Carrot Halwa (Gajar ka halwa)

Indian Cuisine

To say that I have been doing some Indian cooking lately is like saying that I picked up a granule of sand on the beach. Indian cuisine dates back over 5000 years and each region has its own traditions, religions and culture that influence its food. Hindus tend to be vegetarian and Muslims tend to have meat dishes, although pork is forbidden. Indian food has been influenced by Mongolian, Persian and Chinese cuisine, among others. It is rich and varied and I love it.

While I have done some Indian cooking before, I had only made Kheer as a dessert. I was intrigued by what I had read about Halwa – not to be confused with the Middle Eastern halva.

Like semolina cakes in the Middle East, there is no one single recipe for making Halwa. They all share the same basic ingredients of carrots, ghee, sugar, cardamom and a dairy milk, but the quantities, cooking times and additions make each one unique. And probably each Indian family believes that their version is the best. One thing that they all have in common is patience.

This is not a difficult recipe but like Indian rice pudding (Kheer), it takes time and almost constant stirring to end up with an amazingly velvety, fragrant and utterly satisfying treat. Make this when someone is around that you want to share a nice long chat with while you stir. It is so worth it.

While I think this is a perfect dessert anytime of the year, in India, it is especially relished during Diwali and the colder, wetter months. It is the perfect comfort food.

In order to come up with this version, I read at least 4 different recipes from Indian and vegetarian cookbooks and watched over 6 YouTube videos. Some versions were made with sweetened condensed milk and others were cooked down to form almost a cake-like consistency that was cut into little diamond shapes. I’m sure that they are all wonderful and I’d be happy to eat any of them. However, this version is my amalgam of what I believe to be the best halwa and one that made my husband incredibly happy. Okay, it made ME incredibly happy too! It won’t disappoint.

Recipe

Yield: About 8 servings

Ingredients

6 cups peeled and finely shredded slim carrots (DO NOT use large, thick woody carrots. They are fine for soup and feeding horses, but will not have the sweetness and tenderness needed here.)

3-4 Tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter

3/4 cup raw or granulated sugar

About 1.25 cups of whole milk (Exact amounts are not essential. Pour in enough to almost but not quite cover the carrots. You can always cook this longer if you added a bit more than you had intended.)

1/4 cup half and half (or additional whole milk) mixed with about 1/8 teaspoon of saffron threads

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped blanched almonds

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachios

2 Tablespoons coarsely chopped cashews

3 Tablespoons raisins (preferably golden/Sultanas)

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground green cardamom

Directions

In a large, preferably non-stick skillet, melt 2 Tablespoons of the ghee. Add all of the carrots and mix through. Add up to an additional Tablespoon of ghee, if needed to coat the carrots.

Cook over a low heat, stirring FREQUENTLY for 40-45 minutes. This is tedious but necessary to prevent burning and to get the carrots to a velvety texture.

Now add the milk and half & half mixture and stir through. Add the 1/2 teaspoon of cardamom and mix through. Cover the pan and on low heat, cook the carrots for 20-25 minutes more. Stir OCCASIONALLY. You want to cook until the milk is just absorbed but the carrots are not dried out

While the carrots cook, melt the remaining ghee in a small skillet and lightly cook the nuts, raisins and remaining cardamom. You just want the raisins to swell and the nuts to release their oils. Set aside.

Uncover and add the sugar and mix through. Now add the nuts and raisin mixture and stir through. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes more. The resulting mixture is incredibly moist, velvety and unctuous. It can be eaten warm or at room temperature. This is quite rich and satisfying and 3-5 ounces per person is more than enough. While the halwa does not need any garnish, you can add a little lightly sweetened whipped cream for serving.

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Lemon Semolina Almond Cake

As anyone who follows my blog knows, I absolutely LOVE Middle Eastern food. I love it’s use of fresh, seasonal vegetables and bright spices. And I love it’s use of lemon. So for my dinner tonight I made lamb burgers with a tahini yogurt sauce, hummus with garlic naan and za’atar, freekeh, chickpea and herb salad and this luscious lemon semolina almond cake. It doesn’t get any more flavorful than this.

After successfully making Basbousa, I was looking for another Mediterranean dessert that used semolina flour. The problem wasn’t finding one, but rather deciding on which one to make. This recipe had the added advantage of using almond flour which I happened to have a lot of and wanted to use up.

As with many Middle Eastern desserts, this one has a lovely sugar syrup that gets poured over the still warm cake. The syrup permeates the cake with the result being an almost custard-like interior. Despite the syrup, the cake is not overly sweet. The original recipe called for adding rose water to the syrup. However, my husband finds that the rose water makes him feel as if he is eating fancy hotel soap. Not what I was going for. Since he is my primary audience, I left it out. And if I am honest, I didn’t want any distraction from the lemon. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cointreau

This cake is not difficult to make but don’t skimp on the lemon and use a good quality and slightly fruity olive oil. The smell was intoxicating and we dove in while the cake was still warm! It cut like a dream after cooling for about 30 minutes. I’m sure that it will be equally delicious several days from now, although I have serious doubts that it will last that long.

Tip

For an extra special treat, macerate some fresh berries in confectioner’s sugar and Framboise, Cointreau or other fruity liqueur and serve alongside.

Recipe by Edouard Massih

Yield: About 8 servings

Ingredients

Lemon-Semolina Almond Cake:

  • 1 cup almond flour or almond meal
  • 1 cup semolina flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 lemons
  • 3 large eggs

Simple Syrup:

  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 lemon, juiced
  • 2 tbsp rosewater (Optional)

Candied Lemon:

  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced and any pits removed

Directions

Lemon-Semolina Almond Cake:

Preheat your oven to 350 F.

Grease a 9 x 5-inch loaf pan and line bottom and sides with parchment paper. Grease parchment. Sift together the almond flour, semolina flour and baking powder in a medium bowl. Add salt to the mixture and whisk everything to combine.

Using an electric mixer with a whisk attachment, whisk oil, sugar, and lemon zest from 2 lemons together, about 3 minutes on medium high. With motor running on low, gradually add eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate, about 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and juice of 1 lemon and whisk everything to combine, about 1 minute. Do not over-mix.

Transfer batter to prepared loaf pan. Place the cake on the middle rack, and bake until golden brown, approximately for 60 minutes. Lightly press the top of the cake to test — it should feel lightly springy when done. Let cool for 20 minutes or so in pan before removing and transferring to a cooling rack.

Spoon all of the syrup (See below) over the cake. I like to put a pan covered in foil under the cooling rack to collect the inevitable dribbles and to make clean-up easier.

Simple Syrup & Candied Lemon:

  1. In one easy step, combine water, sugar, juice of 1 lemon, and rosewater, if used, in a pot. Cook it over medium-heat until the sugar is fully dissolved, for 4-5 minutes.
  2. Add thinly-sliced lemon to the simple syrup, and cook it on medium-low heat for 10-12 minutes until the lemon is tender.
  3. Carefully transfer candied lemon to a wire rack.

Almond Flour Blondies

Gluten-Free? Really?

I’m not gluten-free. However, I did have left-over a lot of wonderful almond flour that I had bought for Passover. Not sure what I was thinking when I went shopping, but let’s just say that I got carried away and we’ll leave it at that.

And I’ve been in a brownie-making mood so I went in search of a recipe. Everything sounded pretty simple and I had all of the ingredients on hand, which was a plus since Frances has me cooking down my pantry. The only problem I had is that I really do not like white chocolate. So I made a couple of minor tweaks and came up with this version.

If you want an ooey, gooey blondie with crispy edges, I recommend that you try this version or the original. You don’t have to be gluten-free to enjoy them. And because they are so gooey, I think that the brownies actually improved when they were a few days old. It didn’t stop me, my husband or our cat from eating them the second that they had cooled down!

Recipe from Meaningful Eats and tweaked by me

Yield: About 24 squares

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup butter [coconut oil will work for dairy-free]
  • 3/4 cup dark or light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 3/4 cup almond flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup chocolate chips
  • 1/2 cup of shredded, unsweetened coconut
  • 1 cup chopped pecans

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 baking pan.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream together the butter and sugars. Add the eggs and vanilla and mix on high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
  3. Add the almond flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix to fully incorporate. Stir in the chocolate chips and pecans.
  4. Pour the dough into the greased baking dish. Smooth into an even layer. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until until golden and the brownies appear to be set. Allow to cool completely before cutting. Slice into bars and enjoy!

Fudgy Brownies with Beets and Walnuts

Food Fads

I’m not into food fads. When I like something, I like it whether it is in fashion or not. I still used olive oil and ate salmon when we were told they weren’t good for us. (Can you believe that nutritionists ever thought that?) And I still eat kale even though its fad has passed. But I am sometimes intrigued by seeing ingredients where I didn’t expect to find them.

You Added What?

Over the years I have watched The Pioneer Woman with Ree Drummond. And while I rarely would make the foods she prepares, on occasion I have tried some of her recipes. They are generally easy to follow and work out as she says they will. This recipe was called the “Hidden Secret Brownies” because of the addition of beets to the batter. When I thought about it the recipe just made sense. After all, sugar can be made from beets and they have a lovely texture and color.

I happened to have some cooked beets on hand and this seemed the perfect place to use them up. Of course, I made a couple of minor tweaks. To me, if you cook with chocolate you have to add some espresso powder to it. The espresso just brings out the depth of the chocolate without actually adding any coffee flavor. Not that I mind a good mocha when I can get it!

Ready in No Time

These brownies took no time to prepare, especially, if like me, you use prepared beets. Almost all decent grocery stores carry vacuum-sealed, roasted, peeled beets in the produce section these days. I imagine that you could also use a good canned beet that had been drained and rinsed. If you can’t find ready-to-eat beets, there will be instructions on roasting that follow the main recipe.

Recipe

Yield: 9 large brownies

Ingredients

4 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate (I use Baker’s brand for brownies rather than a more expensive brand. Let’s face it, brownies are unsnooty comfort food so don’t waste your Valrhona on this. It just doesn’t taste the same. I’ve tried it.)

2 sticks (16 Tablespoons) of unsalted butter, softened

1.5 cups of granulated sugar

3 large eggs

1 Tablespoon pure vanilla extract

8 ounces finely chopped, cooked beets

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped and lightly toasted in a dry skillet

1.25 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour

1/4 cup unsweetened, Dutch-process cocoa powder (Here I DO use Valrhona!)

1/4 teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon finely ground instant espresso powder

Confectioners’ sugar to serve

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray an 8-inch square pan with a nonstick baking spray. Line the pan with parchment that hangs over two of the sides by a couple of inches. Spray the parchment

Melt the chocolate over a double boiler or in the microwave. If using a microwave, first heat the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl for 45 seconds on high. Then give it a stir and return it to the microwave for 30 seconds on high. Any bits that haven’t completely melted will melt with a brief stir. Allow the chocolate to cool slightly.

In the bowl of a standing mixer, using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in the eggs one at a time.

Add the vanilla, beets, walnuts and slightly warm chocolate to the mixture and mix on low speed until combined, scraping down the bowl.

Whisk the flour, cocoa powder, espresso powder and salt in a small bowl to combine. Add half of the flour mixture to the batter and mix on low speed just until combined. Scrape down the bowl and repeat with the remaining flour. DO NOT OVER MIX!

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread it evenly across the surface. Bake until a toothpick or cake tester inserted in the middle comes out clean. Mine took 50 minutes. Allow the brownies to cool completely in the pan. (I know, the smell will drive you crazy but you have to wait – REALLY.)

Just Add Milk

Using the ends of the parchment paper, lift the brownies from the pan. Place the brownies on a cutting board and peel back the paper. Cut into nine squares and dust with confectioners’ sugar that you put through a sieve when ready to serve.

Cat Approved

Cooking Beets

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Wrap the unpeeled beets in foil and roast until soft. This takes about 40 minutes, When cool enough to handle, peel the skins off and cut them into chunks. You can chop these by hand or in a food processor. The recipe said to very finely mince them. Mine still had some texture, but that is personal taste.

Basbousa (Semolina, Coconut and Pistachio Cake

Semolina cakes soaked in a flavored sugar syrup are ubiquitous in the Middle East. Depending on the country and even the family, the proportions and flavorings will vary. Some were made with almond meal and flavored with a combination of rose water and orange blossom water. Several cakes were made without any eggs. There is no one single proper semolina cake.

The version below is a particularly rich and moist cake, with the addition of coconut and pistachio nuts. One thing that all of the Basbousa cakes have in common is that they are quite sweet – the perfect ending to a well-spiced meal.

The other night my husband and I watched about five different YouTube videos of people making their version of this delicious cake. Each one looked wonderful. I also checked out Jerusalem: A Cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. However, my recipe comes from The Jewish Soul Food Cookbook From Minsk to Marrakesh by Janna Gur with a few tweaks from me.

Measuring

Normally I do not weigh my ingredients when I bake even though I know that it is a more accurate measure than using cups and teaspoons. I figure that as long as I always “mismeasure” the same way, I’ll be fine. However, since this recipe was almost certainly made by weighing things in grams and I had never made it before, I decided to weigh things out. It’s a good thing that I did, because the weight in grams seemed very off from the measurements given in cups.

If you don’t own a kitchen scale, you should. They are not terribly expensive (the one I use costs less than $10) and these days you can purchase one that takes up almost no space at all. I increasingly find having one to be useful.

When it came to liquid measure, I was less concerned about using cups so I give both measures below.

Pan Size and Serving

Pan sizes vary and what is standard in the United States may not be standard in Europe or the Middle East. The recipe called for a 40 x 25 cm. pan which is about 15 x 10-inches. A standard pan in the U.S. is 13 x 9-inches which is a bit smaller. As long as your pan is at least 3-inches deep it shouldn’t be a problem although you may have to adjust your baking time slightly.

Because the cake is soaked in a sugar syrup, you may want to serve it with a bit of unsweetened whipped cream, creme fraiche or thick yogurt. You could also serve it with a slightly tart fruit preserve to act as a counter balance to the sweetness. However, if you decide to just eat it straight, I certainly won’t tell you no!

Recipe

Yield: About 12 servings

Ingredients

For the cake

3/4 cup bland vegetable oil (180 ml.)

1.5 cups half & half (single) cream (350 ml.) [You can substitute coconut milk for a non-dairy version.]

100 grams shredded, unsweetened coconut

160 gr. unbleached, all-purpose flour

250 gr. semolina flour (or cream of wheat)

55 gr. ground pistachio nuts [I like to grind my nuts with a little of the sugar. It keeps the nuts from turning to paste.]

4 teaspoons baking powder

6 large eggs

300 gr. granulated sugar

A generous pinch of Kosher salt

For the sugar syrup

1.5 cups of water

300 gr. granulated sugar

1 scant teaspoon ground cinnamon

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. (180 degrees C)

Combine the vegetable oil and half & half in a large bowl. Stir in the coconut, flour, semolina, ground pistachios, salt and baking powder until well combined.

Beat the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat on high speed for 8 minutes or until the mixture is pale and fluffy.

Gently fold the egg and sugar mixture into the semolina batter. Pour the batter into a greased rectangular pan.

Bake for about 35 minutes or until the cake turns golden and a toothpick inserted un the center comes out clean. If a few crumbs adhere to the toothpick that’s perfect. [Mine took close to 50 minutes. Ovens vary and my pan was smaller and deeper.]

While the cake is baking, make the sugar syrup. Bring the water, sugar and cinnamon to a boil in a small saucepan. Lower the heat and simmer, uncovered for 15 minutes. Cool slightly.

As soon as the cake is finished baking, remove it from the oven and pour all of the syrup evenly over the warm cake.

Allow the cake to cool completely before serving. This is even better if made a day ahead. It will last in an airtight container for up to a week. Who are we kidding? It will be eaten long before.

Carrot Loaf Cake

Best Laid Plans

Last week I made this truly beautiful spice marble cake that I was going to share with you. It was a little bit of a production, but it didn’t take any special skills. I was so excited because it was so impressive looking and wasn’t the expected chocolate marble cake that I grew up with.

Unfortunately, I just really didn’t like the flavor profile of the light part of the batter. So before I can give you this recipe, it needs some work. But Passover begins next week so don’t look for it any time soon.

Last Pre-Passover Cake

Passover is one of the most important Jewish festivals. It commemorates our liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt by God and our freedom as a nation under the leadership of Moses. During the holiday, we don’t eat any leavened bread or anything that contains grain that has fermented. Since I need to clear my house of all of these products, this carrot cake is my last leavened product before the holiday.

Cooking With Andrew

These days it would be more accurate to call my blog “Lisa and Andrew Cook.” Andrew is my husband of more than 34 years and the man who takes most of my wonderful photographs. Since we are both pretty much retired, we are getting to spend a lot of quality time together.

Andrew has taken up some of the cooking. He now makes brunches and occasionally even is making dinner. This recipe is from the Bon Appétit website and thought that we could have fun making it together. I was right! With a couple of tweaks, it turned out beautifully. Unlike the layered carrot cakes with LOTS of frosting and those marzipan carrots on top, this is an easy, casual loaf cake that anyone can make. The result is a dense, moist, fragrant cake.

Recipe


Ingredients for One 9 x 5 inch Loaf

1 lb. cream cheese (2 8-oz. packages

¾ cup vegetable oil, plus more for pan

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp. baking powder

¾ tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. ground cinnamon, plus more for dusting

1 cup chopped walnuts

1¾ tsp. kosher salt, divided

¾ lb. carrots

1¾ cups sugar, divided

2 large eggs

3 tsp. pure vanilla extract, divided

2 teaspoons Bourbon (Optional)

Directions

Do Ahead

First things first, we need to get that 1 lb. cream cheese to room temperature. If you don’t have time to let it sit out on the counter for several hours, cut it into 1″ pieces and place on a heatproof plate on top of your stove. Alternatively, you can microwave the plate of cream cheese in 10-second increments until just softened but not melted, about 30 seconds total. [I left mine out overnight in a cool kitchen and it was perfect.]

Place a rack in middle of oven; preheat to 350°. Lightly grease a 9×5″ loaf pan with vegetable oil or cooking spray. Line pan lengthwise with parchment paper, leaving about a 2″ overhang. This will help you lift the cake up and out of the pan. [Important note! If you are using a smaller pan, you’re going to need to hold back some batter—you’ll need at least a ½” between the batter and the lip of the pan to account for oven rise, otherwise your cake will overflow. You can bake remaining batter in muffin tins if you have them.]

Down to Business

Whisk 2¼ cups all-purpose flour, 2 tsp. baking powder, 2 tsp. ground ginger, ¾ tsp. baking soda, 2 tsp. cinnamon, and 1½ tsp. Diamond Crystal or (1 tsp. Morton) kosher salt in a medium bowl.

Peel ¾ lb. carrots and cut off knobby end. Grate on the large holes of a box grater right into bowl of dry ingredients or use the large-holed grater of a food processor. Use your hands to toss until well coated. Add the chopped walnuts.

Scrape half of cream cheese into a large bowl. (This is for the batter and the other half is for the icing!) Using a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon, spread cream cheese around sides of bowl, working it a few times to help soften. Add 1½ cups sugar and keep working with the spatula to completely incorporate until it’s no longer gritty and all of the sugar is dissolved, about 15 seconds. Crack 2 large eggs into a bowl; then whisk until mixture is very smooth. It might look separated and chunky at first, but whisk vigorously and it will eventually come together. Slowly stream in ¾ cup vegetable oil, whisking constantly to homogenize. Add 2 tsp. vanilla extract and whisk again to combine.

Fold dry ingredients into egg mixture with your spatula until almost no streaks of floury bits remain.

Scrape batter into prepared pan, smoothing top with the back of a spoon or spatula.

Ready to Bake

Bake cake until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean, 80–90 minutes. (I used a 9×5 inch pan and baked it for 80 minutes; then turned off oven and opened the door a little. I left the cake in the oven for an additional 10 minutes and it was perfect.) Let cool 20 minutes, then remove from pan using parchment overhang. If the edges are sticking, slide a butter knife around the edge to help release. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

Making the Frosting

While cake cools, make your icing. Scrape remaining 8 oz. cream cheese into a medium bowl. Similarly to what you did earlier, use a spatula to work it around sides of bowl. Add remaining ¼ cup sugar, 1 tsp. vanilla, and ¼ tsp. Diamond Crystal (or a pinch of Morton) kosher salt and Bourbon, if using. Mix with spatula to bring everything together, paddling it as necessary, until icing is very smooth and shiny. (This will take some elbow grease, but don’t give up!) Cover and keep chilled until cake has cooled.

Place cooled cake on a platter or board. Dollop cream cheese frosting on top and make swirls and swooshes with the back of a small spoon as you spread it out to make it look cute. Dust lightly with more cinnamon. Slice with a sharp chef’s knife (not a serrated one) to serve.

Store cooled cake in the refrigerator. I used a clean, clear plastic shoe box that I lined with waxed paper. It will keep for several days.

Butterscotch Pudding

For those of you who follow me, you may have noticed that I last posted just prior to Thanksgiving. Frankly, I wanted a break. I enjoy cooking and finding new recipes but it just wasn’t fun trying to make something completely new each week, especially when it is just for the two of us. But I really had a yen this week for old-fashioned butterscotch pudding, something that much to my surprise, I had never actually made before. And somehow with a raging snowstorm this was the perfect opportunity to try it out.

So as I usually do when approaching a new recipe, I searched out about five different versions of butterscotch pudding and butterscotch budino. Some were really tarted up and while likely would be delicious, that simply wasn’t what I was looking for. And some had these overly complicated instructions. This is pudding, folks! I finally came across the method I wanted from Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, but added some pure vanilla extract to her ingredients.

This is a simple recipe that requires no special skills and the results will take you back to a place of comfort – something most of us sorely need these days.  The resulting pudding is creaminess itself, lovely and unpretentious. It will not taste like that phony butterscotch flavor of the packaged mixes, so if that is what you are looking for, this isn’t it. This pudding is made from very simple ingredients that most of us have on hand, although I did go out and buy whole milk since generally we drink skim or 1%. While you can make this with a lower fat milk, please don’t. It just won’t be the same. So get out your spoon, take a deep breath, close your eyes and take a taste of comfort.

Butterscotch Pudding

Yield: About 10 servings – 100 grams or 3.5 ounces each (The size of the portions is entirely within your discretion, so if you prefer larger portions, there will obviously be fewer.)

Ingredients

1.5 cups dark brown sugar

1/4 cup (4 Tablespoons) Cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon Kosher or sea salt

3 cups of whole milk

4 large egg yolks (Discard or save the whites for another use. They can be frozen.)

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

1.5 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (NEVER, EVER use imitation!)

Garnish (Optional)

Whipped cream, flavored with a bit of rum, bourbon or simply vanilla and a bit of powdered sugar

Directions

  1. In a medium, non-stick pot, gently whisk together the brown sugar, cornstarch and salt. Break up as many of the brown sugar lumps as you can. Butterscotch pudding2
  2. In a large measuring cup or medium bowl, preferably with a lip, whisk together the milk and egg yolks. Pour the mixture into the pot, whisking as you go to combine.
  3. Place the pot over medium heat and cook, gently stirring pretty constantly until the mixture starts to bubble and thicken. This took me about 12.5 minutes. Don’t get discouraged. Nothing seems to be happening until all of a sudden, it’s thickened and you have pudding. Stir until it is the consistency of a creamy, thick, but still pourable pudding.
  4. Remove immediately from the heat and stir through the vanilla and butter. Transfer the pudding (which is very hot) to your desired serving cups and cover with some plastic wrap, touching the top of the pudding. Allow to chill for a couple of hours. Butterscotch pudding4

Tahini and Halva Brownies

By now, putting tahini in sweet desserts is no longer a novel idea. However, using halva, which is still not commonly eaten in the United States is. Halva is a Middle Eastern confection made of sesame flour and honey or sugar with nuts or other flavorings added at times. It is often referred to as Middle Eastern “fudge.” When I first tasted halva over 50 years ago (YIKES!) I thought that it tasted like sweetened sawdust. I have since come to love it – so much so that on my last visit to Israel a few years ago, I decided to bring back a large slice of halva from simply the best halva maker in the world – Halva King in Jerusalem. The slice was brick-shaped and fairly substantial and I had it in the bottom of my carry-on luggage. When I was going through customs, I was stopped and asked to empty out my bag after it had been through the X-ray machine. I was confused as to what could have raised concern since I knew that I didn’t have any banned materials. It turned out that the piece of halva looked just like a brick of C4 explosive! Thankfully the TSA person actually knew what halva was and we were both able to laugh about the incident.

So when I came across this Yotam Ottolenghi & Helen Goh recipe I thought it would be fun to try. I tried it, carefully measuring and weighing everything, but the brownies just were sooooooooooooooooo gooey that you couldn’t cut a clean piece – and they never firmed up. And the walnuts were a complete waste of ingredients since the flavor couldn’t fight its way through. I then came across this version that is converted into ounces and measuring cups which came from the Ottolenghi and Goh cookbook Sweet: Desserts from London’s Ottolenghi. There are some pretty significant differences between this version and the one that is on Ottolenghi’s UK website so go figure. This second version is what I have presented here and which corrected all of my problems with the first version that I tried. I finally made these brownies to my satisfaction. It won’t replace my favorite Java Brownies which are still the best brownies – ever – but my husband says that these are a pretty close contender.

Halva comes in many varieties and some are drier than others and the number of flavors is only limited by your imagination. Not being overwhelmed with options that were easily accessible, however, I went with a “plain” vanilla halva by Ziyad brand. It was moderately dry but moist enough to be able to cut into pieces without it totally crumbling.  This final version, which I baked for the full 40 minutes, has a good balance of gooey goodness along with the slightly crispier edges, which I love. We always fight over the corners in my house!

Tahini and Halva Brownies by Yotam Ottolenghi & Helen Goh and ever-so-slightly tweaked by me

Tahini and Halva Brownies11

Yield: About 20 brownies

Ingredients

1 cup plus 6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into ¾-inch cubes

11 ounces dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids), broken into 1½-inch pieces

5 large eggs

1¾ cups granulated sugar

1¼ cups all-purpose flour

⅓ cup plus 2 tablespoons Dutch-processed cocoa powder

¾ teaspoon salt

7 to 8¾ ounces halva, broken into ¾-inch pieces (I used Ziyad plain halva with vanilla)

Up to ⅓ cup tahini paste

Directions

  1. Heat your oven to 375 degrees F. Grease a 9 by 13-inch pan and line with enough parchment to create a 3/4-inch overhang.
  2. You want to melt the butter with the chocolate. You can do this over a double boiler or a bowl set over simmering water, but I found that it was quicker and less to clean up using the microwave. I placed the chocolate and butter in a bowl and microwaved it on high for 45 seconds, I removed the bowl, gave everything a stir and returned it to the microwave for another 30 seconds. I then stirred the chocolate and melted butter until all of the chocolate was melted. I allowed the mixture to cool to just barely warm.
  3. Sift the flour and cocoa together and add the salt. Set aside.
  4. In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat the sugar and eggs until light in color and thickened. It should form ribbons when you lift the beaters. Gently fold in the chocolate mixture by hand. Do not over mix. Then fold in the flour and cocoa just until incorporated. Finally add the halva pieces and gently fold through. (I actually cut my halva pieces into odd-sized chunks with most being a little smaller than was recommended. I remembered from the first version that I ended up with rather obvious chunks of halva, which were okay, but gave an odd mouth-feel. These smaller pieces gave the flavor and a little texture but were not as obvious when you bit into the brownie. This is personal choice.) 

  5. Pour the mixture into the parchment-lined pan and spread to an even layer. Using a spoon, dollop the tahini over the brownie mixture. Don’t worry overmuch about being especially neat or perfect. Using a spoon or skewer, swirl the tahini through the mixture. You don’t want to be too perfect or too even. It should be marbled. Tahini and Halva Brownies3
  6. Place the pan in the center of your oven. You want to bake them until the top is crisp and the middle is a bit wobbly – between 36-40 minutes. Ovens do vary so you will just have to watch them. Tahini and Halva Brownies13If you are not a lover of the crispy corners, then you likely will go with the shorter baking time. Either way, there will be some jiggle to the center, but once they cool they will firm up some yet retain their gooeyness. In theory, the brownies can last up to 5 days in an airtight container, but who are we kidding?! They also freeze although I have not personally tried this.

Budino al Cioccolato (Chocolate Crème Caramel)

I knew that I could get my husband moving quickly – something that simply isn’t in his nature – if I told him that my half & half had spoiled and if he wanted budino for dessert tonight I needed him to run to the store NOW to buy more. Andrew loves all custards and puddings and this version is rich and sophisticated yet simple to make. Oh, and did I say that it has dark bittersweet chocolate?! And the hint of lemon in the caramel is a surprising twist. This is truly a wonderful dessert – delicious any time of the year.

I found this recipe years ago in the New New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franey and I have been making it ever since. I believe this cookbook is now out of print, but copies are still available through used book dealers. It contains many wonderful older recipes.

Budino is not difficult to make. The trickiest part is making the caramel, but once you have learned how to do that, you will be able to make flan and caramel sauce with ease. And if you mess it up the first time, remember that it is only sugar and you can easily start again. Follow my directions exactly and you will likely get it in one.

Budino can be made the day before but it at least should be made 4 to 6 hours before you wish to serve it, giving it enough time to set and chill. I make mine with half & half, but you can use whole milk. If you go with anything thinner – well, it just won’t be the same. If it makes you feel any better, there is only a quarter cup of the half & half per serving. You want to use the best eggs and a good quality dark chocolate. I like to go with a 64% to 70% cacao. Left-overs will keep for several days un-molded in the refrigerator. Once you taste this you will wonder why you haven’t made it before.

Budino al Cioccolato (Chocolate Crème Caramel) Budino al Cioccolato

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

For the caramel

1/2 cup of granulated sugar

2 Tablespoons water

Juice of 1/2 lemon

For the custard

1 cup of half & half or whole milk

2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate

2 large eggs

2 egg yolks from large eggs

1/4 cup of granulated sugar

Pinch of Kosher salt

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Boil 3 cups of water and keep warm.
  2. Set out 4 half cup oven-proof custard molds on a cooling rack.
  3. Combine the 1/2 cup of sugar, water and lemon juice in a light-colored saucepan and bring to a boil on medium heat. (If you use a dark pan, it will be difficult to impossible to see when the sugar has become just the right color. This is one of those things that you wait for and the ALL of a SUDDEN – it’s done.)Allow the mixture to boil WITHOUT STIRRING AND DO NOT TOUCH! If you stir, the sugar will evaporate before it ever caramelizes and nothing burns like hot sugar. You are looking for the mixture to become a light amber color. It will take about 8 to 10 minutes(ish).

    Just be patient and DO NOT walk away! Nothing much will happen for the first 6 minutes or so. And then all of a sudden, you have caramel. If the sugar gets too dark, it will taste bitter so REALLY, DON’T WALK AWAY! Okay, this is the hardest part and you got it in one. Now quickly divide the caramel into each custard cup and swirl the liquid so it climbs part way up the sides of the mold. Be careful because the sugar is still very hot, but do it right away before it sets.

  4. While the caramel is cooling, heat the half & half or milk with the chocolate and stir until the chocolate melts.
  5. Beat the eggs, egg yolks, salt and sugar until smooth. Slowly whisk the chocolate milk mixture into the eggs. You don’t want the eggs to curdle so you need to bring them up to the same temperature as the hot liquid which is easily done if you pour in just a little of the hot mixture at a time. Budino al Cioccolato10
  6. Using a fine mesh sieve, strain the custard into a bowl with a lip or a large measuring cup. Discard the foam.
  7. Divide the custard into the prepared custard cups and place them in a baking dish large enough to easily hold them. Place the dish in the oven and carefully pour enough boiling water around the cups to come about 1/3 of the way up the sides. Bake until the custard is set – about 30 minutes.
  8. Remove the pan to a wire rack to cool. Once you can easily handle the cups, remove them from the water and place them on the rack to cool completely. Lay a piece of plastic wrap directly onto the top of the custard to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate the custard for at least several hours. Budino al Cioccolato2
  9. When you are ready to serve, take a thin, sharp knife or metal spatula and run it around the edge of the custard. Place a shallow bowl over the custard cup, flip the dish and the mold over and give one firm plop. The custard should come out in one piece along with the caramel.

    A small disk of the caramel might remain in the dish. That’s fine. You can wash it out with hot water – it’s sugar after all – or you can chip out pieces and suck on them like candy. I’m not judging.

 

Blackberry Thyme Crisp with Pistachio Ice Cream

Berries! They are everywhere. Not too long ago, Frances and Matthew gave me a lovely cookbook from a winery that we had visited together a couple of years ago on a trip through Napa and Sonoma. It has recipes and wine pairings which is wonderful for anyone asking the question of what goes well with [fill in the blank].

I’m always looking for new desserts that are easy and delicious. This one caught my eye because it uses fresh thyme along with the now ubiquitous berries. I happen to be growing a bumper crop of lemon thyme on my terrace and it pairs beautifully with the blackberries. The cookbook gives a recipe for making your own pistachio ice cream but I a) don’t own an ice cream maker; (b) have zero freezer space to make ice cream; and c) don’t want to spend so much time making dessert, so I simply purchased a very good quality “Mediterranean” Pistachio ice cream. If you want to make your own ice cream, buy the book. DO NOT OMIT the ice cream and do not buy that phony strange green stuff. This dessert really needs the pistachio ice cream to play off of the berries. “Crisp” is a bit of a misnomer, in my opinion. I might consider doubling the topping next time I make this since it sort of disappeared as a topping, simply melding with the berries and giving the berries some heft.

The dessert is not impressive looking (which could be why there was no photo of it in the cookbook…) and you won’t think this is the greatest thing you have EVER eaten. I’m just being honest. However, after taking that first bite, you will say “Wow, this is REALLY good.” It’s also surprisingly filling, so you could get 6 portions out of it. And once I added the pistachio ice cream and took that first bite – well, it was just a bit of perfection.

I don’t happen to live where wild blackberries grow, but if you do, they would be wonderful here. My blackberries came from the produce section of my local market.

Blackberry Thyme Crisp with Pistachio Ice Cream from the Winemaker Cooks by Christine Hanna

Blackberry Thyme Crisp6

Yield: 4 to 6 servings with ice cream

Ingredients

4 cups/455 grams fresh blackberries, washed and drained

1 Tablespoon cornstarch

1/3 cup/65 grams granulated sugar

1 generous teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (preferably lemon thyme)

1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Blackberry Thyme Crisp1

For the topping 

6 Tablespoons/45 grams unbleached all-purpose flour

1/2 cup/100 grams packed brown sugar/Demerara sugar

1/2 cup/100 grams granulated sugar

Generous 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon Kosher or fine salt

6 Tablespoons/85 grams cold, unsalted butter cut into cubes

For serving

Good quality pistachio ice cream

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F/190 degrees C. Lightly butter a 9-inch square baking pan.
  2. In a large bowl, gently toss the berries with the sugar, cornstarch, thyme, lemon juice and vanilla. Allow it to stand for 15 minutes, while you make the topping and the oven heats up. Blackberry Thyme Crisp3 (2)
  3. In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugars, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt until combined. Add the butter and continue processing until the mixture resembles coarse sand. Blackberry Thyme Crisp2
  4. Turn the fruit into the prepared baking pan and spread the fruit to an even layer. evenly spread the topping over the fruit.Blackberry Thyme Crisp4Blackberry Thyme Crisp5
  5. Bake for 35 – 45 minutes or until the fruit is bubbling and the topping is golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature with the ice cream.