25 April 2011

Saffron and Honey Breakfast Cake

Friday morning is the start of the weekend in this part of the world. It is the holy day, and so we rest on Fridays and Saturdays. I am still getting used to the whole 'work' routine on Sundays, but something I have settled into quite nicely is pancake morning on Fridays. It's an institution. 

But this week, Friday came at the end of holidays where we had worn our Friday institution out a little - when you have something every day, it is no longer a novelty. And so, to mark the special day, I really had to pull one out of the hat. So, with my new-found confidence in baking, I decided to make cake. I figured if it was shallow, then it would cook quickly, so this is what I came up with.

20 April 2011

Crunchy prawns with korma dipping sauce

Every once in a while, there is a dish from a restaurant that sticks with me. One evening, about 8 years ago in Melbourne, I dined with my husband at Circa at 'The Prince' in St Kilda. It was fairly soon after it had opened, and it was still well and truly in its hey-day, a food style-leader in Melbourne, and in fact Australia. That night, among other things, I had a prawn dish, with the most perfectly crisp and delicious casing - knaffe pastry. 

Just recently I purchased Suzanne Husseini's new cookbook, and what did I find in there? Prawns with knaffe pastry. Hers are with orange and lemon rind and stuffed with almonds, and they are amazing. Of course, I can't put her recipe here, so I brainstormed a little - I really enjoyed the sweetness of the almonds with the sweetness of the prawn flesh, and that got me thinking about korma.

Korma is a curry sauce that is made with a cream and nut base - either almonds or cashews. But as far as I'm concerned, the almonds just don't cut it for this sauce - cashews are far creamier. Most of the work is done in the blender, so it's super easy to cook.

18 April 2011

Fattoush - the salad for non-salad lovers

I hate salads that taste like a pile of grass. I'm more of a caesar salad person - sure, I like some leaves, but I prefer them crunchy, and then I want a whole heap of non-salad items in there, like bacon, eggs, bread and cheese. Or maybe a complete lack of leaves, like in a greek salad - again, with the cheese, and something tangy like olives. But just don't serve me weeds - ugh.

This region has a famous salad, and I'd never heard of it before I arrived - but now I order it everywhere. I'm on my own special mission to find the best Fattoush (also fatoush, fattush and probably a myriad of other spellings) that can be found in Dubai. So far, it's a war between Bayt al Wakeel on the Bur Dubai side of the creek in the middle of the Old Souk, and Tagine, at the One and Only Royal Mirage.

Fattoush's wonderful addition is fried bread. It's like an arabic crouton, but better, and I make mine in the oven and they taste just as good. These croutons are so awesome, I eat half of them before I even make the salad. But the salad is pretty good too - it's fresh, aromatic, colourful and crunchy. 


Living in the Middle East is a dream for a spice lover. It is of course, smack in the middle of traditional spice trails, and the trading hub for all the fragrant and piquant treasures of this world. Baharat, Sumac, Saffron, Cardamom, Oud, Roses, Za'atar. The list goes on. A trip to the spice souk of Dubai is a must for any traveller  (not to buy spices - they are cheaper at the hypermarkets) to immerse oneself in the origins of this port. Dubai started as a trading town, and pearls, spices and gold were the objects of desire, and the Souks still bear hints of the traditional Middle East that has been lost everywhere else in this shiny city.

Za'atar is both Arabic for Thyme, and also the name of a spice blend that includes thyme, and usually marjoram, oregano, sesame, salt and sumac. Here, you can find it everywhere - in plastic packets on the supermarket shelves, in hessian sacks at the souks, on flat bread with melted cheese, in croissants, on the table next to the salt. It's a zingy, herbaceous mix that goes with almost everything - it can be added to a lamb stew, a fish marinade, a breakfast frittata, sprinkled on a pizza, but one of my favourites is simply on pastry, and oven baked for about 10 minutes - it makes a superb finger food, and is wonderful dipped in minted labneh (thick yogurt that tastes a little like tzatziki).

13 April 2011

No pain, no gain

I've always been more of a non-recipe cook. Don't get me wrong - I love cookbooks, but after years of working in restaurants alongside chefs - some great, some mediocre, I have realized that once you develop some basic knowledge, and learn to trust your taste buds, anyone is capable of inventing a recipe (implementing it is another matter!)

I am a great 'surprise chef'. I can walk into any kitchen and prepare a meal - often a great one, if I try, out of almost anything. You know how MacGyver used to make a nuclear warhead out of a ball point pen, two batteries, a paperclip and a piece of gum? That's me in the kitchen. The only thing that has held me up has been baking. It has always stood on a pedestal as the unmuckable cooking. Hard-core recipe stuff. I think it was several early failed attempts at pavlova and anzac biscuits that did it.

But what I've realised recently is that baking - particularly cakes - does not need to be as exact as I thought. Sure, there are things that MUST be included. Eggs to bind, oil or butter for moistness, some kind of raising agent for cakes, sugar for taste. The quantites are variable. More eggs for a dense cake, less for a crumbly one, more baking soda for fluffy scones, less for whoopie pies, more butter for brownies, less for banana bread. And do you know what, as long as you don't accidentally put in garlic powder instead of ginger, and you don't burn it, the sugar is ALWAYS going to make it taste good - no matter how chewy or crumbly it is.

11 April 2011

Easy Baclava

I discovered a little about baclava while I was at the Al Samadi Bakery recently - the term "baclava" actually refers to the pastry, not the sweets. It's a super-soft mix that is flattenend, then has more layers of the same placed on top, and then is flattened again and again and again until you get a mille feuille style of multi-layered pastry. They then use this "baclava" to make sweets in hundreds of different ways. 

There is another wonderful style of pastry that abounded in the factory, and that was knafe (or kanafe) - pastry made up of hundreds of threads that can be pulled apart and moulded any which-way. Like Baclava, the pastry has given the dish its name, and if you type kanafe into a search engine, you will get hundreds of recipes for the wonderful arabic cheese-filled desert pie. 

And do you know the wonderful thing? We can buy both pastries in the freezer at the local supermarket (but baclava is better known as 'filo'). So here is how you make it the easy way:

Remembering French Provincial Markets

For the last three years, we have escaped the Dubai heat and travelled to southern France. Languedoc, Dordogne, Cote d'Azur, Var, Vaucluse - we've seen them all. And there's one thing that binds them - something I can't seem to get anywhere else in the world.... Radishes. Not just any kind of radishes - the tiny sweet, peppery rosebud type aptly named "French Breakfast" radishes. I don't eat them for breakfast, but they do taste amazing with a baguette, a slab of butter and Camargue sea-salt flakes, with a chaser of Picpoul or Provincial Rosé. 

The problem with French Breakfast radishes is that they expire very quickly, and so that's why you rarely see them out of a French Provincial market, so when I saw fresh, crisp ones at the local Hypermarket the other day, I nearly upturned the nearest veggie crate and started singing "La Marseillaise" with my hand over my heart. But what to do with them when the traditional 5 o'clock hors d'ouvres are off the menu? Salad. And I gave them a regional stamp.

07 April 2011

Mayonnaise - Jar or home-made?

I've tried to make mayonnaise several times in my life. Sometimes it works, and less times it doesn't. There's really no excuse for not making it, of course, because even when it doesn't work, the ways to fix it are easy (I love the way this lovely lady makes her mayo). Except, it's fairly easy to buy good mayonnaise in a jar. But is it good?

Jar mayonnaise is fine for sandwiches, and as an ingredient to mix into other dressings, but when the mayonnaise is the main ingredient in a sauce or dressing, it is obvious when it's store-bought. The other reason to make your own mayo is when you want to play with the consistency. For example, in a potato salad I like my mayonnaise loose and runny - if it's too thick, then when combining, it buffs up the edges of the potatoes, and besides, it's just far too stodgy.

So here's how the slap-dash cook makes potato salad:

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