I’m deviating today from my standard charla on my cooking experiments, client work, and daily jaunts around DC and beyond to share with you some amazingness from a long-term blogger friend. You know when someone just tickles your fancy and you like them because their online presence is so solid beautiful… and hers is super tasty, to boot! That’s who Faith Gorsky is: a discriminating foodie who has a similar spirit of international exploration. Her blog, An Edible Mosaic turned into a colorful cookbook with the same title, and the one of three cookbooks I’m lusting over these days.
Sooo, scoot over Latin and the occasional mire poix’d American (and even #FlanFridays), just for today, and welcome some Middle Eastern bites.
Coincidence doesn’t peek here when I look at my favorite cuisines I seldom cook… or that of the 10 culinary trends Sargento identified, Middle Eastern is one of them…Though I was assigned to cover Peruvian cuisine, we were encouraged to dive into the others. I’ve been so focused on the classic and intricate details of the Latin variety, I finally decided to take a break– going in a completely different direction — to see how much I learned for myself.
When I thought about other trends, Middle Eastern fare jumped at me for the very reasons I gravitated towards Faith’s book — the idea of familiarizing myself with food I have day dreams about (because yes, I find myself drifting into space thinking about life in corporate America when I’d take 90 minute lunches and would eat just about anything in sight in DC) but have never ventured out to cook on my own. For the longest time, my idea of Middle Eastern food was limited to Greek. Fortunately for my palate and growing knowledge of global kitchens, I fell in love with Lebanese at 21, Indian (my fave of all), some Pakistani, and few other countries’ food. I wouldn’t say I’m in expert, not even in eating it, but I love it from the soul of my gut and just wish I’d spend with more time with it.
I’ll leave it up to people like Faith who have a great tie to it. Her mother-in-law guided her early in her marriage — to a Syrian guy — and exposed her to all the wonderful foods she should know how to make. Barring a tremendous language barrier, the two excitedly jumped into making traditional dishes together, teaching Faith the basic of basics. Her limited knowledge of Middle Eastern food, kind of like me, was maximized to what we all know: falafel, hummus, baklava, shish kebab and yogurt. This just gave her a wide open canvas to learn and create on.
Her book is a colorful (with super pretty font — I’m into font way more than I care to admit) hardcover with graphic design any globe trotter would really appreciate. The pages are filled with really yummy photography of some ubiquitous foods and others explore and explain dishes she really had to push herself on but are now her favorite go-tos…And of course, because she’s traveled back to the East a few times, she shares pictures of street vendors and life from her experiences there. Naturally, as the typical “I’m married now and I want to cook for my man” story goes, she wanted to keep her hubs happy with food he was particular about, so you’ll see a lot traditional foods he grew up on in Syria, like rice pudding.
The fried eggplant with garlic and parsley dressing did me in… I’m a huge fan of berengena… though I loathed it as a child… but they way she prepares it, coupled with a super garlicky dressing… let’s just say she touched sensitive notes with this one.
If you’re new to cooking Middle Eastern food at home, like mi misma, the book is laid out in an easy way we can all follow, taking you from a few pages chatting about basic ingredients you need to make spectacular meals, to essential cooking utensils to execute magic. Somewhat of news to me is the consistent use of almonds in a lot of dishes. I’m all for the crunch factor in salads, soups, meat dishes, etc… desserts, too, obviously. Though each section is divided up into kinds of foods (breads, soups, salads, poultry, fish, drinks, etc…), they’re not totally complete. I’m thinking there’s room for more. This just makes the book a perfect candidate for a beginner looking to become quickly familiar with a great helping of refinement and deliciuosness.
I finally spent some time digging into the book and came to a few unknowns I’m ancy to try. I asked Faith if she had any favorites requiring cheese, but she obviously loves them all. So I took to pinpointing some creamy goodness I’d make. The Farmer’s cheese spiced cheese balls sound amazing. It’s such a great party food which sounds like an aromatic ball waiting to explode. It’s mostly made up of farmer’s cheese with a small cocktail of Nabulsi, Ackawi, or fresh mozzarella. What ingtrigued me the most were the Sweet Cheese Pastry. Okay… did you read that right? Sweet. Cheese. and Pastry. I had a Rachel Zoe moment when I came to page 122. I die. Seriously. The triage of these three flavors and textures must make heavenly sense.
Knafeh Bil Jiben is a staple dish served in any family event. It’s a Palestinian dessert made with a cheese called Nabulsi (mentioned above). Kind of the like the cheese balls, this pastry is filled with a similar cocktail of cheeses, mostly white and soft. Oh, and to boot, it has pistachios… more crunch. If I made this, I’m convinced one of Sargento’s white blend would work well. I may be a bit crazy here, but what about a bleu?
The recipe’s a bit meticulous, but it seems to be so absolutely worth making. Over and over again. So, only because my schedule has been wildly busy and won’t let up til the end of year, I’m sharing Faith’s exact recipe with her own pictures, but have comitted to making these (and a few other delectables) by the end of summer as I’m contracted to host a few fetes in my home. Plus, my boyfriend has made it known to my hands (because I’m cooking, that he loves Middle Eastern food second to Thai and third to Cuban). So like Faith, I need to get to cooking. She’s the perfect girl to go to!
SWEET CHEESE PASTRY
Serves 10 to 12
Preparation Time: 15 minutes, plus 2 to 4 hours to soak the cheese if using Nabulsi or Ackawi
Cooking Time: 40 minutes
- 1 batch Scented Sugar Syrup (Qater), cooled to room temperature (recipe below)
- 1/4 lb (100 g) Nabulsi, Ackawi, or fresh Mozzarella cheese
- 3/4 lb (350 g) Farmers cheese (Jiben Beladi) or Ricotta cheese
- 3 to 6 tablespoons milk
- 1/2 cup (115 g) plus 1 tablespoon clarified butter or unsalted butter, divided
- 1/8 teaspoon powdered orange food coloring, dissolved in 1 teaspoon water
- 1 lb (500 g) frozen shredded phyllo dough (kataifi), thawed in the fridge overnight
- 1 tablespoon shelled pistachios, finely chopped
- Prepare the Scented Sugar Syrup and let it cool.
- If you’re using Nabulsi or Ackawi cheese, remove the saltiness by soaking the cheese in cold water for 2 to 4 hours (or overnight), changing the water several times; pat dry. Crumble the Nabulsi or Ackawi with your fingers, or grate the Mozzarella; combine it with the Farmers cheese in a medium bowl, stirring in the milk 1 tablespoon at a time so that the mixture comes together into a creamy consistency; refrigerate until ready to use.
- Preheat oven to 4500F (2300C) and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or a silpat liner.
- Melt 1/2 cup butter; cool slightly and combine it with the dissolved food coloring in a small bowl. Place the shredded phyllo dough in a large bowl and use your hands to separate each strand. Add the colored butter and rub it into each strand of dough so that the dough turns orange.
- Transfer the buttered dough to the prepared baking sheet and bake until golden and crispy, about 10 to 12 minutes, stirring every 3 minutes so the edges don’t burn. Cool slightly, then use your hands to crunch up the dough so you end up with pieces about 1/4-inch (6-mm) in length.
- Preheat oven (from the lower heating elements) to 4000F (2000C) and position a rack in the lower 1/3 of the oven. Spread the remaining 1 tablespoon butter inside a round, 9 to 10-inch (23 to 25-cm) diameter spring form baking pan.
- Spread 1/2 of the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan, pressing the dough down firmly with your hands. Spread the cheese on top, leaving a border of about 1/4 inch (6 mm) all the way around. Evenly spread the rest of the dough on top of the cheese, pressing firmly with your hands and then evening out the surface with a spatula.
- Bake until the cheese is melted and the dough on the outside is golden brown and has slightly pulled away from the outside of the pan, about 20 to 30 minutes. (Give the pan a gentle shake and the pastry should move freely.) Once out of the oven, drizzle 1/2 cup of cooled Scented Sugar Syrup (Qater) on top.
- Cool 5 minutes, then run a knife along the outside of the pan and gently remove the spring form sides. Sprinkle the pistachio on top (in a decorative pattern, if you like).
- Serve immediately, along with the remaining 1/2 cup Scented Sugar Syrup (Qater) to drizzle on top.
Scented Sugar Syrup
This syrup can be made either thin or thick; unless specified in a particular recipe, assume it refers to thin syrup.
Qater should generally be cooled before using, since this allows the syrup to thicken. Also, when it’s used to sweeten a cake or pastry such as Sweet Cheese Pastry, the cake should be hot and the syrup should be cool so that the cake fully absorbs it.
Yields about 1 cup (250 ml) of thin syrup or 2/3 cup (160 ml) of thick syrup
Preparation Time: 1 minute
Cooking Time: 10 minutes
- 1 cup (225 g) sugar
- 1/2 cup (250 ml) water
- 1/2 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1/2 tablespoon rose water or orange blossom water
- Add the sugar, water and lemon juice to a medium, thick-bottomed saucepan, and bring to a boil over medium heat, giving the pan an occasional swirl and skimming off any foam on the surface. Turn heat down slightly and boil 2 minutes (if you want thin syrup) and up to 5 minutes (if you want thick syrup), swirling the pan occasionally. (The syrup will thicken more upon cooling.). Turn off heat and stir in the rose water or orange blossom water; cool to room temperature, then use.
Recipes courtesy of An Edible Mosaic: Middle Eastern Fare with Extraordinary Flair by Faith Gorsky (Tuttle Publishing; Nov. 2012); reprinted with permission.