Tuesday, December 25, 2012

MELOMAKARONA with ORANGE FLAVOR


Merry Christmas one and all, and here is a very appropriate post for Christmas Day:  a brand new recipe for melomakarona.  I made the melomakarona on Christmas Eve, and as I was waiting for them to come out of the oven it started to snow.  How surprised I was!  We were having an uncommonly warm winter, however nature changed her mind about our toasty temperatures and gave us a perfect Christmas present by dusting our lawns with a light coating of snow. Lawns sprinkled with frozen powdered sugar.  And there was I, at the counter in front of my kitchen window, sprinkling honey and crushed walnuts on my fragrant cookies, looking at the slow, plump snowflakes outside, my Christmas Eve snowflakes.  Happy!  So, Merry Christmas, and have a safe, loving and peaceful day.  Keep up that spirit all year long. Not hard to do, there aren't that many days left to this year. Right?

Melomakarona are the quintessential Greek Christmas cookie.  I have some information on their history in the other melomacarona recipe posted on this blog.  The recipe on this page is one I tried for the first time, and as it turned out it was a great recipe.  It even got the approval of my mother, who is on the stingy side with her compliments. It's a recipe based on one by Greek master pastry chef Stelios Parliaros.  It was well worth making.  The cookies turned out crunchy on the outside, really soft on the inside, they had the fragrant aroma and taste of oranges, and the syrup in which they were dipped made them really delicious. This is a sophisticated version of melomakarona, with prominent orange and honey flavored notes.  Loved it, loved it, loved it, but I also love the other recipe for melomacarona that's posted here, which contains a heavier dose of spices.  I suppose I will have to alternate between the two recipes from one year to the other.

Chef Parliaros lives in Athens, where he has a TV show and where he markets his concoctions in several patisserie shops that he owns.  He is a French trained pastry chef, and his recipes are highly praised.  I watch his demonstrations on You Tube and he inspires me. So I gathered the information for this recipe, translated it, got the ingredients and made the melomakarona.  In the end of my post I will show the You Tube demonstration for his melomakarona.  It's in Greek, so you may not not understand what he is saying, but you will see how the chef molds the cookies, which I think is an important demonstration, especially for me, who has trouble making decently shaped cookies.  
The most important piece of advice the chef gives is to mix the dough by hand, and to work in gentle, light strokes.  In this way the dough will stay fluffy and the oil that is in the melomakarona will not leak out during baking.  If the oil leaks out the cookies will turn out dry.  You want a cookie that is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside.  Working quickly and softly should provide that result.  Another piece of advice he gives is to have the syrup cold and the melomakarona hot when you dip them in the syrup.  He is very insistent about that.  So here we go:  


First make the syrup.  This can be made the day before, as it needs to be cold when used.
Ingredients:
2 cups water
3 cups sugar
3 sticks of cinnamon 
1 cup honey (use thyme honey if available, because it has a strong flavor.  Orange blossom honey can also be used.)
the peel from 2 medium oranges
1/2 cup orange juice
This syrup is very good.
Directions:

  • Into a pot add the water, the sugar, the orange peel, the orange juice and the cinnamon sticks.
  • Place it on the stove over medium-high heat, let it come to a boil, and then turn down the heat.  Cook for 1 minute and remove from the heat.
  • Add the honey and mix.
  • Let the syrup cool down and then transfer it to a wide container with a lid.  Cover and let get cold. 
The melomakarona are made next.  No need to use a mixer, this should all be done by hand.  Chef weighed everything, and so did I. Where possible I converted the quantities into cup measurements. 

Ingredients:
2 cups freshly squeezed orange juice (or use the best quality store bought juice), weight is 400 grams
3 cups canola or sunflower oil (chef uses sunflower), weight is 530 grams
5 tablespoons butter, melted in the microwave
1/4 cup powdered sugar (powdered sugar helps to add color while baking)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1  1/2  teaspoons cinnamon
1/2   teaspoon ground cloves
zest from one orange
about 10 cups (to weigh 1,200 grams) all purpose flour.  There is no need to sift the flour
walnuts, chopped
honey to use while layering 

Directions:
  • In a deep container add all the wet ingredients including the melted butter.
  • To that add the powdered sugar and the spices.
  • Mix the ingredients.
  • Add all of the flour along with the baking soda. Mix with your hands gently, starting from the middle of the bowl and progressing toward the outside.  Don't use a mixer, it will destroy this dough.  Stop mixing as soon as the liquid is incorporated with the flour and the dough begins to form.  The dough will have a wonderful aroma.
Shape into ovals and place on a rack.
  • Shape the cookies and then score lines on their surface as is indicated in the pictures. 
Roll on the rack to make decorative grooves.  They give character to the cookie and they also hold in the syrup.  There is a demonstration on how to shape them on the You Tube video below.
  • Place them on parchment lined baking sheets and bake them at 360°F between 25 to 30 minutes depending on the oven.  When done they should have a dark golden color.
Done!  
  • As soon as they come out of the oven drop them in the cold syrup.  Turn them over with a large spoon and leave them in the syrup for about one minute.  If you leave them in for too long they will become saturated with syrup (that's not necessarily bad, they do get a bit soggy and they become really sweet, but they still taste good). 

  • Place them on a rack and let them drain off excess syrup.

  • Prepare a serving platter by spreading a little honey and some walnuts on its surface. 
So I turned my back and right away 3 cookies were gone...
  • Add a layer of melomakarona and then repeat the same procedure, layering honey, walnuts and cookies, ending with a light layer of honey and walnuts.
  • This recipe makes about 70 really delicious, honey-orange-cinnamon flavored, fragrant cookies.


Some notes:
*If you cannot find oranges that are flavorful and juicy, buy a good quality prepared orange juice.  
*If you watch the full video you will see the chef stuff some of the cookies with walnuts.  This is a popular variation.  I made half of my melomakarona without stuffing, while I stuffed the other half with walnut pieces.   *Melomakarona can be kept fresh for 10 days. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

SALTY KOULOURAKIA / BÂTON SALÉ / AΛΜΥΡΆ ΚΟΥΛΟΥΡΆΚΙΑ

Bâton Salé... Presenting the wonderful, addictive, savory cookie!!!
These little treats are just like potato chips, in that you can't eat just one.  You have to go back and get another and another. It's just a guilty pleasure. They are salty, cheesy, buttery, they melt in your mouth, they are irresistible.  If you are familiar with koulourakia, you know that they are a sweet buttery Greek cookie.  Here is a different version: these koulourakia are not sweet... they are savory, or as Greeks call them, they are "salty koulourakia."  They are also referred to as "bâton salé," which in French means "salty sticks."  I don't know why they have two names but they can be found in patisserie shops all over Greece, and they are a very popular snack. 
MAKE THEM, YOU WILL LOVE THEM!!!  GUARANTEED!!!
This recipe was given to me by my aunt Sophia, who told me that she got it from the owner of a patisserie shop. It's supposed to be a top secret recipe.  I don't know what methods my aunt employed to get it, and I don't want to find out, either. Suffice it to say that it's a great recipe.  Salty koulourakia go well with drinks, especially with beer. They're also a great accompaniment when having tea.
  
Ingredients:
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 cup canola oil
1 cup milk
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 cup ground Pecorino Romano
2 tablespoons feta cheese, finely crumbled
about 4 cups of flour
1 egg beaten with a tablespoon of milk, to be used for egg wash
Fresh out of the oven!
Directions:
Melt the butter, let it cool and then whisk it with the oil until well blended.  Add the eggs and continue whisking. 
Add the milk, the salt, pepper, and the cheeses, and continue beating.
Sift the flour with the baking powder.  Add it gradually to the butter mixture, beating between each addition.  
Turn the dough onto a board and knead, adding more flour if necessary, not not so much that the dough gets tough.  
Cut the dough into pieces of about 1 inch in diameter.  
Shape into rods or circles.  
Place on parchment lined baking sheets, and brush with egg wash.  
The tops of the koulourakia can be decorated with almonds or Pecorino Romano cheese.
Bake in a preheated 350º F until golden in color, about 20 to 30 minutes. 
Here they are, all piled up and waiting to be placed in  storage containers.  If stored at room temperature in an air-tight container, salty koulourakia stay fresh for about  two weeks.

They are high in carbohydrates, but they contain no sugar. Does that make them a good diabetic treat?  My mother, who is 86 and diabetic, seems to think so. Don't try arguing with her. Actually, diabetics should eat protein first and should abstain from eating a lot of carbohydrates. On occasions when mom's blood sugar is low and she needs to have a snack, I give her a glass of warm low-fat and lactose-free milk, a banana, and a couple of graham crackers. That's a very nice snack for a diabetic.  If we have these koulourakia in the house, I will give her a couple of them instead of the graham crackers. Sometimes I give her yogurt... but I am beginning to digress here.  I recommend that you have some "bâton salé" with a nice cup of tea.  Do that.  And yes, they'll taste even better if you dunk them in your tea.  I promise!


Saturday, December 15, 2012

SPANAKORIZO (Braised Spinach and Rice, made in the Greek Style)


To Greeks, braised spinach and rice is a very popular recipe that can be served as a main meal or as a side dish. The best way to eat it? No bread, no salad, just spanakorizo! In the southern regions of Greece, there is usually tomato or tomato paste that is added during cooking. Up North it's out with the tomatoes, in with the lemon juice. Just as an aside, I think lemon flavour makes a recipe really Greek because Greeks try to introduce lemons in just about anything that can be eaten: is it a dessert? Add some lemon juice. Is it a salad? Lemon juice, and while you are at it, throw in some lemon zest just for good measure. I am not finished: having breakfast? Add some lemon juice to your tea. Try never, ever, to cook anything without adding something lemon. 



Just a note: It's not traditional to add carrot, but a carrot will provide a nice bright contrast. 
  
Ingredients:

4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
4 scallions, chopped
1 red onion, chopped
¾ to 1 cup rice 
3 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
2 pounds fresh spinach washed and chopped (or if you’re in a hurry use the frozen spinach that comes  pre-chopped)
Juice of 1 ½ lemons
4 ½ cups water or vegetable juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 carrot, diced (totally optional)
lemon slices for garnish
olive oil to drizzle on top

Directions:

Heat the oil in the saucepan.
Add the onion, and garlic.  Sauté until softened.
Add the rice and sauté until the rice is well coated with the olive oil.
Add the water or broth and let it come to a boil.
Add the spinach and stir until wilted.
Reduce the heat and add the scallions, carrot, parsley, dill, lemon juice, and salt and pepper.  


Mix, cover and simmer about 35 to 40 minutes, until almost all of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is cooked. 

Pretty much done cooking ...  It should not be dry when it's done. It should have a juicy consistency. Not soupy, not dry. You know what I mean, don't you?

Serve garnished with lemon slices, and for an extra depth of flavor drizzle some good extra virgin olive oil on top. That's an important step.  


Monday, December 3, 2012

A CARROT CAKE FOR "HEARTBURN"

Carrots for my carrot cake....  They say that the word "orange" doesn't rhyme with anything.  I think it rhymes with "carrot." For quite obvious, colorful reasons...
It was so easy to become a fan of Nora Ephron. An inveterate New Yorker, who occasionally put up with living in such backwaters as Washington DC and Hollywood, Nora Ephron was an author known for her intelligent, sophisticated prose. She wrote in a seemingly spirited and funny manner, hiding soulfulness and vulnerability inside paragraphs brimming with wit and sarcasm. Who can forget Ephron’s screenplay for the romantic comedy “When Harry met Sally?” There’s Billy Crystal’s Harry, sitting in a New York deli.  Between mouthfuls of coleslaw, he watches as Meg Ryan (Sally), demonstrates the female’s ability to fake orgasm. Loudly and quite flawlessly she moans and pretends to climax.Then she goes back to eating her salad. Famous for its hilarity is the retort which follows Ryan’s demo: it doesn’t come from Billy Crystal, but from a deli patron who has watched and heard the whole epic thing.“I’ll have what she’s having,” the patron tells the waiter. 

In addition to novels and essays, Ephron wrote screenplays and produced and directed some of them when they were made into movies. She was a Hollywood power player whose untimely death at the age of 71 came as a shock. For years, she had been in remission from leukemia, a condition she chose to keep hidden. She had planned her own memorial, and because she was passionate about food and cooking, she wanted favorite recipes included in the service. She died from pneumonia, a complication caused by chemotherapy. I admired Nora Ephron, and her intelligence and creativity were and are an inspiration.  
Read this book!
That which first made Ephron famous was the roman à clef “Heartburn,” a satire based on the collapse of her marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein. He threatened to sue over its publication but never did.  I guess “Heartburn” hit Mr. Bernstein too close to home. I remember the gossip going around at the time concerning his infidelity. Mr. Bernstein was quite a womanizer, and I have often wondered what compels that sort of man to marry. Why did he bother?
This picture was published in "People" magazine in the 1970s when Nora Ephron was living her "heartburn."  Unhappy, she turns her back while her then-husband Carl Bernstein entertains a friend.
“Heartburn,” is a funny story of love, betrayal and heartbreak. Humor acts as the salve which makes the heroine’s predicament bearable. Her name is Rachel Samstat, and she’s a cookbook author seven months pregnant with her second child. At seven months she is bloated, her feet feel “like old cucumbers” and she suffers from what she describes as “terminal heartburn.” To compound her misery, it’s at this stage that she stumbles upon the fact that her husband, Mark, is having an affair. What’s more, she is acquainted with her husband’s mistress and has had her over the house for carrot cake. At first, Rachel vows to win back Mark, despite the fact that he confesses he loves his mistress and has never loved another woman as much. Still, he wants Rachel to stay with him, at least until the birth of their child.  How kind.  Rachel is coming apart at the seams, but since the plot takes place in the 1970s, there’s a psychoanalyst waiting in the wings to offer help and advice. Eventually, Rachel delivers her baby and musters up the courage to gather her children and leave Mark. The catalyst is her discovery that he has spent a small fortune as a down payment on a necklace for his mistress.  It’s during a dinner party soon thereafter that a sense of clarity comes to Rachel.“You can love someone so much,” she thinks, “that you don’t see anything at all. You decide to trust him and you kind of notice that things aren’t what they were, but it’s a distant bell, it’s through a filter… I can’t stand feeling sorry for myself.  I can’t stand feeling like a victim… I can’t stand sitting here with all this rage turning to hurt and then to tears.”  Her new sense of clarity impels her to act. She lifts up the Key lime pie she’s brought to the dinner party and with ladylike civil impoliteness deposits it onto Mark’s face. And then she laughs. Rachel tells the story of her marriage, “because if I tell the story I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story it doesn’t hurt as much.” In this manner, Rachel can begin to forget. As for the recipe for Key lime pie? Rachel gives it to us. The narrative of the novel is interspersed with Rachel’s recipes, some of them quite mouthwatering.  There’s even a recipe index at the end of the book:  Cheesecake, page 49. Key lime pie, page 166.  Vinaigrette, page 177. 


There’s been some criticism that the characters in the book are not well developed. My answer is that Ephron’s focus was mainly on satire, which is a genre that does not necessarily rely on a heavy-duty psychological evaluation of character motivation. The main purpose of satire is social criticism via the use of wit as a weapon. Ephron’s novel was socially significant. At the time of its publication in the early 1980s, divorce rates were climbing, but divorced women kept quiet about their predicament. Ephron was the first to write openly about living with a philandering husband and about experiencing a painful divorce.  She empowered women by changing the way divorce was talked about. She encouraged women to talk candidly about it and to share their stories. Plus, as she says in "Heartburn," she liked carrot cake. 
     

My advice?  Add extra whipped cream if you’re throwing a Key lime pie at someone’s face. 

With this reading of “Heartburn,” I am participating in Cook the Books, a bimonthly (not semimonthly) Internet book club/cooking event that features a different book for each round. The challenge is to read the book chosen, cook something inspired by it, and then blog about it. I chose to make carrot cake.  That’s what the unsuspecting heroine of “Heartburn” serves to her husband’s mistress. Years ago, I found myself in a situation similar to Rachel’s. One of the most important things I learned from my experience was not to be the victim in a relationship. Love, cohabitation, marriage, all relationships, even friendships… they should be victim free. Easier said than done, but as Rachel Samstat says in “Heartburn,” when your dream dies, you are left “with a choice: You can settle for reality, or you can go off, like a fool, and dream another dream.”


WASHINGTON CARROT CAKE

I call this my “Washington” carrot cake. That’s because the recipe was given to me by a wonderful cook and family member who lives in the Washington DC area. This is one of the first cakes I learned to make successfully, and it has been in my cake repertoire since I first made it, in the early 1980s. The cake is fruity and tastes a little like a spice cake. It's made with canola oil and with carrots, so as far as cakes go, I guess it's kind of "healthy." It can be eaten plain; that's why I usually bake it in a 9x13 pan. For a holiday treat, bake the batter in round pans and then slather cream cheese frosting on top, on the sides and between the cake layers.
  
Unfrosted.   In my opinion, the best way to enjoy carrot cake. 
Ingredients:
butter and flour to grease the pan
½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
½ cups peeled and grated carrots(about 10 carrots)
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts 
3/4 cup canola oil
1 1/4 cups sugar
½ cup buttermilk
1/2 cup shredded coconut
4 eggs
1 cup chopped pineapple, drained well


For the Frosting:

8 tbsp. unsalted butter softened and cut into pieces.
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon grated orange zest
½ cup mascarpone cheese
2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese
2 cups confectioner sugar
1 cup finely chopped walnuts

Here's a close up slice without frosting.  I frosted my cake the day after I made it... What I love about carrot cake is the cinnamon and ginger, the walnuts, the pineapple, the coconut,  everything all mixed into a custard type batter.
Directions:

Preheat the oven to 350° F.  
Grease and flour a 9" x 13" baking dish with the butter and flour. This is an important step, don't forget it.
Gather the carrots, walnuts, drained pineapple and coconut into a large bowl.
Into a medium size bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, and salt. Pour them on top of the carrot mixture.


The fruity mixture.  I think this is my favorite part!
Into a really large bowl whisk together the oil, sugar and buttermilk. Add the eggs one at a time and beat after each addition. Add the vanilla and beat in. Fold in the carrot mix in batches. Make sure that you don’t over-mix, don’t mix until smooth.

Bake this cake!
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes. Lower the heat to 325º F, and bake another 15 to 20 minutes. 
Let the cake cool in the pan for about 1/2 an hour.  Then turn it out onto a cake rack and let it cool completely.


Fresh out of the oven. 
For frosting, you can frost just the top if you've baked the cake in a 9x13 pan. If you want frosting on the top, sides and between layers, bake the batter in round pans.


For the Frosting:

Use an electric mixture with the paddle attachment.  On medium speed beat the butter with the mascarpone and cream cheeses until they are smooth. Add the vanilla and the orange zest and beat until they are integrated. 
Lower the speed and add the sugar in batches, beating for about a minute between additions. Finish beating by bringing the frosting to a smooth consistency. Chill and spread the icing evenly over the cake. When done, press the nuts onto the cake.  Chill before serving.