For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

February 28, 2011

In Bed With Baklava

Last week I got inspired by an article that a class mate of mine wrote in response to Cameron's, Merkel's and Sarkozy's statements declaring that multiculturalism in Europe has failed. I obviously disagree and wanted to celebrate the at least for me very alive and blossoming multiculturalism, so explicitly present in my class of European Studies at the University of Lund.

Needless to say, an incurable, immensely proud food-a-holic as I am, a party at my place couldn't possibly be anything but food-related.

I asked my class mates to pair up and switch recipes with someone in the class. The recipe each person had to select for his or her partner should preferably be a typical or traditional recipe from his or her country of origin. I wanted to make them all excited and enjoy cooking, dive into the magnificent world of tastes and go soul food.

When my amazing and talented, handsome and unusually tall Turkish class mate who's name I decided not to reveal asked me to pair up with him, I immediately said yes in the hopes of learning some exotic and intriguing Turkish recipe. When he told me that the recipe he had selected for me was baklava – the mind-numbingly sweet Middle Eastern filo dough pastry – a literally feared for my life. The thing is that I'm suffering from quite a severe and unknown sugar and wheat allergy, so I knew I was playing with fire. But come on, what kind of a proud food-a-holic would I be if I had been all responsible and declined his challenge? To hell with it, I decide to be a real addict and later suffer the consequences. After all, there's nothing I wouldn't do to satisfy my culinary demands.

I woke up that Friday morning intimidated, but high as a kite. My party and the baklava were finally here! I decided to prepare my body for the upcoming “Double Trouble Sugar & Wheat Intoxication” with a little Swedish group gym session. I swear, I jumped around extra hard that time, just in case. At 3 p.m. I got a text from my Turkish buddy saying that he's on his way to my place. When he finally arrived, all psyched up I was ready to do the necessary shopping for the two recipes we had picked out for one another. Just for the record, I won't even mention the recipe I selected for him in order not to distract You from the baklava experience.

Once again, I found myself at the little Arabic food store in town. This time we were there to buy nuts, walnuts to be precis. I filled a brown paper bag with walnuts and took my place in the end of the line for the cashier. As I was dreaming away to Baklavaland, I heard a familiar word coming from the mouth of the man behind the counter. He was talking about baklava! But in Arabic! God Damn it! He was giving out some secret baklava tips and I was right there not understanding a word. I couldn't believe it. I turned to my friend who had earlier been wondering around the shop, gaping at a palm sugar jar, but who was now as curious as I was. I gave him the desperate “Come on, can't you understand ANYTHING? Aren't you supposed to understand a bit?”- look, but in vain. Nevertheless, this was a sign! A blessing from the Middle East! When it was my turn to pay, I couldn't hold it in, I simply had to tell the salesman of the endeavour I had ahead of me. He smiled, wished me good luck and made sure I had all the important ingredients for it. “Bon Appetite!” he yelled as I happily skipped out from the store. Already at that point I was nuts alright!

Back at home, in the kitchen the pressure was on. I realized how panic-stricken I was due to all rumours on how it's close to impossible to make baklava by at home, by yourself. How? What? When? Where? HELP! The recipe was in Turkish, so I was constantly bombarding my friend with questions. I managed to keep my calm thanks to his relaxed and cool-headed attitude. Step by step he told me what to do. Man, the filo dough used for baklava is amazing! Thinner than paper, more delicate than ice, see-through at its very best. I unfolded the filo dough roll, gently and carefully separating the flimsy layers from one another. The first layer I laid my fingers on ripped right up. Freaking great! The famous Finnish swear word came out from my mouth with more meaning than even before. Fortunately, my friend was there to encourage me, saying that no harm was done. “I can do this, now focus” I thought. I started building up the delight step by step, layer by layer. Slowly and gently placing a thin filo sheet on the ovenwear, then sprinkling crushed walnuts evenly all over, to then cover it up with yet another filo sheet. I went on like this for at least 20 layers. I felt like I was in therapy. I was fully and wholly concentrating on the baklava taking its rightful shape and form. What a liberating sensation! Just like that, all my other worries went straight out the window. Cooking is amazing! There I was, absorbed in the wonderful world of Turkish cuisine. I was so perfectly consumed by the moment that I could barely hear the belly dance music I had requested for the venture. I could only hear the muffled voice of my friend coming from reality somewhere far away saying: “Come on, move a bit, shake it, shake it!”. “Later, I'm working here” I responded – I think.

When the ovenwear was full and I had ran out of walnuts, I took a step back and asked my friend to give me the following instructions. Come again, say what? I was to cut my masterpiece into pieces! The Finnish swear word bursted out again. Really, cut it, now? Yes. Okay. Cool down. I took the knife in my hand and started cutting. Impossible to cut 20 filo dough layers with a blunt knife. There's nothing I resent more than blunt knives. I think I had to pronounce some French and Italian swear words too at that point to adequately express my frustration. I somehow managed to do the job and it looked pretty alright. Time to bathe in butter babies! I swear I could almost hear the little baklava pieces squeal with delight as I poured the sizzling hot 500 grams of melted butter on them. Already they looked luscious wallowing there in the golden butter pond. And in the oven they went.

Then the hardest part came, the waiting. Every once and a while I had to sit in front of the oven, look at the miracle happening in front of my eyes. 45 minutes later, I felt like a mother who had just given birth to her very first child: nothing I had ever seen before was as beautiful as my golden brown, crispy and moist baklava. “Now we have to wait again” my friend said. What, really, are you kidding me? As I am the most impatient person I've ever met, I thought that haven't I waited enough? My friend just smiled and said: “We're only half way actually”.

When the freshly baked baklava had cooled down, it was time for the babies' second bathe. This time I was to soak them in sugar and lemon syrup. I felt my heart race. Five cups of sugary syrup would be absorbed in that one medium sized overwear of baklava. If this won't be the end of me, I said to my self, I'm immortal! Finally, it was done! Now I could only wait for two more hours and hope for the best.

After one hour and a half, I literally had to sit on my hands to not touch my creation. I glanced at my friend who was at that point doing all the entertaining and keeping my first guests company. What a good friend, helping me in such difficult times. Personally, I was way to tense to behave like a perky, happy hostess. I was almost bouncing of the walls, running around the kitchen like a headless kitchen when I decided that the time had come.

I sneaked across the kitchen to greet my beloved baklava with utter respect: “Merhaba! Yerim seni bebek” and placed a piece upside-down on my palate – the proper Turkish way to eat baklava. Oh My God! I revelled in the foodgasm it gave me. I had to hide my excitement for just a few more minutes, so I secretly sneaked (a lot on sneaking going on here...) to my friend and force fed him a little piece. Please, oh please have the same reaction as I had, please, please, please. I anxiously looked at his unchanging facial expression as he suddenly closed his eyes and hugged me. SCORE! I suffocated him with a huge embrace and heard him say: “It's perfect, a bit more of the syrup and we're done”.

I asked everyone to quiet down for the grand entrance of my beautiful baby baklava. I assure You, I heard fanfares and angels sing as I placed the tray on the table. My friend and I looked at each other like proud parents, showing off our beloved first born. With trembling hands due to my fear of a massive sugar shock, but mostly due to the childlike excitement of the wonder I had created, I relished the moment just before the official tasting. I took a piece in my hands, closed my eyes and let my teeth sink into the crispy pastry. The explosion of foodgasm number two almost made me pass out. You know how they describe the rats biting into something and not stopping before feeling their teeth touching, well I was that kind of rat. The sticky syrup ran down my lips and my whole face as I gobbled up my prey. I laughed, cried, howled, squealed, I even did my happy dance. I was fully aware of my class mates looking at me weirdly, but I didn't care. I felt pure, sincere, realer than real, sheer joy and happiness.

I did it! We did it! My friend's enchanting look made me even happier. I heard people saying worryingly: “But aren't you allergic to sugar?!” “Yes! Very allergic! And to wheat too for that matter!” I responded. Nothing could stop me. I felt the kick of the sugar rush growing and growing, but I didn't care. The moment of joy was worth it all. After ten pieces of baklava I had to withdraw. I felt like I needed to lie down right away. It's funny how only after giving birth, my stomach was swollen to the size of a nine month pregnant belly. With a immense smile on my face and the my belly growing in front of my eyes, I excused myself: “Please except my apologies, I'm being very rude, I know, but I simply have to go to bed with my baklava now”.

February 18, 2011

Something fishy going on?

I started this blog hoping to share with You as many of my sensational culinary as possible and I think I started pretty well. However, as much as I enjoy and live for those two second long heavenly highs, I also experience loathsome lows in the maze of tastes, recipes and ideas related to food. I hate to be negative so soon, but I simply can't help myself. Here's the story of the bastard of a plaice.

I started planning dinner early in the morning as always. Physically, barely out of bed, but mentally activated since hours by my roaring stomach and my lust for a delicious meal. Usually, I have to tone down my cravings for two reasons: 1) My empty bank account 2) The lack of someone to cook for and share the meal with. See for me, cooking alone just for yourself is very much like masturbating: you seek to fulfilled a basic need, take no pleasure in the process, race for the vexing outcome without paying attention to details and end up feeling disappointed and everything but satisfied. Any way, this time I could tick off one of the two reasons mentioned above – the second one of course because there's no remedy in sight for The Empty Wallet – Syndrome in Studentville.

During my mind-numbing Methodology lecture later that day, I made up the evening's menu via the Facebook chat with my dining partner: Breaded plaice fillets with capers and lime with a scoop of roasted parsnip-Parmigiano Reggiano mousse. Ça y est, my taste buds were aroused! No chance concentrating on anything else except for the delight awaiting me, getting closer and closer for every minute. After class, I decided to elongate the foreplay by dropping in at my favourite little Arabic food store to get the capers. I tried very hard not to look at the fresh food counter, but I was unable to Jedi-mind-trick myself. I saw a glimpse of home-made vine leaf rolls. What a perfect starter they'd make, I thought. Allez, I'll have two, no three, no four, okay enough! Four. Four's a good number. Again the cashier gave me a strange look (now that I think about it, I get that look relatively often...fair enough).

When I got home I tried to keep myself busy with anything non-food related, so that I wouldn't fall for the vine rolls prematurely. A lock on the fridge door would be very helpful indeed, don't we all know that. I decided nevertheless to at least take the fish out from the freezer (I'm almost embarrassed to admit my consumption of frozen fish. I'm a student and suffer from 3rd degree Empty Wallet- Syndrome, for Christ's sake!). Holy shit, that was fishy – literally! Now, don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of good experiences with frozen fish, but that smell made me extremely doubtful.

There was something fishy with the fish alright. Still, I thought that I shouldn't knock it before i try it and I decided to stop bullying the poor excuse of fish and let them melt in piece. When the cooking session was about to start, the fish already looked a bit better, “Ils ne me faisaient plus la gueule”, like one would say in French, so I was pretty pleased preparing the heavenly mousse next to my new less-fishy friends. Just a little hint: first boil the parsnips a bit and then brown/roast them with a bit of butter before mashing and blending them into a creamy unctuous mousse. Mousse aside, flour and salt on both sides of the fish fillets and in they go to the sizzling hot pan. My plaice fillets looked very happy and cosy as they were quivering in butter. I felt happy for them. As I was putting together the dish, it actually looked pretty fine I must admit, so my expectations for the taste also went up the ante.

As I stuck my knife and fork into the fillet, the texture of the fish seemed more than O.K. I closet my eyes and... Absolutely, nothing, nada, niente! What's wrong with my mouth? No taste what so ever! Not even bad a bad fishy taste! Come on, are you kidding me, don't be so cruel with me little plaice. Second try: still nothing! What a disappointment! You know those two seconds of divine pleasure I marvelled about with the coffee package, well in this case I experienced two seconds of sorrow and pain, a real anticlimax! Gain Some, Lose Some. Me and my cooking parter just looked at each other, there were no words needed. A flop, a total flop. After a moment of silence as if someone had just died, my friend says: “But hey, the parsnip mousse was exquisite”. I smiled.  

February 16, 2011

Mr. Avocado and I

In the absence of cosy, hectic market places with stressed out salesmen yelling out special “everything has to go”- prices during the last hour before clean up, I drag my feet across the halogen lighted supermarket corridor. I swear the shelves could fall on me any minute. My iPod whispers some old French music into my ears. I can't help but feel nostalgic and make a trip down memory lane to the time when I used to live in Toulouse. My home street came to life every morning by the enthusiastic fresh-food junkies buying the ingredients for a lovely lunch with friends and family. It was probably one of the best places in the world to be a little curious food-loving girl from Finland. For some reason, every charming grey-haired salesman wanted me to taste their most delicious products. Those days are long gone now. Here in Sweden absolutely no one offers me a juicy slice of fruit in exchange for a shy smile. 

The only shot of finding reasonably tasty fruits and vegetables here in the cold North during winter especially, is to close your eyes and randomly pick one of the plastic-like, stone-hard, fragrance free, spiritless wannabe things available at this hideous supermarket and pretend it is what it's supposed to be. There I am, extremely reluctant, about to perform the selection of an avocado. I grab an avocado that feels pretty good in my hand. The blueish super market light reflecting from the soulless avocado blinds me painfully. Not okay. Just as I was about to leave the poor creature in his misery, I spotted a beautiful individual shining through the bunch of wannabes. Hello lover! I changed the avocado I first picked to Him. He feels perfect: not too soft, not too firm. His colour is dark and inviting, He even has a slight perfume. I carry Him between my two hands and gently place Him in the hands of the cashier. I wonder why she looks at my strangely. Never mind, she can't possibly understand the beauty of this finding, this sudden and utterly unexpected love affair.

I run home fast as lightning with Him safe and warm in my pocket. Oh, what a feeling of joy and happiness! At home, in the kitchen, we stare at each other, me and Him, just before I sink the knife straight into His heart. I'm letting the knife make its trace and what I discover is sheer paradise! He opens himself up to me and lets his heart fall out as if He's trusting me fully. He smells sweet and creamy. He almost fell out of his skin! His vivid light green colour is too good to be true. My mouth watering, I open the Himalaya pink salt jar I got for Christmas and sprinkle just a tiny bit of salt on Him. Spoon!

I can just say that the we went all the way and He definitely didn't disappoint me.