Purim

Today is the Jewish festival of Purim commemorating the salvation from annihilation of the Jewish community of Persia thanks to their Jewish queen, Esther, around the 4th century BCE.
The above link gives full details of the festival as well as the customs and foods associated with its celebration.
It is a joyous time, especially  for children who dress up  and are allowed to make lots of noise in the synagogue to drown out the name of Haman, the villain of the piece, each time it is mentioned during the reading of the Book of Esther. It is traditional to send gifts of food and drink to one’s family and friends and to make charitable donations to the needy.  It is a festival where drinking to excess is not only permitted, but encouraged!
My sister, cousins and I dressed up for Purim in the mid 1950s

The traditional pastry baked on the occasion of Purim is known in Hebrew as Oznei Haman (Haman’s ears), a triangular pastry filled with poppy seeds or fruit preserves and, these days, other more modern fillings containing chocolate.  My favourite recipe is adapted from Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish food.

OZNEI HAMAN

For the dough:
250g flour
pinch salt
2 tbsp sugar
2 drops vanilla extract
150g unsalted butter
1 egg yolk
2-3 tsp milk
I egg, lightly beaten with 1 tsp milk to glaze

Poppy seed filling:
150g ground poppy seeds
175ml milk
2 tbsp honey
4 tbsp sugar
4 tbsp sultanas
grated zest of 1 lemon
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tbsp unsalted butter.

To make the dough, process the flour, salt and sugar in a food processor.  Add the butter, cut into small pieces and process until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs then add the vanilla extract, egg and milk and process until the dough forms a ball.  Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 mins.
To make the filling, simmer the poppyseed and milk in a small saucepan for 5 minutes or so allowing the milk to be absorbed.  Add the sugar,  honey and sultanas and simmer for a few more minutes.  Off the heat,  stir in the lemon zest and juice, mixing well.  Set aside to cool.

Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Divide the dough into 4 parts.  Roll out one quarter of the dough to a thickness of 3mm (keeping the rest of the dough chilled in the refrigerator).
Using a 7.5cm fluted cutter, cut out rounds.  Place a heaped tsp of filling in the centre of each round and pinch the sides up to form triangular pastries.
Brush with the egg wash and bake of 10-15 minutes until golden.

Allow to cool before CAREFULLY transferring them to a serving dish.  They are quite fragile.

If you have the time, you can make half sized pastries to serve as petits fours… more fiddly to make but very elegant!

Chanukah 2010


This year, Chanukah, the Jewish feast of lights began on the evening of 1st December or the 24th of the Hebrew month of Kislev.  Chanukah means dedication, consecration or inauguration and celebrates the reconsecration of Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the second century BCE.  The Temple was reclaimed after the defeat of the Seleucid Empire by the Maccabees, a Jewish rebel force that retook Judea from the occupying forces of King Antiochus Epiphanes who had pillaged and defiled the temple during a Hellenizing campaign that effectively banned the Jewish religion and its practices.

Upon his defeat, legend has it, there was only sufficient sanctified olive oil found in the temple grounds to fuel the eternal flame for a single day but, miraculously, that small quantity burned for 8 days giving the people time to press and sanctify fresh supplies of oil.
The month of Kislev falls at the height of the olive harvest and therefore,  olive oil and fried foods are enjoyed during the eight day Chanukah celebrations. Traditionally, oil lamps containing 8 wells with wicks, plus an extra one serving as the shamash or lighting assistant were lit and placed at the entrance to houses or their front windows to proclaim the victory  and survival of the Jewish religion.

Each night, the shamash taper is used to light an increasing number of  lights commencing with a single light and ending on the last night with all eight lights burning brightly.  These days, eight branched chanukiot or candle holders are more common and households often have a chanukiah for each member of the family.  Kindergarten and school children are given Chanukah projects to make their own candle holders from found objects such as bottle tops and strips of wood.

Chanukah is a joyous festival with gifts, usually of gold coins (these days gold paper covered chocolate coins are also popular), special songs, games and delicious fried foods.  Donuts and fritters are common to all Jewish communities while potato latkes or pancakes are an Eastern European tradition.

POTATO LATKES FOR CHANUKAH

6  medium frying potatoes (eg russett burbank), peeled and quartered
1 small brown onion, peeled and quartered
2 eggs
3 tbsp plain flour
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste.
oil for frying

Using the coarse grating blade in your food processor, grate the potatoes and onion and transfer to a bowl.
Beat the eggs and stir into the potato and onion mix, adding the flour, baking powder, salt and pepper.
Set aside to rest for 5 to 10 minutes, spooning off any water that is exuded from the potatoes and that will rise to the top.

Heat 2cm of the oil in a heavy frying pan and drop in spoonfuls of the mixture, frying till golden brown on each side. Drain on a rack.
If making the latkes in advance, they may be reheated in a hot oven.

Artichokes

 

 

 

 

 

(Since posting this item, I have had a fabulous salad of artichokes, new season’s broad beans and shaved Asiago cheese at Sosta Cucina and shot this image of super fresh produce just delivered to them (also on the menu at the moment – baby lamb with stuffed artichokes! Worth a comment and new pic!)

 

I just had an email from an old friend, in fact one of my very first cooking school students, who told me she was still enthusiastically preparing artichokes the way I taught her 20 years ago.

I was so thrilled to hear from her that I decided to devote this post to this prickly and intimidating member of the thistle family.
I absolutely adore this vegetable and prepare it in many different ways – in a  pie, in lasagne,  risotto, with pasta, braised or preserved with in oil.  I put sliced artichokes in frittate and in lamb or chicken tajines, either alone or with tender green peas or new season’s broad beans.  They are simply delicious no matter how you prepare them.
It is thought that the artichoke (and its close relative the cardoon) originated in North Africa where it still grows wild. The chokes of the wild artichoke thistle are dried and used as vegetable rennet to curdle milk –  making one of the great breakfast treats in Morocco – “raib” – a type of set junket flavoured with orange blossom water and ever so slightly sweetened.
On my tour to Morocco last November, I requested a tajine of lamb with wild artichoke hearts and broadbeans. Lalla Fatima, the wonderful cook who welcomes my groups into her home, prepared  it for us showing me the cuts on her hands (just in case I hadn’t quite appreciated the trouble she had gone to). The hearts were half the size of a broad bean and so sweet and succulent – a rare treat!
tajine

Italians and particularly Romans are known for their artichoke dishes,  among the best known of which are Carciofi alla Romana (braised artichokes) and  Carciofi alla Giudea – flattened and deep fried whole artichokes of the large, round Mammola variety native to the Lazio region of Italy (a very old recipe particular to Rome’s ancient Jewish community and still available in the ghetto).

One of my favourite artichoke recipes is the following pie, adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan.
To prepare artichokes for cooking, follow these step by step instructions. (Sorry the explanation is in Italian but the video is self explanatory).

Artichoke Pie

Dough
180g plain flour            110g unsalted butter
150g ricotta cheese            1/2 tsp salt

In a food processor, sift the flour and then add the butter and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Add the ricotta and salt and process until a soft dough is formed.

Filling
4 artichokes                              Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 tbsp unsalted butter            1 small onion, chopped
salt                                              freshly ground black pepper
200g ricotta cheese                1 cup grated parmesan
2 eggs                                         1 tablespoon fresh marjoram, chopped
3 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Clean the artichokes and slice thinly, placing in a bowl of water acidulated with the lemon juice  and a large pinch of flour to prevent them from blackening.
Place the butter and onion in a pan and saute gently until the onion is soft and pale gold.

Rinse and drain the artichoke pieces and add them to the pan tossing to coat with the butter.  Add salt, pepper, half the chopped parsley and 1/2 cup water.

Cover the pan and cook until the artichokes are tender (about 10 minutes).  Boil away any liquid  remaining in the pan and set aside to cool.  Mix in the ricotta, parmesan, remaining parsley, marjoram and the beaten eggs.  Check for seasoning.

Divide the dough into two pieces, one twice the size of the other.

Roll out the larger piece of dough and line a 20cm spring form cake tin with it making sure it overlaps the sides. (No need to grease the tin)
Place the prepared filling into the tin and then roll out the second piece of dough placing it over of the filling.

Seal the two layers of dough together, trimming off the excess and pinching to form a crimped edge.

Make a steam hole in the centre of the top crust and decorate with leaves cut from the dough trimmings (I usually form some dough into a rose as well). Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from the tin and set aside to cool.  Serve lukewarm or at room temperature.

Moroccan Sugar Cones

In Morocco,  sugar is traditionally sold in 2kg cones.  I often see cart loads of blue and white wrapped cones being distributed from a depot in the Mellah area of Marrakech.  In rural markets, people cannot always afford the whole cone and so pieces are broken off and sold by weight.  In the stunning Nejjarine woodworking museum in Fes, one can see antique wooden sugar moulds and beautifully decorated wooden  hammers used for breaking the sugar into pieces.
On a recent visit to a Berber home in the High Atlas mountains just outside Marrakech, I asked our hostess what she used to break down her sugar cones.  She produced a section of flat iron and told me she had been using it for over 20 years. It certainly works!
As an essential ingredient in Morocco’s famous mint tea, sugar is often presented in a decorative silver box forming part of the classic tea service – brazier, teapot, tray, container for green tea, container for sugar, container for mint and tea glasses… more about that in a coming post!

Orange Blossoms, Mint Tea and “White Coffee”

Spring has suddenly begun making itself felt strongly in Melbourne.  Our famous elms are sporting the pale green seed pods that are so pretty on the trees and such a nuisance once they start to fly about, sticking to car duco and clogging up gutters. Wisteria is bursting into bloom and ephemeral cherry, apple and prunus blossoms scent the air, so poignantly beautiful for their all-too-brief season.
Early spring in Morocco has baskets full of Bitter Orange blossoms in the markets and copper stills for hire prompting industrious women, particularly in Fes, to prepare their annual supply of orange blossom water. As the Bitter or Seville Orange (Citrus aurantium subsp. amara) is found in most Moroccan gardens and is a common street tree, planted  for its hardiness, evergreen beauty and heady perfume, there is a ready supply of blossoms to pick during the season.

Moroccan women will often add a few orange blossoms to the pot when making mint tea. Out of season, a few drops of orange blossom water can be substituted.

For those who eschew caffeine late in the afternoon and evening, a scant teaspoon of orange blossom water  in a glass of hot water makes for a delicious and digestive after-dinner drink and is known in Lebanon as “qahwa baida” or “white coffee” –  plain or sweetened to taste with a little sugar, it will ensure a restorative night’s sleep as well!

Harissa

Traditional Harissa sauce is always a huge hit in my North African Couscous class. So much better than the commercial variety that comes in a tube!
You will find it on every table in Tunisia.  The large, mildly hot red chillies that are its main ingredient are grown in huge quantities to satisfy demand for this ubiquitous condiment. November is harvest time in Tunisia and the freshly picked chillies are threaded into long strings and hung out to dry on every available surface – an incredible sight!
I took this picture in a field on my way, driving from Tunis to Kairouan in 2005.

 

 

Harissa

10 dried large red chillies, seeded, sliced and soaked in hot water
2 large cloves garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp ground coriander seed
1 tsp ground caraway seed
1/2 tsp black pepper

In a mortar grind all the dry spices to a powder. Pound in the garlic
Drain the chillies and chop them to a puree with a heavy knife, then pound them into the garlic and spice mix until a fine, brick red paste is obtained.
Serve as an appetiser with bread, tinned tuna, olives and lemon wedges. Dilute with hot water or broth and serve as a condiment for Couscous.
Or, mix with extra virgin olive oil and serve as a dip for bread.
Recipe and Image © Meera Freeman 2010

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