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Maamoul – Recipes from a Traditional Lebanese Easter

Happy Easter! It’s really great to be able to share this recipe with you, and maybe from the photo above, you too will feel there are things worth coming back to this world for. This is my tray of maamoul, a traditional Lebanese sweet that is made especially for Easter. Maamoul is a semolina shortbread bound with butter, orange blossom water and rose water which on the inside holds a sweet filling. The filling is either buttery dates, or a concoction of walnuts or pistachios with sugar, more orange blossom water and rosewater. Now consider that for a minute. Imagine biting through that buttery, crumbly crust and getting the faint hint of roses and orange blossoms, followed by the chewiness of pistachios, nutty and sweet. Delicious opulence and comfortable luxury. Maamoul works on so many levels.

If you look through the photo series, you will get a basic understanding of how these Easter cakes are made. You can see the beautiful pattern that is formed when the filled dough is pressed into a traditional wooden mold. There is a shape for every flavour and that makes it easy to know which is which. According to Ludwig’s sister, who’s a real wiz with computers, there’s anecdotal evidence pointing to the tradition of making maamoul on Easter. Apparently the wooden mold symbolises Jesus’ cross, the mold’s pattern resembles the shape of the sponge with which Jesus was given vinegar to drink, the crust contains no sugar in reference to Christ’s death containing no happiness, and the inside is sweet and joyful to symbolise the resurrection. I’m not sure how steeped in tradition all this symbolism is, but at the least, it’s a nice story.

It’s been nine years since I’ve taken part in a maamoul making session, and this is actually my first attempt at it, as it was usually my mother who took care of the whole mission. Long distance phone calls with mom, mirrored by similar efforts from Ludwig resulted in the recipe we used. Just like we used to do, the dough was prepared on Good Friday and the maamoul was baked on Easter Saturday. But unlike being under the strict, observing eyes of our parents, this time we allowed ourselves to indulge in trying the maamoul as it was warm, instead of having to wait for Sunday as tradition requires. I am now convinced that eating maamoul warm is the only way to do it with the filling still gooey and slightly runny. The flavour warms my heart and the scent takes me back to my childhood, and the result is a maamoul I know even mom would be proud of!

Maamoul Recipe

Ingredients – Crust

  • 900 g coarse semolina
  • 150 g fine semolina
  • 550 g good quality butter at room temperature
  • 125 ml rosewater
  • 30 ml orange blossom water
  • 1/2 cup milk (used on the second day)
  • Equipment – maamoul molds bought from a Middle Eastern supply store

Ingredients – Fillings

Fillings are tricky to give amounts with, because it depends on how many types you want to make. Use these ratios as a guideline, and make less/more depending on how much you want to make

  • 2 cups dates and 1/2 cup butter combined in food processor
  • 2 cups coarsely ground walnuts and 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tbsp rosewater and 1/2 tsp orange blossom water
  • 2 cups coarsely ground pistachios and 1/2 cup sugar with 2 tbsp rosewater and 1/2 tsp orange blossom water
  • Try the combinations and adjust the sugar and aromatic waters as you like

Method

  • Knead the coarse and fine semolina with the butter until incorporated
  • Gradually add the orange blossom water and the rosewater until all added
  • Knead for 30 minutes
  • Rest for 12 hours, kneading it around 3 times in between
  • Before you start using the dough, you must knead it one last time, this time you wet your hands with the 1/2 cup of milk and kneading until all the milk is used up
  • Now your dough is ready, create a little ball of dough and make a hole in it, making the sides even
  • Look at the picture that shows the stages of filling the maamoul. Fill with your desired filling. If you are using dates, they should be formed into individual balls to fill the dough
  • Close the dough so that the filling is totally covered by dough
  • Put in the maamoul mold and push firmly but not overly so, otherwise the dough will stick
  • Put a cutting board and cover with a kitchen towel
  • Strike the top tip of the mold on the kitchen towel to release the maamoul
  • Repeat and when you have a tray full, put into an oven that has been preheated to 220 degrees Celsius
  • It will take around 15 minutes to bake, but what you are after is the slightest colouring. You don’t want it to brown
  • Remove, cool down and eat when warm or cold

Shish Tawook Recipe – The Best Chicken Kebab Ever

It’s a big claim, isn’t it? The best chicken kebab ever? If you are doubtful, you possibly haven’t tried this Lebanese specialty as many times as I have during my teen age years. You see, back in 1996 (the post war years), McDonalds and Burger King hadn’t yet entered the Lebanese market, and Lebanon was full of non-franchised eateries that served good quality fast food. The choice wasn’t restricted between a Big Mac and a Double Whopper, but instead we had a vast array of what you could call street food. This is food that is traditional and regional to our culture, food that we know and love and that is ingrained in our cuisine. Think crisp falafel bursting out of fresh Lebanese bread drizzled with lemony tahini and packed with pickles and parsley, or a moist chicken shawarma traditionally carved by a master craftsman, charred and full-flavoured, sitting on clouds of white garlic sauce. Manakish, kafta, lahm mishwi (barbeque beef or lamb), and the list goes on.

When McDonalds (now lovingly reffered to as MacDo by dolled up French-accented Lebanese girls oblivous to the giant’s impact on our local culture) opened in Lebanon, we rushed and queued to get a taste of what was on offer. In retrospect, had I known then what I know now, I would have started my own Slow Food movement, but in our ignorance, as if in a bout of mass hysteria, McDonalds was accepted, and though we knew deep down that the food did not even compare to our local oldies, we embraced the terrible new. I personally haven’t eaten McDonalds for around six years now, and prefer to eat food prepared by individuals who are passionate about what they do. I also hope that my efforts here on my blog can help preserve the enthusiasm people have for regional specialties. One of these specialties is shish tawook.

What I love about shish tawook is that it is so popular all over Lebanon and that there isn’t a single recipe that is used by everyone to reproduce these skewered beauties, but that every home has its own recipe. I also love that though it seems so engrained in our culture, hardly any of us know what the word tawook means. Well, let me tell you. Tawook is a variant on the Turkish word tavuk, meaning chicken. So shish tawook means chicken skewers. The reason for this popular Turkish dish to be on our menu is because the Ottoman Empire ruled Lebanon between the years 1516 and 1920. Today, our generation can not easily identify the mark of the Turks on our history, mainly because the Turks goverened Lebanon through local leaders. But in reality, our love of backgammon and much of our food has been influenced by the Turks, and if we were try to get a positive out of every negative situation, I’d say shish tawook is certainly one positive to add to the list.

The shish tawook recipe below is one of many that you would find out there, but I think it’s the closest in flavour to my favourite version that I used to have in Lebanon. Eat it with plenty of toum and some pickled cucumber with Lebanese bread, and then tell me if it’s not the best chicken kebab ever.

Shish Tawook Recipe

Ingredients

  • 1.5 kg chicken breast, cut into 1 inch cubes
  • 1 cup olive oil
  • 3 tbsp dijon or mild mustard
  • 3/4 cup lemon juice
  • 10 crushed garlic cloves
  • 2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp white (or black) pepper
  • 2 tbsp tomato paste
  • 4 tbsp finely chopped thyme or 2 tbsp dried thyme
  • mushrooms, optional but highly recommended
  • 1 red and 1 green capsicum, optional but highly recommended

Method

  • Emulsify the mustard with  the olive oil. This is done by whisking a little bit of olive oil into the mustard and continuing to do so until all the olive oil is encorporated
  • Add and whisk the lemon juice, salt, pepper, tomato paste, garlic and thyme until well mixed
  • Marinate the chicken in the sauce overnight in the fridge
  • Skewer the chicken along with pieces of mushroom and capsicum and barbeque or grill until don . Don’t over cook otherwise the chicken would dry out
  • Eat with lots and lots of toum, pickles and Lebanese bread
  • Blissfully avoid social interaction for 4 days until all garlic symptoms have subsided
http://thefoodblog.com.au/2009/10/toum-lebanese-garlic-sauce-recipe.html

Kibbet La’teen – Vegetarian Pumpkin Kibbe


Queensland Blue Pumpkins

I have noticed that lately my blog has focused on Lebanese food. I don’t know why especially. The fact that I am Lebanese might have something to do with it, but I live in bicultural home were we live on a multicultural diet, as is befitting for a Sydney lifestyle. In my little corner of the world I can eat anything from ayam goreng to zabaglione, and I do. But lately, I often think of home. I miss my little village, our olive trees anxious for the summer time, and my parents who are waiting for that weekly phone call from their three boys who are scattered around the world. I find some solace in that phone call, and I spend hours talking to my mom, discussing day-to-day life, sharing worries and triumphs and swapping recipes. Easter is near, and normally I would have felt it approaching. You see, though Sydney has given me so much, it has also made me a stranger to traditions I used to identify with. That’s what nine years does to a migrant. In the period of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday, I would have been more aware of the approach of Easter, possibly because I usually would have had a lot of kibbet la’teen.


Kibbet La’teen – Pumpkin Kibbeh with Labneh

The days of Lent traditionally meant abstinence from meat. This has now changed, but in keeping with tradition, I wanted to make kibbet la’teen, or pumpkin kibbeh. Kibbeh is the national dish of Lebanon and we have so many variations on the theme. The most famous is the torpedo shaped balls filled with minced meat and pine nuts. Any decent or even terrible Lebanese restaurant would have kibbeh on the menu. But pumpkin kibbeh is the only kibbeh to have during Lent. I love the regional name kibbet heeleh. This names translates to “trick kibbeh”, the trick is, of course, the sneaky substitution of meat with pumpkin. The filling varies, and you can use anything. You would normally fill the little kibbeh balls with silver beet or spinach, fennel, raisins, chickpeas and onions. Another filling would be labneh (a creamy spread made by straining yoghurt) with onions and dried mint. I decided to go with the labneh filling and I also made a filling with fetta and walnuts, which turned out great. I got this recipe from yet another weekly phone call to the folks back home. Mom emphasised that I MUST squeeze the pumpkin after boiling. So please, do as Mom says.

Kibbet La’teen – Pumpkin Kibbeh Recipe


A visual guide to making kibbeh

Ingredients

For the kibbeh dough

  • Pumpkin – 2 kilos
  • Burghul – 400 grams (burghul is also known as bulghur wheat)
  • 1 finely diced onion
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 tsp pepper
  • 1 loaf of Lebanese bread

Labneh Filling (adjust quantities to suit)

  • Labneh – 2 cups
  • ½ cup finely diced onion
  • Salt, to taste
  • Dried or fresh mint (optional)

Fetta Filling (adjust quantities to suit)

  • 2 cups Fetta
  • Handful of chopped walnuts
  • ½ cup finely diced onion

Method

  • Cut the pumpkin into equally sized pieces
  • Boil enough water to cover the pumpkin and add to the boiling water
  • Remove after around 15 minutes. You want the pumpkin to be cooked, but still firm. Set aside to cool
  • Put small amounts of the pumpkin in an old, but clean pillowcase. Squeeze to drain as much water as possible. Preserve the liquid that comes out
  • Repeat the above step with the remaining pumpkin. You should be left with around 650 grams of dry pumpkin flesh
  • Wet the Lebanese bread in the strained pumpkin water and then squeeze the excess liquid. Afterwards, shred the bread
  • Put the pumpkin flesh, shredded bread and the diced onion in a food processor, and whizz away
  • When the flesh and the onions are well processed, put in a big mixing bowl and add the burghul, salt and spices and knead well

Putting it together

  • Put a bowl of water nearby and wet your hands when necessary
  • Grab a small handful of kibbeh dough
  • Shape into a ball and hold in your left hand
  • Use the index finger on your right hand to make a hole in the ball
  • Gradually flatten the dough making it longer around your index
  • Make sure you don’t create any holes
  • It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it holds the filling. It gets better the more you do it. When the kibbeh is around the length of your index, place the filling of choice inside and close it up by either rounding the edges or flattening them.
  • Use the different edges to distinguish different fillings
  • Now to cook them, you can either bake, deep-fry or boil them. Deep-frying is the tastiest but least healthy, which is of course what I did. You want the colour to deepen to a nice dark brown. If boiling, do so for around 5 minutes. The colour will not go brown, but they will be cooked.
  • Eat hot or cold. It doesn’t matter, as long as you eat them. Enjoy, and if I don’t see you, Happy Easter.

Shankleesh – The Middle East’s Only Mold Ripened Cheese

If you have been to Lebanon or the Middle East, you may have tasted the different cheeses on offer. From stretchy, salty akkawi to mild, creamy baladiyeh to riccotta-like qareesheh, cheese is a central and well loved part of our diet. However, you may be lead to believe that our repertoire does not extend past fresh, white cheese. That’s where you’re wrong, sucker!

Enter shankleesh. You have possibly seen the vacuum-wrapped herb-covered ball-shaped curiosities at Middle-Eastern shops and you may have thought, what the? You may have walked by too scared to try something that strange. Allow me to demystify. Shankleesh is the only mold ripened cheese native to the Middle East. It is thought to have originated from Kurdistan, but is now mainly found in Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. Shankleesh is a compound word derived from the Kurdish ‘shan’, denoting a small terracotta pot; and ‘qareesh’, a Bedouin term for fermented milk.

It is said that you can find the best shankleesh in Rahbeh, Akkar (Lebanon’s most water-rich village- personal joke), but it’s mostly excellent anywhere where they use good milk. To make shankleesh, low fat yoghurt is strained until dry, then salted and strained again overnight. Afterwards the dry yoghurt is shaped into balls that are dried in the sun for a couple of days. Left to mature in air tight containers for a month, the shankleesh allows for the growth of Debaryomyces hanseni and Penicillium mold. This mold is rinsed and then the balls are covered with herbs and spices, mainly thyme and Aleppo pepper. Along with salt, these help inhibit bacterial growth. The result is a pungent, dry, crumbly cheese, full-flavoured and redolent with herbs and spices.

A great website with information on shankleesh is Slow Food Beirut. For some reason their shankleesh page is down, so I’ve found a link to Google’s cache. Have a read for much more in-depth information.

Shankleesh Recipe

Shankleesh is eaten with diced vegetables and loads of olive oil to balance the pungency and flavour onslaught. Traditionally one adds diced tomatoes, green capsicum and finely diced onions. I’ve added avocado to mine to give it a bit of creaminess. Simply crumble the shankleesh into a bowl, top with diced veggies of choice, add loads of olive oil and enjoy with Lebanese bread, or on top of toasted sourdough.

Ghraybeh with Dulce de Leche Recipe – Middle-Eastern Shortbread

ghraybeh with dulce de leche

Before Lili (Pikelet and Pie) packed up and embarked on an adventure in the exotic land of Vietnam, I paid her a visit and became the official custodian of her collection of cook books. Lili also went through her pantry and fridge, and I was given a box of smoked Maldon sea salt, pomegranate molasses that I had convinced her to buy, and a large tin of homemade dulce de leche. Dulce de leche is sweetened milk that has been heated to induce caramelisation. Lili simmered cans of condensed milk for two and a half hours and the result was a buttery sweet caramel, intense in colour and flavour. I try not to make overly sweet indulgences at home, in an effort to avoid type II diabetes and Lainy’s scornful looks, and so the can of dulce de leche sat in my fridge collecting rust as days turned into months.

A few weeks back, I noticed that the coffee shop next door was selling alfajores filled with dulce de leche and I mentioned them to my Brazilian friend Priscila. I often joke around with Priscila about how much Brazilian culture and much of Latin America has borrowed from the Lebanese and the Arabs (in the style of My Big Fat Greek Wedding), especially in the realm of culinary exploits. I scored another win in that department when Priscila researched alfajores, which turned out to be a Spanish specialty of Arab origin, originally named alfakher in Arabic meaning “the grand” or “the luxurious”. This reinforced my opinion that Spanish words beginning with “AL” are originally Arabic.

lili’s dulce de leche

I thought I would deviate a little bit from the modern version of alfajores and attempt to recreate what the Arabs would have invented. The alfajores I’ve tried have a texture and flavour akin to shortbread. So my mind went to ghraybeh, the Middle-Eastern shortbread. Ghraybeh is very simple cookie, containing only 3 ingredients, but as with many Middle-Eastern pastries, the recipe is almost always poorly documented and frustratingly vague. Chef Ramzi uses cups for measure, which is terrible when used with non-liquid ingredients. I encountered complete failure on the first attempt, but have since been able to perfect the recipe. Ghraybeh can be eaten alone, or used to sandwich dulce de leche as I have done here. For the recipe of dulce de leche, please view Lili’s blog here.

Ghraybeh Recipe

Ingredients

300 g cups white, all purpose flour
150 g ghee (dairy, not the vegetable based one)/clarified butter
150 g icing sugar (not the icing mixture, which contains cornflour)
Nuts for decoration such as peeled dry pistachio, almonds or pine nuts

Method

  1. Cream the ghee and icing sugar in a mixer for 5 minutes until fluffy, creamy and white
  2. With the speed on medium, add the flour gradually and incorporate well
  3. Now it’s time to use your hands. Grab the mixing bowl and using one hand, keep kneading the mixture for around 10 minutes. This encourages the flour to absorb the fat and creates the all-important texture. The dough will feel oily and loose, but 10 minutes of heavy kneading should be enough
  4. Cover the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour
  5. Heat the oven to 180 degrees C. Cover your baking tray with baking paper
  6. Take the pastry out of the fridge. You must work fast here as the pastry will go soft if you handle it too much. Pinch a bit of dough and roll it up to a ball between your hands, flatten it slightly and then place it on top of the baking tray and flatten until the shape is of a round cookie.
  7. Repeat until the tray is full, leaving some space between the cookies
  8. Decorate with nuts of choice
  9. Bake for 15 minutes, then take out of the oven and cool down on a cooling rack
  10. If you have dulce de leche, you can sandwich it between 2 cookies. If you are making plain cookies, there is a nice step you can add which involves dipping your hands in orange blossom water when you form the balls of dough, which gives the ghraybeh a distinctive aroma. You can also make different shapes and decorate with nuts

Eating Dandelions – Hindbeh Recipe


Lebanese style dandelion leaves

Before I begin this entry, I want to direct your attention to the ceramic bowl above which I made in December. This one is my pride and joy.
OK. Let’s start.

Talk to any real food lover out there and they will sing the praise of simple, honest, traditional food. One might be seduced by the luxury of foie gras, the aromatic intensity of truffles or mesmerising power of silky wagyu beef, but it’s easy to get something ethereal out of ingredients that are so good (and expensive) to start off with. But in my opinion, real ingenuity comes from creating flavour out of ingredients that are undervalued, humble, or even down right met with disdain. Having gone through several famines, my Lebanese ancestors have had to put their devious talents where their mouth is and derive their nutrition from the least likely of plants and cuts of meat. One example is akkoob (gundelia tournefortii, ????), a thorn that grows in the high mountains of Lebanon and in Syria and Jordan. This thorn is notoriously difficult and painful to harvest and its preparation is equally hazardous. But what you are left with, apart from green-hued bleeding fingers is a stem that works culinary wonders in stews, stir fries and with eggs. What drove someone to identify this wicked thorn as a potential source of food is beyond me. My guess is nothing short of extreme hunger.

Another such example of unlikely food is the dandelion (??????). In Australia, dandelion is mostly considered a lawn weed suitable only to feed guinea pigs, yet it is widely loved in Lebanon and is the main ingredient and namesake of the popular dish hindbeh. Dandelion gets its name from the French dent de lion, meaning lion’s tooth, in reference to the serrated shape of the leaf. Dandelions might be commercially grown in Lebanon, but most families I know gather their supplies from the wild, or buy it from the forager. So while Lebanese children are picking the dandelion flowers and making a wish before blowing on the parachute-like seeds (the wish comes true if the seeds fly in the direction you chose earlier), the savvy, cost-conscience mothers are busy harvesting.


dandelions growing wild in a garden in Portland NSW

The dandelion could be mistaken for other weeds with similar but hairy/thorny leaves (ones whose name I do not know, so avoid hairy leaves please). The smooth dandelion leaf is best harvested in early spring if intended to be eaten raw in salads, as its bitter flavour has not fully developed. As the leaf matures, it grows larger, thicker and more bitter. This bitterness can be minimised by blanching or by washing thoroughly and then squeezing out the liquid. However, bitterness is not a bad thing, as most naturopaths will tell you. It is usually an indicator of a plant’s ability to detoxify the body and the liver (or that the plant is poisonous!). Dandelions are high in protein, naturally diuretic and anti-inflammatory and are rich in potassium and beta-carotene and many other highly beneficial minerals, which is why this humble plant has been very popular in herbal medicine.

This time of year sees a proliferation of dandelions in New South Wales, and since I am a lover of wild/foraged food, I did not want to miss the opportunity to feast on dandelions this year. A brief half hour walk down the road in Earlwood resulted in 400 grams of fresh dandelion leaf. Sure, the neighbours looked on suspiciously, the dogs barked madly and the joggers gazed in distrust. But don’t let that stop you. The sunshine and the buzz you get out of collecting your own food is alone worth it. But to make things even better, this is a recipe for hindbeh, our favourite way of cooking dandelion. The idea is to fry the leaf with garlic and onions in olive oil until it is almost dry, and then it would be ready to absorb the lemon juice you add. It is then topped with caramelized onions and eaten cold. To make mine a bit more of a proper meal, I added chickpeas, toasted pine nuts and a nice dollop of yoghurt on top. Such classic Lebanese flavours. It’s too cheap to be true.

NOTE: If dandelions are not available, you can substitute them with endive (available at supermarkets)


half an hour’s worth of dandelion foraging

Hindbeh – Dandelion Recipe

Preparing the Dandelions

  1. When you pick the dandelions, make sure you don’t pick other weeds with them and be careful of insects such as spiders. You should find dandelions grown in lawns and on sidewalks.
  2. Chop the dandelions finely, wash thoroughly in several changes of water and drain. Wrap the leaves in a tea towel and twist the tea towel to drain all the excess water and bitterness.
  3. Taste a dandelion leaf. If it is not too bitter, then it should be good to cook. If it is (and by bitter, I mean BITTER), blanch the dandelions in boiling water and 1/2 a tsp of sodium bicarbonate for 3 to 5 minutes. It’s preferable not to blanch if you can handle the bitterness.

Cooking the Dandelions (Hindbeh)

Ingredients

500 g dandelion leaf, prepared as above (weighed before blanching)
4 large onions, cut in thin wings (halved, then diced vertically)
4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
½ cup olive oil
½ cup lemon juice
2 tsp salt
1 cup boiled chickpeas (optional)
½ cup Greek style yoghurt (optional)
2 tbsp toasted pine nuts (optional)

Method

  1. In a large frypan, heat up the olive oil and fry the onions with a tsp of salt on a gentle heat
  2. When the onions are slightly golden, remove half of them and set aside
  3. Continue to fry the onions, stirring every couple of minutes until they caramelise. Turn the heat down if they are cooking too quickly and keep a watchful eye, as they burn very easily
  4. Once caramelised, remove the onions, and keep the oil in the frypan
  5. Using the same oil, add the half cooked onions you removed earlier and the garlic and fry until the garlic begins to turn golden
  6. Add the dandelion leaf and the remaining salt. It might look like too much in the frypan, but the volume will drop significantly once cooked for a minute or two
  7. Keep cooking, stirring every couple of minutes until most of the moisture in the dandelion has evaporated. The colour should be getting dark, but not burn. The ingredients will begin to stick to the bottom of the pan. Keep cooking for 5 minutes, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice
  8. The dandelion leaf will absorb the liquid quickly. You can now set aside to cool and then refrigerate
  9. Once cool, you can toss in the boiled chickpeas (cold) and the pine nuts. Top with yoghurt and then the caramelised onions and enjoy

The Rebirth of Lebanon


View of the Mediterranean from Byblos, with Roman ruins in the forefront, followed by the recognisable heritage Lebanese home overlooking the water (source, The New York Times)

Though this entry is somewhat unrelated to food, it does not stray far from the general theme of this blog, which revolves around my Lebanon. As a phoenix is reborn from the ashes of its monumental fire, my Lebanon is getting its own rebirth. In 2009, The New York Times deservedly voted Beirut as the number one tourist destination in the world. The article mentioned the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut, Le Gray as the forces of change in Lebanon’s culinary scene. For traditional Lebanese, the mention went to Al Ajami restaurant and Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen.

More recently, Jbeil (Byblos) was the subject matter in an article in The New York Times as being the Cannes of the Middle East, in contrast to the saying Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East. I really enjoyed that article not the least because I actually grew up in Jbeil (and went to school in Monsif, if you must know), despite the focus being on one of my least favourite Lebanese trait, which is the exorbitant show of wealth. Having just returned from Lebanon this year, I can confirm the Jbeil is the place to be. The council has done wonders in creating a tasteful city, and the beaches are fantastic, though mostly privatised and almost unaffordable to locals. Jbeil imparts the visitor with a great sense of history and coupled with a unique tidy, civilised laid-backedness. It has everything Beirut doesn’t, and more. By more I mean a chicken shawarma from el Rock followed by a fruit cocktail from el Addoom. Oh my God!

The Jbeil article mentions the following restaurants:

Bab El Mina
Mother
Pierre & Friends
Locanda a la Granda (mentioned as the best restaurant in town)

Zaatar Ice Cream – Bouza 3a Zaatar


Zaatar Ice Cream (melting in the Sydney heat)

While in France last year, Lainy and I made our way down from Paris, through Orleans and to Provence and then ended up in the enchanting Cote d’Azur, better known in English as the French Riviera. We settled for a week in the seaside city of Nice, taking indulgent day trips to Italy to have a bowl of pasta, and then heading back for a stroll and a glass of wine in the city. It was here where I met my childhood friend Grandizer, strolling on the pebble beach, and it was also where I saw the different flavours of ice cream on display. The French seemed adventurous with the flavours on offer and they seemed to look at local flavours for inspiration. Lavender ice cream was an obvious one, but coquelicots (corn poppy) ice cream, though relevant, was a bit more abstract.

This got me thinking, and I decided that a zaatar (thyme) ice cream is in order. At first this might not seem like a match made in heaven, right? Zaatar for the Lebanese is a savoury herb, and we eat it every day mixed with sumac, toasted sesame seeds and olive oil, and it forms our very basic breakfast. We also use it to marinate meats and sprinkle it in salads. Zaatar is not exactly a herb that you would say, put in a cake. You would probably not find Coca Cola rushing to make a special edition Zaatar Coke for that ultimate manakish experience. Zaatar chewing gum? Refreshing…


Grandizer, making a stand in Nice and a selection of French ice creams

But hold on. The French are making coquelicots ice cream for God’s sake! Have you ever nibbled into a coquelicot, and tasted that red bitterness. Or have you ever smelled the grassy green aroma it gives out? If you have, you might agree with me that with all things being equal, zaatar ice cream might not be such a bad idea. And indeed, if you taste my ice cream, you might even agree that it’s actually a great idea. The lingering aroma of thyme infuses beautifully in the custard, and marries with its luxurious creaminess like, well, a match made in heaven!

To make this ice cream, I followed a basic vanilla ice cream recipe, and instead of infusing vanilla beans in the milk and cream, I infused the zaatar. I used dry, Lebanese zaatar, because it has a completely different flavour to fresh thyme. And to complete the flavour profile and the play on the zaatar theme, I threw in some toasted sesame seeds. It is worth mentioning that this ice cream usually comes out milky white. The color you see in the photos is purely because I used raw cane sugar (because it is low GI). I actually prefer white sugar in this recipe because I find the treacly sweetness of raw cane sugar slightly overpowers the aroma of the zaatar. You must try this recipe because you will love it, but please, don’t eat it wrapped in Lebanese bread with cucumbers and olive oil!


A bowl of Lebanese zaatar with sumac and toasted sesame seeds

Zaatar Ice Cream Recipe

Ingredients

  • 300ml thick cream
  • 300ml milk
  • 1 vanilla bean, split
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 175g caster sugar
  • 1 tbsp dried zaatar (thyme)
  • 3 tbsp toasted sesame seeds (optional)

Method

  1. Place the cream and milk in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, then turn off the heat, mix in the zaatar and set aside for 10 minutes to infuse.
  2. Place the egg yolks, sugar and vanilla extract in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until pale.
  3. Strain the milk to remove the zaatar
  4. Carefully pour the milk over the eggs, then return to a clean saucepan.
  5. Cook over low heat, continuously stirring, for about five minutes until it is slightly thickened and coats the back of a wooden spoon.
  6. Set aside to cool, then refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  7. Place custard in a plastic container in the freezer until frozen at the edges. Remove from freezer. Beat with an electric beater. Re-freeze. Repeat this process two more times. Add the sesame seeds in the last time you beat the ice cream(Alternatively, churn in an ice-cream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions and add the sesame seeds as the ice cream is beginning to freeze)
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