My husband and I were so different when we met. He like TV, I liked the arts. He liked iHOP, I liked (and still like) bougie NYC brunch places. He enjoyed test driving cars and playing video games. I liked boutique window shopping and baking.
I had a lemon ricotta cheese in Sorrento that was a game changer. Compared to dense, tangy, NY style cheesecake (which is delicious in its own rite), this was so light, so brightly flavored with regional citrus, it was the most heavenly thing I had tasted during my 4 months in Italy (in addition to cinnamon gelato, rosemary potato pizza, and fresh ricotta calzone).
I’ve been making pistachio cakes in various forms since my friend asked me to make one for her wedding last year. The truth is, it’s very difficult to make a strongly pistachio flavored cake. It’s not like ice cream where the nuttiness easily comes through the cream and sugar. In cakes, in its attempt to compete with all the flour, eggs and dairy, it struggles to maintain its flavor while maintaining a light, tender crumb we expect in a cake.
I changed this recipe from the original, to include pistachio paste (which you can get online). I looked at peanut butter cake recipes and saw they utilized peanut butter in lieu or in combination with butter, so I thought I’d apply the same principal here. It provides a rich, creamy pistachio flavor. The cake is then lightened with beaten egg whites to add lightness. The result is a light, nutty cake.
I’m not sharing an accompany frosting recipe, because in all honesty, I haven’t got one. I tried making the boiled milk icing from the original recipe, but oh my God did it die on me. It was a runny mess (perhaps my boiled milk/flour/sugar combo was too thin?). I spent all morning trying to salvage it – first by adding some confectioners sugar, then some more cream cheese, then butter, then more confectioners sugar. After removing a small amount to mix with pistachio paste (my last ditch effort to salvage at least some of it), I was able to make a concoction that held up JUST enough to fill the cake.
For the outside, I went with a tried and true (and quick) recipe: chocolate ganache. Which isn’t much of a recipe at all as it’s just some baking chocolate bars, broken up in chunks, then melted in the microwave at medium power with half its weight in heavy cream (so in this case, 24oz chocolate with 12oz heavy cream). Mixing every once in a while until completely melted and smooth. Not to say it’s straightforward to make ganache.
There are plenty of ways to muck it up. If you mix it before it is warm enough, it will start to get grainy. If you make it too hot, it will get grainy. Basically you need the Goldilocks temperature to get chocolate ganache just right (between 90 and 110 degrees). I recommend using an instant read thermometer to get your ganache just right, but if you don’t, just make sure it’s warm to the touch while you are stirring.
I then placed it over a bowl of ice water, whisking with an electric mixer until it was thick and glossy.
Finally, I decided to try decorating with pistachio sugar shards. I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called, but it’s not quite praline, not quite toffee, not quite caramel either. It’s just 1 cup sugar melted with 1/4 cup water until light golden in color. I then poured it over 1/4 cup shelled pistachios on a parchment paper lined baking sheet and let it cool. Once cool enough to handle, I broke it up into big chunks to decorate, then further crushed the remaining chunks with my rolling pin and a ziploc bag.
It was surprisingly tasty. Next time, I will definitely add some salt to make them even better!
Recipe adapted from Handle the Heat
- 1/4 cup pistachio paste
- 12 tbsp unsalted butter (1 1/2 sticks)
- 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
- 1 cup shelled, raw, unsalted pistachios
- 3 cups all purpose flour
- 1 tbsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/4 cup cornstarch
- 1 large egg
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 3 egg whites
- 1/4 tsp cream of tartar
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease 3 8in baking tins with non stick cooking spray and line the bottom with parchment paper (place the pans on top a large sheet of parchment, draw a circle around the circumference with a pencil, and cut out). Set aside.
- Pulse the pistachios in a food processor until finely ground. Careful not to let it go for too long, since it will turn into a paste. Pour ground pistachios into a large mixing bowl.
- In the bowl of your stand mixer or in a large bowl using an electric hand mixer, cream pistachio paste, butter and sugar for 2 minutes at medium speed.
- While that goes, combine the ground pistachios with flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cornstarch. Whisk until combined.
- Stop the mixer, scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl, turn mixer back on. Add egg, then vanilla. Then alternately add the dry ingredients with the milk – 1/3 dry ingredients, 1/2 milk, ending in the dry ingredients. Periodically scrape down the sides and bottom of bowl. Stop mixing when dry ingredients are just incorporated in the batter.
- In a medium bowl, combine egg whites with cream of tartar. Whisk with an electric mixer at medium speed until stiff peaks form when you pull the beaters up and out of the egg whites. Add a little beat of the beaten egg whites to the batter to thin out the batter. Then add half of the remaining egg white, folding in carefully so as not to deflate them. Add the second half and fold just until you no longer see white streaks.
- Divide equally between the three prepared pans and bake for 28-30 minutes until browned on top and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool the cakes and level them before frosting.
Ramadan, the Islamic month during which Muslims around the world fast from sun up to sun down, is winding down. The last ten days is a time of great spiritual importance. Extra prayers, remembrance and mindfulness of acts of worship are highly stressed. My interpretation is that it’s a way to encourage keeping up the momentum, since Ramadan is 30 days long, and many start off the month with a lot of vigor, but find themselves struggling to keep up with the extra prayers and fasts as the days go by. Another important part of Ramadan for me is the communal iftar (evening, break-fast meal). One of the things that drew me to Islam as a child and again as a college student, is the community. When I attended my first ICNA convention as an almost 10 year old, I wore the headscarf for the weekend, per etiquette. And I recall descending on the escalator to the main convention hall and being amazed at seeing so many Muslims in the same room. For the first time I felt like I was part of something larger. Growing up in Queens, my childhood was characterized by my otherness. I was always one of two Bengali Muslim kids (no black, white, arab, SE asian or any other muslim kids in my neighborhood). We were all a rag tag team of immigrant kids – the only cohesive element being our physical classroom or schoolyard. So when I first felt that sense of community, it was exhilarating. I kept the headscarf on (with its ups and downs) since then. This was reinforced as a student at Barnard. The iftars hosted by Columbia Muslim Students Association was another reinforcement. A group to whom I didn’t have to explain my evening ritual of breaking the fast. A group that actually shared the values I was brought up with. I know we live in a society that in name celebrates individuality and uniqueness. But growing up in a society that is so different from your native one, is exhausting. How many times have I had to answer the question
- Can your husband or father see your hair?
- Do you sleep with the scarf of your head?
- Do you shower with it? (admittedly this was a much rarer question, asked by the not-so-high scorers in my junior high class)
- You can’t even have water while fasting?
So while I celebrate multiculturalism and pluralism as much as the next person, and in fact I think I’m the better for my experiences, it is really fortifying to be with members of one’s own group. That’s why I love hosting iftar. Why I love ending a long day of fasting with people I love. With food I love. In remembrance of our common purpose of pleasing our Creator. On to the food! This was actually the first time I’ve made rack of lamb. I took a risk by making something for the first time for a group and not even sticking to a recipe, but using a spice rub recipe by Deb Perelman and a cooking technique by Ina Garten. The spice rub recipe is from the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. She uses it to encrust individual lamb chops and after an initial sear on the stove top, then finishes it in the oven (I’ve made it before here). As for Ina’s rack of lamb recipe, she does a traditional rosemary/garlic combo, then roasts the whole thing in the oven at 450 degrees F for 20-25 min. I smeared the spice rub on and let it sit at room temperature for about an hour before sticking it in the hot oven to allow the flavors of the spices to get into the lamb. I then roasted it covered for 15 minutes. After 15 min, I removed the foil, drizzled some olive oil and allowed to cook for 15 minutes longer. This got it to medium rare. If you’d like it done further, insert a meat thermometer into a good meaty portion of the meat and cook until internal temperature reaches 160 degrees F for medium or 170 for well done. The lamb was from Honest Chops over in East Village. Perfect flavor every single time. I made Kabuli palau for the first time – and Afghani chicken and rice pilaf with carrots, raisins and nuts. Homemade naan. Roasted tomato and burrata Caprese salad (why aren’t there good tomatoes in the farmers markets yet?? Perhaps because it hasn’t been hot enough). Mashed potatoes. Watermelon/mint salad because Ramadan and watermelon go together like two peas in a pod. Pioneer Woman’s Kale Citrus Salad and Strawberry Lemonade. My only edit to the lemonade was that I made a Meyer lemon infused simple syrup with two cups of the sugar, 2 cups water, and the peel of 1 large Meyer lemon. Divine. My mom made cumber raita (yogurt, grated cucumber, smoked salt) and savory pancakes. My good friend Nargis made delicious boulani, a potato stuffed turnover. And because iftar is an evening meal, this was the best lighting I could capture for my photos. Wishing a blessed last few days of Ramadan to those observing!
- 1/2 cup shelled pistachios
- 3 tsps chaat masala
- 2 tsp cumin
- 2 tsp paprika
- 4-5 dashes of cayenne pepper (stick to 2 dashes if you can’t handle heat!)
- 5-6 pounds rack of lamb
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- Add first 5 ingredients to the food processor and process until pistachios are ground and spices are well blended.
- Line a baking sheet with aluminum. Take lamb out of fridge and remove any impurities from the surface, rinsing under running water if necessary. Place on baking sheet, fat side up, and pat dry. Liberally sprinkle salt and pepper all over the meat. Rub spice mixture onto the fat side and let sit for 1 hour.
- After 45 minutes, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
- Once the oven is hot, drizzle lamb with olive oil and cover meat with foil and bake for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes. Cook longer, if desired, with a meat thermometer inserted into the meat reads 160 for medium or 170 for well done.
- Take out of oven and let rest for 15 minutes. Slice and serve with yogurt dipping sauce.
I think I’m like most of you when it comes to lamb chops: straight up with a rosemary and garlic rub. But my copy of Smitten Kitchen’s cookbook had been sitting on the shelf long enough. Sure, I’ve looked through the pages MANY a time to drool at the beautiful, glossy pictures and so earnestly wish I were friends with Deb. But the execution just hadn’t happened. And though I’ve never had pistachio crusted anything before, I did have (almost) all the ingredients on hand for this recipe. Which is rare.
I was lucky I had just enough pistachios left over. You can bet that I was shelling them there were two bodies hovering around me picking them out of the bowl. It worked because I was working with such a small batch (the recipe was written for 6, I had just two lamb chops). And contrary to the directions in the recipe, I crushed the pistachios with a rolling pin instead of a food processor. Does anyone else find it a huge pain in the butt to clean the food processor? Sure, some spices made its way out of the ziploc bag as I banged out the mix, but doing so over a cutting board helped rescue some escapees.
This was the first time I used chaat masala to actually cook something. Chaat masala, for all you non-masala eaters out there, is a South Asian spice mix. It’s bright. It’s funky. It’s spicy. It’s savory. It’s Heather from work. A combination of some usual (cumin, coriander, black pepper) and some unusual (dried mango powder, black salt, asfoetida) ingredients. It usually adorns pani puri, bhel phuri, chatpati, and other street foods that if consumed every day, from actual Dhaka street vendors, over the course of 2 weeks will give you the nastiest stomach bug known to man (truth). I usually put it over fruit and yogurt to make fruit chaat. It’s delightful.
The spices, the cooking method, the superb meat – it’s like when all the pieces come together to make a beautiful work of art!
I have nothing further to add to this glorious hunk of meat. It didn’t even need the yogurt sauce. But. If you do go down that road, make sure to add 1/4 cup of shredded cucumber to make a proper raita. I didn’t have cucumber on hand, but I did have some handy dandy black salt (it’s got a wonderful smokey/savoriness to it that’s hard to imitate).
Recipe adapted from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. I used 1/3 of the recipe for the chops.
- 1 cup full fat plain yogurt
- a pinch of salt
- a pinch of black salt (if you don’t have black salt, do a 1/4 tsp cumin)
- 2 tbsp minced fresh mint or cilantro leaves
- 1/4 cup grated cucumber
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 1/2 cup shelled pistachios
- 3 tsp chaat masala
- 1/2 tsp ground cumin
- 2 tsp paprika
- pinch of cayenne pepper
- 6 lamb chops, 3-4 ounces each
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- For the raita: mix all the ingredients in a bowl and adjust the seasonings to taste.
- For the lamb chops: pulverize the nuts with the spices in a food processor or by putting them in a ziploc bag and beating with a rolling pin. Pour onto a plate and set aside.
- Season lamb chops with salt and pepper and let rest for 10-15 minutes. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Heat a cast iron or other heavy skillet over high heat. Add oil. When it’s hot but not smoking, add chops, two at a time. Cook for 2 minutes on each side then place directly onto nuts. Coat in nut mixture then place on baking sheet. Finish cooking the chops in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Serve with yogurt sauce.