Saturday, January 31, 2009

CONFESSIONS FROM THE OLD COUNTRY : LAMB AND PRUNE TAGINE

ESS ESS MEIN KINDT! (EAT! EAT! MY CHILD!)

Food and culture go together like love & marriage (well, not always these days), like a horse & buggy, like, um, okay, let’s start over :

Food and culture go together like bread & butter, like peanut butter & jelly, like tea & scones, like brownies & milk. (Oh, that’s better.) We express and share our culture through what we eat, we learn about other cultures through their cuisine. We strengthen our bonds to our own culture as well as to family and friends who surround us each time we cook and serve a traditional food or meal. What ingredients we use, what dishes we prepare, how it is served. All of this and more tie us to a culture whether or not we still feel an emotional link to a particular country, religion or community.

Great-great grandparents Sarah and Shapsa, photo taken in Lida, Russia before their immigration to the United States

I was raised in a conservative Jewish home in a very non-Jewish, All American community. I grew up caught between the Steak and Potatoes and the Potato Latkes, the Tuna Noodle Casserole and the Gefilte fish, the Apple Pie and the Apple Lokshen Kugel. Between the Thanksgiving meal and the Passover Seder. Between public school and Sunday school.

I am the granddaughter of immigrants, hearty Russian stock coming from a cold land where bodies were sustained with potatoes, cabbage, beets, onions and chicken. The dinner table was filled with hot cabbage soup, kasha varnitchkes and carrot tzimmis, the Holidays found us sitting in front of plates laden with smoked fish and chopped chicken livers, chicken soup with matzoh balls and golden, sweet loaves of Challah. Special Sundays meant cheese blintzes or bagels and lox. And though recipes were adapted to new world ingredients, the dishes my grandmother and then mother prepared were the same, the celebrations and the celebratory meals varying little. I thought little of it, accepting these delicacies with a smile and a hearty appetite, growing to love these simple dishes as the comfort foods of my childhood.

Grandma Bertha standing behind her mother-in-law Anna and her two daughters, Mildrid (on the left) and my mom, Ruth (on the right) in Albany, New York

Little did I expect to be laughed at, these near and dear family and cultural culinary traditions mocked! But years after I had been living in France, a friend of mine, Jewish but of North African descent described for me mealtimes prepared by her Russian mother-in-law. “Brown,” she exclaimed with distaste. “All of your food is brown. I look across the table at all of the dishes and all I see is brown!”

Ah, yes! One can understand. Her own parents came from a land not of cold and grey, but one of sunshine and fertile land. Her culinary heritage is filled to overflowing with violet eggplants, golden orange pumpkin and carrots, deep green zucchini and bright yellow lemons. Dishes are spiced with saffron and cinnamon, drizzled with honey and flavored with dried fruits and nuts. Though I defended my culinary inheritance with the pride of a scrappy but out-weighed boxer, I could definitely see her point.

But it got me thinking. When I heard her talk about the meals she was putting together for Friday night family dinner or the Passover celebration, I thought to myself, “well, it may not be a traditional holiday dish for Eastern European Jews, but hey, why not? It’s symbolic somewhere.” And this is how Lamb and Prunes, sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon, became my (new) traditional New Year’s (sweet) and Passover (sacrificial lamb) fare.


This recipe is based on the one I found in Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, which is one of my most used and best-loved cookbooks. I just adore meat cooked with fruit, and this dish has become a family favorite, and not just for holidays. Lamb is my favorite meat, both to cook and to eat and Moroccan food is a standard in our home. So this fits in perfectly between the couscous and the other tagines we regularly make.

Agneaux aux Pruneaux : Lamb with Prunes

1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
A few tablespoons vegetable oil for cooking
2 – 2 ½ lbs (1.2 kg) boneless lamb, excess fat removed and cut into large cubes
Salt and freshly ground pepper
½ tsp saffron powder or turmeric
1 tsp ground ginger
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
½ lb (250 g) pitted prunes, or more as desired
Handful (about 2 oz/60 g or more) of blanched whole almonds
2 tsps ground cinnamon
3 Tbs honey


In a large, heavy-bottom pot with a lid, heat the oil and then fry the chopped onion until it starts to soften and become translucent. Add the chopped garlic and continue to fry until the onion and garlic are soft.


Add the cubes of lamb and fry, tossing to guarantee even browning, until the chunks are lightly browned all over.


Add the saffron, ginger and nutmeg, salt and pepper generously.


Add enough water to cover the meat, stir well, and bring up just to the boil. Turn down the heat, cover the pot almost completely and allow to simmer for 1 hour 20 minutes. The meat should be tender. Check every now and then, adding water as needed (remember, if too much water boils away, there will be no delicious sauce! You can always thicken it up a bit at the end of the cooking.).


At the end of the 1 hour 20 minutes, add the prunes, almonds, cinnamon and the honey, stir and continue simmering for another 15 – 20 minutes. Taste and add more freshly ground black pepper to balance the sweetness, if desired.


Serve hot over couscous grains. This may even make enough for two meals. Yum!


Ess, bench, sei a mensch! - Eat, pray, don't act like a jerk!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

INCREDIBLE CHOCOLATE CAKE with COFFEE WHIPPED CREAM & CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM

BLOW OUT THE CANDLES AND MAKE A WISH

Yes, yes, truth be told, yesterday was indeed my birthday. But older? Naw! Who you kidding? What’s that old, creepy and very dated saying? “She’s not getting older, she’s getting better!” * sigh * as he looks at her adoringly…..

Who me? Older? I think not!

But though, after a certain * ahem * age we dread birthdays, who doesn’t love a party? Or the attention? Or the gifts! I certainly will never scoff at any of those! And this year was no different (okay, so I never have a party… at least I get lots of attention and at least a few gifts).

Well, at least as the baker in the family I get to choose my own cake. For years I have been making Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Chestnut Cake made with chestnut flour, which I just adore. But even frosted with our favorite chocolate buttercream frosting, they just don’t get it!

So this year, I returned to an old favorite of mine : a deep, dense, dark devilish chocolate cake spread with the chocolate buttercream and filled with a slightly bitter coffee-flavored whipped cream. Oh so decandent!


INCREDIBLE CHOCOLATE CAKE

1 ¾ cup flour
2 cups sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 large eggs
1 cup milk or buttermilk
½ cup vegetable oil
2 tsps vanilla
1 cup boiling water, coffee, fruit juice or a combination of water and something else


Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Oil and flour two 10-inch round cake pans generously.

Combine all of the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl. I whiz them with the electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds until everything is well combined.


Add the eggs, milk, oil and vanilla. Beat on low until well blended then increase the mixer speed to medium and beat for 2 minutes.


Stir in the boiling water (today I used about ¾ cup strong coffee with ¼ cup water). When I make a Forêt Noire, I use ½ cup juice from jarred cherries mixed with ½ cup water, then I use the cherries layered with plain, slightly sweetened whipped cream in between the two chocolate cake layers.


Carefully divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans – it will be watery.


Bake in the preheated oven for 35 – 40 minutes or until the center is set.


Remove from oven and allow to cool for 10 – 15 minutes on cooling racks before turning them out onto the racks to cool completely.


Mine look a bit funny because I have one of those rinky-dink tiny French ovens and two round cake pans do not fit on the oven rack at the same time. I end up having to juggle the cake pans – up and down, back and forth – throughout the baking in order to make sure that each layer cooks fairly evenly and that neither burns. But that takes nothing away from their flavor! And I need a new oven.

COFFEE-FLAVORED WHIPPED CREAM

1 to 2 cups heavy cream
4 tsps instant coffee or espresso powder
4 – 8 tsps powdered or confectioner’s sugar, depending on strength of your coffee as well as your personal taste


Make sure your glass bowl and beaters are well chilled.

Start whipping the cream on high speed until it starts to thicken, then gradually add the coffee and the sugar. Continue to beat until very thick. Put in the fridge until ready to use.


If you taste this now, it may taste too bitter or strange. True. But sandwiched in between the layers of chocolate cake gives an incredible, fabulous flavor sensation!

CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM FROSTING

A little under 3 cups (11 ½ oz, 350 g) powdered/confectioner’s sugar
8 Tbs (120 g) unsalted butter softened to room temperature
2 oz (50 g) unsweetened cocoa powder
4 Tbs boiling water


With an electric mixer, beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy.

Add the cocoa powder and the boiling water and beat until the ingredients are completely and well blended and the frosting is light and fluffy. If it is too thin just pop it in the fridge for a few minutes.


Assemble the cake :

Put one of the chocolate cake layers on a serving platter. Spread the coffee whipped cream evenly over the layer, putting as much or as little as desired. (Any left over can be refrigerated for another use or served with the cake).


Carefully place the second cake layer on the whipped cream, then frost the sides and top of the cake with the chocolate buttercream.


I pressed – or attempted to press – chocolate sprinkles/jimmies all over the sides. Now, this may seem to be overkill, but hey it’s my birthday and I can do what I want! I also never claimed to be the Cake Decorating Queen and my attempts at anything fancy end up looking sorry indeed.


But this cake is so fabulously delicious, rich and decadent, chocolaty to the extreme without going overboard, as well as being so easy to make! The cake texture is close to one of a flourless cake, chewy, dense and moist. The coffee in the batter added to the coffee whipped cream just gives you a delicate coffee sensation in each mouthful.



Let’s just say that this recipe is my birthday gift to you! Who’s opening the champagne….?


And sorry for the quality of the photos; I am trying to learn how to use a new camera and photo shop them all by myself.....

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

LEMON MERINGUE TORTE

EYE CANDY

This one is a little personal, though any of you who love either lemons or Alan Rickman and Jason Isaacs can certainly take advantage of and enjoy this post.


Why the eye candy? Well, although this LEMON TORTE fits all of asiangrrl’s requirements : it is luscious and decadent as well as being flourless and dairy-free (almost, I’ll explain later), it came out looking as ugly as sin! So while you savor the tartness of the lemons, enjoy the sweetness of the dessert, you may just need something a bit more attractive to look at, something hunkier to distract you while you eat.


LEMON TORTE

In my own personal quest to please a friend, I have stumbled across yet another flourless, dairy-free delicious cake. This comes from Anna Thomas’ The Vegetarian Epicure Book Two. I love her books and everything comes out splendidly, so I didn’t feel that I needed to change much in the original recipe. Anyway, one always has to try everything once before tweaking. I did replace the original almond extract with vanilla.

Now, this lemon filling does contain 1 ½ Tbs (about 22 g) butter. That is the only dairy in it, but I have a feeling that it could easily be replaced with dairy-free margarine. The resulting cake is so light it practically melts in your mouth. The lemon filling tastes exactly like my favorite Lemon Tart, which is divine! It is creamy and truly luscious, but not heavy or filling.

But, as I said, ugly as sin! The meringue layers, though a joy to make, came out looking a little rustic and not very elegant. The filling was a bit too neon, glow in the dark for me, shiny like Vaseline. But please don’t let that turn you off. It really is scrumptious. But next time I make it, I will take my 3-inch (8 cm) mold and use it to draw circles on parchment paper on baking sheets, spread the meringue batter evenly in the individual circles and bake slowly. Then I would sandwich pairs of baked meringue cake with the lemon filling then frost with either a simple buttercream or a light whipped cream and then decorate. And serve one tiny Torte per person.

Meringue Cake Layers

1 ¼ cup egg whites (about 6 – 8 eggs)
2 cups confectioner’s sugar
2 Tbs cornstarch
½ tsp vanilla or ¼ tsp almond extract
1 2/3 cups ground almonds


Preheat the oven to 275°F (135°C). Butter, line with parchment paper, butter again and flour two ten-inch pans.

In a large bowl (preferably copper or plastic), beat the egg whites with 1 cup of the confectioner’s sugar until soft peaks form. (I beat them part way until starting to turn from a foam to a cream and then added the sugar gradually, ¼ cup at a time).


Sift or stir together the second cup of confectioner’s sugar with the cornstarch and gradually add it into the egg whites with the vanilla or almond extract, continuing to beat until the whites are very stiff.


Fold in the ground almonds.


Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and, using a spatula, spread until smooth.


Bake in the preheated oven for 1 ½ hours. The cakes will be pulling away from the sides of the pans and the top will be a light golden brown.


Allow the cakes to cook a bit, then turn them out onto cooling racks to cool completely. (I found the bottoms of the layers quite sticky – I took them out 5 minutes too soon – and as I was afraid they would stick to the racks I cooled them upside down)


Lemon Filling

4 Tbs cornstarch
¾ cup cold water
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 lemons, depending on how juicy they are)
1 cup granulated (castor) sugar
1 Tbs finely grated lemon zest (about 2 lemons)
3 egg yolks
1 ½ Tbs unsalted butter


Combine the cornstarch, water, lemon juice, sugar and lemon zest in a medium-sized saucepan over very low heat.


Stirring constantly with a whisk or wooden spoon, cook slowly for 15 - 20 minutes until the mixture thickens.


I added 3 photos of the cooking process for those who have never made this before

Remove from the heat and quickly whisk in the 3 eggs yolks, one at a time. Return this mixture to low heat and, stirring, allow to heat for just 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk or stir in the butter.


Allow to cool completely, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t form a skin. (Since I have Le Creuset pans which continue to heat and cook the food for simply hours after it is removed from the heat, I scraped the filling into a glass bowl for the cooling process.)

Assemble the Torte

Place one meringue layer on a serving platter. Spread half the filling on this bottom layer. Carefully place the second cake layer on top and spread the rest of the filling over the top and sides. Decorate as you like.


The next one will be chocolate, I promise….


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