Sugar, Spice and Souks

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Berber Whiskey, i.e. mint tea

 

Read the first installment about our trip to Morocco here

By the time we arrived at our riad, it was early evening in Marrakech and we were starving. We were desperate to drop our bags as quickly as possible and set out in search of dinner, but the riad manager, Omar, had other ideas. He assured us we couldn’t leave without first accepting some traditional Moroccan hospitality.

"Our custom in Morocco is to offer all guests a drink," he said, escorting us up to the riad’s expansive roof terrace, "and customary for all guests to accept it".

"Alright," we acquiesced, certainly not keen to start our trip by contravening tradition even if we were on the verge of hunger collapse. "What do you have?"

"Ah," he said with a mischevious smile, "some whiskey berbère, naturally." 

Not comprehending, we exchanged confused looks –  hadn’t we just left the land of whiskey behind? Not to mention, wasn’t it awfully risqué to offer alcohol in a Muslim country, particularly with the mosque next door in plain sight? But before we could ponder the mystery further Omar was back, carrying a worn steel tray, two small glasses, and an ornate silver teapot.

Of course, we should have guessed – whiskey berbère is nothing other than the tongue-in-cheek name for mint tea.

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Spices, arranged like multicolored mountains 

 
The joke may have been casual, but the analogy isn’t actually so farfetched, as we would soon discover. Like whiskey in Scotland, mint tea isn’t a quaint tourist gimmick – it’s a national obsession. Hot, sweet, and bracingly bitter, it punctuates Moroccan life like clockwork: mint tea to wake up, mint tea with pastries in the afternoon, mint tea to round out every meal. It’s served with panache, poured from a great height out of bulbous silver pots into glasses barely bigger than thimbles; the aeration is important for developing the flavor, we were told, and the size of the glasses insures your tea will never get cold (and makes it easier to down the three obligatory cups that tradition dictates, I imagine). In a country where alcohol is forbidden and water is often of questionable quality, it’s a beverage that has acquired tremendous practical and symbolic value, functioning as digestive aid, pick-me-up, negotiation facilitator and simple sustenance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Moroccans have it running through their veins instead of blood. As we sat there in the growing twilight, sipping our tea and listening to the call to prayer reverberate across the rooftops, it seemed about as perfect a first taste of the country as we could have asked for.
 

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Market offerings: olives and preserved lemons, fresh sardines, herbs by the bushel 

 
Unusually for us, we had arrived in Morocco without much of a food plan. That is, I knew plenty of dishes I wanted to seek out, but I hadn’t come equipped with a specific list of restaurants. We did have guidebooks, of course, and I had brought along a copy of Paula Wolfert’s Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco for reference, but I was hoping that a combination of our own good instincts and some recommendations from locals would lead us to better food than too much advance planning would. On that first night, as we set off from our riad in search of dinner, this strategy didn’t take long to pay off. Wandering the dark, twisting alleys of the medina, we found ourselves lured through the souks by the scent of fire and spice, and emerged right in the middle of one of the greatest food spectacles in the world: the food stalls in the Djemaa el Fna, Marrakech’s main square.

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An assortment of Moroccan salads, super-sweet oranges for juicing,
and the rush of activity on the Djemma el Fna at sunset

The Djemaa el Fna is seething all day long, but at around six o’clock, just as the sun is fading, an army with a singular purpose descends on the western edge. In a frantic burst of well-rehearsed clanging, carting and scurrying, over a hundred food stalls are set up with military efficiency; braziers and portable stoves are lit, massive cauldrons are heaved into place and filled with thick liquids, and long metal tables assembled for the throngs of hungry diners that will soon descend on the square.

Once the cooking is underway, the real business starts: luring paying customers in. With so many stalls packed into such a small space, competition is fierce, and most food stalls seem to employ about a dozen people expert at shoving menus in your face and persuasively arguing the merits of their food. Although it pays to have a walk around before settling on one to dine at, in the end you’ll probably be perfectly happy wherever you end up – the food is fresh and cheap at all of them. There are different categories of stalls, however. The ones most popular with tourists seem to be the stalls offering a little bit of everything: tagines, couscous, seafood, brochettes, vegetables, salads, bisteeya. These are undoubtedly the best places to get an overview of Moroccan food and indulge your indecisiveness by trying a bit of everything (and at these prices – usually less than €10 a head – there’s no reason not to), but predictably, the quality of some things is higher than others. Another option is to patronize the specialized stalls, which do only one or two things, but do them very well and usually, even more cheaply. One night we limited ourselves to these, first squeezing ourselves in among locals to sample the excellent merguez (spicy lamb sausage) and butter-soft lamb’s liver at one stall, and then stopping off at another for a steaming bowl of harira (lentil and chickpea stew) with a side of dates – and paying less than five euros for the entire meal. Also seemingly popular in the single-offering department are the stalls offering boiled lamb’s head, with spoons provided to scrape out the jelly-soft brain, and the huge vats of spiced snails – both of which we gave a miss. In any case, while there may not be many culinary epiphanies to be had in food stalls like these, it’s hard to beat the selection, price, and sheer entertainment value. We found it hard to convince ourselves to go anywhere else for dinner.

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Spicy merguez sausage and whole boiled lamb’s head on offer at the Djemaa’s stalls 

 
But it would have been silly not to, as restaurants are the better places (apart from private homes, of course) to appreciate the full complexity of Moroccan cuisine. What we quickly realized, however, is that while restaurants were all over the map in terms of price (a multicourse meal ranging anywhere from €5-75, depending on the establishment), the type and quality of food did not always vary in accordance. Instead, what you could be assured of getting the higher up the price ladder you climbed was an improvement in setting (the nicer restaurants looking more like sultans’ palaces than eating establishments), and an increase in quantity – not surprisingly, quite a mixed blessing. Due to their exclusively tourist clientele, many of the high-end restaurants in Marrakech only serve prix fixe, usually a multiple-course affair encompassing meze, bisteeya, mechoui lamb, couscous, tagine, fruit and pastries in generous quantities. While the idea behind such bacchanalian excess is to give visitors a taste of Morocco’s famous too-much-is-never-enough hospitality, in reality this is something you probably won’t want to experience more than once, particularly as paying such a high price only to send mountains of food back to the kitchen loses its charm quickly.

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Preserved delicacies  

By contrast, many humbler places offered some of the best value for the most interesting fare. While we struggled to find a really good couscous, plenty of tagines found their way onto the ‘must recreate at home’ list. We experienced an exquisite tagine of meltingly-soft chicken with tomatoes, saffron and honey amidst the faded grandeur at Dar Mimoun (a dish which, coincidentally, I’ve already posted about – you can find my version of this dish here), a delicious marriage of beef and caramelized pears at Ferdaouss in Essaouira, and a simple yet perfectly balanced tagine of chicken, caramelized onions, raisins and almonds at the venerable Chez Chegrouni. We did have a few that unfortunately missed the mark, usually by virtue of being simply too sweet – a surprising twist as I thought no one liked sweet and savory as much as me. A definite menu highlight whenever we had it, however, was the spread of meze called simply salades marocaines – an array of cooked and raw salads covering the entire spectrum of color, temperature and spicing: fried eggplant and peppers, marinated carrots and potatoes, smoky grilled artichokes and zucchini, some enlivened with a pinch of cumin or ras-el-hanout (the ubiquitous sweet-hot Moroccan spice blend), others brightened with puckery slivers of preserved lemon or salty black olives.

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A restaurant specializing in tagines, such as this classic one with lamb and prunes;
some Djemaa el Fna food stalls have a menu longer than many restaurants 

 
If Moroccan savory food is sweet, sweets are, well, even sweeter. Many tea salons offer you a selection of traditional Moroccan pastries to nibble on while you sip, but in the interest of comprehensive research, I went one step further and visited a patisserie where (much to the dismay of the shop assistant!) I asked for one of everything. In return I got a box stuffed with about forty pieces of pastry, including the famous almond-stuffed kaab el ghazal (gazelles’ horns), crumbly cookies called ghoriba, briouats (almond paste wrapped in layers of warka, a phyllo-like dough, and fried), and many types of baklava. My absolute favorite of these was something called shabbakia, coils of fried dough that have been dunked in a pot of boiling honey. Also called gâteau au miel, these crunchy, sticky delights are a traditional accompaniment to harira soup, and while the combination of spicy soup and sweet pastry may not sound particularly intuitive, this was one of the most delicious discoveries of our trip.

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Butcher shops are a little different than their European or North American counterparts. 

 
Of course, no account of eating in Morocco would be complete without a few words about bread. Like elsewhere around the Mediterannean, wheat is the primary starch in the North African diet, and bread has been made here since Roman times. The typical Moroccan bread is a flattish disc ranging in diameter from six inches to well over a foot, leavened with yeast and often enriched with semolina, barley or whole wheat flours. It’s chewy, substantial and a necessary component to all meals, meant to fill the belly and act as a scooper and sponge (Moroccans eat with their fingers, after all) – and sometimes even plate. Moroccan families either bake their own, many still carrying the dough on flat trays to the nearest communal bakery, or they buy fresh bread from the stacks lining shop counters and filling carts along the roadside twice a day. At breakfast other types of bready things appear as well: beghrir, lacy pancakes cooked only on one side and eaten with plenty of butter and honey; small griddle breads not unlike English muffins called harcha, and flatbreads called rghaif that reminded me of something halfway between a crepe and an Indian paratha – slightly flaky inside, cooked on a griddle, and eaten hot with jam or honey. Baguettes are widely consumed too, as are other legacies of French occupation like croissants and brioche, but as is often the case, the local stuff just tasted much better – particularly when we were lucky enough to get one still warm and perfumed with the slightest hint of woodsmoke.

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Moroccan bread 

 
Among the various things I brought home from Morocco – different types of olives, preserved lemons, a sticky box of shabbakia – the one I’m still carefully hoarding is the small bag I bought in the Marrakech souks the day before we left which contains a version of the spice blend ras-el-hanout. It was the best of the many blends I smelled, the one that instantly conjured up for me the mysterious and beguiling fragrance that spilled out of windows and doorways at mealtime and assaulted my nostrils whenever a lid was lifted from a tagine. It has hints of cinnamon, saffron, pepper, ginger, mint, coriander, garlic, rose – and a dozen more ingredients I can’t even begin to identify.

I buried it deep in my carry-on for the trip home, but its potent fragrance seeped out
and saturated the air around me. On our way to the airport to catch our flight home, our taxi driver recognized its scent, and turned to me with a grin: "you have discovered our secret." I laughed and responded, "it may be one of your secrets, but I’m sure it’s not the only one." His grin widened and he winked. "Next time you come you will learn the rest."

I hope he was right.

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Tea-time on one of Marrakech’s lively squares; a traditional pastry shop where dozens of
sugary confections are sold by the kilo 

 

 
Some books on Moroccan food I highly recommend:

Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco by Paula Wolfert
This is the classic, and certainly most comprehensive, book on Moroccan cuisine in English. Paula Wolfert lived in Morocco for years and collected recipes from home cooks throughout the country. 

Cooking at the Kasbah by Kitty Morse
Considerably more limited in scope than Wolfert’s book, Cooking at the Kasbah is nonetheless an excellent introduction to Moroccan food. I am a big fan of Kitty Morse’s recipes, which always work.

North Africa: The Vegetarian Table by Kitty Morse
While not limited to just Morocco, I do highly recommend this book if you’re looking for more a vegetarian interpretation of Moroccan food. Of all these, this is the book I’ve owned the longest, and its delicious, imaginative recipes are some of the most treasured in my collection (like this one).

Modern Moroccan by Ghillie Basan
I was turned on to this book by the ever-inspiring Lindy, and have found it to be a wonderfully imaginative take on ‘new’ Moroccan cuisine. That is to say, traditional Moroccan methods and flavors combined in some untraditional ways, with spectacular results. 

Arabesque by Claudia Roden
This recent gem by Claudia Roden covers Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon, and contains recipes both traditional and modern, along with plenty of fascinating historical and cultural information.

 

Addresses

Marrakech:
CHEZ CHEGROUNI, Jemaa-el Fna
Cheap and cheerful eatery on the Djemaa serving excellent tagines.
DAR MIMOUN, Riad el-Zitoun el Kedim. 1, derb Ben Amrane
An ornate (and admittedly slightly gaudy) courtyard restaurant, serving good-value set menus, as well as à la carte. Don’t miss the Moroccan salads!
CAFÉ ARABE, 184 rue Mouassine
Lovely tea salon/cafe, and a good place to grab a bite if you can’t face another tagine or couscous.
CAFÉ DES ÉPICES, 75 Rahba Lakdima
Charming café overlooking the lively "souk des épices".
Favorite Djemaa el Fna night market stalls: 1 (Aïcha), 42, 31 (for the Merguez and liver)

Essaouira:
FERDAOUSS, 27 Rue Abdesslam Lebadi
Delicious and imaginative Moroccan food, limited choices but very good quality and value.
LAAYOUNE, 4, Rue Hajjali
Excellent value with a choice of set menus all under 10 euros.
Try the stalls at the port for lunch – they have a wide selection of incredibly fresh fish, which they grill to order and serve with salad – but memorize the price list posted at the entrance, and be prepared to bargain them down!

All photos © Manuel Meyer

 

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The Perfect Scoop: Q&A with David Lebovitz

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Roasted Banana Ice Cream 

 

I know I promised more Morocco, and it’s coming, I swear! But first I’m taking a little break from writing up our trip to write about something that was waiting for me in the mail when we got back: a copy of David Lebovitz’s brand-spanking hot-off-the-press new cookbook, The Perfect Scoop.

David Lebovitz hardly needs any introduction from me. He is, after all, the man behind one of the most entertaining and informative blogs out there, davidlebovitz.com. He’s also a former Chez Panisse pastry chef, the man conducting Paris’ most sought-after chocolate tours, and the author of the best-selling cookbooks Room for Dessert, Ripe for Dessert, and The Great Book of Chocolate. His fourth book, published this month, just might transcend them all. The Perfect Scoop: Ice Creams, Sorbets, Granitas, and Sweet Accompaniments is indeed chock-full of perfect scoops, in the form of simple, inventive, fool-proof recipes for frozen treats and things to put on, under or beside them, as well as plenty of engaging – oftentimes hilarious – commentary. The ice cream recipes themselves strike a perfect balance between comfort and creativity; there’s everything from plain old chocolate, vanilla and fresh strawberry to roquefort-honey, avocado, and black pepper, as well plenty of tempting flavors in between: dried apricot-pistachio, toasted almond and candied cherry, fresh ginger, sweet potato-pecan. Each one sounded better than the last to me, but obviously I couldn’t just rely on David’s good name to know if these ice creams were really as good as they sounded, so I selflessly shouldered the burden of making – and tasting – one for myself (the things I do for you, dear readers!). You can read my notes on the recipe I made below, but suffice it to say that the first thing I did after picking myself off the floor was to make a second batch. After that, I asked David if he would mind chatting a bit about the book and his passion for ice cream, to which he graciously agreed.

 

Q&A with David Lebovitz on The Perfect Scoop

So, first things first. David, this book is beyond fabulous (and I’m not just saying that because ice cream occupies such a gigantic, out-of-proportion place in my heart). There are plenty of ice cream books cluttering bookshelves out there already but this one is truly in a league of its own on every count: quality, scope, creativity, aesthetic value, etc. So tell me, why a book about ice cream? Was it an idea you were nurturing for a long time?

When I started teaching classes, I often included an ice cream or two, since ice cream is so good alongside cakes, pies, and crisps, and to show how simple it was. And everyone loves ice cream. And people who read my blog know what a people-pleaser I am!

Interesting to me was that the more home cooks I met, the more I found out that lots of people are making ice cream at home, which coincided with something else happening: Ice cream makers got very affordable. Now they’re one of the most popular of all kitchen appliances.

But curiously, there’s wasn’t a hardcover ice cream book written by a professional but full of recipes simple enough for the home cook. I wanted my book to include the basics, variations on the basics, plus sherbets, sorbets, granitas, and all the other stuff like sauces, mix-ins, swirls, and toppings.

My book uses all ‘regular’ ingredients that anyone can get at the supermarket. But my recipes transform them into something really special, and far better than anything you can buy since you make it yourself. My previous books all included recipes for ice cream and sorbets. But I had so many ideas that I felt the time was ripe for them to star in a book of their own.

Tell us amateurs about the book-writing process. How did you move from inspiration to finished product, and how long did the whole odyssey take?

From proposal to movie rights and casting, it takes about three years.

Ok, actually…

The hardest part about writing a book is the proposal. It takes me about eight months of writing, then getting yelled at by my agent. Then re-writing. Then getting yelled at again. (It’s a game we play, but not one I recommend for the faint-of-heart.)

But basically, it’s important to let the publisher know who you are, who’s going to buy the book, and how you’re going to tackle the subject. Where is the market? Unless you have a nice, perky rack or can smile non-stop while making dinner in 30-minutes or less, bookstores can be cold, cruel places for cookbooks. So I try to find a niche, then fill it. Just writing a book “full of great recipes” isn’t enough anymore.

The Perfect Scoop took a total of 2 1/2 years from start to finish. I spent a good, full-year and a half of avoiding friends, writing headnotes, and testing recipes before the photos were done and got a bound-galley, a proof of the actual book. Ten Speed really raced the book out in time for spring, and I’m glad they did. Everyone seems to be happy about it. Especially me. Even though this is my fourth book, when I opened the box and saw it for the first time, it was so great to see all my work paid off.

How many times did you test each recipe on average? Did you do all the testing yourself?

I was at a culinary conference a few years back, standing with my friend, author Flo Braker. A woman came over to us and said, “I’m working on my first cookbook. And some of the recipes…I’ve had to test two or three times!”

After she left, I turned to Flo and said, “Geez, I’m lucky if I get it right by the third try.”

I would say each recipe got tested an average of 3-6 times. Sometimes I hit it right the first time, and others were more difficult. A few I couldn’t get and some I re-tested since I liked them so much!

I’m basically a bit crazy, somewhat of a perfectionist (my blog notwithstanding…), but I also believe in making things foolproof so even if someone goofs a bit, it’ll still taste great. I probably put more into my recipes than others do just to make sure. I also had a small team of testers who I’d send recipes to and they’d write back with comments and sometimes photos. A few of them were bloggers who I met; it was a lot of fun meeting and working with them.

I loved reading about your first summer job scooping ice cream, since that’s exactly how I got my start in the working world too. When I was sixteen I had a summer job at a now-defunct ice cream parlour in the small town where my parents live. I actually almost got fired the first day for showing up in tie-dye pants; it turned out the owner was trying to keep the whole place full of good Christian values, which unbeknownst to me are deeply threatened by tie-dye. At any rate, he let me stay as long as I promised to never wear them again, and I spent three glorious months sticking my elbows in ice cream every day. The point I’m eventually getting to is that despite living, breathing and eating ice cream all day every day, I never got sick of it.

Did you at any point during the writing of this book?

I didn’t realize tie-dyed clothes were anti-Christian either.

But the fashion police probably would have got you if the owner hadn’t. So maybe he actually was your savior.

Although many of us (and hopefully you) eventually tired of tie-dyed pants (ha ha, I’ll never tell! -MK), I never tired of ice cream. My problem w
as freezer-space since I was making lots and lots every day. It got so bad that I had to start flushing ice cream down the toilet! People would say they’d come over and get it. But then they’d call at the last minute, and have to postpone coming by. Or they’d arrive and start complaining about their diets. Meanwhile my freezer door was groaning and I was barely able to close it, and I’ve got four new batches ready to churn and everything’s at a standstill. And I’ve got a deadline coming.

So down the john some of them went. Once time I forgot to flush completely and a friend came by and used the bathroom. When he came out, he said, “David, I think you’d better go see the doctor.”

I think that day it was Mint Chip.

The photographs are really beautiful, kudos to Lara Hata. I know how difficult shooting ice cream is! Were you involved in their production?

This was the first time I wasn’t on set and doing my own food styling. Since I live so far away, and no longer have a kitchen in San Francisco to use, we hired Lara Hata, who’s great. And just as important, we had a fabulous food stylist on the team, George Dolese. He’s done lots of books, including many in the Williams-Sonoma series. Ice cream is very tricky and doesn’t wait to be coaxed into position like, say…a salad or bowl of fruit. So all the shots were done in his kitchen and at the end of each day of shooting, they’d send me pictures to look at and comment on. I also gave them lots of guidance for how I wanted the book to look and feel. They listened, then added their own expertise. They did a great job and really complimented the recipes, didn’t they?

As a kid, the only flavor of ice cream I absolutely couldn’t stomach was rum raisin. I’ve probably gotten over that now, but can’t know for sure since that flavor seems to be in pretty short supply these days. Is there any flavor of ice cream you can’t stand?

I can’t stand licorice. Anything with licorice tastes like burnt shoe leather.

Are you more a fan of ‘pure’ ice cream flavors, or do you like lots of crunchy, gooey add-ins?

I know I should say, “Of course I prefer ‘pure, unadulterated’ ice cream.” But I can’t.

I must admit that I’m crazy for anything big, crunchy, nutty, chocolaty, or gooey that gets folded into ice cream. Although I probably shouldn’t admit this either, when I was a kid (so maybe the statue of limitations has run out) my all-time favorite pastime was going to Baskin-Robbins and trying to decide which of all those wacky flavors I wanted to try. Invariably I chose the one with the most looping swirls of chocolate and biggest chunks of toasted nuts.

I wanted to make sure The Perfect Scoop had a lot of mix-ins and swirls included so people could customize their own ice creams. Although there’s a few hundred recipes in the book, by mixing-and-matching, there’s perhaps thousands of variations.
You’re a well-traveled man, having spent a lot of time eating ice cream around the world. Based on your experience, maybe you can clear something up once and for all: what’s really the difference between ice cream and gelato? And was there a reason you didn’t include more gelato recipes in the book?

Trying to get Italians to agree on anything is quite a feat, but I did include several fabulous gelato recipes since I wanted readers to get a taste from various cultures. ‘Gelato’ doesn’t really mean anything, except ‘frozen’. So anything can pass for gelato.

Except in Italy.

There, gelato is an art form and I was fortunate to travel around Italy and taste many for myself. Most gelato has little or no cream, and relies on less air for its heavenly richness. Sometimes it’s thickened with starch in regions where eggs are scarce, or the warm climate demands a less-rich base. It’s also held in temperature-controlled freezers so it’s always that perfect, creamy texture. There are so many variations and styles that it’s almost impossible to categorize them. Basically, you could write a whole book about gelato.

Hey, come to think of it, maybe that’s my next book. Feel like going on a trip to Italy with me Melissa? (Um, does the Pope wear tie-dye? No wait, are bears Catholic? Scratch that – do I have time to pack? -MK)

I was very pleased to see that your publishers agreed to include both metric and American measures. I know this has been a topic of increasing debate in the blogosphere, particularly as our food horizons broaden and recipes are flying back and forth across international borders like never before. In my opinion, American publishers should make it a priority to have recipes in their books accessible to people anywhere (I mean, the best scenario would be for Americans themselves to finally adopt metric, but I’m not holding my breath for that!). Unfortunately, it’s still the rare book that does, and part of that, I suppose, is that testing with both systems is twice as much effort. Did you actually double-test your recipes, or were they just converted on paper?

What some readers don’t understand is that sometimes it’s not up to the author. Some decisions are up to the publishers and many would publish a Jewish cookbook by Mel Gibson if it would sell.

And the same goes with metrics in America. A lot of people who decry that cookbooks should be in metrics should make an effort to buy them and support authors who write in metrics. It’s as simple as that. It’s one thing to sit and complain about something, but another thing to take it into action. (As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much better at the former rather than the latter.)

That said, some people just don’t want to weigh ingredients. But it was a risk I was willing to take since I live in Europe now and with the blog, my audience has gone global.

My publisher, Ten Speed Press, is international too; much of their distribution is outside of America, as well as within. But the ultimate decision was up to me. And since I live in France, I thought I’d have more of a global vision for the book. Yes, it was indeed more work: sometimes I felt like I was writing two cookbooks at once. Some of the recipes were easy to convert (you don’t need to keep measuring the same cup of milk over and over again), but in recipes with flour, or other variables, the recipes were tested and re-tested by me in metrics. I had testers both in and outside of the US as well trying both.

And last but not least, the million-dollar question. If you were stranded on a desert island with a portable battery-powered freezer only large enough to store one flavor of ice cream, which one would it be?

The Mocha Sherbet. It’s full-flavored, frosty-cold, and combines two of my favorite flavors: chocolate and coffee. And since it’s got almost no fat, I wouldn’t have to worry about how I’d look in my swimsuit.

Okay, I lied, just one more question. I know this one has barely rolled off the presses, but I’m sure there are millions of people out there dying to know: can you give any hint on what your next book might be about?

Melissa, I’ve got a summer of ice cream churning ahead of me. Who’s got time to write?

Ever the man of mystery – I guess it’ll just be a surprise! In the meantime, thank you so much for taking the time to chat, and of course, for authoring such a beautiful, mouthwatering book. I suspect the next few months are going to be even more ice cream-intensive than usual around here.

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Roasted Banana Ice Cream

I’m admittedly not much of a banana person, but two things never fail to set me salivating: banana ice cream and roasted or caramelized bananas (such as in, for example, the heaven-on-earth known as bananas foster). I had never thought of putting them in one package, however, until I saw David’s recipe. After tasting it, I think I saw stars. I mean, in my book a frozen dessert is already great if it finds a way to combine deeply caramelized bananas, brown sugar and butter, but there are a couple of other things that put this ice cream in a league of its own. One is that it doesn’t have a custard base, which means putting it together is a snap. The other is that it doesn’t actually contain any cream. Just that little bit of butter and some milk – that’s all. But you’d never know it since it tastes as rich and creamy as any super-premium ice cream out there. But don’t take my word for it – go make some yourself!

A note on equipment: longtime readers will know that I don’t possess an ice cream maker. Never letting something that trivial stand between me and my dessert of choice, however, I make do without one, though I have found one other kitchen gadget to be incredibly useful in this endeavor. I find that periodically blending the mixture with my handheld (immersion) blender as it freezes results in something almost as creamy as that made with an ice cream maker. It’s still a little icier than optimal, but it sure beats no ice cream.

Reprinted with permission from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz
Yield: about 3 cups (recipe easily doubles)

3 medium-sized ripe bananas, peeled
1/3 cup, packed (70g) brown sugar
1 tablespoon butter, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 cups (375ml) whole mik
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt (I used fine salt and found it to be perfect for my tastes)

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Slice the bananas into 1/2-inch (2-cm) pieces and toss them with the brown sugar and butter in a 2-quart (2-liter) baking dish. Bake for 40 minutes, stirring just once during baking, until the bananas are browned and cooked through.

Scrape the bananas and the thick syrup in the dish into a blender or food processor (or a large bowl, if you’re using an immersion blender). Add the milk, granulated sugar, vanilla, lemon juice and salt, and puree until smooth.

Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator, then freeze it in your ice cream mixture according to the manufacturer’s instructions (or freeze in a covered container, blending every couple of hours with an immersion blender until it becomes solid). If the chilled mixture is too thick to pour into your machine, whisking will thin it out.

David suggests using this ice cream as the basis for a banana split; I think it would take beautifully to some add-ins, such as some chocolate chunks and toasted walnuts or pecans à la Chunky Monkey, a swirl of dulce de leche, or even a bit of cinnamon, nutmeg and rum to evoke the flavor of my beloved bananas foster.

Morocco, Unveiled

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Marrakech and the snow-covered High Atlas 

I knew from the age of fifteen that I wanted to go to Morocco. The moment of realization came at Disney World, of all places, where I was on vacation with my family the summer following the tenth grade. At that age, of course, I would have much preferred to be just about anywhere but ogling Cinderella’s castle with my family, but the discovery that I could bypass cartoon characters entirely by hanging out at Epcot Center’s World Showcase made the whole thing infinitely more bearable. The World Showcase, in case you’ve never been, is a clever way of taking you on a trip around the world in an hour or two; it’s made up of a series of pavilions built around a large lake, each one offering a meticulously-detailed glimpse of a particular country. For each country represented (and there are eleven) there are a few buildings constructed in some kind of traditional style, a restaurant or two serving traditional food, a cultural exhibit or short film playing to educate and inform, and a plethora of souvenir shops selling whatever it is tourists might want to prove they had been to Disney’s versions of Norway or China. To complete the experience they’ve even imported the staff as well, who are of course friendly and helpful and tell you anything you want to know about life in said places. For someone who at that point hadn’t even so much as been to Canada yet, being given a glimpse of all these exotic places was wonderfully thrilling, but none of them had more of an effect on me than Morocco.

I still remember everything about that Moroccan pavilion. I remember that it was almost closing by the time I reached it, that the light had faded and the sky was turning purple; that ornate keyhole arches lured me into a twisting web of mud-walled passages lit by filigreed lanterns; that a beautiful tiled courtyard with a bubbling fountain lay hidden somewhere in its midst and the scent of incense hung heavy in the air. I also remember that the place was silent, like a sanctuary, save for the gentle tinkle of water; the other tourists had all left and even the tiny shops stocked with fez hats, lamps and slippers seemed unstaffed. I can’t tell you what exactly it was that enchanted me so completely, but I decided then and there that Morocco must be the most exotic, fascinating and beautiful country in the whole world, and I held that magical image of that evening in my mind for nearly fifteen years – until two weeks ago, when I finally stepped on a plane to go there.

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Courtyards 

Of course when you’ve had so much time to daydream, the actual place can easily fall short of expectations. I was prepared for this, or at least I tried to be, but in the case of Morocco there was really no need. There were, nevertheless, many surprises; the images I had of Morocco were all there, but they were only a tiny piece in an infinitely more complex puzzle. I was most surprised by the contrasts everywhere. There were the obvious ones: barren desertscapes and lush gardens, the chaos of the streets and the serenity inside dwellings, uber-luxury and abject poverty, strict religiosity and unrestrained hedonism. What also surprised me was how much is hidden: behind walls, beneath veils. A visitor sees only a tiny fraction of Moroccan life, a ripple on the surface that left me more baffled than knowledgeable, and I really came to regret the fact that we had no local contact to shed light on some of the many mysteries. I think part of the problem as well may have been our choice of destinations; the places we visited were really dominated by the well-oiled machine of tourism, and this made it much more difficult to see beyond the glitz, glamour and touts to what Moroccan life is really all about. But that said, even being an observer here is an endlessly fascinating experience, a simultaneous feast and assault on all five senses that leaves you exhausted and exhilarated and always craving more.

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Faces 

We began in Marrakech, the ancient imperial city situated just to the north of the snow-capped High Atlas and the interminable browns of the Sahara. Marrakech has probably been the most romanticized of all Moroccan cities since it rose to fame in the 1960s as a hippie paradise for pleasure-seeking Europeans, and it’s never dropped off the map since. These days, however, the typical tourists are a little better-heeled, and the huge influx of cash they have brought is on display everywhere, from luxury hotels to fine restaurants to exclusive boutiques with eye-popping price tags. There are in fact two parts to the city – the new town, full of wide boulevards, apartment blocks and French-style cafes, and the medina, a city-within-a-city, enclosed by high walls and containing a web of serpentine streets so confusing it has never been completely mapped. It’s in the medina where the real action happens, and the tiny streets are a constant throng of people, donkeys and motorcycles all trying to get somewhere fast. Though the streets are chaotic, sometimes a door opens as you pass and you catch a glimpse of another world, a serene interior courtyard with orange trees and jasmine, the clean austerity of a mosque, or the murky depths of a communal bread bakery. And of course here are the souks, or covered markets – an endless labyrinth of tiny shops staffed by men expert in luring you in to inspect their goods: silver, ceramics, woodwork, clothing, shoes, tapestries, food. It pays to be cautious, however, as they pounce on the slightest sign of interest and before you can say "it’s not quite my style", you’re mired in an energetic bargaining session. Better is just to keep moving, nodding and smiling, promising peut-être la prochaine fois – maybe next time – when they won’t take no for an answer.

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Transport in the medina: pick your flavor
 

Although the medina itself is impossible to navigate, if you wander long enough you’ll eventually be carried downstream to where all the medina rivers eventually meet: the Djemaa el Fna, dead man’s square. The Djemaa is the nerve center of Marrakech and the largest square in Africa, the place where orange juice sellers rub shoulders with snake charmers; where beggars and shoeshiners and henna artists vie for your dirhams and the only escape is on the rooftop terraces of the restaurants surrounding the square, where you can observe the madness without being sucked in. The Djemaa, while teeming all day long, is also the scene for Marrakech’s famous night market, when the storytellers come out and a hundred food stalls
set up. This is when we liked it best, and we spent many evenings crammed in on benches at crowded one food stall or another, feeling like we had front-row seats to one of the greatest shows in the world.

The medina is an intoxicating place and one of the best ways to experience it is to stay in a riad, a house built in the traditional style around a central courtyard. Thanks to its up and coming status in the where’s where of hip destinations, Marrakech has more than its fair share of riad accommodation, ranging from no-frills backpacker lodging to thousand-dollar-a-night luxury palaces complete with swimming pools and in-house hamams. What they all have in common is a sense of tranquility, a beautiful open-air courtyard (or two) often decorated with exquisite craftsmanship, and a comfortable roof terrace upon which to gaze out at the skyline and listen to the many calls to prayer echo across the rooftops (which is something to be aware of if you’re a light sleeper – every quarter of the medina has its own mosque and you will be woken up every morning at five by the first call of the day, which seems to be longer and louder than any other!). But early-morning wake-up calls aside, we loved riad life. The other nice thing about staying in riads is that is gives you the chance to discover some of the quieter back streets of the medina, away from the souks and constant hassle, where you can see people going about their everyday lives: fathers pedaling their daughters to school on rickety bicycles, veiled women carting giant trays of bread to be baked in the neighborhood ovens, grandmothers leaning out of second-story windows to observe life on the streets below.

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Essaouira, city by the sea 

Marrakech was our main destination for this trip, but we also managed to escape in order to spend a few days in the Atlantic coastal port of Essaouira. Where Marrakech is full of dusky desert reds and browns, Essaouira feels almost Mediterranean with its whitewashed buildings and blue-shuttered windows. It has a medina like Marrakech, but things feel a bit more low-key here – the shop owners are a little less persistent, and the vibe on the streets is a little less harried. Essaouira can get crowded when the wind is blowing – it’s a surfer’s paradise in the winter, apparently, but we felt like we had it mostly to ourselves. We loved it and spent our days poking around the medina’s backstreets for photos and souvenir bargains (prices tend to be a bit lower than in Marrakech, and I bought some beautiful Fassi ceramics), sipping mint tea on oceanview terraces and strolling along Essaouira’s endless windswept beaches. We also stayed at the nicest place of our trip, a gem of a riad called Casa Lila which I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to anyone headed there (we stayed in chambre l’Ivoire which was not only gorgeous but had its own private terrace).

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Morocco’s beauty lies in the details 

I’ll admit, I’ve had a hard time sorting out my impressions of Morocco. Partly, I think, that’s because I was hoping to be able to come home and write about it with some kind of authority. This is what Morocco is all about, I was hoping to say, which in retrospect is a bit silly to expect from ten days spent in any country, but least of all Morocco. I can say that the image Disney planted in me at fifteen was not exactly erroneous: it is an exotic, beautiful, and fascinating country, Moroccans are lovely and hospitable people, and dusk in a Moroccan courtyard is one of the most magical places you can ever hope to be. But there’s a lot more to it than that, and I think it will take several more trips before I can even begin to understand the complexities of this country. Not that you’ll have to twist my arm to make that happen – I’m already dreaming of my next trip.

But wait, I hear you protesting, how on earth was the food? I guess you’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out. 🙂

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The Koutoubia, Marrakech’s largest mosque and
orientation-aid extraordinaire

 
p.s. All photos © Manuel Meyer. He’s got a full gallery up on his (new+improved!) website if you’d like to see some more.