Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Spoonful of Sugar

I have some seriously picky eaters at home, even though I know that each of you is saying ‘Lady, you haven’t met picky until you meet my Tommy’. You are probably right. I don’t have the monopoly on picky, yet all the same, I need to live with my own set of challenges. My eldest won’t eat anything that has sauce or cooked vegetables on it. My second won’t eat anything without sauce on it, and cooked vegetables are a must at every meal. My third will eat anything as long as it is white and its only ingredients are milk or cheese, no vegetables or sauce (unless it’s cheese sauce) allowed. And my baby, at this point, will eat anything as long as he can feed himself, the table, the floor and the walls in the process…it’s all so frustrating.

It is hardly surprising that as I walked through the supermarket yesterday, there was all the amazing Israeli winter produce on display. I developed a serious frown. The colors were amazing, the different opportunities for fast homemade vegetable dishes were numerous and the fruit looked like jewels beckoning to be touched. Yet, all I could think of was: Number One won’t eat this and Number Three won’t eat that. And then my eyes honed in on the strawberries. G-d, I love strawberries, and so does ‘the papa’ as do Numbers One and Two. Three won’t eat them as they are not white, and Four may be sensitive to them. But hell, four out of six ain’t bad.

In the hopes of convincing the people to eat more fruit, I have tried plain strawberries, I have served strawberries with cream, Eaton mess, strawberries with balsamic vinegar… and finally, yesterday, I hit on strawberries-sprinkled-ever-so-lightly-with-homemade-vanilla-sugar, and I got them! Score one to mommy…and I’m just 1,072 points away from my challenger. Until Number Three said well if they were in a cupcake, perhaps she would try them, because, as she pointed out, pink is really just red with loads of white added in.

Logically I know that adding sugar butter, flour and egg to the strawberries isn’t the solution to Number Three’s aversion to anything that isn’t white. Desperate times, and all that…

So, yesterday, we had a strawberry cup cake baking party. The kids loved the pink cake, and they loved making strawberry icing and – score two – I actually had them waiting in anticipation for the icing to harden. Once they had tasted them, I had them asking for seconds, and could they take them to school the next day (score three and four). The crowd in the background was cheering for the underdog: ‘Well Done Mommy!’

It just goes to show a spoon full of sugar helps the fruit go down. Mary Poppins and my kids have nothing on me!

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Route 38 is considered Israel’s premier Wine Route with over 35 wineries veining off of this one 30-kilometre central road, with a number of different cities, towns, moshavim and kibbutzim all with access to the road. Last Thursday, though, I wasn’t on the look out for wine or towns. I was searching for spice.

If you are a student of history you will know that wars have been waged, countries destroyed, territories discovered and lives lost, all in the pursuit of spice. On Thursday, I wanted to reign supreme. Not over the world (though, for most of my childhood, I dreamt of world domination); today it was the dull chicken recipes that needed to be conquered.

“Tavlin”, the Hebrew word for spice, just off Route 38, is a mecca of colors and smells. If you are not careful, your senses may overload. My suggestion is to grab a basket and take it slow. The store is packed with over 640 different varieties of spices, spice blends, condiments, dried herbs and tea infusions. Amongst the products fighting for your attention you will find dried beans, dried fruit, nuts, homemade halva, home made jams, a huge selection of medicinal herbs and so much more. Don’t be put off by the sheer quantity; the store is wonderfully organized, and the shop management is helpful.

Tavlin’s owner, Erez Kuril, took me on a tour of his beloved spice haven. Tavlin, on the edge of the Eshtaol Forest, was built on land designated for agriculture and tourism. When investors approached Erez, he knew he wanted the spot, in all its breathtaking splendor, with pine trees and forested mountains set in a sky of the clearest of blues. Beauty aside, he had no idea what to do with it, until one day the word spice came to his head.

I think that uttering the word “spice” on Route 38 is fortuitous. Roads leading up to the Mateh Yehuda region from the Negev desert are part of the ancient Spice Route that made its way north west from India and China. The Nabataean people who lived in the south of Israel and Jordan were a trading people. Ruins of their towns can be seen in such places as Avdat and Hulza. The traders would send the spice either west to the port of Gaza, or north through Mateh Yehuda on to the ports of Jaffa and Tyre. A spice store on an ancient Spice Route seems appropriate. Like in ancient times, the spices are bringing people together. Though Erez is enamored with spice – in particular turmeric (“kurkum” in Hebrew) – it’s the people that get him really excited.

Tavlin has become a tourist hot spot. It’s a must-see-and-shop spot for Israeli culinary tours. On weekdays, busses will pull up to Tavlin’s barn-style store. Half is the shop while the other half is a dairy restaurant. Tourists step in and gasp. As soon as they have stopped “ohhing and ahhing” over the sheer quantity, quality and selection of spices, they are ushered upstairs to the lecture gallery, where they are told about the benefits of different spices and herbal infusions for twenty minutes, while ladies fold and unfold wish-lists of spices to buy. A few months ago, I watched as a lady nearly catapulted herself from the steps into the shop after one of these talks. She ran straight for the large stainless steel bowl filled with za’atar (hyssop). I had to know what her hurry was. She explained that all forty of the ladies had za’atar on their list. Tavlin’s za’atar is reputed to be the best in the country, and they each wanted a kilo. I stepped back and watched the ladies fight it out (who said the life of a housewife was boring?). One of the shop assistants later explained that their spice is always super fresh and with the za’atar ladies on hand, that may have been an understatement.

The roads of our country, though paved and well signposted, have witnessed many comings and going. Route 38 has laid testimony to the epic struggle between David and Goliath, as well as the ancient city of Beit Shemesh and, for nearly five centuries, it was one of the avenues of the Spice Route. Today it plays host to vineyards and growing communities and a wonderful spice store. I wonder what the road has planned for the future. All I can hope for are happy travels and happier discoveries.

The store is situated off of Route 38. If coming from Highway 1, the store is on your left. Turn left at the exit for Eshtaol. Once on the road, make a quick left after about 50 meters onto a dirt road and drive until you reach Tavlin. If coming from Beit Shemesh, make a right just after the Sonol station, and the first left onto the dirt road. Tavlin, the store, is open weekdays from breakfast time until the end of dinner; times are connected with the restaurant next door. The shop is certified kosher, by the Rabbinate of the Galil, where most of its spices come from. The restaurant is dairy but is not certified kosher.

Pan-cooked Chicken with Persian Lemons and Burgul Wheat

Persian lemon is also known as dehydrated lemon. They are black, Ping-Pong ball sized and weigh about the same. Though one of the most unappealing foods to look at, once cooked, they impart a sweet citrus flavor with none of the acidity of fresh lemons, but a lot of vibrancy. To crush the Persian Lemon, place the lemon on a cutting board, and bang down with the heel of your hand. Your lemon has probably shattered. Use all the pieces in the recipe.

1 ½ cups (300 grams) burgul wheat
3 cups boiling water

3 medium red onions, finely diced
4 sticks celery, chopped
2 cups fresh Spinach, chopped
3 Persian lemons, crushed
1½ teaspoon turmeric
Salt and pepper

One chicken cut into eight, skin on.
A lot olive oil

Place dry burgul in bowl and cover with boiling water. Cover bowl and set aside.

Preparing the vegetables:
Pace the onions, celery, and spinach each in a separate bowl.

Wash and dry the chicken. Rub pepper, salt and turmeric into the chicken. In the pot with a lid, pour in a generous amount of olive oil. Sear the chicken, starting skin-side down, about five minutes on each side, until the skin is golden. Remove to a plate. If using a soup pot, do this in batches. Do not overcrowd as it will cause the whole pot to steam up and the chicken won’t brown.

Add the onions to the hot oil. Fry for about five minutes until very soft. Scrape whatever bits of chicken stick to the bottom of the pan into the onions. Now add the celery and cook for a further five minutes. Add the burgul and any leftover water. Add the spinach and Persian lemon, season well with pepper and salt, and stir.

Return the chicken pieces to the pot. Add one and a half cups of water, lower the heat to medium and cook for twenty minutes. Remove the breast meat, cover the pot and cook the rest of the chicken for a further five minutes, until all the juices run clear.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


Well wonders never cease. Sure, Israel is at war and school has been cancelled in the south, and the entire country is glued to the TV or radio, and yet life goes on.

Yesterday, on a quick trip to the supermarket, I came across these beautiful, colourful cauliflower. Who knew that in Israel, in an out-of-the-way little city, you could get such things. I picked them up in the hopes that they would be regulars at the market but, trusting my well-honed Israeli shopper instinct, I knew that this may very well be a "one-off". Into the cart they went, and as soon as I got them home, I photographed them, steamed them, and then fried the life out of them.

My mother's fried cauliflower salad is my all-time favourite salad, but it hardly ever gets made. For one thing, there is the frying to contend with. Once fried, seldom is their enough left over to make salad. Allow me to explain.

Fried cauliflower salad has a number of cooking phases. The cauliflower first needs to be cooked or steamed. Then it needs to be dipped: first in flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and then in egg. Finally, it is shallow-fried on three or four sides depending on the shape of the floret.

Now comes the salad part. Once all the cauliflower is fried, my mom then lets it drain on paper towels. People walk in and out of the kitchen all day, taking the occasional floret as they pass by. My husband sneaks one, and then a second, just as unabashedly, and just munches away until someone physically needs to unlock his jaw from the plate. This is where the salad part comes in. If, after say five hours, there is any cauliflower left, my mom will put the squeezed juice of a lemon, some chopped parsley a little salt over the leftover fried cauliflower, and place in the fridge until ready to serve. The combo is amazing, and my disappointment today in having no cauliflower left over was palatable, and yet not as bad as if they had all been white cauliflower.

The different coloured cauliflower had a variety of tastes, and the steaming plus frying got rid of the bitter edge, letting you taste what was going on. The green tasted a lot like white cauliflower, yet even after its treatment in my kitchen retained some bitterness. The yellow was sweet, with a hint of carrot, and the purple, had a taste of artichoke. All in all, great eating.

I think Israel may be OK if, in a small town, in a small country, that is basically at war, we can talk and eat coloured cauliflower.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Bagel Revolution

I’m sitting quietly in my kitchen this morning, smiling at the recent memory of a sink full of dirty dishes, and the floor strewed with toys, content in the fact that my Chanukah party has come and gone. Was it a riveting success? Only the guests can tell you that; but I know that even though I was coming down with the flu, I had a blast.

It was noisy. Over thirty kids spanning the very small age gap of 14 to three months will make any gathering loud. Everyone felt very at home. That’s what happens when the room is filled with blood relatives. And yet that had its benefits too. At some point, about two hours into the evening, I sat down and could not get up again, contenting myself by schmoozing with whomever I found sitting next to me; at which point, one of my cousins took over the tea and coffee making operations (I figured that it was OK for a hostess to delegate that responsibility). The two things I didn’t delegate, the things I needed to control were the bagels and latkes. Oh, and the strawberry cream cake (winter is strawberry season in Israel). Oh yeah, and the menorah shaped sugar cookies. Oh, and the tomato soup and barley soup, oh, and the setting of the buffet… OK, I’ll admit it, I’m a control freak, though I did let my cousins bring salads.

I like tasting as I go, so unless I’m standing next to you in the kitchen while you cook, and you let me control how you season your food, I’d rather eat your food in your house and my food in mine. To the point that if you were to bring anything over, I would spend the rest of the night – regardless if the dish was Michelin-starred or not – telling everyone within hollering distance that “so-and-so dish” was not mine. Gosh, I’m coming off as a crazy person. Well, who wouldn’t be?! I just hosted forty five of my closest family members and made four dozen home made bagels from scratch. Crazy lady, I know, and frankly I’m looking for a cuckoos’ nest to fly over.

Back to them bagels. You may be asking yourself: who in their right mind makes their own bagels? As I have already proven, I’m decidedly not in my right mind but the bagel making decision was founded solidly in reality. Let me walk you through the logic.

To buy a dozen bagels in Israel cost 50 shekels for a dozen (about US$13 depending on the day). Though it is more expensive to buy a dozen bagels in the States, we live in Israel and every shekel counts and unless you have been living under a very comfortable rock, you must know that world economy has gone - for want of a better term - kaput! So, if were talking about buying four dozen bagels, well that’s 200 shekels, while buying a bag of bread flour costs about 7 shekels (I rounded my expenses up to 8 shekels, considering I would need to add some yeast, sugar and salt to create the basic recipe).

What I haven’t told you though is about how most Israeli bagels taste. They don’t in any way resemble the bagels of my childhood. They lack that glossy, slightly tough outer shell. The crust is usually thin and at times, God forbid,… crusty; and don’t get me started on the “middles”. The dough is so light, there is no chew left in them. Don’t they realize that the bagel was created to keep my foremothers warm in the shtetl during cold winter mornings? For the lox, on the other hand, you will need to thank your local Scandinavian. The chew was exercise for warming the mouth for a long day of kibitzing. The Israeli bagel, I have my suspicion, is in fact a roll with a hole. Horror of horrors! It just occurred to me, I don’t think they boil their bagels before they bake them.

Though admittedly there is one exception. Holy Bagel, with branches all over Jerusalem, make a fantastic bagel and if you ask them to "shmear" something on the inside, they won’t look at you in puzzlement. But if you can’t get to town and were hoping to save some money, the only way to go is to make your own. Not too crazy, right?

So, about two weeks ago, I started practicing. I figured I make pretty good challah, so what’s wrong with tackling another Jewish bread? I would not let the boiling stage intimidate me. Armed with my trusty KitchenAid at my side, the ten minutes of kneading were done mechanically, the dough raised like a bear out of hibernation, and the boiling went off with out a hitch. My only problem: as hard as I tried, I couldn’t get my bagels to stay in those cute, closed circles. But that would not put me off, because from the start, the bagels tasted amazing. They were doughy, glossy heaven.

I just kept on trying to figure out the rolling. I experimented with batch after batch we were having bagels for breakfast lunch and dinner, until my husband was “bagel-ed out” and sat me down to watch a YouTube clip on how to roll a bagel.

Armed with a good recipe and YouTube, I was ready for Operation Bagel 2008. The bagels stayed in rings and though they looked homemade (I’m guessing I need an industrial strength mixer), they came out great, and not one was left over. How great is that? Even one of my aunts, who doesn’t know exactly how to turn on her oven, wanted the recipe. Bagel revolution, we are on!

Homemade Bagels

Adapted from Nigella Lawson’s “How to be a Domestic Goddess”. Please don’t be frightened by the length of this recipe, I just love giving detailed directions. The control freak in me can’t resist the opportunity to tell someone else what to do.

1 kg strong white bread flour
1 package instant dry yeast (anything between 7 and 11 grams will do the trick)
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon oil
500 ml warm water

For boiling:
Large pot of boiling water
2 tablespoons sugar

For Sprinkling:
Sea salt, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, garlic granules…. to your heart’s content.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the paddle attachment place the flour, yeast salt and sugar. Mix so that all the ingredients are incorporated.

Measure water in a measuring jug add the oil and pour slowly into the flour mixture.

Now, on the lowest speed, allow the mixture to knead. After about two minutes, look into the bowl. If you see flakes of dry flour at the bottom of the bowl, then add a couple of drops of water and wait about ten seconds to see if they come together with the rest of the dough. If they don’t, then add a few drops more water and wait again. If on the other had the dough is too moist (a good indication of this is if the dough isn’t adhering itself to the dough hook), sprinkle in some more flour again do this slowly, waiting between each addition.

Once you get a good consistency, with all the dough spinning ever so slowly onto the dough hook (I’m sorry to be graphic but this kind of looks like someone pole-dancing very, very slowly), look at your clock and let it pole-dance for the next ten minutes.

Take the dough out of the mixer and knead a couple of times, just to get rid of any air bubbles.

With cooking spray, grease the inside of a large bowl. Place the dough inside and spray the top of the dough (you can do this in the mixer bowl if you like). Place the bowl in a large clean garbage bag, tie a knot and let it rest in a draft-free place for an hour until it almost doubles in size.

Before you start rolling dough, pre heat the oven to 240 Celsius/ 460 Fahrenheit, and put a large pot of water and two tablespoons sugar to boil.

About thirty seconds of aggression coming up…

Punch down the dough, and I mean really punch. Divide into twelve equal parts (the control freaks among us would take out our kitchen scales at this point) and weigh each piece. You should get twelve pieces each weighing about four ounces.

With both palms, roll the individual dough piece into one long rope that will wrap around your hand with some overlap. That said, wrap the rope around your hand with both ends overlapping in your palm and squeeze the pieces together.

With the dough still wrapped around your hand, roll it on the surface again to get one continuous ring.

Place the dough rings on a lightly greased baking tray, cover and let rise until puffy – about twenty minutes.

Now place two or three bagels (depending on the size of your pot) into the boiling water, boiling them for about thirty seconds on either side. Then use a spatula remove the boiled bagels and put them back on the baking tray. While the bagels are still wet, this is the time to sprinkle with seasonings if you like.

(As a side note: when your bagels come out of their boiling bath with a bad case of cellulitis, don’t worry. This seems to sort itself out in the oven (if only it were so easy for me).

Pop your tray of boiled bagels in the oven, and about fifteen minutes later you will have glossy, doughy, yummy bagels. Hurray!

Oh don’t let them sit too long on the tray while cooling. They will sweat and regain their prior bout of cellulite. You really wouldn't want your bagel to suffer from a soggy bottom.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Feeling Hungary...?

I've started writing for the Metro Section of the Jerusalem Post. This weekend supplement is circulated throughout the Central Region of Israel.

I visited a great Hungarian cafe in Tel Aviv, and you can read about it here.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


The secret to really good cookies, I mean the really good kind - the kind that has you polishing off a plate single-handedly - is butter.

That’s it.

To the kosher baker, the ones who never use butter, in order to keep their baking utensils parve, I’m sorry to be the barer of bad news, but it is the truth. Only the simplest of ingredients mixed together will give you the best cookies. Use lower grade fat, like margarine or vegetable shortening, and even though your cookies will look like the real thing, they won’t taste it. If your flour is stale, or your flavoring dull, so too, your cookies. When using such a short list of ingredients, it is paramount that you use the cleanest, purest and best. That is the only way the magic really happens.

This may be a stretch, but charity work is the same. If you come into it with anything less than the purest of intentions, the project may look the part but give it a nudge, a prod, and it will fall apart. On the other hand, a charity based on the best of intentions, with clear thinking leaders and attainable objectives has all it takes in order to succeed. All that is needed is a great “baker” at its helm.

Table to Table is just such an organization. Our friend, Joseph Gitler, having been inspired by the American organization Second Harvest (now called Feeding America), knew that the idea was ripe for Israel. So, five years ago, he put his food were his mouth is, and started Israel’s most successful food rescue charity, today rescuing food from catering halls, corporate functions, manufacturers and growers and feeding over 10,000 families a week.

The world economy, in my mind, looks like a dollar sign with a sad face plummeting to the depths of a deep ravine, the type where you can’t see the bottom. And just as the dollar sign, wiping it proverbial brow finds a tiny little ledge on which to perch itself, it looses its footing and keeps tumbling downwards, shock and surprise etched in its now super-extended eyebrows. The downwards spiral and the use of inferior ingredients has never been more apparent than in this week’s news of the scandal surrounding Bernie Madoff. The number of charities affected by the latest of dishonesties is going to test our philanthropic activities in the months to come.

What I can tell you is what I tell my friends who want to know about baking with butter. I know that as Kashrut-observant Jews, we can not eat the butter cookies after a meat meal but, for the good cookies, isn’t worth waiting a few hours? So, too, with charity. Perhaps we can’t give everyone to the extent we were giving before, but let’s keep on giving even if it isn’t with cash alone. Volunteering of you time and energy is charity within itself. Either way, baking and charity will make you feel better about that poor ever-dwindling dollar sign, spiraling out of control.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tea, anyone?

Shabbat afternoon is when we have friends over for tea. In our world, everyone entertains on Shabbat. Friday night dinners and Shabbat lunches are really the only ways to socialize, since going out for drinks on a causal Wednesday would be looked upon with suspicion. But Shabbat meals are all about having other folks over, and taking your time, sans distraction. No phones, no TV, no electronics and no cooking to get in the way. In fact, if you don’t entertain on a particular Shabbat, one finds an array of excuses to cover oneself. Most common is, “We are having a quiet one”. Less so, “Little Molly has the chickenpox”. But none is more acceptable than, “I’m cooked out!” which is understandable, since most of what we serve at these weekly lunches and dinners are akin to what people in the real world would serve for Thanksgiving or Christmas for a modest group of 18. More often than not, I’ll take a week off from the big Shabbat meal and just have people over for tea.

Tea is great. It’s the English answer to feeling uncomfortable. As my mother-in-law says, “It gives one something to do with one’s hands like pouring and stirring”, so acceptable when one has nothing to say. Though I always have something to say, I like knowing that I have the security of a cup, and that sipping is not only acceptable, but required.

Our usual spread at Shabbat tea is, well, tea and scones. Since the prohibition of cooking on Shabbat is, shall we say, prohibitive, I whip up the scones before Shabbat. As soon as they have cooled, I pop them in the freezer and only take them out an hour before tea, at which point I place them on the hot plate. If my timing is good, by the time we come to eat them, they are hot. If I overshoot, they are hot with very crusty bottoms. Regardless, we eat away.

Next to the scones there is always butter, a variety of jams and marmalade, plus whipped cream. I know this should say “clotted cream”, but no such beast exists in Israel, and making it myself is also out of the question, since even full-fat cream in this country doesn’t contain enough fat to get to clotted heaven…(in Hebrew, you would say “Lo Kurrah Kloom” literally, “nothing happened”, which will explain away anything from a multi-vehicle road accident on the Ayalon Freeway to a fight with the supermarket cashier). We sit, sip and eat, piling our scones high with fatty sweet goodies, while our numerous children run around picking biscuits and yogurts off the table.

This week, we entertained our friends Daniel & Rachelle and David & Gina. These couples have that great mix of “Australian-guy-meets-sensible-English-girl” chemistry going on, and no-one needs the whole tea-and-scones concept explained to them. The conversation, the food and Rachelle’s gift of extremely good, extremely dark chocolate all went over a treat, but my personal highlight of the afternoon was David’s great-grandmother’s Chocolate Apricot Cake. There is so much to tell you about this cake, but you’ll just have to be patient until we meet again in the blogosphere.


For now, I give you “make-now-and-freeze-to-serve-later” scones. Seriously, this is so indulgent and fun at the same time, it makes tea perhaps more enjoyable than a Shabbat lunch.

2 cups flour (250g)
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
2 tsp cream of tartar
5 tbsp cold butter (70g) cut into small pieces
2/3 cup whole milk (150ml)

Pre heat oven to 425F (220C)
In a large bowl combine flour, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar.
Using your fingers, rub butter into dry ingredients. Once the flour feels like wet sand, add the milk and mix with a spoon until just combined.
Using your hands, knead until dough holds together, and pat the dough down until it is less than an inch thick.
Using a round cookie cutter or a glass, cut out round scones. You will get about six to eight scones, then re-roll the dough to get another two scones.
Place on a lightly greased tray and bake for about 12-15 minutes.

The Big Cheese

Another article of mine appeared in the In Jerusalem supplement of The Jerusalem Post on Friday, which you can read by clicking here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cooking Class

I don’t know if it has something to do with the economic downturn that more people are home cooking and registering for cooking classes. Or perhaps the fact that for a few hours on Sunday night, my op-ed was on the front page of the Jerusalem Post website. No matter the reason my confidence is up, and with my confidence soaring, I offered to teach two good friends how to make pastry from scratch. Previously I had spent ages contemplating the pros or cons of teaching anyone anything.


1. My pastry-making skills are relatively good. During my first pregnancy I had a thing for apple pie. Not only did I make one twice a week for nearly ten months, but I also ate them (my son was well overdue).
2. My kitchen – though nobody’s dream – is user friendly. I can get a nice number of tushes bouncing around, each in its own little station, without anyone invading anyone else’s personal space.
3. I wasn’t charging my friends, so even if my lesson was, as the Israelis say, “on the faces” (say this with Adam Sandler’s pseudo-Israeli accent from – ‘You Don’t Mess With The Zohan’ and it sounds more intimidating), all I really would be wasting would be about an hour and a half of their time, and a whole lot of flour. With my tail between my legs, I could go back to my semi-agoraphobic life.


1. My friends, after being bored out of their wits, may never talk to me again. A great loss since both are friendly and funny.
2. My pastry-making skills may be mine alone, and translating them to someone else may be impossible, like the thought of teaching someone to drive. I know how to drive fairly well but, for the life of me, I don’t think I could teach someone else to do so.
3. I may be great at it, and my friends will love it, and encourage me to teach others, and here comes the con – I will need to open myself up to criticism from less friendly people. Agoraphobia is sounding better and better by the minute.

But Joy of Joys; on Monday morning, I woke up, threw my Pro/Con list in the recycling bin and called my friends. By Tuesday, my kitchen was covered in a fine mist of flour.

The lesson went astonishingly well. We learned how to make lemon curd, flaky pastry and rugelach. A strange syllabus, I assure you, but it all made sense.

Both Michelle and Debralee wanted to learn how to make pastry, and their biggest problem was rolling it out. Michelle wanted a suggestion for using fresh-from-the-market strawberries, and thus my syllabus developed.

Pastry for pastry’s sake, rugelach for rolling experience and lemon curd for filling the blind baked pastry and topping it off with fresh berries.

The class was fun, and informative, and my friends can now roll pastry with the best of them.

Perhaps next week I can teach an unsuspecting friend how to drive.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Strawberry Heaven

I wish I could zip up my new boots, tie a scarf around my neck, get cosy with a loved one and a cup of steaming hot cocoa, and daydream while watching logs burn slowly in a fire place. But just the thought of it makes me sweat.

I can feel the slow, uncomfortable trickle of sweat down the centre of my back. I live in Israel, and winters here are unpredictable. We wait from October through most of December with baited breath for the winter to start. Those who pray in the morning, pray for rain, in the hopes of hydrating our parched land, but so far no luck. We are now firmly into December and the forecast for today is a balmy 69 F. Last week, one of our friends went to the beach.

Though I moan, there are two things you should know about Israeli winters. The first is that when it does eventually rain, it pours. Everyone’s house springs a leak, and no amount of protective clothing will keep you dry. And second, because it is so mild, while the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is busy pulling apples and potatoes out of their hampers, from early December until well past March Israeli fruit stands are laden with citrus fruit and strawberries.

Every citrus fruit you can imagine is just waiting to be squeezed, sipped, slurped and eaten. Unfortunately, the citrus pales in comparison to the amazing strawberries. The red jewels call out to you from every supermarket shelf. On a Friday, you don’t even need to go to the markets to get them, you can pick your own. On the coastal side of Israel in the Sharon region, children and adults alike are welcome to pick fruit from the fields, and if you know that you want the experience of picking without having to devise a way to use up your personal 20 pounds of berries, volunteer to pick fruit for Table to Table (more on them next week).

As incongruous as it may sound, strawberries around here are a winter fruit. But like strawberries the world over, they need the same care and attention. This means only buying or picking bright red plump fruit, with the green doily (stem) attached. The smaller the berry, the more flavorful. I find that as the Israeli season progresses, they tend to morph into “gigant-o-berries” that sometimes suffer from a watery character. Only wash them immediately before serving, and cut off the green parts after washing. To reduce water absorption, store in a single layer on a paper-towel-lined tray in the fridge.

One of the great benefits of having strawberries in the winter is the boost of vitamin C just as your nose starts running. Furthermore, making strawberry jam in December (even if its 69 F out) is nowhere near as sweaty as making strawberry jam in June, when all you really want to do is play outdoors.

The easiest and quickest way to serve strawberries and yet look like a gourmet, is to macerate them (to soften something by soaking it in liquid, or become soft by soaking in liquid). My Italian friend Itzik uses red wine, other friends just use a sprinkling of sugar. You can try rose water, sherry, lemon juice or orange flower water.

Strawberries have a spongy texture, at first soaking up the new flavors, and then creating a unique strawberry juice, flavored with your chosen addition. The liquid and the berries themselves are amazing served over ice cream, sponge cakes, shortcake, pound cake, cream… the varieties are endless. To me, though, nothing is better than the combination of strawberries with vanilla and balsamic vinegar.

Start with 450 grams (1lb) of strawberries. Rinse, trim and then cut in half or quarters, depending on size. Sprinkle between a teaspoon and a tablespoon of sugar over them (this really depends on the sweetness of your berries). Add one tablespoon of really good balsamic vinegar, and one teaspoon vanilla paste if you want to splurge, or vanilla extract to be more frugal (I tend to use half a teaspoon of each). Gently toss the strawberries in the liquid to coat, let the fruit sit on the counter for half an hour to an hour before serving, giving it the laziest of tosses every fifteen minutes or so.

For a truly indulgent treat, make an Eton Mess using these berries. I like using home made vanilla meringue and unsweetened whipped cream.