Ugly but Tasty

(I know, I know, two posts in two days?!  The excitement!)

Yesterday, January 27, was National Chocolate Cake Day.  I wasn’t feeling all that well so couldn’t celebrate this holiday appropriately.  But today?  Today we made a cake.

I used Ina Garten‘s cake and frosting recipe.  It was all going well.

My helper was fascinated.

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We measured and mixed and preheated the ovens.  We poured and leveled the batter into pans.

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This is where perhaps I went wrong.  I decided that rather than two cakes (which is what Ina did), I wanted to do three.  Keep that in mind, because I think that’s why it ended up… ugly.

While they baked, we did some clean-up.

It is important to lick all spoons and bowls shirtless.  Easier clean up later.

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The cakes cooled and we made the frosting.

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We talked about what to put in between the layers and agreed on the chocolate spread I’d just bought the day before, in a fit of homesick for Israel-ness.

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(When we lived there, my friend Heather and I couldn’t believe that parents gave this to the kids for breakfast, spread on toast.  It’s really just chocolate frosting.)

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Looks okay, right?  Yeah, well the next two cakes were really hard to take out of the pan so that they started crumbling at the edges as I took them out and frosted them.

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So, in the end, we had an ugly, crumbling, lopsided cake…..

That was really, really delicious.

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I mean dark, chocolaty, sweet, dense but moist.  My husband cut into it and said, “Your cakes are so much better than box cakes. I can tell just looking at it.”  My kids ate it and declared, through chocolate-stained teeth, “Mumma, you make the best cake.”

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Go forth and celebrate National Chocolate Cake Day.  Even if you’re a few days late.  It’s the kind of holiday I can absolutely get behind.

 

 

South African Sweet

When I lived in Israel, I met people from all over the world. Some of my favorites were from South Africa. Something about the accent in general and then the specific people I met. Through the wonders of Facebook, I have managed to stay in touch with many of them and I hope that someday I can actually go to South Africa to visit. I think it would be fun to travel around to see each of them and the country. Until then, I satisfy myself by looking at their photos on facebook- of the places, the people and the food. Oh, the food. Recently something called “milktart” came up on my newsfeed.

Do you know what this is? I did not. But I was intrigued. I did a little google research and found a number of recipes- some more complicated than others. I improvised with one fairly simple one and what I ended up with was a sweet dessert unlike anything else I’ve ever had. I made it on a Thursday evening. We cut into it on Friday and it was gone by Saturday night. You must make this. It is so good. Creamy, smooth, sweet and a touch savory/spicy from the cinnamon on top.

If this is what the food is like, I should book my ticket now.

South African Milktart
(as improvised based on a number of recipes by me, with apologies to the entire country of South Africa)
Ingredients
1 can of condensed milk (sweetened)
2 cans (use the empty can of condensed milk) milk (I used 2% but I’m sure whole would taste even better)
1 can (use the empty can of condensed milk) hot water
2 Tablespoons of butter
4 eggs
6 Tablespoons corn starch
pinch of salt
1 package of Biscoff cookies (you could probably use vanilla wafers or oreos or graham crackers too)
2-4 Tablespoons melted butter

Cinnamon for sprinkling over top

Directions

Put the cookies into a food processor or smush them up with a hammer.  Add two tablespoons of the melted butter and mix.  Put some into your hand and squeeze.  If it stays together, press it into a pie or cake pan.  If it doesn’t, add a bit more butter. Once all of the cookie crumb/butter mixture is pressed into the pan, put the pan into the fridge while you do the rest.
In a large saucepan over medium heat, combine the condensed milk, regular milk, water and butter. Add the eggs and cornstarch, whisk all together. I was a bit concerned about the eggs scrambling but they didn’t. Cook over medium to high heat until it thickens. Which it will do.  Be sure to whisk well and to scrape up the bottom and sides so that there are no lumps.
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Pour it into the prepared crust.  Sprinkle the cinnamon over the top and then put in the fridge to set.  We left ours overnight but I did sneak a small taste before then- it was still slightly warm and it was delicious that way.

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Seriously, it was so good.  The kids loved it, the husband loved it, I loved it.  I have the ingredients to make another sitting in my pantry but…  I’m afraid if I do, I’ll hide it in my basement fridge and eat the whole thing myself.  Yum.

On an other note, I have about three posts started and in various stages of completion.  Work is slowing down now so perhaps I’ll eventually get to them….

Middle Eastern Night

One of my favorite nights of the summer comes when my friend C. and I get together to cook.  We did it three years ago to celebrate Julia Child’s 100 birthday.  We did it last year and focused on Italian food and Lidia Bastianich .  This year, because I was given a great cookbook and she was given a beautiful tagine, we focused on Middle Eastern food.

The menu was:  stuffed grape leaves, a number of Israeli salads (roasted eggplant dip, Israeli salad, cabbage salad, corn salad, taboulegh, hummus), marinated grilled lamb with tzatziki, a chicken tagine, couscous with a lemon vinegrette, ptitim (pearl or Israeli couscous) and pita.  For dessert we had baklava and a Cake of Kohevet (Chocolate Nut Cake).  My HipstaPrint 987039433_39C. made the tagine and I’m hoping to get her over here to blog it out for you.  Meanwhile, I’ll toss you a few photos of it:

My HipstaPrint 987039433_92 My HipstaPrint 987039433_60She also made an amazing lamb chop.  Amazing.  She plated them as well, in a very professional manner.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_62 My HipstaPrint 987039433_83 My HipstaPrint 987039433_8 My HipstaPrint 987039433_71The salads all came from either my memory of working in Israel or from the Ballabosta cookbook I was given in April.  I feel a bit uncomfortable providing those here since I feel like it’s somehow a copyright violation but I encourage you to check out the cookbook.  It’s really fantastic.  And I’ll provide you with some photos of the salads.

First up is the eggplant salad that I’ve blogged about before as well as the traditional Israeli salad.

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My HipstaPrint 987039433_23My HipstaPrint 987039433_58From the cookbook I made a traditional corn salad:

My HipstaPrint 987039433_47 My HipstaPrint 987039433_68 My HipstaPrint 987039433_56 My HipstaPrint 987039433_77I also made traditional taboulegh.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_64The last recipe from the cookbook was for a cabbage salad.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_87 My HipstaPrint 987039433_12 My HipstaPrint 987039433_33Plus the couscous (small and large- I apparently forgot to photograph the large):

My HipstaPrint 987039433_50Oh, and I threw together humus, because why not?

My HipstaPrint 987039433_73The second couple that joined us brought homemade stuffed grape leaves and baklava.  So good, both of them.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_19 My HipstaPrint 987039433_81What I can give you the recipe for, however, is the amazing cake I made.  It is a cake of Kohevet and it was, once again, delicious.  Whenever I make one of her cakes, there is always a moment in which I doubt her.  I push through and she has never failed me.

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A reminder that when I work from her recipes, this is what I have:

My HipstaPrint 987039433_59So, this cake is in three stages.  The base dough, the filling and the topping.  Ingredients are organized accordingly.

Kohevet’s Chocolate Cake With Nuts

For the dough:

1 1/3 cup of flour

1/3 cup of sugar

100 grams (a touch more than 7 tablespoons) of salted butter (I used unsalted but added a pinch of salt to the dough)

1 egg yolk

Special equipment:  springform cake pan

For the filling:

200 grams (about 7 ounces) bittersweet chocolate

100 grams (a bit more than 7 tablespoons) butter (I used unsalted)

1/4 cup cold water

1 packet of plain gelatin (you won’t use all of it, maybe a teaspoon or so)

4 eggs separated

2 tablespoons brandy (I only used one)

2 teaspoons of instant coffee powder

1 cup chopped nuts (I used walnuts, pecans and almonds)

2 tablespoons sugar

For topping:

2 cups heavy/whipping cream

2 tablespoons of confectioners sugar

Directions:

Make the dough.  Preheat your oven to 180 Celsius (356 Fahrenheit).  In a medium bowl, mix together the flour sugar, butter and egg yolk.  It helps if the butter is soft and cut into small pieces.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_26I mixed in the butter with a fork, a pastry cutter and then my hands.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_3I then added the egg yolk.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_24It will be a dough that sticks together if you press it- kind of like a shortbread.  Grease your springform pan.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_57Press 2/3 of the dough into the pan to form the bottom.  If the dough isn’t stiff enough, add another spoon or two of flour and then press it into the sides of the pan to form the crust.  I didn’t need to so you’ll have to eyeball it yourself.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_67Bake for 15-20 minutes or until it is a golden brown.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_44Set aside to cool.  Meanwhile, in a double boiler, heat the chocolate and butter.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_34While it is melting, combine the gelatin and the cold water in a small bowl.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_76When the chocolate and butter are melted, smooth and combined,

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add the water/gelatin and cook for about two minutes.  Then take it off the heat.

In another bowl, mix the egg yolks, brandy and instant coffee powder.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_1Once it is combined, add a few spoonfuls of the warm chocolate mixture and whisk.  You’re bringing the eggs up to temperature so that you don’t scramble them.  Once it’s up to temperature, add the rest of the chocolate and whisk until combined.

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Add the nuts and stir.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_9In (yet another) bowl, whip the egg whites and sugar, until they reach stiff peaks.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_18Fold the egg whites into the chocolate nut mixture by hand, so that it becomes mousse-like.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_28Take the ring of the springform pan off the base.  If you can, remove the base cake from the base of the pan.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_70Place it on the cake plate you plan to use for serving.  Pour the chocolate mixture into the base.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_91Cover and put it in the fridge.  Let it set for an hour or two.  About an hour before you want to serve it, whip the cream with the sugar until it is a lovely whipped cream consistency.  Spread it over the cake. My HipstaPrint 987039433_85

 

My HipstaPrint 987039433_10If you want to be fancy, you can grate some chocolate over the top of the cake just before you serve it.

My HipstaPrint 987039433_52This cake was so good.  It was just sweet enough with a hit of salt from the dough at the bottom.  One bite and I was back in Kohevet’s kitchen in Israel, at her table, on a Saturday afternoon, eating cake and laughing.

Leftovers, Passover Style (or, how to build a recipe)

One of the things I most admire about professional chefs is their ability to know what flavors will work well together.  Like on Chopped, for example.  A recent episode featured ground lamb, Stilton cheese, eggplant and birch syrup.  Now, if you gave me those, I’d have an idea that lamb and eggplant might go together since they’re both featured in middle eastern cuisine.  And I know that Stilton is like blue cheese so it’s stinky and powerful.  But birch syrup?  No idea about that one. Put them all together in one cohesive plate?  No way!

But if you’re a professional and/or experienced chef, then you know that the sweetness of the birch syrup (which is apparently like maple but “with more pine and wintergreen notes”, according to Aaron Sanchez) will pair nicely with the savory cheese.  You would also know that ground lamb will make a good meatball, particularly if you cook it in something like red wine in order to keep it moist.  You’d know that eggplant needs to be seasoned just so and that to put it all together you definitely need a starch.

I can not claim to be a professional chef but over the years, I have been able to learn what goes together well, partly from eating at restaurants, partly from reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows and partly from experimenting.  I have a sense of how to build a sauce, how to add flavor, how to fix mistakes (too much salt?  add a potato to absorb it) and how to re-purpose leftovers.  Cooked chicken goes well into soup, casseroles, tossed with pasta or with salad.  Lemon, garlic and rosemary are good flavors for chicken.  Apple cider and apple cider vinegar go well with pork.  Bacon makes everything better.

As a result, when I needed to use up leftovers from the big Passover meal, I was able to combine them in a way that made sense, was delicious and was pretty healthy, as well.  I’ll try to talk you through my thought process so you can see how I, a home cook, made it happen.

I had lots of peppers left over since I had intended to make a salad but didn’t.  (Hippo, I am so sorry but this post will have peppers as a main ingredient (and some zucchini as well) and I know how you feel about those.  You could always use cabbage leaves or Portobellos or another vessel.)

I also had leftover roasted balsamic veggies, cooked chicken and matzo. When I lived in Israel, we’d often make stuffed peppers with rice and vegetables.  I’ve also made and have eaten stuffed cabbage as well so I knew that I could chop the chicken and veggies and use those as part of the stuffing.  Crumbled matzo could be substituted for the starch element (usually rice).  I would just need some sort of binder like cheese or egg, to help hold the mixture together.  I peeked into the fridge and, lo and behold, I had some leftover ricotta that needed to be used. I also found some parmesan cheese that could be melted on top.

Thus, a dish was born.

I give you stuffed peppers, passover style.

Stuffed Peppers

Bell peppers (one or two for each person, depends on how hungry you are)

Some sort of protein, cooked: chicken, pork, beef

Some sort of vegetable mixture: mine was a mix of roasted onions, summer squash, tomatoes, garlic and zucchini.

Some sort of starch: rice or couscous would be good; for passover I used matzo

Some sort of binder: creamy cheese like ricotta or an egg or two

Salt, Pepper, other spices to taste, maybe a little cheese for the top

Directions:

Wash your peppers and cut off the tops.  Scrape out the seeds and ribs.

I sliced just a little bit off the bottom so that they’d stand up but you must be careful not to slice so much that you make a hole- your filling will leak out if you do.

Place them into a steamer basket and steam them over boiling water for a few minutes, just until they start to soften a little.  Mine took maybe 5-8 minutes.  They’ll be going into the oven later so don’t worry about actually cooking them.

Meanwhile, chop your vegetables and your protein into small (minced even!) pieces.

Veggies roasted but not yet chopped

In a bowl, mix the veggies, protein and starch (in this case, chopped chicken, crumbled matzo and chopped roasted veggies).

Add your binder- eggs and/or cheese- and mix well. I used ricotta and an egg.

Season with salt and pepper and whatever else you like (go italian with oregano and basil or try something more middle eastern like cumin and turmeric).  Place your peppers in a baking pan and set your oven to 375.

Stuff each pepper with the mixture, topping with cheese if you so desire (I almost always desire cheese).

Bake at 375 until heated through and the cheese on top is melted and lovely.  About 15 minutes for me.

 

Day of Atonement

No food today, at least not for many of the Jews in the world.  Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It’s the day of the year, from sundown to sundown, that you are asked to reflect on your behaviors over the previous year.  You’re asked to forgive those who have hurt, offended or otherwise harmed you.  You ask for forgiveness from those that you have hurt, offended or otherwise harmed.  This is done by fasting and praying.  You also remember those you loved who are now gone and you mourn for them.  At sundown you eat a light meal, generally dairy (if you’re keeping kosher) and go to bed, ready to face the new year, clean, forgiven and in a mindset to do better.  In true Jewish fashion, the day of sadness and seriousness is paired with joy and celebration.  What can I say?  We’re a complex people.

If you’re a child, elderly, sick, pregnant or otherwise health-compromised, you are not required to fast.  This is my third year running without fasting (pregnant/breastfeeding/pregnant) but I’ve lit the memorial candle, I’ve thought about apologies and I’ve tried to breathe in, breathe out and let go of the hurts I’ve been carrying around with me all year.

And I am thinking and remembering those I love who are gone.  Particularly my Grandmother, the inspiration for my cooking and for this blog.

My Grandmother

My family in Israel

 

My grandparents

 

If you are fasting today, may you have an easy fast.

I wish you all peace.

 

5772

L’Shana Tovah!  Happy new year! No, it’s not suddenly January; it’s the Jewish New Year- year 5772- Rosh Hashanah.  One of the best things about it is that I get to talk with my cousin K. in Israel (of cake fame) each year.  We talk more than once a year, of course, but we always talk on Rosh Hashanah and Passover.  We compare the dinners we made and how many people we had.  It’s a nice way of staying connected.

We had our big dinner last night and so many good friends and family were in attendance.  I cooked for three days leading up to it and managed to get everything on the tables at the right time.  With the exception of the apple crisp for dessert.  I put it in the oven to heat up, put the other desserts on the table and promptly forgot about it.  As a result, we now have a large pan of apple crisp that is, while not burned, deeply browned.  It’s actually delicious but I’m sorry that I didn’t get to share it.

Unlike years past, my house was not clean.  This year, due to the full-time job and toddler, we had to choose between yummy food and a clean house.  The food won, of course.  Also unlike years (and meals) past, I was unable to photograph as I went- something about juggling the food and a toddler did not lend itself to photography.  I’ll give you a run down of the menu, though, and a recipe I tried for last night (I know the adage, don’t make anything for the first time when company is coming- more on that later).

We started with Squash Soup (which I make every year).  This year I roasted the squash in the oven before I added it to the soup- if you’re reading the recipe, put the butter and onions in the pan and when the onions have softened, add the roasted squash and continue as directed.

For the main meal we had steamed green beans, roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, roasted sweet potatoes, rice and an autumn vegetable curry.

Find potato guidelines here.  Someday I’ll post the roast chicken recipe with photos.  I’m surprised I haven’t already.  I use a modified version of Ina Garten’s recipe, found here.

The autumn vegetable curry is a recipe by Ellie Kriegar.  It came in the mail with my annual happy new year letter from Jewish Woman International.  I’m on their list because every mother’s day, I purchase bouquets through them in honor of my mother and mother-in-law.  My mother and MIL don’t actually get the flowers, instead they get a card telling them that flowers were given in their honor to mothers living in domestic violence shelters.  It’s a great program.  Check it out here.

Anyway, I made this curry recipe and have to say it was great.  I had doubts as I was making it because I made it over two days and when I tasted it at the end of day 1, it was bitter and awful.  All I could think was, “This is why you don’t try something new when company is coming!” I consulted with cooking friends to see how to even it out and we decided that the acid from the lime would help.  And I threw in a little sweet as well.   By day two, when it made it to the table, the flavors had mellowed  and it was smooth and comforting.  Pretty healthy as well.  I have the feeling this might make it into our winter dinner rotation. It takes a lot of initial prep- lots of vegetable chopping- but then it pretty much makes itself.  From what I can tell, it also gets better over a day or two so it does seem like the perfect fall/winter weeknight meal.

Ellie Krieger’s Autumn Vegetable Curry

Ingredients

1 large onion, chopped

4 cloves garlic, peeled

1 1/2 length fresh ginger, peeled and cut into chunks

1 1/2 tablespoons yellow curry powder

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)

2 tablespoons canola oil

2 tablespoons tomato paste

2 cups vegetable broth (I used chicken)

1 cup light coconut milk (I used regular as it was what I had)

1 cinnamon stick

3/4 teaspoon salt (or more to taste)

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper (or more to taste)

1/2 head of cauliflower, broken into 1 1/2 inch florets (about 3 cups)

1 pound sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes

2 large carrots, peeled and cut into 1 inch rounds

2 tomatoes, cored and chopped

Grated zest of 1 lime

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 15 oz can of chickpeas, drained and rinsed

5 cups fresh baby spinach leaves (5 oz)

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves (I did not use this.  Why would you ever use cilantro?  Blech.)

Directions:

Put your onion, garlic, ginger, curry powder and cayenne into the food processor and process until it’s all smooth.  Add the oil and process again until you end up with a sort of smooth, paste-like consistency.  Put this into a large pot on medium heat and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often.  Add the tomato paste and cook for another 5 minutes, stirring often, until the mixture darkens.  Add the broth, coconut milk, cinnamon stick, salt and pepper and let it boil.  Then reduce the heat and let it simmer for 10 minutes.  Add the cauliflower, sweet potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.  Season with salt and pepper and let it come back to a boil.  Reduce the heat to medium low and let it all simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 25 minutes.  Remove the cinnamon stick.

*this is the point where I stopped and put it in the fridge overnight.  I also added a little bit of honey (maybe 1/8-1/4 of a cup) and a few teaspoons of sugar (maybe 3?) in a desperate attempt to do something about the bitter.  I’m not sure if that really made a difference.  I kept it overnight because I wasn’t serving until the next day.  If you’re making to eat on the same day, just keep going.

Stir in the lime zest and juice, the chickpeas and the spinach and cook until the spinach has wilted, about five minutes.  Check for seasoning again and you’re done.  It’s good over rice.  If you must use the cilantro leaves, sprinkle them as a garnish before serving.  But don’t expect me to eat it.

Pickle Me This

When I was in Israel, fresh vegetables were abundant.  The kibbutz had an enormous kitchen, with a huge walk in refrigerator and freezer.  And when I say walk-in, I mean that my studio apartment in DC was smaller than this fridge.  If you had the right clothing, you could comfortably live in it for days on end (y’know, assuming you left to use the bathroom in the dining hall).  In this fridge was a vast assortment of vegetables- tomatoes, cucumbers, avocados (the kibbutz had an avocado…grove?  farm?  field?  Not sure what the correct term is, but they had a large number of avocado trees), onions, potatoes you get the idea.

They were for the use of the kitchen to prepare the meals for the kibbutz.  What never ceased to amaze us non-kibbutniks was how the kibbutz members would come in, plastic bags in hand, and just take whatever they needed for their own kitchens.  They’d just breeze in, any time of day, and fill their bags.  To be fair, when I was there, the kibbutz began an internal audit which lasted quite some time and resulted in a number of changes- among them the cease and desist order for this practice.  Naturally, as volunteers, we didn’t get paid much and so we followed suit.  What resulted were a number of breakfasts of tomato, onion and garlic sautéed down to an almost spread-like consistency, served on toast (the bread was also for the taking).  Sometimes we’d add eggs (which, like everything else, were kept in the walk-in), if we were feeling extravagant.

Anyway, my cousin, Kohevet (of the cake fame) would make use of the kibbutz walk-in to supplement her family meals at home.  Her meals were legendary- she taught me how to make the most delicious vegetable stew ever and her rice was always perfect- I have tried, tried and tried to make my rice like hers and just can’t.  I say it’s the difference between U.S. and Israeli tap water but inside I know it’s because she’s just a better cook!  Her tuna salad- such a simple dish- is yet another I’ve tried to emulate and have been unsuccessful in my efforts.  One of the things she puts in her tuna is pickles.  But not just any pickles, as I found out one afternoon while hanging out in her kitchen.

She made the pickles.  Made them.  From cucumbers.  Now, for some of you, this is not a revelation.  For me, who grew up with a grandmother who cooked but didn’t can or preserve, this was a new frontier.  You could create pickles? In a jar on your counter?  With just some salt, spices and water?  Eureka! I watched carefully and when I came home to the states tried it myself.

I failed.  Kohevet’s pickles were crunchy, salty and just the right mix of salty and sour.  Mine were limp, bland and plain old gross.  I gave up on the idea of making my own pickles- who wants to get involved in all that jar lid sanitizing and water boiling anyway.

Until my friend K. gave me a bunch of pickling cucumbers from her garden.  Then it just seemed wrong to let them remain unpickled.  I mean, this was their sole purpose in life- to become pickles.  How could I deny them this dream?  I had heard rumors of something called refrigerator pickles, which did not involve jar sanitizing and which sounded like they might be similar to Kohevet’s pickles.  Off to the internet I went to find a recipe.

And, oh let me tell you just how easy these were to make.  Collect some jars, slice some cucumbers and boil some syrup.  Add it all together, refrigerate overnight and there you have it- crunchy, salty-sweet-sour pickles.  So good.  Alas, nothing like Kohevet’s but my friend K. recently sent me a dill pickle recipe that sounds like it could be the one.  I’ll try it next summer and report back.  Meanwhile, make these.  They’re really good.

Sweet Refrigerator Pickles

Ingredients

7 cups unpeeled cucumbers or young zucchini, sliced thin

1 large onion, sliced thin

A green or red bell pepper, sliced thin (optional- I didn’t use it)

1/8 cup of salt

1 cup white vinegar

2 cups white sugar

1 teaspoon celery seed

Directions:

Wash your cucumbers.

I asked K. the difference between cucumbers for pickling and for eating- she says the ones for pickles have less water and are more bumpy.

Then slice them thinly.  I used my cuisnart with this attachment:

Peel and slice your onion (again, cuisnart) and your pepper, if using. All should be sliced pretty thinly.

Place the sliced cucumber and onion in a large bowl or pan.  Sprinkle the salt over and then cover with ice water.

Let this sit for 2 hours and then drain.

Put the pickles into jars.  I used old sauce jars- I didn’t want to buy jars just for this.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, combine the vinegar, sugar and celery seed.  Don’t stand too close, as the vinegar is extremely pungent right now and will totally clear our your sinuses.  Bring this to a boil.

Pour over the pickles in the jars and then put on the lids.  Place in the fridge and let them cool.  I let mine sit overnight before I tried them.  My husband ate one and happily exclaimed, “These are just like my dad used to make!” as he served himself more.

Ramadan

Dome of the Rock and The Western Wall, Old City, Jerusalem

It is Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and the month in which practicing Muslims fast during daylight hours in order to learn about and remember patience, spirituality, humility and submissiveness to God.  On my way in to work this afternoon, I was listening to NPR and heard a story about a mosque in the town next to mine.  The members all eat together in the evening to break the fast, a meal called Iftar.  They spoke about the sense of community that this builds and I was reminded (again) how food and the traditions around it can bring us all together.  I must also point out that most religions have a holiday or other component which requires fasting.  For Jews it’s Yom Kippur, for Christians it’s often around Lent.

It’s fitting since one of my students asked me last week about my life in Israel- what it was like, what I thought of the conflict in that part of the world, what I thought about my religion- it’s all been in my head since then.  The short answer is that I think a lot of things about all of that.  Mostly, I think it is hard to understand the conflict in a human way if you’ve never been to the Middle East and have never talked with the people who live there.  When you know the people and you spend time in the area, it takes on a whole new meaning and it’s clear that no side is right.  So it makes me happier to think about the things that the sides have in common- love of family, country, and good food. In fact, the food across the Middle East is both similar and unique to each country and culture.  Many of the same spices can be found in the open air Arab markets as in the kolbos on the kibbutzim, they just get used slightly differently.  There’s a definite flavor to Middle Eastern food that makes it Middle Eastern- to me it tastes like sun, heat, dark spices and fresh vegetables, whether it’s Israeli, Jordanian or Persian.

In listening to the story on NPR, they played a bit of the Imam’s call to prayer and I was instantly transported from rainy, cloudy route 9 East to the dark, balmy evening on the kibbutz.  There are Islamic villages on either side of the kibbutz and several times a day we’d hear the call.  The first time I heard it was our first morning there.  Because it was so early, it was almost eerie.  No one was awake and the sound was crystal clear.  I didn’t know what it was and for the life of me all I could think was that someone was wandering around our flat, singing under the open windows.  In time we got used to it and didn’t really hear it anymore.  But each time I go back, it’s the sound that makes it feel most like home, that first morning when it wakes me up.  It always makes me smile. Click here for an example of the call– it’s not Israel but it’s the same feeling.

So, where’s the recipe already?  Sadly, I don’t have one.  But I do want to share with you a beautiful book that has many different recipes.  In fact, the Hippo and I are plotting a weekend wherein we meet at my house, have my mother watch the baby and we create several of these recipes.  Aside from the mouth-watering descriptions of food, this  is a gorgeous book and when I read it, I instantly felt homesick for the Middle East.  Is it possible to be homesick for a place that isn’t technically your home?  In any case, I can’t recommend this book enough- read it, salivate, laugh, cry and be transported to another world.

Ramadan mobarak!

The Cakes of Kohevet

I’ve written about my family in Israel- Myrim, Amatzia, Sivan– but haven’t mentioned the person who was the reason I moved there, Kohevet.  It’s high time I told you her stories.

Kohevet was the only girl in her family of three children.  She idolizes her brothers, Amatzia and Gavri.  If you ask her, she’ll tell you that Gavri was sweet, much sweeter than she could ever be and that Amatzia is so smart, much smarter than she will ever be (neither are true- she’s plenty smart and sweet) and she adored her father, Myrim.  Kohevet, like most of my Israeli family, is humble and would shy away from singing her own praises so I’ll have to do it here for her.  She is smart, beautiful, kind, loving, and an amazing cook.  She has a knack for knowing exactly what you need when you need it- food, a hug, a kind word, whatever.  She is gentle and patient and the closest person to my grandmother I’ve been able to find anywhere.

Kohevet is the mother to three beautiful, smart, strong women and grandmother to a number of boys and girls (I think she’s up to 7 grandchildren now).  She is a cosmetologist by trade and I can’t think of a better profession for her.  Her words and deeds make people feel beautiful on the inside and her clever hands make them feel beautiful on the outside.  She is someone who can bring you peace just by her mere presence.  I moved to Israel after college to be near her- I moved to her kibbutz (and it is hers, she was sent there at 18 for her army service, met her husband and never left)- and considered living there permanently just to stay with her.  And eat her cakes.

You see, the cakes of Kohevet are something special.  She makes at least ten different kinds and each one is more delicious than the next.  Her cakes are famous- anyone who has been lucky enough to eat one remembers it, even years later.  I would have dinner with her on Friday nights and sometimes I’d be nice enough to bring along one or two of the other volunteers.  Once they ate her food and ate her cakes, they would speak of it with reverence afterwards, sometimes weeks afterwards.

I left Israel with many, many recipes but none for her cakes.  Instead, my cousin E., who stayed a bit longer than I did, sat with her and wrote down all the recipes she could give her.  E. brought them back and handed them over and I am eternally grateful.

E. wrote them all out in her neat handwriting and I’ve kept them with me over the last decade (it was that long ago.  how time flies!) but have never attempted any.  I’ve been a bit intimidated.  A few days ago, I decided the time had come.  I flipped through and decided to try one cake that seemed simple and didn’t have any specialty ingredients (often her cakes call for a type of cheese we don’t have here- I can sometimes find it in one of the kosher groceries around me that import foods from Israel)- the Number 8 Cake.
It was like magic.  I followed her directions (making some conversions from metric and making some guesses as her directions tend towards, “two spoons of sugar”) and it came out as light, airy and tasty as I remembered.  That seals the deal- I’m trying them all. I’ll post them here as I do, as I wouldn’t want you to miss out.

If I ever open a bakery, I’ll name it The Cakes of Kohevet and have a photo of her in the window.  I think it would be an instant success!Number 8 Cake

Ingredients:

4 eggs

4 Tablespoons white sugar

3 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa

1 Tablespoon white all purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3 Tablespoons Cognac

2 Tablespoons water

1 package instant vanilla pudding

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 cup milk

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees celsius.  Or 356 degrees farenheit.  Or 350 if your oven isn’t that precise.  Grease a 8 or 9 inch round cake pan.  I used Pam spray.  Set aside.

Separate your eggs, whites in one bowl, yolks in another.  I do this by letting the egg white slip through the fingers of one hand while holding on to the yolk.  Messy but effective. 

Place the whites in the bowl of an electric mixer with the whip attachment.  Or in a bowl and pull out your hand mixer.  I actually used the hand mixer for this but it would have taken less time with the big mixer.  Add the sugar.

Whip them together until stiff peaks form.  It will start foamy, this is ok.  Keep going.

Once you can make peaks with the mixer or a spoon- pick up some of the mixture and pull- if it forms a peak, you’re all set.

See? Peaky.

Measure the cocoa, flour and baking soda into a small bowl and whisk.

Add the egg yolks to the eggs whites/sugar and fold in gently with a spatula. Basically, you’re sort of making a line in the middle with your spatula and then pulling one half over the other.  You want to be gentle because you just spent all that time beating air into the egg whites and you don’t want to lose it all.

Keep gently folding until it’s all incorporated.

Add the cocoa mixture and, again, fold gently. 

Do this until it’s all mixed together and you can’t see any of the white.  You’ll inevitably lose some of the air but that’s ok.  Just be gentle and it will all work, I promise.

Pour into the cake pan.  Try to smooth it out as best you can.

Bake for 15 minutes or until it starts to pull away from the sides and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out dry.

Let it cool and then remove it to a plate with a slight indent or lip.  You’re going to pour something on the cake and you don’t want it to spill over the sides of the plate.  Using a toothpick, poke a few holes in the top of the cake here and there.

In a small glass or measuring cup, mix cognac and water. I didn’t have cognac so I used Godiva chocolate liquor.  I have to say, in the end, I would probably skip this step.  Or maybe try something like kaluha or maybe just plain old chocolate syrup.  I’m not a huge fan of alcohol in cakes, I always find it a bit bitter for my tastes.

Pour as evenly as possible over the cake.  As the cake is basically a sponge cake, it will suck up the liquid.  Let it cool further while you make the topping.  What?  You thought you were done? Not if it’s a cake of Kohevet!

In the bowl of an electric mixer with the whisk attachment or in a bowl with a hand mixer, combine the pudding mix, cream and milk.  Beat the heck out of it. Once again, it will start out sort of foamy. 

And if you keep going, you’ll be rewarded with a thick, creamy substance.

See? Soft Peaks. They sort of fall over whereas the ones with the egg whites stood up- that's the difference between soft peak stage and stiff peak stage.

Spoon all of this on top of the cooled cake.

Use a knife or icing spatula to spread it evenly around the top of the cake.  Put into the fridge to let it all cool and firm up. 

I dare you not to eat the entire thing in one sitting.  Go ahead.  Try to resist.

The best thing?  If you can resist eating it all at once, it’s even better a few days later- the cream has time to really set and the flavor in the cake develops.

*UPDATE*  Oh, you guys, you’ll never believe it!  I was flipping through the little blue book, trying to decide which cake to try when the heat breaks and realized: I MISSED A PAGE.  This cake is supposed to have a chocolate glaze on top!  Another layer!  Can you even imagine???!  I’ll make it again someday and report back.  I can only guess:  decadence!!

Kitchen Basics: White Sauce (aka Bechamel)

I realized this afternoon, as I was whipping up a quick cheese sauce for pasta that I make “white sauce” all the time.  It’s the basis for so many of the things I make that I feel like it’s something I should pass on to others.  Plus, I first learned to make it in Israel so that covers the “say more about Israel” clamor I’ve been getting.  (You know, from all four of my fans…love you guys!!)

When I lived in Israel I lived on a kibbutz.  It was a small kibbutz, about 70 families.  There were about 15-20 volunteers and factory workers at any given time.  We worked all over the kibbutz- landscaping, cleaning the dinning room, cooking in the kitchen, running machines in the factory.  We worked six days a week- really, more like five and a half since Fridays we were able to knock off a bit early.  The volunteers all lived in the same row of flats and the factory workers were a few rows away.*

Since it was a small kibbutz there wasn’t much to do on our days off. Sometimes we’d travel into Tel Aviv or down to Jerusalem for the night.  Often we’d stay on the kibbutz and drink at the pub- which was actually a converted bomb shelter- or walk over to the “bush pub” which was a bar a bit further away.  Saturday mornings were the best- we’d all sleep late and then gather in one of our small flats to make breakfast on our hot plates.  We’d take fresh vegetables from the kibbutz kitchen (this was how most of the kibbutzniks did their shopping- just wandered through the walk-in with plastic bags in hand.  It’s really no wonder they had to revamp their practices a few years after I left!) and eat them with fresh bread and cheese outside on the grass in front of our flats.

The kibbutz (or at least a tiny piece of it)

 

Sometimes we’d make dinners.  That was always a bit harder and we’d have to get creative.  Sometimes we’d take the Friday chicken from the dinning room and supplement it with vegetables.  One night, and I remember it clearly, despite all the Shabbat wine I’d had, one of the Australian volunteers made what she called “white sauce” with pasta.  It was delicious and I watched intently and then demanded that she tell me how she made it.  She described it to me and I memorized it.  It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized what I was making was technically a Bechamel Sauce.

Bechamel is, according to epicurious.com, a basic French white sauce which is the base of many other sauces and was named after its inventor, Louis XIV’s steward Louis de Bechamel. I have found this to be true and have used it in numerous applications over the years.  So, to me it is an invaluable Kitchen Basic.  Plus, it  always reminds me of S., the sassy Australian volunteer (who, in a strange twist of fate, met her now husband (who is from South Africa) on the kibbutz and they currently live a few towns away from me! So she had to come from Australia to Israel to meet her South African husband and then to move to the U.S. Funny how life works, huh?)

Bechamel Sauce aka White Sauce

Ingredients

3 Tablespoons butter

3 Tablespoons flour

1 cup milk

nutmeg (a true Bechamel uses a bit of nutmeg, I don’t always use it)

Additional items:  cheese, dry mustard, onions, garlic, other flavorings

Directions:

In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat.  If using, add the onions and garlic, letting them soften but not crisp up or burn.

Sprinkle the flour around in the pan and use a whisk to combine it with the butter. 

Keep whisking until all the butter is absorbed and you have  kind of paste.
Let it cook over medium heat until it’s a nice golden color- about 1-2 minutes.  It will be sort of nutty smelling which is good.  (This mixture of flour and fat is technically a roux.  It can be used as a thickening agent for a number of dishes.)

Add a bit of the milk and whisk in order to make it smooth with no lumps. It will thicken up very quickly. Add the rest of the milk and whisk again.  Cook over medium heat for a few minutes but keep an eye on it and whisk it often since it will continue to thicken and you don’t want it to scorch on the bottom. 

Season it with salt, pepper and nutmeg.  A few sprinkles of all three- nothing too strong.  If you’re using it to make a cheese sauce, stir in the grated cheese a bit at a time (I have a visual in my mind of S. standing at her hot plate, patiently tearing pieces of cheese and dropping them into the sauce while she stirred it.).   In this case, I added cheddar cheese to make a cheese sauce.  Serve over pasta or meat or whatever you like.  The basic Bechamel sauce is what’s used as the topping to moussaka which is a dish I love but almost never make since it’s a time-consuming one.  Of course as I write this, I’m thinking it’s probably no more time-consuming than lasagna so maybe I’ll give it a shot one of these cold weekends.  Stay tuned!

*In scouring the web for links I came across a website made by a volunteer whose time on the kibbutz overlapped with mine. He’s made a bit of a website with photos and such so if you’re interested, click here.