Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Lemon Pound Cake

I've been thinking about cake this week. I watched a special on the Food Network about the founder of Cake Love, a bakery in Washington D.C. that my friend Mara introduced me to on my last visit. The owner dropped his law career to create a bakery, one that places more emphasis on taste than looks-- in some of the cakes, the filling is bursting out of its lovable and misshapen contours. But who cares? The desserts are delicious. And there's the name -- Cake Love-- which sounds like some sort of supportive, hippie religion dedicated to the worship of baked goods. I went there more than once on my last visit to DC to sample cupcakes and other delights. When I go back this December for an academic conference, Cake Love will definitely be on my list of places to go, along with Ben's Chili Shop, Lebanese Taverna, and Bistrot du Coin in DuPont Circle...

Although I have a wonderful family recipe for pound cake that is called "Crust Cake," which develops a sweet and crunchy crust, it is somewhat heavy and therefore the kind of thing I only like to make once a year or so. This recipe is a little lighter, brighter, and less heavy. It's from the magazine Cook's Illustrated, which I love for their thorough testing of recipes in search of perfection. I knew this would be a winner, and it was-- sweet yet tart, moist yet not gummy, delicate yet substantial. I will definitely make this again.

Lemon Pound Cake
2 sticks butter
1 1/2 cups cake flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 Tblsp. grated lemon zest plus 2 tsp. lemon juice
4 large eggs
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Lemon Glaze
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 9 by 5 loaf pan with 1 Tblsp. softened butter, dust with 1 Tblsp. flour and tap out excess.

In medium bowl, mix flour, baking powder, and salt, set aside.

Melt the butter on the stove and stir it up to make sure it's mixed. In a food processor, process sugar and zest until combined. Add lemon juice, eggs, and vanilla until combined. Keep machine running and add melted butter, remove mixture to large bowl. Sift flour mixture over eggs in three batches, mixing just to combine after each step. Pour into breadloaf pan and bake 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 and bake until golden brown, about 35 minutes more. When toothpick comes out clean, it's ready. Check after 35 minutes, but I found mine took another 5-7 minutes longer. Cool for 10 minutes, turn out onto wire rack, brush Lemon Glaze onto top and sides with a pastry brush.

Lemon glaze: bring sugar and lemon juice to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat to low, simmer 2 minutes until thick.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Ramadan breakfast

We had guests over last night for a traditional Moroccan "breaking of the fast." On normal nights, breaking the fast is a much less elaborate affair, though we try to always have one or more of the following elements. We started the meal with a spicy bowl of harira, a hearty soup made with tomatoes, lentils, meat, and chickpeas, hard boiled eggs flavored with cumin, salt and pepper, dates and figs, a banana milkshake, lemon pound cake, and the famous "pancake with a thousand holes," also known as "bghrir." (This intriguing pancake is made with semolina and yeast; the batter rises for two hours and then when it's fried up it gets little bubbles all over the surface-- hence its name). All of these items might be found on a Moroccan table, even the lemon pound cake, known in my husband's family as mskuta although there, not flavored with lemon. After stuffing ourselves full of tasty carbs, we waited for awhile and then served chicken tagine with lemon and olives, along with fresh, round loaves of Moroccan wheat bread.

Nour and I spent almost six hours preparing, although for him the preparation was considerably more difficult because he was fasting AND the air conditioning system was broken (welcome to Florida, 85 degrees yesterday, and a hurricane on the way). I was thrilled with the way everything turned out, and each recipe was a keeper, particularly the chicken and olive tagine and the lemon pound cake. Our guests, one of whom was Moroccan, raved about the tagine. Nour made the harira, which was terrific, although I didn't write down the quantities yet so I can't report how it was made. I will write about the terrific lemon pound cake on another day, but for now, here's how to make an authentic (and easy) Moroccan chicken tagine that will leave your guests fainting with happiness... Moroccans eat tagines with bread-- couscous would not be served with this, although you can really do whatever you want if you feel you need a side carb.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Lemon & Olives
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
olive oil
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
3 pounds chicken pieces, cut up
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1/2 tsp. pepper
10-14 ounces green olives without pits (with pimiento is fine; although not traditional, it doesn't affect the taste too much)
Juice from 1 lemon
1/2 cup finely chopped cilantro

In a Dutch oven, saute garlic in a generous slug of olive oil over medium heat until beginning to turn golden. Add tomatoes and cook for 2 minutes more, until softening. Add chicken, turmeric, and pepper, and cook uncovered for 15 minutes over low heat, turning occasionally.

Add about a cup of water to almost cover the chicken, then add olives. Cover and simmer 30 minutes, turning occasionally. Add lemon juice and cilantro, uncover and cook 15 minutes more, reducing the sauce so that it thickens slightly. Serve with crusty baguette for dipping.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Chocolate Butter Creams

It was a fairly forgettable week for cooking, mostly because I was so busy at work I only had one night where I attempted anything dramatic. I made a Pakistani chicken curry and potato-spinach patties, but both turned out to be forgettable and therefore not worth reporting. (I was checking out some sample recipes from a new Indian cookbook, but I probably won't buy it since Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Cooking, along with a few books by Madhur Jaffrey already have me covered...)

Which brings me to the week's one culinary success: butter creams. My mother often made these. She said her favorite way to spend her birthday as a child was to get to eat butter creams all day and read comic books. These are decadent and impressive, rich dark chocolate coating a creamy, buttery center-- it's like making your own chocolates and will impress everyone, though it's not at all difficult. The only drawback is that they stick to the plate, and I haven't figured out a way around that-- I tried putting these on a plate coated with Pam, but to no avail. They have to be pried up with a sharp knife, or if you take them out of the refrigerator for a few minutes, they usually are soft enough to pull off more easily. But they are worth it.

Chocolate Butter Creams

1/2 cup butter (one stick), slightly softened
4 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 Tblsp. Condensed milk
Semi-sweet or bittersweet chocolate-- a couple ounces

Cream butter using electric mixer, sift powdered sugar gradually into it, incorporating little by little. Add vanilla, mix everything well and form into balls by rolling in the palm of your hand. Place in the refrigerator on a plate for one hour to harden.

I then took a bar of Ghiradelli's semisweet baking chocolate and melted it over low heat with a couple squares of unsweetened baking chocolate (the bitter contrast is nice with the sweetness of the interior). Once melted, I took out the butter cream balls and used cooking tongs to quickly dip and coat each ball with chocolate, removing and placing on perhaps a greased cookie sheet. Cover and return to refrigerator to chill for another half hour or so, then eat and enjoy, or serve to guests. Decadent.

Friday, October 14, 2005


This is really, really exciting-- one of my oldest friends, George, has been written up in the New York Times for his new restaurant,

I wish I still lived in New York... If you happen to be there, go check it out. I am certain, from many a fine dinner prepared by George himself, that this place must be good.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Afghani Chicken with Pistachios and Caramelized Onions

When I used to live in Baltimore, there was a terrific Afghani restaurant called the Helmand. (I believe there is also a branch in San Francisco). I often went there for special occasions and it was wonderful-- unique dishes that reminded me of Turkish and Indian food yet which were very much their own thing. Dumplings stuffed with meat and leeks and drizzled in yogurt sauce, delicate dishes involving spiced pumpkin puree. The Helmand was owned by the Karzai family-- the very same family of the President of Afghanistan.

A few months ago, my friend Delia made this recipe for her book club when they were reading Khaled Hosseini's bestselling novel The Kite Runner. The recipe originally appeared in Cooking Light. At the time she recommended the dish, I filed the recipe away, and last night I finally made it.

It was amazing. Delicate, subtly spiced rice, tender chicken, and the perfect blend of salty and sweet. The rice is not very sweet, despite the orange peel and the sugar. The caramelized onions and saffron make this dish outstanding, and I love the different textures, particularly the crunch of pistachios on top. It's not hard to make, so I'll definitely be making it again.

Afghani Chicken with Pistachios and Caramelized Onions

6 pieces of chicken, bone-in, your call which type (I used legs)
2 cups vertically sliced onions
1/4 tsp. saffron threads, crushed
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 Tblsp. sugar
2 tsp. grated orange peel
2 1/4 cups no sodium added chicken broth
1 1/2 cups uncooked basmati or other long grain rice
2 Tblsp. raisins
6 Tblsp. chopped pistachios

Salt and pepper chicken pieces. In a large Dutch oven, melt 1 Tblsp. butter. Brown chicken on all sides over medium-high heat (about 5-7 minutes). Remove chicken from pan.

Melt another tablespoon of butter in same Dutch oven, saute sliced onions over medium heat until golden brown, 10-12 minutes. Add saffron and garlic, cook one minute, stirring constantly. Add orange peel and sugar, stir again for another minute. Add broth, rice, raisins, and salt to taste (1/4 tsp or more). Place chicken pieces back in rice and cover with lid. Cook 25 minutes, turning once, check to make sure the chicken doesn't dry up. You may need to add a bit more broth or water. Taste to see if rice is tender and adjust seasonings. Sprinkle with pistachios and serve. Serves 6. I divided this in half and managed to polish it off with only 2 people.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Sopa (Moroccan Vegetable Soup)

It's the month of Ramadan now, which means that my husband is fasting during the day. I tried fasting before when we lived in Morocco-- I made it about two weeks before finally giving up. It's incredibly difficult. Now I just like to try preparing nice things for him to break the fast with. The most common breakfast we had back in Fes would be a big bowl of harira-- a tomato-based soup with lentils, chickpeas, meat, and spices-- with dates, lots of honey pancakes and pastries. I made a huge pot of harira last week, but after eating it for a few days my husband gets tired of it and wants something else. So today I made something his mother calls sopa, a vegetable soup that is a lot lighter than harira. (If only the humid 90 degree Florida temperatures would agree with all this soupmaking.)

His family eats sopa as a light meal at night, particularly in the winter, often with a "tortilla"-- actually a Spanish omelette with potatoes. They sometimes make it with leftover chicken and other times with no meat at all-- it really doesn't need it for the flavor. I was looking at Hajar Lahouifi's recipe for chorba, which looks very similar, but this is our version from Fes:

Moroccan Vegetable Sopa (For 2 people-- can be doubled to serve 4)
3 carrots, diced
1 large potato, diced
2 celery sticks, diced (they would use the leaves but I don't find them in supermarkets here)
1-2 large tomatoes, whole (You can use 3 smaller canned whole tomatoes if you like)
1 onion, whole
a handful of parsley, finely chopped
a handful of cilantro, finely chopped
a tiny dash of turmeric
salt and pepper to taste
1 soup spoon olive oil
Green peas, a generous handful
a small bundle of vermicelli noodles
1 beef boullion cube - I like Better than Boullion (Vegetarians could probably use a veggie cube)

Place carrots, potatoes, celery, whole tomatoes, whole onion, parsley and cilantro in a small pot or pressure cooker. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Add turmeric, salt, pepper and oil, then cover. Cook for fifteen minutes in a pressure cooker or one hour in a normal soup pot. Remove tomatoes and onion and blend in a blender or food processor, returning this to the pot. Taste and adjust seasonings, then in last few minutes of cooking time add noodles and green peas (which I don't add until the end because I use frozen ones).

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Challah Bread

Maybe because it’s Rosh Hashanah, maybe because the NY Times had a big article last week about different varieties of kugel, which sounded intriguing though I’ve never tried it, I’ve been curious about the traditional foods eaten at this holiday. My friend Carol is going to bring a kugel her mother used to make into the office on Friday, so I’m looking forward to that. But last night I was having a craving for bread, and remembering how good challah French toast is, I decided to try my hand at the bread itself.

Surprisingly, it is not at all difficult to make, and the results turned out perfectly. The end result is very impressive, with a golden-brown, puffed up loaf, crispy on the outside, soft and dense and fragrant on the inside. For my recipe I chose to follow Mark Bittman’s in How To Cook Everything, which my friend Beth refers to as the “Bittman Bible.” (I refer to it seven to ten times each week). I decided to divide the recipe in half, both because Bittman recommended not keeping it for more than a day and also because my food processor is too small to process five cups of flour, and I love using the food processor to make bread.

2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Rapid Rise yeast
1 Tblsp. Honey or sugar
1 1/2 eggs (this was a stretch—I used a single egg and 1/8 cup egg beaters)
Milk, warmed in the microwave, midway between 1/2 and 3/4 of a cup
Coarse salt to taste

First I put the flour, salt, and yeast in a food processor, whirring them to blend. As the machine was running, I added the honey, eggs and milk. I processed the dough for 30 seconds, and its consistency was supposed to be barely sticky and a well-defined ball, so I had to add a few more tablespoons of flour until it came out like this. Then I kneaded it for about thirty seconds on a floured surface and turned it into a mixing bowl coated with cooking oil.

For an hour and a half the bread rose in the inferno that is the Florida garage. By this point I was getting hungry, so I cut short Mark Bittman’s recommended time to do these other steps. I punched the dough down into three equally sized balls, then let them sit five minutes (rather than the recommended fifteen). I rolled them out into three ropes about 10 inches long and placed them on a greased baking sheet, connecting them at the top. I simply braided them and connected the dough again at the bottom, (they were supposed to sit in this state for 30 minutes but I couldn’t wait), brushing it with egg yolk and sprinkling coarse Kosher salt on top. In a preheated 375 degree oven I cooked the small loaf about 30 minutes, until it was golden brown and made a hollow noise when I tapped it on the bottom. Mmm. Great with dinner, can’t wait to have it again for breakfast…

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Experimenting with Quinoa

I was interested to read that quinoa (pronounced "kin-wa"), a grain from Ecuador used since the time of the Incans, was so high in protein-- up to 12 grams in a serving. It also has fiber and vitamins A & C, making it a kind of super-grain. I bought some from Whole Foods and decided to start experimenting with recipes. The first recipe I tried was a slight improvisation based on a recent article in Runner's World. It was kind of a quinoa pilaf that has a lot of vitamins and protein in it. I made it as an accompaniment to London broil, but it could have stood on its own as a filling veggie lunch.

First I heated a bit of olive oil in a saucepan, then sauteed 3/4 cup quinoa until it was golden and toasty. I covered this with 1 1/2 cups chicken broth and cooked it for fifteen minutes, while in another pan I sauteed a few tablespoons of onion and two garlic cloves in olive oil. At the end I added about three cups of fresh spinach and a diced plum tomato, along with a dash of salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. When the spinach had reduced in size and the quinoa was cooked, I mixed everything together along with 1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese.

Results: I really liked the consistency, which was crunchy and fell somewhere between bulgur and couscous in appearance. The quinoa also tasted delicious. BUT-- it had a slightly weird smell to it that reminded me of cauliflower-- not entirely appealing. Sometimes I smell things that aren't there (ancient head injury, long story), so it could have been in my imagination. And my husband loved it. So I will keep experimenting and report tasty quinoa recipes as I find them, since obviously it's really good for you.