Date cookies

13 March 2015


I have three most vivid food memories of Jerusalem, which I visited nearly twenty years ago: yemeni malawach, a thick deliciously greasy flaky pancake served hot with raw crushed tomatoes and za’atar; addictive sachlab, a thick drink so unctuous and sickly sweet that it at once repels and keeps you coming back for more; and the date cookies from Damascus gate.

It was the spring of 1997 and I spent a few weeks in Israel visiting a friend — not ‘a’ friend, my oldest childhood friend, my next door neighbor for years, my daily play companion. She was studying in Jerusalem, so, apart from a few days around Purim during which we traveled together to the Sinai, and a few days when I ventured North alone, I spent most of those three weeks in Jerusalem, wandering. I paced the old city endlessly. Memories fade but snapshots remains. I remember the stones, the steps, the incline, the precarious wiring, the satellite dishes. I took the back way, I met mostly children. I was often halfway lost. Inevitably, the streets washed me toward Damascus gate, the buoyant pulse of Old Jerusalem.

There, a few paces removed from the falafel stands, standing alone, a little closer to the gate, was a cart piled high with date cookies.

I think I bought just one or two at first, to try. I came home with a very large bag. And although Tamara didn’t care for them, a few days later I was back for more. And then again to take some back to Berlin. This was nearly twenty years ago.

Here in London the other day a friend mentioned date bars. Then promptly — as she is wont to do — forwarded the recipe link. These are not the date cookies of Damascus gate, but, in a Proustian twist, they have transported me back to a forgotten moment, a faraway place, a cherished time, a magical trip.

Dan Lepard’s date bars share the Jerusalem cookies’ best qualities. They are subtle and layered, the understated flavors develop slowly and get under your palate. I cannot stop eating them.

Dan Lepard’s date bars (Click on the link for the recipe)

NOTE: I made just two slight adjustments:

I used only 15ml each of rose water and orange-blossom water because the ones I have are quite potent and I did not want the perfume to be overpowering. I would suggest tasting the dough and adjusting the amount accordingly.

Also, I cut the bars into 2cm (1-inch) pieces as I preferred a cookie feel rather than the larger bars.

Brilliant pork belly with star anise, cinnamon, ginger and cloves

12 February 2015


Imagine unctuously slow-cooked pork belly infused with the intoxicating aromas of star anise, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, chilli, and coriander. It doesn’t get much better than this.

The recipe is a brilliant one by Skye Gyngell, to which — if I may — I did make one substantial improvement: crackling.

The initial method slices the gently simmered pork and browns each individual rib in a pan. I found this impractical. I’d much rather be clinking glasses with friends than browning meat in the kitchen. Also, dare I serve pork belly with no crackling? So I improvised a little and shot two inconveniences with one rather practical idea: rather than searing the meat, why not slide it into the oven for a second low and slow roasting. Boom!

Pork belly with star anise, ginger, cinnamon and cloves
Adapted from A Year In My Kitchen by Skye Gyngell. The process is a lengthy one but hardly requires any hands on work. Plan with a minimum of 4 hours before serving time.

2 kg piece of best quality pork belly

2 cinnamon sticks

3 star anise

1 tsp cloves

1 red chilli

4 cm (1 1/2 inch) piece fresh ginger root

6 garlic cloves

2 Tbsps coriander stems (and roots if available)

100 ml (1/2 cup) tamari soy sauce

75 ml (1/3 cup) maple syrup

Sea salt and black pepper

Place the pork belly in a pot large enough for it to lie horizontally quite snugly. Add cold water to cover. Bring to the boil, then immediately remove from the heat, drain the water, and rinse out the pot.

Return the pork belly to the clean pot (skin side up), cover again with cold water, and add the cinnamon, star anise, cloves, chilli, peeled and roughly sliced ginger, peeled garlic cloves, and roughly chopped coriander stems (and roots). Bring to the boil then turn the heat down to very low, and let the pork simmer gently for about 1 1/2 hours.

With a pare of tongs carefully take the meat out of the pan and place it onto an ovenproof dish. Season with salt and pepper. Reserve the liquid which will be made into an incredible sauce (see below).

**The meat can rest a while or be refrigerated overnight at this point. Preferably take it out of the refrigerator about an hour before using again.**

Approximately 2 hours before planning to serve, place the pork belly in a 300°F (150°C) oven and roast for 1 1/2 hours. Check after one hour; if the skin isn’t crispy enough, increase the temperature to 375°F (190°C) for the last 20 to 30 minutes. Take the pork out of the oven and let rest for at least 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, to make the sauce, add the tamari and maple syrup to the fragrant cooking water, turn the heat back on to high, and let it boil away for a good half hour until the liquid has reduced by about half to become a dark and rich sauce. When it has acquired to the desired consistency, remove from the heat and strain out the spices, pouring the sauce into a smaller saucepan ready to be easily reheated later.

Serve the pork belly with the thoroughly reheated, piping hot sauce.


3 February 2015


I didn’t really think it through. I entered the shop and ordered two kilos of Seville oranges. An impulse buy, as one might pick up a pair of gloves while waiting in the checkout line — though one with momentous consequences.

Is it the Paddington effect? Was I surreptitiously inspired by photos of glowing jars posted online by a friend? Did I unwittingly yearn for a stockpile to appease the marmalade-devouring members of the family? Am I becoming British?

Whichever the cause, the effect was me trudging home with a big bag of bitter oranges. So I went in search of a recipe.

I first turned to the usual suspect: the jam fairy Christine Ferber. But Ferber uses a significant amount of granny smith apples in her bitter orange marmalade. Her recipes often call for apples, used to extract a pectin rich jelly that later helps to shorten the cooking time thus allowing for a more vibrant fruit taste. Apples in marmalade? Tut tut, my budding speckles of Britishness balked at the idea. I had to look elsewhere.


So on to Nigel Slater, whose piece in The Guardian a few years ago could be considered essential reading for anyone about to embark on a marmalade adventure. Slater beautifully captures the fastidious joy of making marmalade, all the while slyly cautioning those who might derive anything less than pure pleasure from the unwieldy process to stay away. Marmalade making must be relished, or not at all.


It becomes quickly clear that there are as many marmalade recipes as there are makers of marmalade. I read a number of methods, chose one which seemed to suit me best, as much in the actual process as the expected outcome, and altered it slightly, of course.

The recipe is a mild adaptation from one in the River Café Cookbook Green.
There are no quantities because the amount of sugar is calculated in proportion to the weight of cooked fruit. I used 2 lemons for 2.2kg of oranges, one would suffice for a smaller amount.

Seville oranges

Caster sugar

1 or 2 untreated lemons

Wash the oranges and let them soak 12 to 48 hours in cold water. Drain and rinse.

Place the oranges in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, cover with cold water, and slowly bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, cover the saucepan with a lid slightly askew and simmer the oranges for 3 to 4 hours until they are completely soft. Stir the oranges occasionally (they float and only part of each orange remains submerged at any one time). Be careful that the liquid doesn’t evaporate completely. Add a little water if necessary. There should remain 1 to 2 cm of liquid at the end.

Let the softened oranges cool enough to handle and set the saucepan with the cooking liquid aside.

Cut each orange in half, take out all the seeds and any rough fibres, then very thinly slice the rind together with the pulp. Weigh tall this skin and pulp and return to the saucepan (still with the liquid). Measure an equal quantity of sugar, add to the saucepan. Wash the lemon(s), cut them in half, then slice as thinly as possible in half moons. Add those to the saucepan too.

Return the fruit and sugar to the heat and gently bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to mix well and prevent from sticking. Simmer for about 30 minutes, until the jam is set (to test, spoon a small amount of jam liquid into a small bowl and place in the refrigerator: if a skin forms, the jam is setting.)

Let the jam cool slightly before spooning into sterilized jars.

Eggnog from another era

26 December 2014


Berlin, 1945. Somewhere on the streets of Dahlem, a dashing US officer accosts a long-legged 19-year-old, demurely asking for directions to a place he has traveled a dozens times before. They are swept off their feet. One out of an ill-fated, fading marriage, the other from the rubble of war and desolation. They moved to Maryland. So goes our family mythology.

My grandmother always told us the same handful of war stories. Stories for small children, about young children in the war. She told of the day the war broke out while she was at summer camp, how she spent all her pocket money to buy her favorite hazelnut-studded chocolate (it is something little German girls knew in 1939 — that in times of war, chocolate becomes scarce), only to discover, too late, that the nuts were full of worms. She told how her parents had once asked her to watch over the cooking of a duck, a unique feast bartered by my great-grand father against school lessons. How else to know when it was done, other than to try it, just a little piece? Starving, she ate the entire thing. She told of her encounter with the Russian soldier reeking of alcohol who tried to steal her bicycle — unexpectedly pelted by a spew of Russian swear words from the long-legged German girl, he lost countenance just long enough for my grandmother to speed away, back the way she had come. She told us how she met our grandfather on a street corner in Dahlem.

When she married my grandfather, my grandmother became fiercely American; though they soon moved back to Europe she fully embraced an American expat life. But she also remained proudly German, and nurtured German traditions, especially around Christmas. We laid out milk and cookies for St Nikolaus on December 6th, we baked, we opened presents on Christmas eve, we lit our tree with candles.

So today, amid the wreaths and advent calendars, among the candles and the singing, the oysters and the cookies, there are two traditions that I hold dearest. They connect me to my grandmother, and in one grand sweep I like to think they link me not only to our family story but to Europe’s history too. The two recipes that my grandmother sent me, once upon a time, handwritten, slipped inside the letters she wrote regularly: Stollen and eggnog.

Sweet Stollen, a long, patient, and tedious process, which ultimately brings the reward of nibbled bites that taste of the promise of sheltered German childhoods. Boozy eggnogg, the stuff of joyful parties, the mirth-filled evenings of a war-less era.

My grandmother was an elegant, modern, impeccable hostess. Though she was a very good cook, she much preferred to delegate kitchen duties and sit on the sidelines with a glass of champagne and a cigarette. She loved company, and she loved parties. Every 26th of December, my grandparents hosted an eggnog party, to celebrate their anniversary. This is their recipe. In loving memory.


Leonine eggnog recipe, verbatim, probably from the 1950s
(See further below for a slightly adapted recipe. I use a third of the bourbon and it is plenty. But feel free to add much more!)

12 eggs, from Mrs. Cluck

12 level Tbsps granulated sugar

3 pints bouquet bourbon or rye

1 quart milk

1 pint heavy cream


Crack eggs, separating yolks from whites. Setting latter aside for the nonce, go at yolks with an eggbeater, plying in furiously. Gradually add the sugar, beating it until entirely dissolved. Now enters the whiskey, poured slowly and stirred, its action on yolks being equivalent to a gentle cooking. Then milk, followed by cream (whipped cream if you prefer extra richness), likewise stirred in. Clean off eggbeater and tackle the whites till they stand without flinching. Fold them into the general mixture. Stir in one grated nutmeg. Will serve 12 people (or more). If it’s the whipped cream version, they’ll need spoons.

Merry Xmas!

Eggnog recipe adapted for 2014
Serves 12

12 eggs

12 Tbsps sugar

1 pint (500 ml) good bourbon or rye whiskey

1 quart (1 l) whole milk

2 cups (500 ml) heavy cream


Separate the egg yolks from the whites, which are set aside for later. In a medium bowl, beat the yolks thoroughly, gradually adding the sugar while continuing to beat firmly. Then slowly pour in the whiskey, still stirring more gently but constantly. Now add the milk, then the cream.

In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites until very firm (until the peaks hold without moving). Gently fold the whipped whites into the rest of the egg/whiskey/cream mixture.

Garnish generously with freshly grated nutmeg.


Merry Christmas Stollen

24 December 2014


It’s Christmas Eve and finally time to cut the Stollen!

Read my story on Food&_ about this favorite German Christmas tradition and the proper way of savoring it (then bookmark the recipe for next year!).

A very merry Christmas and happy holidays everyone!


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