Category Archives: Middle Eastern

Sesame-Encrusted Savory Easter Bread


A beautiful loaf: crisp and golden brown on the outside, slightly moist and tender on the inside;  topped with sesame, cumin, poppy and caraway seeds. The sesame seeds give that wonderful nuttiness while the crushed herb seeds in the dough give it a great flavor without overwhelming the taste. The cumin, poppy, caraway and fennel seeds make it super savory. But the best things about this bread are: it is super-easy to make (even for a novice); it makes a whole lot of presentation; AND, it keeps very well. Let’s say, if you spend a few hours making it on Good Friday night, wait for lots of kudos coming your way on Sunday.
This bread is a close cousin of Greek street treat Koulouri (as well as Turkish Simit; Bulgarian Gevrek, Serbian Devrek, etc.), a ring shaped bread with sesame seeds, which, I’m sure many of you tried while traveling to those places, although it has zero sweetness compared to the bagel-shaped cousins.
Because it is full of flavors, I personally love it slightly toasted, smeared with a bit of ghee. Primarily though, this apple of the eye is a perfect party patter. Serve it sliced alongside a dip, olive salad, gourmet cold cuts, interesting crudité… and it WILL make the Easter party goers of every kind happy. And of course with its visually appealing shape and seeded crust, it makes a remarkable centerpiece statement.
From personal experience, making this bread with kids is fun (especially the rolling dough in seeds part) as well as perfect activity for kids to learn about life beyond the cream eggs. Once ready, koulouri bread also travels very well in a picnic basket.  My kids used to love to bring it to the farm visits where they could also secretly give some to animals… which is why this bread became so distinctly and wonderfully Easter to me.
Not to mention that it reminds me of my travels to Cyprus, its humble and honest food and picturesque villages perched in the mountains, where they bake this bread outdoors in a brick-clay oven . Well, we don’t have this luxury here, but no biggie: a few prep steps and it will bake perfectly well in the regular oven filling the house with the smell of freshly baked bread and herbs and putting everyone in a special peaceful holiday mood.  

Happy Easter to All of You!

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KOULOURI CYPRIOT VILLAGE BREAD
Yields: one big loaf
Ingredients:
4 cups white bread flour, plus extra for dusting
Pinch of mastika & mechlebe, OR ground fennel/anise seeds
1 ½ tsp sea salt
1 oz (30 g) fast action dried yeast
¼ (50 ml) cup olive oil
1 ¼ warm water
3 ½ oz (100 g) sesame seeds (mix of white and black if you wish)
1 tbsp cumin seeds
1 tbsp caraway seeds
1 tbsp poppy seeds
Instructions:
Grind mastika and mechlebe, OR fennel seeds with a pestle and mortar to a smooth powder. Combine the flour, salt, yeast, olive oil and water in a large bowl and blend together. Add mastika & mechlebe OR fennel powder and knead for 6-7 minutes. Let the dough stand in the bowl covered to rest for 1 hour.
Tips the sesame seeds, poppy and cumin seeds into a big bowl and pour over a tablespoon or so of water to moisten the seeds, ballon them and release their juice.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Tip the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and shape into a ball. Drop the dough into the dampened seeds and turn until covered in the seeds, then place the dough on the baking sheet and let rise for 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425F (220C). Score a line all the way around the side of the bread and two slashes on top with the knife. Bake for 30 minutes, or until golden brown, then transfer to the wire rack to cool. Slice only after the bread cooled completely.
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Adapted from ‘100 Great Breads’ by Paul Hollywood, March 2004, Cassell Illustrated.

Buttermilk Baby Eggplant Amuse Gueule

This colorful amuse-gueule will convert even the most die-hard adversaries of a yucky –mushy (by nature) eggplant.  The creator of the recipe has found a way to balance the ingredients in an unexpected but a most harmonious way giving the dish not only the visual appeal, but also incredibly addictive kick of the Middle Eastern taste. It includes: olive-oil-induced creamy roasted eggplant, za’atar spice, tangy garlicky cool buttermilk-yogurt sauce and tart-sweet fresh pomegranate seeds. The original recipe used large eggplant; I used baby eggplants instead to turn the dish into individually portioned appetizers.  It is also very easy and fast to prepare. 

If you are a vegetarian and you haven’t heard of chef YO (Yotam Ottolenghi) yet, you will soon. For a few years now he’s been hogging the chef limelight in the UK with his creative Western twist on the Middle-Eastern flavors. And with his third bestselling cookbook just released, his recipes go really world-viral – especially vegetarian recipes (although the chef himself isn’t a vegetarian). Not so long time ago, I was staring at this aubergine dish on the cover page of his previous cookbook ’’Plenty’’,  mesmerized by its assertively artistic sense of composition and color, thinking: ‘’Oh, please, not again! You not gonna buy yet another cookbook with a fancy cover page recipe! Just take some time to think about it and at least read some reviews like normal people… You don’t even know this guy…’’ And then I forgot…
Until today… when the recipe dropped in my lap as one of the home assignments from the free Harvard course on molecular cuisine, and an example of a simple low caloric, nutritionally balanced and utterly tasty meal, which  Buttermilk Eggplant (YO’s signature dish) is. Not only I fell in love with it, it brought back the taste of Za’atar spice mix, which is so easy to make and so refreshing to use with numerous other dishes (see recipe below). With this one, in particular, I made some quick za’atar baguette crostini with cheddar and mozzarella to spoon the extra buttermilk sauce with. They appeared to be welcome addition to the eggplant appetizers…
Quick disclosure: Montreal is a culinary mecca for Middle Eastern cuisine compared to other Canadian cities (my visit to the newly opened Turkish resto is already scheduled). And I am set to explore many more places and recipes. Finally, I really wanted to know more about Ottolenghi’s cuisine so I discovered his website with recipes as well as the exciting series of his food travel to Turkey, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia called ”Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast’”.  Thumbs up, YO, for sure they will keep me busy this week-end… Now, let’s Ottoleng it.

The video of YO himself making his own dish would probably be the best reference. As for my own notes: making incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half is essential to absorb the olive oil – I did not do the diamond pattern though – just parallel incisions worked well with me (to grab a bit less oil).  I also reduced the amount of buttermilk from the original recipe to 5 tablespoons instead of 9 to make it less liquid. Finally, I did not use fresh thyme, but a dried one and I guess it worked fine to me. Without a doubt, I will be making the dish again. Cheers!

Full disclosure: I ate a double portion:

BUTTERMILK EGGPLANT APPETIZER
Yields: 4 portions
Ingredients:
Eggplant Dish:
2 large eggplants or 6 baby eggplants, cut in half lengthwise and scored
1/3 cup olive oil
1 pomegranate de-seeded (see Note*)
1 ½ ttsp fresh lemon thyme leaves or dried thyme
1 tsp za’atar spice mix (see next)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Za’atar Spice Mix:
¼ cup sumac
2 tbsp dried thyme
1 tbsp roasted sesame seeds
2 tbsp marjoram
2 tablespoons oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Grind the sesame seeds with mortar and pestle or in food processor. Mix with remaining ingredients. Store za’atar mix in a cool, dark place in a jar, plastic bag or airtight container (for 3 to 5 months).
Buttermilk Sauce:
1/3 cup (5 tbs) buttermilk (see Note**)
½ cup Greek yogurt
1 ½ tbsp. olive oil, plus drizzle to finish
1 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the eggplants in half lengthwise cutting straight through the green stalk (the stalk is for the look – don’t eat it). Use a small sharp knife to make three or four parallel incisions in the cut side of each eggplant half, without cutting through to the skin. Repeat at a 45-degree angle to get a diamond-shaped pattern. Place eggplant halves flat side-up on a baking sheet. Brush thoroughly every half with olive oil and season with thyme, salt and pepper. Roast for 35-40 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to cool.  Mix buttermilk into yogurt, remaining olive oil, garlic and salt to season. Store in the fridge until ready to use. Remove seeds from pomegranate. Serve by spooning sauce over eggplant halves and sprinkling za’atar and pomegranate seeds on top. Finish with the drizzle of olive oil.
Note*: Useful video on how to de-seed pomegranate with water; and another technique on de-seeding pomegranate without water.
               
Note**: If buttermilk is not available, add vinegar to milk (1/3 cup milk + 1 tsp distilled/white vinegar), stir, and let sit for 5-10 minutes to develop into acidified buttermilk. 
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Adapted from: notes from EDX course and ”Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes From London’s Ottolenghi ” by Yotam Ottelenghi, Chronicle Books, March 2011.