Feasting at Home : November 2011

November 28, 2011

Spring Rolls with Daikon, Avocado and Mint

Fresh spring rolls, sometimes called summer rolls, or salad rolls, are easy to make and refreshingly healthy and light. Served with your favorite dipping sauce they make for a fun appetizer or lunch. This version, vegan and gluten free is made with avocado, tofu and daikon radish. 

The wonderful thing about fresh springs rolls is you can be creative and include any veggies you like or have on hand. For me, this meant going thru my fridge and capturing stray produce that needed using up.

November 16, 2011

Pulla for Lea

Today is a very special day for me...it is what would be my mother's 85th birthday.   I thought I would share something that she loved to bake that is very dear to my heart. It is called Pulla.

Pulla is a slightly sweet Finnish bread that is infused with fresh cardamom seeds.  My mom used to make it on special occasions like birthdays and Christmas and when guests would stay with us. I will never forget how the house would smell when she would open the oven door and take the freshly baked Pulla out.  It smelled....happy.

Several weeks ago, I stumbled over her old Pulla recipe, written partly in Finnish. To see her hand writing again, brought up so many memories and  feelings. 

My mother came from Finland, a beautiful country both modern and old. The countryside is filled with tall, white trunked birch trees, red houses, saunas and many many lakes. Three quarters of the country is still covered by forest and there over 100,000  lakes.

In summer the sun barely sets. The days are long and sparkly and bright, the air effervescent and light, charged with something magical.

In contrast, winters are extreme - long, dark and very cold.  My Egyptian father only lasted one winter there before pleading with my mom to move to California. She would always say, to live there you must be strong.

The Finnish have a word for this,  it is called "sisu".  There is no exact translation, but my understanding is ....it is a strength and perseverance that comes from the deepest part of ourselves.  My mom had this. 

Here she is, happy as a clam, sitting on her sister's steps in her home town of Sounjenjoki, Finland during our last visit there together.  I think of that trip we took together often. I drove her around the whole country visiting her family and friends for almost a month. Truthfully, there were times she drove me crazy - she was a total back seat driver,  so much so, I nicknamed her Miss Daisy. What I wouldn't give to be in that car again listening to her crackly voice.

I can't express enough, how taking that time to travel with her, was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I thought I did it for her, but in fact, I see now, how all along it was a gift for me. 

The star ingredient in Pulla is cardamom. Cardamom is a very ancient spice originating in Southern India where it still grows wild. It is most commonly used in savory Indian dishes and curries. 

Over a thousand years ago traders carried cardamom along the spice routes from India and eventually made its way through Constantinople brought by the Vikings to Scandinavia where it became very popular among the Finnish and Swedish in baking breads and pastries. 

It has a very warm pungent aroma, a little like eucalyptus. There are several kinds, two I am familiar with, the green pods and and dark brown pods. My mom always used the green pods because she said they had better flavor. I never tested this theory, but I'll take her word for it.

During one of her lasts visits to Spokane, she was too tired to make pulla but insisted on making it anyways....so I became her hands. She was stubborn about certain things....adamant.  No cutting corners. "No" to using the ground cardamom I had in my cupboard and "no" to using my stand mixer with the nifty dough hook, and "absolutely not" to using my efficient coffee bean grinder to grind the tough cardamon seeds. This would be done her way, totally old school. But in the end, worth it.

What seemed like a mountain of Cardamon pods needed to be cracked and the tiny seeds extracted. This took a substantial amount of time and patience. 

I found it's easier to slice the pods in half lengthwise with the tip of a sharp knife. After slicing about 40-50 of them, scrape the tiny dark seeds out. It takes a lot of pods to make 1 Tablespoon. You could do this ahead.

Then, after I thought all the hard work was done, there was more. Grinding the seeds with a mortar and pestle. 

This seems easy, but I assure you it is not. They are the toughest little seeds and it takes serious muscle power to grind them down. And she of course wanted them crushed down to the consistency of fine sand, making sure to carefully examine my work. It was no easy task. 

At the time, I never imagined that someday I would miss the way she would order me around the kitchen. But I do. 

My mom loved Pulla so much she named one of her cats Pulla.  Actually her full name is Rusina Pulla. She's a light colored calico with dark spots all over her. Rusina means raisins. Raisin Pulla. It was strangely fitting. Her other cat's name is Cookie. Cookie is sitting by me right now as I type. Cookie and I have developed an interesting relationship. It has not always been easy, but we're making the best of the situation. 

Anyways, so after all the work with the cardamom, the rest is easy.  Heat some half and half, pour in a large bowl and mix in some yeast. Let it stand for a bit and mix in sugar, salt, eggs, cardamom, flour, soft butter and make a dough, kneading it for about 7 minutes.

Return it to the bowl and cover it and let it rise for 1 1/2 hours.

Punch it down and make rolls or small loaves or make a traditional Finnish braided loaf like this. My mom would often add sliced almonds and raisins and roll up the dough into small sweet rolls. Those were good too. To make the braided loaf, divide dough into 3 balls and make long "ropes" out of them. Braid them and tuck the ends under. Let rise for another 1/2 hour.

Brush with an egg wash, or milk and sprinkle course sugar over the top.

 Bake in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 40 minutes. Slice, toast and butter.

This is really delicious in the morning with your coffee...and the leftovers make excellent french toast. It would also be wonderful in bread pudding.  This recipe makes quite a bit of dough.  The braided loaf is about 20 inches long, so you could easily half the recipe and still have enough for one hearty loaf.

The poem below found its way to me shortly after my mother passed away... and it reminded me of the pulla I had in the freezer, the last batch we made. 
I found it beautiful...and especially love the last paragraph.

Cold Solace 

When my mother died,
one of her honey cakes remained in the freezer.
I couldn’t bear to see it vanish,
so it waited, pardoned,
in its ice cave behind the metal trays
for two more years.

On my forty-first birthday
I chipped it out,
a rectangular resurrection,
hefted the dead weight in my palm.

Before it thawed,
I sawed, with serrated knife,
the thinnest of slices —
Jewish Eucharist.

The amber squares
with their translucent panes of walnuts
tasted — even toasted — of freezer,
of frost,
a raisined delicacy delivered up
from a deli in the underworld.

I yearned to recall life, not death —
the still body in her pink nightgown on the bed,
how I lay in the shallow cradle of the scattered sheets
after they took it away,
inhaling her scent one last time.

I close my eyes, savor a wafer of
sacred cake on my tongue and
try to taste my mother, to discern
the message she baked in these loaves
when she was too ill to eat them:

I love you.
It will end.
Leave something of sweetness
and substance
in the mouth of the world.

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Lea's Finnish Pulla Recipe
  • 1 C half and half
  • 3/4 C water
  • 1 1/2  C sugar
  • 3/4 C melted butter, let cool
  • 3 eggs
  • 4 tsp yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • approx. 7 cups flour
  • 1 T crushed Cardamom Seeds or 4 tsp ground cardamom

Prepare the the cardamom. Give yourself 45 min for this part. Slice 40 pods length wise with the tip of a sharp knife. Scrape out seeds. Grind down to the consistency of fine sand with a mortar and pestle. You could do this step ahead. 

Heat half and half and water to just lukewarm. Pour in the bowl of a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, stir in yeast and let stand for 7 minutes. Mix again to make sure its dissolved. Mix in sugar, eggs, cardamom, butter, salt. Mix in 7 cups of flour cup by cup and combine till the dough pulls away from the edges. You may need to add more flour.  

Using dough hook, or by hand on a floured surface, kneed for  6- 7 minutes and make a large ball.
Place in large bowl and cover and let rise in a warm area for 1 ½ hours, or until dough doubles in size.

Punch down and divide into 3 balls.
To make the braided bread, roll each ball in to long ropes. Braid the ropes, and tuck under the edges and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper ( or a lightly grease pan). 
You could also make small rolls-- although baking time will shorten.

Brush with an egg wash or half and half.  Sprinkle course sugar over the top.
Let rise again at least 1/2 hour. Place in a pre-heated 350 degree oven. Bake for 30-40 minutes and nicely browned. Poke with a skewer or tooth pick. It's done if the pick comes out clean.
Pull it out of the oven and let sit for 10 minutes. 
Slice and toast and butter.

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November 11, 2011

Chanterelles with Creamy Polenta and Sage

One way to celebrate fall and to embrace the changing of the seasons is to cook with ingredients grown this time of year. Establishing traditions with seasonal ingredients helps us appreciate each season...even the cold ones.  Each fall I look forward to the amazing pumpkin and squash, the apples.... and of course the beautiful chanterelles. 

If I had to pick my favorite mushroom,  chanterelles would be at the top of the list. They have such a distinctive taste. Woody and earthy with a hint of fruitiness. Their texture is meaty... yet tender. 

Chanterelles grow in the Pacific Northwest during the cooler fall months. They live among the trees, in the dense and foggy forests of Douglas Firs and Western Hemlocks.  They are difficult to cultivate, so most of the fresh chanterelles you see, truly are "wild".  This is why you don't usually find them any other time of year. And this is what makes them extra special. When handling them, somehow you can't help but feel the forest they came from. 

November 10, 2011

Zaatar Spice Recipe

Zaatar is a Middle Eastern spice mix that brings me back to my roots. My Egyptian father would sometimes make his own version of this and used it to flavor pita bread for a quick easy snack.   Drizzle olive oil over the pita and sprinkle  Zaatar all over it and place it in a hot oven for a few minutes. Serve with creamy tahini, hummus or baba ganoush for a delicious appetizer.

Zaatar typically is a blend of dried herbs like oregano, marjoram or thyme, sometimes spices like cumin and coriander, sesame seeds, salt and sumac. There are many different Zaatar blends (like there are many different curry blends). If you unfamiliar with sumac, trying Zaatar is a good introduction to it. Sumac has an almost shockingly sour lemon taste but adds an unusual element to the Zaatar.  

Other ways to use Zaatar would be to sprinkle it over hummus, or coat a piece of tofu 
or chicken with it before pan searing. You could also mix it with olive oil and make a paste to dip bread in. This week I used it to coat tofu and then pan-fried it. It made a nice flavorful crust and gave the tofu a great crunchy texture. I served it with a creamy tahini sauce. 

You can purchase Zaatar at most middle eastern stores, specialty grocery stores..... or even make your own.

Zaatar Spice Recipe:
  • 1 T thyme
  • 1 T oregano
  • 1 T marjoram
  • 1 T cumin
  • 1 T coriander
  • 1 T sesame seeds
  • 1 T sumac
  • 1/2 tsp Salt

Mix all  the ingredients together in a small bowl. Store in an airtight container.

November 2, 2011

Mini Pear and Berry Crumbles with Nigella Seeds

This is a really easy and satisfying dessert to make in the colder months that can be made ahead if you are having guests over or want to bring something to a holiday party.  These inexpensive little oven proof porcelain cups can be found at World Market and have a multitude of uses. I use them often in catering events, a tiny vessel for both sweet and savory dishes.

I have been making crisps and cobblers for a long time now...and it goes to show, now matter how good you think you are at something there is always room for improvement.
A dear friend of mine,  Jill Murdoch, introduced me to a delightful new ingredient. Nigella Seeds.