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September 30, 2012

Learning to make Ouzi with Ola and her mum

ouziouzi parcels

I aim to post a blog entry once a month. You wouldn't think that it would be a difficult task. However, this is the month of September and I feel like I'm running as hard as I can on an upward inclining treadmill, which is about to spit me off because of the amount of work and time required to prepare for the start of an academic year at university, both at work and in the residential life team. I guess, the feeling is intensified this September because I had to move into a new flat, learning the ropes of a new role and area with my promotion to the role of deputy warden, meeting a new team of tutors, looming work deadlines... I'm going to stop trying to explain now because it's beginning to sound like I'm whinging.

Besides, amidst all the change and chaos, I decided to take a two weeks holiday to Jordan. A luxury, I admit, in September.

So, as the rain beats down against the window of my new study/dressing room, I'm thinking, 'was it really only a fortnight ago, that I was eating breakfast on a balcony in 30°c, listening to the tannoy of the scrap metal truck making it's way around the neighbourhood, looking forward to my first arabic cookery lesson?' I want to go back to that morning, when I made my way to the apartment, drinking in the sun and lingering slowly past the jasmine flowers that seem to overhang the walls on every street corner, so that I could inhale their fragrance one extra breath.

I guess the best thing to do in my case then, is to make some Ouzi.

On holiday, I learned that Jordanian women love FOOD. I had tremendous fun interacting with them whilst eating together, sharing cakes, talking flavours and recipes, helping with cooking. Maybe this is the same for all Arab cultures? I hesitate to generalise. One really interesting cultural food fact that I learned is, that the smaller you dice the tomatoes and cucumber that go into your salad, demonstrates how much you care for your guests. More effort goes into cutting up your salad veg finely, you see. I'd never thought of it in that way before!

The opportunity to cook together with Ola came out of a conversation Ola and I were having about okra! I smile as I remember this because I was telling her that I really don't like the slimeyness of cooked okra, which prompted her to share a recipe with me. I still remember the arabic for okra (bamieh). Oh my random memory! When Ola mentioned how nice it would be to cook together, I seized on the opportunity - yes please! I'm only here for a fortnight, but I love learning new dishes! My British friends, also asked whether they could join in too. We'd agreed to keep okra for another event and settled on making Ouzi, which is a traditional Jordanian rice dish, that can be served as a rice dish or rice stuffed filo parcels. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm guessing that every Jordanian mother has their own family recipe for Ouzi, like the Brits do with roast dinners?

jordanian oven
An arabic oven

We met at Ola's mum's house. What a privilege and because we were there, I experienced baking with an arabic oven! What did I learn?

  1. Arabic mixed spice is entirely different from UK mixed spice. More savoury rather than sweet. Shall I post a recipe for one later?
  2. An arabic oven automatically has a grill function, by design.
  3. Arabic curry powder is different from UK curry powder, but I don't know how, so I'm going to use the british stuff for the timebeing.

I'm going to write this recipe a bit differently. It's in 3 distinct bits and I thought about writing the ingredients list for each separately. I've seen a number of recipes laid out like that. However, I think that in this case, it would be annoying NOT to have the whole list of ingredients at the beginning because there are so many spices that go into each stage.

ouzi spices

Please don't let the long list of ingredients put you off making this delicious dish. I've written down the recipe as Ola's mum taught me; would it help you to imagine that most Jordanian women would add their own variation of spices to this?

To give you an idea of the flexibility of flavouring in Ouzi, I'll let Ola interject: "you can add more spices other than cinnamon to the meat (first step) if you like. but even if you don't it won't matter because all the flavours will blend at the end, so every spice will add to the flavour regardless of the step at which you add it."

So, what ingredientsdoes one need to make Ouzi for about 8-10 people?

  • 454g/1lb ground beef or finely diced steak
  • ground cinnamon
  • curry powder
  • chicken or vegetable stock
  • ground green cardamon
  • ground cumin
  • arabic mixed spice or bokharat
  • ground black pepper
  • salt
  • 400g frozen peas
  • 600g or 4 cups of dry basmati rice
  • raw, blanched almond slices/halves
  • 16 sheets of filo pastry
  • ghee or melted butter
  • sunflower or vegetable oil
  • water
  • 1tbsp of freshly chopped parsley

You'll also need:

  • 2 large baking tins, preferably roasting tins.
  • A soup bowl or ramekin, which you will use to help you shape and stuff your filo pastry sheets with rice.

I think that once you have everything out and ready, then it's pretty easy to cook and assemble. So, let's begin.

Cooking the meat

Ingredientsfor the meat part:

  • 454g or 1lb of beef mince, or finely diced beef steak
  • ½tsp cinnamon
  • 1tsp salt

Method:

1. Brown the beef in a frying pan or the stock pan that you're planning on using for the rice. As the meat is browning, add the cinnamon and the salt. Once the meat is browned, empty it onto a dish.

cooking ouzi meatadding spices to peascooking ouzi rice
Cooking the rice and vegetables

Ingredients for the rice:

  • 2 tbsp sunflower oil
  • 400g frozen peas, defrosted in cold water and drained.
  • 600g or 4 cups of basmati rice, rinsed and soaking in cold water
  • 1tsp ground cardamon
  • 1tsp cumin
  • 2tsp arabic mixed spice
  • 1tsp curry powder
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • 3 stock cubes
  • boiling water
  • 3 handfuls of raw, blanched almond slices

Method:

1. Put the sunflower oil in the stock pan and add the peas and 1tbsp of salt. Do this on a medium-high heat. Cover the pan to allow the peas to steam for about 5 minutes.

2. Now, comes the fun part of adding all the spices to the peas. Give it a good stir. Break up the stock cubes and add them to the peas as well. You can add a cup of water at this stage, if you think that the peas are starting to burn a bit.

3. Boil the water. Meanwhile, drain the rice and add it to the stock pan. Cover the rice with enough boiling water so that it the rice will steam cook at the end. I'm not very good at measuring out water for this, but I believe it's something like 1 cup of rice:1¼ cups of water?

4. Bring the water to boil, then cover the rice and peas in the pan with a lid and leave it for 10-15 minutes on a very low heat, until the rice is cooked. Test it - it should be light and fluffy. No al dente nonsense.

5. Heat 1tbsp of sunflower oil in a frying pan and on a medium heat, fry 3 handfuls of the almonds until they brown. Leave to one side until the rice is ready.

frying almondsfrying almonds2mixing rice and meat

6. On a big serving dish, put out half of the rice, then half of the meat. Mix it up. Then repeat until you have used up as much rice and meat as you'd like. Ola's mum said to us that we can put the rice and meat together in whatever proportion we like, according to taste. Now at this stage, you can add the almonds and eat it just like this. That's what I did when I made ouzi by myself after my cooking lesson. See below. If you tilt your head, there's thank you (shukran) written with almonds in arabic.

shukran ouzi
serving up ouzi

Or.... you can also wrap up the rice in filo pastry, which is what Ola and her mum taught us to do.

Assembling the filo parcels

Ingredients:

  • The fried almonds
  • The ouzi rice, cooled.
  • 16 sheets of filo pastry
  • ghee or melted butter
  • sunflower oil
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley

You'll also need the baking trays/roasting tins and ramekin/soup bowl at this point

Method:

1. So, you need to leave the rice to cool completely now before adding it to the filo pastry. Otherwise, Ola's mum shared that from her experience, the filo pastry will break when you come to wrap up the rice with them. She advised preparing the rice part in the morning when making Ouzi for dinner, in order to give the rice sufficient time to cool down. However, if you have left it too late or are impatient, you can speed up the cooling process by laying the rice out as a thin layer on a BIG serving dish so that the rice is exposed to as much cold air as possible. If you want to use warm rice, then on your heads, be it!

bowl to shape ouzi parcelslaying in the filo pastry

2. While you're waiting for the rice, preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 you could fry the almonds and prepare the baking trays by generously greasing them with oil. When the rice is ready, get your ramekin or soup bowl out, the almonds and the filo pastry sheets. (For the sake of ease, from this point forward, let's call the ramekin or soup bowl, a bowl.) Cut the sheet so that it's 2½-3 times the size of the dish that you're using. It's possible to cut away extra pastry, so err on the larger size when you first begin.

3. It's assembly time :) Flour the bowl if you want to doubly make sure that the pastry won't stick to the sides. Gently place one sheet of filo pastry on top of the bowl, so that the centre of the pastry sheet is in the bowl and the sides of the filo sheet are comfortably overhanging over the edges of the bowl. When we assembled them, Ola used 2 sheets because the pastry broke when we only used one. It's worth experimenting to find out what will work, but don't use anymore than 2 filo sheets per parcel. Press the pastry to the sides of the bowl.

layering the ouzi parcelfolded ouzi parcel

4. Add a tablespoon of almonds and then use a large spoon to add the rice until it reaches the top of the dish. Fold the layers of the filo pastry over the top, so that it begins to look like a parcel. You want to have enough pastry on the top so that when you invert the bowl, there will be enough there to form a firm base. Tear away any spare pastry from the top and store it, just in case you need to patch anything up!

5. With one hand on top of the folded sheets, carefully invert the dish and hopefully you'll get the satisfaction of seeing an unbroken filo parcel appear. Lay the parcel, folded sheets down, carefully on the greased baking tray and move onto the next one. If you find that the filo sheet has torn, gently take it apart and use an additional filo sheet to assemble your parcel again. When lots of them appear on a baking tray, I think that they look like perfect white pillows.

2 ouzi parcels on the golots of perfect parcels of ouzichecking ouzi for baking

6. When they are all assembled, brush them with ghee or melted butter, and cook them in the oven for 3-5 mins, until the parcel bottoms are browned. Check by lifting them up with a spatula. Then take it out and put them under the grill for an additional 2 minutes to brown the tops of the pastry. Essentially, we're making sure that the pastry is cooked.

baked ouzi parcelsserving up ouzi

7. When the tops are brown, take them out the oven and sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley. Et, voila - your ouzi parcels are ready to be served. Ola's mum served them with laban, which is thick natural yoghurt which as slightly soured, and baked chicken.

Do you know what makes this really more-ish? The almonds. The nuts add texture, taste and totally complete the dish. When I made ouzi the next day for 13 friends, I made a slight variation of the recipe and missed out the wrapping in parcels bit, in the interests of time. Also, I burnt the almonds and I could have added a bit more salt. Even then, the resounding verdict from the lunch guests was 'Zaki' (Tasty). In conclusion, this seems to be a pretty fail-safe recipe.

Thank you Ola and Ola's mum.

me assembling ouzialison assembling ouzi



November 30, 2010

Butternut Squash, Apricot and Almond Cake

butternut squash and apricot cake

It's starting to snow again on campus, as I finish writing up this entry.  They look like beautiful, soft flakes and remind me of my birthday in January when there was lots of snow! Maybe it's the snow which is helping me get into the swing of Christmas this year.  I started wrapping my Christmas presents on Saturday - a previously unheard of phenonemon for the queen of last-minute.  But then again, Saturday was the first day of snow and also the BBC Good Food Show, so undoubtedly I was going to be excited.  My highlights were of the day:

  1. Buying my amazing Titan peeler (see photo below) and later making a courgette, garlic, basil and parmesan pasta dish for dinner with it. 
  2. Chatting to Alan Rosenthal, who has written a cook book called Stewed, about his business.  I think the timing of the book launch is perfect for these dark nights.
  3. Having a fun day out with my former housemates, Claire and Sarah and tasting muchos good food. Mmmm...

Well, it has inspired me to write about a cake that we can indulge in guilt-free.  I think it's a handy one to have in mind for after Christmas.  I was hooked the instant I saw this on Kitchenist's blog, 'And I'm Telling You: No-Butter Apricot and Almond Cake'.  The title read like some sort of guarantee in a shop and drowned out the voice of guilt that says, "A moment on your lips, a lifetime on the hips".  (Actually at times, the voice of guilt likes to take on the unwelcome guise of various human beings - what is with that?!)  But the real hook for me was to bake with a butternut squash.  Who can resist one of those golden, odd shaped bad boys?

The original recipe is in Red Velvet Chocolate Heartache.  There's an amazon package sitting in the corner of my room, and I'm hoping my brother has sent me this recipe book as my Christmas present.  I'll let you know after Christmas. 

When it came to trying out this recipe, I didn't have any almond essence.  And after staring at a bottle of almond essence in the shop for 5 minutes, I decided to not to purchase it but to substitute it with Amaretto (an almond liqueor) instead, which I had already. 

I think that the hardest part of the this cake is peeling away at the hard skin of the butternut squash.  The best advice I can give you is to invest in a good quality, sharp vegetable peeler.  I didn't have one both times that I made this cake, so I attacked said butternut squash with a knife.  

cutting up butternut squash

Remember how I mentioned that I have now bought an amazing Titan peeler?  It's my newest kitchen purchase and I love it.  It peels just about anything.  I want to buy all sorts of root vegetables just so that I can peel them.  I'm a bit ridiculous, aren't I, for being so excited about a peeler. *v*  Did I mention already that I love it?

the best peeler

So, here are the Ingredients for my adapted version of Butternut Squash and Apricot Cake:

  • 16 dried apricots
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 1tbsp of apricot brandy (optional)
  • 3 large eggs
  • 90g caster sugar
  • 200g peeled and finely grated butternut squash *see top tip
  • 1tbsp amaretto
  • 60g plain flour
  • 200g ground almonds
  • 1 1/2 tsp mixed spice
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • icing sugar (to serve)

Top Tip: Weigh out the butternut squash before you peel and grate it.  If you go over that's fine.  You'll lose some of the weight when peeling it.  Oh, and double check the weight once you've done the difficult part. 

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas Mark 3.  Line the baking tin with baking paper.  In her blog, Kitchenist, Ele insists that this is a really important step and musn't be overlooked because the cake has a tendency to stick to the tin as no butter is being added to the recipe.  So, I obeyed.

2. In a small heatproof bowl, soak the dried apricots by barely covering them in boiling water and adding 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract.  For extra apricot-loveliness, try adding some apricot brandy to it, as I did the second time I made the cake.  1 tbsp of apricot brandy seemed a good amount for me.

3. Measure out the dry ingredients in a bowl - the flour, ground almonds, mixed spice, baking powder and salt

4. In a separate large bowl, beat the eggs and sugar together until it's light and fluffy.  Use an electric whisk if you have one.  Otherwise, it's a good workout for your arms.

5. Add in the grated butternut squash, amaretto, and 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract and combine well.

6. Add in the dry ingredients in 3. to the wet mixture and give it a good mix so that the mixture is well combined.  It should feel quite gloopy but thick.

7. Pour the mixture into the tin and spread it out evenly.  Drain the apricots that were soaking and place them on top of the cake.

unbaked butternut squash and apricot cakebaked butternut squash and apricot cake

8. Bake the cake for between 35-45 minutes in the middle of the oven, or until the tester/knife comes out clean.  The top of the cake should be springy and golden in colour.  Let it cool in the tin for about 10 minutes, then on a cooling rack.  Dust with icing sugar, just before serving.

Verdict?  I think that the butternut squash adds a beautiful moistness to the cake, rather than a distinct flavour.  The almond and mixed spice make it a truly delectable cake to eat.

So the combination of: no butter easing the guilt + butternut squash and apricot contributing towards your 5-a-day + amaretto and apricot brandy adding a sweet naughtiness to it = the perfect cake to feel good about whilst eating it.  I baked it for my work colleagues on my birthday and, on another occastion, as my contribution to my church's ladies day.  Each time, it received good reviews.  Mmmmm...


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