Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A PISTACHIO BAKHLAVA CAKE - A CONFESSIONAL - AND AN ICESTORM


MUSIC WE'RE COOKING TO


Confession:  I meant to share this Pistachio Bakhlava Cake with you in time for Valentine's Day.  It didn't happen.

Confession I also had every intention of sharing another delicious bite of goodness with you in time for the start of the Olympics. But that required making paper-thin slices out of a big hunk of jicama.  Which in turn required getting the mandolin out of solitary confinement and declaring with it a temporary truce. You see, my history with said mandolin is a troubled one.  What once seemed so bright and promising a future quickly turned to failed experiments and useless chunks of vegetables.   But then I thought - who knows, this might be the start of a new era for us. Maybe this time, with better communication - mutual respect - some give-and-take on both our parts...But alas, tragedy once again.  What was supposed to be a graceful duet quickly turned into a wrestling match, concluding with my worst self rearing its ugly head as I hurled profanities and mangled pieces of jicama across the kitchen.  And the mandolin just sat there - lifeless -  sharp and indifferent, and perhaps a bit smug.

Confession:  The ice storm pictures are from this past December in Toronto.  It was a sight to behold - especially for those of us from water-deprived Southern California.  We were some of the lucky few who had power and heat, and simply got to marvel at the beauty and majesty of it all.  Frozen.  Some of the shots are mine, some are Ramin's





Confession:  I don't really like to bake, nor do I have much of a sweet tooth.  Salty and sour is my late-night indulgence.

Confession:  I have been baking a lot lately.

Confession:  I have been enjoying baking as of late.  Much to my reluctance.

Confession:  I have been consuming more baked goods as of late.  

Confession:  I have been enjoying consuming said baked goods.  Especially this Pistachio Bakhlava Cake.

Bakhlava cake is my mom's go-to baked good.  She always has some on-hand in the freezer to serve with coffee or tea when unexpected company drops by.  The perfect little afternoon or after-dinner sweet treat.  Lately the girls have been enjoying it as an after-school snack with a cup of camomile tea.  

Bakhlava cake has the same flavors as traditional bakhlava - nuts, fragrant rose water - but without all the work of turning out layers of flaky puff pastry (my newly found baking enthusiasm and patience does not encompass all that work). Traditional bakhlava is also quite rich and decadent.  This cake version is much lighter - much more satisfying to my reluctantly blooming sweet tooth. Typically, it is made with a combination of all-purpose flour and either almond meal or pistachio meal.  And it is then finished off with a healthy drizzle of a simple syrup glaze.  Of course, not one to leave a recipe alone (even when baking) I swapped out some ingredients with what I usually have in the pantry.  I used a whole grain pastry flour and traded the almond meal with raw, unsalted pistachios that I ground up into a fine meal.  Instead of using butter or vegetable oil I used coconut oil.  I like using coconut oil in certain recipes but am not a fan of infusing everything with a tropical island coconut flavor.  I didn't want the cake to have a distinct coconut essence, and was quite pleased to discover that the coconut did not come through in this cake.  I also cut down on the regular sugar and used coconut palm sugar.  I have only recently discovered coconut palm sugar.  What I've learned so far is it is not as processed as regular sugar, and is low in the glycemic index with a high mineral content.  All of which sounds great but just to keep things in prespective - it is still a sweetener - so moderation is key.  

This cake is intended to be moist so it really depends on being covered in a simple syrup glaze once it's out of the oven.  I made my simple syrup with a honey/water/rose water combination.  Make sure you use a good quality mild flavored honey - I used a clover honey - orange blossom would be nice too.  You don't want the honey flavor to take over.  The flavor and aroma that should subtly awaken and envelop your senses here is rose water - golab.  Rose water is a staple in Persian baking, ice creams, sorbets and beyond.  It is always present on our New Year Haft Seen Table and our Wedding Sofreh Aghd to literally and symbolically purify and perfume the air.  It is believed to be medicinal, cosmetic with numerous healing properties, and lest we forget, also an aphrodisiac.  The aroma alone can make you drunk with love.  If you are new to the scent and flavor of rose water I suggest starting with small amounts.  Food grade rose water is available at Middle Eastern grocery stores and can also be found online - like here or here.  Unfortunately, organic food grade rose water is not that readily available.  If you have tried any, please share with me your thoughts.  Also check out the lovely Shiva Rose's tutorial on how to make your own rose water for cosmetic use.  It's beautiful.

The great thing about this Pistachio Bakhlava Cake is that it easily freezes for months.  I like to serve it cut into small rectangles - cold out of the fridge or thawed out of the freezer.  A little bite of rosey sweetness with an afternoon or after-dinner tea.       

Cofession: Our freezer is packed with containers of Pistachio Bakhlava Cake.  Just in time for Toronto's frozen castles to melt (or in our case - the draught to ease - and for Spring to once again rejuvanate us.  Just in time to share with friends and family for Nowruz.  




Sunday, February 2, 2014

A MUSIC EDUCATION AND A POMEGRANATE AND WALNUT STEW - KHORESH FESENJAN





George Michael and Andrew Ridgely.  They dreamily look deep into my soul - unearthing every little secret and thought as I flop on my bed - chin resting on hands looking even  deeper into their souls - the intensity of my stare almost burning a hole in the album cover - held inches from my nose.  I fancy myself Andrew's best bud and the next Mrs. George Michael.  

Well - we all know how that all turned out.  But that's what you do when you're twelve and a mad fan of Wham!.

Losing myself in a selfie slow-dance to the heartbreak that is Careless Whisper - and always ending with a big finale of me forgiving George (this one time) for his cheating ways - a radically different sound pounds through my bedroom floor knocking me off my feet and leaving the Careless Whisper sax solo whimpering in the dust.  My brother's music.

Hands on hips, an I-mean-business glare in my eyes, and ready to confront the injustice that has been assailed upon me and George (the same look I now spot in Soleil to much hilarity) - I storm down the stairs ready to unleash all my pre-teen angst on my older brother.  But halfway down I stop, and the fumes rising out of me slowly fizzle out.  For days afterward I sneak halfway down to the basement, take a seat on the stairs and listen to this sound that is planets away from anything I have heard before.  But you can sneak around secretly enjoying your older brother's music for only so long before you're caught. 

He doesn't tell me to take a hike, or embarrass me, or make me feel like a silly little WHAM!-loving twelve-year-old that I am.  Instead he invites me in - passionately sharing with me this new world of music.  Excitedly he rattles off facts - stories - one thought quickly leading to another - faster than I can keep up - as is his way to this day.  We listen through his entire record collection - the MOD/PUNK/"alternative music"/SKA canon. The Jam - Dead Kennedys - The Cramps - Madness - The Specials - Bahaus - The Smiths - Style Council - The Clash - The Stranglers - Talking Heads - The Who - Velvet Underground.... 

Weekends become about trips downtown to Odyssey Imports on Granville Street (before Granville Street became the tourist hub that it is now) to check out the latest import releases out of the UK.  When there was a distinct rivalry between the music coming from the UK vs the US.  When the freshly mohawked punk rockers had claimed the front entrance to Eatons as theirs and theirs alone.  All frightening and exhilarating at the same time for my pre-teen eyes.  

Those early years in Vancouver, after a day spent record shopping, Saturday nights were also synonymous with a dinner party at our family friends house - the K's.  Where we would all gather seeking comfort in the company of other families - expats - having gone through similar travels, similar adversities.  

New immigrants to a new land. 

Where you could be guaranteed plenty of dancing and plenty of Mrs. K's mouth-watering Khoresh Fesenjan - Pomegrante Walnut Stew.

Food in general demands our respect.  Khoresh Fesenjan commands our respect.  The respect of time and patience.  The respect of slowly and lovingly allowing a much celebrated stew of walnuts and pomegranate molasses simmer quietly away for a few hours on your stove on a Sunday afternoon.  Warming up your home with its tantalizing aromas - transporting you to a faraway land -  a faraway orchard - or - simply as my mother puts it - allowing all the flavors come to life.

Sweet or Sour - Pomegranate Molasses
Contrary to popular belief Khoresh Fesenjan is quite simple to prepare.  At its simplest preparation it is nothing more than ground up walnuts, pomegranate molasses, water, chicken (or vegetable of choice), salt to taste.  That's all you need.  But for a little added depth of flavor you can enhance with some extra spices. I like to use a little bit of turmeric, ground up dried rose petals and cinnamon. However, this simple yet sumptuous dish is often quite polarizing as to how it should be prepared.  This divisiveness comes down to a personal preference for what type of pomegranate molasses to use.  Sweet or sour or something in between - sweet and sour.  It is not uncommon for people to get quite particular and passionate about this preference.  You know you are talking about quite a special dish when there is so much passion and intensity surrounding it. I like and prepare my Fesenjan sour - the way Mrs. K and my mom prepare it - the way it is prepared in Gilan - Shomal - the Northern region of Iran bordering the Caspian sea  - known for its Khoresh Fesenjan.  Now, by sour I don't mean a mouth-puckering taste that makes you wince.  It only means that there is no sugar or other type of sweetener added to the stew.  It is a subtle and satisfying tartness which is dictated by the kind of pomegranate molasses that is used.  I use this pomegranate molasses which says sour on it.  If you are new to Khoresh Fesenjan I recommend trying different kinds of pomegranate molasses and see what suits your palate best. 

Walnuts
There is also a debate as to how fine the walnuts in the stew should be ground up.  Again, this comes down to a personal preference.  Some like the texture of a rougher grind, where you can feel the crunch of the walnut in the stew.  I prefer my Fesenjan smooth so I grind up the walnuts to a fine meal, or even to a paste. You're looking for a grind resembling a flour like texture or smoother. The walnut meal is then mixed with some water and added to the pomegranate paste in the pot. 



Simmer, Simmer and Simmer Some More 
There is one thing about the preparation of this stew that is not up for debate.  And that is allowing the pomegranate/walnut sauce to sit and simmer slowly for at least a couple of hours before adding your meat or vegetable.  No quick fixes here.  The color, depth of flavor and richness of this dish depend on this step.  Just like any good stew or braise, this is your chance to bring the flavors to life.  Specifically to bring the walnuts to life .  As the stew simmers, the walnuts will slowly start to release their natural oils.  The more the walnuts release their oils the more they will come out of their raw state and the color of the stew will start turning from a very pale cappuccino shade to a rich brown .  That is what we are looking for.  The walnuts can make this dish a very rich and hearty dish, so you want to skim off as much of those oils that come to the surface as possible to cut down on some of that richness.  Also we don't want a raw walnut aftertaste in the stew which can often be rather bitter. As the stew sits and simmers uncovered it will start thickening so you want to keep adding about half a cup of water to it every half hour or so.  This process should take about 2 hours.  You will know the sauce is ready when its color has turned to a rich brown, when most of the walnut oil has been released and when it is at the desired consistency: not too thick and not too watered down.  At this point you should taste the sauce and make any necessary adjustments like adding more pomegranate molasses if necessary.  This is also where I add the cinnamon and ground rose petals, if using.  The sauce can be made ahead of time up to this point and kept in the fridge before adding the chicken.  If I am pressed for time or preparing for a dinner party  I usually make the sauce one day ahead.    

Duck, Chicken or Vegetables
Traditionally, Khoresh Fesenjan was served with a whole duck placed in the sauce and cooked through.  It has now become more common to make Fesenjan with chicken - whole or cut up into pieces - which is how I like to prepare it. Some preparations also use mini meatballs which cook through in the sauce.  You can also make a vegetarian version with eggplant or mushrooms or various types of squash.  It goes without saying that Fesenjan, or Fesenjoon as it is more colloquially called, should be enjoyed over rice.  This dish is also a perfect example of the Persian tradition of balancing a meal. A rich and satisfying stew like Fesenjan should always be accompanied with something fresh, raw and crisp to aid in digestion.  

We are a culture obsessed with digestion.  

So you will most definitely find Sabzi Khordan - a platter of fresh herbs and radishes (I love using watermelon radishes when available) at the table along with a bowl of crisp, fresh turnips as is tradition in Gilan and at Mrs. K's house. 

Those Saturday nights at Mrs. K's, after a feast of Fesenjan, Baghali Ghatogh, Mirza Ghasemi and smoked fish - following the obligatory after-dinner tray of tea and dates (for digestion of course) was passed around - after the platter of fruit (for digestion, of course) was served - after the dancing and clapping (also for digestion, of course) - my best friend S. and her older sister M. and I would watch my brother, their older brother B. and another good friend F. go through their ritual of getting ready for a night out. 

It almost always involved excessive amounts of hair gel.  

I secretly longed to one day tag along, be a part of that world.  But until then I was quite content with George upstairs in my room and the new world order I was experiencing downstairs in my brother's room.  Clinging to my childhood but on the threshold of crossing over to something new, exciting and nerve-racking: the teenage years.  

That's what happens when you're twelve.  

On the cusp of when his music, becomes our music - my music

Dedicated to the memory of Farzad and Sepideh.