Saturday, March 27, 2010

Defying Racial or Ethnic Categorization: Mexican Tabbouleh

It may be Lebanese, but the color palette is distinctly Mexican :)

Growing up most of my life there was always a dilemma when I had to fill out a government issued document which requested I specify my "race" and "ethnicity." Back then (and maybe now too - haven't filled one out in a while) the "racial categories" looked a little like this:

Please select ONE:
Native American or Alaska Native
Other: (please specify) _______________

So where exactly did I fit in? Apparently I am not the only one who had this problem. I suppose as a small child my parents probably made the decision for me, but as an adolescent, and in a world where being "other" was as good as wearing your underwear on the outside of your clothes for the rest of the 8th grade, the decision was an uncharted mine field of worries and insecurities.

Brenda's Adolescent Stream-of-Consciousness Thought Process
*deep breath*

Am I white? Well, white usually means European...and light eyes. But I have Spanish blood. Isn't that European? And some Spaniards have light eyes. But I don't have light eyes, or light skin. Although it's not really "dark." But I tan well. Well, I'm definitely not black, definitely not Native American...and definitely not Asian. But wait, technically Mexicans are kind of "native" to the Americas. And they were in Texas far before the whites. And anyway what makes them different from the Karankawas or the Comanches? I guess they didn't live in teepees. Whatever...but am I white enough to be "other white" or am I just "other?" Why don't they just put HISPANIC!? Or wait, is that an ethnicity? Maybe I'll ask the teacher. No, she won't know. Who cares anyway? Aren't these things supposed to be voluntary? Ugh, what-ever. Other. I guess I'm "other."

* * *

And then there was the dreaded "please specify" blank where I had to decide what kind of "other" I was - whether I should write "Hispanic," "Latina," "Mexican." I felt like going up to the teacher and saying in my best Wire-esque Sen. Clay Davis accent, "Shiiiiiiiiit lady, if the school and government aren't clear on what is and isn't a race, how the hell am I supposed to be? This is some shameful shiiiiiiit." But I'm not that ghetto. Or brave.

It was actually kind of laughable in the end. The choice - at least I believe so - never really mattered much in terms of how I saw myself or how my teachers and good friends treated me. In reality, oddly, it was a chance for reflection on my racial identity and how that fit - or didn't - with everyone around me. I suppose that's a strange but good opportunity I would not have been afforded had I been able to just check the "white" box without a single doubt in my mind from the start.

But it wasn't until many years later, in college, that I found out that technically I would not have been so very wrong to do so. As that's when I started noticing government documents had added new racial categories including "White Hispanic" and "Black Hispanic." That made my life a little easier because then at least I didn't have to be "other" anymore. : )

* * *

White Hispanics: The Mexican-Lebanese & Tabbouleh

I bet you didn't know it but there is a huge Lebanese population in Mexico. Those two cultures are not necessarily an obvious match, but they seem to have melded quite nicely and even turned out several delicious hybrid foods and people.

If you want some of the history behind this in a concise readable manner, check this article out about the Lebanese in Puebla, Mexico. In the meantime, here are, to me, the four most interesting points regarding Mexican-Lebanese gastronomy, life love and the defying of racial categorization. >: )

* * *

Top Four Interesting Points Regarding Love, Mexican-Lebanese,
Tabbouleh and Racial Categorization to boot.

salads, brides - the whole nine yards

4. Tacos Arabes?!
If you've ever seen a Mexican Tacos Al Pastor taco stand, you know how similar it looks to a kebab shop. The meat is skewered and roasted vertically on a spit (or trompo, in Spanish), much like shawarma or the Turkish döner kebab. Thanks to Lebanese immigrants, almost everywhere now, you can buy "Tacos Arabes" in Mexico which refers to meat shaved off the shawarma-like spit and served on thick flour tortillas - the closest thing to pita or "pan Arabe" you'll find in most Mexican households.

And the traditional "kebab" was taken one further step away from its originally heritage when Mexicans invented "tacos al pastor" or "shepherd tacos" which are also roasted on a trompo with a giant chunk of pineapple at the top. Though they pay homage to their origins in the name, these tacos are generally made of pork, not lamb, and always served on corn tortillas - the Mexican way.

3. White Hispanics?!
What is a "white Hispanic?" Well, turns out it is a Hispanic who is racially white. I am still unclear on what that means exactly - but my best guess would probably be something like: "Hispanics with European ancestry." But then that doesn't really fit people like Salma Hayek (acress extraordinaire) or Carlos Slim (richest man in the world), or me for that matter, now does it? So basically it seems to be a definition of exclusion: people who are not racially black, Asian or "native."

When you put it that way, it all seems rather convoluted and unnecessary, dontcha think? : )

2. The Tabbouleh Test?!
Tabbouleh is not a complex dish, but it does include several components, and how one chops, blends and proportions these components makes a big difference in terms of taste and authenticity. Is the bulgur soft enough? Is the dressing too acid or too oily? Are the tomatoes and cucumbers too small or too large? And is the parsley pervasive or an afterthought? As a Mexican home cook, I'm not too bothered one way or another as long as it tastes good. But if you're a Lebanese man's fiancee, there is a lot more at stake!

In Lebanese culture it is customary to test a future bride's worthiness by having her make Tabbouleh for the women of the husband-to-be's family. The woman is judged particularly on how finely she can chop the parsley and whether or not she allowed any of the tough parsley stems into the mix. I don't know if I would have made it.

1. Mexican Tabbouleh?!
I always found it rather odd that my mother grew up eating Tabbouleh on a regular basis in a fully-Mexican household deep in the heart of Mexico City. But once I started reading about the Lebanese influx into Mexico, it all made sense.

Despite the salad being of Lebanese and Arab origin, it has become extremely popular in Mexico and throughout Latin America. My family has modified it slightly to fit their Mexican palate, and I have further made it my own with tweaks here and there. It appeals because it is fresh, inexpensive, and delicious - and goes well with almost any meal, as a starter, side or even main. And if you're one of those people who thinks parsley is nothing more than a garnish found at diners - this is the dish that makes that under-appreciated herb really shine.

* * *

Brenda's Mexican Tabbouleh
Serves 6

An ethnically ambiguous version of Tabbouleh.

This is a great springtime salad, and let's face it, despite the last clouds and cool breezes hanging about, spring has sprung my friends!

I have altered this traditionally Lebanese salad by reducing the amount of parsley, adding copious amounts of lime (I am Mexican after alll!) and garlic, and mixing in generous amounts of ripe avocado. I serve it as a side dish with breaded chicken Milanese and mashed potatoes, or as a full lunch accompanied by some pita and a couple of hard boiled eggs.

1 cup bulgur wheat
1 cucumber, peeled
1 medium ripe tomato
2-3 ripe haas avocados, chopped roughly
4-5 limes (or lemons), juiced (about 1 cup juice)
3 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 cup parsley, finely chopped (no stems!)
1/3 cup good olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

1. Pour raw bulgur wheat into a large, flat container so that it is in a thin layer. Pour lime juice over it - there should be extra lime juice around the wheat, which will soak in. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4-6 hours or until the bulgur wheat has soaked up all the lemon juice and is soft.

2. Dice the cucumber and tomatoes into small squares and add to the bulgur wheat. Add the parsley, garlic and avocado.

3. Pour the olive oil over everything, salt and pepper to taste and then mix. Add more lime juice or olive oil as necessary. Serve cool.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Oh the Things that Spring Will Bring!: Sopa de Ajo (Garlic Soup)

Sopa de Ajo: a typical Spanish peasant food fit for kings.

Every year mother nature tests my inherent impatience by taking her sweet time with the whole "warming up" part of the end of winter. This year in particular it feels like the weather will never break, but I have seen a couple of blooming trees, budding bulbs, and downright defiant flowers that have flat-out refused not to bloom, laughing in the face of old man winter.

For me, this year Spring brings a lot of wonderful - and unexpected - things along with it. Here are just the top four. :)

* * *

Top 4 Things This Spring Will Bring
bada-bing, bing, bing!

Lovely purple freesia - the first harbinger of Spring in our house

4. A Slew of New Food to Cook With!
I can't wait to see all the spring and summer produce start flooding in. I'm so sick of heavy, hearty soups and stews I can barely stand it. Delightful, light and cooling dishes full of seafood, salad and fresh herbs are just what I need to get the spring (pun intended) back in my step after being downtrodden by the woeful winter weather for just a little too long.

Today I have included a recipe that to me is a perfect transition from winter to spring: Castillian Sopa de Ajo (Garlic Soup). Having recently been to Spain, I took every opportunity I had to eat this and was inspired to make it for myself as soon as I got home.

It is a broth that warms you wonderfully on a winter day, but showcases a spring and summer ingredient near and dear to my heart: garlic. It's the perfect combination of winter and spring, for this odd intermediary season we are in, the sun shining but the windows still closed!

3. A Whole Bunch of Flowers!
Though in this globalized world flower shops and stands never really have to close, they are never nearly as verdant or fragrant as in the Spring. It is at this time of year that I feel compulsively compelled to buy something every time I pass, which means practicing a whole lot of restraint. But to be honest, I'd rather be tempted by the beautiful peonies and roses than not. It's like a special chance to showcase and acknowledge mother nature's wonder in an unhurried way. In the Spring I always try to make sure there are fresh flowers in the house, filling it with color and scent and reminding us to go outside or at least open the windows every chance we get.

Matt got me a bunch of beautiful blueish-purple freesia a week ago, the first harbingers of spring in our house this year.

2. A Visit from Maaaling!
It's been far too long since I got to gossip and laugh with my mom in person, and as luck would have it, she'll most likely be making the cross-Atlantic treck over to visit me and Matt and, mostly, Roman sometime in early April. That means Grandma-filled trips to the zoo, walks through blooming gardens, and teatime warmed by afternoon sunshine outside the Orangerie. If we're lucky she'll bring the Texas sunshine with her and we'll skip the April showers this year.

1. A Very Special Birthday!
Roman turns 1 on May 1st! (His champagne / golden birthday came a little early, so I may throw him a bone and allow him to reclaim it on his 21st.) It seems completely mind-boggling to me that a year has already passed, but yet it has and here we are with a halfway talking, nearly-walking little person who participates in our lives more and more each day. Everyone says it, but it is indeed pretty difficult to remember and imagine that he once did not exist.

Either way, of all the wondrous life and life-giving that is celebrated at this vernal time of year, this is the one thing I most anticipate with a big old, proud-mama smile on my face.

* * *

Sopa de Ajo
(Garlic Soup)

Serves 4

Garlic soup: not for the fainthearted.

Garlic is a late spring or summer vegetable, but I can't help but associate it with springtime dishes. Garlic always makes a big appearance in my Easter meal as I generally put a Greek twist on my cooking for the holiday and the Greeks do love their garlic! But this recipe has more to do with Spain than Greece. This traditionally Castillian soup is one of the simplest things you'll ever eat, and can also be one of the most delicious and satisfying. Each time I eat it and remember the recipe I am shocked at how simple it is. It's a great dish because you can easily make just one serving in a pan without having to worry about getting too much dirty or going out to buy a bunch of fiddly ingredients.

While the soup is a broth, it offers substance in its heavy use of olive oil and bread, and - if you're daring - the lightly poached egg that goes into it at the very last minute. It's not for the fainthearted, that's for sure. I have added the chile to fine tune it to my Mexican palate, but it can be seasoned further with grated Manchego or Parmesan. That said, I do prefer to keep it simple as the taste of garlic, when done right, is sweet and deliciously pervasive. Why mess with a good thing?

1 head of garlic, peeled and crushed ( including 3 cloves minced, set aside)
1/3 cup olive oil + 1/4 cup separate
1 bay leaf
1 chile de arbol
1/2 tsp crushed red pepper
1 1/2 tbsp paprika (hot, sweet or a combo) + 1 tsp
2 shallots or 1 small onion, minced
8-10 cups water or chicken broth
1 dash of sherry vinegar (optional)
salt & pepper to taste
2 cups stale french bread, torn or chopped into large croutons
4 eggs, room temperature

* * *


1. Make the garlic broth: Heat the olive oil on low heat in a medium pot. Add crushed and peeled garlic to it and cook for 20 minutes not allowing the garlic to brown, until the garlic is soft and translucent. Raise heat to medium and add the shallots and cook until well-sweated, then add chile, bay leaf and paprika and cook for another minute or so. Add the water or stock and bring to a boil.

2. Allow the broth to simmer for 30 minutes uncovered, until the flavor is concentrated and the garlic is extremely tender.

3. In a separate pan, combine the minced garlic, crushed red pepper and extra olive oil over low heat until fragrant. Then toss in the bread and mix to cover in the oil mixture seasoning with salt and pepper to taste as you do so. Sprinkle the croutons with 1 tsp paprika. Turn heat to medium-high or so and allow bread to toast into croutons. The bread should turn golden, not burn. When well-toasted, remove from heat and set aside.

4. Just before serving, remove the bay leaf from the broth and add the dash of sherry vinegar (optional). Bring the soup back to a boil and then ladle into bowls. Crack the eggs into the hot soup and allow to poach with residual heat, then add croutons on top.

Note: If you are squeamish about undercooked eggs, there are a couple of options.
1. Poach the eggs in the soup pot one at a time (this is more time consuming when people are waiting for their food!).
2. Poach the eggs ahead of time and add to the soup bowl (doesn't have the same flavor or affect).
3. Crack the eggs into each bowl of hot soup, then pop the bowls into the microwave for 1-2 minutes or into a hot oven until the eggs are hard.

¡ Buen Provecho !
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Friday, March 12, 2010

Malta: My Own Personal Benidorm

My Beloved Kinnie:
Bittersweetness in a sad, disgusting world of Maltese Benidorminess.

I'm not going to lie - I've seriously been avoiding posting my thoughts on our trip to Malta last October. Not that we had a bad time, but, well, the food was just terrible and to me that kind of taints the whole experience. Yes, I do realize it's been like 5 months, but it's such a dreary day outside, and if nothing else, we had great weather in Malta, so here's to the memory of that!

* * *

Have you ever seen the show "
Benidorm?" If you haven't, you're not missing much. Well, ok, you are. because it's a comedic show that exploits the natural hilarity and inherent grotesque quality that is the reality of the used-to-be-quaint-village turned skyscraper-hotel-package-holiday-hell in the south of Spain called Benidorm.

Benidorm (the show) cleverly draws out and makes fun of the stereotypical (can't emphasize that word enough here!), working-class, Northern-European (read: British) tourist. It points out their quirks, annoying habits, and inevitably-familiar preferences. To them a vacation is an all-inclusive package of nothing but British food (English breakfast every morning!), bad cabaret shows put on by dolled-up locals who treat the tourists like the idiots they are, and days spent sunning (burning?) at the pool, critiquing the other "stupider" tourists and / or conspicuously flirting / making out by said poolside.

It hurts a little bit to watch shows like this because probably every single one of us either knows someone like the characters or has to admit to wanting their "eggs and bacon" breakfast
everywhere they go. But it is hilarious because, in the end - whether it touches something personal or not - we all know exactly what they're talking about, and can laugh our haughty that-will-never-be-me-laugh from the comfort of our (my British) living rooms.

The Family: single-mother-daughter with token-interracial-baby, annoying brother, overweight dad, clueless mom. Mel & Madge, the feisty grandmother with the saggy-perma-tan and her (not-so) beau.

I did say grotesque.

But returning to the point of this post, I'm still not quite sure how Matt and I ended up in the real-life Maltese version of Benidorm in early October, but we did.

We were at a really nice hotel in the off-season in what was advertised as a "quaint village" north of Valletta in Malta. Numerous people on Trip Advisor had specifically commented on how great the
buffet breakfast was --

* Small Note on Buffet Breakfasts *
I do not hold my nose up at buffet breakfasts. I am a fan of the buffet concept as a general rule, as long as it is done well. For example, the hotel we stayed at in Thailand had a buffet breakfast that rivaled many a la carte restaurants I've been to. Grilled fish, fresh tropical fruits, complimentary champagne...on the other hand, I've had my fair share of crappy Chinese buffets and so I do know the dangers that can and often do lurk beneath the stainless steal lids...
* end small note on Buffet Breakfasts*

-- and frankly, I was looking forward to my all-included gluttonous morning feastivities. The hotel had three pools (a must with the Master in tow), was in walking-distance from the beach, and offered easy access to both Valletta and Gozo. Great? Not so great.

* * *

My Top 5 Stories, Thoughts, Musings on the Maltese Experience
or, why Mellieha is Benidorm
5. Guido the Cab Driver
As is often the case, our first introduction to Malta came via our cab driver from the airport. Unlike in Brussels, the guy we got was about as close to the stereotypical idea of a sleaze-bucket-douche-bag as one man can get. His name was Guido (I won't get into the ironically appropriate implications there) and he knew everything there was to know on any subject worth knowing - and better than anybody else (especially women).

We weren't paying him to drive us, he was doing us a favor. He escorted us to the car by clicking his mouth to signal he was ready to go after leaving us to wait (me, seething) for five minutes while he chatted in Maltese with a fellow cabby, all the while lifting his shirt half-way to rub his nasty middle-aged belly, the way sleaze-buckets are wont to do. (This was at 2 in the morning, mind you.) He would only address Matt ("stupid women don't understand") and he claimed to speak four languages and assumed we only spoke one ("stupid Americans don't understand") even after we'd told him several times that wasn't the case (still seething).

He gave Matt a lecture on driving on the left-side of the road (even though he has done it pretty consistently for the three years we've lived in the UK, which we mentioned to Guido), told us to check "on top of [our] heads" whenever we park somewhere to see if there is a no-parking sign, told me that all women are after men's money and possessions and that's why he'd never married (apologizing the whole time for saying so but that it was true, "so, sorry") and was back in Malta living with his mother (silent internal screaming fit in Brenda's head start NOW.).

When we asked if there were any good restaurants in Mellieha (his hometown apparently), he patronizingly said, "well, none of them are bad - you'll get food no problem. It's not tough - just check the menu to see what they have and how much it costs before you go in or you might end up somewhere you don't want to be."

Thank you Guido. Seeing as the stupid American woman has never been to a restaurant, other country, or outside of the kitchen (where she permanently resides, barefoot and sometimes pregnant, scheming for her husband's money and possessions) frankly, it is a good thing we got you as our cabby.

Once we'd arrived, he then proceeded to say he didn't have change (in order to "con" the stupid American man out of an extra large tip) but quickly changed his tune when Matt said he had no problem waiting for him to go into the hotel lobby to get change from the concierge. Bastard Guido. At least now we knew where we stood as American tourists.

4. The Food Dilemma
The buffet breakfast was up to snuff...if you're a character in Benidorm. It consisted of a continental breakfast (not my bag) and a British breakfast, complete with badly cooked sausages, soggy bacon, baked beans, and copious amounts of ketchup and brown sauce available. In fact, probably the best things they had were the fresh rye bread loafs (which I could only snag on the days we were early) and the fried eggs (and even those were sometimes really bad). Oh and the little foil-wrapped cheese wedges you get at all European hotels. I'm a fan of those.

Thinking breakfast was an anomaly, we decided to try out the hotel's really well furnished pizzeria downstairs. It offered really basic fair that it would take a decidedly, determinedly bad chef to mess up: pizza, spaghetti, salads. Guess what, they had a decidedly - triumphantly, even! - bad chef.

The experience at every other place we ate was the same. The menu looked good, the place looked good, the food was horrendous, even their "typical Maltese dishes" which were generally "rabbit in a white wine sauce" (oh it sounds good, but oh it isn't!) or some horrific variance thereof.

To put it in black and white for you: Matt and I ended up eating at the local Chinese Restaurant 3 out of 5 nights we were there. Desperate times call for desperate measures (and fried ice cream).

3. Another Douche Bag and his Famiglia
When you're at a medium-sized hotel it's inevitable to run into other guests on a repeated basis. I actually find that charming about certain travel experiences - getting to know others on a basic, acquaintance level, so that you have someone to nod or smile to every morning at breakfast, at the pool, or even a new friend. Sadly, the only people (besides several German, senior citizen couples) this happened to us with was a douchey Italian power-couple and their catamite (as Matt shamelessly dubbed him) son.

I wish with every fiber in my being that I had mustered up the courage to take a picture of these people. You probably won't believe me when I describe them. Then again, if you've ever been to an Italian city or beach you are likely to have run into them or one of their many followers: Hands flying, chins jutting out and shoulders raising, they walk and talk as if they were being followed by an entourage of paparazzi at all times. After all, they are too cool with their curly hair stiff with too much product, a generous whiff of spray-on deodorant, skin-tight clothing and permanent sunglasses - at breakfast, lunch, dinner, while swimming, while coffeeing, day or night, inside or outside. Oh, and they all seem to possess an unshakable conviction that they can convince anyone of anything anywhere (I like to call this the "veni, vidi, vici complex"), just because they deserve to get their way.

Matt, Roman and I were lucky enough to see them everywhere every single day of our vacation. We breakfasted at the same times, swam at the same times (their 6 year old, for the record, swam entirely naked in the pool and I am compelled to comment here that I really think that age is a little past the cutoff where kids are "cute" when naked in public places), asked questions (well, demanded things) at reception at the same time, we arrived the same day and left the same day, and we even decided to take a day trip to Gozo and eat and play at the same beach the same day. It was funny in a "why the hell is this happening to us?" kind of way.

2. Gozo & Jeffrey's Restaurant
Gozo: If you don't plan to go(zo) there, you better not go(zo) to Malta. :) Ok, enough with the cheesy gozo jokes, and enough with the exaggeration: there were other nice places in Malta. Valletta was very pretty, actually, and has lots of amazing history. But Gozo is stunning. Stunn-ing. And if we hadn't gone there, I probably would have left Malta feeling really cheated because my favorite place we'd have gone would have been the indoor pool at our hotel. (Enough with the exaggeration, Brenda!)

But of course there was a catch: Jeffrey's Restaurant almost ruined Gozo for me.

We spent the day lounging on beaches, seeing Calypso's disappointingly small cave, and driving through beautiful little villages. The island itself is the picture of rusticity and untouched beauty with only one small "town" on the harbor for the large ferries that are constantly coming and going, and even that is very pretty. The most amazing thing we saw while there was what is sold to tourists as the "azure window." It is a rock formation that dramatically juts out onto the ocean on the wilder side of Gozo and one of the most beautifully wondrous places to see a sunset. Being there on the off-season, it was only lightly sprinkled with other sunset seekers. But it is awkward climbing on spiky eroded rock, and the light goes quickly, so if you do go, make sure you're not carrying a baby, or bring a flashlight. Or both. :)

After a small transcendentalist moment at the azure window, we, famished, headed out to find a restaurant that was open nearly 9pm, which in Gozo is much harder than one would imagine. Given that there are literally probably under 5 ATMs for the entire island, Matt and I jumped at the first half-decent place we saw that wasn't fast food and ended up at Jeffrey's Restaurant.
So quaint, so cute, and so jam-packed full of happy looking people, I sighed a great relief when Roman fell asleep and the women gave me a table despite not having a reservation (several people came through the door and were turned away after us). How could we go wrong? The menu was full of local dishes as well as international cuisine and had some decent sounding seafood. Matt and I felt happy to have finally found Malta's culinary redemption in an off-the-beaten-path little family joint such as this.

But then we got our food. Seafood soup - more unopened mussels and clams than open ones. Shady fish, and crappy broth. I ordered a filet mignon steak (mistake 1), then asked for it medium (mistake 2). What I got was something approximating leather in the form of a salisbury steak - so dry and old I almost threw up the moment I tasted it. Then Matt thought I was exaggerating (mistake 3) so he tasted it (mistake 4) and also almost threw up. I tried to compose myself as I gagged into my napkin and realized the maitre d' / owner had seen the whole thing. He brought the chef over who insisted on giving me a new steak. ONLY in order not to make a scene did I accept the second steak which was slightly less old but equally disgusting. I couldn't eat more than 2 bites. We paid and left as soon as we finished the "on the house" dessert we got to compensate us for the rotten 40Euro steak they had given us, TWICE.

Ah, we had a good time anyway. But if you like food and depend on it as a big part of your vacations - take it from us, don't go to Malta.

1. How Kinnie Saved the Trip
One out of two of the only truly and uniquely Maltese things that I found redeeming about this trip was, amazingly, a soda.

I don't drink much soda and therefore I'd never heard of Kinnie until this trip to Malta. I've still never seen it sold here in the UK, and think it would probably be hard to find almost anywhere. But I dream about it - oh how I dream about it.

Kinnie is like coca-cola with a few drops of orange bitters thrown in. It's like a grown-up version of a soft drink minus the alcohol. A campari and soda with the sweetness of pop. It's tasty, refreshing and comes in an awesome orange can reminiscent of the only other uniquely Maltese thing I found redeeming of Malta: its really cool retro orangey-yellow public buses.

GO KINNIE! At the end of the day, I took refuge in you, knowing that I would one day get back to my own kitchen again and eat normal food, but just a little bit the sadder also knowing that you would not be there to share it with me!

* * *

Some fun Maltese Moments

Roman at Ramla Beach;
still young (and cute) enough to go naked at the beach.

Fried Ice Cream at the local Chinese in Mellieha

The Azure Window: worth the trip to Gozo.

Maltese Public Buses - super retro, super cool.

So happy to be here.

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Friday, March 5, 2010

Short & Sweet Post: Scrummy Fruit & Nut Chocolate Cake

Short & Sweet...that's me. And that's about all that is "short" about this cake and post. But not to worry - there is much sweetness to be had!

Sweet Thing #1: A Trip to Spain

We've just returned from a short & sweet long weekend trip to Granada and Las Alpujarras in Andalucia and the Spanish Sierra Nevada mountains. The trip was meant to be a celebratory
sojourn of relaxation and peace, with clean mountain air to boot. In reality, it turned into non-stop babysitting of extremely active and painfully mobile Roman, with bouts of my newly-discovered mountain car-sickness. There wasn't much party or birthday-like about Matt's special day, March 1st, besides our amazing trip to La Alhambra.

Sweet Thing #2: A Chocolate Cake
And so to make up for the lame birthday, I got some recipes together and decided to give his chocolate cake yet ANOTHER try (here's my
first try, and my second try). This time I got it right, after consulting a professional baker and an actual cookbook rather than random recipes on the iternet. *sheepish grin* Oh, I also took no shortcuts on the recipe procedure. Big step in the right direction for me!

So now the cake is baked, all that's left for me to do is shout it from the rooftops (albeit a couple of days late):

Happy 78th Birthday Matt!
(ok, ok, he's 50 years younger than that :) )

* * *

Scrummy Fruit & Nut Chocolate Cake

Serves 10

Here is my attempt at a cake that approximates an adult version of Cadbury's Fruit & Nut Chocolate Bars, Matt's absolute favorite. It is a dark chocolate sponge from the Primrose Bakery Cookbook enhanced with a rum syrup, and filled with an almond and rum-soaked raisin ganache. It is iced with traditional, dark chocolate buttercream icing. For my money, and time, it doesn't get any better than this.

The sponge recipe is a little time consuming and the method a little bit annoying, but the results are well worth the effort if you like moist dark sponges that don't taste like they've been baked out of a box. But to get the recipe, you'll have to go out and buy the book. :)

-1 chocolate layer cake (2 cakes) from Cupcakes From the Primrose Bakery Book (see below).
- 1 batch of dark chocolate icing from Cupcakes From the Primrose Bakery Book (see below)
- 1 cup water
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/3 cup dark rum
1/2 tsp almond extract
- 1 cup of almonds, roughly chopped, plus several more for decorating the top of the cake.
- 1 cup raisins, soaked in as much rum as necessary to cover them, for at least 1 hour


1. Bake the cake and allow to cool completely.

2. Make a simple syrup by heating water and sugar until sugar is completely dissolved. Once cooled slightly, add rum and almond extract. Allow to cool completely.

3. Once cake and syrup are cooled, using a skewer poke holes all over the tops of the cakes. Then pour syrup over them using a spoon or pastry brush until it has soaked in. Allow to sit for an hour or two.

4. Make the icing and separate 1/3 into a smaller bowl, then mix the raisins and almonds into this small portion of icing. Ice the top of the first layer of cake with this icing, then sandwich the second layer on top.

5. Use remaining icing to ice the top of the cake with the remaining icing and use almonds and raisins to decorate the top as desired.

6. Leave the cake covered for one night - it tastes even better the next day because the syrup has fully soaked in!

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Shameless Plug: Cupcakes From the Primrose Bakery

You probably thought you'd heard enough about that wonderful little cupcake bakery I used to manage? Well, think again. They've semi-recently come out with a book that the two owners co-wrote including almost all the delicious recipes you'll find at their two bakeries on a daily basis.
My personal favorites are the lemon cupcakes, but the chocolate cake is also quite a treat.
My dear friend and pastry chef / baker extraordinaire heavily collaborated with the shop owners to develop recipes, and the result is a charming little book full of goodies that aim to please both the American and British sweet teeth.

Check it out!

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