Trust your recipes

There is so much gardening to do I had no intention to blog this weekend. But after my cookie mishap this morning (which turned out fine), I cannot help but ranting a bit here.

I woke up early and since it was too chilly to go outside, I decided to try out some cookies with the wonderful Meyer lemon scented olive oil I bought a few days ago. I found a Youtube recipe video that sounded perfect. I did not watch the video but followed the written recipe, modifying it a bit in terms of flavorings but making sure to stick with the ratio of dry and liquid ingredients.

The dough was supposed to be rolled out and cut into desired shapes. There was no way that sticky dough was suitable to be rolled out so I put away my cookie cutters and dropped spoonfuls of the dough onto the baking sheet. The result was rather biscuits than cookies but they tasted good. For the next batch, I used a pastry bag and ended up with perfectly round little cookies.

While the cookies were in the oven, I reread the recipe several times, wondering what mistake I had made. I had made none. Only then did I watch the video. The dough looks as sticky as mine, but then a heap of flour is added during the kneading. I cannot imagine those cookies will taste so nicely light as mine if you add so much flour for kneading. And, at best, the dough could be cut into plain circles, but “desired shapes”? I don’t believe it. The original recipe clearly did not work, at least not for me.

Whether you are an experienced cook or a beginner, it is always a frustrating experience when a recipe does not work, and usually you assume that you did something wrong. But the sad fact is that there are lots of flawed recipes out there, some of them with plain errors, others leaving too much up to luck. I don’t want to sound judgmental, I acknowledge that recipe-writing is not an easy thing. The devil is in the details and there is plenty of room for errors. Of course I’ve made them, too.

No more kvetching! After all I ended up with wonderfully light, lemon-scented cookies that I will surely bake again. But I won’t make a video out of it. Promised.

Lemon Olive Oil Cookies

I used ground steamed poppy seeds that I brought back from Germany. In the US you can find ground poppy seeds (and I do not mean the sticky, gooey poppy seed cake filling) in specialty spice stores, or you can grind your own. If you cannot get your hands on ground poppy seeds, just leave them out. They are a nice addition but not essential to the recipe.

1 organic lemon

½ cup Meyer lemon extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup non-fat Greek yogurt

½ cup low-fat plain yogurt

1 large egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

½ cup plus 3 tablespoons sugar

2¾ cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

¼ teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons ground poppy seeds (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper or with a baking mat.

2. Zest the lemon and set aside 1 teaspoon. Refrigerate or freeze the rest of the zest for another use. Squeeze the lemon and set the juice aside.

3. Mix the olive oil, both yogurts, egg and vanilla extract in a bowl with an electric mixer. Add ½ cup sugar.

4. Put the remaining 3 tablespoons sugar in a food process with the lemon zest and process until the sugar is fragrant and slightly yellow. Add this the olive oil mix.

5. In another bowl, mix the flour with the baking soda, salt and poppy seeds, if using. Add to the olive oil mix and beat until fluffy.

6. Fill about one-third of the dough in a pastry bag with a plain round tip and squeeze small rounds, about 1.5 inch, onto the baking sheet, leaving ample space between them.

7. Bake in the middle rack of the preheated oven for 12 minutes, until the cookies are lightly yellow and set. Proceed the same way with the rest of the dough, which will make 2 more cookie sheets.

8. Cool the cookies on wire racks and store in airtight tins.

Makes 100 cookies

Brining olives, bringing back memories

Pomegranates and olives are the two things that I associate the most with my Tunisian grandmother. Of course I cannot grow either in my Pennsylvania garden so when I saw fresh olives for sale the other day I could not resist buying some to try my hand on brining them.

Those olives brought back vivid memories of my grandmother. Most of them have to do with food, as I did not speak a word of Arabic as a child, and my grandmother did not know French. And, like most women of her generation, she was illiterate. She basically communicated with me through food. I remember her putting things on my plate, and when she realized I liked it, she nodded or chuckled, or both, and put more on my plate.

My grandmother’s cooking was as Mediterranean as they come – no dairy whatsoever. Before trips to Tunisia, I remember my mother buying gingersnaps for her at a spice store in downtown Frankfurt, a place where she usually never shopped. In the 1970s, gingersnaps were something very exotic for Germany, and certainly not cheap. I tried one and found it awful (today I love gingersnaps) but my mother told me that these were the only cookies my grandmother liked and was able to eat. It only occurred to me now that she had a milk allergy.

At my grandmother’s house in Ksar Hellal, a town in the Tunisian coastal area called the Sahel, the meals were taken in the large courtyard. We sat on straw mats, with the starry night sky as the ceiling. You could faintly hear voices and music from neighboring houses, and cooking smells wafting over, yet it felt ultimately private.

The middle of her courtyard had a small, rosette-shaped elevated garden with an orange tree, a pomegranate tree, and some turtles roaming around. My grandmother knew how much I loved pomegranates, so each time she came to visit us in Germany, usually in the winter, she brought me pomegranates from that tree.Storage roomOlives, especially olive oil, was omnipresent in her cooking. The greenish oil was so thick that a spoon could stand in it. Like all her other provisions, she kept the olive oil in earthenware amphora, neatly lined up in the long narrow storage room. The olive oil came from the family’s olive groves and she used it for everything, from frying thick wedges of potatoes to her delicious hot pepper sauce, which was much milder than harissa, and which I never managed to fully recreate. She did not distinguish between light olive oil for cooking and the thick cold-pressed grade.  I never use extra-virgin olive oil for cooking, I find its flavor too strong, but back then I did not mind. Then, of course, there is the price issue. Good extra-virgin olive oil is expensive. Early this summer I finally found a mail order source for Tunisian extra-virgin olive oil. I bought three liters thinking it would last us a whole year. We were out after a few months and I recently had to reorder.

My grandmother also made her own olive soap. I still have one of those irregularly shaped chunky bars, and I never thought of using it because it is one of the few objects that connect me to her. When I went to her house ten years after she died, I took as many photos as I could. The house was deserted and clearly falling apart. For a short while I hoped I would be able to save that gem, with its beautiful Moorish tiles, its wrought-iron windowpanes, and its sleeping alcoves with elaborate multi-colored woodwork frames. But renovating it was too big of a task for me at a time when I was just starting my career. Then, life took me elsewhere and, eventually, to the United States.

Brining olives takes time. Mine are still at the stage where I need to soak them in water and change it daily to remove the extreme bitterness. I hope it will work out and I will end up with tasty olives in a couple of months so I can post the recipe. (Update, January 2012: The cured olives failed, they were awfully bitter. I will rely on the pros for olives but it was fun to try).

In the meantime, all this thinking and reading about olives put me in such an olive mood that I concocted a quick salad with olives, using leftover chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes from the garden. This is, like most salads in Arab and Middle Eastern cuisines, a compact affair, small and filling, like Tabouleh.Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

Chickpea Salad with Green Olives

2 cups cooked chickpeas, rinsed and drained

1/2 cup pitted green olives, coarsely chopped

2-3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

2 tablespoons finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes (packed in oil)

Finely chopped fresh chili to taste

1 teaspoon dried oregano

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Lime juice to taste

Extra-virgin olive oil to taste

Mix all ingredients. Let sit a few hours before serving. Refrigerate if not serving the same day. Serve at room temperature.

Makes 6 servings