Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Campfire Cake

Technically, summer is almost over, but the heat is here to stay, at least for a while. That means more splashing around the water, movies in the backyard, dinners outside on the back patio and campfires. Campfires set the stage for happy memories. Some of the best ones are at the beach with friends gathered around a roaring fire, listening to the sound of the waves crashing, sharing stories under the moonlight. Even when a trip to the seaside is not on the calendar, there is always plenty of reason to celebrate with a cake, especially one with a touch of whimsy. Vanilla sponge cake,  mocha whipped cream, cookie "logs," candy "flames," chocolate pebbles," butter + graham cracker "sand" are the makings of the cutest Campfire Cake.

Campfires take me back to my girl scout days. Every summer, our troop would go for a week-long camping trip in the Santa Barbara mountains. After dinner, everyone walk to the fire pit, listening to the birds chirping along the way. Before long, it grew dark, if not for the sunburst glow of the campfire flames. We would sit on logs in a circle, sipping hot chocolate, counting the stars and singing songs. 

At the sight of the first yawn, the troop leaders would send us to our tents. Some poor souls had to fight off the Z's and stand guard, against what, I don't know. Standing watch is an age-old tradition and the duty of any good scout. Inevitably, during some lucky person's shift, a fight would break out. Some boy would raid a girls' tent and steal someone's panties. Then, it was on! 

Those were my rockstar days. I have settled down quite a bit since then, but still know how to get cahrazy, as in baking this cake. Every step is fun. There is so much to do. My little sweetheart was happy to help and she makes everything more special. We sure made a loud racket, bashing the candies to a powder against the kitchen countertops! It was FUN (and cheap therapy). This is how the "flames" for the campfire are made.

The candy is crushed,  then the powder is sprinkled onto a piece of foil and sent to melt in the oven. It morphs into a bubbly goo in no time. Daisy loved watching the candy magic happen.

The hardest part is making the cake. Boxed cake mix works well. You could just grab your keys, zoom to the market and just buy a ready-made sponge cake. I like to make mine from scratch using my favourite sponge cake recipe. Daisy loves to help me and the result is always a winner. Do whatever works best for you.

Campfire Cake
Serves 10 sweet-toothed scouts

vanilla sponge cake
10 each Jolly Ranchers hard candies - red, yellow, blue
2 cups heavy whipping cream
2 tsp instant coffee
5 Tb powdered sugar
splash vanilla
6-8 Pirouette/Pirouline cookies (Pepperidge Farms)
1/4 cup toasted pecans (optional)
5-6 chocolate mushrooms (optional)
2 Tb cocoa powder

Prepare the cake - see recipe. This can be done a day ahead. Be sure to cover the cake to prevent drying. 

Unwrap about 30 Jolly Ranchers, red, yellow, blue. I used cherry, watermelon and blue raspberry. 
Separate the colours into 3 plastic bags and give them a good bashing with an old coffee mug.
Sprinkle the crushed candy onto a foil-lined baking tray and melt for about 5-10 minutes at 350*F.
Be careful as the candy will burn very quickly.
Remove from oven and let the candy cool completely til solid, about 15 minutes.
Break into shards and set aside.

Toast pecans in a dry nonstick pan for about 5 minutes.
Set aside to cool.

Pour heavy cream into the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment.
Add coffee, powdered sugar, vanilla and 1 tablespoon cocoa powder.
Whip until fluffy.

Slice each of the 2 cakes into half horizontally to create 4 layers.
Frost with whipped cream in between the layers and around the cake.
Place Piroline cookie "logs" on top, with their tips connecting in the middle
of the cake.
Insert a few shards of candy "flames" in between those tips in the center.
Decorate with candy rocks around the sides of the cake.
Sprinkle crushed graham cracker "sand" around the cake and on top.

Break pecans over the top.
Insert a few chocolate mushrooms here and there.
Sprinkle with cocoa.
Chill until ready to serve.

This mocha-sponge Campfire Cake has it all - looks, class and good taste. Even after summer is long gone, you will look for an excuse to bake it and find everyone rushing to gather around the fire.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Orange-Almond Crème Caramel

After bedtime stories are read and the nightingale starts chirping outside our window, Daisy lulls to sleep. Then, it is Mommy's turn for bedtime stories. Bonappetit and Sunset are never far from reach. This is how a foodie retires for the evening and probably what accounts for my sugar-filled dreams.

Yesterday afternoon, the girls (Mom, my sister, Daisy) and I braved the heat and went on a treasure-hunt. As soon as I opened the car door, I felt like a vampire out way past his bedtime. The sun seared my face. We rushed into the shop and the first thing that caught my eye was an old 1950's stove. There she was, dressed in white, cute as a button. Click-click, off went a pic to Shawn.

It does not matter whether or not it works. We already have a sexy Italian stove. This little girl would be perfect as my new baking station. A nice marble slab over the burners will serve as a counter and the oven compartments will hold my baking things. My dreamy plans will have to wait til tomorrow for my hubby to check whether she will fit into our kitchen or not, but I will stop by the church on my way home tonight to do a little prayer.

When we got home after our little adventure, I was craving something sweet. Daisy was parched and asked for cold milk. So, I snuck some vanilla almond milk into her sippy and handed it to her. After one sip, this is what happened:

Daisy: Blekh. Mommy, what's this?

Me: It's vanilla milk, BabyCakes. (Technically, I told the truth.)

Daisy: P'tooey. Mommy. I want cow milk.

Me: *long sigh*    Right.

I am always looking for healthy alternatives, like replacing butter with olive oil wherever possible. (Stay tuned for a chocolate chip cookie made with fresh avocados instead of butter!). There are times, however, that I stay true to the original, like Crème Caramel. Real eggs, real milk, heavy cream and even a touch of butter. Because, that's how the French do it and Life really is short.

I grew up on this stuff. In the 1970's, there was a small restaurant in Tehran called Paprika. My parents used to take me there all the time. The summers were my favourite time to visit because the outdoor patio was enclosed in a big white tent. I felt like we were in a big teepee. The chef-owner would make Crème Caramel in small aluminum dishes that were actually part of a children's kitchen play set. Creamy, mildly sweet custard with a nearly burnt caramel, the taste was unforgettable, even after 37 years.  It has taken me about that long to find a recipe to match.

French recipes are either elegantly simple or lengthy and laborious, requiring some measure of culinary skill or saintly patience. There probably are not very many recipes for Crème Caramel I have not tried. If a famous chef offered it, I made it. The classic ones are somewhat fussy: Use a non-reactive pot and a wooden spoon. Take care not to scald the milk. Keep stirring constantly. Confirm the planets have aligned in perfect syzygy formation before attempting this recipe.

Then, there is the dreaded slaving-at-the-stove step: Stir the cream and sugar over medium-low heat constantly until bubbles form at the edges. You had better take a pee break before starting this one, because you are not going anywhere for a while. Then, the bottom of the custard mixture still manages to stick to the pot and the mixture must be passed through a sieve to take out the lumps. Did I mention the 8 egg yolks? After spending 90 minutes working on the crème caramel, now I have to do something with 8 egg whites? Oh, HELL, no.

Enter my girl, Paula Deen. Despite media jibber-jabber, I adore her. Her charm is undeniable and her recipes, simple and full-proof. The one for crème caramel morphed into my trademark recipe that has stayed with me for these years.

There is none of this separating-eggs business, no slaving at the stove and none of that disappointing eggy smell. This is my parents' favourite dessert. I love to make it for them as often as I can.

You can literally throw it  together in a few minutes. The hardest part is making the caramel, which really is not hard at all. The trick is to set the pan/skillet over water in the oven. While the custard cooks on top, the caramel is heated more slowly in the water bath. After they are removed from the oven and allowed to cool,  the custard becomes more firm, but the caramel stays a liquid.

My choice for making Crème Caramel is a shallow stainless steel skillet with two handles and a heavy bottom that I found at Home Goods. I melt the sugar and butter right in the pan over the stove top. Then I add some water to a 10-inch cake pan and set the skillet over the cake pan. The handles of the skillet balance on the edge of the cake pan so that keep the caramel bottom is immersed in water, but not touching the hot bottom of the cake pan.

Muscovado sugar is my latest obsession. My cousin Karen who lives in London introduced me to it and now I'm hooked. Brown sugar is just white sugar mixed with molasses. Muscovado sugar is real cane sugar that has the same soft, sandy consistency. It has such a beautiful flavour that pairs well with the fresh orange zest and toasty almonds.

Orange-Almond Crème Caramel
Fills 8 ramekins, 1 bread loaf pan or heavy-bottom 10-inch stainless pan
Adapted from Paula Deen

For the Caramel
1Tb butter
1/2 cup muscovado sugar
1 Tb white sugar

For the Crème
5 Grade A free-range eggs
1/2 cup sugar
Pinch salt
Splash vanilla
1 tsp orange zest
2 cups organic milk
1 cup organic heavy cream
1/2 tsp nutmeg

1/4 toasted sliced almonds

Grease ramekins or metal loaf pan with about arable spoon of butter.
Arrange on an oven roasting pan with some depth for easy handling.

Prepare the caramel by heating 1/2 cup sugar with 1 tablespoon butter until a dark, golden and shiny, fluid forms.

Be very careful when pouring the caramel as hot sugar burns are the worst!

Pour caramel into the pan or each ramekin, enough to evenly cover the bottom.

Preheat oven to 350*F.

Whisk eggs with 1/2 cup sugar.
Add salt, vanilla, milk, heavy cream and orange zest.

Place ramekins/pan onto a shallow baking tray, maybe 1-2 inches deep.
Pour into prepared pan/ramekins, transfer into warm oven.
Pour hot water around the ramekins/pan, about an inch deep, and push the tray
back into the middle of the oven rack.

Close oven door and bake:
-ramekins for 30 minutes
-loaf pan or skillet for about 1 hour.

If the center jiggles, but does not roll like a liquid, they are ready.

Remove custard from oven and set onto a metal rack.
Grate nutmeg over the top and allow the custard to cool ~30 minutes
before transferring to the fridge.
Chill at least 4 hours.

Toast sliced almonds in a dry pan, ~5 minutes. Be careful to they do not burn.
Sprinkle over the Crème Caramel and with good coffee or tea.

Every time I make Crème Caramel, I think about the time I was pregnant and made a batch just before the doctor put me on bed-rest. Mom sat with me and we shared one of those little ramekins. We giggled about the terrible movies I had been watching just to pass the time and how delicious that custard was. Maybe that is why Daisy turned out to be such a happy little sweetheart.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cottage Caponata

Years ago, my grandmother would spend summers visiting her sister, Violet in Manhattan and sometimes I was lucky enough to join her for a few weeks. The day typically began with a simple breakfast of tea, feta and bread served on the terrace, as Violet Morkoor* called it. Then at 10 am, it was time for Armenian coffee. After reading each other's cups (telling lies), we would hit the streets for a shopping adventure, back just in time for dinner, which was always gorgeous. Violet Morkoor was a fabulous gourmet and  one of her specialties was a mouthwatering "Salad do Sicily" made with eggplants, carrots, celery, tomatoes in a sauce balanced perfectly between sweet and tart.  My best guess is that one of her Sicilian neighbours shared the original recipe with her which was likely Caponata. (Remind me to give you her recipe later.)
Despite the drought, we are blessed with the lion's share of fresh produce here in Sourthern California, which calls for a light, refreshing menu on a hot summer evening.

Today, I am making Hugh's caponata for our Cottage Cooking ClubI love surprises, but this one was a bit of a jaw-dropper. I thought I knew all there was to know about chocolate and this Italian classic, but the two together? I might have to think about that for a bit while, as my little Daisy likes to say.

Classic caponata is a versatile melange of some of summer's best crops. Warmed or chilled, as a main, dip, side or salad, it adjusts beautifully to suit your mood. Make it a light spa dish with some quinoa and fluffy rice or serve it as a dip at your next cocktail party.  

An old world technique for cooking with eggplants always begins with salting them. The belief is that any bitter flavour is extracted when the eggplant is sliced, then salted so that the "poison" sweats out. Hugh follows this tradition with the same instructions in his own recipe. There is nothing more disappointing than seeing a beautiful bowl of caponata and taking that first bitter bite.

With very little time slaving over a hot stove, this particular recipe is truly a godsend to make on a balmy summer evening. After the onions are sautéed sweet and golden, there is nothing to do at the stove but a slow simmer. Use fresh tomatoes if they are available, especially homegrown or organic varieties as they are the tastiest. Mine has a base of imported San Marzanos from the jar. (Nix canned tomatoes). The brown sugar and raisins paired with vinegar give the salad its signature sweet-tart taste, but chocolate?! I just cannot wrap my head around that one. There was no mention of chocolate in my aunt's recipe. But, I am willing to try almost anything from the Cottage cookbook at least once and that Lindt in my pantry may have just found a new purpose.

Cottage Caponata
Serves 8
Based loosely on Page 307

6 black Italian eggplants
3 Tb fine-grain salt
1 onion
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves
24oz jar (not can) San Marzano crushed tomatoes
2 Tb apple cider vinegar
2 Tb brown sugar
2 bay leaves
handful small dried currants
2 Tb capers
1 Tb finest darkest chocolate (finely grated, optional)
salt + pepper to taste
1 handful flat leaf parsley

Wash and slice the eggplants into disks of about 1/2-inch thickness and collect them in a colander.
Sprinkle a generous amount of salt over the eggplant and toss gently with your hands to coat evenly.
Do not use coarse sea salt as the eggplant will not absorb it properly.
Allow the eggplants to rest in the colander for about 15 minutes.

Rinse the capers to remove the excess salt and set aside.

Meanwhile, place a deep pot over medium-high heat and drizzle the bottom with olive oil.

Chop and sautée onion.
Mince garlic and set aside (at least 10 minutes).
Add garlic to the pot and cook for a few minutes.

Rinse the eggplant and add to the pot.
Add the crushed tomatoes, vinegar, sugar, bay leaves and lower to heat
to simmer about 15 minutes.

Add the currants, capers and chocolate (if you are brave).
Stir gently to combine. 
Place the lid onto the pot and simmer another 15 minutes. 

Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Remove from the heat and allow the salad to cool completely.

Rinse and chop the fresh parsley and add to the salad. Mix gently to combine.
Chill until ready to serve.

The bay leaves are not in Hugh's recipe, but were a shoe-in as we have a laurel plant in our backyard and its delicate flavour is always welcome. There were a couple of ingredients in his ingredient list that I must confess I omitted. The celery was left out, simply because the stalk in the fridge was not as fresh as I remembered. The olives also did not make it, because, I had been a bit heavy-handed with the salt, in typical Coco fashion.

As for the chocolate, I took one deep breath, closed my eyes and tossed a bit into the mix, just as Hugh instructed. Because the 80% cocoa bars do not have a lot of sugar, the dark chocolate melts into the caponata and imparts the most interesting hint of flavour that will forever keep your guests wondering about your secret ingredient.

This saucy little number is a beautiful make-ahead dish that tastes even better the next day. Whatever your venue, whether you are planning a small get-together, a big party or just a weeknight meal, it always finds a place at your table. A beautiful blend of salty, creamy, chewy, sweet, tangy, caponata might convince you that you have a smidge of Italian blood flowing in your veins.

Buon appetito, tutti!

*Morkoor is the Armenian term for aunt, literally translated to "mother's sister." Horkoor also mean aunt, but on the father's side. That's your little language lesson for the day. Don't say I never teach you anything. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Building a Better World by Eating Responsibly

I have been paying $5 for a dozen of eggs because the label reads free roaming and am furious with myself because it does not mean "roaming freely out in the open green fields under the beautiful sunshine." Sharing my thoughts with you was a struggle to compose, but a photo recently posted on Instagram about the poor treatment of dairy cows sent me on a rampage, questioning the choices I had been making. What is most infuriating is that I thought I had been doing the right thing all along. I miss the days when I used to sing "Old MacDonald," then eat steak for dinner, not making the connection between the pretty cow in the book and what was on my plate. 

History repeats itself, because we teach our children the same nursery rhymes from the same classic books that show happy animals on a pretty farm with a red barn amidst green rolling hills. I hear myself telling Daisy that is where milk comes from and where eggs come from. This is the message we were given and the one that we, in turn, pass on to our own children. 

But, that is not the truth. No one wants to talk about the physically and ethically filthy factory farms, huge conglomerates ruling the market. Livestock and birds are packed in huge numbers into ugly, dirty cages or barns and fed garbage. For years, I have been reaching for the organic, free-roaming, wanting to provide the best quality foods for my family. As a bonus, I thought I was supporting an industry committed to safe, humane treatment of the animals that nourish us. 

Accessibility and affordability continue to be a constant challenge. I will no longer be purchasing milk, eggs, cheeses from major supermarkets, despite the labels claiming honesty in sourcing organic goods.
But, even driving out of my way and paying an extra pretty penny does not guarantee a good night's sleep. The FDA defines the labels and has published a document discussing farm animal welfare. However, there is no government agency tasked to enforce standards. Even third-party certification entities fail to audit the very standards they set. Grass-fed does not mean the cow was allowed free reign over the land. It means exactly that - fed grass. Pasture-raised is more expensive, very difficult to find in metropolitan areas and makes no promise that you are getting something from those happy cows dotting the foggy hills of seaside Cambria. It really is hard to know who to trust. 

Then, what is the answer? The extreme approach is to give it all up...eggs, milk, meat, the whole lot. But, this really does not address the issue very well because, the world is filled with products tested on animals and made from animal by-products, some of which are life-saving. 

Medications, sutures, heart valves, buttons, shoes, handbags, briefcases, wallets, watchbands, belts, jackets, chairs, couches, pillows, cleaning products, cosmetics, Jell-O and many more are all made from animal products. Even Cheetos are fried in lard. There is no guarantee the creatures that were sacrificed to make any of these products were treated humanely. 
It is easy for the consumer to feel overwhelmed and powerless, but there is so much a person can do.

Remember that the busy honey bee plays a big part. This hardworking little creature has a profound impact on the livelihood of the planet. Campaigns like Project Pollination lead the way to save the honey bee. Anyone can help just by purchasing a (very cute) T-shirt or going into the garden to plant flowers that attract bees. It is an easy and relaxing way to spend a lazy afternoon. 

Then, treat yourself to a night out on the town. The culinary world has become sophisticated in its approach to supply sourcing. More restaurants proudly announce that they support sustainable farms, offering truly free-range eggs, pasture-raised meats and produce from local farms. Supporting your local farms can be a refreshing change to the old weekend routine. Take the family out for a fun day of apple-picking.

When I was a little girl, my uncle Feri lived in Switzerland. Whenever he or my aunt would visit, we knew we were going to get boatloads of delicious Swiss chocolate. Maybe the chocolate was so good because the milk came from healthy cows roaming the alpine landscape. I grew up thinking that was how all cows were raised. Alpine farm-steading has its own challenges, but is a much better approach to corporate factory farming. 

There are some good resources to help locate quality meat and dairy products. The Humane Society explains food labeling. Watchdog organizations like the Cornucopia Institute maintain scorecards of meat, egg, dairy producers listed by location in neatly organized tables.
The Organic Consumers Association sums everything up nicely and recommends using the Animal Welfare Organization (AWA) search engine to find grocers in your area that carry certified humane productsMore and more families and workplace cafeterias are dedicating at least one day each week to vegetarian cooking, usually with the "Meatless Monday." Make meat an occasional indulgence and splurge with the best quality. Homegrowncow is a great source for a wide variety of pasture-raised meats. 

Switch to almond, soy or coconut milk which is now available everywhere. I tried vanilla almond milk for the first time this morning. Poured some into a tall glass with a slice of orange peel and brown sugar. It was delicious. I must confess the vintage-looking hourglass bottle caught my eye, after a few sips, I did not even miss real milk. Almond milk has less calories, less fat and more calcium than cow's milk. Do not give up if your first try is disappointing. Try various brands until you find one you like. The Calafia Farms one is my favourite so far.

You know you got the good stuff when you pop the lid open on a dozen eggs and the shells are all different colours. The same farms that offer pasture-raised milk and eggs, also offer sour cream, yogurt and my beloved butter. Most natural food grocer have everything you need to bake a cake, which is always on my agenda.

Keep up with the latest at Sustainable Table. What is on your mind? I want to hear from you!

*Content not sponsored. All opinions are my own.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Campfire Steak Rub

This is one of those times when I wish you were here or that we had Scratch 'n' Sniff  computer monitors, because this is one damn delicious steak rub. A week and three shampoos later, my hair still smells smoky, but I really do not mind. In fact, I wish someone would hurry up and create a perfume, L'eau du Feu (Scent of Fire). This is how we like to cook steaks - in our fire pit, over logs, nice and slow, licked by flames.

If you REALLY love that charred flavour, this is how you should cook your steaks:

Deep in the far crevices of our nature burn the embers of our cave-dwelling ancestors. The concept of cooking meat over an open flame dates back to when fire was first discovered. The caveman eventually evolved into the cowboy who added a gritty cup of coffee brewed in a tin pot right over the campfire. The only thing that has changed since then is really just presentation. Dress it up on a pretty plate and have a man in a tux serve it,  you now have fancy steakhouse fare.

There was a time in my young, bachelorette days when my parrot and I shared a cute apartment with a Dutch door that opened onto a small porch. These were days I could (and would) eat an entire jar of Nutella for breakfast. There was always ribeye marinating in the fridge. It's a wonder how I did not have a heart attack by the time I turned 30. Nowadays, steaks are an occasional treat. As more health-conscious consumers committed to eating responsibly, more of us avoid large-scale meats at the supermarket in favour of the certified humane, grass-fed varieties.

One early summer evening, we city slickers decided to pretend to be cowboys, even for just a few hours in our own backyard.

You cannot beat camping with all the comforts of home and the best part is we did not have to lug anything around. I must admit, though, that I did miss the night sky dotted with infinite twinkling stars, the smell of pine trees, the gurgling of a nearby stream, but we were lucky to hear the crickets chirping and Daisy giggling.

Shawn set up a tent and manned the fire pit. Daisy was in charge of entertainment, as she always is. The menu was assigned to me and, since life is uncertain, dessert placed first in the plans. S'mores, of course. Next, I had to think about dinner, which called for simple cowboy grub of steaks, taters and corn.
Campfire cooking is not easy because the heat distribution is uneven, but great smoky flavour is a guarantee.

Ribeye is naturally delicious. The marbling adds flavour and keeps the meat juicy while it cooks. It really just needs a light sprinkling of salt and pepper, but I had been in an experimental mood. The indoor version came first, on a rainy night.  A paste of butter, garlic, parsley, lemon and Aleppo pepper with a touch of sweet honey made for a more interesting venue. With its sexy cut fries, it looked considerably more polished than its rough + tumble outdoor cousin, but looks aren't everything. The taste of steaks cooked on a fire is undeniably better.

After that first bite, you will instantly turn vegetarian, because you will never, not ever want to eat steak unless it is cooked on an open fire. This is a big claim, but I stand by my word. The Aleppo pepper adds a mild bite and delicious earthy flavour. The honey develops a glossy glaze around the meat and keeps the moisture in place. 

There really isn't much of a recipe here. Just mash everything together, rub all over the steaks, then toss them onto the fire. A simple formula anyone can follow and a taste everyone will enjoy. 

There was so much going on in our backyard that night. Daisy and Milou ran in and out of the tent, bouncing up and down on the air mattress. Then, before the sun went down, there were bedtime stories in the hammock with Daddy. Marshmallows roasted over that crackling fire made for a sweet finish.

Camping in your own backyard does not qualify as "roughin' it," but, with a toddler, there are always surprises. Daisy had a blast, playing all evening with Milou, running in and out of the tent, jumping up and down on the mattresses. When the sun disappeared, everything changed. She was too frightened to sleep in the dark, despite the numerous flashlights and LED candles we set up for her. So, Shawn and Milou got to enjoy sleeping outdoors, while we girls walked a few steps into the house and retired for the evening. Good thing we had not hauled house and home miles away into the woods.

That fire pit could finally be scratched off of my wish list. We had arrived at an evening long anticipated. The warm glow of the fire against blue twilight made for a most memorable family night. Those honey-glazed smoky steaks were unspeakably delicious. And once you try them for yourself, the Caveman region of your brain will light up like a Christmas tree. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Afghani Rice (Kabuli Pulao)

There is a story behind every recipe, like Kabuli Pulao which is the famous specialty from its namesake Afghani capital. A colourful dish teeming with fragrant Eastern spices, traditionally made with lamb that is hidden between layers of rice and crowned with sweet carrots and raisins. I had this for the first time in Manhattan where I would spend summers with my grandmother, visiting her sister. I had forgotten all about it until recently when my parents treated us to their newfound favourite eatery. Every bite took me back to those sunny days in New York City and cast my search for the perfect recipe.

The Afghan palate mediates between cuisines of its neighbours. More tame than Indian food, every mouthful bursts with vibrant flavours akin to Persian food. Cooking basics are also surprisingly similar. Kabuli polo begins with meat cooked in boiling water, skimming the froth that forms on top. The precious broth is reserved for use in cooking the rice. While the meat is cooking, onions are sautéed, then a generous amount of garlic.

Once everything is assembled into the pot, a clean tea towel wrapped around the lid collects the excess steam to ensure the rice stays fluffy. This is how Mom, like both my grandmothers before her, cooks and she has never been to Afghanistan.

I have tried various recipes and this is my favourite because it is based on one from a home chef. There is something most unusual about it in that it incorporates a caramel, much like that used for creme caramel. I'll admit I wasn't too sure about this at first, but after I tasted the rice, I was convinced it was necessary.

The garam masala is very simple, composed of only four ingredients. We have a $20 coffee grinder that we use only for grinding spices. I like toasting whole spices to bring out their oils before grinding them. Fresh bay leaves are especially fragrant. We have a small potted laurel plant on our back porch. So I don't even buy dried bay leaves anymore.

Typical of Middle Eastern dishes, Kabuli Pulao does take a bit of time to prepare. Beat the clock by preparing the meat and broth beforehand and even freezing some for future use. This dish is lovely with lamb, chicken or beef and, I dare say, possibly even shrimp.  Do not let the long recipe instructions intimidate you. Read through the recipe once or twice so you get the idea. There is no special culinary experience necessary here, just a bit of patience and a hearty appetite. This is a dish well worth trying at home, especially because Afghan restaurants are a rare find.  Who says you can't have an exotic feast on a weeknight?

Afghani Rice (Kabuli Pulao)
Based on Haseeb Miazed's Recipe
Serves 6


2 lbs boneless, skinless chicken thighs
6 cups water
4 tsp garam masala 
(= 4 bay leaves + 1/2 tsp whole cloves + 1" cinnamon stick 1 tsp cardamom seeds)
3 Tb olive oil
2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
2 cups brown basmati rice
5 Tb sugar
2 tsp cardamom
big pinch salt
1/2 stick butter
2 potatoes, cubed


Place chicken into a deep nonstick pot, add enough water to cover the chicken (about 6 cups),
put the lid on and cook over medium heat for 20 minutes.
Skim the froth and discard the foam that forms over the broth.

To make the garam masala, add cinnamon, cloves and cardamom to a small dry pan
and toast for a few minutes over medium heat.
Transfer to the grinder, add bay leaves and blitz to a powder.

Mince the garlic and set aside.
Set a pan over medium-high heat, drizzle olive oil into the pan.
Chop onions and sauté until golden brown.
Add garlic and fry another 2 minutes.

Measure sugar into a small sauce pan and set onto medium heat.
Swirl the pan occasionally until sugar melts and darkens to a deep caramel
colour. Be careful as it tends to burn very quickly at this stage.
Add 2 teaspoons of garam masala, 1 teaspoon of cardamom, 1 cup of
the chicken broth and a generous pinch of salt.
Bring to a boil, then reduce to a very low flame.
Continue cooking another 10 minutes.

Peel and chop potatoes into small cubes.
Transfer to a bowl and cover with cold water until ready to use.

Remove chicken from the pot and set aside.
Add rice to the chicken broth.
Add sautéed onion and garlic, stir gently, put the lid on and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, reduce heat and cook another 10 minutes.

Peel and slice carrots.
Add a dab of butter to the pan and set onto medium heat.
Add carrots, raisins, a pinch of cardamom and a teaspoon of sugar.
Stir and cook until carrots are glossy.

Brown a couple of tablespoons of butter in a small pot.
Be careful not to burn the butter.

Remove lid from pot, gently transfer rice to a bowl and set aside.
Drain the potatoes, drizzle some olive oil over the bottom
of the pot, arrange potato cubes, season with salt and

Return half of the rice to the pot over the potatoes.
Arrange chicken over rice.
Top with the rest of the rice.

Pour hot sugar and spice broth over the chicken and rice.
Tilt the carrots and raisins from the pan on top.

Sprinkle another pinch of garam masala, cardamom and salt.
Pour brown butter on top.

Place clean tea towel over top of the pot, put the lid on so that
it's snug, and tuck the ends of the tea towel up, toward the top of
the lid.
Reduce the heat to a very, very low flame and steam for another
20 minutes.

To serve, lift the lid, gently remove carrots and raisins and set aside.
Place a large serving platter over the pot.
Using oven mitts to protect your hands, hold the platter in place and
flip the pot onto the platter so that the potatoes are on top.
Carefully lift the pot off of the rice.

Garnish the top with the carrots and raisins.
Serve with yogurt, fresh salad and Indian lime pickle.

Finding beauty in everyday things, including necessities, is the secret to happiness. This is not to say that you'll ever find me whistling a fine tune and dancing to the beat when folding the laundry. In fact, there is a mountain of laundry resting on top of our foosball table as we speak. Daisy is lucky to be too young to be expected to partake in the joy of this chore. Both Shawn and I will find every excuse to avoid it, like mowing the lawn or making complicated foreign dishes.

Food shouldn't just be for nourishment. It should also set the scene for relaxing in good company with a meal that delights the senses. Every sweet spoonful of cardamom-scented Kabuli Pulao will convince you of that, although paying attention to the conversation may prove a bit of a challenge.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Lemon-Soaked Poppyseed Cake with Champagne Crème

Armenian hospitality calls for a table overflowing with treats. Whenever I am planning a menu, my sister's voice resonates in my head, "Don't test recipes just before your guests arrive." Fortunately, we live within walking distance of excellent bakeries. Yet, I insist on making things myself. Baking is so relaxing. I am forever looking for a reason to bake. Sometimes I even invent an excuse.

Luckily, we had foodie guests coming to visit. I asked for a favourite cake idea, expecting to hear chocolate cake. Then this happened...Lemon poppyseed with champagne custard filling and real whipped cream frosting dusted with lemon zest!!!

Suddenly, the air around me stood still and I could not breathe.  Champagne custard? Both stunned and impressed, I cursed myself for a moment, then came to my senses and started thinking hard. The bad news was I had never even tasted champagne custard. The good news was that I knew my bubbly and still had plenty of time.

Some serious  testing had to take place. Wasting good champagne on a questionable venture could summon a mob of angry wine aficionados to our door, because the good stuff is reserved for savoring in sips, NOT MAKING FROSTING. On the other hand, there is no such thing as "cooking wine" in our pantry. If it is not good enough to drink, it has no place in my pot or pan. There had to be a trusted recipe that I could test with moderately nice champagne without offending the global wine community. So, I waited for the resident champagne connoisseur (aka my hubs, Shawn) to leave town on business and got right to work.*

Since our guests are well-traveled, this cake must have been the brain child of a young pastry chef at a fancy restaurant/hotel on the East Coast, no doubt. After scouring every corner of the www, nothing turned up. So I hit the books. We have a LOT of cookbooks, none of which, not even my treasured Parisian bakery one mentions a word about champagne custard. So, I called the expert. Mom to the rescue!

Every day, at 10 am, I call my parents for a quick hello. 10 am is traditionally the time for Armenian coffee at our household. Today's order of business was this recipe. Mom suggested revamping one of her trusty napoleon cremes to fit the bill. 

Baking is an exact science and carries a challenge in that you cannot sample and adjust the taste the way you can savory dishes. Even with a solid recipe, things can go wrong and you will not know that until you have already placed that first slice in front of your guest. Or course, any excuse to bake is a good excuse to bake.

Phase I of the test resulted in a moist, lemony cake that went to the office. The custard was a cheater's delight, just instant vanilla pudding bloomed with cold milk, topped with homemade whipped cream, lemon zest and fresh blackberries. The secret to its success may have been the simple syrup made with the lemon juice and sugar, brushed over each layer. Cake #1 left everyone smiling and humming for the rest of the day.

Phase II entailed creating the champagne custard from scratch, which was oddly a bit intimidating. Armed with two of my mom's vanilla custard recipes and a bottle of lovely Sofia, I knew I had a winner. The result was an airy cake wrapped in lemony fragrance, creamy layers, crowned with a pillow of fresh whipped cream, as pretty to look at as it was a reward to eat. Our guests agreed. Little Miss Daisy could not stop eating it and even Shawn, who is normally not very vocal about my baking, would not let me give the leftovers away and, instead, resorted to more frequent 100-mile bike rides.

The instructions look lengthy, but are designed to maximize your time if you intend to make everything at once. This recipe can easily be done in stages. The custard and lemon syrup can be made the night before. There are two choices for the custard: Decide whether you have the time to make the it from scratch (#1 needs about 15 minutes) or need to take the quick route (#2 needs about 15 seconds).

This recipe makes 2 round 9-inch cakes, which can also be made ahead of time, but be sure to keep them under cover to retain their moisture. Use a sheet of parchment paper to separate the two until you are ready for the final assembly of the 4-layer cake. 
Read through the recipe to get a better feel for what to do. This isn't rocket science. I have already made this cake twice in the last week and plan to make one for my parents tonight!

Lemon-Soaked Poppyseed Cake with Champagne Crème
Note: Stevia is a natural sugar substitute for your diabetic guests. It is 300 times sweeter than sugar. So a little goes a long way. Adjustments are provided in the recipe in case you would like to use it in place of sugar.

Inspired by Billy Derian

Serves 8


1 cup  milk
1/2 stick butter
4 whole grade A free-range eggs
1 1/2 cups sugar (or 1 1/2 tsp stevia)
2 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
2 tsp poppy seeds

Custard Choices:

#1 From-scratch                                                                        #2 Cheat's 
Ingredients:                                                                                 Ingredients:
2 eggs                                                                                        1 3.4 oz box instant vanilla pudding
1 cup sugar (or 1 tsp stevia)                                                        2 1/2 cups milk
1 cup flour                                                                                  1 tsp lemon zest
3 cups milk                                                                                 1/4 cup champagne (Sofia)
1 tsp lemon zest

1/3 champagne (Sofia)


1 lemon
2 Tb sugar (1/2 pinch stevia)

2 cups heavy cream
1 lemon


Grease and flour two 9" round cake pans.
Heat milk + butter in a small pot on low heat. 
After the butter has melted, remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 325*F.

Beat eggs in stand mixer with paddle for 4 minutes.  Set the kitchen timer to 4 minutes.
Sift flour, baking powder & salt together into a clean bowl. Set aside.
Reset the timer for another 4 minutes and add sugar. Beat until creamy.

Add the sifted dry ingredients a bit at a time and mix just long enough to incorporate.
Add cooled milk and butter mixture, then the poppy seeds.
Divide batter between the two prepared cake pans and pop into the warm oven.

Bake until fragrant, maybe 35 minutes. 

While the cake is baking, make the lemon syrup.
Grate the zest of one lemon. Reserve for use later.
Juice the lemon into a small pot. 
Add 2 Tb sugar, heat on low just until sugar is melted.
Set aside to cool.


#1 Instructions:                                                                            #2 Instructions:

Beat eggs, add sugar.                                                                   Mix all until well combined.    

Add flour and mix gently.                                                              Cover and chill.

Incorporate milk and zest.

Transfer to stove and cook on medium-high heat, stirring constantly, 

until thick enough to coat the back of the spoon.

Cool to room temp.

Cover and chill 2 hours.

Remove from fridge and add champagne. 

Stir until well incorporated.
Cover and return to fridge until ready to assemble the cake.

Remove cakes from oven.
Insert a clean toothpick into the center of each cake. 
If the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is ready.
Remove from oven and allow the cakes to rest at room temperature for 10 minutes.
Then, turn them onto a metal rack to finish cooling.

Using the stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip heavy cream until stiff peaks form.

Slice cooled cakes in half horizontally. 

Place one layer of the cake onto a pretty plate. 
Brush the top with lemon syrup.
Spread about a 1/3 of the custard over the cake,  and set another layer of cake on top.
Repeat syrup and custard process until the last cake layer is placed on top.

Brush the top layer of cake with lemon syrup.

Spoon dollops of the whipped cream over it and spread to create a wavy pattern.
Sprinkle the remaining lemon zest over the whipped cream.
Cover and transfer to fridge until ready to serve.

Peaches and berries would be right at home here. Tuck them in between the layers, arrange them over the whipped cream on top or just offer them as a side. Celebrate the flavours of summer with this light and luscious treat. But, in case you end up hiding in the closet with the whole thing, do try to find a way to forgive yourself for not wanting to share.

*Honey, I assure you there is no need to panic. No Veuve Clicquot or Moet was harmed in the making of this cake. Only several glasses of Sofia were sacrificed, but since the results were stellar, it was no loss in the end.