Painted Cakes

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I never thought that my education in Fine Arts in Aix-en-Provence, France, could one day be useful in the food business here in the US. The visual aspect of food – the composition, the construction, the creative transformation – follows the principles common to all visual arts. But being able to hold a brush, mix colors, and trace lines on food is still surreal to me. Cake painting is one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen, and I enjoy it even more when the theme is inspired by a picture book.

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Once, I was asked to design a cake for a one-year-old girl. The cake I created had candied oranges, cardamom and orange blossom syrup, and it was inspired by the little girl’s favorite picture book that is shaped like a train. When you flip the pages, you move from one car to the next, like a passenger discovering the bright, colorful, and happy faces in the train along a journey.

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When I arrived to deliver the dessert, I had the impression that I was entering into the book’s world. There was an Indian food truck with bright doodles all over it, colorful tablecloths like the train cars of the book, large bowls of fresh, round oranges dotting the landscape, and of course, beautiful smiling faces everywhere. My cake was where it belonged.

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Quince: A Love Story

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At first sight, you could easily mistake it for a sweet apple or a soft pear, but it’s a tough thing. There is an irresistible floral fragrance, but if you dare to bite it, you’ll be left with an awful raw bitterness. You have to be patient with the quince. It needs special treatment to let go of its harsh façade and slowly reveal its full essence and beauty. With the quince, it’s a love story.

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The quince, not the apple, is the fruit that Eve used to seduce Adam in the Garden of Eden. The quince is the fruit that brides chose to perfume their kisses at wedding ceremonies in Ancient Greece. It is the fruit behind the exquisite delicacy called ‘Romeo & Juliette’ in the Spanish-speaking world. And yes, the quince is my Valentine’s treat.

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In Morocco, the quince is abundant, but it is always cooked one way, in a succulent tajine with lamb, saffron, and cinnamon. Not very far from Morocco, in Spain and Portugal, the quince is prepared in completely different ways, to make delicious jellies and paste (membrillo).

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I recently discovered in a great food blog, Fae’s Twist & Tango, another interesting use for quince. It is a Persian recipe for quince preserves with cardamom and rose water. I had to try it!

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The quince is a Fall fruit and isn’t easy to find this time of the year, but our local Persian store manages to keep it available, fresh, and fragrant… if pricy. The original recipe calls for rose water, and I added some tiny dry roses that I brought from Morocco during my last trip. They are called ward beldi, which means roses from the countryside. Women grind them and mix them to make natural soap, sabon beldi. I like to put dry roses in tea infusions with some honey. One sip and I’m back in the sweet homeland.

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For this recipe, you could use as many quinces as you like. My recipe has a single quince and will yield two 6 oz. jars, but you can multiply the recipe with no problem:

Ingredients:

1 large quince
1 cup granulated sugar
2 cups water
1 sachet, made of 5 cardamom pods crushed
1 sachet, made of quince seeds (high in pectin)
½ teaspoon of rose water and/or edible roses
1 teaspoon lemon juice

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Steps:

Peel the quince, cut it into quarters, then slice each quarter in half. Cut out the stems and cores, but keep the seeds and put them in a sachet.
Put the quince wedges into a large saucepan and add cold water, then add the sachet of seeds.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the saucepan, and let cook for 1 hour.
Uncover the saucepan. The quince edges should have turned pink. Add the lemon juice and sprinkle one cup of sugar all over. Turn up the heat to bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let the saucepan simmer covered for 1 hour.
Uncover the saucepan again. The quince edges should now be burnt orange in color. Turn off the heat, then add the cardamom sachet and the rose water. Let the saucepan sit for 15 minutes to diffuse the flavors, then remove both sachets and discard them.
Gently spoon out the cooked quince wedges and place into jars. Add one cardamom pod and one or two dry roses (optional) in each jar. I like to strain the syrup before I then pour it into the jars, filling them. Cover the jars and let them cool before refrigerating.

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I find it better to wait until the next day to enjoy, so that the flavors can set and the syrup has a chance to thicken. Quince preserves are great eaten directly from the jar, or with cheese (Manchego) and bread. The remaining syrup can be used as a sweetener for tea and smoothies, and can add a great flavor to salad dressings. It can also be used to brush home-made fruit tarts, especially apple or pear. Yum!

Thank you Fae, and Happy Valentine’s Day to all my readers!

If this is your first time here, thank you for visiting! If you want to see more of my work, please “Like” my facebook page where I post regularly about food https://www.facebook.com/sillyapron/

My Best Edible Gift

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I am not a fan of North African cookies. I find them too sticky, too sweet, or too rich. But there is one exception. They are diamond-shaped cookies, well balanced in flavor and texture and fragrant with vanilla and orange blossom water. They taste delicious thanks to almond flour. Covered with powdered sugar, they have a wintery look that makes them a perfect gift at this time of the year.

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They are called makrout a’luz, and they are originally from Algeria. They remind me of cookies that my mom, who is originally from Oujda, at the Moroccan border with Algeria, used to make. We used to take them uncooked to the neighborhood wood oven early in the afternoon on our way to school, and we’d pick them up after school.

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The communal oven is called ferran in Arabic, and it offers baking only as a service. People bring their uncooked bread, cookies, and sometimes fish, chicken, and big portions of meat, like half a sheep, to the ferran, and they come back to pick up their food later on in the day. It’s an ancient practice, and I am happy that neither the presence of French bakeries nor the introduction of modern ovens into homes has extinguished this tradition. Click here to see another example from a previous post.

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You would be surprised how easy it is to make makrout a’luz. This is what you need for about 45 (1” x 1/2”) cookies. Watch this recipe with Albarock

For the dough

  • 2 cup almond meal flour (Bob’s Red Mill available at Whole Foods or Safeway, but cheaper online)
  • 3/4 cup confectioner sugar (also called powdered sugar or icing sugar)
  • 1 large egg
  • Lemon zest from 1 organic lemon
  • 1 tablespoon orange flower water (available at Whole Foods)
  • 1/4 cup flour for dusting

 For the syrup

  • 2 cup of water
  • 1 cup of granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons orange flower water
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract (or half a vanilla bean)

 For finishing

  • 2 cup confectioner sugar

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Preheat your oven to 325° F. In a large bowl, use your hands to mix all the dough ingredients together to form a ball, then divide it into 3 small balls.

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Flour your surface so the dough doesn’t stick, and roll out each small ball into the shape of a thin log. You can decide for the thickness of the log, but I like it not too thick, in order to allow a perfect balance between the outside crispiness and the inside moisture of the cookie (I use my index finger as a measurement reference). With a sharp knife, cut the log diagonally to form 1” diamond shapes.

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Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place the cookies on it, without leaving much space between them, as they don’t expand. Place the sheet on the middle oven rack and bake for 15 minutes.

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Meanwhile, prepare the syrup. Bring the water and sugar to a boil. Turn off the heat and add the vanilla and the orange water. The syrup needs to still be hot when used.

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Now prepare your work space. Place the syrup pan near a bowl with a drainer, followed by a bowl with powdered sugar, and a large plate or empty space on your work table. Organization is important here because you will need to work quickly.

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Bring out the cookie sheet and turn off your oven. Start with only 10 cookies. Soak them in the syrup using a perforated spoon, then quickly place them on the drainer, then in the bowl of sugar (delicately covering them with sugar using both hands), and then place them on your plate or space without overlapping them. Do this about 4 times until you are done with all the cookies.

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About 5 minutes later, when the cookies have cooled down a bit, return them in the bowl of powdered sugar for a second coating. Let the cookies sit for 30 minutes until they are completely cool. Then place them in small gift bags or preserve them in a tin container, if you have one. I use a baking pan and cover it with aluminum foil. You can keep your makrout a’luz hidden there for as long as a week, if you’re lucky!

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Farewell Dish

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When one season comes, another one goes. It’s obvious, but we barely pay attention to the end of seasons, while our interest switches to the new one. We welcome new bounties – many of us have already been celebrating Fall flavors with spices, pumpkins, and apple treats – but we forget to pause, to meditate about Summer’s wealth that overflows on our dining tables. That’s one reason why I love to go to the market.

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Last week felt like a farewell party. Every farmer I stopped by pointed out that I was holding the last vegetable from Summer’s harvest. It wasn’t sad, but it also wasn’t neutral.

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So I would like to share with you my final Summer dish: zucchine alla scapece in Italian, or marinated fried zucchini in English. All you need is 1 cup of vegetable oil (for frying), 3 small zucchinis, 1/3 cup of white wine vinegar, 1/3 cup fresh basil (thinly sliced), 1 garlic clove (sliced), salt and pepper, and red pepper flakes.

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I discovered this recipe in Michael White’s cookbook Classico E Moderno. It’s an interpretation of a Spanish way of preparing fish called escabeche, where fish is first fried and then marinated. The idea is that very hot fried fish or zucchini can absorb the flavorful marinade while at the same time keeping its shape, since crispy fried foods don’t easily fall apart, even when placed in liquid.

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Zucchine alla scapece is very simple to make. Slice the zucchinis and fry them in the hot oil. Once they turn golden (after about 3 minutes), drain them on paper towels to get rid of excess oil, then transfer them to a bowl. While the fried slices are still hot, drench them in the white wine vinegar, add the basil, garlic, salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes, and gently toss everything together. It’s best to let the whole thing sit a few hours or even overnight, if you have the time, before serving.

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The last time I made zucchine alla scapece, I used fresh garlic we pulled from our garden just before making the marinade. Garlic is easy to grow and requires no maintenance. You just stick in the ground any garlic cloves that get a bit too old to use in cooking and forget about them. Then one day, when you notice something green growing, you remember!

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We tried companion planting this year. We planted garlic close to our rose bush. Companion planting means placing together plants that help one another – in this case, garlic is supposed to protect the rose from pests. A harsh winter last year meant our rose bush hardly blossomed this year, so we missed the beautiful perfumed roses and didn’t witness many benefits of companion planting. We did, however, have a lot of garlic, all fresh and fragrant (hmm… maybe the garlic benefited from the rose after all!).

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I use the tops of the garlic’s green stems, which have a milder garlic flavor and are great in salads or as garnish. Another wonderful summer gift we’ve appreciated this year.

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In a couple weeks, it will be time to remember to be thankful. I know what I’ll be thankful for. Do you?

Healthy & Sweet

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I haven’t had a chance yet to call the dentist’s office for my son’s cavity, but I did buy bags of candies for Trick-or-Treating! Is something wrong here?

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I don’t know if you are like me, but I am very uneasy with this whole candy business. Not because I am against candies, but kids have so many occasions where candies are offered to them: birthday parties, class parties, school celebrations, banks and other offices, restaurants, community events, and even play dates!

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It was my son’s birthday party at school earlier this month. He was celebrating with a classmate whose mom volunteered to bring cupcakes. I didn’t want to bring candies or more cake, but I also sensed that my son was expecting something different from the healthy snacks we contribute monthly to his class.

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And since only store-bought food is allowed, I tried chocolate chip stuffed raspberries from Sweet Paul. It is an elegant snack, healthy and sweet, that is also easy and quick to put together. You just stuff the inside of raspberries with chocolate chips, and everyone is happy!

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By the way, I learned recently that they use to give apples to kids on Halloween! Can this tradition come back, please!? Or wouldn’t it be great if we could find some sort of balance, like the chocolate chips stuffed into raspberries? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Birthday Boy

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He knew exactly what he wanted: a two-tiered cake with lemon and strawberry flavored layers separated by vanilla frosting and raspberries, topped with a spider weaving his web. Of course!

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Believe me, this “order” is a piece of cake compared to prior ones, like the three-tiered snake cake! Plus it’s a healthy cake, so to speak. It has no food coloring, no artificial flavoring, no fat in the sponge cake, and even no chemical leavening. The cake is called génoise, and it gets its fat from egg yolks, its volume from beating the eggs, its moisture from a home-made strawberry syrup, and its flavors from raspberries, lemon zest, and vanilla beans. It is a light cake and absolutely delicious!

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The only butter is in the buttercream icing that coats the cake. The filling is made with whipped cream, which is much lighter, and you can always make more in a flash if you run out.

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Finally, decorating the cake with icing is so forgiving! It’s a great way to practice with royal icing if you are new to cake or cookie decorating. It’s also fun to do with kids, because it can’t go wrong and you can always take it from where they left off.

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Of course, the spider web could be done neatly, but I find a messy web just fine, aesthetically.

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It’s funny how a few simple ingredients can create so much happiness! But to be fair, I have to say that I am lucky to live in an area with the best cake supply store. The Little Bitts Shop is a family-owned business with more than 35 years of experience in cake baking and decorating, and Bob and Ann provide the complete package, from supplies to customer service. They always help me fill even the most exacting – and unusual – of orders!

Ratatouille

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Ratatouille is not known as a chichi French dish. Rather, it’s a rustic, working-class vegetable stew you normally wouldn’t dream of taking to a French White Dinner Potluck in Chevy Chase, one of the richest neighborhoods in the Washington DC region, tout simplement because French dining is meant to reflect class! (sorry about bad iPhone image quality)

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But today, French refinement has inspired and even defined the style of some great American chefs. Thomas Keller, named Best Chef in America in 1997, transformed the disheveled French ratatouille into a dish presented in true French style – hearty but elegant.

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It all started when Keller was approached by Brad Bird, director of animated film Ratatouille.  Bird challenged the chef to invent an appetizing ratatouille dish that could be generated by a computer and cooked by a rat! 

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Keller responded by challenging Bird and his team to immerse themselves in French cuisine, in order to make the most authentic animated movie about food possible.

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They took cooking classes, consulted with food experts, interned in Keller’s professional kitchen, and dined in high end restaurants in Paris.  

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The results of the exchange are remarkable: an Academy Award–winning film and a delightful ratatouille recipe, one that managed to charm more than a few French guests at the recent White Dinner.

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With all the work that went into creating Ratatouille, you might think Keller’s ratatouille would be difficult and expensive to make. Quite the opposite. You’ll be surprised how simple, economical, and convenient it is. Here is the link I used for the recipe:  http://www.justasdelish.com/ratatouilles-ratatouile-confit-byaldi/.

Welcome Back!

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We’re driving our final hours after several weeks far from home, and I am thinking of arriving to an empty house, with a list of things that need to be taken care of—first of all, dinner.

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I am a grown up now. I have my own family, and no one has spent all afternoon making me a hearty soup, waiting for my return from a long trip. But I am not going to repeat past mistakes. I’m not going to start, before even paying a visit to the bathroom, running to the grocery store, running back to the kitchen, and sucking the last drops of energy from my tank, all for the sake of a meal that will revive everyone, perhaps, except me. It’s too late anyways, I already reminded the boys about their favorite burger place in our nearby downtown.

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And then finally, we are home. As soon as the car engine shuts off, there is a silence that, in a strange way, as in a TV ad, suddenly fills with something like a melody coming from our garden. Almost like a welcome, a warm welcome – warm like a hug.

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A colorful sight bursting with joy.

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You can almost hear the garden’s heartbeat as you come closer.

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And the sweet breath of life.

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Look at you, Garden! You’ve grown so much in just a few weeks!

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I feel revitalized with a new energy, and I call the kids to pick the gifts of nature.

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With a handful of gems, I make a quick and simple meal.

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To my surprise, no one even mentions the burger joint.

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Rather, we let the joy of reunion carry the conversation.

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We make Moroccan tea and tell summer stories.

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We say good night, and we make sure to be thankful for a hearty welcome back home.

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Young Farmers Camp

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There is something about being on a farm that connects us to life in its most ancient, natural, and authentic form. It makes kids at lunch ask for more vegetables, like the beets (yes, beets!) that they, themselves harvested earlier. It makes them stand sober at the scene of a chicken slaughtering, and go to bed earlier than ever before.

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I spent this week at the Young Farmers camp at the family-owned Rocklands Farm teaching kids how to use farm-fresh produce to make simple, healthy, and delicious recipes.

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The overall program, under the guidance of Education Manager Anna Glenn, aimed at showing children what it takes to make the ingredients for those recipes from the ground up, by enlisting their participation in the different stages of farm production, from seeding, transplanting, caring, and harvesting, to storing, processing, packaging, and selling.

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Unlike classroom-based educational experiences, at this camp, kids partake in real farm life, entering into working and living places on the 34-acre farm where Anna’s family and friends raise crops and livestock, grow flowers for weddings, and make their home together.

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Being on the farm made me notice how many great picture books for children are inspired by farm life. One of them is The Little Red Hen. The little red hen grows grain, threshes wheat, and bakes bread, all by herself, without any help from her lazy friends.

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The story, which carries a great lesson about teamwork, was delightfully performed as a play for the kids at the camp, in a setting packed with plenty of charming details and blooming with the bounties of the Earth.

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For pictures of activities at the Young Farmers camp, check out Silly Apron on Facebook.  Click “Like” to keep up with my work on youth education through food!

Family Picnic

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Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is the story of a young donkey who goes out and doesn’t return home. His parents believe he is lost forever. Surprisingly, everything turns out well in the end… thanks to a picnic. This is a simple story by William Steig, but it has all the elements of a masterpiece. It captures the internal experiences and emotions of all the characters in a way that few books for children do, and it teaches some important lessons, like how strong the bond between parents and children is, and how all the magic and treasure in the world can’t match the value of a beloved family member. Sometimes you need to go through trials to realize that.

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I returned to this book recently while looking for recipes for a Father’s Day picnic. I remembered that the picnic menu in the book was really well thought out, a nice composition of sandwiches, pickles, salads, and desserts that is well balanced in nutrition and taste. When I looked up the exact names, however, I laughed out loud when I realized the menu consists of made-up dishes for fictional farm animals: alfalfa sandwiches, pickled oats, sassafras salad, timothy compote. But I decided to stay as close to the core of the menu as possible for our outing.

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I made sandwiches of toasted homemade brioche layered with mayo, lettuce, tomatoes, and bacon.

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Sandwiches of brie, toasted walnuts, and lavender flowers that just bloomed in our garden last week. (This sandwich is perfect when you add fig jam and prosciutto).

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A fresh salad with shredded baby fennel pickled in lemon juice and olive oil. Some sweet and juicy baby tomatoes from our outdoor market.

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And finally, some baked donuts dipped in brown butter, sugar, and cinnamon that our neighbors shared with us for breakfast that morning.

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Our Father’s Day picnic reminded me so much of my childhood, when my parents took us to the nearby countryside. I remember my experience as a child, running around freely, oblivious to the world and its concerns. This isn’t my picnic experience anymore (don’t be fooled by the pictures). My husband and I were able to relax a bit, but we were constantly aware of our kids, especially after we saw a copperhead snake in the water.

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That’s one more reason why Sylvester and the Magic Pebble is a great book for children. It shows them that there is a reason why parents are constantly supervising them, that parents’ protection is essential to their freedom, that if something bad happens to them, a picnic meal will never be the same again.

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