If anyone were to ask me about my favourite snack in 2015, I would have to say anything involving medjool dates. Work has been busy these past few months with plenty of late nights eating take-away sushi in the office. Yet however late I get home from the office I always want little bit of time for myself before going to bed. If time allows, my favourite way to wind down after a busy day at work is to curl up on the sofa, even if only for 30 minutes, a cup of tea in one hand and a new cookbook to browse in my lap. And because I have a raging sweet tooth, I will often also eat a medjool date with a square or two of dark chocolate and a pinch of sea salt. I would never claim that medjool dates taste exactly like caramel (they don’t, they just taste like dates). But the combination of dark chocolate, dates and sea salt is terrific in its own right (and, at least in my eyes, not unlike the good old Rolo chocolates). So after I kept on buying box after box of the sweetest and plumpest medjool dates at my local organic supermarket (I adore them so much I even took a box home to my parents in Germany), I started thinking about using dates, dark chocolate and sea salt in a dessert. A date ‘caramel’ twist on Millionaire’s Shortbread soon popped into my head. It sounded delicious but I also wanted to make sure the end result would not feel like a lesser version of the original. Eventually I settled on this tahini and date caramel version with plenty of tahini and sesame seeds and I am glad I did. The cardamom shortbread layer is wonderfully fragrant, the medjool date and tahini ‘caramel’ layer is as tooth-achingly sweet and gooey as the original and the tahini adds richness while also cutting through some of the sweetness of the medjool dates. And the toasted sesame seeds? Not only do they make these bars look pretty, they also provide a bit of bite – a nice contrast against the crumble shortbread, the soft date ‘caramel’ and the fudgey ganache. Summer is dragging its heels a bit in Brussels this year, yet we are being told that temperatures will reach the thirties next week and I cannot wait. Alessandro and I haven’t quite finalised our summer holiday plans yet. And until we do I am looking forward to slow mornings sipping iced coffee on my balcony, sunny morning runs around the lakes here in Brussels and impromptu picnics in one of Brussels’ many parks. And as much as I adore this season for all the sweet-as-candy strawberries, lip-staining cherries and apricots so ripe and soft they barley survive the walk home from the farmers market and that are all shouting to be turned into pies, galettes and ice cream, nothing beats a decadent chocolate-based treat and these Tahini and Date Caramel Shortbread Bars fit that bill perfectly. Tahini and Date Caramel Shortbread Bars Note: These were inspired by my love for the combination of medjool dates, dark chocolate and sea salt. And then this conversation happened with Sarah and Milli. You probably have to be a medjool date lover to enjoy these. If medjool dates are not your thing, I would suggest replacing the date ‘caramel’ layer with an equal amount of dulce de leche into which you can stir the tahini and sea salt. Ingredients For the Cardamom Shortbread 125g butter, at room temperature 50g sugar 125g spelt flour or all purpose flour 50g rice flour (alternatively you can use corn flour or tapioca starch) Seeds of 2 cardamom pods, finely ground A pinch of salt Tahini Ganache 150g dark chocolate (70 per cent), finely chopped 75g tahini Pinch of salt For the Date ‘Caramel’ 200g pitted medjool dates 50g tahini Salt to taste To garnish: 50g toasted white sesame seeds, sea salt Directions Start with the shortbread. Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees and line a round tart pan with parchment paper. In a large mixing bowl cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy (the softer the butter is, the quicker this will be – in any event this should take no more than ca. 5 minutes). In a separate bowl whisk together the spelt flour, the rice flour, the ground cardamom and the salt. Add to your mixing bowl. Using a wooden spoon or a plastic spatula work the flour into the beaten butter. At first the mixture will seem impossibly dry and as though the dough will never absorb all the flour, but just persevere, sooner or later almost all of the butter will have been absorbed into the dough. To mix the last remaining bits of flour into the dough, I like using a silicone spatula in a cutting motion. Once all the flour has been absorbed, press the dough into the tart pan until it covers the base of the tart pan and has an even thickness of around 1/2cm. Prick the dough with a fork all over, cover with cling film and place in the fridge to firm up for ca. 15 minutes. Bake in the oven for 15-20 minutes until just starting to colour. Set aside to cool (and firm up). While the shortbread is baking, prepare the ganache. Melt the dark chocolate in a double boiler. In a separate bowl mix the tahini with the sea salt, then stir in the melted chocolate until combined. Set aside. Place the pitted dates into a bowl and pour enough boiling water into the bowl to just cover the dates. Set aside to soak for 10 minutes (this will help soften the dates). Drain and discard the water and add the dates to the bowl of a food processor, followed by the tahini and the sea salt. Pulse until the mixture is completely smooth (this should take no more than ca. 1 minute). Set aside. Once the shortbread base has come to room temperature, spread the date ‘caramel’ in an even layer all over its base. Next, pour the tahini ganache over the date ‘caramel’. Set aside to allow the ganache to firm up a little bit then scatter the toasted sesame seeds and the sea salt over the chocolate ganache (if you do this while the ganache is still very liquid, the sesame seeds and the sea salt will simply sink and disappear into the ganache). Set aside until completely firm before cutting the shortbread into square bars.
You know how sometimes everything magically falls into place? Well, sometimes, it also doesn’t. We were hoping Alessandro would be able to transfer to a position in Brussels or nearby once he finished his course in Turin this past month (so we could finally put an end to flying halfway across Europe to see each other). We had high hopes while we were waiting to hear back on his transfer request even if we knew that the likelihood of him having his request accepted were not exceptionally high. Alas, in the end he was transferred to a new position in Rome. And while Rome is a magical city, and arguably a great place to be for an Italian army officer, it is not really a place for commercial lawyers that aren’t Italian like myself. So we have been having a lot of long conversations over the last few weeks as we try to figure out our next steps. Trying to work out where we would want to settle in the future, Alessandro’s options for moving to Brussels in the future with his job (and how soon that may be), my options for moving back to Rome with my job etc. And some of these conversations have been hard. When both of you care about your work and your careers yet to pursue those careers you are best placed living in different countries, how do you come to a solution? Should both of you compromise your careers for your relationship? If not, who should compromise? And while all these questions are going through my head, questions to which we don’t yet have an answer, I am baking. And cooking. And baking some more. And yet, I haven’t picked up my camera much lately or been able to find the words to write until now. I had had a long week at work and a painful ear infection had kept me up 4 nights in a row. I was exhausted and irritable. But then Alessandro came to visit for the weekend and after a day of glorious sunshine and a daytrip to Ghent where we finally sought out De Superette for brunch, took a tour on Ghent’s canals, shared a box of chocolates from my favourite chocolatier in Ghent, Yuzu, and tried the beer at Gruut, somehow things started to look up again. And while for now we only have questions, we are both confident that we will find a solution that will make us happy in the long term. Enough about me. Let’s talk about cookies. More specifically these Flourless Walnut Butter Cookies. I don’t really do cookbook reviews in this little space. And this isn’t one either. But it would not feel right to talk about these Flourless Walnut Butter Cookies without talking about the book that inspired them. The foundation of these cookies is the Vanilla Espresso Walnut Butter from Tara O’Brady’s debut cookbook. Tara’s book is truly stunning. The pictures are glorious. And then there is Tara’s beautiful writing – she is witty yet authoritative and a few pages into her book you will trust her to try recipes that you don’t think should work. A fresh curry sauce involving a granny smith apple and heaps of fresh coriander? I hesitated. And yet, I loved it so much I think juice bars should be adding an apple coriander juice with a bit of heat from fresh chilies to their menu. Tara’s book has found a place in my home because the recipes mimic so clearly how I like to cook and eat. Her recipes also make the most of my pantry which refuses to be shoehorned into a particular culinary tradition and where mirin and pomegranate molasses wrangle for counter space next to the bottles of olive oil, rose water, argan oil and oyster sauce. Tara’s walnut butter is incredibly delicious thanks to the addition of ground espresso and vanilla. I am generally more of a plain nut butter person but will have to make an exception for Tara’s walnut butter in the future as it is just that good. And all that deliciousness translates into these cookies – thanks to the bitter espresso I like to think of them as the grown-up version of flourless peanut butter cookies. And while the cacao nibs I added are purely optional, I like a bit of crunch for texture when eating softer cookies like these. Flourless Walnut Butter Cookies Note: This recipe is no different from your typically flourless peanut butter cookie, except that it uses walnut butter instead of peanut butter. They are perfectly chewy and not overwhelmingly sweet, thanks largely to the slight bitterness of the walnuts, the ground espresso and the cacao nibs. While these are soft cookies, I think a short stay in the freezer would firm them up enough to smoosh a scoop of your favourite ice cream between two of these cookies, thereby making a fabulous ice cream sandwich. Makes 12 medium-sized cookies Ingredients 225g Tara’s Vanilla Espresso Walnut Butter* 75g caster sugar 75g brown sugar 1 tsp baking soda Generous pinch of salt 1 egg 25g cacao nibs *I used the recipe that is in Tara’s new book. If you do not have Tara’s book I suggest you use 190g plain smooth walnut butter, increase both the caster and the brown sugar to 90g each and stir ½tsp ground espresso and the seeds of two vanilla beans into the cookie dough. Directions Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line two sheet pans with parchment paper. In a mixing bowl whisk the walnut butter together with the caster sugar, brown sugar, baking soda and salt until combined. Beat in the egg until well blended with the rest of the ingredients. Fold in the cacao nibs. Using oiled hands, shape the dough into 12 walnut sized balls and place them on the cookie sheets, leaving ample space between them (as the cookies will spread in the oven). The dough will be very soft – if you are having difficulties shaping the dough into balls, just place the dough in the freezer for ca. 10 minutes to firm up. Bake the cookies for ca. 15 minutes until puffed up and just starting to colour. Cool on the sheet until firm enough to move to a cookie rack (ca. 10 minutes)– while cooling, the cookies will buckle and flatten. Repeat with the remaining dough.
I wasn’t supposed to be in Brussels this weekend. I had booked flights to Rome to see Alessandro who just moved back there after taking his final exams in Turin. Alas, thanks to the fire in Rome’s airport, that weekend in 32 degrees Celsius temperatures was not meant to be. Instead I spent all of Saturday at work (thankfully this doesn’t happen too often and being in Brussels definitely made it easier having to work) and what was left of my weekend was mainly spent on the sofa, drinking my first batch of this year’s cold brew coffee and eating one too many slices of this Smokey Banana Bread.
The inspiration for this recipe goes back several years. Back to before I moved to Brussels, back to before I had even moved to Rome, when my sister Helena was still living in Brussels and I was living in London. Helena came to see me often – to spend time together, to try out new restaurants, to shop, to visit exhibitions. My task for our weekends was always to try and find somewhere exciting to eat. Not an easy task at first when I was still on a student budget, but no less the fun. One of our first ventures took us South of the river, just beyond Waterloo Station, to a Malaysian restaurant called Champor Champor.
Never having been to Malaysia I could not vouch for the quality of the food or its authenticity. But suffice it to say that it came heartily recommended by a Malaysian friend of a friend and our meal was as delicious as we had hoped. I still remember the delicious baby octopus stew we ate (and how we struggled to lift these little slippery creatures to our mouths with chopsticks). But what I remember most vividly, both for how unusual and delicious it was, was the bread basket we shared.
Truth be told, ‘bread basket’ is a bit of a misnomer as there was no actual bread involved. Instead, we shared several thick slices of a wonderfully light and spongey banana bread, lightly toasted, and numerous large pieces of what I think must have been tofu skins – thin sheets that shattered easily, leaving delicious crumbs all over our laps, and that were as sweet as salty, smokey and a bit spicy. The combination of the sweet banana bread with the sweet-smokey-spicey tofu skins was out of this world delicious and its memory has stayed with me ever since.
Coffee, especially darker roasts, is sometimes described as ‘smokey’ in flavour (or even tarry). And with banana bread being such a coffee shop staple and having had this smokey banana flavour combination on my mind for so long already, making a Smokey Banana Bread for my Goes Well With Coffee series was a no-brainer. I tinkered with the ratios of numerous recipes until I settled on a formula resulting in a banana bread with a wonderfully open and springy crumb similar to the one we had at Champor Champor. And then I added a small amount of finely ground Lapsang Souchong tea for a hint of smokeyness. While home-smoking does not seem not inherently difficult, I have yet to try it, and rather than spending lots of money buying ingredients like smoked flour, smoked flour, smoked salt etc., Lapsang Souchong is an easy and affordable way to add a smokey note when cooking or baking.
Smokey Banana Bread
Notes: Lapsang Souchong has a bold, even divisive flavour. While I don’t drink it as a tea very often, used sparingly, it is wonderful if you want to add a smokey flavour to marinades, ganaches or cakes. For this Smokey Banana Bread I have used less tea leaves than what is typically used to brew a single cup of lapsang souchong. It is enough to lend the banana bread a smokey and almost slightly savoury note, but without being overpowering.
300g very ripe bananas (ca. 3-4 depending on size)
125g melted butter
Juice of 1/2 lemon
300g spelt flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
Pinch of salt
180g caster sugar
4g lapsang souchong (ca. 1 tbsp of tea leaves), finely ground
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and grease a loaf tin.
Add the peeled banana to a large bowl. Using an immersion blender, puree the banana until smooth. Whisk in the eggs one by one, followed by the melted butter and the lemon juice.
In a separate bowl, stir together the spelt flour, baking soda, pinch of salt, sugar and lapsang souchong. Add to the wet ingredients and whisk until you have a smooth batter.
Pour the batter into the prepared loaf tin and smooth the top.
Bake for 60-65 minutes or until a wooden skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean (if the cake is starting to colour too much around the 40-45 minute mark, cover it with some parchment paper). Leave to cool in the tin for 5-10 minutes before carefully removing the banana bread from the tin and placing it on a cooling rack to cool completely.
I did not have any particular reason to make these tartlets other than the fact that this past weekend was a bank holiday weekend and after a few busy weeks at work and weekends away I suddenly found myself not only with 1kg of rhubarb that needed taking care of but also with ample time on my hands. Time clearly best spent making pate sucree, poaching rhubarb, stirring pastry cream and whipping meringue (the laundry always takes care of itself, doesn’t it?). Also, there is hardly anything better than starting your Sunday with a large cup of coffee and a pastry.
I don’t follow many rules when it comes to the recipes I share here. But one of my rules is that the recipes should have at least a hint of some inherent logic. So rhubarb is paired with buckwheat, as, botanically speaking, the two form part of the same family (together with sorrel and knotweed). In turn, buckwheat is paired either with flavours that are Northern French to me, like browned butter and salted caramel (as I can still vividly remember the buckwheat crepes from summer holidays in Brittany), or Japanese (thanks to my fondness for buckwheat soba and most things Japanese).
After spending most of my spare time in recent weeks reading about Japanese baking and intriguing bread recipes that rely on the likes of yeast water (made from fermenting fruit in water at room temperature), koji (the fungus responsible for creating sake) and miso as leavening agents/aids, Japanese flavours it was.
These little buckwheat tartlets are therefore filled with a thick pastry cream flavoured with shiro miso (the lightest and sweetest kind of miso), and topped with rhubarb that has been gently poached in sake, which gives the rhubarb this faint ‘winey’ note which I adore. The finishing touch was a few shards of toasted buckwheat studded meringue, which, while optional, provide a nice bit of crunch (and rather conveniently also takes care of the two egg whites left over from making the pastry cream). You could of course leave out the sake and the miso and use all spelt or all purpose flour for the pastry and you would still end up with delicious rhubarb custard tartlets, albeit more traditional in flavour.
Rhubarb Tartlets with Sake Poached Rhubarb, Miso Pastry Cream and Buckwheat Meringue
Note: While there are several components to this recipe, none of them are difficult per se and everything can be prepped in advance (safe for the glaze should you opt to make it). The one thing I should flag is that you should watch the rhubarb like a hawk while poaching it – rhubarb is so delicate it can go from tough to falling apart in an instant. While the latter won’t have any negative impact on the flavour of the rhubarb, it does make it somewhat more difficult to top your tartlets in any kind of orderly fashion. That being said, any soft and floppy bits of rhubarb together with their poaching liquid and the tiniest drop of rose water make a rather lovely topping for labneh, porridge or rice pudding. The tartlets are best served the day they are made but will keep for 1 day.
For the buckwheat meringue
2 egg whites
120g powdered sugar
2/3 tsp vinegar
50g toasted buckwheat groats
For the pate sucree
120g spelt flour
60g buckwheat flour
Pinch of salt
For the miso pastry cream (recipe loosely adapted from Ginette Mathiot’s The Art of French Baking)
250ml single cream
2 egg yolks
25g brown rice flour (alternatively you can use corn flour or tapioca starch)
2 tsp miso
For the poached rhubarb
750g rhubarb, trimmed and cut into 5cm long pieces
For the glaze (recipe adapted from Le Cordon Bleu London)
100ml poaching liquid from the rhubarb
2 gelatin sheets
To make the buckwheat meringue, pre-heat the oven to 100 degrees Celsius and prepare a sheet pan with parchment paper. Lightly oil the parchment paper with neutral-tasting oil like sunflower or peanut oil.
In a large mixing bowl whip the egg whites until the soft peak stage. Add the powdered sugar 1 tablespoon at a time, while whisking on high speed. Once all the sugar has been incorporated, add the vinegar. Continue to whisk for ca. 10 minutes or until the meringue is thick and glossy.
Fold in all but 1 tbsp of the toasted buckwheat groats. Spread the meringue thinly on the parchment paper, scatter the remaining buckwheat groats on top of the meringue and bake for 1-1.5h until firm and crisp. Leave to cool in the oven.
For the buckwheat pate sucree, start by creaming the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy – this will take ca. 5 minutes. Add the egg and beat to incorporate. Add the spelt flour and buckwheat flour as well as the pinch of salt and, using a spatula or large wooden spoon, stir the flour into the wet ingredients. At first the dough may seem far too dry and as though the wet ingredients will never absorb all the flour, but if you persevere, slowly but surely the flour will disappear and you will be left with a smooth and silky dough the consistency of play-doh. Wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge to firm up for at least 1h.
Next, prepare the miso pastry cream. In a medium-sized sauce pan gently heat the cream until it starts to steam. While the cream is heating up, whisk the egg yolks, the egg, the sugar, the brown rice flour and the miso in a mixing bowl. Once the cream starts to steam take it off the heat and whisk about a third of the cream into your egg mixture, to temper the eggs. Pour the tempered egg mixture back into the sauce pan and return to the heat. Continue cooking the pastry cream on low to medium heat, whisking continuously, until it is very thick. This may take between 10 and 15 minutes but I prefer to do it this way than thickening the pastry cream more quickly over higher heat as I feel like I get more control over the cooking process this way and run less risk of cooking the eggs and curdling the pastry cream. Pass the pastry cream through a fine mesh sieve into a bowl and cover the bowl with clingfilm. Set aside to cool.
Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees and prepare a sheet pan with parchment paper and six 10x2cm tartlet rings and have some baking beans and parchment paper ready. Lightly flour your kitchen counter. Gently knead the pate sucree until pliable (I like doing this by first tearing the pastry into walnut-sized pieces before kneading the pieces back together) and roll out very thin, ca. 3mm. Line the tartlet rings, cutting off any excess pastry with a sharp knife (you may have to reroll the pastry to do this).
Line each tartlet case with a piece of parchment paper (the easiest way to do this is to use squares of parchment paper slightly bigger than the tartlet rings, scrunching them up into a ball and then unfolding them – this helps to get the parchment paper flush against the pastry), and fill with baking beans. Bake for 12-15 minutes until the pastry is crisp and only just starting to colour. Set aside to cool.
Next, prepare the poached rhubarb. In a medium-sized saucepan bring the water, sugar and sake to a boil. In a large saucepan, arrange the rhubarb in a single layer (to ensure even cooking) and add the poaching liquid. Cook on medium heat for 7-10 minutes until al dente (keep on checking the rhubarb from the 6 minute mark and watch the rhubarb like a hawk – it really does go from firm but cooked to soft and mushy in an instant).
Prepare the glaze. In a bowl soak the gelatin sheets in cold water until soft – this will take ca. 10 minutes. While the gelatin sheets are soaking heat the poaching liquid in a small pot until it starts to steam. Squeeze the excess water from the gelatin sheets and add to the poaching liquid. Remove the pot from the heat and stir the poaching liquid until the gelatin is melted. Leave to cool to room temperature.
Spread a couple of tablespoons of the miso pastry cream on the bottom of each tartlet. Drain the rhubarb and lay a few pieces on top of the pastry cream, cutting the rhubarb into smaller pieces if necessary. Carefully spoon ca. 1tbsp of glaze over each tart. Leave to set (if your kitchen is not too hot, this should take no longer than 1 hour). Break the meringue into irregular pieces and place a few on each tartlet.
Any leftover poaching liquid makes a wonderful lemonade mixed with some sparkling water and some freshly squeezed lemon juice. I imagine it would also be rather lovely with some gin.
I don’t normally pay much attention to the search terms people use to stumble upon my blog. Most are pretty self-explanatory. But a few weeks ago, I started noticing that more and more people found their way into this space looking for ‘chickpea meringue’. Colour me intrigued. At the same time, and purely by coincidence, I came across pictures of chickpea water foam on instagram. Soon enough, I also became one of those typing ‘chickpea meringue’ into google, curious to see what results would come back.
As it turns out, the water left over from cooking chickpea and other legumes like beans or lentils, usually a slimy and slightly opaque affair, something I have been pouring down the drain for years without giving it much thought, can be whipped into a foam firm enough to rival beaten egg whites. Moreover, unlike flax seed meringue (which, although a wonderful alternative to eggs for certain applications, does not like heat much), chickpea foam can be cooked in the oven to produce meringues or cakes and even macarons. And while I am still not a vegetarian or a vegan, I love the fact that there is such a simple substitution for egg whites that means many traditional recipes relying on egg whites can be reproduced for those not eating eggs (whether out of choice or for health reasons).
When it comes to substituting chickpea water or the cooking water from other legumes (increasingly referred to as ‘aquafaba‘ in recipes online), the formula is 1:1 in terms of weight when using store-bought canned legumes (just make sure you buy BPA-free cans or simply jars of legumes), i.e. 30g of chickpea water will equal one egg white. (There are also formulas online to substitute egg whites using the water left over from cooking your own legumes but I have not yet done this.)
After baking my first batch of meringues, I decided to branch out and try my hand at Torrone. Various baking, granola and nut milk experiments mean I frequently end up with odds and ends of different nuts and I figured there was no better (or more delicious) way to use these up then to fold them into torrone. And the results are wonderful, there is not even the slightest difference in flavour or texture as compared to traditional torrone!
Torrone with Almonds, Hazelnuts and Pistachios
Adapted from Yasmin Othman’s ‘Atelier Confiserie’
Note: This makes a hard torrone that will gradually soften somewhat over time. It is studded chock full of toasted almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios. While traditional recipes often call for almonds alone, I love using a mix of different nuts (or even some dried fruit) so that each bite tastes a little different.
This makes ca. 2 long bars of torrone, ca. 24 pieces in total.
300g caster sugar
150g light honey
30g chickpea water (alternatively, you can use 1 egg white)
250g mixed nuts (I used almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios), toasted
You will also need a sugar thermometer.
1. Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper and lightly oil the parchment paper with some neutral tasting oil (e.g. sunflower or almond). Set aside.
2. In a large sauce pan heat the caster sugar, the water and the honey until all the sugar has melted. Bring to a boil and leave to cook until the temperature of the sugar reaches 149 degrees Celsius. This will take ca. 25 minutes.
3. While the sugar is boiling, whip the aquafaba until it forms soft peaks.
4. When the sugar syrup has reached temperature, switch off the stove and let the sugar syrup rest for 1 minute.
5. While continuing to beat the chickpea water on medium speed, slowly pour in the sugar syrup into the mixing bowl. Once all the sugar syrup has been incorporated into the chickpea water, keep on beating the mixture. After about 10 minutes of total mixing time, the torrone should be light in colour and should have thickened considerably. Quickly fold in the toasted nuts and spread the torrone on the prepared sheet pan. If you want a slightly more regular shape or flatter surface, cover the torrone with a second piece of lightly oiled parchment paper and use a rolling pin or your hands to shape the torrone. Leave to harden for ca. 3-4 hours before cutting. Stored in an airtight container, the torrone will keep for several weeks.
Over the last few years, healthy eating has suddenly become fashionable. Cold-pressed juice places are popping up in all major cities, there are restaurants specialising in porridge or greek yoghurt and healthy eating cookbooks are turning into bestsellers. Yet at the same time there seems to be a backlash against healthy eating. Whenever I check my twitter feed there will be at least one person having a go at the healthy eating trend, ridiculing any recipe that purports to turn classic dishes or treats into healthier versions of their former selves. Frankly, I am finding this absurd.
The main supporting argument against the healthy eating trend is usually that everything in moderation is fine and that it makes more sense to eat sugar and butter-laden treats once in a while than to come up with alternative recipes that we can enjoy ‘guilt-free’ but that are bound to fall short of our tastebuds’ expectations. Yet we only need to look at how much portion sizes have increased and how little most people move in their day-to-day life to know that moderation alone may not be enough to stop (let alone try to reverse) the obesity pandemic. At the same time, I think we should also acknowledge just how far healthy eating has come over the last 20 years. Thanks to blogs like Green Kitchen Stories, Sprouted Kitchen or 101 Cookbooks, just to name a few, it is easier than ever to find inspiration and recipes for dishes and treats that are as healthy as delicious.
I am the first to admit a certain weakness for cake (when people ask me why I go running, my standard response is “So I can eat more cake”). And there is little I look forward to more when staying with my parents than a slice of my mum’s sourdough bread slathered with lots of butter. And I love pizza and pasta. But I also happen to really like courgetti. Of course it is not the same as pasta. No one claims it is. But it is delicious nonetheless. And Sprouted Kitchen’s lentil ‘meatballs’ most definitely don’t taste like meatballs. But I keep on making them anyway. Because they taste so damn good. At least once a year I even give them a North African twist, using the same spices my brother uses to make his famous Kofte, so my vegetarian nephew and niece can also enjoy the Kofte that form part of our Christmas Meze spread with the rest of the family. I also think that homemade almond milk tastes better on granola than cow’s milk. And I happen to like these brownies, made with medjool dates, almond butter and ground almonds, as much as their butter-, sugar and refined flour-laden cousins.
I think there must be a middle ground. It is most certainly better for us to enjoy certain dishes and treats in moderation. But I also think there is nothing wrong with generally making small tweaks to our diet to try and eat better. We can certainly do that by limiting our intake of some foods. But maybe, sometimes, we can also try and replace those foods that aren’t good for us in the first place. I also don’t believe that this requires any real sacrifice. I have had dairy-free cashew cheesecake that tasted so good I would happily give up eating any other kind of cheesecake. Wholemeal pasta or gluten-free pastas like chickpea flour pasta are delicious in their own right and thanks to a rougher texture sauce clings to them much better than to pasta made from refined flour. The fact they are also more nutritious is just a great side effect. And baking citrus cakes with grassy olive oil will actually make them taste better than making them with butter – it just amplifies the citrus’ bright flavour. As for my middle ground? Right now, it is one of these brownies, ideally still warm from the oven, topped with a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream that is definitely neither refined sugar nor dairy free.
Dark Chocolate Brownies with Medjool Dates and Almond Butter
Note: While I have not yet tried this I am confident the recipe would work equally well with other types of nut flours and nut butters. The one ingredient I would not substitute with anything else though are the medjool dates – their sweetness and soft texture is what makes this recipe.
150g pitted medjool dates (depending on size, this should be 6-9 dates)
200g dark chocolate (at least 70 per cent cocoa solids)
75g almond butter
1/4 tsp sea salt
75g almond flour
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line a brownie pan with parchment paper.
Soak the pitted medjool dates in boiling water.
Chop the dark chocolate and melt it by placing it in a large bowl placed on top of a pan of simmering water.
When the chocolate is melted, turn off the heat and take the bowl off the saucepan. Drain the water from the dates and puree the dates using an immersion blender or a food processor until no lumps remain.
Whisk the almond butter into the melted chocolate. Fold in the date puree. Beat in the eggs one by one, waiting for each egg to be completely mixed in before adding the next egg.
Lastly fold in the salt and the almond flour.
Pour the brownie batter into the prepared pan and bake the brownies for ca. 20-25 minutes or until just set. Leave to cool completely in the pan. For clean edges on your brownies, cut with a very sharp knife, cleaning the knife between each cut.
Carbs et al.
Like most years, Alessandro and I spent the Easter bank holiday weekend staying with his parents in a small village not far from Rome. Spending most of the weekend eating (or talking about eating) reminded me again how good Italians are with carbs. Of course there is Pizza, thin and crispy Roman style, or thick and pillowy like they serve it in Naples. But then there are also the thick slabs of sourdough bread to start a meal, slightly charred and topped with a fresh tomato salsa or thin slices of rosemary flecked lardo or even just drizzled with olio nuovo (the beautifully grassy first olive oil of the season), thin strands of homemade tagliatelle like the ones you can see in the picture above (beautifully yellow as Alessandro’s dad made them with duck eggs) – cooked not too long so they retain some bite (al dente) before being thrown into a pan of funghi porcini, or the torn pieces of bread used to swipe your plate clean (fare la scarpetta). And we cannot forget about Italian sweets either, the almost chewy yet flaky dough of sfogliatelle, syrup-drenched baba, pan brioche buns split in half and served with a generous scoop of gelato for the fluffiest (and most decadent) ice cream sandwich you can imagine or the crunchy anise flecked ciambelline cookies rich with olive oil and wine that Alessandro’s sister and aunt prepare in industrial quantities.
Talking about carbs and all things Italian food, this is my go to recipe for Pizza. I sometimes play with the type of flour I use. I like using a mixture of half all purpose spelt flour and half wholemeal spelt flour (adding a 1-2 tablespoons more water if the dough seems dry) for a heartier pie. The recipe is fuss-free (aside from the 24h wait while the dough slowly proves in the fridge) and has never failed me – in fact, I prepared a batch of dough on Thursday night in time to have pizza for dinner last night, using the leftover dough for a small boule in time for lazy weekend breakfasts.
As much as I have a weakness for bread and all type of pasta, I also have a weakness for dumplings – whether steamed, fried or boiled, I have yet to meet a dumpling I did not like. And while somewhat fiddly to make at home, I love making my own potstickers or steamed dumplings like momos. Mine are never picture-perfect but that does not seem to impact their flavour in the least. And ever since I started improvising both with the dough and the fillings (yes, there may have been rye potstickers filled with both lardons fumes and Chinese chives the other week), I can basically have a plate of dumplings on the table in just over an hour no matter what the contents of my fridge. And that is a very good thing indeed. When I am looking for inspiration for my fillings (or if I just want to ogle at perfectly folded dumplings and feel I need to up my lunch box/plane snack game), I head to Heidi’s blog – she has quite a few dumpling recipes on her site, including these Green Curry Momos which look and sound divine.
Talking about dumplings, if you ever find yourself in Brussels craving steamed buns and dumplings AND a seemingly never-ending tea menu, you should seek out this place on Rue de Baillie, near the Chatelain market. I took a new colleague there for lunch this week and we both loved it. You can either order a la carte or opt for the lunch option (available vegetarian if that is your preference) – this gives you a set of 4 steamed savoury dumplings, a steamed bun and a couple of steamed sweet dumplings, all washed down with a tea of your choice (and the price you pay depends on just how expensive your taste for tea is).
As for what I have been reading lately, I loved this excerpt from a book about life in a Parisian Pâtisserie that my friend Mehrunnisa shared with me, not just for an insight into what life is like in a Pâtisserie but also for the observations on language – and how much and how little we need verbal language to communicate. I am also still working my way through Joanna Blythman’s Swallow This. Although I already try and avoid processed food as far as possible, it has been an absolute eye opener to learn more about what some of the terms on food labels these days mean (and what information does not even need to go on a label!). Stuck at Fiumicino airport for a few hours earlier this week on my way back to Brussels also made me realise how tricky it is to avoid processed and additive-laden food at airports – there was not a single piece of fresh fruit in sight and all the prepared food was suddenly looking even more unappealing than normally.
And while I don’t do a whole lot of German baking or cooking, I am super excited for Luisa‘s new book. I have a few German baking books already, but they mainly cover mainstream recipes. Yet, from what I can tell thanks to Luisa’s instagram, her book also include recipes for lesser known German cakes and biscuits, such as, for example Russisch Brot (which, albeit simple to prepare, I have never come across other than in a store-bought bag) or German Lebkuchen made with dough that has been aged several months rather than the short-cut recipes that most people use these days.