Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Arabic clotted cream or Kachta! قشطة

Kachta, a basic ingredient in Arabic desserts
If there's a region around the world that can marry the beauty of nature with the richness of culture and history with the most exquisite flavors this region is undoubtedly the Mediterranean. Obviously I have a bias towards that region, but can you blame me? The Italian, the French, the Spanish, the Greek and the Near-Eastern cuisines are some of the best in the world and they are all Mediterranean.

The Near East (The Levant) and by extension the Middle East, at a crossroads between Asia, Africa and Europe, is a land of exchange and diversity. Its cuisine reflects the richness and depth of history it carries. Moreover, its a land of ingredients, where many firsts happened. Agriculture took roots in this region and many animals where domesticated here paving the way for a leap in human history: the shift from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one. Wheat, barely, dates, figs, grapes, olive oil, gee, butter, milk and honey are all ingredients that are as old as time itself in the Near East. As a land of exchange, these ingredients traveled from it to the world as new ingredients from distant places settled in further enriching its cuisine.

Sweets are an essential part of Near and Middle  Eastern cuisine with a wide variety of fruits and unrestricted use of sugar syrup over baked sweets. Even in the Mesopotamian times, cakes with dried fruits and nuts were prepared and considered as source of energy. 

While many of the region's ingredients are widely known in the West, some aren't. A prominent example would be this post star ingredient: kachta. Kachta is a form of clotted or condensed cream.
Together with nuts, kachta is used in many Arabic desserts. It is not certain when this ingredient came into being, but it is believed that it is centuries old and could haven been produced as a by-product of cheese, yogurt or butter preparation before it became a sought after product by itself.

 The clotted cream or Devonshire cream is made by heating the full cream milk using either steam or a double boiler, then it´s left to cool  for several hours in shallow pans, allowing the formation of clots.
As for Kashta, it is prepared by pouring milk in shallow copper  pans, about 10 cm high and not wider than 125 cm in diameter, then heated on high heat. As the milk starts to boil, the heat is lowered, allowing the milk to lose temperature and at this time a white veil appears on the surface, and it is skimmed with a mesh skimmer.

It seems that as milk is heated the protein and the fats in it react and form this veil or skin on top. The skin is thicker if the milk is richer in fat, however even skimmed milk forms this skin when heated as no skim milk is truly fat free. 

In the middle east, kachta is usually bought from pastry shops, if not available there is an easy recipe to make a similar kachta. I warn you, this recipe requires only one ingredient but a lot of patience. 

I honestly don't have a copper pan and didn't want to buy one just for this recipe so I used  a stainless steel one. I had about a liter and a half of fresh full fat milk which I poured in the pan and put over the stove. Back home, we get fresh milk from a nearby farm every Tuesday, so If you are lucky and you can get it fresh, please do.
One ingredient and a lot of patience

You can pasteurize the milk before you proceed with the recipe and I recommend you do so.  After that, you put the milk on high heat until it boils, then you lower the heat and wait for the skin to form which you skim and put on a strainer to remove the liquid milk. Repeat the high and low heat action untill you are almost out of milk in the pan! . 

In order to make enough kachta to be used in other recipes, you will have to be patient, like really patient. It took around an hour and a half to make one cup and a half. However, I felt proud to do something people usually always buy from pastry shops.

The end result of your hard labor is a rich cream, packed with milk flavor and with a special texture. There are endless uses of this cream and many arabic desserts call for its use. An easy way to enjoy it is by adding some honey and nuts to it or adding it to fruit salads.

If you want you can elevate the level of sophistication and stuff some buttered sheets of phyllo dough with the cream and than bake in the oven until crispy and golden. Drizzle over some sugar syrup or honey and sprinkle some pistachios. But I will share more details about this recipe in the upcoming post, so make sure to stop by and get a taste of Arabian nights.
Sweet, crispy and creamy

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

French Toast or Pain Perdu: A Sweet Start of The Day

A very decadent way to start your day!
Widely known as French toast, but  you also can find it under many other names depending on the region you're coming from. As such, it can be calledGerman toast, Arme ritter, nun's toast, among other names.

The Spaniards call their version torrija.  During the Holy Week which precedes Easter the special bread needed to make torrijas fills bakeries and supermarkets as well as ready made torrijas. Tradition has that it's best to serve this delicacy specially on Thursday and Friday of the Holy Week.

In France, it's is known as pain perdu, which means lost bread. Since the recipe calls for the use of stale bread, it is a clever way to use this bread before it becomes too old and therefore lost.

Historically, it is believed that the recipe goes back to roman days. The Romans used to soak bread in milk and beaten eggs the fry it in oil and sweeten it with honey. The french recuperated the recipe calling it pain à la Romaine or Roman style bread.

The recipe became more popular and important during the medieaval era, as european used  stale bread to create dishes that could feed their families and the popular delicacy became known as pain perdu.

The dish followed Europeans settlers into the New World and with time, this simple yet delectable dish traveled the world, served especially as a breakfast or a dessert after a nice but preferably light meal!

French toast is one of my favorite way to start the morning, especially during the weekends. After all you need to pamper and indulge yourself after a long week of hard work, you need it and deserve it.

The recipe is very flexible and lends itself well to variations. I make many kinds of variations to the basic recipe. If you are in a hurry or feeling a tad lazy, just sprinkle some sugar and cinnamon on top, or you can serve with caramel sauce and if you feel the need to indulge yourself more, make some elaborate toppings with fruits, cream and cream cheese.

One day, my dear friend Ralf told me that the best french toast he had was the one he had in Bali which was served  with maple syrup, strawberries, mascarpone cheese and topped with chocolate shavings. Just examining the ingredients by themselves you know you are in for a exquisite treat, and I had to do it!  I tried to figure out what was the best way to bring these ingredients together and I tested it. The result was beyond my expectations!! It's now a favorite of mine!

If you want to create this decadent french toast you will need:
  • 6 brioche slices (I serve 2 per pesron)
  • 300 ml of milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp of cinnamon
  • 1 tsp of vanilla essence
  • 1 tbsp of liquid caramel
(These ingredients will serve 3 to 4 persons depending on how hungry they are)
Few easy steps make the basis of this recipe
Put the milk, eggs, cinnamon, vanilla and caramel in a blender, and mix until well combined which  doesn't take more than few seconds.

Pour the milk mixture over the sliced bread. Make sure the slices are all covered but don't soak for too long, a minute or 2 are enough. Put it longer and the bread will start to fall apart.

Melt some butter in a pan and fry the bread untill golden brown on both sides

For the topping you need:
  • About 10 strawberries.
  • 150 g of mascarpone cheese
  • 1 tbsp of caramel sauce
  • 1 tbsp of maple syrup, plus more for drizzling
  • Chocolate shavings. You can use dark, milk chocolate, or even white chocolate, it depends on what you prefer. 
Mix the mascarpone with caramel and the maple syrup. If you want you can also add some cream. Add it in its liquid form to make the mix richer, or whipped to make the mix lighter in texture.
Mascarpone cheese is ideal for this recipe
When the toast is ready, drizzle some maple syrup over the golden slices, add the sliced strawberries, a dollop of the mascarpone mix, the chocolate and voila, there you have it an amazing dish just waiting to be eaten.

Please note that the cream will melt quickly if the bread is too hot, so you can wait untill it cools of a bit or just eat it quickly before the cheese melts! Bon appetit.
Best eaten on a calm Sunday morning while watching your favorite show!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Pavlova with Raspberries, a Dessert Fit For a Ballerina

Pavlova, a classic that never goes out of fashion

Rivalry between the Oceanic neighbors, the Aussies and the Kiwis, is well known all over the world, a healthy and humorous competition that bears similarities with what goes on in other parts of the world.

The battlefield of this rivalry is quite often sports arena of the games most popular in both countries especially rugby. Though it seems that sports arenas could not contain all the competition which made its way to the cuisine of these countries. Both Australia and New Zealand claim credit for giving the world the delicate, light and delicious dessert named Pavlova.

Although the country of origin remains debatable, what's certain is how Pavlova came to be. Ana Pavlova was a famous Russian ballet dancer who toured both countries in the early 20th century. Meringue, which is the base of Pavlova was widely in the culinary history way before the creation of the Pavlova. but it  is said that a meringue based dessert was created or named in her honor around 1926.

If you google some of Anna Pavlova's pictures  while on stage floating like a feather one would understand why this dessert now has her name. Light in color and crisp from the outside but with a gooey soft marshmallow like interior; a dessert fit for a delicate and talented dancer.

Don't be fooled by its fancy origins, the Pavolva is easy to make. It is also considered as light and has less calories than many traditional desserts. What's great about this dessert is that from the same basic base (though different aromas can be added) you can use an endless variety of toppings to get a different taste every time. From créme pattissiere, to créme chantilly, to mascarpone cheese, and all kind of fruits, candies, chocolate, or whatever your imagination and taste may lead you.

Many recipes require that you use more egg yolks than whites and I faced the situation of having several egg whites in the fridge. Sometimes I would even freeze the whites in plastic bags and take them one day ahead of using them and put them in the fridge. Egg whites are needed in several sweet recipes such as Angel cake, meringue and a favorite of mine: Pavlova. What's great about this dessert is the minimal ingredients it needs.

To do the Pavlova you will need the following (serves about 4):
  • 1 egg white (room temperature)
  • 62 g of sugar (or a cuarter cup)
  • 1/4 tsp of white vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp of corn flour
  • 1/2 tsp of vanilla
  • few drops of lemon juice
The few steps needed to get a white and glossy meringue

In well cleaned and dry  glass or aluminium bowl well cleaned  rubbed with lemon juice to remove any fat residue that might be stuck to the surface of the bowl, beat the egg whites with an electric mixture at medium speed until soft peaks form. Gradually, start adding the sugar sprinkling over the eggs white in batches. Beat untill the mixture is very white and glossy with stiff soft peaks.
Sprinkle the corn flour, vanilla, vinegar and lemon juice and fold in gently with a rubber spatula.
On a tray covered with silicone mat or baking paper, pour your mixture in a circular form letting the edges be a bit higher than the center.
Bake the pavlova in a preheated oven (140C) for about an hour or an hour 15 minutes. You can also start baking it on 160C for 15 minutes then lower the heat to 140C for the remaining time.
It should be white on the top and lightly pink on the bottom.
Raspberries and rose petals 

For the Rose cream and raspberry topping you need:
  • 150 ml of whipping cream
  • a tablespoon of sugar
  • a tbsp of rose petal jam
  • Raspberries
Whip the cream with the sugar until it doubles in size and has a fluffy and light texture. Fold in the rose jam and mix well with a spoon until combined.

When the Pavlova is completely cooled, add the flavored cream in the center and top with raspberries. I only used a few since I wanted to taste all the complex layers of flavor with a spoonful and that none of the ingredients overpowers the rest.
The rose cream making its way to the pavlova

  Pavlova is a dessert deemed fit for a world renowned artist, try it and you will understand why.
The different layers of flavors and textures

Artistic and light, a dessert that delights