consideration the political and religious context of the two countries, it's not really surprising, but from a purely geographical standpoint, somewhat so]. When one thinks of India, one typically thinks spices, the Taj Mahal, bright festivals and Bollywood, large families and sweltering heat, monsoons and mangoes, and a multitude of incredible food.

Having never been, I have the same idea in my mind. And I'm sure even when I am to visit, it'll be pretty accurate. But I also know there's more to a country so large than just what you'd glean from a superficial trip. Richness in people, history, culture, all unique throughout the vast expanse of the peninsula, makes for one rather diverse place. One that I don't think any outsider will ever really come to understand. One that I don't think many Indians themselves ever really come to understand.

Still, I do know that Indian food is my favorite type of cuisine in all the world. Of course, the amount of food from India that I haven't eaten is enormous, since so much Indian cuisine is itself regional, but I'd never, ever, pass up a good masala dosa or samosa or palak paneer or tandoori chicken.

But even more so than the meats and veggies, the mithai. Luckily for me, although I'll never find masala dosa in Karachi, India and Pakistan share a lot of the same dessert. Mango lassis, kulfi, jalebi, laddu, to name a few. Sugar syrups, sticky fingers, cold ice creams, the familiar tastes of pistachio, mango, almond, saffron, and rose water. These are the tastes I grew up with, visiting Pakistan in my youth with nothing but Heidi under my arm and a sweet tooth large enough to take down empires.

[You'd think that two countries with such impeccable taste in food would be able to set aside their differences over a some malai kofta, a towering plate of naan, a steaming bowl of chicken chettinadu, and cold glass of lassi. Nevertheless, I'm optimistic about the future.]

And yet, to this day, nothing quite beats gulab jamun.

I have literally never met a soul on earth who does not love gulab jamun. And if I have, the sole reason is that they've never tried it. But I mean, let's be real: you can't really go wrong with little balls of dough [carbohyadrates!], deep fried in hot oil [fats!], and left to soak in cardamom-infused sugar syrup [more carbohydrates!]. You just can't.

These gorgeous photos come from Matt, who had the incredible opportunity to spend 10 weeks in India this past summer. Safe to say, he's now more fluent in Hindi/Urdu than myself.

Mom and I have been working on this recipe for, literally, years now, and eventually, we've perfected it. Unfortunately for you all, though, it's not one that I'm going to be sharing - it's kind of like our little secret. You know, like that apple spice cake your grandmother learned from her grandmother and consequently taught your mother, and it's so absolutely amazing that when you make it for friends and they ask you for the recipe, you shake your head in mock-sadness and tell them it's not for sharing? Same situation here. So, my apologies, but this one's not for sharing!

I actually prepared these to take to Jesse's goodbye party this past weekend. She'll be heading off to Tunisia for the academic year, and is absolutely in love with these things, so obviously the natural course of action was to make her some as a little goodbye present. Luckily, she loved them, and so did everyone else, and so it was quite the success.

In retrospect, it was only natural that my second journey around the world would bring me to this beautiful country. One day, I hope to visit it myself. If not to experience the richness of its people, culture, and history, then at least for its mithai shops.

I think that's pretty good motivation in and of itself.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

[almost-vegan but totally ethical] raspberry-walnut chiffon cake with chocolate-avocado buttercream

It's startling how quickly something can become routine, and how quickly other things can be pushed to the back of your mind, like dust swept under the rug. I've been cleaning out my hard drive of old files and photos in an effort to organize my life a bit, and rummaging through albums from summers past and collections of pictures of desserts baked for old friends' birthdays, I'm somewhat surprised at how long ago some things seem, even though they really weren't that long ago at all.

Spain, for example. I can't even believe that less than three months ago, I'd be waking up on the eleventh floor of Maria's apartment, grabbing my backpack and heading out on the routine 3-mile walk to campus, strolling past unassuming bookshops and cafes along narrow Valencian streets. Feels like years. And yet, not quite so.

I'm quite a fan of decorating chocolate and raspberry desserts in this fashion. The motivation behind it is my utter lack of creativity. At least, as Noosh so graciously pointed out [in the manner only a best friend would without actually highlighting your creative deficiencies], "it looks like a cake one would find in a bohemian cafe."

This weekend marks the end of the second week of the semester, and yet it feels like it's been going on for ages. Like there was no summer. Papers, hundreds of pages of reading, mundane assignments, insomnia, having to wake up early, wanting to procrastinate with Netflix. It's like I've been doing this for years without pause. The familiarity is nice, of course, but also draining. Feeling like I've been doing this for years also means feeling like I never get quite enough sleep.

But being a third year now, I don't have to deal with the torture of having to familiarize myself with a new place, overwhelmed by enormous classes and distant professors, new hallmates and suitemates and RAs, missing the ease of having a car on hand.

Instead, I have the ability to drive down to a good friend's apartment at any hour I please, dressed up [for once] and an almost-vegan but totally ethical cake in hand for a relaxing and sophisticated dinner party.

Raspberry-Walnut Chiffon Cake with Chocolate Avocado Buttercream
Adapted from Rose's Heavenly Cakes, passion 4 eating, and my imagination.
Yields one three-layer, 8-inch cake

For the walnut chiffon cake, you'll need:
  • 1 1/4 cups walnuts
  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 1 tsp baking powder 
  • 1 cup sugar plus 2 tablespoons, divided
  • 5 egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
  • 8 egg yolks, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp vanilla
For the chocolate-avocado "buttercream", you'll need:
  • 3 ripe avocados 
  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/4 cup powdered sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 tbsp instant coffee
  • 1 cup raspberry preserves
  • 1/2 pint fresh raspberries, to garnish

To prepare the walnut-chiffon cake:
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and grease and flour three 8-inch square pans [alternatively, three 8-inch round pans or two 9-inch round pans will work]. In a food processor, pulse the walnuts and 2 tbsp of flour until they are the consistency of breadcrumbs. Add in the remaining flour, cornstarch, and baking powder, and pulse until fine. Set aside.

In a the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, beat egg whites on medium speed until frothy. Add in cream of tartar and increase speed to medium-high until soft peaks form. Gradually add in half of the sugar [1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon] until stiff peak forms. Gently spoon the meringue into a large bowl, being careful not to deflate them, and set aside. Clean the bowl and whisk and dry completely.

Now whisk the egg yolks and remaining sugar on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add in the vanilla and mix until incorporated. Sprinkle the flour mixture on top of the egg yolks, but don't mix. Using a spatula, gently fold 1/3 of the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture to lighten the batter [and consequently mixing the flour into the eggs]. Carefully fold in the remaining egg whites in two additions, being careful not to over-mix or deflate the whipped egg whites. The batter will be thick and dense. Separate the batter equally across the pans. If using three pans, bake for 20-25 minutes, until the top of the cakes are golden-brown. If using two pans, bake for 30-35 minutes. Let cakes cool completely. 

To prepare the chocolate-avocado "buttercream": 
Scoop the flesh out of the three avocados into the bowl of a food processor. Add in all ingredients and process until smooth and creamy. Add more sugar if it's not sweet enough to your liking. Keep buttercream refrigerated until using. Note that the frosting can be made a day ahead. 

To assemble the cake:
Place one cake layer on a serving plate. Spread a thin layer of the chocolate frosting over the top of the layer, as a sort of crumb-coating. Pour half of the raspberry preserves on top of the chocolate and spread it evenly. Gently place the second cake layer on top of the base, and repeat with another crumb-coating and the remaining raspberry preserves. Place the final layer on top of the cake and frost the top and sides with the remaining frosting. Garnish the top of the cake with the fresh raspberries. Keep cake refrigerated until serving.

I'd have to say, playing Taboo and discussing anthropological differences in pop-culture film dubs, in a room full of college students well-fed with butternut squash lentils, roasted Brussels sprouts, stewed beans, and ethical cake, is a rather excellent way to spend an evening.

Chelsea invited us over this evening, meeting new friends and reuniting with old ones, for a small little dinner party. Since she eats ethical now, we had a vegan dinner and I took it upon myself to offer to make dessert. I have to admit, the challenge of baking ethical was hugely intriguing.

The cake is a dense walnut chiffon, adapted from Rose's almond chiffon cake recipe in her gorgeous cookbook, made ethical with the use of eggs from happy chickens [courtesy of Whole Foods, of course, and borrowed from Chelsea for this dessert]. Being a chiffon cake, it lacks any sort of dairy and thus is completely vegan save for the eggs. 

The frosting is something I've been dying to try for quite a while now; chocolate-avocado "buttercream." Avocado is extremely useful in foods with consistencies like sauces and frostings, as the oil content acts very much like butter. Here, the cocoa powder does a rather good job of masking the avocado taste, and though on its own the frosting is pretty distinct [in neither a positive nor negative way, mind you], on top of a cake it's absolutely brilliant.

And paired with raspberries, it's almost sinful.

Admittedly, I was extremely nervous about this cake. I mean, if it turned out disastrous...a room full of hungry people would be there to tell me all about it. Luckily, it was a hit. And everyone who was unaware of its ethical nature was absolutely floored when I told them about the vegan frosting. Which, I suppose, is the beauty of any sort of substitute dessert: the ability to make them taste convincing. I definitely hope to experiment more with avocado in future.

The rest of the weekend will be spent successfully muggling Famer's Market-bought Ezekiel bread into Panera bread, reading philosophy with a caffeine IV. A trip out of town on Sunday is the only thing motivating me to grin and bear tomorrow's day of catch-up.

As for now, I'm running on about 5 hours of sleep and am in desperate need of some shut-eye. Isn't college just the best?