Saturday, November 24, 2007

In Search of a Cookie (Part One): Ma'amoul














John is thinking about his childhood. He removes a cigarette from a burgundy box of Dunhill’s® and holds it between his lips. His callused thumb runs against the starter, the metallic snap narrating a spark as it turns into a flame. The end of the cigarette glows and momentarily fades to black, flecked with gray and white ashes that quietly drop off. He takes a long and thoughtful drag, followed by an exhalation of smoke perfumed with nostalgia. He is intriguingly pensive, running his hand along the side of his face as if searching for the reason his five o’clock shadow has arrived at three.

John is an American of Sicilian descent, graced with a full head of salt and pepper hair and a marvelous sense of culinary adventure. He is thinking about the rich aromatic meat dishes his mother cooked when he was a boy, during the years his father owned a butcher shop a few blocks away from the United Nations—where we are presently strolling. As a child of Italian immigrants, John was initiated into the world of tripe, brain, kidney, liver and heart, organ meats that today’s “chicken-finger” eating children would sooner retch than relish. He takes another drag from his cigarette after sharing a memory and when he exhales, the smoke dissipates in a gust of October wind, taking the recollection with it.

I’ve known John for over fifteen years. A mutual love of food and fierce passion for coffee and dark chocolate continuously kindle our friendship. On a Friday afternoon, after dining at the Ethiopian Meserkem in the West Village, we decide to head towards Bleecker Street, where a string of Italian bakeries line the street. John has been haunted by the memory of an Italian pastry whose name he cannot recall. He describes it as a cookie filled with a spiced, brown fruit paste made of dates or figs. The mixture contained bits of chocolate, candied orange peel, and perhaps some powdered espresso.

John’s craving began at historic Calvary Cemetery in Queens, while he was visiting his aunt’s grave. After paying respect to his parents, he went to the site where his aunt Alphonsina was buried. He stood across “Beppina’s” grave (a nickname given to her by John’s uncle, Achille) and remembered how he and his family would always bring pastry to her house whenever they dropped by. There was one particular cookie that came to mind, something related to the holidays which became symbolic of these visits. That is when the craving began; “I could taste this cookie as if it was in my mouth,” he says, “and have been thinking about it ever since.”

John’s craving is intense, so a quest for the special cookie begins. We walk down Bleecker Street and enter Rocco’s Pastry Shop and Espresso Café. The cases are filled with an assortment of butter cookies and Italian standbys like biscotti, cannoli, bocconotti, and pignoli nut cookies. There seem to be more tourists than natives in the pastry shop, which is overflowing with Italian kitsch. John scans the dessert cases like a speed reader and clears his throat before announcing, “They’re not here. Let’s try another place down the street.”

We head to Bruno Bakery and discover more variety and color in their pastry displays. John describes the cookie of his childhood to the counter girl, but she is not familiar with what he is recounting. Our eyes are transfixed by several pastries in the form of single-serving cakes with flavors like caramel pear, dulce de leche cheesecake, and chocolate hazelnut mousse. Many other beguiling and mouthwatering treats are meticulously arranged behind the pastry cases, stirring our cravings until there is nothing to do except give in. The air is laden with vanilla, butter and hospitality, so indulging in espresso and dessert seems inevitable and apropos.

Wanting food because you need nourishment is very different from craving something—craving is sparked by the mingling of desire and memory. John’s description of the fruit-filled cookie of his childhood reminds me of ma'amoul. Ma’amoul is a Middle Eastern butter cookie filled with a paste of dates and walnuts. Dates are naturally rich in brown sugar and caramel notes and when combined with the woody and somewhat tannic notes of walnuts, become the perfect foil for character extremes in the individual ingredients which make up the cookie. It is the addition of floral water that lends an indecipherable beauty to ma’amoul, one that is initially exotic, but like any new pleasure, becomes agreeably familiar and increasingly desired when consumed.

I offer to make more ma’amoul for John and he smiles, reminding me that it was the Arabs who brought pine nuts, apricots, figs and dates to Italy, exerting influence on Sicilian baking. He is also quick to add that Catherine de Medici took the Arabic influence to France, when she married King Henry II. “It was the Italians who taught the French to cook,” he teases. The date pastry I offer John begins to feel like a poor substitute for his true craving. I stare at the bottom of my espresso cup haunted and determined; I am going to find this cookie.

[Stay tuned for Part II of this cookie mystery, which will appear in next week's edition of Glass Petal Smoke.]

Ma’amoul
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

Yield: 56 cookies

Ingredients:
· 3 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour
· 1 teaspoon baking powder
· ½ teaspoon salt
· ¾ cup sugar
· 1½ sticks of butter (¾ cup)
· 2 large eggs
· 1 teaspoon Tahitian vanilla for the cookie dough
· 1½ teaspoons Chinese cassia cinnamon for the cookie dough
· 2 teaspoons rosewater for the cookie dough
· 1 package of date paste (you’ll need 10 ounces of the 13 ounces in the pack)
· 1 teaspoon Chinese cassia cinnamon (for the date paste)
· 1 teaspoon Tahitian vanilla (for the date paste)
· ¾ cup of chopped walnuts (lightly toasted in a pan and cooled, to bring out the flavor)
· ¼ cup warm water

Equipment:
· 2 cookie trays lined with parchment paper
· sheet of aluminum foil about the size of a cookie tray
· flour sifter
· mixing bowl and spatula
· measuring cups for dry ingredients
· measuring cup for wet ingredients
· two forks
· small bowl for beating eggs and vanilla
· small microwave bowl for butter
· 1¾ inch (in diameter) cookie cutter or jelly glass
· measuring spoons
· rolling pin
· cookie spatula
· plastic wrap for dough

Instructions:
· Toast chopped walnuts over a low flame and remove as soon as they begin to toast lightly (you’ll know by the soft, woody aroma). Allow to cool completely.
. Sift the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and 1½ teaspoons of cinnamon.
· Place butter in a small microwave bowl and microwave for 40 seconds (or until butter grows soft, making sure the butter is soft, not warm). Mix by hand with a fork so the melted and soft sections are blended together.
· In a small bowl, gently beat eggs, rosewater and vanilla. Add this to the butter and mix thoroughly.
· Add wet ingredients to dry and use your hands to form the dough.
· Separate the dough into two balls. Place each on the middle of an 18 inch sheet of plastic wrap. Fold the bottom third of the plastic wrap over the dough and pat down until it forms a 6 inch disc. Bring in the sides of the plastic wrap and fold the remaining top piece over the disc. Refrigerate for 4 hours.
· Fifteen minutes before the dough is ready to be rolled out, prepare the date paste. Put date paste into a small bowl and add warm water. Mix with a fork until the date paste has a malleable consistency that lends itself to filling a teaspoon with ease. If you find any date stems, remove them. Add one teaspoon each of cinnamon and vanilla and mix with a fork. Add crushed walnuts and incorporate.
· Divide the oven rack into thirds and set the temperature at 375 degrees. Allow the oven to heat to full temperature while you are rolling out the cookies, making sure the preparation area is a moderate distance from the oven.
· On a lightly floured surface, roll out a quarter of one of the chilled dough balls, until it is ⅛ inch thick. Cut with a cookie cutter and set on cookie sheet, keeping each cookie about one inch apart. Re-roll scraps, continuing to roll and cut. Use the extra sheet of aluminum foil to set cookie cuttings aside as you may run out of room on your cookie sheets in the preparation stage. (Each dough ball should yield 28 cookie sandwiches.)
· Place one teaspoon of date mixture over half of the cookies and use the remaining cut cookies to cover them. Pick up the sandwiched cookie, pinching and sealing the edges by hand, so the cookie looks like ravioli. Set the cookie back on the tray. Crimp the edges with the tines of a small fork. Prick the tops twice with the fork (the cookies will look like little pies) so that the centers can release heat in the oven while they are baking.
· Continue cutting and filling the cookies until each dough ball is used. When you are done you should have 24 filled cookies on each sheet, and 8 more filled cookies you’ll have to bake when the four dozen are finished.
· Refrigerate all of the ma'amoul for 8-10 minutes. This will allow the butter in the dough to firm up and will ensure that the cookies bake evenly, (the ones you made first will be affected by the room temperature in which they have been resting).
· Place each tray of cookies on a single rack in the oven and bake for 6 minutes. Open the oven and move the top tray to the bottom and the bottom tray to the top, reversing the front and back ends for even baking. Bake for an additional 6 minutes or until bottoms are lightly browned.
· Remove cookies from their trays and place on cooling rack for an hour or until completely cooled. Store in an airtight container.

Notes:
There are many variations of the Middle Eastern ma’amoul. Some use orange blossom water or rosewater in the dough. Others use semolina instead of flour. For those who delight in sweetness and presentation, a dusting of confectioner’s sugar is preferred. Some recipes omit eggs and baking powder. This recipe is a winner because the texture of the cookie is enhanced by eggs and leavening.

Ma’amoul taste better the day after they are baked as the moisture in the filling softens the cookie dough. That’s a respectable characteristic for those of us who believe that age improves our unique essence as human beings. One of the things I like best about ma’amoul is that it has a shared history among Arabs and Jews. Perhaps the act of baking these is actually a gesture of peace in itself.

Sources:
For floral waters, date paste and Tahitian vanilla, shop online at Kalustyan’s. Cortes® brand floral waters are highly recommended.

For China cassia cinnamon shop online at Penzey’s Spices.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Saffron: Spice of Ecstasy and Sensory Seduction (with Recipe)

Saffron is a spice that needs no introduction. It infuses whatever it touches with a distinct golden hue, adding an aroma that resembles the commingling of hay, honeyed musk, leather and almonds. To taste saffron is to know how unnecessary words are in the vocabulary of pure joy. From discovery to repeated exposure, the flavor and fragrance of saffron is continuously revelatory, like a great passion that leaves one yearning for more.

A majority of home cooks are familiar with saffron grown in Kashmir and Spain. Kashmir saffron veers towards the woody side of the flavor spectrum whereas the Iranian variety possesses a floral character which lends a fascinating beauty to the spice. Iranian Sargol (pure stigma, the yellow style removed) arouses synesthetic pleasure on sight; the crimson color is so rich that it appears infinite and one can easily imagine the feeling of fine velvet on the tips of the fingers by gazing at it. Combine this with an aroma that defies categorization and you have quite a seductive ingredient at hand.

Aphrodisiac and laughter-inducing qualities have been attributed to saffron in culinary texts and folklore. From a logical perspective, the preciousness of saffron, which is the most expensive spice in the world, would produce happiness in anyone fortunate enough to have access to it. Each saffron crocus has three stigmas and hand cultivation is still the method used to harvest the spice. Unethical hands have been known to adulterate saffron with coloring agents like turmeric and safflower, especially in the powdered state. This fact was not lost on a 15th century German tribunal called the safranschau; they were known for sending saffron adulterers to death by burning at the stake or worse yet, burying the guilty alive with the adulterated saffron they had sold in life—Dark Ages indeed.

The flavor of saffron fully develops once the stigmas are dried. There are three molecules that give saffron its distinct characteristics and they are safranal (aroma), picrocroin (bittersweet flavor) and crocin (coloring agent). Notes of saffron have been used in perfumery, but its use is restricted as the self-governing body known as The International Fragrance Association (IFRA) has classified molecules derived from the spice as skin irritants. This has certainly set limits on perfumers, but at the same time has inspired new creations that follow acceptable guidelines. L’Artisan Parfumer’s Safran Troublant is a wonderful execution of such creativity as are various fragrances which use the historic attar of saffron (saffron that is fixed in sandalwood oil) as inspiration.

I was introduced to Iranian Sargol saffron by Thierry Mugler’s Mojdeh Amirvand. I will never forget the day she carefully placed a round container wrapped in violet tissue paper into my hands. With eyes closed I held it to my nose and knew instantly that it was saffron (in retrospect, the violet tissue paper, the exact same color as the crocus sativa flower, was no coincidence). “Saffron will put a smile on your face and make you laugh,” she said, citing folklore from her native Iran. Apparently there is science behind the myth as recent research suggests that crocin and safranal have measurable antidepressant effects, Journal of Ethnopharmacology (2005; 97:281–4).

Saffron is a gorgeous addition to savory dishes like arroz con pollo, bouillabaisse, biryani, paella and risotto, but in sweet pastry and desserts it is worthy of worship. Perfumer Christophe Laudamiel and I discovered an Indian dessert called Badam Halwa at Chennai, a restaurant in New York City. The combination of ground almonds, ghee, sugar and saffron was profoundly haunting and cemented our friendship on the spot. Bois de Jasmin's Victoria Frolova and I happened upon Pongal’s version of the treat and it was after this experience that a recipe was born, Gâteau Baiser De Safran (Saffron Kiss Cake). This cake is best served warm, but there is one caveat; you must share the joy of saffron with those you love (or wish to love), hence the double yield. Enjoy!

Gâteau Baiser De Safran
(Saffron Kiss Cake)
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: Two Cakes

Ingredients:
· 4 cups Arrowhead Mills® Organic Whole Grain Pastry Flour
· 4 tablespoons Bob’s Red Mill® Ground Flaxseed Meal (blonde)
· 1 cup granulated sugar
· 4 teaspoons aluminum-free baking powder
· ½ teaspoon baking soda
· ½ teaspoon salt
· 1 teaspoon ground green cardamom (Guatemalan)
· 3 pinches Iranian Sargol saffron (heaping ¼
· 1 tablespoon of pure almond extract
· 1 tablespoon and 2 teaspoons Cortes® brand rose water
· 5 ounces golden raisins (picked through)
· 2 ½ cups low-fat, “no salt added” buttermilk
· ½ cup grapeseed oil
· 4 large egg whites

Instructions:
· Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
· Infuse saffron in a shot glass with 2 tablespoons warm water for 10 minutes.
· Sift flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add cardamom and flaxseed meal (without sifting) and mix dry ingredients together.
· In a separate bowl, separate egg whites and add rosewater and almond extract. Mix by hand until incorporated.
· In a separate bowl mix buttermilk and saffron infusion, including stigmas.
· Add grapeseed oil to the wet ingredients and mix well by hand. It is important to add the grapeseed oil last as oil seals the stigmas and prevents further color infusion into the wet ingredients.
· Add golden raisins to the liquid mixture.
· Make a well in the bowl with the dry ingredients and combine with wet ingredients, gently folding until everything is mixed.
· Fill two 8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ¾ loaf pans and bake for approximately 50 minutes (or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean). The pans should be set on the center oven rack.
· Remove cakes from the oven and allow them to cool on a wire rack.
· Store cakes in the refrigerator. Slices can be served at room temperature or warmed up.

Sources:

Vanilla Saffron Imports sells Iranian Sargol saffron in various sizes. Stick with saffron threads versus the powder. (415) 648-8990

Kalustyan’s sells grapeseed oil, ground green cardamom, genuine almond extract and rosewater. (800) 352-3451

The artwork which accompanies this post is Lord Frederic Leighton's Flaming June, (1895). The painting now resides at Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico. Leighton is considered a Classicist and this is his most well-known work. Photo from the June 2005 edition of The Victorian Society Newsletter.

This article and the accompanying recipe appeared in the January 19th and January 26th editions of Bois de Jasmin.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dessert Haiku: Lychee Pear Gelatin


















Next to ice, gelatin is the simplest and most easily understood form of suspension in the world of flavor. Elements in suspension bend the notion of time and gelatin preserves food in its earthly state while foreshadowing its inevitable consumption. In truth, gelatin is dessert haiku; it is a visual medium for the experience of taste which has been spared from complicated presentation.

Gelée is a term commonly found on restaurant menus and is used to call out finely cubed gelatin garnishes. Beet, carrot, cucumber and tomato gelées are typically found alongside meat or vegetable dishes. Champagne or wine gelées appear in sweet and savory dishes. A gelatin dessert made from scratch can be created utilizing fruit juice or dessert wine (Sauterne, ice wine, etc.). The addition of complimentary or contrasting fruits builds flavor and entices the eyes, resulting in an experience that surpasses the exaggerated tastes and colors of pre-flavored gelatin.

Plain gelatin can be taken to intense or sublime flavor heights, but a gentle application of flavor serves this medium best. If you decide to experiment with dessert wine, use fruits that reflect aromas inherent in the drink. For instance, there are floral apricot notes in Sauterne, so transposing lightly sweetened apricots would do nicely here. Pineapple, kiwi, gingerroot, papaya, figs and guava will prevent gelatin from setting and should be not be used in juice or fruit form.

Lychee Pear Gelatin
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
(Serves 6-8)

Ingredients:
· 4 envelopes of Knox® unflavored gelatin
· 1 liter of Ceres® Lychee Juice, refrigerated overnight*
· 1 ½ cups diced pears in light syrup (fruit only, separate from juice)
· ¼ tsp. ground green cardamom
· Whipped cream

Instructions:
· Heat 3 cups of juice and cardamom to a boil.
· Mix 1 cup of cold juice with four packets of gelatin in a large metal bowl.
· Add hot juice to cold and mix for five minutes, making sure the gelatin is completely dissolved.
· Add diced pears.
· Ladle the gelatin mixture into a 13x9x2 inch pan.
· Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate for three hours (or until firm).
· Cut into squares and serve with whipped cream and a pinch of cardamom.

Notes:

The artwork which accompanies this post is from Mira calligraphiæ monumenta, a Sixteenth-century Calligraphic Manuscript by Georg Bocskay and Joris Hoefnagel.

In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker’s Companion by Megan Daly contains a section on complementary flavors, which is indispensable as it applies to baking and cooking.

*Ceres® brand juice is sold at Whole Foods, A&P and select gourmet food shops.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Perfume Memories: CHANEL N°5

 













CHANEL N°5 —three words that weave a fragrant aura around the world, inspiring all who inhale the carefully arranged bouquet of this timeless, best-selling classic. The finest art in the world is ageless, resonating with dreams and desires that etch themselves into waking life. The perfume of olfactive memory is no different. It paints the canvas of our shared humanity, highlighting fundamental experiences that impact present and future encounters.

When the curtains of memory are permitted to part in my own life, an elegant figure of a woman emerges from the past. Her name is Mrs. Glassman, an elderly widow whose closest companions were the sillage of N°5 and her Chihuahuas, Nosey and Chico. The year is 1974. Mrs. Glassman was a worldly widow who continued to reside in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx after the loss of her husband and mother. Highly intelligent and quick-witted, her matronly carriage radiated natural elegance and strength. She kept her salt and pepper hair up with a few bobby pins and a single barrette, which accented a countenance blessed with perfect bone structure.

Mrs. Glassman’s cheeks were always impeccably rouged and well-suited to the bright red lipstick she rarely went without. Her presence attracted respect and curiosity in adults—and fear in children who were loud or ill-behaved as she made no bones about redressing peace and quiet in the face of rudeness. Though cordial and very curious about the lives of her neighbors, she was not one to invite guests into her home. She lived a contented life of solitude in a three bedroom apartment she once shared with her family and was known to spent a good deal of time reading newspapers and books.

As a child, I identified the neighbors in my building with the distinct odor of their living spaces. Each apartment had a unique scent, much like a person. The individual aromas were an inimitable melding of floor coverings, wall treatments, wooden furniture, upholstery, pets, commonly used cooking spices and faint traces of soap, shampoo and powder. The olfactive impression of Mrs. Glassman’s apartment, which I had only experienced at her front door, resembled an old library mingled with the hissing steam of a tired radiator and a distinctive touch of perfume. In my child’s mind, her solitary and ultra feminine way of life seemed stern, yet intriguing.

On a Thursday evening, I was working on a homework assignment and needed a particular edition of previous Sunday’s paper. My mother suggested that I visit Mrs. Glassman and though I was amused by the prospect of encountering her petite dogs, I was a bit uneasy. Mrs. Glassman never opened her apartment door completely and in all of the Creature Feature and Chiller movies I watched against my parents’ wishes, that could only mean one thing—evil lurked somewhere behind that door. My child’s mind never considered the fact that privacy might have been an issue. With due consideration and an adrenaline rush supplied by Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy, I decided to add some spice to my mission. Not only would I get the newspaper I needed for the “A” I planned on getting in current events—I would get inside Mrs. Glassman’s apartment so I could decipher its smell and unearth the mystery which lurked behind the apartment door.

It was 6:30 and my skipping feet echoed along the hallway that led to Mrs. Glassman’s fourth floor apartment. I rang the doorbell once, knowing full well that anything more than that would incite a chaotic chorus of barks from Chico, Nosey and an old poodle named Pepi who lived next door. Mrs. Glassman’s door opened with a creaky yawn. She was wearing an evening robe and surveyed me over her spectacles. I carefully explained which edition of The New York Times I needed and how I was hoping to get an “A” in class. She smiled and invited me inside.

The door opened into a dining area lit by a single a table lamp. The adjacent living room, like the rest of the apartment, was fully carpeted and well furnished. The living room was more of a study, with dark wooden furniture and a preponderance of brown and burgundy hues. In a corner by a leather chair and ottoman were four neatly stacked newspaper and magazine piles, each about a foot and a half tall. The smell of book jackets and fatigued newsprint mingled with a faint though distinct perfume that shadowed Mrs. Glassman’s every move.

To the right of the dining table was a silver tray that held a square hairbrush with white bristles and a bottle of fine fragrance. Dim lighting made it a challenge to read the perfume label, so I quietly walked towards the silver tray to get a better look while Mrs. Glassman was rifling through her newspapers. The black letters grew clear against a white backdrop and formed these words—CHANEL N°5. I wanted to open the bottle, but knew it would not be polite to do so without asking. I could smell the resinous concentrate lingering at the bottle’s neck, which made the temptation all the more greater. The smell was distinctly feminine and floral, with a powdery touch of boudoir. Before I could request permission to sniff, Mrs. Glassman asked if I would like to sit down and have a warm drink. There were no bogeymen in the dimly lit apartment and she had a box of Nabisco Social Tea Biscuits, so I accepted.

Nosey and Chico were sleeping in the leather chair by the paper piles, but as soon as drinks and biscuits were served, Nosey, who was quite old and slightly arthritic (like his owner), woke up and ambled towards the foot of the dining table. Mrs. Glassman picked him up and placed him in her lap. “Do you brush your hair every night?” I asked. “Yes, I do and I use a special brush, the one on the tray over there,” she replied. I was getting closer to the object of my curiosity and my motive must have broken through its thinly veiled disguise. “My mother wears perfume too, but it doesn’t look like the one you have.” I said. “Bring it over here and I’ll show it to you, but be very careful. It’s from Paris.”

The only time I’d ever been to Paris was on a layover between flights. The policemen at the airport looked like toy soldiers in Oliver and Hardy's Babes in Toyland and I was completely convinced (at the age of seven) that there was a wind-up key hidden inside each of their jackets. I explained this to Mrs. Glassman who chuckled and woke up Chico with her laughter. He made a tiny howling sound and gave a sad-eyed look. The bottle of CHANEL N°5 was now on the dining room table and as Chico turned on his Chihuahua charm, I was aching to open the perfume bottle.

Nosey woke up and left Mrs. Glassman’s lap, giving Chico his turn at affection. Then, the strangest thing occurred. As Mrs. Glassman spoke endearing words to Chico, he would respond in what sounded like a cross between a howl and a moan. Suddenly, Mrs. Glassman started singing to him in a croaky, melodic voice. Chico howled along with her and I laughed so hard a bit of tea I had sipped escaped through my nose. “He can sing,” she told me, proudly grinning. I was convinced, but I was also mesmerized by the scent of CHANEL N°5 which was sitting near my elbow and wafting into my nostrils.

The miniature grandfather clock in the living room struck seven. Mrs. Glassman handed me the newspaper I needed for class. I thanked her as politely as I knew how and stared at the perfume bottle. I never had a chance to open it and experience the scent in Mrs. Glassman’s presence, but somehow it did not matter. The perfume of CHANEL N°5 surrounded our conversation and Chico’s side-splitting performance. Decades later it is hard not to recall the details of this encounter whenever CHANEL N°5 is in the air. As a fragrance professional, my associations with perfumes are very conscious, sometimes bringing up memories I would easily sacrifice to amnesia. When working on a project that requires extensive research and careful writing, I sometimes reach for a bottle of N°5, much in the way Hemmingway would a fine whisky, and resurrect the memories of an elegant woman and her curious study...