Orange Blossom Cornmeal Cake

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On Sunday, Steve and I will travel to Cyprus for a week. We’ll spend some time with my family in Nicosia, travel a bit, and then all go to Paphos for Easter weekend. While I was growing up, Easter was a holiday I was ambivalent about. On the one hand, we had no school and the weather was almost always beautiful, with wildflowers blooming everywhere around our house. On the other hand, Easter week was so gloomy. There was the somber church service on Thursday night, when a big cross was carried around by the priest while chanting ominously “crucify him, crucify him” in ancient Greek. Then on Friday night, church service was equally dreary with a huge casket-like box in the middle of the church, representing Jesus’s tomb, completely covered in wildflowers and flowering herbs like rosemary. So, it was a gloomy service but a well perfumed one, adding to the dissonance of the occasion.

Things would change on Saturday night when there was the midnight service celebrating the resurrection. At precisely midnight, the church lights would turn down, everyone would go quiet, and the priest would emerge from the apse with a single lit candle, proceeding to light the candles of worshippers in front of him who would then light the candles of the people behind them, and so on, causing a wave of light to swiftly spread through the church and out into the courtyard, all while everyone was chanting the Byzantine resurrection hymn that they learned from the time they were in first grade (“Christ has risen from the dead, he has conquered death…”). But even this seemingly joyous night was fraught with some anxiety for me because the custom was (and still is) for men to light up giant bonfires outside the church and to explode homemade fireworks. Every year there were several men who lost fingers, entire hands, eyes, and they continue to do so today.

On this trip, we will be with my family on Saturday night in a little chapel outside the hotel we are staying in in Paphos, the westernmost city in Cyprus, on the Mediterranean. Bucking tradition, the service will begin at 11pm instead of midnight (because the priest has to be at his regular big church for the midnight service), which means that we will be able to go have the traditional Easter soup after the service and go to bed at a slightly more reasonable hour.

My family is not religious (my mom is the only one who really believes in God, but she has no affinity for the church and its priests). But there is something about Easter in Cyprus, specifically the Saturday midnight mass, that we all find beautiful. When you look past the religious symbols and iconography, ignore the mythical resurrection story, what you find is part of the soul of the people of the island. For those few moments when the holy light sweeps the darkened church that is filled with people’s voices chanting, you can’t help but feel a sense of awe. For tradition, for community, for family.

All of this to get me to share with you this recipe, which has nothing to do with Easter, but a lot to do with Cyprus. I fiddled around with a recipe I found on Food and Wine for a grapefruit cake one day and managed to turn it into something that we immediately loved. This isn’t a showstopper visually. It’s a simple, toothsome cake, but it is filled with flavors of early Mediterranean spring, combining orange blossoms and the oranges they turn into. It’s hearty but delicate. It demands your attention with every bite. So, enjoy it and happy Easter or happy Passover if you are celebrating next week.

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Orange Blossom Cornmeal Cake – Adapted from Food and Wine

Ingredients:

3/4 stick (85g) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup medium-grind cornmeal
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3 large eggs
1/3 cup and two teaspoons (85g) vegetable oil
finely grated zest of one orange
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 tablespoon orange blossom water

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 9-inch cake pan (or springform pan). Line the bottom with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour with the cornmeal, granulated sugar, baking powder and salt. In a separate medium bowl, whisk the eggs with the melted butter, oil, orange zest, orange juice, and orange blossom water until they are combined. While whisking constantly, add the butter mixture to the flour mixture in a slow, steady stream. Whisk just until well blended. You can also use a spatula to finish mixing the batter. Don’t overmix.

Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake for about 45-50 minutes, until golden and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.

Transfer the cake to a rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a sharp paring knife around the edge of the cake, then invert it onto the rack (or remove the sides of the springform pan). Peel off the parchment paper. Carefully flip the cake right side up and let cool.

Before serving you can sprinkle powdered sugar on the cake but it’s really not needed.

Salted Peanut Butter Cookies

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When I was a kid, we had a lot of American shows on TV: from “Happy Days” to “Charlie’s Angels” to “The Love Boat” and “Dynasty.”  They were all subtitled in Greek, which was actually a big help in learning English. There were a lot of things that the characters on these TV shows talked about that we didn’t really know about or were ever able to experience. One of those was the mythical “peanut butter.” It seemed to be everywhere. On sandwiches and in desserts, it sounded like the most delicious thing my sister and I could imagine. In fact, we did imagine that it probably tasted like an even better version of Nutella, which we did have available to us and which we adored. So, we always begged our dad to look for peanut butter at the store but he always came back empty handed. It simply did not exist in Cyprus.
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Then one day, when we were teenagers, he came home with a jar of peanut butter. My dad worked at the American Embassy and somehow, he got a hold of some of this spread that seemed to be the American equivalent to the Cypriot tahini, ubiquitous and universally loved. My sister and I couldn’t hold our excitement. My mom joined us, and the four of us each held a spoon. My dad opened the jar and peeled away the plastic cover. We all took a spoonful, marveling at the thick, luscious consistency and placed the spoons in our mouths. As if in a slapstick comedy bit, we all started gagging. How could this be what Americans loved? It tasted like peanuts (go figure!) and stuck your tongue to the roof of your mouth with a faint grit and a tiny hint of sweetness that just wasn’t enough for us. We all hated it. We threw out the jar and never thought about it again.

Several years later, I moved to the U.S. and my love affair with peanut butter began. I don’t know what changed. Maybe I had better peanut butter, maybe the one we had in Cyprus was old and stale. More likely, peanut butter is one of those things that you kind of have to learn to love, like Vegemite and stinky cheese. I know that even today, with peanut butter available world wide, many non-Americans despise it.

There are many ways to enjoy peanut butter, but this recipe for peanut butter cookies is one of my favorites. Four simple ingredients (five, if you count the salt), one bowl, and 15 minutes in the oven, will reward you with the most exquisite, crispy on the outside, meltingly soft in the middle, cookies. They’re good enough to perhaps entice even the most ardent peanut butter haters.
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Salted Peanut Butter Cookies – Very slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:

1 3/4 cups (335 grams) packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups (450 grams) smooth/creamy peanut butter (I use the Jif Natural kind and it’s perfect)
Coarse-grained sea salt, like Madon, to finish

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the light brown sugar and eggs until smooth. Whisk in the vanilla extract, then the peanut butter until smooth and completely incorporated; you shouldn’t be able to see any ribbons of peanut butter.

Preferably, chill the dough by freezing it in its bowl for 15 minutes, stirring it once (so the edges don’t freeze first), before scooping it. Scoop or spoon the dough into balls, about 1.5-2 inches in diameter. If you want them bake into a more rounded, tall shape, place the tray in the freezer for 15 minutes before baking. Or you can bake them immediately for flatter cookies, like the ones in the photo above.

Sprinkle the dough balls lightly with coarse-grained sea salt just before baking. Bake cookies for 18 to 20 minutes. When finished, cookies should be golden at edges. They’ll need to set on the sheet for a minute or two before they can be lifted intact to a cooling sheet.

Let them cool completely before serving. Otherwise, you won’t get the nice crispy outside.

 

Pomegranate and Za’atar Braised Chicken

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Taste, like language, is learned. We grow up eating certain foods and experiencing certain flavors. We do so during our most formative years, our childhoods, and so we connect them, strongly, with events and feelings. Our memories become multi-sensory and they are brought to the surface with a simple bite or a bare sniff.

We all have our Proustian madeleines. For me, it’s Middle-Eastern food (and I include Greek food in that category). No matter what it is and what its country of origin, Greek, Turkish, Lebanese, Syrian, it’s food that feels like home. It’s my comfort food.dsc05352

When I saw this recipe on Chocolate & Zucchini, I knew that I would love it. Combining za’atar (the spice mix found throughout the Middle East) and pomegranate molasses makes complete sense for my taste buds. And I was right. The result is succulent chicken that is deeply fragrant from the za’atar spices, with a tangy sweet sauce and caramelized onions. It warms your soul. It’s the kind of dish you serve and people immediately ask for the recipe, which is incredibly simple to make. And for some of us, it tastes like home.
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Pomegranate and Za’atar Braised Chicken – Adapted from Chocolate & Zucchini

Serves 2-3

Ingredients:

3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari (make sure it is gluten-free as needed)
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon za’atar
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 medium yellow onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly smashed
1.5-2.5 lbs bone-in, skin-on chicken thighs

Directions:

In a large bowl, whisk together all the ingredients except the chicken, the onion, and the garlic. Add the diced onion and stir well. Add the garlic and the chicken thighs and use your hands to mix them well with the marinade. Cover and marinate in the fridge anywhere between 30 min and 10 hours.

Preheat the oven to 175°C (325°F).

Place the chicken with its marinade in a Dutch oven or other heavy, ovenproof pot with a lid.

Place the lid on the pot, put it in the oven, and cook for 1 1/4 hours, until the thighs are cooked through.

Serve with steamed rice or couscous, spooning the sauce over the chicken and the rice/couscous.

Tangerine Sorbet

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” When Charles Dickens wrote those words, he could have been predicting people’s perceptions of the world today. Depending on where you get your news from, who you’re connected to on Facebook, or who you follow on Twitter, these are the best or the worst of times. There’s no middle anymore. No nuance. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining.

Personally, I’ve turned to a couple of things that calm me in times of crisis: TV and food (and Steve, so I guess three things). Watching a good show on TV turns everything else off. My brain and my heart disengage from the real world and are immersed in the fictional world on the screen. “Jane the Virgin” makes me smile. “The Walking Dead” pumps my adrenaline. “The Crown” makes me swoon.

Food works in a similar way. It gives me something to look forward to, at a time when there’s a news alert on my phone every five minutes that’s sure to make me sad or scared or angry. The smell of short ribs braising is a sign that there are still so many good things in the world. Savoring each bite of a perfectly roasted chicken helps me from dwelling on the news. And the bitter-sweet-tart taste of this tangerine sorbet reminds me that life doesn’t come in just one flavor, but that it’s always deliciously precious.
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Tangerine Sorbet – Slightly adapted from “The Perfect Scoop” by David Lebovitz

Ingredients:

3 cups freshly squeezed tangering juice
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1 tangerine for zesting
1-2 tablespoons orange liqueur (like Grand Marnier or Cointreau)

Directions:

In a small saucepan mix 1/2 cup of the juice with the sugar. Warm over low heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Stir it into the remaining juice. Zest the tangerine into the mixture and add the orange liqueur. Mix with a spoon and chill the mixture thoroughly in the fridge. Freeze the chilled mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Brussel Sprouts, Apple, and Pomegranate Salad

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I haven’t posted on the blog for a while because I was traveling. Steve and I celebrated New Year’s eve in Lisbon with out friends. We ate bacalao (salt cod) cooked with potatoes and eggs, pasteis de nata (the ubiquitous Portuguese egg tarts), and drank lots of vinho verde wine. We listened to fado music in a neighborhood restaurant, where the owners, a husband who cooked and wife who served us, both sang for us and brought us to tears with emotion.

We then went to Paris where we spent time with friends and observed the tail end of the latest Parisian food fad: hot dogs. Yes, hot dogs. Last year it was bagels, the year before it was cupcakes, and before them it was burgers. Despite the fascination with the worst of American cuisine, I’m happy to report that the food scene in Paris is thriving, with countless little restaurants offering home-cooked, delicious meals everywhere.

Before coming back to New York I went to Cyprus for a week to visit my family and a day after I arrived I was struck with a nasty case of stomach flu that pretty much destroyed my appetite, so I didn’t get to enjoy my mom’s cooking as much as I would have liked.

By the time I came back home, after being away for almost four weeks, I was craving simple and familiar food. My body demanded salads and grilled chicken. This brussel sprout salad with apples and pomegranate will soothe any travel-weary stomach. We made it for the first time last Thanksgiving and we loved it. It’s fresh and sweet-tart with a satisfying crunch. It holds well in the fridge so you can make it in advance or store left overs for next day’s meal.

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Brussel Sprouts, Apple, and Pomegranate Salad – Slightly adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Serves 4-6

Ingredients:

1/2 large red onion, diced small
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons ground sumac
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more to season salad
2 cups shredded brussels sprouts (you can shred them with a food processor or thinly slice them with a sharp knife)
1/2 cup fresh pomegranate seeds (from about 1/2 a large one)
1/2 a large peeled apple, cored and diced
Juice of half a lemon, plus more to taste
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons honey
1/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup toasted, cooled walnuts, lightly crushed or coarsely chopped
Aleppo pepper (or ground chipotle chile pepper, urfa biber peppers, hot smoked paprika or another chile flake) to taste

Directions:

Make the sumac-pickled onions: Combine red onion, wine vinegar, sumac and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt in a small bowl and set aside while you prepare the other ingredients, or ideally at least 15 minutes.

Combine all salad ingredients, including red onions and their pickling liquid, in a medium bowl and season to taste with salt and red pepper. Taste and adjust ingredients as desired.

This salad can be prepped ahead, but keep the dressing off of it until at most an hour before serving so it doesn’t discolor the sprouts.

Grandmother’s Famous Cranberry Bread

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My love of books started at a very young age. In one of my earliest memories, I must have been three years old, my parents had friends over and they were all sitting outside our house having a drink. It must have been past my bedtime but for some reason my mom had put me in my parents’ bed and let me sit there by myself and go through a picture book somebody had given me as a gift (maybe the friends who had come over?). The memory is very fuzzy but I remember a few things: how huge the bed seemed to me, how thrilling it was to be sitting in it, the safety I felt from the voices of my parents just outside their bedroom window, and the feeling of holding the book in my hands and flipping through the pages. I couldn’t read yet but it felt so exciting to hold this object in my hand that was filled with amazing pictures (and weird symbols I couldn’t understand) that changed every time I flipped a page.DSC04884

With my mom’s help, I learned to read a year later when I was four, so that when I started first grade at five years old (we started earlier back then), I could read comfortably and by the time I was in my early teens, when my birthday came around, the gift I wished for the most from people who’d come to my birthday party were books. I read everything I could get my hands on and with no access to a library, I was desperate for new books. When I was younger, I wanted fairy tale books, but by my mid-teens I was fully into literary fiction and science fiction books, a love that endures to this day.

Today’s recipe is actually from a little kids’ book called “Cranberry Thanksgiving.” I had never read this book as a kid (given that it’s a book about Thanksgiving, it was obviously never translated in Greek) but I found out about it and this recipe that comes from it from Steve’s sister Christine. She told me she makes this cake every year and that her three boys love it. The cake is peculiar in that it’s made using a method usually used for biscuits and scones, by cutting the butter into flour. So, you can think of it as a giant, golden scone, studded with red cranberries. The result is beautiful and delicious and yet more reason to love books and what they have to offer.

This is the last post for 2016, a year few people will look back on with affection. Let’s hope that 2017 proves to be kinder to us. Happy new year to everyone and see you again in January.DSC04901

Grandmother’s Famous Cranberry Bread – Slightly adapted from Cranberry Thanksgiving

Note: The original recipe calls for equal amounts of cranberries and raisins. That’s what I used in the cake you see in the photos. However, I’ve made it with only cranberries and we prefer it that way much more. Feel free to go either way.

Ingredients:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup butter, cut into small cubes
1 egg
1 teaspoon orange zest
3/4 cup orange juice
1 1/2 cups fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 cups light raisins (or substitute with fresh cranberries, as above)

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×5-inch loaf pan and line it with parchment paper to help you getting the cake out.

Whisk flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda in a large bowl. With a pastry blender or with your fingers, cut in butter until mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, whisk together egg, orange peel, and orange juice and then add to the dry ingredients. Stir just until mixture is evenly moist. Fold in cranberries and raisins (or only cranberries). The batter will be thick and there will be small pieces of butter throughout.

Spoon into the loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a toothpick nested in the center comes out clean. Remove from pan; cool on a wire rack.

Under-the-Sea Salad

dsc05358Thanksgiving is a time that can bring out the best and the worst in people. There’s a reason why there are so many Thanksgiving movies and Thanksgiving episodes of TV shows where family dynamics explode before the turkey hits the table. It can be a pretty stressful time. Between the forced family reunions, the blaring of football on TV, the preparation of a week’s worth of food in a day, and the eating of said food in record time, things can get a little hectic.

But it’s also a time for traditions. Yes, there’s turkey and sweet potatoes and stuffing and gravy, but every home, every family adapts their Thanksgiving meal by adding foods from their national backgrounds or dishes that someone made many years before and somehow stuck or using preparations and ingredients that are more prevalent where they live. There are as many variations of Thanksgiving dishes as there are pieces to the American quilt of immigrants and their descendants.

Steve’s family has its own tradition for the Thanksgiving dinner table. It’s called under-the-sea salad. And it’s as gloriously trashy as you can get. The ingredients alone are enough to give you an idea: lime Jello, cream cheese, canned pears, and a pinch of ground cloves (which is what Steve always calls the “secret ingredient”). It’s not Thanksgiving for Steve unless the under-the-sea salad is on the table. And don’t even try to tell him that it’s dessert. No, it’s a salad, he and his family will insist.

Truth be told, it’s absolutely delicious. Is it as artificial as our new president’s hair? Absolutely. But it’s tart and sweet and cuts right through the heaviness of the turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes that are piled on your plate. Do I think you’ll all run out and buy the ingredients to make it? Absolutely not. But this coming Thursday, it will be jiggling its neon green dome right in the middle of our Thanksgiving dinner table. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Under-the-Sea Salad

Ingredients:

2 3oz packages of lime jello
1 8oz package of cream cheese
1 28oz can of pears in syrup (or two 14.5oz cans)
A heavy pinch of ground cloves

Directions:

In a large bowl prepare the jello per the package instructions but use 1/4 of a cup less water than the instructions call for. Set aside to let it cool a little while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.

Drain the pears very well and put them in a second large bowl along with the cream cheese. Using a fork or potato masher, mash the pears and cream cheese together thoroughly. Add the warm jello liquid and the cloves, stir well and pour in your favorite mould (if you don’t have a mould, you can use a metal mixing bowl). Put in the fridge and let it chill until firm.

When ready to serve, fill a very large bowl that the mould can fit in with hot tap water. Dip the bottom and sides of the mould in the hot water, careful not to get any water inside the mould, for 20-25 seconds. This will allow the salad to detach from the sides of the mould. Run the tip of a sharp knife around the top edge of the mould to help with with releasing the salad.

Place a large serving platter on top of the mould and quickly flip it to release the salad. Serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.