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Ripe dates are pretty lush as they are, but leave it to medieval Middle Eastern cooks to take that quality practically beyond imagining. They made a sweet called tamr mu’assal (honeyed dates) or tamr mulawwaz (almond-stuffed dates) by poaching dates in honey with saffron and perfume, perhaps stuffing them with almonds first.
It’s easy to make, except for the task of removing the pits if you’re stuffing the dates, but you can sometimes find dates that are already pitted or even ready-stuffed with almonds. And you do have to obtain these perfumes: saffron, rosewater and musk. But the effect on diners is worth it, sweet, plush and staggeringly aromatic. And when I say sweet, I mean you’re in danger of sugar shock.
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You’ll probably have to shop on the Internet to find musk, though. It is highly unlikely that you’ll find natural musk, because the traditional sources of musk — the musk deer and the civet cat — are endangered species. No matter, artificial musk will be plenty aromatic enough. In fact, musk is so strong that when you flavor the dates with it, do not think of putting it in by the drop because one drop is far too much and will make the dates inedible. You’ll use your fingertip to infuse less than a drop in this recipe.
Supple dates and slivered almonds
Dates are consumed at several degrees of ripeness, each of which has its own name in Arabic. Tamr is the variety we’re most familiar with. Tamr dates are sweet and dry, perhaps a little gaunt or even shriveled. If you are fortunate you may find dates at the rutab stage, which are soft, moist and very, very sweet.
They tend not to stay this way because they dry out. Medieval Arab cookbooks often give recipes for plumping up tamr dates with moisture so that they can pass for rutab. If you do have soft-ripe dates (the Medjool variety is sometimes sold this way), don’t bother to remove the pits and stuff them with almonds because they’re too soft. Just poach them in the flavored honey.
Once upon a time you could easily find blanched almonds in markets, but these days the almond choices are often limited to whole, slivered and sliced. You can blanch whole almonds yourself but it’s a little tiresome. You bring water to the boil, take it from the fire and let the almonds sit in it until the peels loosen, then transfer them to cold water and strip the skins off by hand. Sliced almonds are not quite suitable for this dish, but slivered almonds are just fine, in my book. In fact, it’s easier to get two or three slivers into a date than one blanched almond.
These dates are so sweet and rich that two or three are enough of a serving for many diners. You might want to make sure that diners have a glass of water at hand, particularly if you’re using rutab dates, because these can be really, really sweet.
Makes about 30 dates, serves 8 to 10 people
7 or 8 ounces of dates
About 30 blanched almonds or 1½ to 2 ounces slivered almonds
1 pound honey, about 1⅔ cups
¾ to 1 teaspoon rosewater
5 to 8 threads saffron
½ cup sugar, preferably finely granulated in a food processor
1. Remove the pits from the dates. A small skewer or something similar should do the trick. Stuff dates with the almonds.
2. Thin the honey with rosewater. Crush the saffron and stir it into the honey. Put the dates in a small saucepan, cover with the honey and simmer over lowest heat for about 1 hour. The dates should become plumper and the honey should thicken but not boil.
3. Remove a spoonful of the honey and allow it to cool on the spoon. Unscrew the lid of the musk vial, cover mouth of the vial with your fingertip, shake it, then remove your fingertip and close the vial again. Dip your fingertip in the spoon of cooled honey and stir a little of it into the saucepan. If you want it more aromatic, stir in more.
Allow the dates to cool in the honey.
4. Whenever it is convenient, set a rack over a plate, remove the dates from the honey and transfer them to the rack to drain.
5. When the dates have drained, put them on a plate. Mix the sugar with the spices and toss the dates with this mixture to cover. Transfer them to a serving plate or storage bowl. Keep the honey in a closed container and use it like ordinary honey.
Top photo: Perfumed dates. Credit: Charles Perry
Lime ought to show up more often in cakes; that’s my philosophy. Lemon is great, sure. But there are already plenty of lemon cakes and lemon frostings. No doubt lemon is a cheery and optimistic flavor. But lime is rich and exotic.
Following this line of thought, I ended up with a cake with a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting and a filling of fried bananas. The palate just wants what it wants.
The evolution of cake experiments
My first step down the lime path was obvious — coconut cake with lime zest and a bit of lime juice in the frosting (because I believe fruit-flavored frostings should be sweet-sour). Lime in the coconut, get it? I’m referring to “Coconut,” that 1970s hit song about a woman who mixed lime and coconut juice, got a stomachache and called her doctor, who surprisingly prescribed drinking more lime and coconut.
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The doctor in the song sounded a little peevish because she’d called him in the middle of the night. Still, everybody in the song seemed fine with this prescription, and so did everybody who tasted my lime in the coconut cake.
Next I made a lemon poppy seed pound cake substituting lime juice and zest for the lemon. It was a big hit, because people who love pound cake love it passionately, and because I’d topped it with a cream cheese frosting. I’d noticed that people who love pound cake passionately also have a thing for cream cheese.
When I frosted a cake with lime butter cream and filled it with lime curd, it struck me that I might be binging on limes. Meanwhile, I’d gotten interested in ways to use bananas in cake, but not as banana bread, of which I’m not a big fan. However, I am a big fan of butterscotch, an unjustly neglected flavor in my book.
Finding flavors that complement each other
So I decided to make a lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting, just to check off all the possibilities. It was pretty good because this butterscotch cream cheese frosting takes other flavors, such as ground instant coffee, beautifully.
Cream cheese frosting is mostly used on dense cakes like carrot cake, rather than on butter cake, and the recipes tend to make just barely enough to frost a cake. Here was where my banana experimentation paid off, apart from the fact that banana and butterscotch go together beautifully.
Fry some bananas soft with butter and brown sugar, and they make a terrific filling, suavely giving you more cream cheese frosting to cover the outside of the cake.
In retrospect, this was all obvious, so obvious. I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. But just almost.
Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake
Makes 1 two-layer cake
For the cake:
3 cups flour plus about 2 tablespoons for flouring the pans
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
2 sticks butter, softened, plus more for greasing cake pans
2 cups sugar
For the banana filling:
3 ripe bananas
About ½ stick butter
2 tablespoons brown sugar
The juice of ½ a lime
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
½ stick butter
1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
¼ cup brown sugar
1 pound confectioner’s sugar
Juice and zest from ½ a lime
For the cake:
1. Turn on the oven to 350 F.
2. Mix 3 cups of flour, salt and baking powder and set aside.
3. Add the vanilla to the milk and set aside.
4. Grease two 9-inch cake pans. Put the remaining 2 tablespoons of flour into one pan and shake around until the interior is floured, then pour the remainder into the other pan and repeat.
5. Beat the butter until light and fluffy, then pour in the sugar in a thin stream while beating until the mixture is light and the mixer’s motor has reached its highest speed.
6. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after each addition.
7. Add 1 cup of the flour mixture and beat at medium slow speed, encouraging the absorption with a spatula, just until the flour is absorbed.
8. Add half of the milk and repeat, then another cup of flour, the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.
9. Divide the mixture equally between the two cake pans and bake until the layers are lightly browned and pulling away from the sides of the pan, about 35 to 40 minutes. The tip should spring back if touched and a toothpick inserted in the cake should come back without any damp crumbs on it.
10. Set the cake pans on a cooling rack for 10 minutes, then remove from the pans and return to the rack until cool.
For the banana filling:
1. Peel the bananas and slice each in half lengthwise.
2. Melt the butter in a large frying pan and arrange the slices on it. Cook over medium low heat until the bananas soften, about 15 minutes. Turn them over with a spatula, sprinkle with the brown sugar and fry another 5 to 10 minutes.
3. Sprinkle with lime juice and leave to cool.
For the lime butterscotch cream cheese frosting:
1. Melt the butter in a small pan over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook until most of the foam has settled and the butter has a cooked, but not browned, flavor. Pour the butter off into a bowl and return to the refrigerator until solid, about 10 minutes.
2. Whip the cream cheese in a mixer until quite fluffy.
3. If you have a mortar, grind the brown sugar as fine as possible. Add the brown sugar to the cream cheese and whip until the mixture looks smooth. Add the butter and beat until smooth. Add the confectioner’s sugar and beat at the lowest speed until the sugar is incorporated. Add the zest and juice of the lime and beat until smooth; you may add more zest or juice to taste.
To assemble the cake:
Set one cake layer upside down on a plate. Spread a very thin layer of frosting onto the exposed side. With a spatula, transfer the fried bananas onto the cake layer, then top it with the other cake layer, right side up. Scoop all the frosting onto the top of the cake and work down over the sides with a spatula.
Top photo: Lime Butterscotch Cream Cheese Banana Cake. Credit: Charles Perry
The only dish I’ve ever gotten a standing ovation for was Afghani. It’s called aushak, which sounds a little like the singular of “aw, shucks,” and I did do my best to seem modest. No one could deny, though, that it made a brave display on the serving dish — a field of yellowish pasta topped with a thick, dark red tomato-y stew and, finally, a flourish of brilliant white yogurt.
It’s a special occasion dish because it calls for lamb, which can often be hard to find in the United States, not to mention expensive. It’s also special because the original Afghan version of aushak stew is laborious. You have to make lots of finicky little ravioli, something like the Italian capelletti, stuffed with minced leeks.
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The leeks add a trifle of flavor, and on special occasions, I expect I’ll do it the traditional way. Meanwhile, I have a simpler, cheaper and just about comparably luscious version of aushak stew, made with Italian sausage and farfalle (bowtie pasta).
My adaptation is not a huge leap from the original, apart from the fact that Afghans would certainly not serve pork, because aushak uses a thick tomato sauce with a touch of sweetness, depending on the ripeness of the tomatoes. In most Middle Eastern and West Asian cuisines, what people consider a tomato sauce is surprisingly thin and tart by our standards, accustomed as we are to marinara sauce (and to tomato ketchup, for that matter). Often the sauces are made with tomato juice, rather than whole tomatoes.
These are not failed spaghetti sauces. They are supposed to be thin and tart. They continue the medieval practice of perking up sauces with a bit of sourish fruit juice. In the Middle Ages, lamb stew might be flavored with pomegranate, rhubarb or sour grape juice. The taste for a little sour tang survives today, and tomato juice serves as a convenient substitute for the fruit juice.
But aushak sauce, as I’ve had it, is a thick sauce not too different from an Italian salsa. So this could be a dish from the Italian-Afghani border, if such a place existed.
The final topping is thickened yogurt, also called yogurt cheese, a reasonably familiar ingredient these days. Kitchenware stores often sell little devices for straining it. If you don’t have the handy device, you just drain yogurt in a clean cloth until it’s as thick as you want. If you have a Middle Eastern market handy, you’re in luck, because many of them stock thickened yogurt already made under names such as labneh or yaourti tou pongiou.
Serves 4 to 6
1 quart unsweetened, unflavored yogurt, or 2 cups thickened yogurt
1 to 2 garlic cloves
2 tablespoons oil
4 Italian sausages, sweet or hot
1 (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 (28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes
1 to 2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
1 pound farfalle (bowtie pasta)
3 quarts water
1. If making your own thickened yogurt, stir it to break up the curd and put it on a clean cloth or several layers of cheesecloth in a sieve; or tie the cloth up like a bag and hang it from a kitchen faucet or even a shower head for whey to drip away, 3 to 4 hours or more. It should end up with a thick scoopable texture.
2. Using a garlic press, add pressed garlic to the thickened yogurt and stir. Set aside.
3. Chop the onions. Put the oil in a large pan and heat. Add the onions and fry over medium heat until translucent.
4. Remove the skins from the sausages and break the sausage meat up into bits as well as you can manage. Stir the meat into the onions and continue to fry, separating the pieces until the meat stiffens, or until it is slightly brown if preferred. Add the tomato paste and canned tomatoes, stir and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Taste and add salt and optional sugar if you like.
5. Simmer uncovered until the sauce is thick and rich, 45 minutes to 1 hour.
6. Pour the water into a 6-quart saucepan with a little salt and bring to a full boil. Add the pasta and cook until al dente, about 14 minutes. Drain.
7. Arrange the pasta on plates or a serving dish, ladle the sauce on top and finally top with the yogurt.
Top photo: Faux aushak with tomatoes and bowtie pasta. Credit: Charles Perry
This is the time of year for hot drinks such as buttered rum. Here’s one from the 18th century that fits right in. The drink called bishop is like mulled wine crossed with sangria with a dash of triple sec and a rich and intriguing flavor we rarely use, baked orange peel. It would move pretty fast at a holiday party, and it could even be served cold in summer.
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I don’t really know why it’s called bishop, though some people say it was served when a bishop came to visit, and one Maryland recipe collection reportedly says to add brandy “according to the capacity of the bishop.”
The idea of flavoring wine goes back to the Romans, who liked to put spices and fenugreek leaves in it. From the Middle Ages down to the 17th century, monks and doctors made liqueurs with secret herb mixtures while laypeople were whipping up concoctions with names such as ypocras and metheglin. These were all medicinal beverages, or so people told themselves.
In India, the English finally learned to mix drinks for purely recreational purposes. The toddy, from a Hindi word for palm wine, was essentially whiskey, sugar and hot water. The name punch comes from the Hindi word panch, which means “five,” because it originally had five ingredients. Finally, shrub, which comes from the Arabic word sharab, or “beverage,” seems to have been punch with fewer ingredients.
Most of these punches were basically booze mixed with sugar and lemon or lime juice. In the modern world, punch, apart from children’s birthday punches and the wedding champagne punch, has evolved into a cocktail. Most often it is essentially a miniature, single-serve punch mixed to order. And when making cocktails, bartenders still go through a lot of lime juice and Collins mix. Another thing old-time punches and cocktails had in common was that they were often sprinkled with nutmeg, which doesn’t go on anything but eggnog today.
Once they got the idea, the English started running with it. Negus was essentially strong lemonade mixed with wine, perhaps topped off with some brandy. And then there was bishop, which was wine mixed with orange juice. (When bishop was born, it was a showoffy drink because oranges were expensive imported delicacies.)
I’ve followed the recipe in Mrs. Lettice Bryant’s “The Kentucky Housewife” (1839) except for baking the oranges rather than roasting them before the hearth fire. “Serve either warm or cold,” the recipe says, “in glasses, and grate nutmeg thickly over the tops.” Cheers, reverend sir.
Serves 6 to 8
6 oranges, preferably Valencias
1½ cups sugar
1 bottle red wine, divided
Freshly ground nutmeg
1. Bake the oranges at 350 F until the peels soften, about 25 minutes. The peels will look a little puffy and shiny and have a piney aroma. Don’t worry about a few browned spots. Let the oranges cool, slice them into a large mixing bowl and stir with the sugar and half of the wine.
2. Cover overnight.
3. At serving time, squeeze the oranges and stir up the mixture to make sure the sugar is dissolved. In a saucepan, heat the rest of the bottle of wine to just under the boiling point and strain the orange-wine mixture into it. Serve sprinkled with nutmeg.
Top photo: Wine, oranges and nutmeg go into the cocktail called bishop. Credit: Charles Perry
Elizabeth David called it Escoffier’s chutney, and in the 1970s many of the food lovers who were about to give birth to California cuisine were electrified by the idea of this red and green holiday relish.
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They were fans of David and her cookbooks, which specialized in earthy Mediterranean cuisine, and here she was writing about a recipe from Auguste Escoffier, the codifier of old-fashioned French restaurant cuisine.
But it was certainly a home-style Mediterranean relish. David speculated that it was something Escoffier remembered fondly from his childhood in a village near Nice. He called it pimentos for cold meat, but it was understandable for David to proclaim it a chutney because of its sweet-sour flavor with emphasis on the sweet. (In India, of course, chatni refers to fresh salsa-like relishes, which are rarely sweet at all.)
It certainly goes well with cold meat, but it would not at all be out of place with, say, a holiday pork roast. Or grilled sausages. Or grilled cheese. Or just about anything, in my book.
Food lovers were crazy about it for a while, but soon more exotic possibilities beckoned, and it dropped out of the avant-garde category. A lot of people still make it, though, and I’m one of them.
But I have to acknowledge that my version of red-and-green holiday relish has morphed in my usage over the years and it’s no long quite what Escoffier would recognize.
The relish is simple to make. Just sauté onions to soften them, then simmer for a good long time with sweet peppers, tomatoes, vinegar, sugar and flavorings. By this time I’ve forgotten what spices Escoffier used. I’ve change it to cloves and mace, a delightful spice combination that was often used in 19th-century American cookery but survives today mostly in tomato ketchup.
Yeah, I like ketchup. It’s a fine upstanding condiment and I make no apology.
The original recipe is actually a little too sweet for my taste, so I’ve taken to substituting dried cranberries for the raisins. And cranberries are a nice seasonal ingredient.
And we’re entering the holly season, when everything tends to be red and green. The original recipe called for red sweet peppers, but the kind you find in a supermarket aren’t that much sweeter than green bell peppers. So I decided to combine red and green peppers to make it a relish to go with a pork roast, a standing rib roast, a goose or whatever you cook for your holiday meal. In fact, you can bottle up some of it for holiday gifts.
In other words, this is a relish for the Holly Days. (Again, I make no apology.)
Red and Green Holiday Relish
Makes about 1 quart
½ pound onions
4 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil
½ pound green bell peppers
½ pound red bell peppers
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon mace, with a dash of cloves, preferably freshly ground
1 pound ripe tomatoes
1 clove garlic
¼ pound dried cranberries
½ pound sugar
5 ounces vinegar
1. Peel the onions and chop fine. Put the oil in a saucepan, add the onions and cook over medium heat until softened and translucent.
2. Wash the peppers, remove the stem end, the core and the seeds, and cut the remainder into convenient pieces. I like short strips ⅓ inch by 1½ inch. Add them to the onions along with the salt, mace and clove and simmer 10 minutes.
3. Put enough water in a separate saucepan to cover a tomato. Bring it to a full boil and drop the tomatoes into it one by one long enough to cook the peel so that it will split when you cut it with a knife, 20 or 30 seconds. Peel the tomatoes and chop coarsely. Add to the onions and peppers along with the garlic, cranberries and sugar.
4. When everything is mixed, add the vinegar, cover the saucepan and cook at a low temperature (the pot should bubble only slowly) for at least 1¼ hours.
5. When done, taste and correct the amount of salt, sugar and vinegar to your taste, if necessary.
Top photo: Red and green holiday relish. Credit: Wynne Everett
When I was a kid I naturally loved the holiday dishes, all except for the obligatory cranberry relish and pumpkin pie. I finally got over my cranberry problem, but I still require every pumpkin pie to stand trial before I eat it. To my mind, most are stodgy and boring and taste like a vegetable trying way too hard to be liked.
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But recently I looked into Maureen Simpson’s “Australian Cuisine,” which was published in the late 1980s, and one recipe caught my eye: gramma pie. Gramma is the name of a sort of Australian pumpkin, which looks like a particularly skinny and elongated butternut squash.
It’s a winter squash belonging to the same species as butternut, kabocha and acorn squashes. You might never have heard of gramma squash, but you have probably eaten pumpkins similar to it.
The Dickinson field pumpkin, which is canned as Libby’s Select brand, is the usual squash variety used in canned pumpkin filling. You didn’t think pumpkin pie was made out of used jack-o’-lanterns, did you? Now that I think of it, maybe my problem with pumpkin pie goes back to some ill-advised youthful attempt to cook one of those coarse, stringy Halloween-type pumpkins.
Anyway, when Simpson remarked that gramma pie bears little resemblance to the American pumpkin pie, I had to try it. The recipe doesn’t look hugely different. This pie has a coarser, less creamy texture because you crush the pumpkin rather than puréeing it. It uses the same spices, and I wouldn’t have thought the additions of the zest and peel of a lemon, a little orange zest and a tablespoon of raisins would change the effect much. They do, though.
Add lemon juice to pumpkin pie? Yes you can.
The resulting pie is quite sweet-sour. Simpson even tells her readers they can add more lemon juice if they want. In short, it’s a dramatic, brightly flavored pie filling, worlds removed from the sort of pumpkin pie I still balk at.
Thanksgiving is all about tradition, and replacing the usual pumpkin filling with something as exotic as this one may leave a lot of diners feeling disappointed. But if there’s a chance you’ll have an Aussie at your table, this would be just the thing to serve. We all have our own nostalgia.
I made this recipe with Simpson’s suggested crust, which is more like a European tart crust than the American flaky crust. Use any crust you want, though. Her recipe calls for Lyle’s Golden Syrup instead of corn syrup, but in such a small quantity that the difference in flavor is negligible. It says to mix the egg with caster sugar, which is finer than American granulated sugar. Some stores sell this as “baker’s sugar,” but you can simply grind regular sugar fine in a mortar or small food processor.
Australian Gramma Pie
Makes one 8-inch pie
For the filling:
2 pounds winter squash such as butternut, acorn or kabocha (about 2½ pounds before peeling and trimming)
½ cup granulated sugar
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
Zest of 1 orange
1 tablespoon raisins, preferably yellow raisins (sultanas)
1 tablespoon corn syrup
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (mixed cinnamon, nutmeg and clove)
For the crust:
2 cups flour
¼ teaspoon baking powder
Pinch of salt
5 ounces (1¼ sticks) butter, softened
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons finely ground sugar
Water or milk
1. Having removed the peel, seeds and strings from the squash, cut into golf ball-sized chunks. Put in a saucepan and add water to barely cover, bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat to medium low, cover the pan and cook until the pumpkin is soft, around 40 minutes. Leave the squash pieces in a colander to drain, pressing out liquid several times until cool.
2. Mash the squash thoroughly with a ½ cup of the granulated sugar, lemon juice and zest, orange zest, raisins, corn syrup and spices and set the filling aside.
3. Begin the crust by sifting the flour with the baking powder and salt, and rub with the butter until evenly dispersed. Beat the egg with 2 tablespoons of the finely ground sugar and knead into the flour. Knead in more flour as needed to give a soft but manageable dough.
4. Divide the dough into two unequal parts, setting aside something between ¼ and ⅓ of the total for the top crust. On a well-floured work surface, roll out the bottom crust into a circle a little more than 11 inches in diameter. Transfer to an 8-inch pie pan and make sure that the crust reaches slightly over the edges of the pan. Scoop in the filling and smooth the surface. Wet the part of the crust the reaches over the edges of the pan.
5. Roll out the rest of the dough into a circle 10 inches in diameter and transfer into the pie. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork. Brush the top crust with a little water or milk and sprinkle with 2 teaspoons of the finely ground sugar.
6. Bake at 350 F for 1 hour, protecting the edges of the crust from over-browning with aluminum foil or pie protector during the last 20 minutes. Serve cool.
Top photo: Pumpkin pie made with gramma variety pumpkins. Credit: Charles Perry