Thursday, March 5, 2015

Sayat Explores Food: Cardamom Quince Confit + Rosemary Clotted Cream

Posh restaurants have long-winded names for their dishes. The expectation is that their patrons are serious foodies who want the nitty-gritty on the food they are about to enjoy. The detailed descriptions just elevate their anticipation and pump up the excitement as they wait to taste what the chef has meticulously prepared.
Chefs are getting very creative with their creations. You can now see things like Mini Chocolate Mousse with Caramel Web and Almond Soil popping up on menus at hip eateries. I once ordered dessert specifically because I wanted to find out what almond soil was. A more impressive sweet found its way to my kitchen by way of the well-traveled Armenian chef from Sayat Explores Food.  Simply stated, the name of his site declares his true passion. He introduces long-forgotten Middle Eastern classics such as quick purslane stew and wildly innovative new ones such as grilled cheese with gruyere, smoked salmon, preserved lemon, chives, Osetra caviar and a jaw-dropping steamed napa cabbage in a saffron, almonds and chamomile broth, garnished with pistachios and flowers. Are you drooling yet?  An engineer-turned-chef from the esteemed Culinary Institute of America, Sayat talks about his adventure in chasing his dream...

Coco: What did you study @ Dartmouth? 
Sayat: After going to an Austrian school and subsequently to an American school in Istanbul, I came to Dartmouth to study molecular evolution on a full scholarship. When I was waltzing at the Austrian school, I will never forget my choreographer telling me at the end of the season ''you should probably stick with water polo.'' I have a tendency to enjoy everything that I do but I am also quick at recognizing --especially after my waltz teacher felt compelled to tell me before I sensed it myself-- when I feel uninspired and unmotivated. In such a state of mind, I switched to Economics and focused on Development Economics (i.e. child labor). I also majored in German and minored in Environmental Science with great passion for agriculture and plant physiology. 

Coco: How did you end up in the kitchen?
Sayat: Right after Dartmouth, I picked up a logistics job, which I loved. For a less known $30BB revenue / year New Hampshire company, I did everything from demand planning and analytics to transportation planning, from writing software to industrial engineering. I gained a lot of hard skills at this company where I stayed for four years. I loved it but I realized my hobby -- cooking -- was taking over my life. I spoke with a graduate of the Culinary, Quiqui Mussara in Harrisburg, PA, she owned the best restaurant in the area. I loved her food. I told her, I don't even know how to hold a knife but I'd love to learn in your kitchen, I think you're the best. She was hesitant about the proposal but ended up taking it to heart. I try to remember every moment in that kitchen, first time walking into it, picking herbs, sharpening my knives, etc. It was a very intense experience. Then it slowly took over my life and I decided to quit my day job after a couple months of 110 hour weeks. 

Coco: Do you teach at the CIA?
Sayat: I do not teach at the CIA though make an attempt at engaging my peers on an educational level, in that I pass on to them whatever I've recently picked up or am excited about, which I believe is very conducive to creating a culture of learning and building a strong and motivated community.  

Coco: What's the biggest reward of being a chef?
Sayat: I think being a cook or chef requires abandon. It is this detachment that focuses you in the moment. It's meditative. A moment as such can be something as simple as a fleeting smell, an intense flavor explosion, a vision coming to fruition, or getting an approving nod from a chef or a peer. 

Coco: Do you apply any of your engineering skills in the kitchen?
Sayat: The process-oriented thinking really helps with multi-tasking, and putting together an assembly line but it's not rocket science, if you care you can do it easily. It's been hard for me to stand back and not take a stronger leadership role as I'm prioritizing hard cooking skills (i.e. techniques, being a line cook, expediting) over management skills, which I have already dabbled in extensively. 

Coco: What dish do you ask Mom to make for you for your birthday?
Sayat: I love yogurt. And this is definitely one of my favorite things to eat.  
We simply call it ''gul boregi'' -- it's a borek rolled into a mollusk-like flower basically.

Coco: What defines your cooking style?
Sayat: Eastern Mediterranean flavors -- I'm dreaming of a convergence of Armenian, Greek, North African, Turkish, Persian and Jewish cooking in Istanbul.  

Coco: What would you not eat?
Sayat: I love food. There is nothing that I will not eat. When I eat I engage with all my senses. I think I want to eat food cooked by good people. That's what it's all about. There is always something missing when I cannot engage the dish fully because I don't feel very strongly about the people. 

Coco: Are you a sweet-tooth or more into savory flavours? 
Sayat: I can live without desserts but I choose not to.  

Coco: What is the most difficult dish you have made and was it worth the effort?
Sayat: Biryanis that I cooked in a Mumbai kitchen were probably the most fascinating and most complex things that I've ever learned to make. The flavors are so deep, so comforting, so nourishing that it is well worth the effort. We ground our own spices, made all the different gravies (cooking bases in Indian cooking), stewed the meats, toasted the rice, prepared the garnishes only to bring in all the components within a matter of two minutes for pick up. It really exemplifies what I love about Indian cooking or cuisines that use complex, multifaceted preparations to put together a dish that is greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, watermelon and good feta cheese often hits every flavor note that my palate craves.

Sayat reminded me how much I love quince. Native to the Caucasus and Iran, it is the knobby cousin to the apple that has made its way into the Mediterranean. Quince has a grainy texture much like a pear, but a fragrant perfume and flavour all its own. It is often picked before it ripens and holds up beautifully in jams or as a sautéed side dish. Its white flesh magically turns a red peachy colour as it slowly cooks. All too often overlooked, quince deserves more  respect on the plate and there is a beautiful cookbook dedicated entirely to this lovely winter fruit. My grandmother Nina used to love making quince preserve and I loved eating it, especially with freshly brewed black tea. Sayat has a more sophisticated idea with his Cardamom Quince Confit with Rosemary Clotted Cream. Confit is French for chutney, fruit stewed in simple syrup and warm spices.  Authentic clotted cream is an overnight process. Here's a good explanation. We're only going to add a sprig of rosemary in there.  But, because I cannot wait to taste this sweet concoction, you and I are going cheat and use a faster method.

Cardamom Quince Confit with Rosemary Clotted Cream
Note: The recipe is mostly in Sayat's own words so you get a sense of his casual confident approach to food.


Cardamom Quince Confit
2 cups water
2 cups sugar
4 quinces
1 whole clove
1 whole cardamom pod
1 whole star anise

Quick Clotted Cream
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup sour cream
1 Tb confectioner's sugar
1 sprig rosemary

4 sprigs rosemary + blossoms, if available
freshly grated lemon zest


Cardamom Quince Confit
So, we're going to peel, halve and core the quince. Keep the seeds and the peels -- lots of pectin there, we want as much of it as possible.  Soak the fruit with the seeds and peel overnight in simple syrup with one clove, a cardamom, and one star anise. If you don't have these spices, no big deal. Use a cinnamon stick.

The next day, simmer the fruit in the same liquid until cooked through. 
For a more ''sticky'' texture, you can go double simple syrup. 
Cook it in a pot with a lid, with the fruit half-way submerged in the liquid. 

As it evaporates feel free to add more water, take out the warming spices if the flavor gets too strong. 

Turn the fruits as necessary for even cooking. I like doing halves because the core provides a nestling point for the clotted cream. 

Quick Clotted Cream
Whip the heavy cream until stiff peaks form.
Mix the sour cream with sugar and gently fold into the whipped cream.
Immerse 1 sprig of rosemary into the cream, cover with plastic and chill at least 2 hours.

Drizzle a teaspoon of the quince syrup over a pretty plate.
Place a quince half, cut side up off-center.
Scoop a tablespoon of the chilled cream into the center.
Grate lemon zest over the top.
Place a rosemary sprig along the side and
sprinkle a few flowers over the plate.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Mushroom Pasta in Truffle Cream Sauce (Vegetarian)

For our anniversary this year, Shawn and I went to a Japanese kaiseki restaurant. Kai·se·ki  (kīsekē) is a type of  Japanese cuisine comprised of a series of small, elaborate dishes. As excited as I was to find out what this was all about, there was still a tiny image floating in my mind of my raiding the fridge as soon as we got home. That actually never happened. While the portions were dainty, our waitress got quite a workout between the kitchen and our table. Of all the artfully prepared dishes, the one that made the biggest impression on us both was a nod to Italy, an earthy pasta dish with black truffle shavings. While I would not even think about trying to recreate it at home, I just could not stop thinking about this spaghetti. So began the search for truffles which are akin to mushrooms, but grow underground, among the roots of certain trees. Traditionally, dogs and pigs are used to sniff out these hidden gems, but dogs are preferred to pigs who often eat the prize. Difficult to grow and find, truffles are a luxury ingredient easily dismissed if you intend to send your child to college. And, that, we do. But, I just could not get that dish out of my mind. So I set out to create my own version, working portobellos into the mix. The result of my little experiment was an elegantly simple comforting dish using few ingredients, but bursting with flavour. This one promises to make you look like a rockstar in the kitchen. A handful of simple ingredients take turns stealing the spotlight and get along beautifully together. Sauteed mushrooms, garlic, parmesan cheese and a simple cream sauce made with truffle butter (available at Whole Foods and other specialty gourmet shops). Hold on to your hat, Cowboy, because you are about to get a real shock. This is one of those recipes that magically whirls a few unassuming staples into something stellar. Meatless Monday just got a haute makeover.

Mushroom Pasta in Truffle Cream Sauce
Notes: For a lighter sauce, use milk instead of heavy cream. Also, I prefer black truffles, but the butter is available infused with white truffles. Try both to see which one you like better. For the pasta, I often reach for angelhair, but you can use any kind you like. Just adjust the cooking time according to the instructions on the package.

Serves 4

1 lb spaghetti or capellini
1 lb crimini or portobello mushrooms
2 Tb olive oil
2 Tb flour
3 oz black truffle butter
2 cups milk or heavy cream
1 clove garlic
salt + pepper
2 tsp fresh parsley

Drizzle a bit of olive oil into a pan set on low heat.
Wash and slice mushrooms.
Add to pan and sautée slowly, stirring occasionally.

Peel, crush and mince garlic. Set aside for at least 10 minutes.

In a small saucepan, toast flour, stir to avoid burning, ~2 minutes.
Add butter and stir until creamy. This is the roux.
Slowly stream the milk/cream into the center and stir to incorporate.
Add garlic and cook until thick enough to coat the back of the wooden spoon.
Remove from heat.

Fill a pot with water and add a tablespoon of salt.
Cover and set onto medium heat.
When the water reaches a rolling boil, add the pasta.
Cook ~5 minutes, al dente.
Drain and return to the pot.

Pour sauce over the pasta and gently stir to coat.
Divide among 4 bowls, top with mushrooms.
Garnish with fresh chopped parsley and serve with rustic bread.

Comforting and creamy, this earthy pasta dish comes together quickly. So it makes the perfect venue for a weeknight meal, especially Friday night when there is little energy for an elaborate menu, but lots of reason to celebrate the end of the week. Mushroom Pasta in Truffle Cream Sauce guarantees to earn smiles even from those carnivores in your life. It is easy to adjust to feed a few or a crowd and because it is vegetarian, Daphne, my piggy, will be most pleased.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Interview with Hank Shaw: Homemade Smoked Salmon

There is a new movement in the culinary world with young chefs putting the spotlight onto wild game and organ meats in creative, sexy dishes. What was once poo-poo'd as disgusting and tossed into cheap dog food is now highly regarded as haute cuisine. Hank Shaw is no stranger to cooking beak to feet,  not wasting anything. That is the difference between hunting for food and hunting for sport. But, hunting is only a small part of Hank's natural way of life. He also plants, forages and fishes for the ingredients he uses in the dishes he creates and his readers anxiously await.   
I sometimes find myself loitering around his blog Honest Food. His writing style is captivating, combining efficient use of language from his days in journalism and a frank, relaxed demeanor that transforms words on a page into coffee and conversation with an old friend. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. Among many other achievements, Hank's work earned him the reputable James Beard Foundation Best Food Blog Award in 2010. He routinely reads all comments posted onto his site and replies to his readers' questions. Even if your kitchen is more for decoration than cooking, Hank's writing promises to entertain and inspire. But, I'm warning you - this man is dangerous. He's got city-folk like me thinking about making acorn flour, something you can't just order online. (I checked already.)  A man who wears so many hats has much to tell. It was easy to cook up questions for him and I am thrilled he answered.

Coco: Have you always been a foodie?
Hank: I have always been interested in good food. When I was a kid, my brothers and sisters had already left the house so it was just my mom, my stepdad and myself. We ended up going to a lot of nice restaurants when I was young, and I learned to appreciate fine food at a young age. Later, in graduate school, I worked as a cook in a few restaurants in Wisconsin and I have been a student of food and cooking ever since.

Coco: You weren't raised a hunter. What prompted your career change?
Hank: I picked up hunting to complete a circle. I'd been a forager and angler since I was a boy, but that was as far as it went. I picked up hunting when I was 32 in Minnesota. My best friend there was the outdoor writer for the St Paul Pioneer Press, the same newspaper I was working for at the time, and he introduced me to it. For me, hunting completed a set of skills. I could get food from the water and from plants and mushrooms, but not animals. Hunting changed that. 

Coco: Do you find taxidermy creepy?
Hank: No. Taxidermy is a physical reminder of a hunter's great adventures. Every time he or she looks at a mount, it sparks a flood of memories. Maybe that was the deer you got with your grandfather, right before he died. Maybe it was the time your sister fell in the river and almost died. Or that great fish you caught on your honeymoon. Mounts are talismans of past hunts. 

Coco: Is it fair to say your intention is to teach people to fend for themselves?
Hank: Not really. I am no survivalist, although I have skills in that area. My intention is to help people reconnect with Nature in the way we have done since before we were even fully human. It's not to live totally off the land, although that's a laudable goal, it's to take some piece of what I do -- fishing, foraging, hunting -- and make it an intimate part of who you are, how you define yourself. It could be foraging for blueberries, fishing for salmon, hunting deer, whatever. 

Coco: To what extent do you make ingredients from scratch? Walnut oil, vinegars, beer, wine, etc?
Hank: I make my own vinegar and wine from scratch. I have made sea salt. I know how to do a lot of those things, but as far as routine, it's basically acorn flour, various fruit and beer vinegars, wines and dried herbs. I also render out all the fat from the wild ducks we hunt and use that as a cooking fat all year. 

Coco: I know you avoid anything  in a wrapper/package/box, but do you ever cheat and gobble up a candy bar? 
Hank: No. I don't like candy. 

Coco: Making your own butter is a hot trend now. Is this something you'd do?
Hank: Not really. I have duck fat. 

Coco: While on the road, you eat out like the rest of us. What is your guilty indulgence?
Hank: I like In-and-Out Burger. Chipotle is my favorite fast food. 

Coco: Someone once challenged me to make chocolate from scratch. Would you do it?
Hank: No. I don't like chocolate. 

Coco: Describe the perfect vacation.
Hank: Hard to say. But it would include foraging, fishing, hunting and really great restaurant food. I've always wanted to go to Scotland, where my ancestors are from. 

Coco: What do squirrels taste like? I've always wanted to know, but can't bring myself to eating one....
Hank: Sure. They are a little like rabbit, but denser, a little darker and sweeter. It's a very, very good meat. Closest thing would be the "oyster" on the leg of an older chicken. 

We are big smoked salmon fans. Smoke my hiking boots and I am liable to take a big bite out of them, too. Weekend breakfasts of fresh lacy crepes, cream cheese, capers, dill, lemon and smoked fish are popular at the homestead. Shawn smokes the salmon for us the night before using shavings from his carpentry projects and his propane grill. He piles the sawdust into a disposable aluminum roasting pan, which sits over the low flames. A metal baking rack placed over the wood chips holds the fish which then cooks slowly, absorbing the smoldering smoke. The next morning, I make French crêpes, all the while, Daisy waits patiently, fighting the urge to drool. This is something you are going to want to try. Hank walks you through all the details to get you ready.

Homemade Smoked Salmon
Note: Hank's original recipe calls for 5 pounds of fish, which would be perfect for a smoked fish cocktail party. (GREAT IDEA.)  Here, I approximated the measurements for 1 pound of fish which is plenty for a small family.

1 lb wild-caught salmon
3/4 cup water
5 Tb salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 Tb maple syrup
4 cups wood chips (apple, cherry, maple, hickory - not mesquite)
6 cups water
disposable aluminum roasting pan
metal baking rack

Make brine bath with water, salt, brown sugar and maple syrup.
Soak salmon in the brine overnight, no more than 48 hours, otherwise the fish will be too salty.

Remove the fish from the bath and pat dry with a paper towel. 
Chill it uncovered in the refrigerator to allow the excess moisture to evaporate, overnight.

Collect the wood chips (or sawdust, if you have some) into the roasting pan.
Light the wood and wait for the flames to die down.

Set the fish onto a metal baking rack, skin-side down.
Position the rack over the center of the grill, cover and wait 3-4 hours.

Make crepes from scratch. Serve along with cream cheese, capers, dill and lemon,  if you can resist picking at it by hand.

Every morning, Milou darts out to do his business and he usually takes his time coming back inside, mostly because he gets distracted. Little lizards play hide-and-seek with him in the piles of dried leaves under the old sycamore tree and someone walking along the back alley warrants some vicious barking. This morning, I fumbled out the back patio with my coffee and found Milou sitting quietly under the fruit trees, looking up at the sky. There, hanging head-down from the neighbour's palm tree was a little wide-eyed brown squirrel, tail fluffing over his head, taunting our pup with chirpy obscenities. Milou just sat there, nearly motionless except for the occasion ear twitch, probably thinking, "Wait til I catch you in my yard, Squirrel." He is a hunter, after all. This little banter reminded me of Hank. He's an inspiring man. His acorn shortbread cookies keep winking at me and now I am convinced even I can make acorn flour from scratch. The unfortunate truth is that I have the attention span of a gnat. The process here starts with gathering acorns, shelling them, leaching the tannins out in a solution, drying the nuts, grinding them into a flour and finally baking the cookies. While I may have some of the terminology to impress you, I have neither the stamina nor the skill to make it happen. But, I am excited about doing something different. That counts for a lot.  Hank Shaw is fascinating and before you know it, you will find it difficult to tear yourself away from his blog. Who knows what he will have you doing next?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Homemade Cola Syrup, Cookie Bars + 4 Stevia Giveaways

Recent scientific data indicates that sugar may contribute to depression. All I know is that it makes me very happy, but lately my skirts have been hiking up higher and higher (I say as I crack pumpkin seeds open faster than a South American parrot). 
Bikini season is not too far and my goal is to avoid scaring small children at the beach. Average Joe consumes 3 pounds of sugar per week, according to Forbes. This made me think about my own vices, baked goods and soda pop. Luckily, there is stevia, a plant whose green leaves contain a naturally zero-calorie sweetener. This stuff is four times sweeter than sugar and safe for baking, which means I can get bikini-fit by eating cake and sipping pop. My best homemade cola syrup recipe got a healthy makeover with this all-natural sugar substitute and, because it tasted fabulous, I plastered the recipe here so you can see for yourself. Just add some bubbly, like sparkling mineral water, club soda or seltzer for a guilt-free soda pop with an old fashioned taste. Then, because we are wild and crazy gals, we are going to kick things into high-gear and use that same sugarfree cola syrup to make Cola Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars. Everything you need is probably waiting for you in your pantry and fridge, except for the stevia. 

Since you know a gal (me) who knows a guy, it's a snap getting everything you need to tame that sweet-tooth. NuNaturals offer stevia in so many forms, including simple syrup, chocolate syrup, even chocolate mint syrup. They also produce a good inventory of natural sugar-free extracts, such as vanilla, orange, lemon and cherry vanilla. Shop online with discount code BLG0615 to get 15% off your entire order through June 30,2015. Just think of all the yummy things you can do with these delicious ingredients, like skinny cocktails that taste so good, no one will ever suspect they're sugar-free. NuNaturals is offering  FOUR lucky readers each a gift box including:
-1 cherry vanilla stevia liquid
-50 pkt box of NuStevia white stevia powder packets
-1 bottle cocoa stevia syrup
-1 bottle simple stevia syrup
Total retail value of $54-, plus a free bonus product.
Enter to win below!
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Cola Syrup
Makes 1 cup
1 lemon
1 lime
2 oranges
3 large (5-inch) cinnamon sticks, broken into small pieces
1 tsp cocoa powder
1 star anise
2 tsp coriander seed
1/4 tsp finely grated nutmeg
5 drops NuNaturals Vanilla Stevia (or 1 vanilla bean)
1 cup NuStevia Simple Syrup

Zest and juice the fruit. 
Put everything but the stevia simple syrup and vanilla stevia into a large saucepan.
Heat over very low heat for about 30 minutes.

Remove from the heat and add the stevia simple syrup and vanilla stevia.

Stir gently, strain and allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.
Store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks.

Soda Pop
Yield: 1 serving


3-5 Tb cola syrup
1 cup sparkling mineral water or club soda


Pour syrup into a tall glass. 
Add the bubbly and stir just until blended. 
Add ice and serve.

Cola Chip Cookie Bars
Makes about 15 1" square bars


1 1/2 sticks butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 free-range Grade A egg
1/4 cup cola syrup
2 cups flour + 1 Tb
pinch salt
1 cup dark chocolate chips
2 tsp baking powder


Line an 8" x 8" square brownie pan with aluminum foil.
Butter the foil and set aside.
Sift flour, salt, baking powder and set aside.
Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs. 
Slowly incorporate the cola syrup.

Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of flour over the chocolate chips and give them a good toss to coat.

Set aside. 

Reduce the speed of your mixer and add the flour mixture, a bit at a time.

Do not overwork the flour otherwise your batter will toughen.

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Add the chocolate chips and mix by hand.

Drop the dough into the prepared brownie pan, smooth the top and
bake 25-30 minutes.

Remove from oven and wait 10 minutes.

Lift the foil out of the pan. Cut cookie bars into 1" squares.
Arrange onto a pretty plate and serve.

*This is not a paid article. NuNaturals sent samples for me to try and is offering 4 gift packages to give away to my readers. All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Camo Cupcakes with Camo Swirl Frosting

Every year, I try to think up something special for my hunny's birthday. This is really not all that easy and before I know it, I have got my knickers in a knot, stressing out about what to do. There have been coconut macaroon strawberry shortcakes, chocolate pavlovas, vanilla sponge cakes, pavlovas sandwiched between sponge cakes. In case you are interested, the how-to is here. While that last one was a show-stopper both in looks and taste, it was high-time for something completely different. Because every day is National Pick-on-Coco Day, Shawn often runs out of ideas for teasing me. Turning into a redneck, though, never gets old.  In fact, he got digital camo seat covers for his truck just to mess with me. That is two counts of redneck right there - camo + truck. While many would imagine this would terrify me, I actually find it amusing, because I secretly admire rednecks. Maybe I am more redneck than he is - Shawn refuses to grow a Duck-Dynasty beard. I checked. While neither military nor hunter, I LOVE army-green camouflage as a fashion statement, as home décor, even dessert, specifically Camouflage Cupcakes with Camouflage Swirl Frosting. Martha Stewart would not approve, but I gave up impressing her long ago. The only person I needed to impress was Shawn and these little cuties were a sure-fire guarantee to win me a smile, maybe even a kiss, on his birthday. 

I did two test runs before making the final batch for Shawn's birthday. The cupcakes came out cute and 
delicious every time. For the green batter, food colouring is easy to find, but I used pandan extract. Pandan is a green leafy plant native to tropical Asian countries. It has a beautifully sweet, nutty taste close to pistachio and a vibrant green colour. The frosting was another story. First, buttercream turned out to be too heavy and rich for the light, spongy cupcakes. Next, whipped cream was light and airy, but melted away. Cream cheese frosting won the contest both in form and flavour. The frosting does get pretty messy. I suggest you stop by your local craft store and invest in some disposable pastry bags, a few stainless steel icing tips and couplers. Couplers are white plastic rings that secure the tip against the pastry bag. They cost next to nothing and make you boss of the frosting. 

Camo Cupcakes with Camo Swirl Frosting
Makes 2 dozen


cupcake liners
cupcake pan (s)
1 box white cake mix
1 box chocolate cake mix
1 tsp pandan extract or 2 drops green food colouring
2 cups water
6 eggs 
1 cup vegetable oil

4 piping bags
1 large star frosting tip
2 8oz bricks cream cheese, @ room temp
1 stick butter, @ room temp
2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted
pinch of salt
3 Tb real cocoa powder
1 tsp pandan extract or 1 drop green food colouring
1 vanilla bean or 2 tsp extract
2 tsp instant coffee (optional)

Prepare chocolate and white cake batter per box instructions:
3 eggs + 1 cup water + 1/2 cup vegetable oil for each box of cake mix.

Divide the cake batter between 4 bowls like so:
#1 = White batter
#2 = White batter + 1 tsp pandan extract (or 2 drops green food coloring) + 1 Tb chocolate batter
#3 = white batter + 4 Tb chocolate batter
#4 = chocolate batter

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Drop paper cupcake liners into each well of a cupcake pan.
Drop spoonfuls of each batter into each well.
Bake 5- 7 minutes.

Remove from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely, about 20 minutes.

While the cupcakes are baking, make the frosting.
Mix cream cheese, butter, powdered sugar and salt until smooth.
Divide into 3 bowls and flavour as follows:
#1 = white + vanilla 
#2 = white + cocoa powder
#3 = white + pandan or green food colouring

Mix each until the colour is uniform. 
Place 3 piping bags into tall drinking glasses and fold the tops around the rim of the glasses.

Spoon the 3 frostings, each into its own bag.
Snip the tip of another piping bag and place a star frosting tip. Secure the tip with a coupler.
Snip the tip of each of the 3 piping bags filled with frosting and carefully place 
all 3 into the bag with the tip. 

Pipe a bit of frosting onto a plate until all 3 colours appear.
Decorate cupcakes by squeezing a bit of frosting over the top center of the cupcake
and moving in a circle toward the outermost edge.
Sprinkle a bit of instant coffee on top, if desired. Cover the cupcakes and chill in the fridge until ready to serve.

These camo cupcakes do take a bit of time to make, but the process is so much fun, definitely one to include the kids. Every batch is Kid-tested, kid-approved, because you know they won't lie about cupcakes.
Our niece, nephew and Daisy were so excited when they saw the cupcakes and Shawn was sporting a big birthday smile. These little sweeties are going to make a comeback to celebrate President's Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Veteran's Day. But first, there will be some serious work in the test kitchen on a PINK version for my little sweetheart's birthday which is coming up very soon. Hold onto your hats, because that one is going to be a screamer, too!

Monday, January 26, 2015

Crêpes: Breakfast with a French Accent

On weeknights when I get home from the office, I try to sneak quietly into the house and wait until Daisy realizes I am there. Then she comes charging toward me with a big smile on her face, arms open, screaming like a crazed Beatles fan."Mamaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Daddy! Mama's home!" This is why I am more than willing to sacrifice sleep and make pancakes for her in the morning.

It all begins with butter. You can never have too much butter. I learned this from Dad. Mom will ask him to do some grocery shopping and he always returns with at least 6 or 7 half-pounders, the good stuff. Then, he neatly arranges them in the big drawer of the fridge, like he's packing delicate gold bricks into the big safe at the Federal Reserve. "Butter is very important," he preaches. "It's Vilik Mama's legacy," he explains.

Vilik Mama was my dad's mom. A sweet gentle lady with wavy gray hair and sparkly blue eyes, she used to cook everything with a petite dab of butter. For years, I used to save money and buy the cheap pounders. What? Butter is butter, I thought. It all comes from cows, doesn't it? Then came European butter. Maybe their cows are different. Maybe the farmers massage their legs or give them yummy fruit smoothies. Maybe the air and water are better overseas. Whatever the reason, the butter these cows give us tastes good and it makes anything, even ordinary eggs, taste good. It's funny how with time you become more and more like your parents. I have taken to butter-banking just like Dad. French, American, Irish, Danish, Belgian. Come to my house - We've got them all. And the best thing to do with butter is to make French crêpes. My mentor? Dad, of course.

I'll cook up any and all kinds of excuses for keeping a large inventory of butter. My husband thinks I've lost my marbles, but you never know who's going to pop by the house for breakfast and the best thing to make at the last minute are French crêpes. They only sound complicated. Surprisingly simple, made from things you always have on hand: Milk, eggs, flour and butter.  Every culture has their own version of these beautifully thin pancakes, but the French ones are my favourite. They are sure to make a big impression and deem yours the best house on the block.

Dreamy crêpes are very thin, buttery and lacy. Do not let them intimidate you - you can do this. The secret is a hot pan. The butter should sizzle and bubble right away.  The batter can be prepared the night before. This will give the ingredients a chance to get to know each other better and give you more time in the morning. You can use a blender, if you want, but it is best to just mix everything gently by hand. Do not worry about the lumps - they will work themselves out eventually. I like to use two 8-inch nonstick pans so I get breakfast to the table faster. Also, mixing the batter by hand in a pitcher minimizes the mess with easy pouring and makes delicate pancakes.Omit the vanilla for savory fillings. Use two 8" or one 12" pan to save time.

French Crêpes
Feeds 6 Very Special Guests
(About a dozen 12-inch or 20 8-inch pancakes)

Tips: Preheat the pan and wait for the dab of butter to sizzle before adding the batter. Do not overheat nonstick pans as they release fumes toxic to
pet birds.

What to Get
3 grade A, free-range eggs
3 cups organic milk
splash of vanilla
2 cups flour
pinch salt
1 stick butter

What to Do
Place pan over medium heat.
Beat eggs, add milk, vanilla and salt.
Slowly incorporate flour.
Do not mix the batter too much.
Add a dab of butter to the pan and swirl
it around to coat the pan nicely.
Stream batter into the center of the pan to cover about 1/2 of the pan.
Swirl batter around in a circle to cover the bottom of the pan.
Set the pan back onto the flame and allow it to sit until the edges start to brown.
Use a silicon or wooden spatula to flip the pancake.
Cook another minute.
Fold the crêpe in half, then in half again, to form a triangle.
Transfer to a container with a lid.
Continue cooking until all of the batter is used up.
Serve with smoked salmon, cream cheese, dill, capers and lemon
or Nutella and fresh blueberries. Bon appétit!

Practice! Practice! Practice! In the meantime, remember that even the ugly ones are delicious, whether sweet or savory. Daisy loves smoked salmon. I will pick up frozen sockeye on my way home Friday night and Shawn will smoke it right in the barbecue. Then, in the morning, we have a Swedish-style feast with cream cheese, lemon, capers and fresh dill. They are equally delicious with a sweet filling like Nutella and blueberries or Russian style with sour cream and cherry jam. 

My furry little sous chef lives up to his French name and faithfully snuggles up to my feet while I cook up breakfast. Even with two pans going, it seems like I am at the stove for a bit while. So, Milou knows I can get a little lonely. I love having his fuzzy face around. More importantly, he knows he is going to get one all to himself as soon as I am done with the batch.

Crêpes are well worth the effort any time of day, perfect for breakfast, lunch, dinner or dessert. They freeze rather well, too. Dad patiently cuts parchment paper to size and places a sheet between each pancake before he freezes the batch. That way they do not stick to each other.
You get out of food what you put into it. Go cheap and you will taste it with the first bite. Splurge a bit and get quality ingredients. Life is short and you are worth it. Crêpes are a staple at our house. With a little patience and practice, anyone can speak French.

My crêpes are available in a convenient mix, straight from my kitchen using nothing more than flour, dehydrated eggs and cream, vanilla and salt. Get yours now at Vanilla Mustache. Mix makes 10 8-inch crepes. Just add water and cook!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Lebanese Bread Pudding (Aysh Al Saraya): Interview with Joumana Accad + GIVEAWAY!

Every year, we visit one of my cousin's on Christmas Day. Every year, one of my aunts brings her specialty, this big casserole dish of a white cream sandwiched between crushed pistachios and some sort of pastry drenched in rose-scented syrup.  My pleads for the recipe are always met with a promise for a tray of my own, which means I have to wait another 364 days before tasting this heavenly treat again. Fortunately, I have friends in high places, like  Joumana Accad. The accomplished Lebanese-American cookbook author and food blogger behind Taste of Beirut is on a mission is to revive traditional recipes inspired by her grandmother, including the one I was desperately seeking. It is easy to lose track of time hopping from page to page on her site and cookbook of the same name, filled with beautiful imagery of  the delectable cuisine and landscape of her homeland. After making her recipe for the fragrant dessert, I found myself wondering how Joumana arrived at her current post. The epitome of Middle Eastern hospitality, she agreed to grant me an interview. So, grab a cup of tea and find out what makes her such an inspiring soul with a vibrant personality. 

Coco: What inspired you to start blogging?
Joumana: I was sorely disappointed by the reality of working in bakeries and restaurant kitchens; all that matters is the bottom line (making $) and I had one of my bosses call me "an artist" and I don't think he meant it as a compliment. True, I liked to use the best ingredients and he liked to sell his clientele frozen crap. I felt that blogging was the perfect medium for self-expression, tackling the field I was so passionate about, cooking and baking and showcasing my Lebanese heritage. 

Coco: Your videos remind me a lot of my happy childhood, running around fruit trees at my uncle's villa in the Persian countryside. Do you shoot on location in Beirut?
Joumana: I shoot the videos on location in Deir el-Qamar, in the Chouf Mountains; this is where my grandmother's family was from and where she and I used to spend summers. 

Coco: Is food your occupation or you do have a boring desk job?
Joumana: It is a full-time occupation; I have done food styling gigs and menu consultation as well as demos and presentations to corporate clients. 

Coco: Your cookbook is gorgeous. How long did it take you to create it?
Joumana: My cookbook took 2 1/2 years of solid work, because I insisted on taking the photographs myself (doing the prop styling etc) instead of having the publisher resort to stock photos.

Coco: Arabic food is a labour of love well worth the effort. How many hours do you spend
in the kitchen daily, making dinner?
Joumana: It varies. In Lebanon, luckily, I get to work with seasoned cooks; I learned a lot from them and cooking with others is more enjoyable. 

Coco: There is a common misconception in the West that the Middle East is a desolate desert. 
What is the most important message you want to convey?
Joumana: What interests me beyond food and recipes is culture; I try to weave it through the cookbook, blog posts, and social media. 

Coco:: Describe Christmas @ your home: Crazy & chaotic or quiet & relaxing?
Joumana: N/A Christmas is at my cousin's and she is the consummate hostess, always inviting her closest 50 or so friends around a sumptuous feast. 

Coco: Your recipes are authentically traditional. Do you ever sway and incorporate something trendy 
like chia, spelt or quinoa?
Joumana: Authentic recipes are what I missed most living as an immigrant far from Lebanon and I strive to make authentic recipes more manageable for the harried cook. However, it is hard not to be creative in this field, so I allow myself some original creations. I am not interested in trendy foods. 

Coco: Do you have your own garden? What do find most difficult to grow?
Joumana: Yes, the vegetable and orchard is located in Lebanon, in the Chouf Mountains and this is where I shoot the videos. Because the garden is at a relatively high altitude, some things do not grow well there such as citrus or tropical fruits such as mangoes. What does grow extremely well are eggplants, tomatoes, onions, Swiss Chard, grapes, green beans, apples, peaches, cherries,  and mulukhiyeh (jute leaves)! 

Coco: Are you a shoe or handbag girl? 
Joumana: I am a minimalist. If I could wear a uniform every day, I would. 

Coco: What's your guilty indulgence?
Joumana: Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
Coco: I see now why I like you.

Coco: What do you refuse to eat?
Joumana: After seeing animals getting slaughtered, I am finding it harder and harder to eat meat. I still do though.  I do not care for raw meat at all. I refuse to eat cold cuts, unless I make them myself (it is not that hard). I refuse to eat very salty, greasy foods or supermarket cakes with frosting from a box.

No supermarket cakes and boxed frosting for this girl. She is an avid advocate for all-natural ingredients, cooking the way our grandmothers did. Everyone's mom adds her own special little touch to a recipe. And in the West, young immigrants and second-generationers incorporate new-fangled ingredients like spelt flour, chia and quinoa into the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but somewhere along the way, the original flavours are lost. Joumana dusts off the books and returns old world recipes to their original glory. As such, her culinary library offers the how-to's for Lebanese favourites, including my beloved Aysh al Saraya. As sexy as its name, here is a luscious treat fit for a sultan, but surprisingly ready in a snap. Aysh means bread or life itselfSaraya is Arabic for royal palace. As such, this dessert is aptly named in reference to a life of luxury.

Something of a Lebanese version of bread pudding or tiramisu, Aysh al Saraya is a treat made of  luscious cream  on top of syrup-soaked bread, wrapped in the scent of rose petals and orange blossoms. Unlike most Middle Eastern recipes, this one is quick and easy, which means it won't be long before you can actually enjoy it. So, put the kettle on and let's get started.

Aysh al Saraya
Note: A few drops of green food colouring will make the pistachio pop, but I prefer to keep everything natural. Joumana would agree.

Source: Taste of Beirut
Serves 6

1 round loaf white bread or 20  slices sandwich bread, crusts cut off (use the bread crumbs if you are making individual servings, it is easier to manage)
9 ounces sugar (1 1/4 cups)
4 ounces water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
1 tablespoon of rose water
2 cups of ashta (recipe follows) OR ricotta cheese (whole-milk or light version)
1 cup or more of pistachios


Preparing the bread:

If you are using a whole bread, you will cut off the crust on all sides and place the bread in a pan that fits its size. The thickness of the bread should be about one inch (2 1/2 cm) If you are using sandwich bread, use a food processor (or your hands) to obtain small pieces or medium-sized crumbs and place in the dish of your choice.

Place the sugar, water and fresh lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and let it boil for about 15 minutes stirring,  until the caramel takes on a pretty golden-brown color.

Right before the caramel takes on that color, boil around one cup of water in a teakettle nearby. When the sugar is the color you want, place the saucepan in the sink, and while holding your face safely away from the pan, start adding very slowly the boiling water. Be very careful to avoid getting burned.

If using a whole bread, place the bread in the pan and cook it in the caramel until the caramel is absorbed. If using breadcrumbs, place them over the caramel and let the breadcrumbs absorb the caramel and cool, cooking them if necessary over low-medium heat, or in the oven till absorbed.

Homemade clotted cream or ashta:


2 cups half-and-half or a mixture of milk and whipping cream
2 slices of sandwich bread
2 heaping  tablespoons of  cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons orange blossom water and 2 teaspoons rose water


Cut off the crusts of the bread and cut in small dice or pieces.
Place the half-and-half and the bread on medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
After about 10 minutes, the bread will have dissolved into crumbs and started melding into the cream. Continue stirring until it is steaming. At this point, add the cornstarch and water mixture and stirring constantly let the mixture thicken for one or two minutes. Add the flavored waters and stir about 30 seconds more.
Cool the ashta.
Fast and easy method using ricotta cheese :

Add to the ricotta cheese the orange blossom water and the rose water, beating slightly with a fork. Use as you would the clotted cream. Use 2 cups of ricotta cheese.

Final Assembly
Place the caramel-soaked bread (or crumbs) in the dish or ramequins that you selected, tapping gently to even out the top surface.
Cover the bread with a generous layer of cream or ricotta cheese. Place in the fridge for thirty minutes or so.
Cover the top creamy layer with finely chopped pistachios. Do not substitute any other nuts, if you want to stick to the traditional dessert.

Aysh al Saraya is a delightful dessert that is a surprisingly easy to make. The syrup can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for up to a week. The rest of the ingredients are basic staples that you always have on hand. So you can make this one on a whim, which is often how I like my sweets. The only real waiting time is for chilling, which can be fast-forwarded by popping the tray into the freezer for 15-20 minutes. 

Every shiny page of Joumana's cookbook features tempting photos of beautiful plates and offers matching recipes that are easy even for a novice cook to follow. Enter below to win your own copy and learn to create classic Middle Eastern dishes that are sure to make a lasting impression. This contest is open to my readers in the US, UK and Canada. 

Congrats to Kim N. from the UK for winning a copy of Joumana's delicious cookbook! Also, a big thanks to all of you who participated. Please stay tuned for a very sweet giveaway coming soon.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Food is the foundation of any culture. It sets the scene for gatherings where old friendships are renewed and 
new ones are born. Recipes carried from generation to generation remind young ones of their family's heritage. This is especially true for Middle Eastern families like mine that have been displaced due to political turmoil. The best dishes express admiration and evoke memories of happy days. We cook with love for those we love. This is how I was raised and stands true in my family to this day. Whenever I miss my grandmothers, I put on my favourite apron and head for the kitchen to make one of their recipes. Then, I feel like they are standing right there next to me.