Sunday, February 10, 2008

Recipe of the week from The Cooking of the Middle-East: Challah bread

I apologise for not including recipes from all the chapters, but to tell the truth, all the really interesting ones are quite long and involved and I am simply too lazy to type them up (but not to cook them…).
Challah is a type of braided white bread, traditional to the Jewish people. There have been some long and interesting discussions on Challah-making on my favourite food discussion forum, which made me curious, so I chose Challah as recipe of the week. In the book, the recipe and detailed instructions take up a whole page, obviously so that an inexperienced baker can make the recipe. I am going to assume some expertise on behalf of my readers, and have therefore abbreviated the instructions somewhat, and mixed them with instructions gleaned from other challah recipes and my own experience in bread-making.

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A baked loaf of challah. The egg wash gives it a dark, shiny crust

3/8 pint (12 tbs) lukewarm water
2 oz. (ca. 55 g) fresh yeast or 1 oz. (2 tbs + 2 tsp) dried
1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lb. (565 g to 680 g) plain flour
1 tbs sugar
1 1/2 tsp salt
3 eggs
2 oz. (3 tbs) + 1 scant tsp vegetable cooking fat
1 egg yolk mixed with 1 1/2 tbs water

Put half the lukewarm water into a small bowl and sprinkle in the yeast. Let stand for a coupe of minutes, then stir to dissolve the yeast completely. Set aside in a warm place for about 5 minutes, until the mixture has almost doubled in volume.

Put 1 lb. (450 g) of the flour in a large bowl with the sugar and salt and mix well. Make a well in the centre, add the yeast, the remaining water, eggs, and 2 tbs of fat.

Stir well together until all the flour is absorbed, then add up to 1/2 lb (225 g) flour, a little at a time, to form a dough that holds its shape as a soft ball.

Turn out unto a floured surface and knead for about 15 minutes, or as long as it takes to form a smooth, elastic dough.

Shape into a ball and put into a large, lightly greased bowl. Cover with a towel and set in a warm place to rise, until doubled in size (about 45 minutes).

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The dough, risen and unrisen

Punch down the dough and knead for a few minutes, then set aside for 10 minutes.

Grease a large baking sheet with the remaining tsp of fat. Divide the dough into as many equally sized pieces as you want in the braid (recipe calls for 4, but I used 3). Roll out into long sausage shapes, a bit longer than you intend the baked bread to be, narrowing at the ends.

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The strands of dough

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The braided loaf

Press one end of each of the strands together and braid tightly (don’t pull on the strands!), pressing together the other ends and tucking the ends under the loaf. Carefully place the loaf on the greased baking sheet and cover it with a cloth. Let it rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes.

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The risen loaf with egg wash applied.
At this stage the loaf had risen to "oh, my goodness! This is going to take over the oven!" proportions.

Heat the oven to 400°F (about 200°C, 190°C if you have a convection oven). Mix together the egg yolk and water and brush the top of the loaf with it. Bake in the centre of the oven for about 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375°F (190°C, 180°C for convection ovens) and bake for about 45 minutes longer, until the challah is golden brown and crusty. Cook on a wire rack.

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Note the difference between the areas where the wash was applied and the ones where it was not

Notes and review:
I made the bread exactly as instructed, except I used oil instead of fat. The outcome was a gorgeous-looking loaf, which was fluffy and rather dry. I don’t know if challah is supposed to be this way, or if I perhaps over- or under-kneaded it or baked it for too long, but the texture is consistent with other leavened breads I have eaten that include eggs in the recipe (such as panettone). It was not very flavourful but tasted good with butter, cheese and/or jam on top. I took some to friends of mine who liked it and their kids loved it.

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Cookbook review:
I got this book at the local flea market last Sunday and since I wanted to read it right away I decided to make it cookbook of the week. It is not just a cookbook, but an attempt to describe the cuisines and culinary traditions of the region, with a short chapter on food history added for good measure. It’s part of a series from Time-Life, published in the 1960s and 70s. All the books originally consisted of a large-format book about the food of the chosen country or region and a small spiral-bound recipe booklet, kept together in a slipcase. I have the set of slipcase and two books for Scandinavia, but in this case I only got the large-format book, which only has a few recipes.

The style of the writing reminds me strongly of certain old National Geographic articles, as the author chattily describes his and his wife’s journey through the region in search of dining experiences and recipes.

Verdict: A very satisfying read. I think I will be on the lookout, not only for more books in the series, but also for a copy of the missing booklet.

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

Sample recipe from The Cooking of the Middle-East: Baba ghannoj (cold aubergine purée with lemon juice)

I love the sound of the name for this dish, just as I love aubergines.

First, however, is the recipe for Taratoor, a sesame sauce that is used in this Baba Ghannooj recipe:

3 medium-sized garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 cup tahini (sesame paste)
3/4 to 1 cup cold water
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1 scant tsp salt

Mash the garlic to a paste with a pestle or wooden spoon. Stir in the tahini. Beat in 1/2 cup of water, the lemon juice and the sale with a whisk or spoon. Still beating, gradually add more water until the sauce has the consistency of thick mayonnaise and holds its shape almost solidly in a spoon.

Baba ghannooj:

1 medium aubergine (about 1 lb./450 g)
3 tbs fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 tbs taratoor sauce
1 large garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1 scant tsp salt
2 1/2 tsp olive oil
2 oz. (ca. 55 g) finely chopped onions
1 tbs finely chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaved

First, roast the aubergine: prick it in 3-4 places with the prongs of a long-handled fork, then impale it in the fork and turn over a gas flame until the skin chars and begins to split, OR pierce the aubergine, place it on a baking sheet and grill about 4 inches (10 cm) from the heat for 20 minutes, turning it to char evenly all over [alternatively, use a crème brûlée torch].

When the aubergine is cool enough to handle, skin it, cutting away any badly charred spots of flesh. Cut it in half lengthways and chop finely. Then mash it into a smooth purée, beat in the lemon juice, taratoor, garlic and salt. Adjust taste if necessary.

Serve in a bowl, garnished with olive oil, chopped onions and parsley.

To eat, scoop up with pieces of khobz (Arab bread) or pitta bread [or eat with a spoon].

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sample recipe from The Cooking of the Middle-East: Kadin Göbeği (“Lady’s Navel” fritters)

Here is a Turkish dish with an unusual name. I usually find sweets that are steeped in syrup too sweet, but the cream should alleviate that.

1 lb. (ca. 450 g) sugar
3/4 pint (425 ml) water
1/2 tsp fresh lemon juice

Put the sugar, water and lemon juice into a small saucepan and bring to the boil over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and cook, uncovered, until the syrup reaches 220°F (105 °C). Set aside and let it cool to room temperature.

5/8 pint (355 ml) water
1 1/2 oz. (40 g) butter
1/8 tsp salt
8 oz. (225 g) sifted plain flour
3 eggs
Vegetable oil for deep frying
1/2 tsp almond essence
3 tbs chilled double cream, stiffly whipped

Put the water, butter and salt in a saucepan and bing to the boil at high heat, stirring until the butter melts. Add the flour all at once and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until well mixed into a smooth mass. Make a well in the center of the dough and add one egg. Beat well until well mixed. Repeat with the remaining eggs. The dough should be thick, smooth and shiny.

Heat 3-4 inches (7,5 to 10 cm) of oil in a large deep-fat frying pan or electric deep-fryer, to a temperature of 360°F (180°C). To prepare the fritters, pinch off about 1 1/2 tbs of dough and roll into a ball 2 inches (5 cm) in diameter. Dip your thumb into the almond essence and press it into each ball to make a “navel” 1/2 inch (ca. 1 cm) deep. Deep fry, 5 at a time (or as many as will fit into your pan/frier with good space for turning), for about 10 minutes, turning them for even browning. Remove with a slotted spoon, drain briefly, and dip into the syrup to steep for 5 minutes. Transfer to a dish and let cool to room temperature. Just before serving, drop a teaspoon of whipped cream into the “navel” of each fritter.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Sample recipe from The Cooking of the Middle-East: Dolmates Yemistes me Rizi (baked tomatoes stuffed with rice)

This looks like a great starter:

1/2 pint (285 ml) water
3.5 oz. (100g) uncooked rice (long or medium grain)
6 firm ripe tomatoes, each about 3 inches (7,5 cm) in diameter
1 1/2 tsp salt
5 tbs olive oil
2 oz. (55 g) finely chopped onions
3 x 2 1/4 oz. (ca. 65 g) cans tomato purée (6.75 oz. or 190 g or 9 tbs)
6 tbs finely chopped parsley, preferably flat-leaf
5 tbs finely cut fresh mint or 2 1/2 tsp dried
1 1/2 tsp finely chopped garlic
1/4 tsp oregano, crumbled (how much is that in fresh?)
Freshly ground black pepper

Bring 3/8 pint (about 210 ml) to the boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Add the rice, stir a couple of times and cook the rice for about 8 minutes, or until softened but still firm (i.e. not fully quite cooked). Drain and set aside.

Cut a 1/4 inch (1/5 cm) slices off the stem end of the tomatoes and set aside. Hollow out the tomatoes, remove the inner pulp and discard the seeds. Chop the pulp and set aside. Sprinkle the tomatoes with 1 scant tsp of salt and drain them, upside down, on kitchen paper.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). while it is heating, make the stuffing: heat the oil in a large frying pan over moderate heat and cook the onions for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until they are soft and transparent but not brown. Add the rice, tomato pulp, 6 tbs of the tomato purée, the parsley, mint, garlic, oregano, the remaining salt and a few grindings of pepper. Stir fry until the mixture is almost dry (the mixture holds its shape almost solidly in the spoon).

Arrange the tomatoes, hollow side up, in a baking dish. Fill with the stuffing, packing it in firmly and put the reserved slices on top. Mix together the remaining 3 tbs of tomato purée and 3 tbs of water and pour around the tomatoes. Bake uncovered in the of the oven for 20 minutes, basting once or twice. Cool and serve directly from the baking dish.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cookbook of the week # 21: Foods of the World: The Cooking of the Middle-East

This book is part of a series of gorgeous Time-Life books about the foods of different regions and countries of the world. This is more than just a cookbook: it describes the foods and food history and offers various food related tidbits and photographs of the foods, people and landscapes of the 9 countries the author visited. The countries were Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Iran. As I have mentioned before, I love North-African and Middle-Eastern food, so this will be an interesting read. Unfortunately the recipe booklet that came with the book has been lost, so I only have the recipes included in the book to choose from.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Recipe of the week from Hollt og gott: Banana bread

It may seem a bit mundane to choose banana bread, but I have been looking for a good recipe for it for years. The recipes I have tried have either been too sweet, not sweet enough, too crumbly or didn’t have enough banana flavour.

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3 ripe bananas
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3/4 cup chopped nuts (may be left out)

Mix together flour, sugar, salt and baking soda. Peel and mash the bananas thoroughly. Lightly whip the eggs until well mixed and just beginning to froth. Mix in the mashed bananas and then the dry mix, little by little until well mixed. Pour into a greased loaf pan and bake at medium temperature (I used about 160°C but 175°C would be suitable for a non-convection oven). Ready in about 1 hour. When a pin inserted into the thickest part of the loaf comes out clean or only slightly sticky, the loaf is fully baked.

Notes and review:

I made the recipe exactly as instructed. For nuts I used walnuts, but pecans would also be good and possibly hazelnuts.

The bread/cake has just the right amount of sweetness and a nice, tasty banana flavour. It is nicely moist, but not too much, and tastes great either plain or slathered with butter. I think I may finally have found the right banana bread recipe for me.

The cookbook itself has maybe about a dozen recipes I would like to try. I will probably end up culling this book, but will copy down the interesting recipes first.