Mal d’Italia

“We all have it in some way, that desire to return to an impossible elseware.”
– Adam Leith Gollner, Saveur, April 2016

I’ve been awake since 5:30 this morning. Not because I had to – or particularly wanted to – but because the butterflies in my stomach kept fluttering around, making it impossible to sleep in, the way I had intended. So I’m here, with you. Eyes half-mast and looking a little rough.

The butterflies are equal parts nerves and excitement – in a few hours I’ll be on a plane crossing the Atlantic to spend three weeks in Italy. It’s a solo trip, one that, the more I think about it, was probably long overdue. The first few days will be in Rome, then one week in the fishing town of Sferracavallo in Sicily and then another week further inland, in Sclafani Bagni, where I’ll be taking a food writing workshop with two of my favourite writers – Rachel Roddy and Luisa Weiss. The workshop takes place at Case Vecchie, which houses the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school, nestled among the rugged fields and vineyards of the Sicilian countryside. If the online photos do it any justice, then yes – it might actually be paradise on earth.

Given that the workshop itself has been something I’ve had my eye on for awhile – it still seems a bit surreal that I’m actually going, even in the few short hours leading up to departure. I’ve never felt this wired – in both the good and adverse sense of the word – for any trip I’ve ever taken. It’s quite impressive as a feeling, part of it stemming from the anticipation, but also from things as banal as transit logistics (charting out an itinerary in Sicily has been tricky, with entire trainlines suddenly going out of order. It seems that David Lebovitz has even experienced the peculiarities of Sicilian transit), unexpected technical issues (my computer), as well as my (perhaps archaic and ill-advised) decision to use paper maps instead of GPS or Google maps. (This should be interesting.)

Most of all though, I think that the churning in my stomach comes from something a little more abstract than the kind of excitement I’ve had in the past when planning a vacation. And in that sense, it’s more charged, too. I recently read an article on Sicily in the April issue of Saveur, where Adam Leith Gollner talks about the feeling of mal d’Africa, the “heartsickness” for Africa that Sicilians have when they’ve been travelling away from home (North Africa having had such a remarkable impact on their food, culture, and architecture, that’s it’s inextricable from Sicilian life and sensibility). My mind went back to those words when I thought about the reasons I wanted to visit Italy again. Not because I consider it home necessarily, but because – being the product of a Canadian father and an Abruzzese mother – there’s part of me that will always be Italy. It sounds clichéed to lay it out like that, so plain and saccharine, but it’s true. There’s a sort of mal d’Italia that lives inside me.

In that way, Italy has often felt like a phantom limb. Its presence is there – in the minute details of gesture, of speech and of sensibility – when I share a joke with my grandmother in broken dialect, or lift a peach to my nose at the market, or place my hand on a stranger’s shoulder (and wonder if touching them was the acceptable thing to do, in the cool anonymity of urban North America). Italy is in there, all the time, in some way shape or form. And I suppose that travelling back to terra madre is my way of restoring the bits that I feel I’m beginning to lose or forget, as my grandmother slowly enters into her mid-nineties and I come to the realisation that she, in fact, has been the one thread that’s kept me connected to that sense of Italian-ness, that sense of patria, as she calls it. When she’s gone, I’ll have to find ways to reconnect to it when I can; I suppose this trip is part of laying that groundwork.

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There’s lots more that I’d like to tell you about – not the least of which is this workshop with Rachel and Luisa (a total dream). But aside from not having the wherewithal to get into that now, I should probably tie up a few more things before I go, like weighing my bags to make sure they meet the airline requirements.

As a parting gift, I’m leaving you with this photo of the seafood risotto that my boyfriend made me this past weekend, with celery, fennel, white wine, homemade fish stock and a handful of mussels, shrimp, and cod. He wanted to make something in the spirit of Sicily, and I think he succeeded. (even if we committed the ultimate act of Italian food sacrilege and added parmesan to it.)

See you here again soon – hopefully more well rested, a little less wired, and with a lot of good stories to tell.

Baci x

IMG_1645

 

 

Faking Fancy

You’re having friends over for dinner and you want to make something nice. But it’s a work night, a Thursday, so you’re already a bit bagged, and a little unmotivated, thinking about the Jenga tower of dishes that will invariably pile up in the sink if you start making something quote-unquote fancy.

This is when you need to pull a rabbit (or two) out of your hat to successfully fake your way to a meal fit for dinner guests – a meal that will involve minimal amounts of messing around in the kitchen, but will look and taste a little more special than the everday.

There are, of course, different ways you can do this. For starters, if you’re committed to the idea of using the oven, you can choose recipes that compliment eachother’s cooking time and temperature; that way, you can cook a couple of things at the same time, and even bake dessert at the end, with that still-warm oven. The other advantage is that you can slide whatever you’re making into the oven, let it work its magic, and go back to the things you were doing beforehand, like the multi-tasking mavrick you are.

We all have different shortcuts in the kitchen, which is nice, because it means that we can learn from eachother’s acumen – that mental Roladex of tips and tricks we’ve stockpiled over the years. Below you’ll find a few of my own back-pocket recipes (the rabbits up my sleeve, if you will) for when I’m having people over, but don’t want to fuss. It’s a simple potato and roast chicken dinner that can be served with a green salad or some steamed vegetables. The potatoes can be slipped into the oven about 30-40 minutes after the chicken. The dessert is easy too – no need to wrangle dough or batter, just toss some sugared apples onto some prepared puff pastry and watch it pouf up in the oven after the potatoes and chicken have come out.

All of it gives you more time to be with your guests, which, let’s be honest, is the most important part.

FAKING FANCY TIP NO.1 – RE-VAMPING THE HUMBLE POTATO

Potatoes, simply prepared, often come in two forms – boiled, or diced and roasted. Both of these options have virtues of their own, but there’s another variation on the potato that should be on everyone’s radar, and that, dear people, is the smashed potato. I first learned about smashed potatoes during a period in the mid-2000s when I binge-watched Laura Calder‘s French Food at Home, before food blogging and celebrity chef-dom had exploded and you could actually rely on The Food Network for quality programming (wow, can you hear the octogenarian coming through? Don’t get her started on styrofoam food packaging). The Food Network aside, Laura Calder is known in her own right for her pared-down, no-nonsense – and très, très français – approach to food, where the most important elements are quality of ingredients and method, as opposed to flashy additions or lengthy processes. Her smashed potatoes (she calls them “squished” potatoes) are simplicity incarnate, but the nice thing is that they are just the slightest bit different than a boiled or a roasted potato, because they’re in fact BOTH: you take some nice, small, waxy potatoes, skin-on, and let them cook in boiling water until just tender. Then you drain them, set them on a work surface and gently press each one with whatever sturdy kitchen equipment you have on hand (I like using the bottom of a cast iron pan), dress them with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt (I add fresh rosemary too), then lay them on a baking sheet and toss them into a hot oven for 30-40 minutes, turning once halway though. The beauty of the smashed potato is that you get a tender interior and these lacy, crispy edges. They also look more interesting than a in-tact boiled potato, sort of more lived-in and wild. And they are a treat to eat.

SMASHED BABY POTATOES WITH ROSEMARY – from Laura Calder

  • 2 lb baby potatoes
  • olive oil
  • flaky salt (such as Maldon)
  • freshly ground pepper
  • a couple spring of fresh rosemary

1) Scrub the potatoes and cook, unpeeled, in boiling salted water until tender. Drain. When cool enough to touch, gently squish them flat with whatever kitchen tool you see fit. Don’t let them explode, just flatten until the edges break a bit, but they are still in one piece. Toss with some olive oil, the rosemary sprigs, and season with salt and pepper.

2) Heat the oven to 400°F. Spread the potatoes on a baking sheet and bake for about 30-40 minutes, or until crisp outside, turning once halfway through.

(*I didn’t get a chance to capture the finished result, so you’ll have to use your imagination – but they come out crackly, crispy, dark golden on the outside. A bit knarly, but beautiful.)

Smashed Potatoes with Rosemary

Smashed Potatoes with Rosemary

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FAKING FANCY TIP no.2 – ELEVATING ROAST CHICKEN

Let’s be honest, there’s nothing particularly spectacular about roast chicken in and of itself. But if done right, roast chicken can be one of the most delicious things you’ll put on the table, especially if you employ a good, healthy dose of butter. Here too, you have different options. Molly Wizenburg has a recipe for Thomas Keller’s roast chicken where you slather it with melted butter after it’s cooked and serve it with Dijon mustard (which, though I’ve never tried it, actually sounds pretty wicked). My usual fall-back is smearing butter under the skin, along the breastbone, before cooking. For added flavour, I like to use compound butter – in other words, softened, unsalted butter that you mix with herbs, or zest, or other seasonings. The butter “insulates” the breast meat (which tends to get dry) from the heat of the oven, while permeating it with rich flavour. You don’t want to be using butter like this everyday (you’d be well on your way to a heart attack), but for occasions that are out of the ordinary – say, having friends over on a Thursday night – it’s a lovely way to make roast chicken a little more frilly.

Roast Chicken with Butter

WHOLE ROASTED CHICKEN WITH HERBED BUTTER

Ingredients

        • 1 whole, 1.5 kg (3-3.5 lbs) good-quality chicken (I like to get mine here when I can)
        • 1 lemon, pierced all over
        • 3-4 cloves of garlic, smashed, skin-on
        • a handful of fresh herbs – thyme, rosemary, tarragon, etc. – chopped
        • about 3 oz. butter, softened
        • salt and freshly ground pepper
        • 1/4 tsp paprika (for colour; optional)
        • kitchen twine

Directions

1) Take your chicken out of the fridge about 30 minutes before it goes into the oven.

2) Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Mix the chopped herbs with the softened butter, season with salt and pepper and stir to combine; set aside. In a small dish, mix some salt, freshly ground pepper and the paprika (if using). Prepare two lengths of kitchen twine to wrap the legs and the thighs.

3) Set aside a roasting pan big enough for your chicken. Blot the outside of the chicken with paper towel (removing excess moisture will help ensure a crispy skin). Season the chicken with the prepared salt, pepper and paprika. With the cavity of the chicken facing you, gently run your fingers under the skin along the breastbone, separating the skin from the meat. Then, gently stuff portions of herbed butter under the skin, spreading it evenly over the breast meat. Put the garlic cloves and lemon in the cavity of the chicken.

4) Tie the legs together snugly (this prevents the bird from drying out). If the lower half of the chicken looks like it’s still pretty loose, I sometimes tie a second piece of twine around the top of the thighs. Place the chicken in the preheated oven and roast for an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes (see note below*), basting a couple of times during cooking. Once the chicken is cooked, remove from the oven and let rest for about 15 minutes before carving. Serve with the pan juices.

A note on cooking whole chicken: total cooking time will vary, depending on the actual size of your chicken, as well as the intensity of your oven. A good rule of thumb is to calculate 15 mins per pound at 400ºF, but I use a meat thermometer just to be sure – it should read 165ºF* when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh but not touching bone. (*A lot of thermometers and government sources will give 180ºF as the ideal internal tempertaure, but they are usually overly-cautious (resulting in over-cooked, dry meat). If you pull it out when it reaches 165ºF and then let it rest, covered, for about 10-15 minutes, you’ll be good to go. The juices should run clear, not pink, when you cut into it.)

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FAKING FANCY TIP no.3 – USING FROZEN PUFF PASTRY

When you’re having people over, it’s sometimes nice to have something sweet at the end of dinner, but making a cake or a pie or something along those lines can be more work than it’s worth – the careful combining, the chilling, the rolling, the aforementioned sink full of dishes. This is when frozen puff pastry becomes a trusty pal – once thawed, it’s at your service and ready to use. The best part is that the free-form styling of the outer edges means that you can very easily get away with calling it “rustic”. Adding a quick dusting of powdered sugar to your finished tart (or any dessert for that matter) will make it look like a snowy, Scandanavian dream. I highly recommend it.

Puff Pastry Apple Tart

Puff Pastry Apple Tart

SIMPLE APPLE TART

        • 1 sheet all-butter puff pastry* (about 450 g), thawed
        • 2-3 firm, medium apples (such as Empire or Gala) – cored, halved and thinly sliced
        • 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
        • 2 Tbsp brown sugar
        • 3 Tbsp butter, melted
        • 1 Tbsp rum
        • squeeze of lemon
        • 2 Tbsp powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

*one of the luxuries of living in Montreal is that many of us are within a stone’s throw of a bakery, many of which sell prepared puff pastry. If you don’t have a bakery close-by, you should be able to find puff pastry in the frozen foods section of most grocery stores.)

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat. In a bowl, add a sqeeze of lemon juice to the apple slices, then add both sugars, the melted butter, the rum, and gently combine; set aside.

2) On a lightly floured surface, unfold the puff pastry sheet. Roll it out a little bit (to about 1/2 inch thick). You should have a long rectangle about as long as a standard baking sheet (I don’t measure). Roll about 1 inch of the edges inward to form a border (or, if you prefer, you can lightly score a border along the inside of the rectangle, as this video demonstrates). Poke the inner rectangle all over with a fork to prevent air bubbles from forming while baking.

3) Layer the apple slices, overlapping them slightly. Bake for 25 minutes, until crust is golden brown, then transfer the pan to a wire rack. Once cool, dust with powdered sugar, the transfer tart to a cutting board for serving. Pairs well with vanilla ice cream (obviously).

A Bit of a Blur

There isn’t time for many words today – this post is going to be a bit of a blur – because in twelve minutes flat, I have to head out the door, hop on a Bixi, and get my sorry rump to yoga class (I like to at least pretend that I’m a fit, adult woman. Come to think of it, I also like to pretend that I’m an adult woman. As in, a grown-up; as in, a lady.)

Before I run down the stairs and start frantically biking until I’m out of breath, arriving at the studio like the wheezing, sweating, mess of a lady that I sometimes am, I wanted to quickly – very quickly! – share a recipe with you. (It seems that my top priority is making sure you are all well fed. We can discuss my poor judgment another time. Along with my poor use of punctuation/over-use of parentheses in this post.)

But right now – SPICED CHICKEN PATTIES IN LETTUCE CUPS! WITH DATE CONFIT! THEY’RE A REVELATION! MAKE THEM! (I don’t know why I’m using caps; these things practically sell themselves. Which I’m grateful for, because I should’ve already left the house.)

Eat well and be well, friends. Big love x

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Spiced Chicken Patties in Lettuce Cups, with Date Confit – adapted from Food Republic
Serves 4

Chicken Lettuce Cups

Ingredients

Patties

  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breast, cubed*
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger root, peeled and grated
  • 2 tsp Ras el hanout
  • 1 tsp curry
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne (optional)
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil

*economical alternative: I prefer buying a whole, good-quality chicken and taking it apart myself – using the different pieces for diffrent recipes and freezing anything I don’t use.

To serve

  • 16 small hearts of lettuce leaves
  • 1/2 English cucumber, quartered lengthwise, seeded and diced
  • 1 small red onion, finely chopped
  • 1 handful cilantro leaves

Date confit

  • 15 fresh dates, pitted and halved
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 shallots, chopped
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 Thai chili, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp light brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp pomegranate molasses
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Directions

For the date confit:
Put the dates in a bowl, cover with just-boiled water and leave for 20-30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a skillet and fry the shallots on medium-low heat, covered, for 15-20 minutes until very soft.

Drain the dates and add them to the pan, squashing them with the back of a fork to break them down. Stir in 4 tablespoons water, the cinnamon, chili and cook for 5 minutes longer, or until it forms a thick jam consistency. Add more water if it is too thick. Stir in the pomegranate molasses and season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon the confit into a serving bowl and leave to cool.

For the chicken patties:
Meanwhile, heat the oven to 100°F. Pulse the chicken in a food processor, then add the garlic, ginger and spices. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse again to combine. Form the chicken mixture into 16 equal balls, the size of golf balls. Flatten each one to make a little patty. (Note: you can freeze the uncooked patties on parchment paper, in one layer (I use a pizza tray), then transfer to freezer-proof container, with parchment between each patty to prevent sticking).

Heat two-thirds of the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Fry the patties, in batches (don’t overcrowd the pan) for 3 minutes on each side. Just before they finish cooking on each side. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in the low oven while you cook the remaining patties, adding more oil when necessary.

For serving:
Put a chicken patty on top of each lettuce leaf, scatter a little cucumber, red onion and cilantro over and top with a spoonful of the date confit. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Chicken Lettuce Cups

A Complicated Love

When I was younger, I wasn’t much of a picky eater, but tomatoes – either in their raw form or cooked – proved problematic for a good portion of my childhood. The woman who ran our daycare, Sandra, used to make us a lunch of Campbell’s tomato soup and Kraft-singles grilled cheese, about once a week. It probably goes without saying that the grilled cheese was gobbled up with ease; the soup, however, was another story. I can still remember the tart, salty, faintly metallic canned-tomato flavour that would coat the back of my throat with every reluctant spoonful. That tomato soup was the bane of my five-year-old existence; it was like punishment in a bowl.

Then there was that trip to Italy, to visit family – when I was seven and my brother was five – and neither of us would eat pasta with tomato sauce; only with burro (butter). This was incomprehensible to our Italian relatives, who’d shake their heads, and with furrowed brow, ask, “Ma, non ti piace i pomodori?” (Don’t you like tomatoes?). Their question breathed equal parts bewilderment and despair, but would quickly melt into capitulation with a shrug of the shoulders, when they’d swirl a spoonful of butter into our pasta, as requested. To the dismay of our relatives, we spent that entire trip avoiding pomodori in every way, shape and form.

Fortunately, I’ve since mended by ways with tomatoes; they’re often in the recipes I make at home – from sugo di pomodoro, to lentil soup, to foccacia, to tomato salad. That said, I’d be lying if I said that our relationship was an uncomplicated one. Raw tomatoes are the ones that still, on occasion, send a shiver down my spine. We can blame both latent childhood sensibilities and the Canadian climate for that one: I grew up in a place where, for a good six months of the year, tomatoes were (and still are) flown in from exotic destinations, arriving in a grainy, hard, tasteless state, then flaunted in their raw form – in big, rough chunks – tossed into a plain green salad, or Greek-style, swimming alongside cucumber and slivers of red onion. Unless those tomatoes are vine-ripened under the hot, summer sun and served within a few miles of where they were grown, tasting like the rich, sweetly acidic fruit that they should be, they usually aren’t coming anywhere near my lips. Otherwise, it’s just a waste, because I will, without fail, pick around them.

To this day – most likely stemming from Sandra’s Campbell’s soup days – I also don’t have a particular affinity for tomato soup. That said (and since the criteria by which my brain accepts and rejects tomatoes is still a total enigma) there is one notable exception – and that is for the Moroccan soup harira, a tomato-based blend made with chickpeas, lentils and a handful of spices. It’s traditionally served during Ramadan as a nutrient-rich dish to break the daily fast, but I’m told that it’s served in different regions of Morocco, all year round. I first had harira at my friend Sophie’s house, when her husband, Hicham, cooked us dinner one night, a few short weeks after he’d come to Canada. We had it as a starter to lamb tagine with dates. A CD of gnawa music played in the background. We drank wine. He tried to teach me a few expressions in Arabic, though I only remember the words for ‘hello’, ‘no’, ‘look’ and ‘enough’. But the harira – I’ll always remember the harira: silky and tangy and heady with spices. It was the one tomato soup that broke the rules to my aversion. And for that – and to Hicham – I am forever grateful.

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A note on the recipe: Most recipes incorporate meat (beef, lamb or chicken), broken up vermicelli noodles or rice, as well as a roux (called tadouira) of water and flour at the end of cooking to thicken it up a bit. The recipe below doesn’t have any of these things, but it’s a close approximation to Hicham’s harira, which is always filled with warm spices and creamy chickpeas, which he cooks from dried (not canned).

It’s a simple soup – but well-rounded, sustaining and comforting. Hope you like it.

Vegetarian Harira Soup

Makes 4-6 servings

Harira_prep

Ingredients

  • 100g lentils, rinsed and picked through
  • 150g cooked chickpeas
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed
  • 3 Tbsp tomato paste
  • handful fresh parsley, chopped
  • 400g ripe tomatoes, smashed
  • 700ml vegetable stock
  • salt and pepper, to season

Spices:

  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp turmeric
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp cayenne

To serve:

  • lemon
  • pita bread
  • fresh cilantro, chopped

Note: only add the salt at the end, otherwise the lentils won’t cook through.

Directions

1) Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven. Sauté the onion until browned. Add the garlic, spices, tomato paste and sauté for about 1 minute. Add the parsley, lentils, and smashed tomatoes (with their juices) and stir.

2) Stir in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 40 minutes. Add the cooked chickpeas and simmer for another 5 minutes, or until the lentils are cooked through. Season with salt and pepper.

3) Ladle into bowls and top with chopped cilantro, a little olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice (the lemon is important – don’t skip it!). Serve with pita or flatbread.

Harira

 

Snack-Time Salvation

A little while ago, I started buying Bounty bars from the second-floor vending machine at work. It might have been a relatively infrequent excursion, but as any office worker knows, when you sit in front of a computer for several hours on end, you start to crave bad stuff – usually something with high-fructose corn syrup and palm oil – around 3pm. And when you don’t have access to something healthy and sustaining, you sometimes end up scouring your desk drawer for pocket change to plunk into an old vending machine for something that will satisfy your primal brain.

In my case (and to make matters worse), I also had an accomplice. My friend and office mate – we’ll protect her identity by calling her “M” – also loved Bounty bars and, like me, was really good at reducing her dissonance. We agreed that splitting a candy bar between us wasn’t as bad as eating the whole thing by ourselves, and if we didn’t read the spooky list of ingredients and enjoyed it alongside a cup of herbal tea, it didn’t seem like such an unsensible thing to do.

But then “M” went on an eight-month work transfer out of town, and I was still getting Bountry bars out of the machine. One a month became two, then three, then I realised that it had become an almost-weekly habit. No bueno.

The obvious solution was to come equipped to work with snacks. Good snacks. Snacks that would make my mom and your mom proud that they had raised well-adjusted, responsible adults. That’s when I came across a recipe, from French food writer Clotilde Dusoulier, for homemade energy bars. A mixture of dates, nuts, cinnamon and cocoa, they’re sweet and chocolately, and filled with things that aren’t palm oil or high-fructose corn syrup (they’re actually filled with vitamin A, fibre, iron, calcium, antioxidants, and potassium. Thank you, dates!).  I rolled mine in shredded coconut for the “Bounty bar effect”, but if you don’t have any in the pantry, they’re swell without it too.

Here’s to better snacking in front of our computers. Have a good week, everyone x

Date-Coconut Energy Bites

Date-Coconut Energy Bites – adapted from Chocolate and Zucchini

    • 50 grams date paste*, diced
    • 100 grams mixed, unsalted nuts (Brazil nuts, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts…)
    • 2 green cardamom pods, seeds only
    • 100 grams Medjool or fresh dates (about 4), pitted
    • 3 Tbsp unsweetened cocoa powder
    • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
    • 1 Tbsp cacao nibs
    • 1/4 cup unsweetened, shredded coconut (for rolling)
    • a good pinch salt

*Date paste can be found at natural foods stores, or in North African or Middle Eastern shops. It comes as a solid block, so if it seems dry and hard, cut it into slices and soak for an hour in a little cold water to soften. Drain well before using (save the date water – you can freeze it too – to use in smoothies).

Directions

1) In a food processor, combine the diced date paste, nuts, and cardamom, and process in short pulses until the nuts are chopped to small bits and blended with the paste. Add the rest of the ingredients and process in short pulses until the mixture comes together.

2) Pour the shredded coconut into a plate; scoop a teaspoon of the date-nut into your hands and form into balls between your palms. Then roll them in the shredded coconut.

3) Lay the date-coconut balls in a airtight container, with parchment paper between each layer to prevent sticking. Transfer to the fridge to set for a few hours or preferably overnight. They will keep in the refrigerator, covered, for about a week.

Date-Coconut Energy Bites
Date-Coconut Energy Bites

Cast-Iron Love

I’ll never tire of that sight – that hot mess of slowly-braised meat, bright veg, and pillowy dumplings, mingling together in a heavy-bottomed pan. Like many gifts in one. It might be the extravagant use of meat (which we all know we should be eating less of), but this, to me, is luxury food. In perhaps its truest, most rewarding form.

It might seem late to be posting about braised anything one day shy of May, but the weatherman seems to think there are a few more crisp, cool days ahead of us – at least in these parts (I could swear I saw a snowflake yesterday) – and so I think there’s still some wiggle room for a few more dishes like these, the ones that require the slow, steady heat of the oven to attain their full potential.

These are the kind of dishes that make me feel gratified about rescuing that old, blaze-coloured Creuset from the family basement a few years ago, when no one wanted it, either for lack of space, or to prioritize lighter, less cumbersome cookware. Over the years, and before its hibernation in the basement, it had become a well-used and well-loved beast, bearing a hefty scar – a deep, cinereal gash right across the lid – from an earlier incident involving a sharp plunge to the tile floor, back in the house I grew up in. Some might have thrown the thing away, but Dad, the industrious Anglo-Saxon that he is, worked his magic with the sodering iron and sealed it back together, to create something of a Franken-Creuset.

IMG_1445

Bequeathed with what is now considered a family heirloom, I try to find ways to use it whenever I can, and as often as I can. And each time, I marvel at how it turns unglamorous cuts of meat into ravishingly beautiful braised dishes that you want to mop up with bread until there’s nothing left on the plate. I’ve learnt to appreciate my Creuset, its scar a tangible reminder to handle it with care. It rewards me in kind, every time.

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Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Adapted from The Complete Irish Pub Cookbook and Joe Beef for Food 52
Serves 4

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

For the Lamb

  • 2 lb (about 1 kg) lamb shoulder, bone-in*
  • Salt and pepper, to season
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 onion, quartered
  • 1 small leek, white + light green part cut into rings
  • 1 carrot, peeled and chopped into chunks
  • 3-4 small turnips, washed and quartered
  • 10 cloves garlic, smashed and skins removed
  • 10 sprigs thyme
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 cup beef stock (plus one cup to add at the end with the dumplings)
  • 1 cup frozen or very fresh shelled peas (to add at the end of cooking)

*depending on the size of your baking vessel, you can ask your butcher to cut the lamb shoulder in half.

For the Date-Mint Chutney

  • 1 cup pitted dates
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 cup cider vinegar
  • Pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 cup jarred horseradish
  • 2 Tbsp fresh mint
  • 1/2 Tsbp Worcestershire sauce

For the Herb Dumplings

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp black pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp finely chopped fresh mint
  • 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp milk

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Directions

1) Preheat the oven to 375° F. MAKE THE LAMB: Season the lamb on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large ovenproof sauté pan over high heat. Add the lamb and sear for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, or until you get a nice golden crust. Transfer to a plate.

2) Reduce the heat to medium, throw in the onion, leek, turnip, carrot, and garlic, and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 5 minutes, or until nicely browned. Add the thyme, nestle the lamb on top of the vegetables, and pour in the wine and the beef stock. Cover the pan, place in the oven, and braise for 4 hours, basting the lamb every 30 minutes or so with the pan juices. If the pan begins to dry out, add some water.

3) While the lamb is cooking, MAKE THE CHUTNEY: In a small pot, combine the dates and water, bring to a boil over high heat, and boil for about 10 minutes, or until soft. Reduce the heat to medium, add the vinegar, and cayenne, and stir well. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until the sugar is dissolved and the condiment has the consistency of jam. Remove from the heat, add the horseradish, mint, and Worcestershire sauce, and whisk until combined. Let cool before serving. (Leftover condiment can be stored in a tightly capped jar in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.)

4) MAKE THE DUMPLINGS (see instructions below)

5) About 20 minutes before the meat is ready, heat the remaining cup of stock in a saucepan; remove the lamb from the oven and arrange the dumplings around the meat, pouring over the hot stock; add the peas. Cover and return to the oven to cook about 15 minutes longer.

4) When the lamb is ready, transfer it to a warmed platter with the vegetables and dumplings. Serve the condimint on the side.

To make the dumplings

1) Heat a large saucepan of salted water. Sift flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl. Mix in the black pepper and fresh herbs. Rub in the butter untill the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. In a seperate bowl, beat together the egg and milk, then stir into the flour to make a soft, sticky dough.

2) With floured hands, divide the dough into 10-12 pieces and roll into balls. Once the water in the saucepan has reached a gentle boil, drop the dumplings, one by one, into the water; partially cover and cook for 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, gently remove the dumplings and set them in a colander to drain. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Braised Lamb with Dumplings and Date-Mint Chutney

Method to the Madness

Today I bring to you a recipe from Mandy Lee’s site, Lady and Pups. It’s one of my favourite places to procrastinate on the Web, especially when I should be doing more constructive things, like organising my taxes or folding laundry or emailing the landlady. It’s easy to fall under the spell of Mandy’s moody photos and acerbic prose. Her recipes too – as they always sound absurdly good, in that no-holds-barred, debauched, lick-your-fingers-clean kind of way. Take a look at this recipe for hot rice noodles, or the one for this magnificent thing. Couldn’t you see yourself happily staining your face and all your clothes with either of those cradled in your hands?

Of course you can.

But, there is one caveat –

If you’ve ever followed a Mandy Lee recipe, you’ll know that they’re not for the weak. They’re not from the dinner-in-minutes-Rachel-Ray school of cooking; they are from the school of hard knocks.(this is, after all, the woman who convinced me – through those moody photos and that acerbic prose – to make ramen soup from scratch with 30 cloves of peeled garlic). This aggressive caveat isn’t meant to dissuade you; I’m just saying that if you’re looking for an easy, breezy, work-week meal that you can throw together right after the pants come off and the wide-stretch leggings go on, this one’s not for you. In fact, it’s the antithesis of that. Making a Mandy Lee recipe is a commitment. There is usually a long list of ingredients and and even longer list of instructions, generally with bits in FULL CAPS so that you don’t screw anything up.

I just want to be clear about that.

Are you still there?

Good. I’m glad! Because like any worthwhile, long-term commitment, Mandy’s recipes will always reward you in spades. Her recipes might look insane, spanning longer than most newspaper articles. But there is a method to her madness.

Breathe deep and just trust it.

A note on the recipe: below is Mandy’s Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice (with a few small tweaks from me). What’s brilliant about this recipe is that 1) she has you cook the rice in the oven with chicken broth and coconut milk, infusing every grain with luscious, rich flavours; and 2) she has you cook the chicken ABOVE the rice, balanced on a baking rack (I used a metal cookie-cooling rack) over the baking dish. This means that, as the chicken cooks, it’s precious juices and fat drip down into the rice, making it even more delicious. The process itself is a sight to behold – I spent a good minute or so watching the magic happen through the oven door, completely entranced.

A few more liner notes:

1- Mandy Lee has the chicken marinate between 2-6 hours, so keep that in mind time-wise (I didn’t do this, because I’m notoriously bad at following recipes and I missed that piece of instruction. (And it was a Tuesday night. After work. Hahahaha let’s find MORE reasons to make a long day longer!). All said, it worked out fine without marination, but I imagine it would be even better had I followed her advice.)

2- There are three major components here: Consider prepping the chicken and the coconut sauce in advance – the chicken will have time to marinate and the sauce can easily be reheated as soon as you’re ready to use it.

3- Since you’re dealing with raw chicken, it’s best to get all your ingredients and appliances ready before you begin. For instance, not having the skewers ready when you’re done wrangling a raw, buttery chicken is not a pleasant experience. I speak from experience. Have everything ready at your fingertips and I promise that things will go much more smoothly. (This might be another reason why prepping the chicken in advance might be worth it – getting that part out of the way is half the work.)

4 – I re-worked the instructions a little so that it (hopefully) is a little easier to follow.

Ok. Have at it.

Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice – lightly adapted from Mandy Lee’s recipe on Lady and Pups, inspired by Zak Pelaccio’s recipe in “Eat With Your Hands

SPICY COCONUT SAUCE:

  • 1 ½ cup coconut milk (usually 1 can)
  • ½ lemongrass stalk, white part only
  • 2 small red chilis
  • 1 green onion
  • 1 tsp apple cider vinegar (I used this to replace the 2 tsp of yellow mustard in the original recipe, which happens to be the one condiment I never have on hand)
  • 2 tsp fish sauce
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp (14 grams) unsalted butter
  • 2 Tbsp chopped fresh cilantro

TURMERIC BUTTER CHICKEN RICE:

  • 1 whole chicken (about 3 lbs)
  • 5 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1 ½” ginger, cut into chunks
  • 3 small red chilis
  • 3 Tbsp fish sauce
  • 1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
  • ½ tsp ground coriander
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 Tbsp (57 grams) unsalted butter
  • 2 cups jasmine rice
  • 1 ½ cup coconut milk (usually 1 can)
  • 1 ½ cup chicken stock
  • 2 stalks lemongrass, white part only, smashed and cut into segments
  • pinch of salt and black pepper to season

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

Directions

MAKE THE SPICY COCONUT SAUCE: In a food-processor, blend everything under “Spicy Coconut Sauce”, except for the butter and fresh cilantro, until puréed. Add the butter, then bring the mixture to a gentle boil, and cook for about 20 mins until reduced by 1/3. Take off the heat and add the fresh chopped cilantro. Set aside until needed.

MAKE THE TURMERIC BUTTER CHICKEN RICE:

Step 1 – prepping the chicken

1) Rinse and clean out the cavity of the chicken, then pat dry and set aside. In a food-processor, purée garlic, ginger, red chilis, fish sauce, ground turmeric, ground coriander and ground black pepper until smooth. Take out about 2 tbsp of this turmeric-mixture and set aside. Then add the butter to the rest of the mixture and run the processor again until evenly incorporated (this is your “turmeric butter”). Reserve 1 tbsp of the turmeric butter for cooking the rice.

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

2) With the remaining turmeric butter: Gently insert your hands in-between the flesh and skin of the chicken from the neck-opening at the top of the breasts, separating the two layers to make space for stuffing the turmeric butter. Work slowly and gently so you do not puncture the skin, and make sure you do it all the way to the back-thighs that are attached to the back-bone, evenly distributing under the skin of the whole chicken.

3) Place ½ of the smashed lemongrass stalk inside the cavity, then with toothpicks, sew/seal the skins around BOTH the opening of the cavity and the neck. Now, rub the reserved turmeric-mixture WITHOUT BUTTER, evenly over the whole chicken. Let marinate for anywhere from 2-6 hours.

Step 2 – prepping the rice/cooking the chicken and rice

4) Preheat the oven on 420F. Put the jasmine rice in a sieve, then rinse and gently swish under running water to remove excess starch. Drain well and set aside. In a large, shallow baking-dish (a shallow dish will allow the rice cook evenly), melt the reserved 1 tbsp of turmeric butter over medium-high heat, then cook the rice in it for about 3 mins. Add the coconut milk and chicken stock, then scatter the lemongrass on the top. Bring the liquid to a simmer and cook for 3 min without stirring.

5) Now, place a baking-rack over the baking-dish, and set the chicken on top, breast-side down first (this gives the thighs a head start and prevents the breasts from overcooking). Place the whole thing in the middle-rack of the oven and roast for 15 min, then gently turn the chicken over so the breast-side now faces up, and roast for another 30-35 min until the chicken is browned. Remove the baking-rack with the chicken on top, and let rest for 10 min. Leave the rice in the oven during this time so it can finish cooking.

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

Step 3 – serving the chicken and rice with the coconut sauce

6) Remove all the lemongrass from the rice. The best way to cut the chicken is with a scissors, and make sure that you do it right over the rice so it can catch all the precious juice/butter that comes out of the chicken. Remove the lemongrass from inside the cavity, then serve immediately with the spicy coconut sauce (reheated gently over low heat).

Mandy Lee's Turmeric Butter Chicken Rice

One for the pot, one for the cook

Cooking has been fairly perfunctory these days. I’ve lacked that that little kick, that jolt of inspiration I usually get when I see something new – a recipe, an article, a video – that makes me want to roll up my sleeves and get to it. This means that my stovetop has seen a a lot of greens and beans on rotation (roma beans with kale, lima beans with rapini, black eyed peas with spinach…you get the idea), in other words, a mix-and-match troupe of dishes so simple that you could make them even if you’d been lobotomized; I can stand there, mouth-breathing over a pan of frying shallots and beans, letting my mind drift off to wherever it may go, and have a (more or less) wholesome dinner ready within 4 and half minutes. To make it a little more well-rounded, I’ll maybe add a wedge of toast and some canned tuna. But not always.

These are not necessarily the most satisfying of meals – creatively, spiritually, aesthetically – but hey, they do the job.

It’s easy to fall into a cooking funk when your overall motivation feels floppy, sluggish, unharnessed. It usually starts when you catch yourself buying the identical set of groceries week in and week out, then replicating the same meals from the week before (hellooooo roast chicken #578). Greens and beans aside, my fall-back funk foods – aside from the usual bag of tortilla chips and full-fat yogurt (in which to dip them) – include the aforementioned chicken and some type of white fish, usually cod or halibut, which usually gets tossed into the oven with a layer of seasoned breadcrumbs I keep in the freezer, and a drizzle of olive oil.

Now, roast chicken and panko-crusted cod are great back-pocket dishes. They truly are. But after you’ve had them day in and day out, without so much as a flourish to distinguish them, they start to feel a tad repetitive. So, a little while ago, I gave myself a nudge to break the pattern. In allegiance to the funk (Woah. James Brown, can you hear me?), I still bought a whole chicken and filet of cod. But this time I wanted – no, needed – to make them look, feel and taste like something outside the repertoire I’d started to cling to. I needed something that was more vibrant than softened pinto beans, lost in a tangle of wilted arugula; more jazzy than a plain, roasted chicken.

I’m happy to report that I found two recipes to lift me out of my cooking slump – the first being a fragrant, anise-clementine chicken recipe from Ottolenghi that is sticky, jammy, crispy and sweet, with a subtle tinge of liquorice flavour from the Pernod; the second being a dish of lemon-scented cod, studded with olives and poached in white wine, then topped with fresh parsley. Both are handsome and delicious and, while definitely an upgrade from beans and greens, they too could be made post-lobotomy if you had to. All you need to do is stick everything in a pan, anoint it with booze* and toss it in the oven. Thankfully, it figures out the rest on its own.

(*it might go without saying, but one of the perks of cooking with booze is that here is usually a little leftover as a “job-well-done” libation for the cook. You might want to bookmark that thought.)

Clementine Pernod Chicken

Pernod-Clementine Chicken – adapted from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem
Serves 4-6

Ingredients

    • 5 Tbsp Pernod (or Arak, or Ouzo)
    • 1/4 cup olive oil
    • 3 Tbsp freshly squeezed orange (or clementine) juice
    • 3 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
    • 2 Tbsp grainy mustard
    • 3 Tbsp light brown sugar or honey
    • 1 tsp sea salt
    • freshly ground pepper
    • 8 bone-in, skin-on chicken pieces (thighs and drumsticks)
    • 4 clementines (washed but unpeeled) sliced thin
    • a few sprigs of thyme
    • 3 medium onions (and/or fennel bulbs) cut lengthwise and then into quarters
    • 2 tsp fennel seeds

Clementine Pernod Chicken

Directions

1) In a large mixing bowl, whisk together Pernod, oil, orange and lemon juices, mustard, brown sugar and salt. Season with pepper, to taste.

2) Place chicken skin side up in large roasting pan with clementine slices, thyme sprigs, onion pieces (and/or fennel wedges) and fennel seeds. Pour sauce over top and gently toss everything together with your hands. (alternately, you can prep in advance and marinate: place chicken with clementine slices, thyme sprigs, onion/fennel wedges, and fennel seeds in a large mixing bowl or ziplock bag. Turn several times to coat. Marinate chicken for several hours or overnight.)

3) Preheat oven to 475°F. After 30 minutes, turn the oven down to 400ºF and continue roasting until the skin is brown and crisp, about 20 to 25 minutes longer. Remove pan from the oven.

4) Transfer chicken and clementines and onion pieces with juices to a serving platter. Let rest 5 to 10 minutes before serving. Pairs well with a crisp salad and a knob of bread to soak up the juices.

Clementine Pernod Chicken

—–

Slow-Baked Cod with Lemon, Olives and White Wine – adapted from Real Simple
Serves 4

Ingredients

  • 2 lb cod fillets (or halibut)
  • ¾ cup dry white wine
  • ½ cup Kalamata olives
  • zest from 1 lemon, cut into strips
  • 1 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper, to season
  • ¼ tsp red pepper flakes
  • ¼ cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Directions

Heat oven to 400° F.

Place the fish in a small roasting pan. Add the wine – it should reach about halfway up the sides of the fish. Scatter the olives and lemon zest around the fish. Drizzle with the oil and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes.

Roast until the fish is cooked through and flakes easily with a fork, about 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and sprinkle with the parsley. Divide the fish among individual plates and spoon the olives and wine sauce over the top.

Cod with Lemon and OlivesCod with Lemon and OlivesCod with Lemon and Olives

Clandestine Food

If I play my cards right, I can sometimes get my hands on a batch of fresh ricotta, made by hand in someone’s converted garage a few neighbourhoods over from mine. It comes in the traditional moulded shape, marked with the tell-tale grooves of the straining basket. It’s not an exaggeration to say that that this is the best ricotta you’ll ever have outside of Italy – it’s pillowy and snowy white, and the flavour is so fresh, it’s almost sweet; you can eat it in its naked state by the spoonful.

Fresh Ricotta

Then there are the eggs. A couple of times a month, I get a batch of eggs from a separate supplier who, when they’re not at their day job, tend to a flock of free range chickens. The chickens are different, so their eggs are too – some are robin’s egg blue, others are deep orange or light brown with a smattering of freckles. I’ve gotten into the habit of opening the carton before I get home to catch a peek of what’s inside. There’s something about a motley crew of eggs – big next to tiny, freckled next to blue – that puts a smile on my face. It’s the kind of stuff that makes me really, dorkily, happy.

004

This ricotta and these eggs are part of a handful of familiar, clandestine foods that have made their way into my kitchen. They’re not luxury items in the classic sense; they’re not chic, or expensive, or novel, In fact they’re a lot cheaper than the fancy, artisanal products you might find at the store. But they are luxury items in the sense that it’s impossible to take them for granted. They are special by default. And I am head-over-heels in love with them.

Below you’ll find two recipes I made at Easter – both using eggs and ricotta (and lemon, in the spirit of Sicilian tradition) (and, possibly unconsciously, in the spirit of my trip to Sicily this summer). The first is a version of gnocchi that, instead of potato, is held together with egg, ricotta and a bit of flour. They’re called dunderi and are apparently an Amalfitan specialty, but I discovered them by watching this video on Tasting Table with Portland restauranteur Jenn Louis. I’d never made a non-potato gnocchi before, so I was a little apprehensive about them falling apart in the simmering water. But they turned out perfectly – soft, tender little dumplings, tossed in some browned butter with a little parmesan and lemon. They are a dream to eat. The second recipe is a simple, southern Italian-inspired cake that is perfect with coffee or tea. It’s hard to explain, but this for me is the prototypical Italian cake – no frills, not too many competing flavours, not exactly light, but not heavy either. Lots of lemon flavour. The leftovers from Easter were cut into wedges the next morning and dunked into espresso. (how any good Italian – and you – should eat your day-old cake).

Have a happy weekend everyone x

Dunderi with Lemon, Butter and Parmesan – recipe from Jenn Louis,via Tasting Table
Serves 4-6

Note: the measurements are in grams to yield more consistent results. If you don’t have one already, an electric scale is an indispensable tool when it comes to European recipes and baking. I only spend about $20 on mine and my only regret is that I didn’t get one sooner.

Dunderi with Lemon and Butter

Ingredients

For the Dunderi:

  • 480 grams whole-milk ricotta cheese
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 45 grams finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, using a microplane
  • Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 160 grams, plus 2 tablespoons, all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)
  • Semolina flour, for dusting

For the Sauce:

  • 110 grams (about 1 stick) butter
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • Zest of 1 lemon
  • Kosher salt, to taste
  • Parmigiano-Reggiano, for serving

Directions

1) In a large bowl, mix the ricotta and egg yolks until smooth. Stir in the Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and flour until the dough just comes together.

2) Sprinkle the work surface with a generous dusting of flour. Scrape the dough onto the work surface and sprinkle with a little more flour to prevent the dough from sticking.

3) Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and dust with semolina flour.

4) Using a pastry cutter, divide the dough into 6 equal portions. With floured hands, roll each piece into a log about a ½ inch in diameter. Cut the log into ½-to-1-inch-long pieces. Place the dunderi on the prepared baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough. Make sure the dunderi pieces are not touching, so they don’t stick together. Make ahead: The dunderi can be made, covered and chilled in the fridge for up to 2 days or frozen on the baking sheet and transferred to a resealable plastic bag. (if freezing, use within one month.)

Dunderi with Lemon and Butter

Dunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and ButterDunderi with Lemon and Butter

When ready to cook: 

1) Bring a large pot of salted water to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add the dunderi and simmer until they begin to float to the surface, 1-2 minutes.

2) Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter until the butter becomes golden brown and toasty (6 to 8 minutes). Add the lemon juice and zest, and season with salt. Add the dumplings and toss to coat. Spoon each serving into a bowl and top with Parmesan. Serve immediately.

Dunderi with Lemon and Butter

Dunderi with Lemon and Butter

—–

Lemon-Ricotta Cake – adapted from Eat My Kitchen
Makes one 8″ cake

Ingredients

    • 80g butter, softened
    • 150g sugar
    • 80g ricotta
    • 3 eggs, separated
    • 4 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
    • zest of 1 lemon
    • 200g all-purpose flour
    • 3/4 tsp baking powder
    • pinch of salt
    • icing sugar to dust the cake

1) Set the oven to 350°F and butter the cake pan. Combine the flour and baking powder. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt till stiff.

2) Beat the butter and sugar till fluffy, add the ricotta and mix for a couple minutes. Add the egg yolks and continue mixing for 2 minutes. While still mixing, add the lemon juice and zest followed by the dry ingredients, mixing well for another minute. Stir a couple of tablespoons of the stiff egg whites into the dough before you carefully fold in all of the egg whites.

3) Scrape the dough into the prepared pan and bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown or when a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Let the cake cool and dust with icing sugar.

Lemon-Ricotta Cake

Muffin PSA

I’ve long held the belief that muffins are more or less just cake disguised as breakfast food. Most muffins I’ve come across in bakeries and cafés have an ultra-sweet crumb, studded with the usual flecks of fruit and nut, but more often than not, chocolate too (in different variations of the same theme – chocolate/banana, double chocolate and chocolate chip are the first ones to come to mind). The most confusing kinds have things like “cheesecake” centres, or grainy strusel toppings that are ninety-nine percent sugar. In a lot of ways, muffins have become the antithesis of sensible eating. Because if something like this can be called a muffin, clearly we’ve derailed somewhere along the way.

When I think of the ideal breakfast muffin – the Platonic ideal – it has to have a bit of brawn, something nutritious that will sustain me for the better part of the morning when paired with whatever fruit is in the fruit bowl.  The Platonic Muffin incorporates a type of flour that has some substance, some oumf (whole wheat, for instance) and a few octogenarian-approved ingredients like oat bran and dried fruit. The crumb shouldn’t be too sweet, and while nuts are welcome, chocolate and candy are not invited to the party. In other words, I want the kind of muffin that will lift me in the morning, when my eyes are half-mast in front of the computer, and the synapses in my brain aren’t yet at full throttle; I want it to give me a boost and make me feel productive; I want a muffin I can rely on.

Flipping through my cookbooks a few weekends ago, I came across Sara Forte’s Multigrain Muffin – a simple, but sturdy-looking thing that combines carrot, dates and buttermilk into the batter (ding ding ding!), along with different types of flour (ding ding ding!). Her cookbook, The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods, is what I would call a book of healthy recipes – for the better part vegetarian, some raw, and (as laid out explicity in the title) all containing whole, unprocessed ingredients. Now, while I can get behind all of that, I sometimes have concerns about baked goods being labelled “healthy”, because it often means they taste like cardboard and have a mouthfeel akin to dry soil. But thankfully, this isn’t the case with these muffins- the use of different flours results in a balanced texture, the carrots and dates add sweetness without it tasting saccharine, and the buttermilk makes the whole thing moist and melt-in-your-mouth. It’s the kind of breakfast food that pushes all the right buttons.

This post isn’t sponsored by Sara or her cookbook; it’s just that since these muffins have been on heavy rotation at our house over the last little while, I felt it was my duty – as keeper of this blog – to share them with you instead of keeping them all to myself.

You can see this as a muffin PSA, from your local food nerd.

I hope you’ll give them a whirl.

Multigrain Carrot-Date Muffins

Multigrain Buttermilk Muffins with Carrot and Dates
Adapted from The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods
Makes 12 muffins

  • 1 cup buttermilk*
  • 1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
  • 1 egg
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped, pitted Medjool (or fresh) dates
  • 1 1/2 cups loosely packed grated carrots**
  • 3/4 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup oat bran
  • 1/2 cup almond meal
  • 1/2 cup muscovado sugar (I used raw sugar)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

* to make 1 cup of buttermilk, simply pour whole milk almost to one cup, topping up with about 1/2 Tbsp white vinegar. Let sit for a minute (it will curdle a bit), then it’s ready to be used in your baking.

**use the smaller holes of your box grater for this; the carrot will blend better into the batter.

Multigrain Carrot-Date Muffins

Directions

Preheat oven to 350F.

In a large bowl whisk together the first four ingredients. Add the dates and carrots and stir until combined. In another mixing bowl whisk together the remaining ingredients. Add the carrot-date mixture into the dry and stir until combined. Let the batter sit for 5 minutes to poof up a bit.

Line muffin pan with baking papers. Fill the papers 3/4 way up with batter. Bake for 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

Remove the pan from the oven and transfer muffins to a cooling rack. Can be stored for 3-4 days in an airtight container.

Multigrain Carrot-Date Muffins