Hala dolly!

Just as many of my husband’s Middle Eastern cooking traditions have infiltrated my Midwestern family, some of my Midwestern baking traditions have circulated through my husband’s family. While I was visiting my sister-in-law recently, she asked me for a recipe I had taught my husband’s aunt a few years before. In my family we call these Santa Snacks. My bestie refers to them as “Hello Dollies”. They are eggless, as easy as possible to make, and are open to some variations. They also effortly serve as the missing link between cookie and candy bar.

Santa Snacks

What you’ll need to make them:

a 9×12 baking dish or jelly roll pan
a one cup measuring cup or; in a pinch, a standard size coffee mug

To start, melt 1 stick of butter in the pan/dish over low heat on top of the stove. (You can melt the butter in the microwave but I like the bit of browned butter taste it adds to the cookies to melt it in the pan.)

Add one cup/mug of shredded coconut and one cup/mug of graham cracker crumbs. If the holidays are stressing you out, feel free to buy whole graham crackers and beat them to a pulp with a rolling pin to get the crumbs. If you’re more mellow, the food processor works just fine.

Mix these together and spread them out to cover the bottom of the pan. This will end up being the bottom crust.

After you spread out the butter/crumb/coconut mixture, scatter over the top:

1 cup/mug semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup/mug of chopped pecans

Finally pop open one can of sweetened condensed milk and slowly drizzle it over the entire cookie mixture more or less evenly.

Bake in a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes, just until the milky topping has turned golden. Let rest about 10 minutes, then cut into squares while still warm.


Walnuts work fine with this recipe. If you prefer almonds, use the slivered kind to get the right crunchy counterpoint to the oozy chocolate. I find white chocolate and milk chocolate a little cloying for this, but if you like things super sweet or want to mix a few kinds of chocolate together, knock yourself out.

Whole wheat digestive biscuits or vanilla wafers can be used in place of the graham cracker crumbs.

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Healthier Holiday Treats

A couple of years ago I had the good fortune to spend the holidays in Dubai with my extended family. Although probably my favorite thing about that visit was being able to get a suntan at the pool on Christmas day, a close second was the delicious holiday sweet treats my husband’s Aunt Mae put out.

As someone with a little snow on my own rooftop these days, there are only so many holiday cookies I can eat and still fit into my special, once a year velvet holiday pants. These goodies tasted just as decadent as a great cookie, but were much healthier, because they were made simply from dried fruit and nuts, plus they were simply beautiful.

All you need to make them is an assortment of two-bite sized dried fruits like dates, apricots and prunes, and an assortment of slivered and thin sliced almonds and pistachios and halves of walnuts and pecans. I’ve taken liberties with some of the assortment since I first had these. What follows are some of the combos I like best:

Stuff a dried apricot with slivers of roasted pistachio nuts sprinkled with sea salt. The orange and green provide a festive pop of color as well as a satisfying mix of sweet, salty and crunchy.

Stuff a dried date, sliced in half like a hoagie roll, with thin slices of slivered almonds arranged so that the almond tips poke out from the seam higgledy-piggledy.

Stuff a half-sliced prune with a whole walnut or pecan half. If you feel like upping the swoon quotient, tuck in a thin slice of room temperature sharp white cheddar cheese. Alternately a half teaspoon of cream cheese ads a velvety note, especially combined with salted pretzel sticks that fan out like little spikes on a seashell.

Stuff a dried apricot with slivers of crystallized ginger and dried cranberries.

Arrange a platter of these assorted treats and you’ll have a fanciful feast of little edible jewels to adorn your holiday table.

Variation: If you’re a runner like my sister or have a much higher metabolism than I do, consider taking dates stuffed with goat or sharp cheddar cheese, wrapping them in half slices of prosciutto or bacon, and bake them in a 350 degree oven on a rack over a baking sheet until the meat is crispy and the fat drained away. They are to die for but you definitely won’t fit into you velvet holiday pants if you have more than one of them.

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Though my mother was an excellent cook, I never had a whole roast chicken until I was an adult. I started with the rotisserie variety, usually bought at my local grocery as a payday treat for Friday dinner and a soup base for Saturday lunch. Then my husband started roasting chickens for me, and I became hooked. I understand why Jeffrey Garten wants one for dinner every Friday. If you do it right it’s velvety and succulent with skin that’s a cross between bacon and a potato chip, the perfect balm after a long work week.

For the past several years my husband and I have been perfecting several variations on a roast chicken and I love all of them. Here are two favorites.

For both versions, set the oven to 400 degrees and put one whole average size chicken, rinsed and dried, into some kind of a roasting pan and roast it for 75 to 90 minutes. You will know it’s done if, when you poke a fork into the meatiest part of the thigh, the juices run out clear. If the juices are pinkish, give it at least 15 more minutes.

If you roast it upside down until the last 15 minutes, the breasts will stay tender bathed in their own juices and the skin on the thighs will crisp up nicely. Roasted on a bed of veggies, you have an instant side. If carbs are your thing, set it on a thick slab of crusty bread or some chopped up potatoes. If the crispy skin is your favorite part, roast it on a rack over a pan.

When the bird comes out of the oven, let it rest under foil for at least 20 minutes. It’ll be maddening to have to wait with the scent of roasted yardbird perfuming the air, but it’ll be worth it.

easy-peasy lemon squeezy

stuff the chicken cavity with:
1 whole lemon, quartered
10 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 sprigs of fresh rosemary
1 head of garlic, cut in half across the cloves
5-10 parsley stems
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper

Drizzle the skin with olive oil, give the bird a massage and sprinkle it with salt and pepper before you pop it in the oven.

biryani style
slather the skin with a mixture of:

2 T. olive oil
3 T. biryani spice
liberally salt and pepper the interior OR
stuff the bird with some leftover biryani (see recipe for Iraqi-style hamburger helper)

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You say tikka; I say kabob

One of the best summer party meals I have ever enjoyed involved a grill, a cooler of iced drinks and a skewer station. The host included soaked bamboo skewers, various veggies and several versions of marinated meat so guests could create and grill their own tikka/kabobs and partake of the many side salads guests had added to the table. He was able to enjoy the party because all the prep was done the night before and guests had a chance to chat around the grill and eat exactly what they wanted. I’ve decided to have my own kabob party and to soak the proteins overnight using a few Mideast/west marinade recipes. Now all I need is a pal with a backyard or a beach and a grill. Here goes nothing.

Marinate one inch cubes of lamb leg in a large Ziploc bag filled with:
2/3 cup of lemon juice (2-3 lemons worth)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup of chopped fresh oregano
2 tablespoons of minced garlic
1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper per pound of meat

Marinate one inch cubes of chicken leg/thigh/breast meat in a large Ziploc bag filled with:
1 cup middle eastern or greek plain yogurt (the sour, not the sweet kind)
1/2 cup of tandoori spice paste (from your local Indian or middle eastern grocer)
1 teaspoon each of salt and pepper per pound of meat

Marinate one inch cubes of a meaty fish (salmon, halibut, swordfish, tuna) in a large Ziploc bag filled with:
2/3 cup of the spicy liquid from a jar of Ship brand torchi amba

We’re going to make a version of Kofta Kabob with the beef. Have your butcher coarsely grind 1 lb. of 80% lean beef chuck along with one medium chopped onion (about half a cup) and the leaves from half a bunch of parsley. Work in a teaspoon each of salt and pepper per pound. Roll into oblong meatballs about 2 inches long by 1 inch around. Toss in olive oil before grilling.

Include bowls of various veggies cut into one inch chunks. I would provide the following:
cherry tomatoes
round mini green onions
red pepper

Serve with your favorite naan or pita that is quickly warmed on the grill. Keep bowls of tzazik (see the recipe for sauces on an earlier blog post) torchi amba with tomatoes, fresh guacamole and a homemade aioli for slathering on your kabob sammies. Pop the top on your favorite iced beverage, crank up the tunes, and I think you have the makings of a fine party. Of course there should be s’mores for dessert. I am a Midwestern girl after all.

Variation: I keep around a block of Halloumi (salty grillable cheese) for the vegetarians and grill tempe for the vegans in my circle. All the recipes can be doubled or tripled in case your party ends up bigger than mine.

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5 Tricks and Techniques That Elevate Flavor

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes my husband such an excellent cook.  Having watched him for several years, I’ve learned there are a few techniques he uses to get the best flavor out of any meal.  Let me share them here:

1) Lemon juice and salt are the two sides of a balancing scale.  If something is a bit too lemony, salt can help bring it back to taste.  If it’s a little too salty, lemon can bring the flavor back into balance.  If it’s a lot too salty, start over.

2) Skim the scum.  Whether it’s the bubbles that sit on top of your shorbat or the ones that rise up from your tomato sauce, the foamy stuff is actually the impurities working their way out of the food.  If you skim this stuff off the top of whatever liquid you’re cooking, those less than tasty bits don’t have a chance to work their way into what you eat.  Every time I add a new liquid ingredient to a soup or stew, I get some of this foamy stuff and I get rid of it. 

3) Brining makes it better.  We like our chicken skin crispy and our meat moist, and it’s hard to achieve that cooking the way we do without brining the meat first.  Lately we’ve taken to dry-brining (covering a chicken with salt and letting it sit a day in the fridge, then rinsing and drying it before we cook it), but wet brining works too.  What works for chicken also works for cucumbers and eggplant, which would otherwise give off enough water to over-thin some sauces. 

4) Buy fresh and local. The freshest, tastiest meat, veggies and dairy products come from local producers.  Why would I buy a lamb from New Zealand when I can get one from my colleague who raises them lovingly and organically?  Why would I import yogurt from abroad when I can get something just as tasty, without preservatives, from the Mennonite vendor at the farmers’ market?  Turns out it’s no more expensive and just as tasty to shop this way.

5) Almost every protein or veggie benefits from a rub down.  Rarely does a steak go on the grill, a chicken in the oven or a fish in a pan unless it has been lovingly massaged with a mix of olive oil and one of the many herb and/or spice mixes we rely on to elevate flavor.  The same goes for a lot of the starches and veggies we cook. Last week I tossed sliced sunchokes with a rub of olive oil, rosemary, garlic, salt, pepper and fresh thyme and roasted them until the skins were crispy and the flesh tender.  The week before I tossed them with olive oil and Penzey’s Moroccan Spice Mix.  In both cases, they were heaven on a platter. 

What techniques do you use to get great flavor?

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Cookie time!

At this time of year I am something of an involuntary baker. That’s not to say I don’t like baking, but rather to say I can’t help baking. I remember one year I was down with a cold, got up from a nap to get a glass of water and, next thing I knew, I was encircled by a cloud of flour and there were three dozen lace cookies on the counter and I had no memory of how they got there.

My family’s favorite holiday treat is a Wafi Box. There’s a store in Dubai called the Wafi Gourmet that makes the most delicious assortment of baklava you could imagine in small, bite size pieces that pack a big flavor punch. Now, I love me a Wafi box as much as the next person, but my favorite Middle Eastern cookie is Mamoul, which is basically a semolina crust surrounding a heavenly date filling. They’re usually made in intricately carved molds, but mine were sacrificed to the moving gremlins, hence the need for a new strategy.

This year I’ve been jimmying around with a few recipes to come up with a Mamoul recipe I like that I can make in my mini muffin tin. It seems to work pretty well and, the longer they sit, the better they get. They’re a tad labor intensive, but worth it.

Crust recipe:

2 cups semolina flour
1 1/2 sticks of melted butter
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon of vanilla or, if you prefer it, rose flower water
1 teaspoon salt

Mix these ingredients together and let them sit at least overnight in the refrigerator so the semolina soaks up the butter and it all becomes the consistency of pie dough.

Filling recipe:

1 cup of date pieces from your local bulk food store
2 T. butter
1 cup of water

Put all the ingredients into a saucepan and cook on a low simmer until the dates have softened and the water seems to have all but entirely evaporated. You can leave the pieces whole, but if you like you can whazz them up in a food processor or with an immersion blender to turn them into a paste of uniform consistency. Let cool before using.

When you’re ready to make the cookies, take the dough out of the fridge and let it get to room temperature so it becomes pliable. With a mini ice cream scoop, portion out a scoopfull of dough into each muffin cup, then press the dough around the cup and up over the sides so the cup is full and there’s about a half inch of overlap all around. Spoon a teaspoon of date filling into each muffin cup full of dough, then pull the overlapping crust over the top of the date filling and pinch and prod it together to seal in the filling and make a flat top over the cookies.

Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes until just starting to brown. Let cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack. Store in an airtight container.

These get better with age. The dough feels slightly sandy and is a lovely counterpoint to the rich, gooey date filling.

Variation: Mamoul are sometimes made with nuts instead of dates but I like these so much better I’ve never made the nut variety. Although walnuts, almonds or pistachios would be more common in the Middle East, these are pretty good with pecans too.

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An update of the non-culinary kind

As you can see, it has been a while since something new was posted. For several months now my Arabian knight and I have been in a sort of limbo. An odd confluence of circumstances left us both jobless and homeless for a time. Not to worry, we were lucky enough to be what I call country club homeless, living with a variety of remarkable family and friends across the country and even halfway around the world. The big downside was that much of that time left us living and cooking apart, hence the lack of culinary collaboration. We now have a job and a job offer between us and are about to be reunited, at least for a while, so expect new recipes to be coming soon and thank you for your patience and persistence with our culinary ramblings.

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