Monday, September 23, 2013

Maple Dreams

Here is my dirty little secret: (Ok, so it's neither dirty, nor a secret. Semantics.) Jerusalem is not my favorite Ottolenghi cookbook. Gasp! Shock and dismay! Don't get me wrong, I love Jerusalem. I love, love, love Jerusalem. I am cooking my way through Jerusalem, but it is not my sun and my stars. My most favorite Ottolenghi cookbook, is simply put, Ottolenghi. Ottolenghi was Yotam and Sami's first cookbook, and it is filled with recipes from their store, Ottolenghi. It is more rambling and yet somehow more grounded than either Jerusalem or Plenty. It's a very real book- the foods in it are distinguished by the fact that people love to eat them rather than by genre or geography, which makes it eclectic, meandering and friendly.  Everything I've cooked from it has been great, and I find myself coming back to those recipes again and again and again. In fact, I've pared Roast Chicken with Sumac, Za'atar and Lemon down to its very basics- around here everyone just calls it Ottolenghi Chicken.

This Rosh Hashana, I was faced with the task of feeding vegetarians. Ordinarily this would not be a difficult task, but somehow on Rosh Hashana it seemed like a test indeed. Whence brisket and chicken with dates? To hearten myself against this arduous task, I decided it was time to expand my Rosh Hashana dessert repertoire. Usually, I make nothing but honey cake, honey cake, honey cake, but this year I could move beyond that. I could use butter and milk and cream. The possibilities were endless. I went with Ottolenghi. After all, how could I resist a recipe called Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing? I mean how could I?  Lucky for me, my brother had just recently gifted me with a large jug of real, live maple syrup from the U.S. And let me tell you a thing: Cream cheese-maple frosting? Pretty fucking spectacular. Highly recommended. Totally worth the lack of brisket.

Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Frosting

Adapted from Ottolenghi: The Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi

So. Here's the thing: much as I love olive oil cakes, I don't think the olive oil in this cake is strictly necessary. The frosting is intense enough that you don't really feel the delicacy of the olive oil. The next time I make it, I'll probably just save some money and use vegetable oil. If however, you are making the cake without frosting, definitely use olive oil. Also, Ottolenghi's original recipe calls for 80 grams of raisins. I don't like raisins in my apple cake, but if you'd like to add them, feel free to do so. (Simmer the raisins in 4 tablespoons of water until the water is absorbed before adding).

280 grams flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
120 ml olive oil or vegetable oil
160 grams sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
3 apples, peeled, cored and diced
zest of 1 lemon
2 egg whites

100 grams butter at room temperature
100 grams light muscovado sugar
85 ml maple syrup
220 grams cream cheese at room temperature

1. Preheat the oven to 350 f. Sift together the flour, cinnamon, salt, baking powder and baking soda. Set aside.
2. In a freestanding mixer, beat the oil, sugar and vanilla, using a  paddle attachment. (If you don't have a freestanding mixer, use a hand-held one.) Add the eggs one at a time, until the batter is smooth and thick. Mix in the apples and lemon zest. Fold in the dry ingredients.
3. In a clean bowl, beat the egg whites until they hold soft peaks. Gently fold them into the batter in two additions. The batter will be stiff and thick even after you have added the egg whites.
4. Pour the batter into a greased and lined 8-inch springform pan.  Bake 1 1/2* hours, or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool and remove from pan.
5. Make the frosting:  Beat together the butter, sugar and maple syrup until light and airy. Add the cream cheese and beat until smooth.
6. Assemble the cake: Use a serrated knife, to cut the cake in half, horizontally. Spread a layer of frosting on the bottom half of the cake. Carefully top with the top half of the cake. Spoon the rest of the frosting on top and smooth with a knife. (To make ahead, do not frost the cake. Wrap well and refrigerate it for up the three days. Frost before serving.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I'll dig with it.

"What a gift, since my life so often feels like a hallway of closed doors"

The quote above comes from this post in The Toast. The Toast is one of my favorite new websites. It's intelligent and weird and whimsical and funny. (If you haven't yet read Texts from Miss Havisham, you have not yet lived). Anyway, I've been thinking about that post a lot as Rosh Hashana came and went. I've been thinking about doors and gateways and keys that lock and unlock.

This year, my friends, this year has been hard. It's been hard emotionally and financially and just all around stressful. The thing is though, I also think that this year has been an important year. Maybe it was a key or a gateway-something to go through until you reach the other side; something to unlock hidden things. So that they become what they are. Maybe one day I will look back and think, yes, that year, that hard year, was the year. It made me. It's getting there already, wherever there is. I have a new job. I like it (knock on wood. spit over your shoulder). I have a new roommate. So far, so good (knock on wood, spit over your shoulder). It's a bit easier to breathe now, like a key halfway turned inside of me.

I've also been thinking a lot about Seamus Heaney, lately. It's only natural. He was my first poet. No, that's not true. My first poet was probably Yeats or Blake or any of the other poets my father tried to make us love while we rolled our eyes. I wasn't introduced to Heaney until I was in college. But still, he was the first poet to make me really think about poetry- about how specificity of language, and place and sense could yield something universal. You didn't grow up in a farmhouse on the fault line between the modern world and the past, with nature steadily creeping in to all your rhythms and associations. You have never heard the sound of someone cutting sod. And yet, you are there in those moments that Heaney remembers for you. You are present in a memory and feeling that isn't specific to you, but is somehow yours anyway.

I was saddened when I heard that he had passed on. It felt as if the world had lost a truth-teller, and if there is anything we need right now, it is a teller of truths. So I re-read Station Island, aloud, as these things should be read, and it has followed me into the new year:

"...'Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don't be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You've listened long enough. Now strike your note.'"

The following recipe was meant to be part of my Rosh Hashana menu. This post was also meant to be posted before Rosh Hashana. Neither of those things happened. The first did not happen because I was feeding vegetarians and as such, didn't make chicken or meat for Rosh Hashana. Like at all. It was weird at first, but all in all, my meals turned out lovely, the food was good and a good time was had by all. The second did not happen because life is sort of hectic at the moment.

In any case, this recipe isn't just for Rosh Hashana, in fact, I think the first time I made was a Passover, many years ago, but it is sweet with honey and dates, tempered with the tartness of lemon and the sharpness of a good amount of black pepper. That's a hope for the new year- may it be sweet and sharp.

Poulet aux Dattes (Chicken with Dates)

 Adapted from The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden

6 chicken quarters
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 large onions, chopped
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon honey
a good amount of black pepper
1/2 pound dates, pitted
juice of a lemon
a pinch of saffron

1. In a large pan,  heat the oil over a high heat. Brown the chicken quarters until lightly golden -about three minutes each side. When, brown, remove them, turn the heat to low, and add in the onions. Cook until soft. Add the cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and honey and about 1 3/4 of a cup of water. Stir and return the chicken to the pan. Bring to a boil, add a healthy pinch of salt and a lot of freshly ground black pepper. Lower the heat again and simmer for 25 minutes.

2. After 25 minutes , add the dates, lemon juice and saffron. Cook for another 10 minutes until the chicken is tender. Remove from heat and serve.