Thursday, January 26, 2006

Sugar High Friday 15: Ma'amoul cookies

This month, for Sugar High Fridays, the host Becks and Posh determined the topic would be recipes using little to no sugar. I immediately thought of the delicious date cookies called Ma'amoul which I enjoyed while traveling in the Middle East. Ma'amoul cookies are one of the many desserts typically eaten during the holy month of Ramandan. During this month, Muslims fast from sun up to sun down, not eating or drinking anything at all. It is considered a time for reflection and to focus on family life. It is also the time for the greatest celebrations in the Muslim world. Women spend each day cooking and baking, unable to eat or drink and consequently taste any of the food they are preparing. Yet surprisingly the food is almost always delicious and well-seasoned. Families come together to break their fast, the more, the merrier. Everyone starts with a bowl of hot soup to open their appetites. Salad, stuffed vine leaves, fried balls of meat, platters of rice and chicken are passed from hand to hand. They eat until satiated, enjoying every bite of the food prepared with love and devotion by wives and mothers.
The desserts are no exception. Tea is served alongside mountains of hand made sweets. You are likely to find batlawa (similar to baklava), fried dough stuffed with sugar and nuts (atyef), cheese cake with rosewater sweet noodles (knaffe), and Ma'amoul, a date cookie. Middle Eastern desserts tend to be extremely rich, often deep-fried and dipped in sugary syrup. Ma'amoul is a an exception: a tender dough surrounding a naturally sweet date filling.
Most often Ma'amoul is made by pressing the dough into a form, stuffing with dates, and removing to bake in the oven. However, I am lacking the appropriate tools and improvised using the only tools available: my hands. I first used a recipe from "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food" by Claudia Roden. Her recipe yielded a parched white dough which was hard to handle. It had a similar method and texture to pie dough. I improvised my own recipe after reading many more on the internet. I was delighted with the result, it was easy to make and the contrast of crisp and tender crust with the luscious date center was a perfect combination. I was also thinking the dough would make a great sugar-free pie crust. Here is the recipe:

For the Dough:
1/2 cup semolina flour
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp all purpose flour
1/2 cup browned butter (cooled)
1/2 cup boiling water
pinch of salt
1 tsp rose water

Combine all ingredients in a medium sized bowl and mix together until well combined. Turn out onto the counter and knead 3 or 4 times. Wrap with plastic and allow to sit for 2 hours.

For the filling:
350 g pitted dates (preferably date paste)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup water

Chop dates if you are not using a paste. Combine in a small pot with 1/4 cup water. Heat over low flame, constantly stirring and adding more water if necessary, until a smooth paste is made. Allow to cool.

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Take a tablespoon sized piece of dough and work it into a ball with your hands. Press your thumb into the center to create a space for the date filling. Scoop a teaspoon of date filling into the center, and pinch all the sides up to cover the hole.
3. Place on a baking sheet, pinched side down, and press lightly with your fingers. Using a fork, make a decorative design on the top.
4. Lightly brush each cookie with an egg wash glaze.
5. Bake in the center of the oven for 20-25 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the cooking process. The Ma'amoul are done when lightly brown in color.


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Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Memories of Bahrain

Bubbling away on the stove is something more than dinner. It is a reminder of family, tradition and acceptance. I prepared a spicy meat curry and armed with flaky roti bread, G and I will dig in with our hands, in true Arab tradition. I remember my first trip to the Middle East- how strange I thought it was to sit on the floor for a meal, and to dine without any cutlery. All 14 of us, my husband's uncles, aunts, cousins and grandmother were crouched around a beautiful rug which was covered with plastic for protection. The maids brought out the food Sito had been preparing all morning- fried fish, steamed rice, curry, salad, and pita bread. The conversation was riotous, only topped by the occasional squawk from one of the many colorful birds hopping and flying around the room. I sat uncomfortably on the floor, unsure of where to put my legs, and embarrassed at the mess I was making while trying to eat as gracefully as possible. I was a new bride, meeting the family for the first time, and I was desperate for their approval. We ate, then sat back from the rug, leaning against piles of pillows as our plates were whisked away to the maid's kitchen. A mountain of pomegranates and prickly pears appeared. The fruit was passed to the men, who cut it into pieces and carefully removed the seeds for their daughters. After the fruit and chai, uncles and aunts stretched their legs and many fell asleep there in the lunch room, their heads resting against red and orange embroidered pillows. The children ran outside to play in the courtyard, and Sito covered each of her children with a light blanket.
It didn't take long, or many lunches around the rug, before I was comfortable both with my new family and their customs. I would sit neatly with my legs tucked underneath, gingerly scooping rice from my plate and relishing how it seemed to taste differently than it does when eaten with a fork. I picked up some Arabic words and surprised everyone by arriving for lunch one day wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim headscarf. I savor these memories of family unity and the food that brought them all together. I hope the family G and I create will be as close, loving and accepting.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Tortilla Chicken Strips

Here is a fantastic recipe for chicken fingers. I learned how to make this chicken when I was only a meager apprentice, slaving away for a pair of cruel, bald-headed, disturbingly close brothers. They later went on to torture more apprentices, opening two more restaurants, and starring in their own "dramatized" television series on the food network... any guesses? Anyway, I was a drugde in the catering department, trying to soak up all the knowledge possible in that, the first fine dining kitchen I worked in. My superior was Nilay, a kind but odd woman from Turkey. She had no cooking experience, only a degree in Hotel Management. This was the woman who was supposed to teach me about food? I had been behind a stove for 3 years already. But despite the fact that Nilay knew very little about fine cooking (she thoght carrot tops and parsley were the same thing), she taught me a lot about simple but gourmet sandwiches and salads. This was her way of using up leftover tortilla chips. We would fry up the chicken, and slice it for sandwiches. I resented waking up at 6 am to make sandwiches for Bay St. professionals, and at the time, I didn't think I was learning a thing. But the chef was right when he told me that learning how to make a great sandwich was very important- the techniques that I learned have served me well.

1 lb boneless, skinless chicken
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion salt
1/2 tsp ground salt
1 egg
3 cups crushed tortilla chips
1/4 cup oil, for frying

1. Crush the trotilla strips either with a food processor, or use the Luddite method (ziploc bag and a rolling pin).
2. Slice each chicken breast into thick strips. Season with salt and set aside.
3. Prepare your breading station. In a medium shallow bowl, combine flour and seasonings. In a smaller bowl, crack the egg and mix with 1 tablespoon cold water. In the final, large bowl, place the crushed tortilla chips.
4. Bread the chicken strips using the following method: Dredge chicken in flour, shake of excess, dip in to egg wash, place in tortilla chips. Press the chicken down firmly to flatten and cover completely with crunchy chips. Repeat with all remaining chicken. *See Cook's Tip
5. Allow the chicken to stand for 5 minutes before frying.
6. Heat a wok or tall-sided pot on the stove over medium heat. Always be careful when heating oil! Fry the chicken on both sides until golden brown. If your chicken is thick, you may finish the cooking in a 400 degree oven.

Serve with a simple salad, or slice thinly and make a sandwich!

*Cook's Tip. To avoid breading your fingertips in the process, do what the professionals do: Use one hand for touching the dry ingredients, and the other for touching the wet stuff. This way your hands will stay cleaner!