Sunday, February 24, 2008


Yoghurt in Summer

I had intended on beginning this post with a note on using food a safe mechanism for escapism, but upon taking photos, I realised this was not to be. I have run out of the necessary batteries for my camera. I will rectify the situation this week, but it means that today's photos are taken with an aparatus whose results are uninspiring at the best of times: the web cam. So, I find myself beginning the post with an apologia for the visuals.

Now, that the depressing stuff is out of the way, and perhaps more of a reason to transport oneself, though in this instance it would be preferable to have the real-life escape instead of a sensory or virtual one, allow me to point out what is probably evident to regular readers: I use food to escape. This is not to say that I do not appreciate living in the moment, I do, but it often transpires that I use food to create moment, to impart an energy. When creating a menu, what is often the great fun is creating a link between the courses, to have each dish speak to those preceding or following it. It is a great learning opportunity to understand the possibilities of many an ingredient. In fact, when I create a menu, I sometimes have just one ingredient in mind, and I like to see what I can do with it - of course, I am aware of overkill and make sure it is not the star of every single dish, for that gets tired. And most people don't care that much anyway; they just want to be fed.

When I want to escape, I head for my bookcase of cookery books, which functions as a stone-front fireplace would in the coldest, snowiest of Winters. This weekend looks like Winter, but, thankfully, it isn't yet unbearably cold. It is in this subtropical storm that I get the best of both worlds: moderate temperatures and grey, wet skies. While not quite willing to swap polos for turtlenecks, I am showcasing two of a myriad of ways with one of my favorite Summer foods: yoghurt. (Of course yoghurt can be made year-round; I just tend to crave it in the Summer more than any other time of the year.)

With my dabbling into Middle Eastern cookery, I have found yoghurt to be a kitchen staple. Often it is used as a marinade, a dipping sauce, or as a thirst-quencher. While not nearly as familiar with the myriad of Indian cuisines as I am with those of the Middle East, I am becoming increasingly inquisitive about the food preparations of this vast subcontinent, the world's largest producer of spices. A perfect way to counter heat with its cooling effect on the palate is raita, an Indian condiment. It accompanies spicy Indian dishes, grilled meat, and it also makes a great dip for pita or naan chipes.

To this dip, feel free to add as much mint or cucumber as you prefer. You could also add onion and garlic, or you can swap out the mint for coriander. Instead of dusting it off with a little chilli powder, I added a sprinkling of my favourite spice, sumac, which has a citrus-spike that pairs well with cumin.

Cucumber and Mint Raita
(Closely adapted from Anjum Anand's Indian Food Made Easy)

1 cucumber, about 12 1/2cm/5" in length
1 1/2 tablespoons mint, chiffonade
300g/10 fl.oz nautral/plain yoghurt
3/4 teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and ground
a pinch of sumac

1) Peel the cucumber and grate it coarsely.
2) Squeeze the excess moisture out of the grated cucumber. (I did this by wrapping the jade-coloured strands in kitchen paper.)
3) Place the grated cucumber into a bowl with the mint and gently mix together.
4) Fold in the yoghurt.
5) Fold in the cumin.
6) Sprinkle sumac on top.

For a mildly sweet hit for afternoon tea, I am partial to moist cakes made with yoghurt. What I love most about them is that the cake itself can be made simply, allowing for the chosen syrup to be the great carrier of flavour, which means that no matter what your mood on the day, the cake-making part is a no-brainer. The only thing to bear in mind is that Greek yoghurt is a little thicker than most and has a slight tang, which I prefer, so it is something to be mindful of when deciding what syrup to make. If you do not prefer a tangy yoghurt, then choose plain/natural instead of Greek or Greek-style yoghurts. The other great thing about this particular cake is that it alleviates one of the creaming of butter and sugar, which is often necessary for baked goods. It is something I don't particularly enjoy doing even though I understand the necessity of it. Also, the less eggs there are to break, the better. I've made hundreds of cakes and muffins, and there is nothing I hate more than breaking is always such a task for me (and yes, I've read up on various methods to break eggs easily and cleanly).

The syrup is taken from a Diana Henry recipe. It is rather ingenius because it means one can leave out the brandy from the cake base - it seems to be a common ingredient in Greek yoghurt cakes. The addition to reduced coffee, though, does not leave a brandy-flavoured syrup, but simulates that of walnuts in liquor, which is what some Turks use in their yoghurt cakes. In this way, you get the ultimate blend of both Greek and Turkish approaches to yoghurt cakes (as opposed to the Italian and Middle Eastern ones that also often use semolina, which I didn't think I had on hand, but I did - only I found out too late).

Greek Yoghurt Cake with Coffee and Brandy Syrup

For the cake:
1 cup Greek yoghurt
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon icing sugar

1) Line and grease a 25cm/10" springform pan.
2) Preheat oven to 180 C/350 F.
3) Gently combine yoghurt, eggs, sugar, vanilla extract and vegetable oil in a bowl.
4) In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder.
5) Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet, ensuring the batter is smooth.
6) Bake for 35-45 minutes, until a skewer or toothpick pierced into the centre of the cake comes out clean.
7) Allow the cake to rest for 10 minutes before taking it out of the pan and resting it on a plate.
8) While it is still warm, pierce the cake with a toothpick and pour the syrup over.
9) Once the syrup has seeped into the cake, dust the cake with icing sugar.

For the syrup:
(Closely adapted from Diana Henry's Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons: Enchanting Dishes from the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa)

1 cup (8 oz) espresso
1/2 cup raw sugar
2 tablespoons brandy

1) Boil the hot espresso and sugar together.
2) Reduce liquid by half.
3) Remove from heat and add brandy.
4) Allow to cool before pouring over the cake.

I appreciate that the top of the cake is not too much to look at, which is why the dusting of icing sugar is a good idea, but the flavours and texture are wonderful. This cake is dense but light-tasting at the same time. Your unintiated guests will wonder what the ingredients are, for the syrup is incredibly complex and the underscoring tang from the yoghurt makes for excitement on the palate.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008



Not to be confused with Hummus, Hummas is a Morrocan dish of chickpeas, turmeric and parsley (or coriander, or a mixture of both). I feel that I will be spending the next month or so informing myself of Moroccan cooking. The timing could not be better, for February is often a very warm and humid month in Auckland, and what mostly appeals to me about Moroccan food is that it is spicy but not terribly hot. This post also serves two purposes, as I not only try the combination of turmeric and parsley, but I also submit it to my good friend Susan's food event, My Legume Love Affair.

Chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans) are grown all over the world, specifically in the Mediterranean, Western Asia and throughout India. I have made good use of them as the key protein in vegetarian curries, finding that they are ultra luxurious when coated with a thick sauce. Nutritionally, there are many benefits but most interesting is that fact that chickpeas are high in folate, which is a B vitamin necessary for creating serotonin (which makes us happy and assists in liver regeneration, amongst other things, and in this respect amongst other properties, chickpeas are also similar to spinach - no wonder I feel so good after eating both!).

In Moroccan cuisine, chickpeas are used in many a dish, most importantly Harira, a soup that is eaten to break the fasting day in the month of Ramadan. Chickpeas also feature in couscous recipes, which are probably the most familiar of Moroccan cuisine.

Turmeric is part of the ginger family, and its rhizomes are boiled and then dried in ovens before being ground into the marigold-coloured spice with which we are familiar. It is incredibly aromatic and has a mildly bitter, peppery flavour and smells like mustard. Often it is used as a colouring agent in food, but in this recipe, it not only imparts its gorgeous colouring, it also adds warmth and plays with the sweet onions and parsley, bringing out a somewhat unexpected character...

Turmeric is the only spice in this recipe, so the freshest you can find will be best. If you are going to use dried chickpeas, they first need to be soaked overnight (actually, for any recipe, you have to soak dried chickpeas in advance of preparing them). If you are using canned chickpeas, ensure that they are drained before use.

(from Claudia Roden's The New Book of Middle Eastern Food)

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1 1/2 cups chickpeas (to be soaked overnight) or 600g/21oz of canned chickpeas
1 cup parsley, chopped

1) In a large pan, heat oil and fry the onion.
2) Add garlic and stir.
3) Stir in the turmeric.
4) Add chickpeas and turn them in the onion.
5) Cover with water and simmer for 15-20 minutes if using drained chickpeas from a can. If using dried chickpeas that have been soaked then drained, simmer for 1 1/4 hours.
6) Add salt and pepper only after the chickpeas have begun to soften.
7) Add water to keep chickpeas covered, if necessary.
8) Once the chickpeas are tender, reduce the liquid until it becomes a thick sauce, approximately 20 minutes over a medium heat.
9) Stir in the parsley and cook for five more minutes.

Hummas is really what one eats when the fridge and pantry are bare, and in Morocco, it is considered a food of the poor that it is stretched by often being served with hot bread. Ms. Roden writes that this dish can be cooked using saffron instead of turmeric (and even though the two do not taste at all similar, they impart a golden colour); it can then be served as a first course. I was most surprised by the faint gingery notes because the spice smells more like mustard than it does ginger. It plays beautifully with the caramelised onions and fresh parsley, toning down the flavours of both with its warmth.

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