Friday, October 10, 2008

Cake Tel Aviv

My definition of "Romanian" for cooking purposes is quite expansive -- dishes are Romanian if they're in Romanian cookbooks, made in Romania, or if they're made by members of my Romanian family. I think this is pretty reasonable when one considers that Romanian cuisine has influences from German, Turkish, Greek, Russian, and French cooking -- so much so that I never know what to answer when someone asks me what Romanian cooking is like!

This chocolate cake loaf is made with a recipe my grandmother learned in Tel Aviv. I'm not quite sure what she was doing in Tel Aviv, nor when she was there, but she did pick up this recipe and so it is called, in our family, "Cake Tel Aviv." Whether or not she learned it from an expat Romanian in Israel is irrelevant to its place here: Romanians like it, and so it is Romanian.

Because I have this recipe from my grandmother, the measures are a little haphazard. I don't bake at all, but the recipe seemed to work anyway, so it may just be the case that precision is not that important.

  • 200 g unsalted butter
  • 2 glasses (around 200 mL each) white sugar
  • 50 g cocoa
  • half a glass of milk
Put these into a small pan (around 4 L capacity) on a low flame. Mix them gently until the sugar and butter melt. The mixture should warm up, but should not boil. Take it off the flame, and reserve five spoons of the chocolate sauce in a cup. This will make the icing.

After the mixture has cooled, add:

  • half an envelope of baking powder (or around half a teaspoon), dissolved in the juice of a quarter of a lemon
  • three egg yolks
Beat the egg whites into a stiff foam. Add them to the chocolate mixture a spoonful at a time, alternating with spoons of:

  • 1 and 3/4 glasses of flour (with a pinch of salt added)
Keep alternating egg white foam and flour, mixing the batter gently after each spoonful. Once done, you may wish to add:

  • lemon or orange peel, grated
Pour the batter into a long loaf form, which is, of course, buttered and dusted with flour. Cook it at 350 degrees F, and once the top of the loaf cracks in the middle, leave it in for ten more minutes. It'll take about 40 minutes total.

Once you take the cake out, let it cool for about ten minutes, and then remove from the cake form. Place it on a dish or aluminum foil, and use the back of a spoon to coat the entire cake -- top and sides -- with a thin layer of the chocolate icing you saved in a cup. Let it rest.

The cake keeps well for several days, and becomes denser and moister as the time passes, so I prefer it a little old. Those who like fluffiness will prefer it fresh.

Zacusca - Vegetable spread

When I think of Romanian cuisine, the words "slow" and "arduous" come immediately to mind. No wonder I've always been more attracted to Asian cooking, with its promise of lightning-fast stir fry meals. But I'm learning that some Romanian foods can be quite easy, especially if you prepare extra quantities of time-consuming items and freeze them.

Say, for example, that you made salata de vinete, but you roasted two eggplants and froze one in a ziploc bag. Say you roasted some red peppers too, and froze some of those. You're basically ten minutes away from making your own zacusca, a spread very similar to ajvar.

This recipe comes from my grandmother, and she advised using four peppers to one eggplant. I should say that this made way too much, at least for me to consume, but I found another use for it. If I were making it again, I would make half the quantity at most.

So -- coarsely chop an onion, and sautee it in oil. Cut the red peppers into little squares, and add them to the pan:

Add the mushed up roasted eggplant, salt, pepper, and about a spoonful of tomato paste. That's it!

Let it cook for a bit, and the flavours will bind nicely together. I should add that I put some chili powder in this, and I don't think that was a good idea. I think the heat needs to come from the peppers or not at all, and the Romanian version is definitely mild.

In the end, I only managed to eat about half of this, even though it was nice to have in my fridge. (Unfortunately, I made it at the same time as the salata de ardei copti, so it was a bit of a red pepper overload.) But, I "recycled" the rest by frying a bit of garlic and ginger in a pan, some Indian spices (turmeric, cayenne, coriander), and then adding the zacusca (which already had onions). With some rice it made a quick, pseudo-Indian lunch.

Salata de ardei copti - Roast pepper salad

Roast pepper salad is my second desert island dish. It is, quite simply, one of the most delicious dishes I have ever met, and not surprisingly, it pairs well with salata de vinete. Its tanginess makes it a particularly good accompaniment to meat dishes, especially if the meat is fried -- I like to have something sour to cut the greasiness of a meaty main course.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Salata de vinete -- Eggplant salad

Inspired by this post on making paneer, I decided to make the curried eggplant with paneer pictured halfway down the page. I found a decent recipe online for Ringan no Ohloh, and as I contemplated making it I realised that oven roasting the eggplants would also give me the basics for salata de vinete.

Just to give a little bit of context: salata de vinete is my absolute favourite food in the entire world. It's my one "desert island" food. It's the one food I could have every day of my life. It's not too dissimilar from other roast eggplant dishes around the world, such as baba ghanouj and various concoctions that go under the name "eggplant caviar." But here's the thing: the way I remember it being made in Romania involved charring the eggplants on a plita, a flat sheet of metal (a kind of sideless pan) that would go over an open flame. This was a smelly and hot process, and somehow my memories of the subsequent removal of the charred skin are also not good. So I've never tried to make this myself, figuring that, as much as I love it, I lacked the equipment (I also don't have a barbecue), and it would be too much work.

Fasole verde cu sos de rosii - Green beans with tomato sauce

A very easy summer dish and one of my favourites. I bought a package of flat green beans (I think it was half a kilo), snipped off the ends and washed them. (As a child, snipping off the ends was always my job!). The rest is almost like making pasta sauce, but with beans, and in a pot. I fried a couple of onions chopped coarsely in oil, as well as a little garlic, and then put in a couple of cans of peeled tomatoes which I then crushed. I broke up the beans into pieces about two inches long, added them to the pot, along with salt, pepper, bay leaves, oregano, and some water. The meal just has to simmer for about half an hour (it takes longer than one would think) until the beans are soft.

All in all, the result was pretty edible, except that the beans were a little too fibrous for my liking. Next time around, I'd remove the long, stringy fibres on the edges, and I'd probably let the whole thing simmer even longer, so that the beans are really nice and mushy.

This is an all-purpose preparation -- one could use string beans, I think, or add some carrots and potatoes as well. Or red pepper. Now that I think of it...

Here's to you, Sanda Marin

"Sanda Marin" was, as I was growing up, the ultimate reference work. By the time I was a teenager, our family's copy of this Romanian cookbook had traveled, with us, through three continents, and had reached an advanced stage of dilapidation. Since the answer to any cooking dilemma was, "look in Sanda Marin," I'm not surprised that the poor thing no longer has any covers.

A month or so ago, realising that I could make a greater number of Indian dishes than Romanian, I decided to try my hand at creating some of the dishes I love. I was never a fan of the heavy, fatty, go-out-into-the-field-and-work Romanian foods, but there are a few basic dishes that I could eat every day for the rest of my life. Like salata de vinete (roasted eggplant salad). And clatite (crepes). And salata de ardei copti (roasted red pepper salad). And papanasi (cheese donuts). And snitel (schnitzel).

Unfortunately, I wasn't at home, and although a growing number of Romanian recipes is available on the internet, I had no idea which ones to trust. Until I found that someone, bless their soul, had digitized Sanda Marin.

Gleefully, I downloaded the pdf (no frayed covers!). Imagine my surprise when faced with the vagaries of Romanian cookbooks... you get the right weights and measures for recipes, but are then told to "spice to taste." No clue on what the spices should be. Just spice it with what you like. The recipes are, in general, meant for people who already know the dishes, know how they want them to taste, and let's be honest here, probably know how to cook them already -- they just need a reminder. Sanda Marin reminds.

Well, I don't know how to cook all of these things, and for some of them, I don't even know how I want them to taste. But I do have a mother and two grandmothers who are reachable by telephone. So here goes.