Culinary Ambassadors: A Mad Tea Party

Kashmiri Kheer

Think back for a minute to the pre-internet world. I know that feels like another millennium (and it was!), but it actually wasn’t that long ago. Can you remember what life was like back then? More importantly, can you remember what it was like to cook back then? Recipes were in much shorter supply. You probably had your treasured recipes passed to you by family and friends, maybe a few clipped from magazines and newspapers. If you liked to cook you certainly had cookbooks – probably some basic books that reminded you how to make things like rice and pot roast, a few books of 15-minute dinners and 101 things to do with pickles, maybe a community cookbook or two assembled by your local Junior League or church group, and if you were an adventurous type, several seminal, authoritative works on the cuisines of the world.

Since I (mostly) came of age in the internet era, my bookshelf looks a little different. I’ve never felt the need to stock books on the basics or quick dinner ideas, since these have pretty much always been in abundant supply online. What I have always collected is books on different cuisines, since an in-depth portrait of cultures and their foodways – apart from being my passion – is something that has always seemed more at home between the slightly-yellowed pages of a book than on the cold light of the monitor. There was also the question of expertise: when I delved into the food of another culture I wanted to know I was getting as complete and accurate a taste of it as possible, and this usually meant trusting people whose credibility on the subject was well established. After all, somebody needs to be convinced an author knows what they’re talking about before they’ll go to the trouble (and expense) of publishing a book, right?

Blogs, however, are changing all of this. While we still value books written by recognized experts, blogs allow us to sidestep them and go straight to the source. They’ve opened direct conduits into kitchens around the world; as long as there’s a common language spoken (and we’re particularly lucky in this department as English speakers), there’s a chance to learn from cooks anywhere on the planet. No longer must we wait for someone to interpret and codify a cuisine for us, we can go directly to those who cook it every day. Exciting times, these.

Unfortunately the blogosphere has grown so labyrinthine in recent years that finding these blogs – particularly the good ones – is not always easy. Not many of these blogs are really mainstream, and for every one that is there are plenty more that aren’t. That’s why I’ve decided to run a little series introducing a few of them. Specifically I’m focusing on blogs that I consider exemplary ‘culinary ambassadors’ for the food of a specific country and/or region. These are bloggers who, in addition to being knowledgeable and articulate, take the time to explain unfamiliar ingredients and techniques, and go beyond recipes to explore the cultural context of the food they share, including why, when and how it’s eaten and what personal history they have with it. Some of these blogs are written by people still living in their country of origin; others are written by expats. Many of these blogs have been around for a while, though the majority are quite new to me. Hopefully some will be new to you too.

The first blog I’d like to introduce you to hails from India, one of the most diverse culinary landscapes on the planet and home to some of my very favorite food. Anita lives in Delhi, and her blog A Mad Tea Party practically verges on dinosaur status, having been around since mid-2006. I had no doubt stumbled across it before, but I didn’t start to read it in earnest until a search for my favorite rice pudding of all time led me there (but more on that in a minute). Anita is eloquent and extremely knowledgeable about many types of Indian cuisine, but what reeled me in was her insights into the food of Kashmir, the border region between India, Pakistan and China where she comes from.

I’ll admit that before finding Anita’s blog I probably could not have named one typical Kashmiri dish. I certainly couldn’t have told you that there are separate Hindu and Muslim cuisines, that the staple of British Indian restaurants called ‘Rogan Josh’ is actually a Kashmiri classic, and that things like yogurt, mustard oil and pungent asafoetida are widely used whereas garlic and onions are not. But I now know that Kashmiris drink a very different cup of chai from anyone else in India, flavoring green tea with cardamom, cinnamon, almonds and saffron and calling it Kahva. I also know that a simple dish of greens called Haak is capable of inspiring near-religious zeal among Kashmiris, and that spiced goat meatballs called Mutsch are one of the five things you must eat before you die (okay, so I’ve apparently been in possession of that knowledge for a while, but my memory isn’t what it used to be!). I was also intrigued by a Kashmiri version of the pan-Asian congee called Ver, which stands quite on its own by featuring walnuts, mustard oil and a complex local spice blend called veri masala.

My favorite recipe of Anita’s, though, is the one that led me to her site: Kheer, or Indian rice pudding. I’ve been looking for a good kheer recipe for years, ever since my student days in New Orleans. Back then I used to go with a group of my friends to the local Hare Krishna temple on Sunday evenings where they offered a free Indian meal to the public (in exchange, of course, for listening to a little proselytizing – not a bad tradeoff for starving students!). All the Krishnas’ food was pretty good, but their dessert, a milky pudding fragrant with basmati rice, was a showstopper. Almost thin enough to sip, it bore little resemblance to the thick, stodgy glop I was familiar with (can you tell I’m not much of a rice pudding fan?). I fell in love (with the pudding, not the Krishnas), but unfortunately I never managed to find a recipe that produced anything nearly as good – until I found Anita’s.

Anita is justifiably proud of her kheer, calling it ‘a Mad Tea Party original’ and a recipe she worked long and hard to perfect. I’m not surprised – it’s pretty spectacular, balancing the richness of long-simmered milk with the delicate fragrances of basmati rice and cardamom. Almonds lend it a bit of gentle crunch, while saffron (one of Kashmir’s most iconic crops) lends a beautifully golden color and a touch of its haunting perfume. Straddling the line between exotic and comforting, it’s the kind of dessert I could easily see myself eating every night of my life, and I very well could considering how ridiculously easy it is to make. It does require a good chunk of time but far less active involvement than you’d expect – particularly compared to some Indian desserts which chain you to the stove for unfathomable lengths of time. The only negative I can think of is that it verges on too good; just knowing it’s sitting there in the fridge seems to render me incapable of walking past it without stopping to take a bite. Somehow the entire first batch I made disappeared without having officially been served. But of course, that was just the excuse I needed to whip up a second one.

Kashmiri Kheer

Apart from sending you over to Anita’s to look at the photos of the rice at different stages of cooking, I can only think of a couple of things to note here: the first is that between soaking, boiling and letting the kheer cool, you’ll need several hours for this dessert, so plan ahead. Letting it chill completely is particularly important since this is when all the flavors get cozy with each other. The second is that I’ve called for a little less sugar than Anita, but by all means adjust the amount to your taste. You’re best off starting with less and tasting as you go.
Serves: 6
Source: slightly adapted from Anita at A Mad Tea Party

3/4 cup (140g) basmati rice
8 cups (2 quarts/liters) whole milk
1 cup (200g) sugar (or to taste)
1 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
pinch saffron threads, crumbled
1/4 cup (40g) blanched almonds, halved

a small handful of dry coconut and raisins (optional – I prefer it without)

Soak the rice in cold water for an hour. Drain. In a heavy-bottomed pot (not too wide and shallow or the milk will evaporate too quickly), combine the milk and the drained rice. Bring to a boil, and reduce the heat to the minimum needed to keep it boiling. Leave a wooden spoon in; this will prevent the milk from boiling over. If you are using a sufficiently heavy-bottomed pan you’ll only need to stir about once every 5 minutes. But don’t stray too far; keep an eye on the milk while doing something something else in the kitchen. After about 20 minutes the rice will be cooked, and after another 10 it will start to break up. After about 40 minutes of cooking, reduce the heat slightly and stir continuously for the next 5-7 minutes. At this point the rice will have nearly disintegrated. Turn the heat off, add the remaining ingredients and stir. Transfer the kheer to a covered container and chill completely in the refrigerator. Serve cold.

Finding Flaounes

Cypriot Flaounes

I hope you’ll be able to forgive me. I meant to tell you about these much sooner, in time for you to even whip up a batch for Easter should you have been so inclined. But first I was struck down for four days with a cold, and then due to my negligence in note-taking had to re-test the recipe, at which point I found my Turkish market was out of the cheese I needed and didn’t get it back for nearly a week. How’s that for excuses? Actually, the only issue in bringing it to you now instead of ten days ago is that it is technically an Easter recipe, but if you, like me, are capable of looking past that tiny little detail, I think we’ll be home free. And anyway, this is just too good to be relegated to one holiday a year, as I’m sure you’ll soon agree.

I have a particular fascination with Easter traditions around the world. I suppose this is because I come from a family that’s pretty lacking in the Easter-tradition department. Actually you could say most Americans are lacking in this department; apart from egg-decorating, egg hunts and speculations about the mythical Easter Bunny (and let’s not forget copious amounts of cheap chocolate, in particular these abominations to good taste that I coveted for years until I finally managed to try one!), I can’t think of any Easter activities that unify the nation. Feasting and family are certainly not associated with it like they are with, say, Thanksgiving and Christmas, and while I know that a lot of people go to church, being of a secular persuasion we never did. In all honesty I never really minded our lack of traditions, or even thought much about it – that is, until I started getting to know people for whom Easter means so much more than colored eggs and chocolate.

Europeans, in general, are much more serious about Easter than Americans. The Spanish take a whole week off and stage processions and parades in funny costumes. The Italians do much of the same, and feast like it’s going out of style. The British and Irish take a four-day weekend and find the whole thing serious enough to even close their pubs. The Germans light Osterfeuer, enormous community bonfires complete with the requisite sausages and beer. The Eastern Europeans have a whole litany of religious and culinary traditions that include things like midnight masses, picnics, paskha and kulich.

The Greeks are also big Easter-celebrators, as I discovered when I lived with many of them during my years in student accommodation in Edinburgh. At times it seemed they spent all year waiting for Easter. To them Easter wasn’t just any run-of-the-mill important holiday, it was the important holiday. In fact many of them would skip going home at Christmas (when the university was closed for three weeks) so they could do so at Easter, when all they might be able to squeeze out of their schedule was a long weekend. It was that important.

One of the Greeks I lived with was a Greek-Cypriot named Eleni, who was in Edinburgh doing a one-year master’s degree in archaeology. Unfortunately her schedule meant that she had some big deadlines she couldn’t miss right around Easter, and as much as she wanted to, she couldn’t go home. She was devastated. Luckily her family back on Cyprus missed her as much as she missed them, and in an effort to console her mailed her a big package chock-full of food. I remember watching her rifle through it in our communal kitchen, squealing with delight at each item she unpacked. The centerpiece of the package, the thing that sent Eleni over the moon with happiness, was a big tupperware container of homemade sesame-covered pastries from her grandmother. Before I could even ask what they were Eleni was excitedly passing them out, telling us this was what everyone ate for Easter in Cyprus. I don’t know what I expected typical Cypriot Easter pastries to be (probably something extremely sweet), but certainly nothing like what they actually were: a buttery, brioche-like crust cradling a filling of salty cheese, mint and raisins. Pungent, herbal, a tiny bit sweet, and fragrant with some mystery spice, they were hands-down the best edible Easter tradition I’d ever tasted. But somehow in all the commotion I forgot to ask Eleni what they were called, and by the time I thought to do so she was long gone and we had lost touch.

I never forgot about those pastries, though, and always had in the back of my mind that someday I would have to go to Cyprus at Easter and track them down. Of course, staring me in the face was another alternative too obvious to have even occurred to me: look them up online. Doh! Of course, that’s what I should have done all along, but it took running across a photo of them somewhere to realize I could just plug ‘Cyprus’, ‘Easter’, ‘pastry’ and ‘cheese’ into google and there I would have all the info I ever wanted on them. And in the end that was all it took for me to learn that they’re called flaounes, and that locating a couple of unusual ingredients was all that stood between me and pulling a batch of them out of my very own oven.

These are some pretty special pastries. There’s a lot going on in them, but everything contributes an important aspect of their personality: buttery crust, nutty sesame, salty cheese, cooling mint, sweet raisins, and the haunting aromas of the spices mastic and mahlab. Their texture is also something unique, since when they bake the dough and leavened filling slightly meld, creating a kind of gradual spectrum of crisp to gooey. I can certainly see why Cypriots are proud to call these their own, and why most recipes you find online list ingredients in the kilos and the output in the dozens. This is a more modest adaptation, which you’ll probably find more useful if you don’t have an extended family the size of a small army. They do, I’m happy to report, come remarkably close to the flaounes I tasted all those years ago in Edinburgh, though there is one ingredient missing that I can’t fail to notice. That would be the unabashed joy these pastries give Cypriots like Eleni, who take one bite and instantly relive a lifetime of jubilant family gatherings, laden holiday tables, and the warm, comforting scent of bread and cheese baking in a grandmother’s kitchen.

But luckily, they’re delicious even without it.

Flaounes (Cypriot Cheese Pastries)

There are a couple of ingredients here you might need to put some effort into finding. Mahleb or mahlab is the ground dried pits of a wild Mediterranean cherry; I’d describe its scent as sort of a cross between almond and cinnamon. Mastic is the dried resin of a kind of shrub, and has, for lack of a better word, a kind of resiny flavor. Both of these spices are quite common in Greek and Middle Eastern cuisine, so start your search for them in shops that sell food from these places. If you can’t find either, rather than try to substitute, just leave them out. There are enough other flavors here to take up the slack.

The cheese is a little trickier. You want to aim for something quite salty and pungent, preferably made from sheep’s milk, to make up at least half the weight. If you can get imported Cypriot halloumi, you can use exclusively this; it’s salty but not overly so*, and usually made with a blend of sheep and goat’s milk. You’ll know it by its flecks of mint on the surface and uneven shape, like it was folded in half before being packaged (which it was). Don’t, however, use Greek- or Turkish-made halloumi which is made from cow’s milk only; it’s unbearably salty and rubbery in texture, and provides little in the way of flavor. If you can’t get real halloumi, you can try another sheep’s milk cheese like a middle-aged pecorino, or try a blend of cheeses, perhaps mixing a milder white cheese like kashkavali, gouda or even Monterey Jack with an equal weight of something strong and salty, such as kefalotiri, pecorino romano, or manchego viejo. I’ve even seen recipes that combine up to five kinds of cheese, so feel free to experiment.

One final thing: the raisins are a matter of debate – some swear by them, others detest them. I’m in the former camp. I’m normally not a huge raisin fan but these are barely detectable, and just there to provide the occasional subtle burst of sweetness.

Yield: about 18 palm-sized pastries

For the dough
5 cups (700g) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon mastic, ground in a mortar (optional; also called mastica)
1/2 teaspoon ground mahleb, (optional; also called mechlepi)
1 tablespoon sugar

3 large eggs
1/2 cup (125ml) milk
1/2 cup (125g) butter, melted and cooled
1/4-1/2 cup (60-125ml) lukewarm water, or as needed
vegetable oil, for greasing bowl and work surface

For the filling
1 lb 2 oz (500g) Cypriot halloumi or a mixture of cheeses (e.g. kefalotyri, kashkavali, parmesan, pecorino, manchego; see note above), grated

1 tablespoon flour
5 large eggs

2 tablespoons dry mint

1/3 cup (50g) raisins or currants (optional)
1 teaspoon baking powder

For the decoration:
1 egg, lightly beaten
3/4 cup (100g) sesame seeds

In a large bowl mix the flour, yeast, salt, mastic, mahleb, and sugar. In a separate bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk and butter and add this to the flour. Add as much water as needed to get a soft but kneadable dough. If it’s too sticky to knead, add additional flour by the spoonful until you can knead it with clean hands without it sticking to your fingers. Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled surface and knead until the dough is smooth and springy, about 5 minutes. Form the dough into a ball. Wash out the bowl, pour about a teaspoon of oil into the bottom, and put the dough in, rolling it around to coat it with the oil. Cover the bowl with a cloth and leave for about an hour, or until doubled in size. Fold the dough over itself a couple of times to deflate, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 24.

Meanwhile, mix all the filling ingredients except the baking powder and set aside. If refrigerating the dough overnight, cover and refrigerate the filling too. Spread the sesame seeds on a plate.

The dough is easiest to handle when it’s cold, so divide it in half and keep the half you’re not working with covered in the fridge. On a lightly oiled work surface, and using a lightly oiled rolling pin, roll the other half to a thickness of 1/4-inch. Using a bowl as a guide, cut as many 6-inch circles from the dough as you can. Combine the scraps, re-roll and cut out more circles. Repeat until you’ve used all the dough. Gently pick up the circles and press one side into the sesame seeds. Brush off any loose seeds. Place the circles back on your worktop, sesame-side down.

Stir the baking powder into the cheese mixture. Heap 2-3 tablespoons in the center of each dough circle, spreading it slightly but leaving at least an inch (2.5cm) border all around. Brush some beaten egg around the edge of the dough and fold three of the sides to form a triangle shape (see pictures below). Using a fork, press the corners together to join.

Place the flaounes on parchment-lined baking sheets, spacing them widely so they have room to expand. Let them rise while you prepare the second batch of flaounes, about 30-40 minutes. About 20 minutes before you begin baking, preheat the oven to 375F/190C. Just before baking, brush the outside of the flaounes with beaten egg. Bake them in batches for 30-40 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on a rack and enjoy warm or at room temperature. Freeze what you won’t be able to eat within 3 days.

*That said, even real halloumi varies in saltiness. If you find yours is extremely salty (i.e. too salty to eat on its own), cut it in slices and soak it in cold water for a couple of hours, changing the water every half an hour, until the salt is reduced to more palatable levels.