Sweet Potato Cake with Apricots and Raisins


If you were to travel to Cyprus over the Christmas period, expecting to experience some interesting traditions, unique to the Greek population of the south part of the island, you will probably be disappointed. Christmas in Cyprus is pretty much like Christmas everywhere else. There are Christmas trees and Santa Claus (St. Basil, as he’s known in Greek) and Christmas carols (exactly the same but with Greek lyrics) and tons of shopping. The only things that are perhaps somewhat unique are the traditional stuffed turkey served on Christmas day and the two typical types of cookies made for the season: kourambiedes (very similar to mexican wedding cookies) and melomakarona (cookies soaked in a spiced honey syrup).DSC04442

And then there is Christmas cake, one of the unfortunate leftover traditions from the decades of British rule over the island. It’s a dense, dense, DENSE fruit cake/brick, loaded with dried and candied fruits and nuts, covered with marzipan and then a hard, white icing on top. Before the icing solidifies, the cake is decorated with small Christmas decorations. Almost everyone hated Christmas cakes when I was a kid. And yet, every house would make one or buy one from a patisserie. The only thing we liked as kids was the moment we got to place the tiny decorations over the cake just after my mom iced it, or eating the thin layer of marzipan under that icing.

I guess fruit cakes are just not popular anywhere. In the U.S. they are always the butt of the joke. It’s a shame because a well-made cake with dried fruit and nuts can be wonderful. It doesn’t have to be dark as night or require a hacksaw to cut through it. This recipe is for such a cake. It’s a little boozy and it gets some of its sweetness as well as its tenderness from mashed sweet potatoes. The dried apricots and raisins provide both sweet and tart flavors and the roasted pecans round everything out. The original recipe, from David Lebovitz who adapted it from Alice Medrich, calls for a cream cheese frosting, but I love it just by itself. Perhaps it can become the new and improved Christmas cake.
DSC04451Sweet Potato Cake with Apricots and Raisins – Slightly adapted from David Lebovitz

Makes 2 8-inch loaf cakes


1/3 cup (2 ounces, 57g) finely-diced dried apricots, preferably California
1/3 cup (2 ounces, 57g) raisins
1/2 cup (125ml) white vermouth
2 cups (8 oz, 225g) flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons (75g) unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (90g) packed light or dark brown sugar
zest of 1 lemon
1 large egg and 1 large egg white, at room temperature
1 cup (240g) sweet potato puree
1 cup (125g) toasted pecans, coarsely chopped


First, marinate apricot pieces and raisins in vermouth for about 30 minutes. Drain, pressing the apricots gently to extract all the liquid. Reserve the liquid.

Preheat oven to 350ºF (180ºC.) Grease with non-stick spray or butter two 8-inch (20cm) loaf pans.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and baking powder.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl using a flexible spatula or spoon, cream the butter with the granulated and brown sugars, and lemon zest, until smooth and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and the egg white and combine thoroughly. If using a stand mixer, stop the mixer and scrape down the side to make sure everything is incorporated. (The mixture may look curdled, which is fine.)

Mix in half of the flour mixture, then the drained vermouth and sweet potato puree, then the rest of the dry ingredients. Stop mixer as soon as they are incorporated (do not overmix). Stir in the nuts and apricots with a spatula.

Divide the batter into the prepared pans, smooth the tops, and bake about 55 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool for 15 minutes before removing onto cooling racks and cooling completely.

Apricot Cherry Tart with Pistachio Frangipane


When I was little, there were many bakeries in our city where one could get bread and other essentials but there were only a few confectionaries (patisseries) that specialized in sweet things, like cakes and cookies. One of those was Hurricane. It’s probably the oldest confectionary still in existence in the city. It’s tucked away in the old part of town, a veritable hole in the wall, with enough room for five or six small tables that surround an ancient wood-and-glass case (the same one since I was a kid) that has always contained cookies for sale.DSC03089

Back then, Hurricane was considered fancy and it was rather expensive. Before I was even born, this was a place where ladies of high society would go for tea and cookies, served in real china by the family that owned it. For me, Hurricane has always been a bundle of memories. There was the smell of sugar and butter that reached out to the street and around the corner, driving me crazy with desire. There were the butter cookies with their tips dipped in chocolate sprinkles. There were the kok, a traditional dessert of thick pastry cream sandwiched between two cake-like cookies, with the top cookie covered in vanilla or chocolate glaze.DSC03090

But above all, I remember the varkoulles, or little boats. They consisted of a cookie shell in the shape of a small boat, filled with a frangipane filling. They tasted intensely of almonds and the shell gave a satisfying crunch when bit into, only to give way to the soft, almost creamy filling. They were my absolute favorites and they filled me with joy when my parents would buy them for us. It was probably with them that my love affair with frangipane started.


What’s there not to like? A mixture of nuts, sugar, flour, butter and eggs, at just the right ratio, bakes into a filling that is incredibly satisfying no matter what surrounds it. It’s what makes the French galette de rois, a traditional New Year’s pie made of puff pastry filled with frangipane, such a delightful treat. And it’s what makes this apricot cherry tart irresistible. And the fact that it is a single (food processor) bowl recipe makes it even better. If you don’t have apricots or cherries at hand, switch it up. Plums, apples, pears, or any fruit that’s not too juicy will do fine. If you don’t have pistachios, you can use almonds, which is the more traditional version of frangipane.DSC03117
Apricot Cherry Tart with Pistachio Frangipane – Adapted from Smitten Kitchen


1 cup (125 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (4 ounces or 115 grams) cold unsalted butter

3/4 cup (a scant 4 ounces or 110 grams) shelled unsalted pistachios
1 tablespoon (10 grams) all purpose flour
Few pinches of sea salt
6 tablespoons (75 grams) sugar
5 tablespoons (70 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 large egg
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, 2 teaspoons brandy or another flavoring of your choice (optional)
8 firm-ripe apricots, pitted and cut in half
8 sweet cherries, pitted and cut in half
To finish
Powdered sugar or 1/4 cup apricot jam


Heat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Make the crust: Combine the flour, salt and sugar in the bowl of a food processor. Cut the butter into chunks, and add it to the bowl, then run the machine continuously (don’t pulse) until the mixture forms large clumps. It might take 30 seconds to 1 minute for it to come together. Transfer the dough clumps to a 9 inch fluted tart pan with removable bottom and press it evenly across the bottom and up the sides. Place in the fridge for 30 minutes to allow the dough to rest (this will reduce shrinkage when you bake it). Bake for 15 minutes, until very pale golden. Let crust cool.

Make the filling: In the same food processor bowl (no need to clean it between these steps), grind your pistachios, sugar, flour and salt together until the nuts are powdery. Cut the butter into chunks and add it to the machine. Run the machine until no buttery bits are visible. Add any flavorings and egg, blending until just combined.

Spread filling over cooled crust. Place apricots and cherries cut side down onto the pistachio filing. Bake for 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the pistachio portion comes out batter-free. Let cool completely in pan.

To finish, you can make a shiny glaze for your tart by warming apricot jam in a small saucepan until it thins, and brushing this mixture over the top of the cooled tart. Or, you can dust it with powdered sugar.

Dried Apricot and Pistachio Ice Cream


So, apparently, the Super Bowl is happening in New York tomorrow. Yeah, that’s how much Steve and I follow football. To our defense, the Super Bowl is technically in New Jersey, not in New York city. But honestly, it could be two blocks away and we still wouldn’t know who’s playing in it. I saw the team names by accident today, while reading an article in the Styles section of the New York Times, so I blurted them out at lunch with a friend, making it seem like I always knew it was the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks (see how I did that?). They both looked at me with a look that said Who are you? so I told them the truth.


More pressing around here has been the weather. Days and days of below freezing temperatures have made even me, an avid winter lover, complain about the cold. You know it’s getting too cold when the East River fills with big, flat chunks of ice, floating down from upstate New York like mini icebergs, creating delays for the ferry. When you’re on a rickety old ferry boat, floating over a river that is so cold it freezes, the sound of thumps and scraping noises that it makes as it passes over sheets of ice can be very disconcerting.


So, it might seem strange that I am posting an ice cream recipe today but it’s really a way to cheat and give yourself a taste of summer. No fresh fruit around? No problem. Ice cream genius David Lebovitz has the solution. Take some dried apricots and reconstitute them with the help of some sweet wine and blend them into an ice cream. Given what’s around this time of hear, it’s really the best you can do.

Oh, and enjoy the Super Bowl. Go <insert you favorite team name here>!!

Dried Apricot and Pistachio Ice Cream – Slightly adapted from Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments

Makes about 3 cups (750 ml)


5 oz (140 g) dried apricots, quartered
3/4 cup (180 ml) sweet white wine (or dry white wine with 1 tablespoon of sugar blended in)
1/2 cup (70 g) shelled pistachio nuts (preferably unsalted)
2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
1 cup (250 ml) whole milk
1 cup (250 ml) heavy cream
a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon juice


In a small saucepan, warm the apricot pieces with the wine. Simmer for 5 minutes, cover, remove from heat, and let stand for 1 hour. Meanwhile, coarsely chop the pistachios.

Purée the apricots with the wine in a blender along with the sugar, milk, cream, and lemon juice until smooth.

Chill the mixture in the refrigerator and then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. During the last minute of churning, add the chopped pistachio nuts, or layer them as you scoop the ice cream into the container where you will keep it.

Pasta Flora / Παστα Φλωρα (Apricot Jam Coffee Cake – Cyprus Version)

Pasta Flora / Παστα Φλωρα (Apricot Jam Coffee Cake – Cyprus Version)

There is no better way to experience the inertia of history than through ethnic cuisines. Take the Mediterranean, for example. If you were to take a cruise around the region and sample food from all the countries you visit – Spain, Italy, Morocco, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt – you’ll start to notice that variations of the same dish have a way of popping up in every place.


Talk to the people of each country and they will tell you that the dish originated with them, brandishing its name as proof or the use of a local ingredient as irrefutable evidence. In reality, so much of the “traditional” foods of those countries come from their past, often going back centuries to empires that ruled the region: the Greeks, the Romans, the Venetians, the Ottomans.

It’s both a comforting and frustrating experience. Comforting, in that it confirms the sameness in all of us, the artificiality of our differences, and our shared roots. Frustrating because it seems unable to bridge differences that have led to wars and conflict. If Israelis and Palestinians could all concentrate on their common culinary tradition, would they be more conciliatory towards each other? Would Greeks and Turks? Doubtful.


This recipe is for one of those dishes that spans different countries in the Mediterranean. I knew it as a Greek Cypriot dessert called pasta flora. Growing up, my mom made it regularly and it was one of my favorites. At some point, I found out that it was also made in Greece but somewhat differently, with a short, cookie-like crust, instead of the cake base used in Cyprus. Then a few years back, an Italian friend I invited to dinner brought over a dessert she made. As soon as I saw it, I exclaimed “You made a pasta flora!” She smiled and said “a pasta FROLA,” stressing the reversed r and l.


It turned out, it’s an Italian dessert called pasta frola. And today, doing a little bit of research, I found out it’s also an Argentinian dessert, brought over by Italian immigrants, usually filled with quince paste, instead of the apricot jam used in Cyprus.

Here’s the bottom line: No matter where this comes from, it’s a winner. This recipe is for the Cypriot version. It makes something more like a coffee cake, with a layer of apricot jam and a lattice crust. It’s simple to prepare and makes a wonderful dessert or even breakfast, no matter where you are from or what part of the world you are eating it in.


Pasta Flora / Παστα Φλωρα (Apricot Jam Coffee Cake – Cyprus Version) – Adapted from Μαγειρεύοντας για φίλους Tόμος α


2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
pinch of salt
3 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon brandy or cognac
finely grated zest of one lemon
1 cup apricot jam
6 tablespoons all purpose-flour
1 egg, lightly beaten with 1 tablespoon of water, for eggwash


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking pan and line it with parchment paper (alternatively, grease, lightly dust with flour and shake out excess). In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 1/2 cups of flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a mixer, beat 3 eggs well, until they lighten in color, for 2-3 minutes. Add the sugar and continue to beat for another 2-3 minutes until they thicken and increase in volume. Add the oil, brandy, and zest and mix until combined. Add the flour mixture and using a spatula, fold together just until combined and no dry flour streaks are visible.

Take one cup of the batter out of the bowl and put it in a small bowl.

Pour the remaining batter in the prepared baking pan and smooth out the surface with spatula or back of spoon. Stir the apricot jam with a spoon to loosen it up and then carefully spread it on top of the batter in the pan, taking care not to press it into the batter too much. The best way is to just dollop it with a soup spoon and then use the back of the spoon to lightly spread it, leaving about a 0.5-1 inch border around the edge of the pan without jam.

In the small bowl with the 1 cup of batter, add 6 tablespoons of flour. Mix with a spoon until fully combined. The dough will be soft but you should be able to work with it with your hands. If you want, put some flour on your hands to prevent the dough from sticking.  Take a piece of the dough and roll it gently between your hands to create a log about half an inch in diameter. Place it on top of the apricot jam diagonally. Continue until you have created a lattice pattern across the whole pan. Don’t worry too much if your lattice isn’t perfect. When it bakes it will puff up and change shape anyway.

Very gently brush the lattice with the beaten egg. Bake for about 40 minutes until the top is golden brown and a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Let cool for 10 minutes and slice into squares or rectangles. Allow the pasta flora to cool completely before you remove the slices from the pan. Store in an airtight container for 2-3 days or wrap slices with plastic wrap and freeze.