Breads of the World: ojos de Haman

It’s rare for me to be organized enough to produce a holiday dish sufficiently in advance of the actual holiday that you, my readers, could – gasp – make the dish for the holiday if you so desired. And yet here, for once, I’ve managed it. Purim is at the end of this week, an important holiday in the Jewish calendar, which celebrates the overthrow of the evil Haman. Royal advisor to the King of Persia, Haman planned to slaughter the Jews, and was thwarted by Esther, the queen, and her cousin Mordecai.

Purim is celebrated with feasting and can be, by all accounts, quite raucous. My friend M. relates childhood memories of delivering and receiving Purim baskets to and from family and friends, akin to an Easter basket, but more likely to be filled with hamantaschen and preserves than with chocolates and egg-shaped candies. In the Talmud, M. says, Jews are instructed to make themselves “so fragrant with wine” that they can’t tell the difference between “wicked is Haman” and “blessed is Mordecai.” This intensity of celebration sometimes produced dangerous results, as people would fall over at Temple (or right into the fire, per M). Other Purim traditions include retelling the whole story (the “Purim Spiel”), and using noisemakers to drown out Haman’s name every time it is uttered, which sounds like excellent fun.

The most common food related to the holiday is hamantaschen, the delicious triangular cookie with sweet filling, which I’ve seen translated both as “Haman’s pocket” and as “Haman’s ears.” Deb at Smitten Kitchen has a new one, and Jake Cohen has opinions about the filling. Kreplach, a savory dumpling, is another popular option.

Neither of these is bread, of course, but while I was poking around that weird neighborhood “the internet,” I came across two possibilities for this year’s project. Keylitsh, according to the blog Poppy and Prune, is an elaborately braided Eastern European challah served for numerous holidays. At Purim, the fancy braids are symbolic of the rope used to hang Haman. I am well versed in the three-strand challah I learned from my mom, and I’ve tried a six-strand once that went… poorly… so I kept going.

Poppy and Prune goes on to say:

If that’s not enough gore for your Purim table, I have just the thing for you: a traditional Moroccan bread known as boyoja ungola di Purim or ojos de Haman. This is a round, flattish loaf decorated with two hard boiled eggs in their shells, which are meant to represent Haman’s eyes. Each egg is held down with two thin strips of dough arranged in an x, and, once the bread is baked, it’s a traditional to rip them out of the loaf—you know, like ripping Haman’s eyes out. The dough for this bread is traditionally studded with anise and sesame seeds, as well as coarsely chopped almonds.

This sounded promising, and delightful, so I set about finding more information and a recipe that incorporated these flavorings. Kosher Cowboy offers a story about the symbolism of this bread, though I’m unclear on his source.

Some incarnations of this bread don’t stop at the eyes, but decorate the loaf to look like a magnificently evil head, complete with a long beard darkened by poppyseeds and round cheeks that puff up during baking. Mine, as you can see, were not that elaborate, although I appreciate that where the dough tore slightly below the eye crosses it left a pale stripe, then a darker, browned lower half that could, if you squint a bit, be seen as a thick beard.

Many of the recipes and traditions of this loaf come courtesy of Maggie Glezer’s A Blessing of Bread and Phyllis and Miriyam Glazer’s The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking,  both of which look like beautiful books that might end up on my already-overpacked cookbook shelves…

The best part about this bread, besides eating it, is the shaping. It’s a lovely dough to work with, as are most enriched doughs, elastic and puffy. After lightly flattening and scoring the main ball, you get to poke in two divots, insert a hard boiled egg* into each, and add two pieces of dough in an X shape across the eggs and pressed into the main loaf, where they hold the eggs in place during baking. If you’re going the fancy route, you can use additional pieces of dough to make Haman’s facial features or, if you’re keeping it comparatively simple, as I did, you can just snip around the edge of each loaf at one inch intervals with scissors, which makes a lovely pattern like sunflower petals or, I suppose, like thick locks of Haman’s beard and hair.

As expected, in addition to being a lovely dough and a gorgeous loaf – deeply golden brown, shiny from egg wash, and scattered with sliced almonds – it is also delicious. We found it slightly sweeter and also less eggy than the challah my family makes, and the nuts and seeds were a lovely addition. I wasn’t sure how I would feel about chopped almonds inside, but I found I loved the added texture. I tend to avoid anise and anise-flavored things, but here it’s such a small amount it isn’t overpowering, and I found it reminded me slightly of a good, traditional biscotti (in flavor alone, though – the texture of this bread is much lighter and softer). Oh, and peeling back the X of dough to gouge out the hard-boiled egg “eye” on either side is, as you can imagine, also a delight.

Because Purim involves exuberant eating and drinking, many of the recipes I found for this bread, which is essentially an unbraided challah with added flavoring agents, make a LOT. I’m talking, 8 cups of flour, 3-4 loaves a lot, or even more: some recipes offer the more modest quantities for 3-4 loaves, and then provide instructions for a full 5 pounds of flour. I scaled mine back a little bit to just 2 loaves, one of which, eyeballs already extracted, is sitting happily in our freezer waiting for a weekend when we want something more celebratory than my standard sourdough toast.

* thanks to careless proofreading on a recent Whole Foods order, I ended up with a package of medium – rather than the grocery standard large – sized eggs. I used these smaller ones to make Haman’s hard-boiled eyes and was pleased with the results. Large eggs would work too, but depending on the size of your loaf they might be a tight squeeze to fit in.

 

Ojos de Haman
Adapted from Phyllis Glazer’s recipe at The Times of Israel, and shaping instructions from STL Jewish Light
Makes 2 loaves
3½-4 hours
5 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 TB + 1tsp active dry yeast
2/3 cups granulated sugar
2 tsp sesame seeds
2 tsp anise or fennel seeds
2/3 cups coarsely chopped almonds
½ tsp salt
2 large eggs
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1½ cups warm water
4 hard boiled eggs (I used medium eggs because I happened to have some and found they fit well. Large eggs would work too, but might be a tight squeeze on Haman’s face)
1 yolk + 1 tsp water, to glaze
2 TB sliced almonds

 

  • In a large bowl or the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the flour, yeast, sugar, sesame seeds, anise or fennel seeds, and chopped almonds. Whisk or mix to combine with the dough hook. Once well combined, add the salt and whisk in.
  • In a smaller bowl or a large glass measuring cup, stir together the eggs, oil, and warm water. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour in the wet ingredients. If you’re working with a stand mixer, knead with the dough hook on medium speed into a soft, slightly sticky dough: about 7-8 minutes. If you aren’t using a stand mixer, first stir the wet ingredients into the dry with a wooden spoon or a sturdy spatula, then turn out onto a floured board and knead by hand until soft and smooth: about 8-10 minutes.
  • Let the dough rise, covered with plastic wrap or a clean towel, until doubled: 1 – 1½ hours. Meanwhile, hard boil the eggs: bring a small pot of water to a rolling boil, then use a spoon to gently add the eggs. For large eggs, boil 10 minutes and then remove eggs and set aside to cool. For medium eggs, boil 8 minutes and then remove and set aside to cool. Remember: the eggs will bake along with the bread.
  • Once the dough has doubled in size, turn it out onto a lightly floured board and remove a piece the size of a small fist. Cut this into four pieces, then roll each into a thin strand about 6 inches in length. Cut each thin strand in half: these are for your Xs to hold in the egg “eyes.”
  • Divide the remaining dough in half. Working with one half at a time, roll into a ball, then use a rolling pin or floured hands to flatten into a disk 8-9 inches in diameter. With a razor blade or a sharp knife, slice a shallow crosshatch pattern into the surface of the dough.
  • Using your thumb or the knuckle of your index finger, firmly press two indentations into the dough about two inches apart in the top third of the disk. Place one cooled hard-boiled egg into each indentation. Use your reserved strips of dough to make an X shape across each “eyeball,” pressing firmly into the rest of the loaf to adhere, as in the photos above. Transfer to a baking tray lined with parchment paper. With scissors or a sharp knife, snip around the edge of the loaf at 1-inch intervals to create a petal pattern. Repeat with remaining loaf.
  • Let the shaped loaves rise, covered with a clean kitchen towel, for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350F.
  • After 30 minutes, combine the egg yolk and 1 tsp water in a small bowl. Remove the kitchen towel and glaze the loaves with this egg wash, trying to avoid the hard-boiled eggs as much as possible. Scatter or press on the sliced almonds, then bake in the preheated 350F oven for 20-25 minutes, until they are deeply browned.
  • Cool at least 15-20 minutes before eating. We started by peeling off the X of dough to pluck out Haman’s eye, but you should proceed as desired. Enjoy!

 

Breads of the World: Sabaayad

Depending upon who you are, when you think of bread, you probably don’t immediately think of Africa. There are a number of reasons for this. For one thing, wheat is not a common crop in West Africa, which means bread and bread-like products in West African countries are made from other grain bases, like millet or sorghum, and sometimes don’t read as “bread” to someone more accustomed to a sliced loaf of white or wheat bread. But wheat does grow very well in Northern and some Eastern African nations, so wheat-based breads are more prevalent there.

Another reason might be that the European and North American standard of yeast-risen loaves baked in an oven is not the standard in most African cuisines, which more commonly cook their bread products on a griddle or pan or other heated flat surface. Many, many African breads are flatbreads. For me, and for this project, that meant I had to consider one of my early questions about how I wanted to categorize bread, because some flatbreads are leavened and some are not. Did the product need to be leavened to count as bread? Yeast is available almost world-wide, and in fact leavening with wild yeast was used for bread-baking at least 4000 years ago in Egypt. But there are other ways for bread to rise, and so many traditional African breads (and others) depend more on the application of heat than they do on chemical leavening agents, so maybe it’s more about the product being a dough (as opposed to batter – that’s cake) than about it being leavened. They serve the same (or similar) purpose in the eating, after all. Thus chapatis, tortillas, and today’s offering – sabaayad – are bread. And there are dozens of others.

I think my folds were too…shallow?… My sense after cooking is that the “sides” should meet in the center so the whole portion of dough is two layers thick.

There are, however, other African breads more similar to European loaves in terms of ingredients and appearance. In many cases this is the result of colonization – there’s a reason when you search for South African breads, you turn up a series of products with suspiciously Dutch-sounding names. That doesn’t make them bad, but they certainly aren’t, let’s say, indigenous to the region.

But things get complicated when you start to talk about indigeneity. Like people, food travels. Whether that travel is intentional, through migration, or unintentional, through forced labor or refugees fleeing persecution, people bring their food with them. Sabaayad, the rolled, folded, flattened, and pan-fried flatbread I’m offering today, is very similar to parathas: buttery, flaky flatbreads common to the Indian subcontinent. They are also sometimes called East African chapatis. According to the Immaculate Bites blog, there’s a fair bit of Indian influence in Somalian cuisine because the British brought over Indian laborers, which explains the similarities in their flatbread names and procedures.

It turns out that Somalis love bread. Sabaayad is just one example, but it’s an interesting one. Like parathas, Chinese scallion pancakes, and others, sabaayad is formed through several repetitions of rolling. First, you roll out your dough portion into a thin circle and apply an even layer of oil or ghee. Then you have a few options, all of which involve folding and then re-rolling the dough. This process, usually lubricated with another application or two of oil or ghee in between, is what helps create the flaky layers of the finished product. I tried several options in my batch, as you can see above, and found the final result not hugely different, so I’ll describe both methods in the procedure section and you can choose which you prefer.

By some accounts sabaayad is not an everyday bread, but a treat enjoyed at breakfast, sometimes with meat like dried camel or beef jerky, and sometimes with fried eggs. By others, it is a lunchtime dish eaten with stew. Some prefer a sweet accompaniment like honey or jam. The idea of hot, flaky, well-oiled bread with a drizzle of honey entranced me, so that’s how we opted to have ours. Other variations add a leavener like baking powder or sourdough starter, and some go an extra step and incorporate eggs or milk for a richer, more tender product. I decided to go simple, thinking it might best show us what this bread is about, and stuck with the four ingredient recipe I’d found: all-purpose flour, whole wheat flour, salt, and oil.

We liked these – the honey route was the way to go, from my perspective, though I think I undercooked them a bit because I used a cast iron skillet and too high a flame. It sounds perverse to end up with undercooked product because your heat is too hot, but this is a question of insides and outsides. The outer edges were beautifully puffed, and the parts with flake were outstanding: crisp and shattering. The inside, though, was still on the doughy side, meaning it just wasn’t on the fire long enough (though I will say the one I popped into the toaster later in the afternoon was improved by its second round of “cooking”!). I’ll need to work on my balance of heat and cooking time as I explore other griddled flatbreads, and given what I’ve found thus far, I’ll have plenty of opportunity!

Once you start looking for examples of bread traditional or common to African nations, a tremendous number of options crop up – it’s not just injera, the fermented, scoopable, wrappable standard from Ethiopia. There are semolina loaves from Morocco, a rolled loaf from Tunisia with Italian roots, puff puff from Nigeria, and a whole host of others. I could easily spend a year just on African breads!

So I think the real reason many Americans – especially those of European ancestry – might not know much about the bread of various African cuisines is that they (and I must include myself here) just don’t know much about various African cuisines. As Marcus Samuelsson notes in the introduction to his cookbook The Rise, “We know more about ricotta than we know about ayib” (xix). There are many reasons for this, some of them ugly. But we can – and should – learn about these cuisines. Samuelsson goes on to say, “embracing a people’s food in your home is one aspect of recognizing the value of that culture… Black chefs’ names need to be sung” (xix-xx). And so does their food. There are dozens of distinct cuisines in the various regions and nations of Africa to celebrate. This flatbread is barely scratching the surface.

 

Sabaayad
I used two recipes for this: one from Priya’s Versatile Recipes, and The Somali Kitchen, which was Priya’s source. The procedure directions for both were fairly sparse, so I’ve estimated based on my own understanding of bread and my own results.
Makes 8 sabaayad
1-1½ hours, depending on resting time
2 cups all-purpose flour + a few TB for rolling the dough
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 TB vegetable oil or ghee + about ½ cup for brushing and frying
1 scant teaspoon salt
~ 1 cup water (you might not use all of it)

 

  • In a medium bowl, combine the flours and the salt. Add the 2 tablespoons oil (or ghee) and incorporate thoroughly. Begin to add the water, about ¼ cup at a time, kneading right in the bowl in between additions to bring the dough together. You are looking for a firm, not-too-sticky dough; it shouldn’t be too wet.
  • When the dough has come together, turn it out onto a lightly floured board (I went right for my countertop) and knead until it forms a smooth, slightly elastic dough. By hand, this will probably take 7-8 minutes (I did 5 and I think that wasn’t enough).
  • Let the kneaded dough rest in a bowl, covered for 30-45 minutes. Since it isn’t leavened, it won’t rise, but it needs that resting time for the gluten strands to relax so it will roll out.
  • After the dough has rested, turn it out onto a lightly floured surface and divide into 8 equal portions. Working one at a time, roll the portion into a thin circle 7-8 inches in diameter.
  • Now you have two options for shaping. For a square bread, lightly brush the surface of your circle with oil or ghee. Starting with the top, fold down each “edge” toward the center. I think you want these folded portions to overlap a bit to cover the whole exposed portion of dough – in the photos above I have not folded in the “edges” enough.
  • For a round bread, lightly brush the surface of your thin circle with oil or ghee, then roll it up into a log as you would for cinnamon rolls (some recipes instead call for a series of pleats or folds). Then coil up this “log” you’ve created like a snail shell, tucking in and securing the exposed end.
  • For both, let rest about 15 minutes after folding, then roll gently but firmly to flatten.
  • To cook, heat about 2 teaspoons of oil or ghee in a skillet or griddle over medium heat. Again working one at a time, add each flattened circle or square of dough to the heated oil and cook about 2 minutes. Brush the uncooked side lightly with more oil or ghee and flip. Immediately press down on the browned side of the bread with a spatula – this helps all of the bottom surface area brown, but it also seems to help the flatbread puff up evenly. Cook another 2 minutes, until both sides are well browned and the flatbread is fully cooked inside – this took longer than I expected, which is why I’m calling for only medium heat.
  • Like most fried items, these are best eaten immediately. If you need to keep them warm while you fry off the rest of the batch, however, you can stow them in a 300F oven on a baking tray lined with a wire rack.

Breads of the World: Simit (project cook, no recipe)

One of these days, I’m going to have a bread post for you that has a clear recipe, accurate cultural and historical background, and beautiful pictures. What I have for you this week is a DELICIOUS bread, in spite of a narrowly skirted disaster I wasn’t sure would work.

Simit is a much lauded bread from Turkey: a deeply burnished, twisted ring coated in crunchy, well-toasted sesame seeds (though sometimes other seeds like poppy or flax are used), which cling on thanks to a pre-baking dunk in a thin syrup of water and molasses. They are sold by street vendors who sometimes push trolleys, but sometimes carry dozens and dozens of these rings, carefully and intricately stacked and balanced, on their heads, calling out the relative heat and freshness of their wares. More than one site I explored while looking for a recipe and information about this bread reminisces eating simit with Turkish tea while on an Istanbul ferry ride. It even holds a place in the art world: there is poetry about simit, though I wasn’t able to find an example in translation. Several artists have painted simit vendors selling their wares. This bread is a cultural icon.

It’s a bit worrying, then, that during the process of making this batch I wondered if there was a bread version of Cake Wrecks I could submit my attempt to. This is the fault of neither the bread itself nor the recipe I used – the baker whose version I made created a clear, fairly easy-to-follow set of instructions and ingredients (which I’ve linked to below). It was just… a series of challenges I wasn’t sure I’d be able (or willing) to overcome: my sourdough starter was sluggish. The resulting dough Just. Wouldn’t. Rise. When it finally did and I made the twisted rings, they were almost unmanageably sticky and welded themselves to both my silicone baking mats (thanks, Mom!) and the plastic-wrap I carefully draped over them. Basically, my dough was just too soft to work easily with.

My last ditch attempt to save the bread was to shove the still raw, mostly-risen rings into the refrigerator, hoping that would firm them up somewhat, since I knew I still had to dunk them first into the water and molasses dip, and then into a heaping pile of sesame seeds to coat both sides.

Delightfully, this worked. I was able to pry the sticky rings of dough up from their mats, dunk them in hot liquid and then sesame seeds, transfer them back to the baking sheets, and they didn’t fall apart! They didn’t get misshapen (at least not any more than they already were… Turks around the world, I’m sorry for my maltreatment of your beautiful bread)! And most gratifying of all, they rose in the oven into gorgeous, deeply bronzed rings well-coated with sesame seeds, and though we had them as part of a meze platter for dinner rather than the traditional tea pairing, we could see why they are so beloved: that nirvana of crunchy crust and chewy interior, the discernible bitter sweetness of molasses, like a caramel gone almost too far, and the toasty sesame seeds. I tore off a piece to try while I was cleaning up the kitchen, and I kept finding myself wanting another bite.

Because my own method was a bit… shall we say agitated… I’m not going to post a recipe here today. Please use Cenk’s sourdough simit recipe over at his site Cafe Fernando. It’s simple, the photos are beautiful, and I’d bet my next paycheck it’s a better representation of this classic twisted ring than my ministrations would offer. And yes, you really do need that enormous quantity of sesame seeds!

I will say, if you decide to make simit, I’d suggest one adjustment to Cenk’s method. As you’ll see, he calls for creating the twisted rings by rolling out a piece of dough into a 35 inch rope, then cutting that in half and twisting the halves together. In my small kitchen with limited counter space, I found it slightly easier to make two 18-inch ropes instead (try to keep them even in thickness or even a little thinner at each end, so, basically the opposite of my photograph…) and just twist them together, then connect the edges to make your ring.

Breads of the World, part 1: naan-e komaj research (no recipe)

*** This is not a recipe post. Instead, it details background and findings from research I did on the first bread I’ll make for my “Breads of the World” 2021 baking project. If you’re not into that, check back next week when I expect to have the recipe and photos up. ***

In the lead-up to the 2004 election, I was traveling with my then-boyfriend (now husband) around the East Coast, visiting graduate schools we optimistically thought we might have a chance of getting into. (Also sightseeing, but very virtuously telling ourselves that wasn’t our main objective.) One evening, I remember getting into bed at our hotel and watching The Daily Show, then hosted by Jon Stewart, and his plea to his audience and to the country: he wanted us to make his job – and the jobs of all comedians – hard, by electing John Kerry rather than incumbent George W. Bush, insinuating Kerry would be more difficult to satirize. Well, we didn’t. But I think of that now and then, as what happens in this country continues to make my “job” here hard. Too many times I have tried to weave together current events and food in a respectful and hopeful way. Too many times I have sat at my keyboard wondering how and whether to acknowledge what is happening, and what to say, and how to transition from that into whatever I have to share with you, because to not acknowledge it is to live in a dream world that too easily slides into complicity.

Today I can’t do it. There’s no transition. It doesn’t work. As Deb said on her instagram feed, “There’s not and never will be a ‘I like to unwind from watching an armed insurrection on live TV by roasting chicken.’ There’s no ‘Wow, really, they didn’t see this coming? Welp, let’s go slice some cabbage!’… But I am here, in the same place as the rest of us, angry and worried. And also, I still need to make something for dinner. Hope you get to refuel with something delicious tonight; we all need it.”

We need it. I need it. And in my attempts to avoid watching the news all day or doom-scrolling or refreshing that feed one more time, I fell down a rabbit hole researching the first bread I wanted to make for my “Breads of the World” project. And I got so interested by that and so excited about the bread itself that I want to share that research with you. No recipe today, thanks to the half-a-pie, the pitas, the pizza, and the sourdough loaf I already have kicking around my house (I’ve been retreating to the kitchen a lot lately), but hopefully next week after we’ve demolished a few of my current bakes and are ready for another.

My first entrée into this project is a Persian bread called, by turns, komaj or naan-e-komaj. According to Wikipedia this is similar to an Armenian sweet bread called nan e gisu (and sounds similar to another one called noon-e sheereen or Gata), which I’d also never heard of (but you can bet it’s on my list now). Like the bread’s history and origins, the recipe I’m planning to use was difficult to track down. I first ran across this bread, golden from turmeric and sprinkled with an intriguing combination of both cumin seeds and powdered sugar, through a search for Persian breads on pinterest, and gradually wound my way backward to a recipe from Saraban: A Chef’s Journey Through Persia by authors Greg and Lucy Malouf.

The Maloufs acknowledge the recipe in their book is their own interpretation of a bread they ate, and so I wanted to see if I could trace back to a source recipe, maybe something more authentic or traditional. As these things often go on the internet, not only did I not find an “authentic” or “original” recipe, likely because there isn’t just one; I found a pile of conflicting information to sort through. Komaj, or naan-e-komaj, seems to come in broadly two iterations: stuffed and unstuffed. The food site Persian Good calls komaj a “Persian oatcake” and provides a recipe for a fairly simple yeasted dough that, after it has risen, is treated like a cookie rather than a bread: stamped out with a cutter and sprinkled with sesame seeds before being baked. Conversely, in a list of Middle Eastern recipes from the Lorna Sundberg International Center, a division of the University of Virginia’s International Studies Office, I found a version of komaj that is unyeasted, but stuffed with date paste. The Malouf recipe seems to combine these alternatives, meeting in the more complicated middle with a fluffy, yeasted bun enclosing a filling of dates and cardamom, stamped out with a heart-shaped cookie cutter.

This sounded too good to pass up, but I wasn’t done with my research yet. Given the differing versions of the bread, I wanted to know more about it. The result was, of course, yet more tangled threads that don’t quite connect. Forgive the hashed metaphor, as O. Henry would say. The Maloufs’ recipe is for a wheat-flour based bun that they tasted “in the oasis town of Mahan in the south-east of Iran.” However, my searching turned up an article from the Journal of Ethnic Foods that cites komaj or “naan-e-komaj” as one of the “most important rice flour–based breads in the north of Iran” (Gharibzahedi). Rice flour based? North of Iran? Further, the article cites komaj as a bread from the Mazandaran province just south of the Caspian Sea, and here it is not baked, but fried in oil. Yet the description – “A Persian date bread with cumin and turmeric” – sounded like the same product I’d been chasing, and the ingredient list, which included not only rice flour, but wheat flour, milk or yogurt, egg, baking powder, and vanilla (cumin and turmeric are optional here, and sometimes raisins, cinnamon, and walnuts are incorporated as well), was fairly similar aside from being chemically leavened rather than with yeast (Gharibzahedi).

All this leads to some food truths I already know, and imagine I will continue to uncover as this project continues: food moves. Food changes. Food is adapted. As Naz Deravian says in the headnote to her recipe for Dahate Naan or “peasant bread” in Bottom of the Pot, “Stuffed ‘peasant’ or ‘rustic’ breads are common in all parts of Iran with slight variations to the recipe, usually in the filling, which distinguishes its provenance” (186). Her recipe, which has cardamom in the filling like the Maloufs’ but exchanges dates for walnuts, is also from the Caspian region, but a different province and ethnic group than the fried, rice flour-based Mazandaran bread I’d been chasing. A traceable step in the bread’s evolution? Or a happy coincidence of similar flavors? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The combination of savory-sweet here, with cumin, turmeric, dates, cardamom, and the orange zest I’m thinking of adding, making yet another version, is intriguing enough without knowing how and whether it moved from northern to southern Iran, acquiring yeast, stuffing, and the need for an oven on the way.

Until next week, then, when I hope to have a recipe and results to share. In the meantime, please be well, and if you know anything about this bread in particular or others like it, do leave a comment letting us know more about it!

 

Project Cook: Soft-Centered Chocolates

Well. I wasn’t going to write anything today, especially not about this collection of chocolates I experimented my way through last weekend. But then E., a friend from college I had NO IDEA was following along (hi E! I’m so excited you’re here!!), asked on my humble-brag-okay-mostly-just-brag instagram post showing off my creations if I’d be posting the recipe or instructions here. And after I was done blushing, I remembered I had taken a few photos with my big camera along the way, and hey maybe I could put up a little something…

This collection was, as I said above, largely experimental, so I won’t be offering a precise recipe. I’d made three of them before with only a bit of adaptation: the amaretto truffles (top row), a white chocolate ganache spiked with amaretto as well as finely chopped almonds and dried apricots; the cranberry bourbon balls (second from bottom) were part of my Bittman project long ago, though in this iteration I used spiced rum, as one of my intended recipients doesn’t care for bourbon; and the whiskey caramels (bottom row), from the now long abandoned (I assume) blog Cheese and Chocolate, changing up that recipe only by coating the set caramel bars in dark chocolate and adding a sprinkle of sea salt on one corner.

What remains were, by rows, a failure-turned-unexpected-and-monumental-success (second from top); an easy win (third from top); and a disappointment (fourth from top or third from bottom, depending on how you’re counting). Just a little about each, and then a “recipe” and a few suggestions. The failure-turned-success I’m calling “White Russians”: an attempt at fudge that was too soft and poured out too thin, re-melted with more dark chocolate, some kahlua, and a little bit of vodka. This time it did set, so it got a coating of white chocolate and a line of espresso powder, and everyone who has tried it thus far has oohed and ahhed over it.

The “easy win” was a brandy and cherry truffle: a bit of brandy and a bit of luxardo cherry juice in the ganache, along with chopped luxardo cherries, a dark chocolate coating, and a dried cherry on top. I liked them and I wouldn’t say no to another (or two), but they aren’t the ones I keep coming back for. Maybe kirsch instead of brandy to heighten the cherry flavor?

The disappointment was one I made especially for R., who loooooooves the Middle Eastern confection halvah: basically a candy made from sesame and honey or sugar with a unique, sandy texture. I’d read this could be reproduced at home by mixing tahini and hot sugar syrup (I used honey), and tried out a recipe from The New York Times. While the flavor was great, the texture was somewhere between toffee and taffy: at first tooth-breakingly hard, then chewy enough to make me fear for my fillings. And despite halving the recipe, of course I ended up with more of these than of anything else. Nevertheless, I coated them in chocolate, sprinkled on some sesame seeds, and sent them along. None of my recipients has demanded I pay for their dental work yet, so I’m calling that a tentative success…

But enough of that, Chelsea, you’re probably saying. Tell us how to make the good ones. Right. Truffles and their ilk require three basic things: a ganache, which is a mixture of chocolate and (usually) cream, plain old melted chocolate to coat them, and some flavoring and/or decorating agent. Where it gets fun is in the flavoring: though you don’t want to overload the ganache that forms the center of your chocolates, you can probably crowd in as much as 1/4 cup of finely chopped dried fruit, or well-toasted nuts, or even candied citrus peel or crystalized ginger. Maybe even candy cane, if that’s your jam. I like to use a flavorful liqueur as part of the liquid component in mine, but you can replace that with something alcohol-free if you prefer – I’ve also used a ginger syrup as well as juice from luxardo cherries. I haven’t tried it, but a small amount of vanilla or almond extract would probably be great as well, or even one of those flavored syrups used for fancy coffee drinks or Italian sodas. And of course you could also just go pure with 100% cream.

Even though I said I wouldn’t, here’s a “recipe” and procedure. Let me know what you try, and may your holiday, if you celebrate this time of year, be bright.

Basic Ganache for Soft-Centered Chocolates
I’ve never timed myself on these – let’s estimate about 30 minutes to make the ganache, a few hours, or as much as overnight, to let it set, then another 30 minutes to coat the set centers. This is a project.
16 ounces semi-sweet, bittersweet, or white chocolate, divided
6-8 tablespoons heavy cream
Up to 2 tablespoons liqueur or liquid flavoring agent of your choice
Up to 1/4 cup finely chopped additions (see above for ideas)
Toppings of your choice, preferably related to the flavors inside
  • Prep a containment vessel: for 8 ounces of chocolate, I like to line a loaf pan with plastic wrap. You could probably also use parchment or wax paper; just be sure all the corners are covered.
  • Melt 8 ounces of the chocolate and the cream in a double boiler, or (my preferred method) a glass bowl over a pot of hot water. Stir frequently, and don’t let the hot water touch the bottom of the bowl or splash into it. How much cream you use depends on how much liquid flavoring agent you want. With liqueurs and syrups I’d suggest 6 TB cream and 2 TB liqueur. With an extract, which are usually extremely strong, you’ll want more cream and less flavoring.
  • When the chocolate and cream have melted together smoothly, stir in the liquid flavoring agent, if you’re using it, as well as any finely chopped additions you’re using.
  • Carefully pour and scrape the whole puddle into your lined containment vessel and refrigerate until set. I usually leave it overnight, but realistically this doesn’t take more than a few hours. Once it has set completely, remove the block from the pan and slice it into your desired size squares or bars, keeping in mind they will be a little bigger once they are coated in chocolate. If your set ganache seems soft after slicing (this will especially be true if you are using white chocolate), take out some extra insurance by stowing the pieces in the freezer for a bit before coating them.
  • To coat, melt the remaining 8 ounces of chocolate, either semi-sweet, bittersweet, or white, in a double boiler. Place a big sheet of wax paper or parchment paper on your counter. Using a tool of your choice (I like a pair of forks for this), dip in each piece of ganache one at a time until completely coated, lift and wait a few seconds to let the excess drip off (or scrape carefully, if you’re impatient), then remove to the wax or parchment paper. If you are adding a topping of some kind, sprinkle or place it on before the chocolate coating hardens.
  • Let the coated chocolates sit until completely set, then box up as desired (mini cupcake wrappers work nicely to set them in), or just pop straight into your mouth. I won’t tell.

*** Other, less-involved ideas: dip dried apricots, or candy canes, or shortbread cookies in chocolate! If you want to be fancy, you could apply a white chocolate drizzle after letting them dry. You could also coat marshmallows, or pre-made caramels, or pieces of fudge in the melted chocolate of your choice (or, if you’re looking to mellow the sweetness of fudge, in straight cocoa powder). Prefer sprinkles to a chocolate drizzle? Get it. Crushed up candy canes to peppermint powder? Go wild.

Labor Day Grill

Happy Labor Day, and thank you unions!

I don’t have a recipe to share with you – as was the case a few weeks ago, the recent heat in our area meant we didn’t cook so much as throw anything that could be grilled in that general direction.

The ubiquity of grilling and barbecues at Labor Day weekend parties (at least in other years – if you’re having a party this year, it involves masks and social distancing, right?!) got me wondering: why do we celebrate this holiday, first signed into law by Grover Cleveland in 1894 (as a response, by the way, to a huge strike of railway manufacturers, workers, and their union demanding better treatment – this article explains a bit more, including work we have left to do!), with grilled and picnic foods?

The most straightforward answer seems to be that our method of celebrating has little to do with the holiday’s origins – we don’t think much about labor on Labor Day (aside from perhaps being happy we aren’t doing any), nor that many people who labor away don’t get any break on this day intended to celebrate workers. Our celebrations, beer and burgers and potato salad with or without mayo, center around a final gasp of summer glory before the inevitable slide into fall temperatures, which, I guess, are real in some places…

It’s interesting that this tradition of barbecue, used on a day intended to celebrate the people – the work force – is also such a people’s cooking method, by which I mean its origins are multiple and in many ways quite humble. I’ve alluded previously to the African diasporic origins of barbecue; meat can be slow cooked over a fire while the labor force – Black slaves, in this case – works all day.

But indigenous American and Caribbean groups also used this low-and-slow method of cooking meat over a flame, and as the method spread, brought north and west by colonizing and colonized groups, adaptations were inevitable. The British added basting for moisture, painting the meat with sauce while it cooked. German and French immigrants contributed to the mustard-based sauce popular in parts of South Carolina.

And grilling meat over a fire is hardly just an American practice. Kebabs figure in Indian, Pakistani, Arab, and Turkish foodways. Though we usually think horizontally when we grill or barbecue, gyros and al pastor, itself developed from the shawarma of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico (right? I had no idea! Consider this a plug for David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, though be warned: the language is not exactly G-rated), tend toward the vertical: a tall spit standing between floor and ceiling from which slowly rotating meat is carved. And then there’s Nigerian suya or mixed grill, spicy with cayenne, earthy with ground peanuts. And of course there are so, so many more.

All of these origin stories, these food traditions and adaptations, have become part of the American story with all its tangles and troubles, as have the people who imagined, cooked, and ate them, contributing their ideas, their labor, and their traditions. So in some senses, far from just a final excuse to cook over flames while summer fades, grilling on Labor Day seems like just the right way to celebrate.