Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Triple Layer Chocolate Coconut Cake

I baked this cake last week for a family birthday party. It is a combination of a two layer coconut cake and a two layer chocolate cake which can be made separately or combined into a three layer cake (with a single layer left over).

The tradition of the birthday cake may date to ancient Greek times when round or moon-shaped cakes were offered to Artemis, the Goddess of the moon and hunting. Apparently these cakes were also decorated with candles to make the cake glow like the moon. It is unclear whether these cakes influenced the Roman tradition of simple, round, yeast-leavened, honey-sweetened cakes served on important birthdays.

Another theory about the birthday cake has its origins in Germany. In medieval times, sweetened bread dough was baked to commemorate Jesus’ birthday. The custom was reborn in the 18th century as Kinderfest, a German children’s birthday celebration. Placing candles on the cake was believed to draw on the 16th century German tradition of placing candles on Christmas trees. Candles are believed to symbolize the passing of time. In North America, the number of candles placed on the cake is equivalent to the age of the person, though in Germany at that time a few extra candles were placed on the cake for good luck in upcoming years.

By the 15th century the production and consumption of sugar had escalated (through slave sugarcane production in the New World), and European cakes became ornate, multi-layered confections. Such cakes were only available to the wealthy. As a result of the industrial revolution, tools and materials necessary for home baking became more readily available. The Germans also baked a multi-layered sweet cake called Geburtstagorten which may have been a precursor to the modern birthday cake. Today’s North American birthday cake is usually a frosted, multi-layered affair. The layers are separating by cream, fruit, jam, or frosting.

Cakes are often decorated with the phrase “Happy Birthday” which was popularized as a result of the song “Happy Birthday to You”. While the origin of the lyrics is disputed, the melody was popularized (though not necessarily created) by the Hill sisters, kindergarten teachers from Louisville, Kentucky. The song has the distinction of being the most well-recognized song in the English language.

This cake is a crowd pleaser and is ideal for birthday, anniversaries or other special occasions. It does take a fair amount of effort but if you do the work over several days, it is quite manageable.

Serves 16-20 people

Two Layer Coconut Cake
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
3 eggs
2/3 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pure almond extract

Two Layer Chocolate Cake
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
3/4 cups unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1 1/3 cups milk

Coconut Filling (for a Three Layer Cake)
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 cup sour cream
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup shredded or flaked coconut

Chocolate Coconut Frosting (for a Three Layer Cake)
12 tablespoons butter, softened
1 cup cocoa powder
5 1/3 cups powdered sugar
2/3 cup coconut milk, plus more if needed
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup or more unsweetened flaked coconut

Two Layer Cake – same directions for both cakes
1. Butter two 9-inch cake pans (note that you measure the radius of a cake pan at the top, not the bottom, of the pan). Place a circular piece of parchment in each pan, and re-butter and flour the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. In a small bowl, mix flour and other dry ingredients. Set aside.
3. With an electric mixer, cream butter until light and fluffy. Add sugar and beat for 5 minutes to incorporate air into the mixture.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.
5. While constantly beating, add 1/3 of the flour mixture, followed by 1/2 of the coconut milk. Repeat and finish with the remaining flour mixture.
6. Add extracts and continue to beat until just mixed.
7. Spoon batter into cake pans, and level with a knife. Rap cake pans on counter top several times to remove excess air bubbles.
8. Bake for 25-35 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
9. Cool for 10 minutes in the pan. Slide a butter knife around the edge of the cake to detach it from the side of the pan. Invert onto a cooling rack and cool completely. The cakes can be made several days in advance. Store in an airtight container or Ziplock bag to keep moist.

Coconut Filling (for a Three Layer Cake)
1. In a small bowl mix together all of the ingredients. Can be made several days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator.

Chocolate Frosting (for a Three Layer Cake)
1. Mix powdered sugar and cocoa and set aside.
2. With an electric mixer beat butter until light and fluffy.
3. While constantly beating, slowly add sugar/cocoa mixture alternatively with milk until incorporated.
4. Blend in vanilla and beat to a spreading consistency. Add more milk if necessary.
5. Can be made several days ahead and stored, covered, in the refrigerator. To use, bring up to room temperature (requires about 30-60 minutes). You may need to add additional milk or water to get it to a spreading consistency after refrigeration.

Assembling a Three Layer Cake
1. Bake two coconut and two chocolate cakes. You will have an extra layer that can be frozen for up to one month. I would not recommend making a four layer cake as it will be extremely difficult to assemble, slice and serve.
2. On a cake plate or other large flat plate, place the bottom layer top-down (so that you have the bottom of the cake facing up). Frost to within 1/2 inch of the edge using 1/6 to 1/8 of the chocolate frosting. With a spoon spread 1/2 of the coconut filling to within 1/2 inch of the edge of the frosting. Do not skip the coconut filling as it provides necessary moisture for the final cake. When frosting, it is best to place all the frosting in the center of the area to be frosted and push the frosting to the edge rather than pull frosting to the edge. Pulling can sometimes gather up cake crumbs from the service.

3. Place the next cake layer top-side up. Frost to within 1/2 inch of the edge using 1/6 to 1/8 of the chocolate frosting. With a spoon spread 1/2 of the coconut filling to within 1/2 inch of the edge of the frosting.

4. Place the final cake layer top-side up. Press down gently to adhere the layers to each other and to test the stability of the cake.

5. Using a butter knife, cover the top and sides of the cake with 1/3 of the remaining frosting. This is called the crumb layer of frosting and it traps cake crumbs so that they do not end up on the outside of the cake. Refrigerate the cake for 1 hour to seal the crumb layer.
6. Remove the cake from the refrigerator, and cover generously with the remaining frosting. Use the frosting to even out the sides of the cake. Top with flaked coconut and gently press coconut into frosting to adhere. Cool cake again to set the frosting.

7. To serve the cake, use a long serrated knife to slice and a deep pie slice to remove the cake. If you slice too thinly, the three layers may fall apart. The cake can be covered tightly with saran wrap and stored in the refrigerator for up to five days.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Blueberry Peach Muffins

The other day I saw an ad in the subway urging New Yorkers to consume fewer calories. It’s part of a campaign to remind (maybe inform is more appropriate) people of the recommended daily caloric intake of 2000, and to feature food that has more calories than one would expect. The ad showed an innocuous muffin with a banner noting that it contains a whopping 470 calories.

The term muffin was first seen in English in 1703. It comes either from the Low German muffen for small cake or the Old French moufflet for soft. Early versions were limited to a single type of grain (such as corn, oat or bran) with the addition of simple additives such as raisins, nuts or apples. These muffins had a short shelf-life, and were thus not commonly sold in bakeries.

With the decline of home baking, growing coffee consumption and the health food movement, muffins began to be sold commercially in the mid twentieth century. This required an increase in sugar, fat and preservatives which put them into dangerous territory of being mistaken for cupcakes (without frosting).

At some point the shape of the commercial muffin changed from a small domed top to the mushroom top. This instigated the muffin top craze where retailers produced disproportionately large muffin tops; some produced muffin tops without bodies. The tops were valued for their crispy texture in contrast to the cakey texture of the muffin body.

I was part of the muffin top generation. As a child, I thought muffins were a healthy breakfast alternative to donuts. I used to love the chocolate chip version at the now-defunct Canadian chain mmmarvelous mmmuffins. The other meaning of muffin top can be found here.

This healthy recipe comes from my friend Mira’s father. I first encountered these muffins in Oxford, and got to sample more of Philip’s excellent cooking a couple of years later on a trip to Iowa City. The adapted version contains peaches and blueberries which can be substituted with other fruit in. Philip’s original recipe had 1 cup apple, 1/2 cup carrot and 1/2 cup zucchini. These are perfect breakfast muffins – ideal during the holidays when you have a full house.

Makes a dozen regular sized muffins

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 unbleached all-purpose flour
1/3 cup oat bran
1/3 cup wheat germ
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup slivered almonds
1 cup ripe peach (about 1 peach)
1 cup blueberries
1 3/4 cups whole milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
coarse sugar and/or slivered almonds, for garnish (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F (180 C). Place foil liners in muffin pan or grease and flour each muffin cup.
2. Mix all but the last four ingredients together in a big bowl.
3. In a small bowl mix milk, egg and oil. Add wet ingredients to flour mixture.
4. Spoon batter into muffin liners. Fill to 1/4 inch from the top of the liner. Sprinkle with coarse sugar or slivered almonds.
5. Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned. Do not overbake.
6. Cool in muffin pan for 5 minutes. These muffins are best eaten warm and served with jam, honey and/or butter.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Stuffed Bell Peppers

Over the past several months we have made stuffed zucchini on two or three occasions. It was the next recipe in our dinner schedule, but a recent visit to the doctor made us reconsider the cheesy stuffing high in saturated fat. We decided to come up with a healthy alternative and settled on brown rice. We supplemented it with zucchini, olives and a bit of mozzarella. Later, we realized this would be a great way to use up leftover rice (in fact, we found some such rice in our fridge after we made a new batch).

Instead of zucchini we used bell peppers, also known as sweet peppers, capsicum or simply peppers. In some European countries they are called paprika, which is also the name of the spice made from its dried fruit that has become synonymous with Hungarian cuisine. They are native to Mexico, Central America and northern South America, and were spread to Asia and Europe by Christopher Columbus who took their seeds to Spain in 1493. Bell peppers are most commonly green in color, though red, orange and yellow fruit are commonly available. More rarely, they can be white, brown, blue or purple. The color depends on the cultivar and time of harvest. While styled as vegetables, bell peppers are actually fruit.

The word pepper has its origins in Sanskrit. It is a confusing term since it can refer to plants in three different groups: the pepper family which is known for the dried and ground berries of plants including black pepper and cubeb; the myrtle family including allspice and the West Indian bay tree; and the nightshade family which is known for the multi-colored fruit of plants including bell pepper, and many types of types of chili peppers. The term pepper has also been used to refer to trees described as pepper trees and pepperwood trees, which are so named because they have traits similar to other plants we refer to as pepper, such as having spicy leaves or producing berries that are dried and ground into spices.

This recipe makes a great appetizer, or can be a satisfying main dish served as a double portion with a hearty salad. Great for people with celiac disease and can be adapted for vegans by skipping the cheeses, using a substitute, or topping with hummus.

Serves 8 as appetizer, 4 for main meal

4 large red bell peppers
2 teaspoons garlic paste
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
6 ounce zucchini, grated
1/2 cup olives, chopped (optional)
3/4 cup bottled tomato pasta sauce
1 cup brown rice
1 cup mozzarella, partly skimmed
1/4 cup grated Parmesan (optional)

1. Cook the rice and set aside to cool.
2. Preheat oven to 400 F.
3. Cut peppers into half lengthwise or widthwise. Remove stems, seeds and membranes.
4. Blanch in boiling water for 3 minutes to soften.
5. In a large bowl, mix the remaining ingredients including half the mozzarella but not the Parmesan.
6. Scoop mixture into peppers and top each with remaining mozzarella. Sprinkle with Parmesan.
7. Place peppers in a lightly sprayed baking dish. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until cheese is bubbling and slightly brown.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Red Pepper, Broccoli and Tofu Stir-Fry

I was at a conference this week which included surprisingly delicious meals. One night we had a buffet dinner in a gymnasium but the spread was amazing. There was a meat carving station, pasta bar, sweet potato bar (served in martini glasses with nuts, coconut and raisin toppings), smoked salmon station, boiled egg ‘Santas’ and French pastries. There was also a ‘sushi’ station which I put in quotation marks because it was California rolls served with ‘condiments’ that you took with a spoon including ‘wasabi’ sauce, soy sauce and ginger. I remarked to a friend that the Japanese would probably be appalled with what we’ve done to their cuisine. As I thought more about it, I realized that many dishes or cooking techniques that originate in other parts of the world have changed drastically in this country. I am as guilty of this as anyone else.

This week I’m featuring an American version of stir-fry which is significantly different from its Chinese origin. The term stir-fry was coined by Chinese American physician B.Y. Chao in her notable book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese. The goal of stir-frying is to impart wok hei (Cantonese) or wok chi or qi (Mandarin) – the ‘essence’ of the wok on the food. Stir-frying requires very high temperatures and cold oil with a high smoke point (such as peanut oil or lard).

There are two traditional stir-fry methods. In the chao technique, oil, ginger and garlic are added, followed closely by meat which is seared by rapid and quick tossing. The meat is then removed and vegetables and liquids are added. The wok is covered briefly to steam the vegetables (if there are large pieces of meat they may be re-introduced and steamed as well). In the other technique, bao, the oil, seasonings and meat are put in together and tossed continually. Vegetables may be added later but they too are continually tossed. The ingredients are usually cut into smaller pieces so they can be cooked without steaming.

While my dish may be more accurately described as sautéed vegetables and tofu, I’m going to stick with stir-fry – the American version.

Serves 4-6

3 tablespoons canola or corn oil
1 teaspoons sesame oil
1 block extra firm tofu (10 to 16 ounces), cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
black pepper freshly ground, to taste
2 teaspoons garlic (minced or paste)
1 red pepper, cut into bite-size pieces
1 head broccoli, cut into florets
1 can water chestnuts, drained
1/3 cup spicy stir-fry sauce (I use House of Tsang)

1. In a large skillet on medium heat, add 2 tablespoons canola/corn oil and 1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil.
2. Place all tofu pieces in skillet (with largest surface area down) and season with chilli powder and black pepper. Sauté until light brown on one side which will take about 10 minutes. Flip all tofu pieces so the opposite side is facing down. Sauté for a further 10 minutes. The tofu is done when it appears pockmarked on its surface. Set aside.
3. Add the remaining oils and sauté garlic for 30 seconds.
4. Sauté red pepper for 2-3 minutes. Add water chestnuts and broccoli and sauté until broccoli is bright green (about 2 minutes).
5. Add stir-fry sauce and heat for a further 2 minutes.
6. Remove from heat and serve with rice or couscous.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Black and Brown Pecan Pie

Thanksgiving, like many holidays around the world, involves celebration through feasting. For me, these occasions (and many others) center around dessert. What I appreciate about Thanksgiving is that the desserts, like the holiday, are natural, simple and rustic. The focus is on fall harvest ingredients like pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Pecans also fall into this category with a traditional mid-October harvest.

Pecans are indigenous to the United States and Mexico. The name is derived from an Algonquin word meaning a nut requiring a stone to crack. They first came to European attention in the 1600s and were long a delicacy in colonial America. Domestic cultivation did not begin until the 1880s and today the U.S. accounts for over 80% of international production which exceeds 150,000 tons. Georgia leads the nation in terms of pecan production, and is followed by Texas (where it is the state tree), New Mexico and Oklahoma. Pecan trees grow up to 145 feet and can live for 300 years.

Pecan pie is made primarily from corn syrup and pecans. Some claim it was invented by the French in New Orleans, though no recipes of it appear in print prior to 1925. The dish became popularized by the makers of Karo syrup, America’s most popular brand of corn syrup. The company claims that the pie was invented by the wife of a sales executive. Regardless of its origin, it has become an American classic. This is a wonderful and sinful twist on the original. Pecan pie is also a great and easy Christmas dessert.

Serves 8-12

1 pie crust, store-bought or homemade (store in refrigerator overnight)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup light corn syrup or Golden syrup
3/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
4 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/4 cups pecans

1. Preheat oven to 325 F. Remove pie crust from the fridge. Allow to warm slightly or it will crack during preparation.
2. In a large bowl, microwave butter and peanut butter until soft, about 1 minute.
3. Add corn syrup, brown sugar, eggs and vanilla and mix well.
4. Stir in chocolate chips and pecans.
5. On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pie crust until it is 10-11 inches in diameter. Draping it over the rolling pin, transfer to a 9-inch pie dish.
6. Pour mixture into crust-lined pan. Crimp the pie crust and bake for 50 to 60 minutes or until filling is set.
7. Cool to room temperature before serving. For a gooey pie, serve at room temperature; for a firmer pie, cool in refrigerator overnight and serve cold. Can be served with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Store in refrigerator.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Mom's Pound Cake

Pound cake is a traditional English recipe consisting of equal portions (originally one pound) of butter, sugar, eggs and flour. The cake is still common in England where it is often contains dried and candied fruit. It is made in other parts of the world including France (where it is called quartre-quarts meaning four quarters) and Mexico (where it is called panqué and is often made with walnuts or raisins). The traditional recipe used no leaveners and was rich and dense.

This version is adapted from my mom’s recipe. It has half the fat of a traditional pound cake and uses orange juice, generous vanilla extract and citrus zest to give the cake flavor.

Serves 8-10


1 stick unsalted butter
3/4 cup granulated sugar
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup orange juice
1 3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
zest of a lemon or orange (optional)
raisins, dried cherries, candied fruit and/or sliced almonds (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350F. Butter and flour a Bundt pan.
2. Using a hand mixer, cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, vanilla, orange juice and zest and continue to mix.
3. Add flour and baking powder and mix well.
4. In the pan, distribute dried fruit and nuts around the ring (optional). Scoop batter into pan. It may not look like very much batter but it will rise significantly.
5. Bake for 30-40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.
6. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Gently shake the cake and invert onto a cake plate.
7. Serve on its own or with whipped cream, a dusting of powdered sugar or with butter and jam. Can also be toasted or egg-battered and pan fried.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lime Shrimp Curry

When I became an omnivore in 2005, after an eleven-year vegetarian period, I eased into it by starting with seafood. Among the most innocuous items in this category are shrimp, especially when they have undergone euphemistic transformation – “peeled” (de-headed and de-tailed) and “deveined” (intestinal removal). Then (and now) I am thankful that shrimp don’t require any dissection in the kitchen or at the table. They can simply be popped into the mouth whole.

Beyond ease of preparation, shrimp are high in protein, calcium and cholesterol, and low in calories. They are used in a wide variety of dishes throughout the world, most notably Spanish paella de marisco, American shrimp cocktail, Thai tom yum soup and Italian-American scampi.

Shrimp are ten-footed, filter-feeding crustaceans that live on or near the ocean floor. In 2005, almost 3.5 million metric tons of shrimp and prawns were harvested from the sea. Shrimp are collected largely through trawling, a system of nets that sweep the oceans and inadvertently catches many non-target species. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization found that for every pound of shrimp harvested, almost 6 pounds of non-shrimp animals were caught in trawling nets. Since the 1970s, shrimp have also been raised on shrimp farms. Worldwide production in 2003 was 1.6 million tons - largely produced in Thailand, China and Brazil.

This curry is adapted from a recipe by Ruth Reichl which appears in her book Comfort Me with Apples. I’ve removed the butter and heavy cream and added more vegetables.

Serves 4-6

1 pound shrimp, peeled, deveined and cooked
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 onion, chopped
3 tablespoons curry powder
1/2 teaspoon ginger powder
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder
1 tablespoon flour
1 can coconut milk (light coconut milk will work)
2 cups broth (chicken or vegetable)
1 lime, zest and juice
1 head of broccoli, chopped into bite-sized florets
1 can of whole straw mushrooms
salt and pepper to taste

1. Defrost the shrimp according to directions on the packet or cook fresh shrimp. Set aside at room temperature.
2. Over medium heat sauté and garlic and onion in olive oil until translucent, about 5 minutes.
3. Add all the spices and flour and continue to cook for 2 minutes.
4. Add the coconut milk, broth and all the zest of the lime and bring to a boil.
5. Add broccoli and simmer for 3 minutes. Then add the mushrooms, juice of the lime and salt and pepper to taste.
6. Remove from heat and add shrimp. If you cook the shrimp they can get rubbery. Since they are pre-cooked they only need to be warmed up, which keeps them tender. Allow shrimp to warm up for 2-3 minutes and serve immediately.
7. Serve over rice or couscous. Best served with a spicy Indian pickle. I recommend this lime version.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Rose Milk Fudge (Burfi)

I made this burfi (as well as the treat featured last week) in celebration of Divali, the Hindu New Year or Festival of Lights. According to Hindu belief, followers of Lord Rama honoured his return to Ayodhya with rows of lamps (deepavali in Sanskrit) after a fourteen-year exile during which he triumphed over King Ravana who had kidnapped his wife Sita. Divali is the shortened form of the word deepavali.

There are many other significant events associated with Divali in Hinduism as well as Jainism and Sikhism. Divali is observed as a celebration of the victory of good over evil and the uplifting of spiritual darkness. It also marks the end of the harvest season, and is associated with Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity. Traditionally, Divali marked the end of the fiscal year.

During Divali people light candles, set off fireworks, eat sweets and dried fruit, and give gifts (especially new clothes) to children. Many families create a rangoli at the entrance to their house.

I’ve been celebrating Divali for many years now. I usually invite friends over for dessert. This year I also made some savory treats which I will feature on this blog in the coming weeks.

Makes 30 pieces

1/2 cup (1 stick or 1/4 pound) unsalted butter
1 lb (roughly 500g) ricotta cheese (full fat or partly skimmed)
1 cup granulated sugar
5 drops of red food color (add more for a deeper pink)
1-2 teaspoons of rose water
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3/4 teaspoon cardamom
2 1/2 cups powdered milk
2 ounces almonds, chopped
2 ounces pistachios, chopped

1. In a large pot over medium heat, melt butter. Add ricotta cheese and cook for 8 minutes.
2. Add sugar, food color, rose water, nutmeg and cardamom. Stir for a further 6 minutes.
3. Add powdered milk and mix for a further 4 minutes.
4. Pour the mixture into a metal brownie pan (6 x 10 inches). Sprinkle with nuts and press them into the mixture.
5. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate overnight.
6. Cut into rectangular pieces before serving. Will last for two or more weeks in the refrigerator.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Tree Sap Fudge (Goondh Paak)

Before you dismiss this recipe, remember that maple sugar is also tree sap.

This recipe uses one of the most unusual ingredients that I’ve featured on this blog – gum arabic. Also known as gum acacia or meska, this is the hardened tree sap from two species of the Acacia tree. Although cultivated in Arabia and West Asia since antiquity, European colonialism saw a strong rise in gum arabic production in West Africa. It is been highly prized for its properties as a binding agent and emulsifier, and one that is not toxic to humans. After African independence, it also became cultivated in East Africa - between the 1950s and 1990s Sudan accounted for 80% of world production. Today Chad, Nigeria and Sudan produce over 95% of worldwide exports.

Gum arabic has been used for many industrial applications including photographic gum printing; watercolour paint production; and production of pyrotechnics, shoe polish, and lickable adhesives. It is also a common ingredient in processed food – just check the ingredient lists on marshmallows, gum drops, chewing gum, soft drinks, M&Ms, confections, syrups and ice cream. Some readers may remember the contention that Osama bin Laden controlled significant gum arabic production in Sudan, and that the West should boycott the item. This claim was later refuted by the U.S. State Department.

Gund paak is a rich, though not cloyingly sweet, dessert. Although it uses whole wheat flour, it also contains a generous amount of butter and is thus best consumed in moderation.

Makes 64 pieces

10 ounces almonds, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon cardamom
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 pounds (8 sticks) unsalted butter
4 ounces of gum arabic (also known as gum acacia) or gum substitute in small pieces
5 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon powdered orange food color (optional), available in South Asian food stores
1 pound jaggery, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup evaporated milk
2 ounces pistachios, coarsely chopped

1. In a small bowl mix 8 ounces of almonds, cardamom and nutmeg. Set aside.
2. In a large cooking pot, melt butter on medium. Test temperature by placing one piece of gum arabic into the butter. It should bubble and float to the surface as a white popped form. If it doesn’t pop, then the butter is not hot enough; if it becomes browns, then the butter is too hot.
3. Once the temperature is correct, fry the gum arabic in 6-10 small batches . Remove with a slotted spoon and dry and cool on paper towels. When cool, mix with the almond mixture. Set aside. [See above photo of friend gum arabic]
4. Add flour to the same butter. Cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring continuously, until the mixture becomes golden brown in color. If you stop stirring, it will splatter as hot air bursts through the flour mixture. You may also burn it.
5. Add food color and jaggery, and keep cooking until the jaggery melts.
6. Add the evaporated milk and the almond/gum mixture and continue to cook for 5-7 more minutes.
7. Transfer to a deep, large baking sheet (11x16) and spread evenly using the back of a metal spoon. Sprinkle with pistachios and remaining almonds, and use the spoon to embed the nuts into the mixture.
8. Cool to room temperature and then cut into 64pieces using a pizza cutter. Store in fridge for up to two weeks or in the freezer for several months.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Three Vegetable and Potato Curry

Although I’ve featured over one hundred recipes on this blog, this is one of the few that resembles what I grew up eating for dinner on a regular basis. In Gujarati Ismaili cuisine, there are two basic types of curry – a brown curry made with onions and tomatoes that features meat and a red curry made with tomatoes only that features vegetables. Of course, there are many dishes that don’t fit into this nomenclature including the coconut chicken curry and others that are actually inspired by the Swahili people of the East African coast, and not an adaptation of Gujarati food from India.

One of the key features of Indian cooking is what I grew up calling vagaar (but is more commonly known as chhaunk or tadka in the rest of South Asia) which refers to the ‘tempering’ of spices. This involves frying whole spices in oil or ghee to release essential oils that result in a more flavourful dish. The process is also said to aid in digestion and release the healing powers of spices such as carotene found in curry leaves. In this recipe, the vagaar is made at the beginning and tomatoes and other spices are added to the vagaar to form a paste. In other recipes, a vagaar is added at the end to a cooked dish such as a lentil or stew.

This technique is common in other types of cooking as well. To cook vegetables or meat, we often temper garlic and/or onions in oil or butter before adding the main ingredient. Does anyone know if the vagaar technique diffused to Europe and North America or if it developed independently in the West?

Serves 4-6

3/4 lb red potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (preferably canola)
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
pinch cumin seeds
5 curry leaves (optional)
2 medium tomatoes, finely chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 teaspoon ginger paste
1 teaspoon garlic, paste or finely chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1/4 teaspoon hot chilli powder (or to taste)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon coriander powder
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
2/3 lb French beans or string beans, ends removed, cut into 1-inch pieces
2/3 lb small eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup peas (frozen is acceptable)
1/2 cup water
1/2 bunch cilantro, stems removed and finely chopped
Serve with flatbread (rice, chapatis, parathas, puris, tortillas, wraps or whole wheat Pita)
Serve with lime pickle (optional)

1. Boil potatoes until almost cooked. Cool to room temperature. Can be done a day in advance but make sure potatoes are at room temperature for this recipe.
2. In a large pot, heat oil on medium. Add mustard seeds, cumin seeds and curry leaves. When mustard seeds pop, add the next nine ingredients (tomatoes and spices). Cook for 3-4 minutes – until you have a rich red puree [see above photo].
3. Add in the beans and cook for 2-3 minutes. Then add eggplant and 1/2 cilantro and continue to cook until all vegetables are just tender.
4. Add cooked potatoes, peas and water (to provide the consistency you prefer). Cook for 1-2 minutes until warm. Garnish with remaining cilantro and serve.
5. This curry is best eaten with flatbread. Click here to find out the technique. Also, serve with some type of spicy pickle. I recommend Patak’s lime pickle, which is divine. The curry can be eaten for up to 5 days, and often tastes better on the second or third day.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Flourless Peanut Butter Cookies

A couple of weeks ago I celebrated the one year anniversary of my friends Josh and Claire. A group of us had been at their wedding last summer in Italy, and we decided to gather in Chicago to mark the occasion. We were hosted by our Italian friends Francesca and Giorgio who made a delicious Kosher and celiac-friendly meal (in respect of Josh’s dietary restrictions) which included grilled eggplant and beef-wrapped cheese as appetizers, pesto and béchamel sauce lasagna (and a gluten free pesto lasagna), pomegranate and orange salad and poached pears. I made a modest contribution of orange chocolate mousse and flourless peanut butter cookies.

You might wonder what inspired this unusual constellation of desserts. Well, while I was in Chicago I received an unexpected gift from my friend Lisa. Last March she read my post about the messiness of using natural peanut butter in making peanut butter cookies. Ever thoughtful, she found and purchased a no-mess natural peanut butter stirrer for me (image below). This act of kindness and Josh’s allergy inspired this recipe, which I hope will thrill celiacs and non-celiacs alike.
1 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg

1. Preheat oven to 350F.
2. In a medium bowl, mix peanut butter, sugar and vanilla. Add egg and mix well.
3. Drop by heaping teaspoons on an ungreased cookie sheet. Use the back of a fork to flatten the ball and create a pattern of fork tines. Press the fork again, this time creating a perpendicular pattern.
4. Bake for 6 to 8 minutes – until the tops of the cookies are just dry. Watch closely as cookies will burn if baked too long. Remove to a cooking rack as soon as possible.
5. These cookies are delicate so refrigerate overnight and serve cold.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Honey Cake

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, took place on Monday and Tuesday of this week. It commemorates the creation of man as described in the Old Testament, and marks the beginning of ten days of repentance that concludes with Yom Kippur. These days are known as the High Holidays or Yamim Noraim (translated as the Days of Awe). Most Jewish communities observe Rosh Hashanah on two consecutive days due to the difficulty of determining the date of the new moon, and some say this is supposed to constitute one long day. The traditional Hebrew greeting is leshana tova, meaning “have a good new year”.

Rosh Hashanah service includes a number of special prayers and religious poems. In addition, the shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown during the holiday to awake people from their “slumber” and alert them to the coming judgement. During the afternoon of the first day, prayers are recited near naturally flowing water to cast off one's sins. This practice is called tashlikh and may be accompanied by throwing bread or pebbles into the water as a physical manifestation of those sins.

The Rosh Hashanah meal include apples and honey to symbolize a sweet New Year. This is a late medieval Ashkenazi tradition though it is now almost universally accepted. A round challah bread (as opposed to the traditional braided style) is served to symbolize the cycle of the New Year. Other traditional foods include dates, spinach, leeks, gourds, black-eyed beans, and pomegranates – all of which are mentioned in the Talmud. In addition, meat from the head of an animal (such as tongue or cheek) may be served to symbolize the “head” of the New Year.

When I lived in Boston, my friends Karen and Matt would have me over for dinner on Rosh Hashanah. This Monday, my boyfriend and I went to a service at a reconstructionist congregation, followed the next day with dinner at his aunt and uncle's house. For my contribution to the meal, I made this incredibly moist honey cake, adapted from a recipe by Marcy Goldman. It was a hit! The cake only dirties one bowl and it’s dairy free for those of you who have dietary restrictions.

Leshana tova!

2 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 1/4 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs , lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup honey
3/4 cup warm coffee or strong black tea
1/2 cup orange juice

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Grease and flour a 10-inch Bundt pan.
3. In a large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and salt. Mix well.
4. Make a well in the center and add remaining ingredients. Use an electric mixer to completely blend the batter, making sure no ingredients are stuck to the bottom or sides.
5. Pour batter into baking pan, and place pan on a cookie sheet. Bake for 60-75 minutes or until cake tester comes out clean. This is a very moist batter so it may take even longer to fully bake.
6. Let cool for 20 minutes before removing cake. Allow to cool to room temperature before serving.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Summer Beet Salad

I have to admit that I had never been a big fan of beets – I thought of them as red potatoes, and I don’t like potatoes. However, this summer I prepared them at home for the first time and was surprised at how tasty they were, especially complemented with goat cheese, oranges and nuts. Given my sweet tooth, it’s surprising that beets aren’t a favorite since they contain more sugar than any other vegetable including carrot and sweet corn. Beets have 8-10% sugar while the closely related sugar beet can contain 15-20% sugar.

Beets (also known as garden beets or blood turnips) have been part of the human diet for millennia. Five thousand year old beet remains have been found at the ancient city of Thebes in Egypt and at a Neolithic site in the Netherlands. Domesticated beets are referenced in Roman and Jewish literary sources as far back as the 1st century BC. The garden beet is Beta vulgaris subspecies vulgaris, while chard (often called Swiss chard) is the closely related Beta vulgaris subspecies cicla, grown primarily for its leaves. They have both evolved from the sea beet which is Beta vulgaris subspecies maritima.

The Romans used beets as a remedy for fevers and constipation. They were also considered an aphrodisiac – substantiated due to their high boron content, which plays a role in the production of human sex hormones. More recently, beet juice has been shown to reduce blood pressure. Its properties as a panacea, however, have been overstated. South Africa’s Health Minister, now jokingly referred to as Dr. Beetroot, preposterously suggested beets and other vegetables as alternatives to antiretroviral drugs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS patients. Consuming beets can have unusual side effects such as causing red urine (known as beeturia) or red stool. Don’t worry – neither of these conditions is harmful.

Beets can be eaten steamed, roasted, pickled, canned or served raw. They can also be distilled into wine or spirits. Beet pulp is sometimes fed to horses, and the beet pigments are widely used as a food colorant.

Serves 4

3 medium beets (about 1 1/2 lbs)
6 ounces lettuce, washed and dried
1 blood orange, peeled, slices cut in half
4 ounces goat or feta cheese
1/3 cup toasted walnuts or hazelnuts, coarsely chopped (optional)
2 tablespoons chives, finely chopped
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for roasting
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons orange juice
salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste

1. Wash and peel beets. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Note: beet juice is dark red and stains clothes and hands easily. In a glass or metal baking dish, toss beets with olive oil, salt and pepper.
2. Cover with foil and bake at 350F for 30-45 minutes, or until the beets are tender. Cool to room temperature. The beets can be roasted a day in advance. [second photo above]
3. On salad plates, mound the lettuce. Top with roasted beets, orange pieces, and cheese. Sprinkle with nuts and chives.
4. In a tight-lidded screw-top jar, mix olive oil, balsamic vinegar, orange juice, salt and pepper. Shake well and pour over salads.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Pizza Melanzane

As most people know, pizza originated in Italy but it has reached global popularity via the United States where it is one of the most common foods. Pizza was invented in Naples and the local style, Neapolitan, is still among the most well-known. It is usually made with San Marzano tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella on a very thin wheat crust that is flash baked for 90 seconds. Other regions of Italy use additional toppings including sausage, ham, mushrooms, artichokes, olives, and other cheeses.

Americans have invented a bewildering number of local, ethnic and personalized variations that would perplex many Italians. Most famous among these are New York-style that has a thin, soft crust, and Chicago deep-dish that has a thick (sometimes stuffed) crust. Others include Greek pizza (containing feta, Kalamata olives and olive oil), Taco pizza (using Taco sauce, shredded beef, lettuce, tomatoes, avocadoes, cheddar cheese) and Hawaiian (topped with ham/bacon, pineapple and mozzarella). California-style pizza, invented at the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, incorporates non-traditional ingredients. One of their most popular versions is a Thai chicken pizza with peanut sauce.

I’ve seen a melanzane pizza on many restaurant menus, and its use of the Italian word for eggplant signals authenticity. However, it may be another American invention rather than a true Italian variation. Regardless, it was delicious and very easy.

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as an appetizer

2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
4 to 6 ounces eggplant, diced (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
1 pizza crust (prepared (e.g. Boboli or Trader Joe’s), store-bought pizza dough, or homemade)
8 ounces tomato pizza sauce (store-bought - I like the Scalfani brand) or homemade
4 ounces mozzarella, shredded
1/2 cup basil leaves, thinly sliced or torn
1 large tomato
oregano (optional)

1. In a skillet over medium heat, sauté garlic in olive oil for 1 minute or until fragrant. Add eggplant and sauté for 5-7 minutes. Initially the eggplant will absorb all of the oil, and as it cooks it will release some moisture. Set aside and cool to room temperature.
2. Preheat oven.
3. Prepare pizza crust according to directions (if appropriate). Spread pizza sauce leaving a 1-inch crust. Sprinkle with mozzarella.
4. Top with basil, cooked eggplant and tomato slices. Sprinkle with oregano.
5. Bake according to directions, usually about 10-12 minutes at 400F (less if the crust is very thin).

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Ina's Simple Chocolate Cake

In general, I’m not enamored of celebrity chefs. However, there are a few people who I respect and whose food inspires me. One of those people is Ina Garten – some of you may know her as the Barefoot Contessa. I was first drawn to Ina’s desserts – they are delicious and simple, rich but not overpowering. I’ve come to find that she has many relatively easy dishes that make use of fresh ingredients and simple preparation. Unlike some well-known chefs, Ina does not fuss nor call for obsure ingredients (when she does she, let’s you know they’re optional). She also doesn’t “dumb down” the art of cooking. Ina has a great and inspiring story – she quit her job as a budget analyst in the White House and bought a small gourmet food store, the Barefoot Contessa, in the Hamptons. Incidentally, her husband Jeffrey was Dean of the Yale School of Management and still teaches there. For more about Ina check out her website.

Today’s recipe is a favorite from one of Ina’s books. It’s a quick, one-bowl, versatile chocolate cake that has only six ingredients (five of which you need one of, so it’s easy to remember). I generally don’t bother with the ganache frosting she recommends, which makes it even easier. A bit of powdered sugar or cocoa is a suitable (and more healthy) way to complete this dessert. Since it is no-frills, it’s best served with vanilla ice cream (or whipped cream) and fruit. Another reason I like this recipe is that it can be easily made with ingredients that one has on hand (just make sure you have a couple of tins of the Hershey’s syrup in your pantry). It’s easy to whip up when you have last-minute or unexpected company.

Serves 8

1 stick unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated white sugar
4 eggs, at room temperature
1 16-ounce can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup unbleached all purpose flour
cocoa or powdered sugar, for dusting (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 325 F and butter an 8-inch round cake tin. Line with parchment or wax paper.
2. In a large bowl, beat together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat after each addition.
3. Add the chocolate syrup and vanilla and beat again.
4. Add the flour and mix until just combined. Don’t overmix.
5. Bake for 60 minutes or until just set in the middle. Don’t overbake, but make sure the center is firm to a touch with your fingers. Shake the cake gently and if the center jiggles keep baking it until it is firm.
6. Let cool to room temperature. Dust with cocoa, powdered sugar, or both.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Bekah's Turkey Meatballs

Meatballs are traditionally found in cuisines throughout Europe, Middle East, and South and East Asia. Largely through the European culinary heritage, they are also staples in North and some parts of South America. In a number of cultures, the term for meatballs is derived from the Persian word kufta which means "to beat" or "to grind". Examples include the term kofta (India/Pakistan), keftes (Greece) and qofte (Albania). The Spanish word is albóndigas, derived from the Arabic word al-bunduq which means hazelnut (referring to their shape). Albóndigas were introduced to Spain during the period of Muslim rule. Similar words are used in Portuguese and Tagalog.

Meatballs are typically made with beef or pork though many other kinds of meat are used including veal, reindeer, lamb, chicken and turkey. They are usually a combination of ground meat, grain (breadcrumbs, rice, bulgur), vegetables or onions, eggs and spices/seasonings. Some varieties contain cheese. They can be fried, baked, boiled or steamed and served on their own, or in a sandwich, gravy, soup or pizza.

This recipe comes from my friend Bekah. She made these delicious meatballs for dinner when we visited her in Montreal this summer. I tried them last week when I had visitors from Rome and Chicago. They were a hit. Don’t skip the yogurt sauce – it’s a key element of the meal.

Makes 15-20 meatballs

Yogurt Sauce
1 cup plain yogurt (whole or low-fat)
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 clove of garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
cayenne powder, to taste

1 cup bread crumbs
1 medium onion, finely diced
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 lb ground turkey
1-2 tablespoons olive oil

large lettuce leaves, to serve

1. To make the yogurt sauce, in a small bowl mix all the ingredients and set aside.
2. To make the meatballs, in a large bowl, mix the first six ingredients with a spoon. Add the egg and mix well. Then add the turkey and use your hands to incorporate with the dry ingredients.
3. Roll into 1-inch meatballs. [see photo above]
4. Place olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Cook meatballs, turning occasionally, until well-browned on all sides. To make sure the meatballs are tender and fully cooked, add 1/4 cup water to the skillet and cover to steam the meatballs for about 5 to 7 minutes. To test for doneness, cut the largest meatball in half and make sure there is no pink meat in the center. If there is, continue to cook.
5. Serve meatballs rolled inside lettuce leaves and generously drizzled with yogurt sauce. Serve with cous cous, flatbread and a salad.

Double or triple the recipe - if you make a big batch freeze most of the meatballs raw for a future meal, and freeze a few cooked so they can be used on a whim to add heft to a marina sauce or for a midnight meatball sandwich. Frozen raw meatballs should be defrosted overnight in the refrigerator and cooked well.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Cucumber Hummus Canapés

Canapés refer to small finger foods that include a base, spread, main item and garnish. The base is traditionally sliced bread, but can also be a cracker or puff pastry. The bread is often shaped and toasted or sautéed. It is then covered with a butter or cream cheese-based spread and topped with cheese, fish, meat, caviar, vegetables, foie gras, herbs or any other toppings and garnishes.

The term canapé comes from the French word for “sofa” since the base serves as a resting place for the spread, toppings and garnishes. In modern interior design, the term has become synonymous with sofa, though it also refers specifically to a distinctly-shaped 18th century, carved wood and upholstered French settee.

I borrowed and slightly adapted this simple recipe from my friend Tasneem. Cucumber slices make a great summer base for canapés, especially if you are looking to eat fewer carbs or calories. This recipe uses capers and parmesan but there are countless creative options for toppings these cucumber hummus bases including whole olives, olive tapenade, harissa, sundried tomatoes and cubes of feta cheese. You could also top the cucumber with cream cheese and garnish with smoked salmon.

1 cucumber
1 - 2 cups hummus
4 - 6 ounces parmesan cheese, cut into small chunks
capers (optional)

1. Slice the cucumber into 1/4 inch pieces. You can peel the cucumber if you prefer.
2. Top with a dollop of hummus – anywhere from a teaspoon to a tablespoon depending on your taste and the area of the cucumber slice.
3. Garnish with a chunk of parmesan cheese and a few capers. If you would rather use less cheese, grate it and sprinkle it on top.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Oriental Swordfish

As a former vegetarian (I sometimes say vegetarian emeritus) I am still a bit squeamish about eating meat. Somehow eating only fish and fowl makes it easier for me to justify my new status since these creatures are relatively small. Eating chicken or a fish doesn’t seem quite as cruel as eating cow or pig. I regularly eat salmon, tuna, octopus and shrimp, but this week I tried my largest animal yet – swordfish. While the Trader Joe's package was quite small, a little bit of research reminded me that swordfish are among the largest animals in the ocean. They can reach up to 15 feet in length and weigh upwards of 1400 pounds.

Linnaeus first described the swordfish in 1758 providing the scientific name still in use today Xiphias gladius (gladius is Latin for sword). Swordfish are named for their sharp elongated bill which is used to slash (not stab) prey. They are agile, powerful fighters that have few natural enemies besides sharks and whales. Popular culture often references human deaths by swordfish, though this is relatively rare except when the fish are harpooned. They can put up a vigorous fight – damaging boats and their captors.

In the late 1990s the “Give Swordfish a Break Campaign” encouraged a number of prominent chefs to stop serving swordfish and led to a ban on harvesting swordfish in the Northern Atlantic. Later a Pacific ban on swordfish was enacted to protect sea turtles, whales and other creatures caught in the longlines that fisherman use to capture swordfish. As contested as swordfish harvesting is in the United States, many other countries are avid harvesters including Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Greece.

As with other wild fish, mercury toxicity is a concern. The USDA warns pregnant women not to consume swordfish and others to limit intake to one serving a week.

Despite these concerns, swordfish continues to be popular in American, Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. The fish is among the most dense and “meaty”, making it amenable to a variety of preparations and widely used as an alternative to beef or pork (as in swordfish burgers and kebabs). This recipe is quick and flavorful.

Serves 2

1/3 cup teriyaki sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoon firmly packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
1 shallot, minced
pinch dried hot red pepper flakes
2 swordfish steaks (6-8 ounces each)

1. In a bowl stir together all ingredients (except fish) until combined well.
2. Pour 3/4 into a shallow dish. Reserve 1/4 in the bowl.
3. Marinate defrosted fish steaks, covered and chilled for 1-4 hours. Turn several times during marination.
4. Grill fish on a barbeque, indoor grill or broil in the oven. This will take about 3-5 minutes on each side. Check after a few minutes - do not overcook.
5. Serve topped with a little bit of reserved sauce. The sauce can also be drizzled on vegetables and rice.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Simple Chicken Quesadillas

The quesadilla (literally translated as “little cheesy thing”) is a Mexican and Tex-Mex dish consisting of pan-fried tortilla(s) sandwiching melted cheese. Variations abound – involving various types of meat, vegetables and toppings. I prefer to keep the quesadilla simple and serve it with salsa, guacamole and sour cream. Quesadillas are traditionally made with corn tortillas, but in certain regions of Mexico and many parts of the United States wheat tortillas are preferred.

The quesadilla concept is extremely simple, but many people run into problems. Guest-blogger Sarah gave me a very useful tip – heat the cheese-topped tortilla in the microwave before placing it in the pan. This melts the cheese without browning the tortilla so that you avoid overcooking the tortilla (which makes it brittle). I avoid putting toppings (salsa and guacamole) and vegetables inside the quesadilla since they can release water (making the quesadilla soggy) or prevent the cheese from sticking to both tortillas. If you really want to add vegetables: cut them into small pieces, pre-cook them to release water (avoid tomatoes, which are very watery), and use extra cheese.

Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as a starter

4 teaspoons butter
4 large whole wheat tortillas
1 cup jalapeno pepper jack cheese, shredded
1 cup rotisserie chicken pieces, at room temperature
Salsa, guacamole and/or sour cream to serve

1. Heat a large skillet on medium. At the same time, place half of the cheese on a tortilla and microwave for 30 seconds or until the cheese is just melted.
2. Melt 1 teaspoon of butter in the skillet, and place cheese-covered tortilla in the pan. Cook for 1 minute, then top with half the chicken, and cook for 1 further minute until the cheese bubbles and the tortilla has browned. Place another tortilla on top and remove to a plate.
3. Melt another teaspoon of butter and place quesadilla (uncooked tortilla down) into the pan. Cook for 1 or 2 minutes until the tortillas are stuck to each other.
4. Repeat with remaining ingredients.
5. Remove to a cutting board and slice with a pizza cutter. Serve with salsa, guacamole and/or sour cream.