Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Fig and Melon Hamantaschen Recipe

Last summer I spent a week in France. It began with a wedding in the Loire Valley, after which we drove to the medieval fortress city of Carcasonne to visit old friends who were managing a bed and breakfast near the village of Marseillette.

One morning the owners of the establishment took us on a boat ride on the Canal du Midi, a waterway completed in 1681 to connect Toulouse and the Mediterranean. It was a significant engineering feat and became a major trade route because it saved travelers from a month-long sail around the pirate-filled waters of the Iberian peninsula. Many businesses grew up on the banks of the canal; now it is primarily used for recreation.

We stopped in a little town for lunch, and on our way back to the boat passed by a small shop to buy jam. Traditionally in France (before the rise of supermarkets and the food industrial complex) people went to a number of stores to purchase their groceries – the boulangerie for bread, the patisserie for pastries, the fromagerie for cheese, the boucherie or charcuterie for meat, the poissionerie for fish, and so on.

A confiturerie sells jam, and this was a tiny establishment with a small retail area and an open kitchen, where a single woman was cooking a big pot of fruit. She had exotic flavors including green tomato, lemon & plum and melon & fig. As a jam-lover I purchased as many jars as I could carry (and they didn’t get confiscated at customs!)

I have had these jams in my fridge for about six months and it was only when I began planning to make hamantaschen for Purim (which falls on March 4 this year) that I realized their destiny. You can use any filling you like for these cookies. Traditional ones are prune or poppy seed, though raspberry, apricot and chocolate chips are also popular.

Makes 30 cookies


2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 ounces butter, cut into small cubes
6 ounces cream cheese, cut into small cubes
1 egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 tablespoon orange juice or water
melon and fig preserve (you can substitute any type of preserve or use chocolate chips)


1. Preheat the oven to 350 F (175 C). In a large bowl mix flour, sugar, baking powder and salt.
2. Add cubes of butter and cream cheese and incorporate with a pastry blender or pulse in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs.
3. In a small bowl beat the egg and vanilla extract.
4. Add the wet mixture to the dry one and form into a dough. You may need to add orange juice or water to bind the dough. Add the liquid sparingly.
5. Divide the dough into two and flatten each into a disk. Refrigerate for one hour or overnight.
6. On a floured surface knead the dough to further incorporate butter and cream cheese cubes.
7. Roll out dough to a 1/4 inch thickness and use a 3 inch circle (or fluted circle) cookie cutter to produce rounds. Re-roll scraps and make as many additional rounds as possible.
8. Put one teaspoon of preserve in the center of each round. If you overfill, the preserve may bubble over during baking. Form into a triangle shape by folding three edges up and pinching in three corners. During baking these corners often unfurl, so make sure you have closed the seams well (while leaving the preserve exposed).
9. Bake for 15-18 minutes or until light golden brown. Check the cookies after 2 or 3 minutes in case the edges unfurl. If this occurs, immediately remove cookies from the oven and reseal the corners. Do this with each batch to ensure that the cookies keep their shape.
10. Hamantaschen can be stored in an airtight container for up to one week.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Coconut Chicken Curry (Kuku Paka) Recipe

I was recently at the opening night of a new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Cézanne to Picasso” features paintings once owned or sold by Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), one of the most prominent art dealers of his generation. During the tour we saw a painting by Pierre Bonnard depicting one of Vollard’s famous dinner parties. These were consciously unglamorous affairs held in the dealer’s dank wine cellar.

Our tour guide mentioned that the sole dish served at these dinner parties was Vollard’s famous chicken curry, which seemed an unlikely recipe for a Parisian art dealer. Some time spent on Wikipedia revealed that Vollard, in fact, hailed from the island of La Réunion, a French overseas départment in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar. Reunion was first discovered by Arab sailors, then occupied by Portugal, and later claimed by France. The culture of the island seems to be a mixture of European, African, Indian and Chinese influences.

Despite my best Googling efforts, I was unable to locate a description or recipe for Vollard’s curry, but I wondered if it bore any resemblance to the coconut chicken curry that my mom recently taught me to make. We call this dish kuku paka – kuku is the Swahili word for chicken, but the etymology of paka is unclear. The dish is well-known on the coast of East Africa where me, my parents and grandparents were born (and where coconuts are abundant). It has become known beyond this region, largely due to the dispersal of the Ismaili community, which considers the curry to be one of its quintessential dishes.

Serves 4


1/2 pound medium potatoes
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken (or chicken breast) cut into about 10 pieces
4 teaspoons garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ginger, minced
1 large or 2 medium size onions, chopped
3 large tomatoes (important to get ones that are green or pale red), chopped
5 or 6 Anaheim green chilies (you can substitute 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes for 1 to 2 chilies
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
6 hard boiled eggs at room temperature, shelled
1/2 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 to 1/2 cup evaporated or fresh milk (optional)
cilantro for garnish


1. Peel and cut potatoes into quarters. Make sure all potato pieces are about the same size so that they boil at a similar rate. Boil until they are just starting to soften. Check frequently with a fork. Remove potatoes, plunge into cold water, and leave at room temperature.
2. In the same water (you can add more if needed), boil chicken pieces, half the garlic and all the ginger on medium high for 10-15 minutes, until just cooked. If chicken is still on the bone, cooking will take longer – drumsticks can take up to 30 minutes. Test for doneness by cutting the thickest piece – the chicken should have no pink color on the inside. Do not overcook. Remove chicken and let cool at room temperature. Save the cooking water.
3. In a blender or food processor puree onions, tomatoes, 1 or 2 chilies, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 cup of the cooking water. Be careful when cooking with chilies. You can always add more if necessary, but it is hard to make something less spicy once you have gone too far. Taste before adding more chilies.
4. Put this puree into a new pot and add the rest of the garlic and turmeric. Cook on medium low heat for three minutes. Add the remaining 4 whole chilies (do not slice them open).
5. Add coconut milk, 1/4 teaspoon salt and lemon juice. Stir.
6. Add the chicken and cook for five minutes. Taste the dish and add more chilies if necessary. If the dish is too spicy you may have to try some damage control. Go to this website for your options.
7. Add eggs and keep cooking until the mixture just begins to boil.
8. Immediately add potatoes and remove from the heat. Boiled potatoes are very fragile and will crumble if overcooked. If you make this in advance of serving it, leave the potatoes at room temperature and add when reheated and just before guests arrive.
9. Add 1/4 cup evaporated or fresh milk if you want a richer curry.
10. Garnish with chopped cilantro.

This dish is traditionally served with Basmati rice and/or garlic bread. To make garlic bread, make a paste of 1 tablespoon butter, 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic, 1/4 teaspoon cumin, 1-2 tablespoons ready made cilantro chutney, salt (to taste) and chilies (to taste). Use a loaf of thick white bread (bigger than a baguette) and cut the bread into slices. Spread paste on both sides of each slice. Rearrange loaf and wrap well in foil. Bake at 250 F for 10-20 minutes, until warm but not crispy. Serve immediately.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Chinese Almond Cookies Recipe

This Sunday is Chinese New Year. I’ve only “celebrated” it once. I was living in Boston with a Chinese American woman and we invited a bunch of rowdy people over to eat dumplings, drink beer and eat candy we bought in Chinatown. We hung up a red paper dragon (which I still have in a box in the back of my closet) and handed out red envelopes stuffed with monopoly money. It was a pretty loose (some might say offensive) interpretation of the holiday…

Traditionally, families gather for a reunion meal (much like Thanksgiving) which includes a number of auspicious foods including noodles (for longevity), fish (for abundance) and dumplings (for wealth). Many traditional Chinese sweets are made with glutinous rice flour, an ingredient I have no experience with. Instead of braving an experiment this year (I promise to try before next Chinese New Year), I decided to make almond cookies which use wheat flour. I’m not sure I believe these cookies are an ancient Chinese sweet, but as far as I can tell, they are popular with Chinese American families.

These cookies are usually made with lard, but in honor of the year of the pig (and as a former vegetarian who believes that sweets should not require the sacrifice of animals), I’ve created a recipe that uses palm oil instead.

Makes 36 cookies


8 ounces (1 cup) palm oil
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
2 to 3 teaspoons almond extract
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
whole unpeeled almonds


1. Preheat the oven to 325 F (165 C) and line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
2. In a large bowl cream palm oil, sugar, eggs and almond extract.
3. In another bowl mix flour, baking soda, baking powder and salt.
4. On low speed, slowly mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.
5. Roll dough into one inch balls and place them 2 inches apart on the cookie sheet. These cookies will spread so make sure to give them plenty of room.
6. Press an almond into the center of each cookie.
7. Bake for 16-18 minutes or until light golden brown. Allow cookies to cool to room temperature. They can be stored in an airtight container for a week but taste best within the first three days.

Since palm oil is one of the few vegetable oils that is semi-solid at room temperature, it is an ideal substitute for lard. You could also substitute Crisco (a combination of soybean and cottonseed oils), butter, margarine, or some combination. The more solid the shortening is at room temperature, the more likely it is to produce a crispy and light cookie.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Valentine Chili Chocolate Truffles Recipe

Forget Godiva! Why buy a commercial truffle pumped with corn syrup, partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, and potassium sorbate when you can make your own? “Swiss” truffles generally include four ingredients – chocolate, cream, butter and cocoa. This recipe includes a bit of cayenne to spice up your Valentine’s Day…

These chocolate treats are so named because of their physical resemblance to the underground fungi known as truffles. The natural truffles are prized for their nutty flavor and purported aphrodisiacal powers.

I first made chocolate truffles several years ago in Boston, and was surprised both at how easy they are to make and how much pleasure they bring to people. This recipe is perfect for beginners. Hard-shelled truffles (watch for the recipe in the future) require dipping in tempered chocolate, which is an additional, messy step.

One Christmas my friend Christina and I were inspired to make truffles as gifts for our friends and family. In preparation, we spent several weeks making personalized packaging by covering empty butter and cream cheese boxes with decorative paper, lining them with tissue, and tying them with ribbons and strings.

We then had a marathon truffle making and packaging session, and produced dozens of truffles of various flavors including cranberry, coconut, cinnamon and ginger. The truffles were mailed off to various parts of the United States and beyond. I don’t think I have the patience to make such elaborate packaging anymore, but the truffles themselves were simple and irresistible.

Makes 36 truffles


1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 tablespoons butter
1 pound high quality bittersweet or semisweet chocolate
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or to taste
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup cocoa powder (preferably Dutch-processed)


1. Over medium heat bring cream and butter to a boil.
2. Remove from heat and put 1 pound of chopped chocolate into the mixture. Let it sit undisturbed for five minutes. Using a rubber spatula slowly mix the melted chocolate into the cream. Add cayenne and cinnamon. Taste and add more cayenne if desired.
3. Allow the mixture to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate until firm (approximately one hour). You should stir the mixture five or six times during this period. As the mixture gets harder, stir it more frequently.
4. Using a tablespoon or melon baller form the cooled mixture into one inch balls. Many people do this step without touching the mixture but I suggest you use your hands to form truffle shapes. Place truffles on a cookie sheet covered with parchment or wax paper.
5. Chill truffles for 15 minutes.
6. Put cocoa into a shallow bowl and toss a few truffles at a time until coated. Using your hands or a spoon remove truffles to a plate.

In dessert making, the smooth mixture of melted chocolate and cream is known as ganache. Butter or corn syrup is often added to make it more shiny. Ganache is used as a glaze for cakes and pastries (especially éclairs).