Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Rose-Scented Coconut Squares (Topra Paak) Recipe

This is a perfect treat for Valentine’s Day. It is sugary sweet, smells like roses and pink! It is also ideal for sweethearts with food allergies or restrictions (it is gluten, dairy, egg and nut free).

I remember making this confection as a child with my dad. He grew up on the Indian Ocean in Dar es Salaam, the port city of Tanzania. Much of the coastal cuisine he grew up with contained coconut meat or milk since palm trees were ubiquitous. In the coming months you’ll see other recipes from his childhood featured on this blog – watch for Coconut Chicken Curry in March.

The last time I made these squares, I accidentally used sweetened coconut. The sugar syrup crystallized around the already sugary coconut and was too saccharine – even for me…

Makes 32 squares


1 pound unsweetened desiccated coconut
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
3 teaspoons rose water or 1 teaspoon rose extract
1 teaspoon cardamom
red food coloring


1. Boil sugar and water until the syrup is slightly thick and reduced by approximately half.
2. Add the coconut and mix well. Add rose flavoring and cardamom, and mix well.
3. Slowly add red food coloring, one drop at a time, until the mixture is light pink color.
4. Press into an 8 x 8 inch baking pan and cool for 30 minutes.
5. Cut into squares or diamonds and let cool completely.

Variations for this sweet abound. For a richer, more fudgy square you can use milk or condensed milk instead of water. You can also decorate the top with pistachios, almonds, poppy seeds or edible silver paper. I prefer mine unadorned. You can also use a different food color. I would suggest green – perfect for St. Patrick’s Day.

Toffee Congo Bars Recipe

I am an obsessive list maker. In my Blackberry I keep a list of cool places to eat lunch in the Loop, countries I have visited and want to visit, all my overnight guests and the days they stayed with me, and other bizarre inventories. I also have a list of things I want to bake or cook. Some of those items are on the Coming Soon… section of this blog. But others like beignets and churros haven’t quite made it that far.

Every so often, when I don’t have a plan (which, for those of you who know me, is not often), I turn to “my what to cook” list for inspiration. At some point I had placed “congo bars” on it, and last week with little time to shop for fresh ingredients, it was the perfect treat for this week. I couldn’t quite remember what a congo bar was, but I seemed to recall coconut and chocolate. So when I went online, I was shocked to find that almost none of the recipes included coconut. So, I created my own recipe (and threw in toffee to boot).

When the bars came out of the oven they looked *suspiciously* like blondies. While no one I knew was able to confirm this, a couple of references from the blogosphere suggested that a congo bar is a blondie with coconut. If that in fact the case, it seems that the internet is full of blondie recipes masquerading as congo bar recipes.

As the congo bars cooled, I had an even greater realization. A blondie is essentially a brownie without chocolate. I am sure many of you have known this for years, but maybe I missed this memo when I was living in Canada.

I’m still not sure why these treats are called “congo bars”. I assume they have no relation to the three (now two) African countries that have used the name Congo. Maybe it is the coconut? Or its a proxy for exotic, as used in the Congo Room in Las Vegas. I have also noticed that the bars are sometimes called Conga bars. Conga seems to have a Latino or Afro-Latino origin. In America the terms seem to be used interchangeably. More about the etymology of Congo/a.

Without digressing into a treatise on post-colonialism, let me say that the congo bars turned out to be slightly flaky on top with a dense and chewy middle. I could especially taste the sweetness of brown sugar and got a hint of toasted coconut (though next time I might use a touch more).

Makes 16 squares


1 cup toasted coconut
3/4 cup butter
1 cup white sugar
1 1/2 cups packed brown sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon coconut extract
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
8 ounces (1 1/3 cups) toffee bits


  1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Line two 9 x 9 inch metal baking pans (or one 10 x 15 inch baking pan) with a piece of parchment or wax paper to make it easy to remove the squares when baked. This recipe does not require you to grease or flour the pan.
  2. Once the oven is at 350F, toast the coconut on a cookie sheet for about five minutes. Check frequently, and toss the coconut when you do, since it burns quickly. Cook until just light brown as it will continue to cook even once it is out of the oven.
  3. Melt butter and stir in white and brown sugars. Cool for five minutes. Beat in eggs one at a time. Mix thoroughly after each egg. Add vanilla and coconut extracts.
  4. In a separate bowl mix flour, toasted coconut, baking powder and salt. Add to the butter mixture and mix thoroughly. Add chocolate chips and toffee bits and mix well.
  5. Pour into baking pan(s). The batter is thick so you may need to use a spoon to evenly distribute it. Bake for 20-25 minutes, just until a tester comes out clean and the surface is golden brown.
  6. Cool for 10 minutes and cut into squares. Allow the bars to cool to room temperature. These can be stored in an airtight container for a week.

When baking in metal pans, often the batter at the edge gets cooked more quickly than the batter in the center. I love the crispy edge pieces, but if you don't and care enough to do something about it, you can wrap two or three inch strips of aluminum foil along the edge of the pan so that it hangs over the batter. This will reflect heat and prevent uneven baking. You can attach these strips at the beginning and remove them part way, or you can put them on after 10 or 15 minutes of baking until the bars are done.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Feta Dill Loaf Recipe

This loaf is based on a popular French recipe given to me by a dear friend. She served warm-from-the-oven loaves at a bon voyage picnic and they were quickly devoured. The loaf could be described as a cross between a frittata and quick bread – very eggy and moist.

Makes one loaf


1 3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 eggs
1/3 cup olive oil
1/3 milk
2 handfuls of dill
1 handful of parsley
1 cup grated Swiss (or other mild) cheese [in Europe this would be Emmental]
8 ounces feta cheese cubed
handful of shredded parmesan cheese


  1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease or grease and flour a 9x5 loaf pan. Always line the loaf pan with a piece of parchment or wax paper to make it easy to remove the loaf when cooled.
  2. In a large bowl mix flour and baking powder.
  3. In a separate bowl beat eggs and add milk and olive oil. Add dill and parsley (you can substitute whichever herbs you like).
  4. Pour the egg mixture into the flour. Combine. Add Swiss and feta cheese until batter is evenly mixed.
  5. Pour batter into a loaf pan and sprinkle with shredded parmesan cheese. Bake for 35-40 minutes, until a cake tester comes out clean. Don’t overbake or it will be dry.

Let the loaf cool slightly before serving. It reheats well in the microwave or oven. My friend says you can experiment with this recipe and use seasonal cheeses and herbs. She suggests sun dried tomatoes/capers/basil, Roquefort/pears/walnuts and black and green olives as lovely combinations.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Cinnamon Snowballs Recipe

These melt-in-your-mouth cookies are ideal for the winter holidays.
Makes 3 dozen


1cup unsalted butter at room temperature
¾ cup powdered sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup ground or very finely chopped almonds
2 cups all purpose flour

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C) and line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Cream butter and powdered sugar. Add vanilla, cinnamon and almonds and continue to mix. Add flour gradually. You may have to use your hands to incorporate it as the dough will become tough. Do not over knead.
  3. Chill the dough for 30-60 minutes. Then roll into one inch balls and place on a cookie sheet. Since there is no rising agent, the cookies will not expand so can be placed closely together.
  4. Bake for 12-15 minutes until set but not brown. Remember cookies continue to bake on the sheet even after they are removed from the oven so place them on a wire rack immediately or bake a couple of minutes less if you plan to keep them on the cookie sheet.
  5. Once cookies have cooled for 5-7 minutes, roll them in powdered sugar. If they are too hot, the powdered sugar will melt into a sticky layer and if they are too cool it will not adhere well. For extra spiciness you can mix a bit of cinnamon with the powdered sugar you roll the cookies in. I suspect you could also use a bit of colored, granulated sugar to make them more festive (though I haven't yet tried this).

These cookies can be stored in an airtight container for 3-5 days. If you don’t like almonds you can

Spicy Pumpkin Gingerbread Recipe

This gingerbread loaf is ideal for autumn and winter. It is sweet but can be served with an entree (like cornbread).

Makes two loaves


1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup canola oil
4 eggs at room temperature
2/3 cup water
1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin
2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon cloves
1/2 cup chopped crystallized ginger


  1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Grease or grease and flour two 9x5 loaf pans. Always line the loaf pan with a piece of parchment or wax paper to make it easy to remove the loaf when cooled.

  2. In a large bowl mix sugars, oil and eggs until well combined. Add water, pumpkin and fresh ginger and mix again.

  3. In a separate bowl mix flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, all spices and crystallized ginger. Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients until just mixed.

  4. Pour batter into the loaf pans and bake for 60 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

These loaves can be stored in an airtight container for a week or in the freezer for six months.

Peppermint Perfection Nanaimo Bars Recipe

The Nanaimo Bar is a Canadian confection that has become popular worldwide largely due to its production and distribution by Starbucks. There is controversy about its origin (and Canadian-ness for that matter, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanaimo_bar). However, it is named after a small town on Vancouver Island. The treat is served throughout Canada and variations abound. I created this peppermint version as part of my annual holiday baking, and later learned that others had the same idea.

Makes 48 small bars


2 cups graham cracker crumbs (12 large crackers)
1 cup shredded coconut
1/2 cup chopped walnuts or almonds (optional)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 egg beaten (or 1/4 cup pasteurized egg product)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons peppermint extract
3-5 drops green food coloring

4 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
green sprinkles (optional)

  1. For the base, heat chocolate and butter on low heat (or in the microwave) until just melted. Cool for five minutes. In the meantime, mix graham cracker crumbs, coconut, nuts and sugar. Beat egg, add it to chocolate mixture and mix well. Add this to the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Press this into the base of a 9x9 inch baking pan. Chill at least two hours.

  2. For filling, mix powdered sugar and butter. Slowly add milk. Then add peppermint extract and food coloring. Spread over the base with a knife. You can dampen your fingers and use them to spread the filling evenly. Chill at least 30 minutes.

  3. For the glaze heat the chocolate and butter on low heat until just melted. Cool slightly and spread over filling. Chill. If using sprinkles, let the bars cool at room temperature for 10 minutes before applying them, then chill.

  4. To cut into squares, bring the bars to room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. Using a sharp knife, cut through the glaze. If it cracks, let the bars warm up longer.

These bars can be kept in the fridge for 1 month and in the freezer for 3 months. A great item to make ahead. You can also make this in stages, completing each layer on a different day.