Friday, January 28, 2011

Pear, Hazelnut and Brown Butter Mini Bundts

January has gone by in the blink of an eye. I'm not really one for resolutions, although I have been keeping my sink clean, acquiring less stuff, and making new friends. Not at all bad for the first month of the year.

Instead of embarking on a post-holiday cleansing, I baked and ate a lot of cakes and muffins this month. Not that I need one, but there was always a reason. Someone coming over to visit, bananas that needed to be used up, and well, my days are long and there's nothing better than a home baked snack. A lot of my baking was actually pretty healthy. I incorporated different flours like spelt and whole wheat, threw in ground flax seeds and oatmeal, substituting agave syrup for sugar, and enjoying every hastily taken bite.

I never knew about the world of food blogs until Roman was born. Suddenly with lots of quiet time in the first few months of his life, a whole world opened up to me on the internet and I began to discover the wealth of food stylists, bloggers and general food enthusiasts. One particular site I love is Cannelle et Vanille. Recently I tinkered with one of her recipes. Her baking is gluten free and I didn't have many of the specialty ingredients on hand, so I converted it to use regular flour. Whether you make her recipe or mine, these are steal-another-while-no-one's-looking tasty.

Pear, Hazelnut and Brown Butter Cakes
Adapted from Cannelle and Vanille

I actually forgot to add the maple syrup the first time I made these, and they came out fine. The real vanilla bean adds so much rich vanilla flavor-if you've never baked using real vanilla beans, you're in for a real treat. I recommend adding ground flax seeds- not just to make these healthier, but I really like the bit of texture they add to it.

10 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup flour
1/2 cup hazelnut flour (I ground roasted hazelnuts in a coffee grinder, careful- do this in batches so as not to make a nut butter)
1/4 cup ground flax seed (optional, but I highly recommend)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup maple syrup
1 vanilla bean, split and seeded
2 eggs
2 pears grated (I didn't bother to peel them)
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Place the butter in a small saucepan and cook it until the milk solids start to brown on the bottom of the pan and it smells nutty. Strain and let it cool slightly.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, ground hazelnuts, flax seed, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. In a separate bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, maple syrup, vanilla bean and eggs. Whisk in the cooled brown butter. Add the liquids to the dry ingredients and whisk together. Fold in the grated pear.

Divide the batter in the mini bundt pan mold. Bake at 350 for about 20 minutes. Let them cool for a few minutes in the pan. Remove the cakes from the pan and toss them in the cinnamon sugar.

Makes 1 dozen.
Storage tip: After the first day, I noticed that the cinnamon sugar soaked into the cakes and I had to re-coat them in the sugar mixture. Just one more reason to eat these quickly!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Chicken with Dates and Pine nuts

If we are the sum of the places we've lived, the people we've known, the experiences we've had in life, then there's a little bit of Tunisia in me. When we first arrived in Tunisia in 2005, my first mission was to discover the cuisine. At our local market, I was perplexed that there was not a wide variety of produce. After all, Tunisia was once the breadbasket of the Mediterranean, and fed the whole Roman Empire. Under Ben Ali's regime, certain crops were subsidized, so that is what people grew, which meant one type of tomato, one variety of onion, and many of the best that the country had to offer of olives, dates, etc. were exported out of the country. In addition, because of the closed economy, very little imported produce was allowed to compete with the local economy, so at certain times of the year, onions were literally unavailable.

Strangely, the tourist restaurants rarely featured real Tunisian cooking, other than a few popular dishes. Fresh fish was always central on the menu, but it was hard to find what made Tunisian cuisine stand out. When I started eating in the souk, I began to discover really tasty, simple dishes. Kind of like eating street food, no frills, but intensely good.

I bought a cookbook and started to cook some of these dishes at home. This is the chicken dish I made most often, and I decided to make it again this week since it had been years, and like many others, I've had Tunisia on my mind.

Chicken with Dates and Pine Nuts
Adapted from Cuisine Tunisienne by Christiane Desbordes

This is a wonderful winter dish, rich, creamy and slightly sweet. It can be served over rice, but I chose spelt couscous for a little variety in our grain consumption. I've made versions of this dish substituting the dates with apricots, and using slivered almonds in the place of pine nuts.

1 3lb chicken (1.5 kg)
2 tablespoons oil
2 onions, chopped
a dozen dates, pitted and torn in half lengthwise
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup water
3.5 ounces (100 grams) crème fraîche
1/2 cup pine nuts

Cut the chicken into pieces (or you can use chicken thighs, or even breasts cut into morsels). In a medium saute pan, brown the chicken in the oil, then add the onions and saute for another three minutes. Add the curry powder, flour and water and simmer for five minutes. Add the dates, salt and pepper, then cover and simmer for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

During this time, toast the pine nuts in a bare frying pan, watching carefully not to burn them.

Remove the chicken from the pan and let the sauce reduce slightly, then remove from the heat and stir in the crème fraîche.

Serve over rice or couscous, sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Morning of Dates and Milk

Sabah an-nour, Sabah digla wa halib. Morning of light, morning of dates and milk, they say in Tunisia.

صباح النور، صباح دجلة والحليب

Shortly after we moved into our house in Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia in 2005, the ground beneath us literally shifted. There had been a water main break and water had been leaking into the garden for months. One day the doors and windows no longer closed and there were huge cracks in the wall. We had to move out temporarily, and it was a hassle, but if this had not occurred, I never would have met the owner Hanane, who became like a big sister to me. My time in Tunisia, and my life were enriched tenfold.

Two years later, the morning we left the country, I stepped out into the street before the van came to take us to the airport, already full of nostalgia. Leaving was bittersweet. The sun was rising over Sidi Bou Said, our small village looking over the Mediterranean and I snapped one last shot.

Now the ground has shifted again in Tunisia. The sun is rising for a new day, a new life without the tyrant Ben Ali, there is hope for a life full of freedoms that the people have not known previously. Open press, opportunity, freedom to speak their mind and elect their own government. This is a historic time, but one of many unknowns.

None of this comes easily. Not without violence, not without danger and a mess in the streets. Right now, Hanane is holed up, waiting in her house for the shooting to stop, for calm to be restored, the future to be written. I imagine as a young girl that her mother would make her some dates with milk in the morning, or as a special comfort when she needed it. It's soothing and naturally sweet, and drinking a warm cup full is like coming home to a hug after a long day.

And it's going to be a long day in Tunis, a long wait to see how events play out. We can only wait and hope, provide support however possible for this country full of so much potential. May there be many mornings of light, many mornings of dates and milk. A new door has opened.

Milk with Dates
From Cuisine Tunisienne by Christiane Desbordes

For Hanane, with love
Serves 4

750 ml whole milk
250 grams dates
1 vanilla bean
1 clove

In a medium pot, over low heat, gently bring the milk to a boil. Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and add to the pot, along with the clove and the pitted dates. Stir frequently for about 15 minutes until the dates are very soft. Remove the clove and the vanilla bean before blending in a blender or food processor. Serve hot.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Italian Wedding Soup

Lately I am motivated to cook for friends. Or rather, since most of my friends are thousands of miles away, oceans apart, I am motivated to cook things my friends would like. There are a few of them out there that have been around a long time and these days they are on my mind a lot, especially in the kitchen, starting with Dana.

Dana makes this soup frequently and I recall many emails or phone calls over the years where she would announce that she had just made a pot of Italian Wedding Soup. I didn't even know what it was, but it just sounded good. It was one of her signature dishes, and I always knew if she had made it, it had been a good day.

There is debate over whether this soup is of Italian origin or not. Regardless, in America it's called Italian Wedding Soup, which I think gives it a certain charm. The name may come from the fact that the ingredients go well together, like a good couple should...(minestra maritata)
This version is so simple and intensely satisfying. The meatballs are almost sweet against the tang of the greens, then there's the soft saltiness of the egg and parmesan. The perfect soup to share with a loved one, or your best girlfriend.

Italian Wedding Soup
Adapted from Giada Di Laurentis

I only made one change from the original recipe which was to eliminate the bread from the meatballs. I highly recommend using homemade chicken stock. This is a nice quick soup to make so it would be a good weeknight meal, as long as you have stock already made and have shopped ahead for the ingredients. I suppose that's always the problem with weeknights! Then sit back and savor....

For the meatballs:
1 small onion, grated
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 large egg
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1/2 lb ground beef
1/2 lb ground pork
freshly ground black pepper

For the soup:
12 cups chicken broth
1 lb curly endive or escarole (I used chicory)
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons parmesan

To make the meatballs, stir the first five ingredients to blend. Stir in the cheese, beef and pork. (I use my hands to combine.) Form the meatballs using about 1 1/2 teaspoons. (Just measure the first one, then make the rest about the same size.) Place them on a plate or baking sheet as you work.
To make the soup: Carefully wash the greens. Bring the broth to a boil, add the greens and meatballs and lower heat to simmer the soup for about 8 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through. Whisk the eggs and cheese in a medium bowl. Stir the soup in a circular motion and gradually drizzle the eggs into the soup, stirring with a fork to form thin strands of the egg, about one minute. Turn off the heat. Season the soup with salt and pepper.

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