Musings about Food & the Politics of Food.

TartQueen's Kitchen

Archive for March, 2012

Points East 0

Posted on March 20, 2012 by Sahar

For the next 2 weeks, I’ll be posting photos and thoughts on my trip to New Jersey & New York City.

I’ll be hitting some new restaurants, helping out with culinary walking tours, eating some wonderful home-cooked meals, and attending the opening gala of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference.

Most photos will be food-related, no doubt.  But, I’ll try to add a little of the local scenery and color in as well.


A few photos from my last (and way too long ago) visit:

Union Square Farmer's Market. 9/2010


Diner. Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Amazing burgers. 9/2010


From the Cool Old Ruins Dept. Brooklyn. 9/2010


Touristy, I know. But, damn, their corned beef & matzo ball soup are excellent. 9/2010


Some of the best fried chicken I have ever eaten. Harlem. 9/2010


Soup dumplings. 'Nuff said. Flushing, Queens. 9/2010


Fruit & Medicine Garden. The Cloisters. Washington Heights, Manhattan. 9/2010


Boardwalk. Asbury Park, NJ 9/2010


See you all on the East Side!

Hummous. The real thing. 1

Posted on March 19, 2012 by Sahar

Hummous (Arabic: حمّص), or as it’s known by it’s full name, Hummous bi Tahineh (حمّص بطحينة),  is one of the most well-known and popular Middle Eastern dishes known to the Western palate.  This is in large part due to Middle Eastern immigration, marketing, and expatriates.  Plus, it just tastes really good.

It’s a dish that ubiquitous all over the Middle East.  It’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, with dinner, and as simply a snack.  It’s cheap, filling, and packs a lot of protein.

Hummous is also a very healthy dish.  It is high in iron, vitamin c, folate (B9), and B6.  The chickpeas make it an excellent source of protein and dietary fiber.  Tahineh paste is ground sesame seeds, which are an excellent source of amino acids. And, depending on the recipe, hummous has high amounts of monounsaturated fat. Hummous is also a compliment for vegetarian and vegan diets.

This is a dish that my sisters & I grew up with.  We had it often enough that we learned to make hummous from a very young age.  While this is a dish that is part of my father’s cultural background (he is Palestinian), Mom makes a mean hummous as well.

And one of the things we learned is that hummous is a simple dish with simple, and, yes, ancient ingredients.  The basic ingredients in hummous – chick peas, tahineh, lemon, and garlic – have been around for millennia.  The dish itself has a rather murky history.  Some culinary historians trace the dish back to the 13th Century and the warrior Saladin.  However, more recent research finds that the first known documentation of a cold dish of chick peas and tahineh comes from the Egyptian Abbasid period (1251-1516).  But, it most likely isn’t what we know now as hummous.  The earliest known documented form of “modern” hummous comes from Damascus, Syria in the late 19th Century.

(Some historical and nutritional information from Wikipedia)


A short editorial is called for here.  This is a purist recipe.  I have seen hummous made with different types of beans, black seeming to be one of the more popular, with sweet potatoes, and, I have seen vegetables added as well.

I’m against all of that.

I’m usually not one to argue against experimentation in cooking.  It’s what keeps the culinary world fresh and exciting.  But, to me, this dish is perfect in it’s simplest, purest form.  Putting stuff that shouldn’t belong in the first place is an anathema to me.  If you do decide to make hummous, and you decide to put anything more than the recipe calls for or decide to use a different bean or legume, or heaven help me, a pureed vegetable, I really don’t want to know.

Perhaps it’s a cultural bias. Perhaps it’s because this is what I know from eating this dish for most of my life.  When it comes to Middle Eastern food, I’m very much a traditionalist, ingredient & flavor-wise.


Now, for the recipe.

I will say that generally, I don’t measure when I make hummous.  I go by texture and taste.  So, I had to really make a conscience effort to measure the ingredients this time around.

You’re welcome.

Also, I do see the irony in using modern tools to make an ancient dish after my stance on traditionalism.  I’m sure this dish was made originally with dried chick peas that were perhaps cooked or soaked overnight, stone-ground tahineh, and mixed with a mortar & pestle.


Hummous bi Tahineh

The ingredients

1 ea. 14-oz can chick peas (garbanzos), drained, liquid reserved (save a few whole chick peas for garnish if you like)

1/2 c. tahineh (The oil and the solids separate, like natural nut butters. Be sure to stir before using)

4 cl. garlic, stem ends removed

1 tsp. salt (I use kosher)

3 tbsp. lemon juice

1/4 c. pine nuts, optional

Paprika or sumac, for color, optional


1.  Set up a food processor.  With the processor running, drop the cloves of garlic through the feed tube.  Process until the garlic is finely minced.

2.  Stop the processor, remove the lid, and pour in the chick peas and 1/4 cup of the reserved liquid.  Process again until you make a rough paste.

Rough paste of chick peas, garlic, and liquid.

3.  Add the tahineh and salt.  Process again until smooth.  Add the lemon juice and process again.  Taste for seasoning.

The finished Hummous bi Tahineh.


If you prefer a thinner hummous, use more of the reserved liquid.  If you like a thicker hummous, use less.

4.  Now, there are several ways to present  hummous.  Reserving a few whole chickpeas or a little chopped tomato or cucumber as garnish (not mixed in!) are some traditional methods of garnishing.  But, my favorite way is to brown some pine nuts and serve the hummous with them.  Just like Dad does.

There are two ways this can be accomplished.  The healthier and vegan way of doing this is to brown the pine nuts in a 350F oven for 3 -5 minutes.  They brown quickly, so you need to err on the side of caution.  Once the pine nuts begin to smell like popcorn, you’ve gone too far.  And pine nuts are too expensive to waste.

The other, more indulgent way to brown the pine nuts is to cook them in butter.  Which is my favorite way.  Not healthy, admittedly, but, delicious.

Melt the butter over medium-high heat.  Add the pine nuts and stir constantly.  Once the pine nuts begin to brown, take them off the heat immediately and pour them, butter and all, over the hummous.

If you do use the butter-browning method, wait until you’re just about to serve.  Otherwise, the butter will harden and that’s pretty unappetizing.

For color, sprinkle on a bit of paprika or sumac.  Very traditional.

Browning the pine nuts in butter. Mmm...


The completed dish. Admittedly, I got a little crazy with the butter.

5.  Now, hummous is almost always served family-style.  So, everyone gets to dig into the plate.  If you’re in a traditional Arab home and this is a situation you find yourself in, there is a proper way to eat hummous without offending anyone and embarrassing yourself. (Of course, this applies to any family-style dish.)

To begin with, make sure your hands are clean.  I’m not kidding.  If you’re sharing a large dish with people, they don’t want to eat after someone with dirty hands.

Make sure you always eat with your right hand only.  In Bedu (Bedouin; i.e. traditional Arab) culture, the left hand is used for, well, things other than eating.  If you’re a southpaw, learn to become ambidextrous when eating.

Stick to your side of the platter.  Don’t dig into the center.  It’s rude.  Find a corner, so to speak, and stick there.  Move in as everyone else does.  Take your cues from them.

And don’t be afraid to ask if you have etiquette questions.  People will be more than happy to help guide you through the ritual.

Now, of course, if you’re moving through a buffet line and you spoon food on your plate, then the above tips won’t apply to you.  Except for the right-hand thing.

6.  Tear off a small piece of pita bread and make a scoop.

Pita bread scoop.

As I said before, take your scoop of pita with your right hand and dip into your designated “corner” of the bowl or platter.


Dipping the scoop into one "corner" of the bowl

And, there you are.

Ready for eating. Yummy.


Enjoy! Sahtein!










Happiness is Cake! 0

Posted on March 04, 2012 by Sahar

Cake.  The very word softens even the most sour of dispositions.   Cake is a constant in our lives.  We eat it for celebrations, holidays, and for after dinner dessert.  It’s the treat we give ourselves when we reach a goal in life.  It just makes us happy.

During Antiquity, the first known cakes were more bread-like and sweetened with honey, nuts, and dried fruits.  According to food historians, the ancient Egyptians were the first people to show evidence of advanced baking skills. The round cakes we know today descended from these ancient cakes. Breads and cakes were made by hand and typically shaped into round balls and baked on hearthstones or in low shallow pans. The dough naturally relaxed into rounded shapes.

Ancient breads and cakes were usually used in religious rites. They were formed into special shapes, according to the ceremony. The rounded shape typically symbolized the cyclical nature of the seasons, life, the sun & moon.

The English word cake can be traced back to the 13th century. The word cake comes form ‘kaka‘, an Old Norse word. (Norsemen [Vikings] were rather frequent, if unwelcome, guests to Brittania from the 8th through 11th Centuries.  They took a lot, but the left a lot behind as well.  Language and food being two of those things.) Medieval European bakers made fruitcakes and gingerbread that could last for many months.  A necessity due to the lack of refrigeration and the purely seasonal nature of cooking and available ingredients.

The precursors of modern cakes (round ones with icing) were first baked in Europe during the 17th Century. This primarily due to better & more reliable ovens and ingredients, such as white sugar and spices, were easier to obtain (at least for the upper classes). At that time cake hoops–round molds for shaping cakes that were placed on flat baking trays–were popular. They could be made of metal, wood or paper.  As time progressed, baking pans in various shapes and sizes, became readily available to the general public.

The term “icing the cake” comes from the first icing recipes. These were usually made with the finest available sugar, egg whites and flavorings that were boiled together. The icing was poured over the cake then returned to the oven. When the cake was removed from the oven, the icing cooled quickly to form a hard, glossy (ice-like) covering. Many cakes made then still contained dried fruits (raisins, currants, citrons). It was not until the Victorian era that the cake as we now know it (made with white flour and baking powder instead of yeast) became popular.

(Some historical information from

Commercial cake mixes have been around in one form or another since the 1920’s.  But, they reached the height of popularity in the 1950’s when quick & instant foods became popular with housewives.  Cake mixes are easy, mostly foolproof, and inexpensive.

However, there’s really nothing like making a cake from scratch.  If you simply follow a few guidelines, there’s nothing that can stop you from making a delicious show-stopper.

To begin with, you must use quality ingredients.  If your ingredients aren’t quality, all your work will be for nothing.

Flour: For cakes, cake flour is best.  It’s what’s called a “soft wheat” flour that has a low gluten content (about 8%).  Using cake flour creates a much lighter, moist cake.  It is generally available in 2-pound boxes and comes in both bleached (i.e. Swan’s Down) and unbleached (i.e. King Arthur).  Because cake flour has a tendency to clump during storage, you must always sift it before using it in a recipe.

I prefer to use unbleached because, well, it hasn’t been treated with bleach.

You can use all-purpose flour in a cake recipe, but because it is a heavier flour, your final cake may not be as moist.  If you must use all-purpose flour, one trick to making the cake lighter is to sift the flour 3 times and then use the scoop & sweep method to measure it (see recipe).

 Butter: Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, always use unsalted butter.  If you can, use European or European-style butter.  Commercially available American butters must have a minimum of 80% butterfat, while European and American made European-style butters have a minimum of 88% butterfat.  The amount of butterfat does make a difference.  It results in a richer, more flavorful cake.

Do not substitute margarine or light butter in a cake recipe.  Margarine can be unreliable in a recipe and is completely lacking in flavor.  Because it’s not a natural product, it is in many ways, less healthy than butter.  Light butter contains only about 50% butterfat, with the rest made up with moisture, gums, stabilizers, and emulsifiers.  It is not recommended for cooking or baking.

Eggs:  Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, the eggs called for are always going to be large eggs.  A large egg is exactly ¼-cup.   And, like with any ingredient, fresher is better.  Check the expiration date on the carton.  It makes no difference whether you use white or brown eggs.

Salt:  I generally use kosher or sea salt in my recipes.  They are minimally processed and have no additivesTable salt (i.e. Morton’s) has additives that help to keep it from clumping.  These additives can add a bitter flavor to what you’re cooking, however.  So, save table salt for the table.

Baking Powder:  Be sure it’s fresh.  (See my previous post on how to test baking powder.)

Extracts:  Always use pure extracts.  These are distilled from the essential flavors of vanilla beans, flowers, nuts, and coffee.  Artificial, or imitation, extracts are usually made with ingredients like petroleum and coal tar.  Not very appetizing.  Plus, imitation extracts have a fake approximation of the flavor you’re trying to enhance in your baked goods and can potentially ruin the flavor of your recipe.


A Few Cake Troubleshooting Tips:

1.  Be sure all your ingredients are at room temperature.  This will help your cake batter blend into a more even mixture.  However, when it comes to butter, do not use melted unless specified in a recipe.  Melted butter separates and can make your cake greasy.

2.  When you cream together the butter and sugar, be sure that it becomes a light, fluffy mixture.  The added air helps to make the cake lighter, and produces a less dense cake.

3.  Be sure that the eggs are added one at a time and the batter is thoroughly blended after each egg.  Otherwise, your cake will be dense and flat.

4.  Be sure you use the correct size pan for your recipe.  Too much batter in the pan, the outsides of the cake overcook before the middle is done.  Too little batter, your cake can overcook and have a crispy crust.

5.  Make sure you adjust your oven temperature so your cake will cook evenly and thoroughly.  *Remember, oven temperatures in recipes are for the ovens used to test the recipe.  Everyone’s ovens cook differently.  You know whether your oven cooks hot or cold.

6.  If you have more than one cake pan in the oven at a time, be sure the pans are not too close together.  Otherwise, they will bake unevenly because there’s not enough hot air circulating around the pans.

7.  If your oven cooks unevenly, and most ovens do, about half way through the baking time, rotate the baking pans, and/or, if you have more than one pan, switch racks.

8.  Always let the cake cool completely before adding any frosting or decoration.


(Some of the above information comes from In The Sweet Kitchen by Regan Daley)


Now, on to the recipe.

In this cake recipe, I have a rather unusual ingredient, coconut milk.  Since this is a coconut cake, I wanted to take the flavor to the next level, so to speak.  Since coconut milk is heavier, viscosity-wise, than whole (sweet) milk, this does result in a slightly denser cake.

Coconut Cake

The Ingredients


2 c. cake flour (preferably unbleached – it can be found everywhere now)

1 tbsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt (use sea or kosher salt, not table salt)

3 eggs

½ c. butter, softened (unsalted., please If you can use European style butter, even better)

1 ½ tsp. coconut or vanilla extract (use pure extract, not imitation)

1 ½ c. unsweetened coconut milk (not coconut water or Coco Lopez)



3 c. sweetened flake coconut (if you want a little less sugar, use unsweetened flake coconut)

8 oz. cream cheese, softened (do not use low- or non-fat, please)

2 tbsp. butter, softened (see above)

1 c. powdered sugar, sifted

1 tbsp. unsweetened coconut milk (see above)

1 tsp. coconut or vanilla extract (again, see above)



Make the Cake:

1.  Preheat the oven to 350F.  Grease and flour either 2 9-inch round cake pans or 1 12 x 18-inch baking pan.  Set aside.


The prepared pan. I opted for a single layer cake because it's easier.


Note: My Preferred way to measure the flour for cake is to pour some flour (not necessarily measured) into a bowl.  I aerate the flour and then scoop the flour into a dry measure (looks like a scoop or dipper).  Do not tap the measuring cup to pack the flour. This will make a heavy, dry cake. Once I have filled the cup with flour, I simply sweep the excess off the top.

Scooping the aerated flour into the dry measuring cup.


When scooping the flour into the cup, do not pack it down. If you do, it will result in a heavy, dry cake.


After measuring the flour, simply sweep off the excess flour. Do not tap or shake the cup to pack it down.


2.  Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.

3. In a large bowl or mixer bowl, beat together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.

Butter and sugar creamed together.


4. Add the eggs to the butter & sugar, one at a time, mixing thoroughly after each one. (The best way to accomplish this is to break the eggs, one at a time, into a small bowl and then pouring the egg into the butter & sugar.  This will prevent the risk of dropping eggshells into the batter.)

After the eggs have been added to the butter and sugar.


5. Add the flour mixture and coconut milk, alternating between each addition, to the butter mixture.  (Alternating the wet & dry ingredients makes a more thoroughly mixed batter.) Be sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl often.

The finished batter.


6.  Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s).

Batter in the prepared pan. Be sure it is evenly distributed.


Bake the cake for 30 – 35 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.  Let the cake cool in the pan(s) for 10 minutes, then turn the cake out onto a rack and let it (them) cool completely before frosting.

The finished cake. The holes in the top are where I tested it for doneness.


7. Make the Frosting: In the same 350F oven, toast the coconut in the oven on a large sheet pan until it is golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.  Stir every 2 – 3 minutes to be sure the coconut browns evenly.  Remove the coconut from the oven and immediately take it off the sheet pan and place it on a cool surface.

Mmm... Toasted coconut.

8.  In a mixer bowl, beat together the butter and cream cheese until smooth and creamy.  Mix in the powdered sugar, coconut milk, and extract.  Mix well.

Finished frosting right before the coconut is added.


Stir in 2 cups of the toasted coconut.

 9.     Spread the coconut frosting on the cooled cake. Take the remaining 1 cup of toasted coconut and press it into the top and sides of the cake.

The final, frosted cake. I put the cooled cake back into the same baking dish.


Cake, Anyone?


By the way, this cake would be excellent with some tropical fruit salad on the side or some chocolate drizzled over the top.  Or, just eat it as is.





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