No new recipe today, I’m afraid. After the treat you’ll see below, the sweet rolls I’d half-planned felt a bit too indulgent. Instead, enjoy these glamor shots of a cinnamon morning bun from Frog’s, a French bakery just a few short blocks from our house.
*** 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!
So…. here’s what happened.
I had all the plans in the world to make us something: a kale-based “Caesar” salad that subs out the croutons for well-seasoned cubes of tempeh. It’s tasty, it’s on the light side, it’s relatively easy, but I just wasn’t excited about it. I confessed this to N., who said, “or we could order Eureka,” which is a restaurant just around the corner (or two) from us with a perfectly crispy, perfectly spicy chicken sandwich I’m quickly becoming obsessed with, and suddenly the plans for salad – wait, what salad?
So then I thought okay, I’ll just snap a few pictures of my perfect chicken sandwich to show you, so at least you get some tasty content, right?
And then I ate it. And remembered when the plate was empty that I’d intended to record my dinner.
So… next week?
This is a strange time. As I write this, I feel I am in a liminal space – hovering at a doorjamb I have not yet passed through. At this moment, I have not yet been truly impacted by the insidiously creeping virus that is COVID-19, snaking its way through increasing percentages of the population. I mean, okay, I braved grocery stores on Friday, standing with dozens of others in lines that stretched to the back wall, waiting to buy what ranged from a regular hand basket to a cart mounded with what would be, for us, more than a month’s worth of products. I may have overbought a bit, thinking forward to how nice it would be to avoid those crowds next weekend, should they continue. But apart from that, it’s not real yet.
It’s going to be. By the time you read this, it will be. This past week my campus, like many others, elected to cancel face-to-face classes at least through spring break, asking instructors to modify and move to online instruction. By the end of this week, I’ll need to do that: in class discussions will become discussion boards. Handouts will become shared files. I’ll have to – gulp – record a few lectures. And I waver between thinking that’s going to be fine, totally manageable, and thinking it’s going to be a disaster.*
So instead of going to work, I’ll be sitting in my home office. I like it in there. It’s bright, it’s small, it’s got a carpet and a desk and three shelves of cookbooks, and it’s where I stow my yoga mat and my stability ball. I’ve written there, I’ve edited photos, I’ve revised and graded and read and read and read. But I’ve never taught there. And by the end of the week, I will be. I’ll have to be careful that room doesn’t become the only room in my world – I love my job, and I want my students to do well, and it would be easy for me to fight the potential boredom of self-isolation or, as is increasingly likely, quarantine, by sinking too fully into the job.
But I’m seeing, through the social media and news sources I wander through, looking alternatively for information and for distraction, urges to create. If you are “trapped” at home, they say, whether you’ve chosen isolation or been advised to quarantine yourself, make art. Write poetry. Knit. Draw. Take pictures. Mold or sculpt or paint or make music. Cook. This sounds, to me, like sage advice. From between and within whatever walls you sit, or crouch, or pace, make art. Maybe for you, never to be shared; maybe tentatively posted somewhere someone might see and gain comfort from; maybe belted (can you belt opera?) from a balcony for your neighborhood to glory in.
So okay, balance matters. I’ll work, but I’ll try to do this as well. I’ll make art. I’ll design meals. I’ll practice my knife-work. I’ll write. Letters and posts and recipes and arguments. Maybe a poem. I’ll turn soil and pull weeds. I’ll turn flour and water and salt into dough, into batter, into bread. I’ll turn words into sentences and paragraphs. I turned what will become sourdough loaves today, rhythmically pulling from the bottom of the ragged ball up and over the mass, one after another after another. And it felt good to do: to create something that will become beautiful.
* And that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be fancy or amazing or perfect. It’s a stop-gap measure, at least it is right now, that will allow my students to continue learning, even if it’s not in the ideal format for me or for them – neither of us signed up for this. But more importantly, it’s just a class, and it doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be the most important thing in either of our lives right now.
There is beauty in slowness. I recently ran across the argument that we (as Americans, in particular) don’t value times of slowness and times of do-nothing-ness because they are times lacking in productivity, and for us, lack of productivity = lack of worth. So because I am not actively producing something when I curl in my favorite chair or “succumb” to the feeling of not wanting to read an article or compose a post or imagine a dish, I am being “lazy” or “wasting” my time.
But immediacy, and busyness, and the constant need to be doing something “worthwhile” can be damaging. I have to remind myself of that, especially as I hold in my consciousness the truth that I haven’t posted here in over a month, and mentally wring my hands that I haven’t been motivated to get in the kitchen and photograph my doings or try to imagine a dish that doesn’t already exist in 25 easier, quicker, and cleverer versions than the one I’m just beginning to consider.
This mental wringing has led to two possible “projects” for 2020, both of which I initially leapt upon with great enthusiasm. Yes. This was it. And then, as the first week of the month and then the second passed, and I started to consider grocery lists and recipe structures as well as planning my own scholarship and a sudden spate of meetings and a few necessary jobs on the house and a possible family visit and a handful of get-togethers with friends, they fizzled. And that’s okay.
So I have to remind myself, as I watch another week go by and get yet another (five or six at least) notification(s) from various social media connections to this blog that it’s been a while since I last posted, that slow is okay. Not posting is okay. It’s okay, in a labor of love that this blog is intended to be, if I don’t toss something up there just for the sake of posting. It’s okay to let things mull and slosh around in my brain for a while, deciding what comes next. This is an especially good reminder given the other kind of writing I’m sinking into this month, which is entirely academic: it’s okay if it unrolls slowly.
These truths together – that doing “nothing” is okay, and that slow does not mean lazy – help me see that, at least for a little while, I may need to change directions here, in this little space. This has been for a long time a recipe blog. It has been a place I use to show you what I am cooking in words and in images and provide you with the capability, through a recipe that is usually carefully planned but sometimes, I’ll admit with only a glimmer of shame, approximated, to recreate the dish about which I must wax poetic. But this space began, back in 2008, as a replacement for an old Live Journal that was turning into a meal-planning diary. It was a place for me to talk about food: the food I was growing, the food I was cooking, the food I was consuming and what I thought about it. And that was exciting.
I think, for a little while at least, I’m going to return to that. Instead of fighting myself to create, develop, and perfect a dish that can be photographed beautifully and codified into an easy-to-follow recipe, which is how I’ve felt about this space in the last couple of months, I’m going to take a breath and just… talk about food. It’s a bit of a low-pressure refresh: slow, thought driven instead of schedule-driven, reflective and free.
Let’s see what happens.
This past summer, we did not grow zucchini. Still traumatized by the various baseball bats we had to consume the previous year, N. flatly refused it. He couldn’t find the humor even in my joke that we would only grow a small one… Needless to say, no zucchini graced our table this summer.
But I missed it. In particular, I missed my favorite zucchini bread recipe, a cinnamon-spiced affair with an appealingly-crusty top but still-moist center from The Bon Appétit Cookbook that I’ve made probably at least a dozen times. It’s lightly sweet, it’s not overwhelmingly, well, zucchini flavored, and you don’t even have to squeeze out the grated squash before adding it to the mixture. In fact, you shouldn’t; the recipe relies on some of that wetness to attain the correct consistency. Buying zucchini from the grocery store to put toward this purpose just didn’t seem right – this was, as the book itself declares, a recipe designed for a zucchini harvest.
So when one of my coworkers advertised her bounty, I suggested that I’d be willing to take one of her prolific squashes off of her hands, and as a result I received a delivery at least as long as my forearm. Yes. This meant zucchini bread. To keep myself interested, in this incarnation I not only included the deeply toasted chopped walnuts the recipe calls for, but subbed in some almond flour for part of the all-purpose flour to add extra nuttiness and – not that this recipe needs it – assured moisture. I also added my most recent baking obsession: a generous few handfuls of tart dried cherries. And then, since just a loaf will never do, I made four. And I still had a chunk of zucchini left that’s probably still at least 6-7 inches long.
This recipe calls for two cups of grated zucchini. And that seems like a lot, until you realize it really only takes one reasonably sized squash to make that amount. So here I’m offering a recipe for two loaves, since if you’re facing down a bed-full of zucchini, that’s the least you’ll want to make. They freeze beautifully too, so you can sock away a loaf or two until you, or your family, or your neighbors, are feeling zucchini-receptive again. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that, just in case the end pieces feel a little dry, toasting and adding a generous smear of cream cheese is revelatory.
Zucchini Spice Bread with Cherries
Adapted (barely) from The Bon Appétit Cookbook
Makes 2 loaves 9x5x3 inch loaves
2 cups chopped walnuts
6 large eggs
4 cups granulated sugar
2 cups vegetable oil
2 teaspoons vanilla
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond meal or almond flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon baking powder
4 cups coarsely grated zucchini, not squeezed
2½ cups dried tart cherries, such as Montmorency
- Preheat the oven to 350F. While it heats, scatter the walnuts on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven to toast. The nuts should go about two shades darker brown and look slightly oily when you take them out. Once nicely toasted, remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
- Prepare two metal loaf pans by spraying with non-stick cooking spray or rubbing with butter or oil.
- Using an electric mixer or a stand mixer, beat the eggs in a large bowl until they are foamy. With the mixer running, gradually add the sugar, then beat until the mixture is very thick and pale. This takes a good 3-4 minutes. Slowly beat in the oil, then the vanilla.
- In another bowl, whisk together the flour, the almond meal, the salt, cinnamon, baking soda, and baking powder. With the mixer on low speed, beat in this dry mixture in three additions, scraping down the sides of the bowl in between.
- Gently fold in the walnuts and cherries to ensure even distribution. The batter will be extremely thick. Don’t despair! Fold in the zucchini (it will be almost too much for a standard stand mixer, but it will fit. Mostly). The batter will loosen up considerably as the grated pieces release moisture.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans and bake at 350F until the top is dry and crusty, and a toothpick or cake tester inserted comes out clean. This pretty dependably takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes. Cool the loaf for at least 5 minutes in the pan before turning it out onto a rack to cool completely.