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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Middle eastern cooking can be such an adventure, glad to hear you are enjoying your kitchen travelling!

Both dishes look lovely, and the sumac is a very nice touch.
HELLO SHAUN! I have absolutely missed your blog.=) I just had yoghurt this morning with peach and vanilla chutney. Amazing how yoghurt works huh. Love it when it tenderises meat too. =) I wonder if the cake would work the same if I used regular no fat yoghurt instead of Greek.
"Chiffonade" has got to be one of the most eloquent words in a chef's vocabulary, lilting and weightless, it conjures anything but a cut.

Shaun, you know just how fond I am of Middle-Eastern cuisine. A single-layered cake saturated with what amounts to Turkish coffee must be blissful to the last forkful. I propose a tall glass of the slushiest ice water with a sliver of lemon to finish it off.
I am with you as to putting yogurt into baked goods. It is somewhat like using sour cream in baking. It adds such a smooth wonderful taste to the baked good. Our grocer here has just started carrying actual Greek Yogurt. I am now a major fan of it. I even enjoy just a cup with a dab of honey and fresh blueberries on a warm morning for breakfast.
Nice sounding cookbooks. I will check them out soon!
Kelly-Jane ~ So glad to see you here again!! For me, Middle Eastern cookery is especially informative as so many of the combinations are different to those that I grew up with in New Zealand. If it wasn't for Nigella, I might not have been turned on to sumac, which I now can't possible live without (well, that might be taking it too far, but you know what I mean).

Victoria ~ I've missed seeing your comments. How great to have you stop by again. Yes, it is amazing how adaptable yoghurt is. I'm not sure if what is missing from the no-fat yoghurts is needed in the cake, but you could try it anyway. It wouldn't be a waste of time, for the cake is a breeze to make.

Susan, lovie ~ A slushie would have been perfect to have, actually, for it was so humid here the day I made the cake! The very strong coffee was a nice wake-up call, though. Next I would like to make a citrus curd to have with the cake (or as part of it).

Deb ~ Yes, yoghurt is much like sour cream in that they both add a lightness and voluptuous quality to baked goods. A dab of honey is often used with plain Greek yoghurt, so I can see how you would enjoy it first thing in the morning. As for the cookery books, they are great. Diana Henry's is one of my most used and most favorite.
Thank you Shaun, I'm glad to be back!

It was Nigella that introduced me to sumac as well =)
I love cake recipes like this - as you say, they make for dense-but-light cakes that taste fantastic, too. I think the idea of the syrup with it is inspired!
So to celebrate your new interest in Indian food, why don't you come to Paris! M and I have a favorite restaurant here in Chatelet... we'd love to take you! ;) xOO
Kelly-Jane ~ It is great to see you here again! I hope you now have some time to lose yourself in your collection of cookery books.

Aforkfulofspaghetti ~ The great thing about the syrup is that you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want - either way, the cake sponge will absorb it.

Divine poetess Suzanne ~ I'll be there in a minute. Tell me more about this restaurant...
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