Friday, April 23, 2010

Dreamy savory muffins

I've been having some pretty bizarre dreams lately. Some have such an elaborate storyline that remind me of a Hollywood production. Some have elements that are so disconnected from each other that they seem like excerpts from a scattered life lived in my own little dream land. All of them incredibly vivid, all of them making it hard for me to wake up in the morning. I feel like I've been sleeping a lot but not getting any rest.

I consider dreams to be a straightforward reflection of my waking concerns, things that preoccupy me in my social life. I'm not the kind of person who gives unnecessary explanations and meaning to simple dreams or rush to interpret them. Freud would be furious at me for this, I know.

I've read somewhere that dreams have been responsible for numerous inventions, scientific discoveries, works of art, books. It is said that Mary Shelley dreamt up the story of Frankenstein. That to me is amazing. You can just fall asleep and let your mind do all the work for you without you even trying.

Well, my dreams, however complicated or strange they may be, have yet to lead me to a momentous discovery or a noteworthy idea for a book. But they do sometimes lead me to great food or rather the yearning for it. Perhaps it's the fact that I'm a bit greedy at times but every now and then I dream about food. I've had dreams that I'm baking cakes, always chocolate cakes, that I'm gobbling an enormous souvlaki bought at an Athens street vendor near the house I grew up in, I've even had a dream once that I was at a family gathering where the centerpiece at the dining table was a humongous bird, supposedly a chicken, with crispy skin. I kid you not. These are dreams I've actually had and I'm not afraid, or embarrassed, to admit it. Do any other people have dreams like that, I wonder, or is it just me?

Now, these muffins here, I have not dreamt about but they are indeed dreamy. They are not sweet muffins, these are savory ones made with some delectable ingredients guaranteed to produce a spectacular result. Cheese, eggs, dried figs, milk, herbs, flour. Mix them all together and you end up with a splendid array of fluffy and light muffins.

Greece ranks second in the world in the production of figs and I can attest to the fact that they are absolutely delicious. I practically lived off the stuff each end of summer while I was growing up. There was an old huge fig tree in the back yard of our summer house near the sea and every kid in a two kilometer radius came to feed off those glorious fruit. We would climb up the branches of the tree, shaking them fiercely to release the ripe fruit and then we would greedily eat them, one after the other. I was lucky that I could find Greek dried figs in Holland because my muffins wouldn't be the same without them.

The batter is a usual one for muffins. Eggs, milk and flour but the rest of the ingredients are the ones that make all the difference. The cheese of choice for these muffins is Gruyère. Gruyère is a hard yellow cow's milk cheese originating from Switzerland that is most commonly used for fondue. While I was baking the muffins, my little expat kitchen filled with the aroma of melting cheese and for a moment I thought I was baking a cheese pie. But no, it was something far better than that.

The nutty and slightly tart flavor of the Gruyère and its creamy texture balances perfectly with the sweetness of the dried figs and the earthy flavor of the fresh herbs. The cheese melts beautifully inside and around each muffin, taking on a golden brown color as it bakes in the oven. The eggs help the muffins puff up but once taken out of the oven they fall down a little, creating a cute dent in the middle. They are so unbelievably light in texture that you'd think there's no flour in them. No stodginess whatsoever. Specks of green from the fresh rosemary and thyme make their appearance once you bite into the muffin and the crunch of the small sweet fig seeds make their presence known in between your teeth.

These are better eaten within the same day that you bake them, preferably straight out of the oven. They are perfect for breakfast or for a Sunday brunch with fresh orange juice, served on a champagne glass for a touch of luxury, but I also love having them in the evening as a snack, while watching a movie, with a glass of white sweet Riesling wine, a rose Gewürztraminer or a big glass of lager beer. I'm sure you won't be able to resist them and you'll end up nibbling on them all day long so by nighttime they'll be long gone. They're that enticing!

Savory Muffins with Gruyère Cheese, Dried Figs, Rosemary and Thyme
Adapted from Dina Nikolaou

The original recipe calls for the Greek cheese Graviera but unfortunately I couldn't find any in Holland. Gruyère though is excellent for this recipe, if not better. In case you cannot find Gruyère or Graviera I would suggest you use Swiss Emmental which is a great substitute.
If you have trouble finding fresh rosemary or thyme you can use dried. Instead of 1 tsp of each herb use 1/2 tsp.

Yield: 16 muffins

3 medium-sized eggs
180 ml (3/4 cup) olive oil, plus a little extra for greasing the muffin pan
240 ml (1 cup) whole milk
160 g self-rising flour
1 tsp baking powder
200 g Gruyère cheese, grated
160 g dried figs, chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, green, white, pink)

Special equipment: one or two 12-cup muffin pans, paper liners (optional)

Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

In a large bowl, crack open the eggs, add the milk and olive oil and beat lightly with the help of an egg beater. Then whisk in the flour, salt and baking powder. You will end up with an almost runny batter.

Add the grated cheese, chopped dried figs, herbs and pepper to the batter. Mix well with a rubber spatula, making sure the figs get well coated with the batter. This will keep them from sinking to the bottom of the muffin pan cups.

Pour 3-4 drops of olive oil in each muffin cup and brush it all over the inside of each cup to prevent the muffins from sticking to the pan. Alternatively you can place paper liners in each cup.
Fill each cup about 3/4 full with the batter, using a spoon.

Bake, on the middle rack of the oven, for 25-30 minutes or until when inserting a knife in the middle of the muffin it comes out clean. The muffins must have a nice golden brown color when you take them out of the oven.

Let them cool in the pan for a while and then place them on a wire rack.

Refill the same muffin pan or use another if you have and continue baking the rest of the muffins.

The muffins are best eaten on the same day they're made but you can also eat them the following day. Keep them lightly covered with tin foil at room temperature.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dancing salmon

Nature is so weirdly fascinating. Just watch the Discovery channel and you'll see. Strange-looking bugs, amazingly intelligent primates, deadly sea creatures, flamboyant birds, exotic vegetation in faraway lands. All with their own distinct characteristics, way of life, way of survival.

Salmon are extraordinary fish. They are born in fresh water streams and continue to develop there, until they are able to survive in salt water. That's when they migrate to the open seas, where they spend as many as eight years sexually maturing and exercising their skills of survival. Their predators are bigger fish and of course us, constantly fishing for them. Guided by their acute sense of smell, they head back to fresh water to lay their eggs, most of them trying to return to their native rivers to reproduce. They swim upstream, for hundreds of kilometers, jumping through waterfalls and navigating through tricky obstacles.

Looking at salmon swimming upstream they seem so graceful and determined. They look like they're doing an elegant dance; and that reminds me of a song I absolutely love and... dance to. The salmon dance. The video is really funny and... aquatic.

I admire salmon for all their persistence and will to secure the future of their species, but you know what else? I love how they taste too. Salmon is one of my favorite fish to eat. It's unbelievably delicious; probably that's why it is preferred even by people who don't particularly enjoy fish. Its firm flesh makes it so versatile. You can grill it, bake it, fry it, steam it or even smoke it and the flesh will remain firm and juicy. It's very difficult to dry out salmon because it's a very oily fish and if yours does dry out, well you're doing something wrong.

Let's not forget that salmon is incredibly good for you. It's highly nutritious, full of vitamin D, Omega-3 fatty acids, proteins and magnesium. But salmon is not always good for the wallet. It's a bit pricey but totally worth it as far as I'm concerned. You're not gonna have it every single day anyway. Especially here in Holland where a good rib-eye steak costs almost double that of a huge salmon steak, it's a good choice. Not to mention a healthier one.

One of the ways I prefer cooking salmon is by simply dry-frying it. Take a non-stick skillet, heat it over medium-high heat, season the salmon with salt and pepper and cook it for five minutes on each side. Since it is so oily, you don't need any extra fat. All you need is a squeeze of lemon on top and you're set. Along with a leafy salad, it's the perfect meal, especially if you're watching your weight.

If, on the other hand, you want to indulge yourself a little, there is another way, a bolder way, a tastier way and ultimately a better way to cook salmon. And that is what I'm offering you here. A mouthwatering recipe involving fish, booze and a veg. Not any booze and not any veg. Ouzo and fennel. I've talked about ouzo before, the traditional Greek spirit with the anise flavor that captures the heart of anyone who tries it. Now pair this with fennel -the mediterranean delight of vegetables that's so aromatic and pungent- and the lovely pink salmon and you get a dish made in heaven.

There is a triple threat of fennel here. Fennel bulb, fennel fronds, fennel seeds. Needless to say that if you're not a fennel fan, now is the time to say goodbye. Or is it? I believe you should try this dish. You might be persuaded and even become a fennel lover. The combination of flavors is superb. You probably think that all you're going to taste is the anise flavor, right? Wrong! I was a bit apprehensive myself about the result but the fennel, cooked in a mixture of olive oil and butter, does not overpower the fish. When the dish is right in front of you, you can immediately smell the delicate liquorice-like aroma of fennel paired with the sweetness of the luscious salmon and then you take the first bite. The mellow oiliness of the firm fleshed fish along with the smooth butteriness of the fennel, make each bite a pure pleasure. After each mouthful, you sense the subtle flavor of anise as an aftertaste rather than a principal savor.

Accompany the dish with a bowl of basmati rice or any other long grain rice you prefer and of course with a small glass of ouzo. I like adding a little water in my ouzo, transforming it from a transparent to a milky color and making it a little lighter.

Pan-Fried Salmon Fillets with Sautéed Fennel and Ouzo
Adapted from Bon Appétit

I rarely cook fish with butter so this is an exception for me. The first time I made this I used only butter but the dish was rather heavy, so the second time I opted for the addition of olive oil and a cut-down on the amount of butter. The addition of olive oil also prevents the burning of the butter so there is also a practical advantage in using it. You can still use only butter if you prefer, just add an extra tablespoon to the recipe.
In case you can't find ouzo, you can substitute with tsipouro, pastis, or sambuca.

Yield: 2 main-course servings

2 salmon fillets, skinless and boneless, 180-200 g each
1 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
45 g unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp olive oil
2 Tbsp shallots, minced
1 large fennel bulb with fronds
2 Tbsp fennel fronds, chopped, plus extra to serve
1/2 cup water
2 Tbsp ouzo
Freshly ground white pepper

Bring salmon to room temperature 10-15 minutes before cooking.

Cut fennel bulb lengthwise into 4 wedges, cut away the root and fronds and then cut the wedges into 0.5 cm-thick slices.

Place the fennel seeds in a large non-stick skillet and dry-fry* them over medium-high heat, stirring them around constantly, until they become fragrant, for about 1 1/2 minutes. Be careful not to burn them. Remove them from the skillet and let them cool. Using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder, crush or grind the fennel seeds until they become almost powder.
Place the crushed seeds in a small bowl along with the butter, shallots, 1 Tbsp of the fennel fronds, salt and pepper. Mix well with a spoon until you have a smooth mixture.

In the same skillet that you used to dry-fry the fennel seeds, heat 1 Tbsp of the butter mixture and 1 tsp olive oil over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the sliced fennel bulb and 1/4 cup of water. Cover and cook for about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally, until fennel is tender. Uncover the skillet and sauté for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until fennel starts to brown. Transfer fennel to a plate and set aside.

Rinse salmon fillets under running water and pat then dry. Sprinkle them with salt and white pepper on both sides. In the same skillet, heat 1 Tbsp of the butter mixture and 1 tsp olive oil over medium heat and once butter has melted, add the salmon fillets. Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Then turn salmon fillets over and add 1/4 cup of water to the skillet. Cover and continue cooking until the salmon is just opaque in the center, for about 5 minutes.

Slide salmon fillets to one side of the skillet and return the sautéed fennel to the skillet. Add ouzo, the remaining butter mixture and the remaining 1 Tbsp fennel fronds. Stir to heat fennel through.

Take two plates and divide fennel mixture between them. Place the salmon fillets on top and spoon over the remaining butter and olive oil sauce.

Serve immediately, sprinkling with some more fennel fronds.

*Toasting or dry-frying whole spices before grinding them intensifies the flavors.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Strawberry fields forever

The sense of smell is such a powerful sense. It can make you travel a thousand miles away with the whiff of a perfume reminiscent of the Orient. It can make you travel years back when you suddenly smell the essence of vanilla coming out of a bakery, reminding you of your mother in the kitchen, making you your favorite honey doughnuts on a sunny morning.

Sweet smell, spicy smell, the smell of fruit, the smell of freshness...
Don't you love the smell of all things fresh? From freshly cut tulips and the pure smell of a newborn baby to the clean scent of soft, fluffy clothes straight out of the dryer and a bunch of chopped herby mint. From the smell of a hot and crunchy bread loaf baking in the oven to the sweet smell of tomatoes that hits you when you cut into them with a big knife. Of all fresh smells though, the one I love the best is that of strawberries.

I remember when I was little, the feeling I got when my mother brought home from the market the first strawberries of spring. I'd get so excited. The smell of those sweet strawberries, their incredible red color, their cute little yellow seeds; it was my favorite fruit in the whole wide world. I'd put my share of strawberries in a bowl, I'd sprinkle them with more than enough sugar, I'd take a large spoon that could barely fit into my mouth and after a minute or two they'd be gone. Strawberry juices running down the side of my mouth and in my face you could clearly read the feeling of satisfaction. Such satisfaction.

Even now, that's the best way for me to enjoy strawberries. I've come to know, cook and experiment with a lot of strawberry recipes over the years but my first instinct as soon as I lay eyes on them, is to smother them with sugar and eat them on the spot. Well, that and the urge to make a strawberry daiquiri. No patience for elaborate strawberry mousses or cakes here but instant gratification.

I recently discovered another way to use fresh strawberries that's so inspiring, so healthy and more importantly, so unbelievably tasty. Strawberry dressing over a crisp, slightly bitter rocket salad with feta cheese. It is amazing. This past week it has become my number one salad. And as long as I can find strawberries this season, this will definitely be a regular around here.

This salad has a wonderful combination of flavors. The bitterness of the rocket along with the sharpness of the feta might be enough for some. But add to the mix the awesome taste of the dressing and this salad becomes the mother of all salads. The sweet tang of strawberries, the zing of the lemon and the richness of the olive oil along with the pepperiness of the ginger and the welcomed addition of honey, make this creamy dressing a beautiful and delicious concoction.

Accompany this salad with some bread and you have the perfect lunch. Have it for a special dinner together with a bowl of pasta Bolognese and a bottle of a young Chilean red wine; the rare variety of Carmenere grape would be the best choice.

This strawberry dressing is thick and substantial and above all very versatile. You can use it not only on top of salads but on top of your favorite white cheese, on top of a cheese tart or a Greek tyropita (cheese pie) and it goes tremendously well drizzled generously on top of shrimp or fresh lobster. Yum!

By the way, did you know that strawberries are the only fruit that has its seeds on the outside?

Rocket Salad with Feta and Strawberry Dressing
Adapted from Gastronomos magazine

You can use spinach instead of rocket for this salad. I would recommend using baby spinach which is more tender and less stringy and doesn't need to be blanched before eaten.

Yield: 1 salad for two / 1 cup of strawberry dressing

80 g fresh rocket leaves
100 g feta cheese, cut into small cubes

for strawberry dressing
200 g fresh strawberries, washed, hulled and cut in half
3 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/2 tsp lemon zest
1 heaped tsp clear honey
1 tsp fresh ginger, grated
1/4 cup olive oil
A pinch of freshly ground black pepper
A pinch of salt

Special equipment: food processor or blender and a fine sieve


for strawberry dressing
Put the washed, hulled strawberry halves in the food processor or blender and process them for 1 minute until they become a purée. Pass the purée through a fine sieve and into a bowl, using a spatula to force all of it through the sieve and leaving the small seeds behind. Place the seedless strawberry purée back into the food processor and add the rest of the ingredients. Process everything for 1 minute until you have a homogeneous mixture.

You can either store the dressing in a tightly closed jar in the fridge for later use or use it immediately.

for salad
Wash the rocket leaves and put them in a salad spinner or just leave them in a colander to drain off excess water and then place them in a salad bowl or large plate. Scatter feta cubes on top of the rocket leaves and drizzle the strawberry dressing on top of everything. Use as much or as little as you wish.

Serve salad.

Note: Depending on whether your strawberries are ripe or not, you may want to use more or less of the lemon juice and honey. If strawberries are not so ripe then use a little more honey, if they are too ripe then use a little more lemon juice. Taste along the way.

You can keep the dressing in the refrigerator for a couple of days in an airtight container.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Baking hits and misses

I, like many other bakers before me, have had my share of baking misses; especially during hectic holiday seasons. That's when everything seems to go wrong. Why? Perhaps it's the expectation of baking marvellous and exciting goodies during those times or simply it may be the fact that I get fed up with food, desserts and my crazy oven, that I can't "perform" as well as I'm able to. Who knows? But this holiday time is by far no exception.

It all started last week when I wanted to bake Easter cookies. Being away from home and needing to feel like Easter is really almost here, I yearned for the smell of cookies to fill my apartment. After coloring my Easter eggs, Smyrneika cookies, a traditional kind of Greek Easter cookies, were my cookies of choice to bake. I prepared them anxiously and enthusiastically and put them in the oven. But the baking time in the recipe I had was completely off and I ended up burning my first batch. I wasn't surprised. I persevered and I baked the next batch, but this time I was watching the oven like a hawk and happily, they came out perfect. Crumbly and buttery and smelling divine. I know I'm teasing you now, since I'm not offering you the recipe for these, but I promise I will soon.

Moving on, this week, the Holy Week, a tsoureki (a sweet, brioche-like traditional Greek Easter bread) was due. And not any tsoureki, I'm talking about my grandmother's tsoureki. The best of all times. She has given me her famous recipe two years ago but it always ended up a disaster when I made it. So, when I was in Greece last Christmas, I decided to be proactive. I had her show me how it's done. I bought the ingredients and I made her prepare it for my sake. I watched her mixing the ingredients, kneading the dough, resting it, baking the glorious bread, the whole thing. I jotted down everything, every seemingly insignificant detail of whatever she was doing. And let me tell you, that was not an easy task since my grandmother cooks and bakes with no recipe. She just follows her much exercised instinct, measuring everything by using her eyes ("me to mati" as we say in Greek) and not any cups or spoons, making it practically impossible to succeed in making one of her recipes, unless you watch exactly how she does it.

The little honey bees want to fly away...

Armored with that priceless experience of witnessing the preparation of The tsoureki, I was determined that this upcoming Easter I would make my best tsoureki ever. Well, surprise surprise. Alas, this year my tsoureki was worse than ever. Perhaps you couldn't exactly tell by looking at it, unless you're an experienced baker that is (or not), but it was stiff, doughy, flavorless, not risen, it was awful. I was so disappointed. I was genuinely sad.

I decided right then and there that I would bake something completely different, something that would hopefully be a success and I found it. Forget about chocolate eggs and chocolate bunnies this Easter, have a chocolate honey bee cake! Isn't it cute? When I first saw this recipe I was completely taken by the little bees adorning the top of the chocolate cake. I had to make it. It instantly made me think of spring and since it is (almost) here, this is the right cake to bake. This is a hit!

Needless to say, this is the perfect cake for chocoholics. I bet there are many of you out there and I am definitely a member of the club. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder, what a fantastic duo. They both render their beautiful deep chocolaty flavor to the cake and along with the honey and muscovado sugar they make it a real treat for children and adults alike. It may be April Fool's Day today but this is no lie.

The real Dutch dutch-processed cocoa

This is a very moist and dense cake with a glaze that is thick and a bit sticky from the honey. It clings to your tongue a little bit, taking your taste buds for a sweet ride. This is not a cake for the faint-hearted. It is adapted from Nigella Lawson after all. You'll need a lot of exercise to burn off those calories after having eaten it, but it is worth it.

You can surely leave the bees out for a slicker looking cake or you can make fruit or other shapes using the marzipan. You may alternatively cover the cake with dark chocolate shavings for the complete chocolate experience. No matter what kind of decoration you choose make sure to use your imagination.
Oh, and wouldn't this be the best cake for a child's birthday party?

Honey Bee Chocolate Cake with Sticky Chocolate Glaze
Adapted from Nigella Lawson

It is really important to use good quality chocolate for this cake. It makes all the difference. I chose Lindt dark 70% chocolate which has a supremely bitter flavor.

Yield: 1 cake, 10-12 slices


for cake
225 g butter, softened, plus extra for greasing the pan
100 g dark 70% good quality chocolate, cut into pieces
125 ml runny clear honey
275 g light muscovado sugar
3 medium-sized eggs
300 g all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp baking soda, sifted
2 Tbsp Dutch-processed cocoa powder, sifted
500 ml boiling water

for sticky glaze
200 g dark 70% good quality chocolate, cut into pieces
150 ml runny clear honey
100 g icing sugar, sifted
80 ml water

for honey bees
40 g marzipan
2 drops yellow food coloring
16 blanched flaked almonds or almond halves


for cake
Preheat your oven to 180 degrees Celsius.

Butter a 26 cm round spring-form pan and line it with baking paper.

Melt chocolate in a glass bowl set over a pan of barely simmering water. Set aside and let cool slightly.

In a large bowl, beat with a hand-held mixer the sugar with the softened butter until light and creamy. Then add the honey and beat for 1 minute. Add 1 egg beating it in with 1 Tbsp of the sifted flour. Then add another egg with another Tbsp of flour and then the third egg with another Tbsp of flour. Beat well.
Fold the melted chocolate in the mixture with a rubber spatula and then add the rest of the flour followed by the baking soda and cocoa powder and pour the boiling water on top. Beat the mixture very well with the mixer. You will end up with a runny batter. Pour it into the spring-form pan.

Place pan on the lower rack of the oven and bake for 20 minutes. Then move pan to the middle rack of the oven and bake for further 30-40 minutes or until when inserting a knife in the middle of the cake it comes out clean.

Note: After a total of 35-40 minutes of baking has passed, check the cake and if it's catching on top, cover it with aluminum foil so it doesn't burn.

Take cake out of the oven, place on a wire rack and when it has slightly cooled, take it out of the pan and let it cool completely on the wire rack.

for sticky glaze
In a small saucepan, pour water and honey and bring to the boil over high heat. Turn off the heat and add the chocolate pieces. Stir gently the chocolate around with a rubber spatula until it melts. It will have an almost grainy texture. Leave it for a few minutes and then whisk the mixture. It will become glossy. Add the sifted icing sugar and whisk vigorously until you have a smooth and shiny glaze.

Glazing the cake
Choose the plate or stand where you'll place your cake, cut four thick strips of baking paper and form a square outline on the plate. This will ensure that your plate or stand will not be covered with glaze when you pour it over your cake.
Place the completely cooled cake on the plate and pour over the glaze, saving some of it in the pan, and evening it out with a palate knife, letting it run over the edges. Smooth the edges and let it set. It will take about 2-3 hours for the glaze to completely set. Once it has set, carefully slide out the baking paper strips.

for honey bees
You can prepare the marzipan using this recipe. This will yield quite a lot of marzipan so you can use the rest for making small chocolates or save it for another dessert.
In a small bowl, place the 40 g of marzipan and pour two drops of yellow food coloring. Knead the marzipan so that it becomes a bright yellow color. Cut the marzipan into 8 pieces and shape little bees.
Dig two flaked almonds or almond halves in the sides of each bee gently and using the left over sticky glaze and with the help of a toothpick, paint stripes on the back of the bees and eyes at the front.
Place your honey bees on top of the cake.

Serve cake and enjoy!

It keeps for 2-3 days, covered, at room temperature. If you bake this at summertime, store it in the refrigerator.