Sfouf bi Debes (Carob Molasses Cake)

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Sfouf is the most popular recipe on my blog: it’s a semolina anise seed tea cake that’s fluffy, moist, incredibly flavorful and vegan. The baking time is actually longer than the time it takes to mix all the ingredients together; it’s no wonder why it is the most viewed page on this site!

This version of sfouf is made with carob molasses (also known as debes el kharrub in Arabic) instead of refined white sugar. It’s a healthy and popular alternative to regular turmeric sfouf especially during Easter lent.

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Since the carob tree is native to the Mediterranean region, carob molasses is widely consumed in Lebanon. The pods of the carob fruit are mashed with water to release their sugar, then strained and boiled down until a dark thick syrup is formed. In fact it is very common in these regions to make syrups from fruits and there’s an incredible variety ranging from pomegranates, dates, grapes, to mulberry, prickly pears, and figs.

Carob molasses has a very distinctive earthy flavor that’s almost reminiscent of cocoa. That’s why it’s a great alternative to chocolate in many recipes, especially when you taste it in its raw form (I think it looses the rich cocoa taste when baked). So there you have it: an even healthier vegan sfouf cake that’s naturally sweetened. Feel free to experiment with other types of molasses if you can’t find carob at your local food market.

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Ingredients:

1 tbsp tahini paste
1 cup boiling water
2 tsp anise seed
2 cups fine semolina flour
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp ground anise seed
1 cup carob molasses
1 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup toasted white sesame seeds for decoration (you can also substitute with pine nuts or halved blanched almonds)

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 180ºC (355ºF) and grease a 11″ (28cm) round tin pan with the tbsp of tahini.
2. Seep anise seeds in the boiling water for 5 minutes, then strain and set aside to cool.
3. Meanwhile, toast the white sesame seeds in a non stick pan on medium high heat until fragrant and barely golden. Set aside to cool.
4. In a large bowl, mix the fine semolina, flour, baking powder, and ground anise seeds until homogeneous.
5. Slowly add the anise tea, carob molasses, and vegetable oil to the dry ingredients and mix until no lumps remain. The batter will be slightly thick.
6. Pour batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle the top with sesame seeds.

7. Bake for 30-35 min, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean.

9. Let cool in the pan completely before inverting onto a wire rack.
10. Cut into square or diamond shapes, and store in an airtight container (cake can be frozen up to 3 months).

Ma’amoul Bil Tamer (Semolina Date Cookies)

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For as long as I can remember, all the women in my family have made these Ma’amoul cookies for the Christmas and Easter holidays. They would all gather together at my grandma or mom’s home to bake the cookies while drinking fenjan ahweh (Arabic Coffee), gossiping about family members, and passionately discussing current events. It literally took them all day to make roughly roughly 3-4 kg (7-8 pounds) of Ma’amoul which are then distributed among different families.

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Ma’amoul are extremely popular in Lebanon, and they’re typically filled with date paste, ground pistachios, walnuts, or almonds. Each flavor has its own shape and geometric design: Dates (Tamer) are typically round, pistachios (Festok) or walnuts (Joz) are domed, almonds (Loz) are crescent. The dough is incredibly soft and crumbly with a toothy semolina crunch that’s flavored with mahleb (more about this spice here), orange blossom water, and rose water.

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There are a lot of good recipes of Ma’amoul in cookbooks and online that call for other ingredients or techniques, but that’s my family’s version and it’s the most valuable one. This recipe produces more than a sweet snack or a delicious treat, it connects me to my roots, brings up memories, offers comfort and nourishes me way beyond its nutritional value. It’s been passed on and tweaked across generations of women in my family who spent countless of hours in the kitchen together working on their skills and creating experiences. Knowing that – not only instills a gratifying sense of wonder and excitement – but also drives me to keep our tradition alive by baking.

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Recipe: – Yields roughly 40 cookies

Dough:
• 400g farina (smeed – coarse flour)
• 200g semolina flour (farkha – fine flour)
• 300g unsalted butter, melted and warm
• 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
• 1¼ tsp mahleb powder
• 60ml (1/4 cup) orange blossom water, warm
• 60ml (1/4 cup) rose water, warm
• 3 tsp orange blossom water, warm
• 3 tsp rose water, warm

Date Filling:
• 800g high quality, soft medjool dates pitted and white interior skin removed
• 100g unsalted butter
• 1 tsp orange blossom water
• 1 tsp rose water

Day 1: Prepare the dough
In a large bowl mix the farina flour, semolina flour, and mahleb powder. Gradually add the warm butter and vegetable oil and mix with your hands. Gently rub the mixture with the palm of your hands for about 5 minutes until it’s no longer lumpy. Cover in plastic wrap and let it sit in a warm place overnight.

Day 2: Make the date filling and bake the cookies
1. After removing the pits of the dates and cleaning them, place them in a medium saucepan with the butter over medium heat. Stir for 20 minutes until a date paste is formed.
2. Let it cool down for a few minutes then transfer to a food processor and add the rose and orange blossom water. Pulse a few times until homogeneous.
3. Using a tablespoon, form roughly 40 balls, place on a large plate or baking sheet and cover with a damp kitchen towel to prevent them from drying out.
4. Uncover the dough from Day 1, add the 1/4 cup of each rose and orange blossom water, and knead with your hands for about 2 minutes until it comes together – Don’t worry if it’s still crumbly at this point.
5. Divide the dough into three even portions and cover with a damp towel. Take out one portion and add 1 teaspoon of each rose and orange blossom water and knead on a clean surface until it becomes a smooth and silky dough.
6. To make the cookies: Prepare 2-3 large baking sheets and line with parchment paper. Scoop 1 tablespoon of the semolina dough, roll into a ball and flatten with the palms of your hands. Place a date ball in the middle, bring the edges of the dough together and roll again into a ball then flatten to form a short cylinder. Using a wooden spoon, poke a hole in the middle of the cookie. Smooth the edges and use a decorative pinch or fork to create a design. Place the cookie on the baking sheet. Repeat this step until all the cookies are molded then repeat step five with the rest 2/3 of the dough.
7. Pre-heat oven to 350°F (180°C). Place the baking sheets in the oven and bake for 30 minutes, rotating halfway, until lightly golden around the edges. Let cool completely before serving.

Notes:
• Serving suggestion: dust the ma’amoul with powdered sugar before serving.
• Ma’amoul cookies will keep unrefrigerated in an airtight container for one month or frozen up to 4 months.

Olive Oil Ricotta Semolina Cake with Roasted Quince

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I’ve been playing around with this recipe for quite some time now and made several versions of it with different winter fruits. The addition of the semolina and high quality olive oil in the batter makes a tender and light cake that’s complex in flavor. It’s studded with quince, that’s slightly roasted in orange blossom water to keep it firm to the bite, and crunchy blanched almonds – adding yet another contrast of textures and flavors. In the cold long winter days, this fruit dessert is guaranteed to brighten and uplift your mood.

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Recipe extensively adapted from Food52

Roasted Quince:
2 large quince (450g)
80g sugar
25g water
Zest of a small lemon
1½ tablespoon orange blossom water

1. Preheat your oven to 400°F (200°C).
2. Peel quince and cut each into 8 thick slices (roughly 450g total). Place the slices in a baking pan. Cover with sugar, water, zest and orange blossom water.
3. Cover the tray with aluminum foil and cook for 35-40 minutes or until the quince is starting to soften.

Cake:
2 large eggs, room temperature
200g granulated sugar
245g ricotta cheese
80ml (1/3 cup) olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon zest
180g flour
80g fine semolina flour
1½ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp baking soda
– Confectioner’s sugar and a handful of blanched almonds for decoration
1. Lower the oven temperature to 350°F (180°C). Butter and flour a 9″ (23cm) springform cake pan and line with parchment paper.
2. In a stand mixer fitted with a whisk, beat the eggs and sugar until thick and pale about 5 minutes. In another bowl, combine the ricotta cheese, oil and lemon zest. Pour the cheese mixture into the whipped eggs and mix until combined.
3. Sift all of the dry ingredients directly over the wet ingredients. Mix with a large spatula gently until just combined, using a folding motion.
4. Pour the batter into the cake pan and spreading it out evenly. Arrange the roasted quince slices in slightly overlapping concentric circles until the top of the cake batter is covered. Sprinkle with blanched almonds.
5. Bake for 40-45 minutes, or until the top is golden brown, the edges are pulling away from the pan, and a cake tester or toothpick comes out of the cake cleanly. Cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes, then turn out to finish cooling on a rack.
6. Dust with confectioner’s sugar, and serve slightly warm or at room temperature.

Brioche with Mahleb Date Paste and Walnuts

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There’s something about making brioche from scratch that brings comfort and pleasure: the rich smell of butter and yeast, the pillowy soft dough beneath your hands, the quiet hours of the kitchen, the dark golden loaf rising in the oven. The whole process calms me and makes me forget about stressful weekdays and the constant buzz of people in this chaotic yet charming city.

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The flavors I used here are inspired by K’aak bi M’aamoul, these little round semolina cookies filled with dates, nuts, and orange blossom water. They remind me of home – Beirut – and my family’s traditional recipes. What I love about this combination is  the thick pockets of mahleb date paste layered with crunchy walnuts and the soft aerated brioche dough.

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A freshly baked warm slice of buttery brioche brings a smile to my face but if you end up with leftovers the next day, go ahead and make french toast. The bread is naturally sweetened with dates so there’s no need to douse it with honey or maple syrup.

Brioche dough recipe adapted from Bouchon Bakery Cookbook
Makes two 9″x4″ (23 cm x 10 cm) loaves

Ingredients:

Date Paste
250g pitted medjool dated
30g butter
3 Tbs water
1 tsp orange blossom water
¼ tsp ground mahleb

Make the Date Paste:
1. Place the dates and butter in a medium sauce pan over medium heat, and stir until the dates get really soft.
2. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and add the rest of the ingredients.
3. Blend until a smooth thick paste is formed. Cover and set aside.

Roasted Walnuts
1 cup, chopped roasted walnuts (reserve a handful to sprinkle on top of the loaves)

Brioche
372g bread flour
8g instant yeast
45g granulated sugar
5g fine sea salt
186g eggs, room temperature
63 g whole milk, room temperature
170 g unsalted butter, at room temperature, cut into 1/8th inch dice
1 small beaten egg with a dash of water  (for the egg wash)

Make the Dough:
1. Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray.
2. For the brioche, place the flour and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook and mix for 15 seconds to distribute the yeast evenly.
3. Add all of the remaining dough ingredients except for the butter and mix on low speed for 4 minutes.
4. Add the butter a few pieces at a time, incorporating after each addition before adding the next. Stop and scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and push the dough off the hook. Mix for a total of roughly 20 minutes on low speed. (it is ready when the dough is elastic and holds together in one piece)
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface. Fold the left side over to the right, the right over to the left, then the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top so you have a “package” with the seam at the top. Place the dough seam-side down in the prepared bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it ferment for 1 hour.
6. Repeat the folding process, place it back in the bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight (up to 24 hours).

7. Grease a 9×4 inch (22 x 13 cm) loaf pan. Line the tin with parchment paper, making sure to let it slightly overhang the sides. Set aside.
8. Remove the brioche from the refrigerator and divide it into 2 equal pieces. Work with one piece of dough at a time while keeping the other half in the refrigerator.
9. Lightly dust your working surface with flour and using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to form a rectangular shape, about 10 x 15 inch (25 x 40 cm).
10. Spread half of the date filling onto the brioche using an offset spatula, reaching all the way to the edges but leaving half an inch (1.3 cm) of dough bare on one of the long sides. Sprinkle with half of the chopped walnuts.
11. Brush the bare part with water. Starting from the other long side, roll up the dough tightly and evenly. Refrigerate the dough for 15-20 minutes on a parchment lined baking sheet.
12. Using a large knife, make a cut in the dough log. Place the right half of dough over the left, then repeat until you have a “braid” of dough. Gently press the ends of the dough together them together, then place in the prepared loaf pan.
13. Place a piece of oiled plastic wrap lightly on the surface of the brioche and let it proof in a warm place for 2 hours. (Note: I turn the oven for a minute and place boiling water in a cup to add some steam – make sure the oven is not too hot!). Take the brioche dough out of the oven.
14. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Lightly brush the brioche with egg wash, sprinkle with more walnuts, and bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes.
15. Remove from the oven and let cool completely before slicing. (Repeat the process for the second brioche dough).

Mango Lime Curd

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This smooth and luscious mango curd is perfect for topping tart slices, spreading on toast, or just serving it on the side with pastries. The sweetness level totally customizable, and it depends on how sweet the mangos are. Personally, I like a curd that’s tart and not too sweet. Store the curd in the fridge for up to two weeks, or freeze for up to a year.

Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen

Ingredients:
425g mango slices
¼ to ½ cup light honey (depending on how sweet the mangoes are)
¼ cup lime juice
Zest of one lime
Pinch of salt
4 large egg yolks
55g butter (¼cup) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

Directions:
• Puree mango slices, honey, lime juice, zest and salt in a food processor, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally.
• Add yolks and puree 15 seconds longer. Strain through sieve set over large metal or glass bowl, pressing on solids with the back of spatula to release as much puree as possible. Discard solids in sieve.
• Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom of bowl to touch water); whisk the puree until thickened for 12-15 minutes.
• Set the bowl on a moist towel and whisk in butter 1 piece at a time. Transfer to a glass jar, cover and refrigerate.

Orange Blossom Peach Pie with Whipped Labneh

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When I visit the farmer’s market on Sundays, I always buy a couple of necessary things like grape tomatoes, goat cheese, fresh farm eggs, herbs, mushrooms, berries, and of course tree ripened peaches. I can’t get enough of peaches during the summer time and they make wonderfully seasonal sweet pie fillings.

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The combination of the sweet peaches and buttery, flaky dough is a perfectly classic American baked good. I decided to add a twist to it by including orange blossom water in the filling and serving it with whipped honey’d labneh on the side. Distilled from the essence of orange tree flowers, orange blossom water adds a delicate and refreshing floral scent and taste that elevates the pie to an almost otherworldly fruit dessert.

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Pie Crust:
Yields two 9″ (23 cm) pie crusts. Recipe Adapted from Pastry Affair

315 grams (2 1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/8 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
226 grams (1 cup) unsalted butter, freezer cold, cut into 1/2 inch dice
4 tbsp + 2 tsp ice water
1 tsp white vinegar

Egg wash (1 whole egg + 2 tsp water)
Demerara sugar

• In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and salt.
• Add half of the cold, cubed butter and rub the butter and flour between your fingers until it resembles coarse sand. (Alternatively, you can use a food processor or mixer with a paddle attachment)
• Add the second half the cubed butter and rub in into the flour, but leave it in larger pieces (approximately the size of a hazelnut).
• Gradually add the ice cold water and vinegar and mix the dough together until the dough holds together when squeezed in your hand. Add more water one teaspoon at a time if needed.
• Place the dough on parchment paper and use the paper to press the dough into a disk. To make the dough uniform, fold the dough in half, using the paper. Press down and fold in the opposite direction. Repeat until the dough appears uniform.
• Cut the dough in half, and shape into two disks, wrap each in plastic wrap, and chill for at least an hour – preferably overnight (or up to 2-3 days). Pie dough can be also kept in the freezer wrapped tightly up to 3 months.
• Working quickly, roll out the first disk on a lightly floured surface into a 14″ (35 cm) round for a 9″ (23 cm) pie pan. Wrap dough lightly around a rolling pin and transfer to the pie pan. Gently press dough into the bottom and sides of the pan. Trim the dough to allow a 1″ (2.5 cm) overhang.
• Pour the strained peach filling (see recipe below) into the pastry shell.
• Roll out the second pie crust to top the filling and create small slits to allow venting. Or create a decorative lattice top.
• Brush the pie crust with the egg wash and sprinkle generously with demerara sugar. Refrigerate the pie for 20-30 minutes.
• Meanwhile, place a large baking sheet in the middle rack of the oven and preheat to 375ºF (190ºC).
• Place the pie on the baking sheet and bake for 80-90 minutes until the crust is golden brown and the filling is bubbling. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a wire rack before serving.

Peach Filling:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup corn starch
2.5 pounds peaches, around 8 small peaches sliced (peeling is optional)
1/3 cup orange blossom honey
Zest of half an organic lemon
2 tbsp orange blossom water (Mazaher)

• Mix the sugar and corn starch in a large bowl until homogeneous. Add the sliced peaches, honey, lemon zest, and orange blossom water and gently mix with a spatula until homogeneous.
• Let it sit in the fridge for 20 minutes, then strain the mixture before pouring it into the pie shell.

Whipped Labneh:
1/2 cup labneh (see recipe here)
2 tbsp heavy cream
1 tbsp orange blossom honey
1/2 tsp orange blossom water (Mazaher)

• Using a hand mixer, whip all the ingredients until airy. Serve cold dollops of whipped labneh with warm peach pie slices.

Mini mana’eesh with homemade labneh

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There’s nothing better than a hot manousheh right off the saj, a domed large cast iron griddle. The flatbread dough recipe is a mix of water, flour, yeast, and salt, rolled out and smothered with a za’atar* olive oil paste or shredded white cheese. Sounds very simple right? But it’s not common to make homemade mana’eesh (plural of manousheh) in Lebanon since local bakeries have the best tools and techniques to create a perfect manousheh every single time. It’s also very fresh, cheap, and accessible in Beirut city or the suburbs. It’s available literally everywhere for breakfast, lunch, or at dawn after a long night of partying.

*za’atar is a mix of dried thyme, sumac, roasted sesame seeds, and salt. It’s one of those ingredients that can be used in any meal – sprinkled on eggs, dairy, meats, or roasted vegetables.

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When taken off the saj, the flatbread slightly deflates then it is topped with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and mint leaves and served rolled up in parchment paper. The key characteristics of a great manousheh is a flat bubbly surface, crisp edges, and most importantly a very chewy center with just the right amount of filling.

My favorite way to eat a za’atar manousheh for breakfast is usually with sour labneh and cherry tomatoes. I posted step by step instructions at the bottom of the page explaining how to turn regular yogurt into creamy and tangy labneh. I almost never eat labneh without a good amount of za’atar, olive oil, and fresh hot bread –making it a wonderful accompaniment to manousheh. You can sweep it, mound it, shmear it, or eat it in a spoonful. It’s THAT good.

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I used to eat mana’eesh on a weekly basis back home in Lebanon but it is hard to find a fresh manousheh bakery in NYC, and sometimes all I want are just a couple of bites of that magically chewy dough in the morning with Arabic coffee. So I found an easy and quick way to make mini mana’eesh that hit the spot every time.

A lot of recipes online call for eggs, milk, or butter for the dough. But the truth is you don’t need any of these ingredients to make a traditional manousheh dough. Also, try to avoid all-purpose flour because the secret for a wonderfully chewy bread texture is gluten, lots of it. That’s why a high protein strong bread flour is essential here; it results in a more elastic and dense dough.

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Manousheh – Recipe adapted from Mediterranean Cookbook, makes about 44, 2.5″ mana’eesh
7g instant dried yeast (¼ ounce package, about 2¼ tsp)
½ tsp sugar
15ml lukewarm water
450g (1lb) strong bread flour, plus extra for dusting
½ tsp salt
300ml lukewarm water
6 tbsp za’atar
4½ tbsp olive oil (or just enough to turn za’atar into a paste)

Directions:
1. In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in 20ml lukewarm water (85°F to 95°F). Leave to cream for 10 minutes.

2. Sift the bread flour and salt together in a large bowl. Make a well in the center and add the creamed yeast. Gradually add 300ml lukewarm water and draw the flour in from the sides to form a dough.

3. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes until smooth and elastic (alternatively, you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook) then shape into a ball. Pour a drop of olive oil into the base of a bowl, spread around with fingers, then roll the dough in the oil to coat it all around. Cover with a damp cloth or cling film and place in a warm place for one hour until it has doubled in size.

4. Preheat the oven to 200°C (400°F) for at least 30 minutes before starting to bake. In a small bowl, pour olive oil over the za’atar until it turns into a paste. You don’t want the mix to be too oily. Knock back the dough and knead it lightly, then divide it into 44 parts (approximately 15g each) using a bench scraper or sharp knife. Space out the equal parts of dough and cover with a damp cloth to prevent forming a crust.

5. Take a small piece of dough, shape lightly into a ball and roll it out into a 2.5″ inch circle using a rolling pin. Smear about 1/2 tsp of the za’atar paste on top and, using two fingers, create a small indent in the middle. Lightly dab the edges with olive oil to give it a golden color and place on a large parchment-lined baking sheet. Continue working with the rest of the dough to fit as many as possible on a single sheet. Bake in batches, one sheet at a time to prevent the prepared mana’eesh from rising.

6. Bake for 10 minutes, until barely golden. Do not overbake the mana’eesh or they will turn out very tough and crispy and instead of soft and chewy (I usually like to test the baking time for one manousheh before proceeding with the rest). While the first batch is the oven, start shaping the rest of the dough balls into mana’eesh and place on a second parchment lined baking sheet. Proceed with baking until you’re all done.

7. Mana’eesh can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature, or frozen for up to 2 months. Simply heat them up for a few minutes before serving.


Homemade Labneh
32 ounces of organic plain yogurt (I like Seven Stars Farm)
generous pinch of salt
tsp fresh lemon juice

Directions:
1. Line a mesh strainer with 3 to 4 layers of cheesecloth and set over a deep bowl.

2. Add the salt and lemon juice to the yogurt and stir. Pour the yogurt mixture into the cheesecloth-lined strainer and gather the edges of the cheesecloth together to tie with a string or elastic band.

3. Place the bowl as it is in the fridge. Alternatively, you can place a long piece of wood or 2 sturdy chopsticks across the top part of the bowl and tie the cheesecloth in the middle to let it hang without touching the bottom.

4. Strain for 8 to 12 hours for a smooth and soft labneh consistency or 24-48 for a thick and firm consistency (I prefer the latter, but it’s really up to you!).

5. Take out the labneh from the fridge and transfer to a glass container. Store in the fridge for up to a week.