Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Book Review: Sesame and Spice by Anne Shooter

Hi readers! I'm pretty excited because tonight I'm debuting a new type of post: a book review. Now obviously I am not a book or even recipe critic of any sort, other than the type who buys cookbooks and makes the recipes found therein. I suppose though, that that must be the best sort to give an opinion on the recipes to be found in a cookbook, the instructions and the outcomes, so there you go. I'm hoping these review posts which I'm planning to publish from time to time will encourage you to go out and buy a new cookbook, perhaps one you've had your eye on for a while, or a spontaneous purchase. The reviews will always be backed up by my actually having cooked a sample of the recipes from the relevant cookbook, and photographs of those dishes, plus my honest opinion on whether a book is worth (in my opinion) investing in.

The first lucky (!) book to be reviewed is the very beautiful Sesame and Spice by Anne Shooter. I know I had my eye on this particular book for a few weeks before I decided to buy it, but I must say I'm glad I did. It is a feast for the eyes, from the vibrant front cover to the beautifully documented recipes inside.

I find this book particularly interesting because the author is Jewish, and I'm really interested in the way many of the recipes and ingredients are ingrained in Jewish tradition, whereas many others came to be so, through the dispersion of the Jews throughout the world. There is even a section entitled Baking for Passover, which is fascinating, as often, when reading the account of the first Passover in the Bible, one tends to think of the Hebrews as depriving themselves of certain foods. But the feasts God instituted, particularly after the crossing of the Red Sea, were full of celebration and the eating of delicious foods. In this chapter, I love the look of the Chocolate, Almond and Pear Cake, and the Flourless Chocolate, Pistachio and Walnut Brownies.

Before I share the recipes I made from this book with you, I just want to quote the last paragraph of the author's introduction, as I utterly concur with it and just think it's really lovely.

"This book has come about not only out of my pride and love for my heritage but also from a desire to share. My recipes are aimed at the home cook, not necessarily the experienced baker, and take into account that we have busy lives and that making a cake or a loaf of bread is an indulgence rather than a necessity. Just as I like to bake for friends and family, I want everyone to know and use these recipes. If I can't come round with a basket of goodies for you, I hope this is the next best thing."

So, in order to give a balanced review of this book, I picked four recipes to bake, each quite different: some biscuits; a loaf of bread; a cake and a savoury pie. First up, Tahini and Honey Cookies.

I wanted to bake these from the moment I set eyes on this recipe, as I absolutely adore tahini, and putting it in a biscuit seemed like the obvious thing to do. They also contain cardamom; a delicious and fragrant ingredient in baking. The recipe was really easy to follow, simple and coherently written.

The dough came together really nicely and rolled very pleasingly into lovely smooth balls, ready to be rolled in sesame seeds and pressed into biscuits.

Oh. My. Goodness. It takes a veeeery long time to make 30 biscuits. The recipe says it makes 40, and I could have stretched the dough easily enough, but thought it would be nice to have slightly larger than average biscuits.

Now in my opinion, these were delicious, and if you like the ingredients, you will love them too. As you know, I like to surprise people with unexpected ingredients, and when I took them to church on a Sunday evening, people willingly took them from the plate, only to be surprised at the taste. This of course amused me greatly, as it was exactly what I was expecting. I found they tasted exactly how I expected them to and once others became accustomed to the taste, they generally liked them too, and of course, some people loved them immediately. I like that they aren't really sweet yet they are somehow rich. I still have some left and I made them quite some weeks ago. They have kept extremely well in an air-tight container.

The next recipe is for the Challah Loaf. Wow! We had this at lunchtime on a Saturday and it was guzzled up by the four of us (two big ones and two little ones) in one sitting! I served it with a bowl of Strawberries and Blueberries in Raspberry Sauce, the simplest of recipes from River Cottage Light and Easy. I wanted to serve the bread with nothing but butter to fully appreciate the taste, but didn't want to have just bread and butter for lunch. They complemented each other perfectly.

I have to say, I have never, ever worked with such a sticky dough. I needed to use so much flour to enable me to knead it, but Shooter does describe the final dough as silky and I can't disagree. It is actually rather beautiful with a somewhat pearlescent quality. I also used a couple of new techniques (I'm all about the new techniques!) one of them being plaiting a loaf. This is harder than it sounds, and not at all like plaiting hair!



 I had to follow Shooter's advice and cover the loaf with foil for the last 20 minutes or so

All gone

This bread really is delicious. It was also really good to just eat bread without any additions other than butter to the bread itself, such as sweet chilli Philadelphia for instance, a favourite of mine. I can see why Shooter's family loves the fact she bakes it almost every week. 

Next up was a main course: Moroccan Chicken and Almond Filo Pie. I've made plenty of filo pies over the years; there are a couple of delicious Greek-style filo pie recipes on BBCGoodFood which I've added ingredients to and chopped and changed. This pie isn't actually just a filo pie, however, but a bastilla, the difference between it and the filo pie appearing to be that a filo pie's sides are folded over the ingredients on the top of the pie, whereas a bastilla has a separate top. Due to time constraints, I decided to make this filo pie style and just fold the tops over one another, rather than fiddle with cutting and fitting separate lids. I say lids plural, because as it is made with filo, several layers are necessary. I have made mini bastillas in the past however, using a muffin tin, and the separate tops do create a beautiful effect, so I'm not negating them, just being realistic for that particular evening. 

The reason I was so drawn to this recipe is the incredibly interesting melding of ingredients. Chicken, onion and garlic, check, but combined with ground almonds, orange flower water, ras-el-hanout and eggs - surely worthy of experimentation! 

The first few steps are pretty generic, involving softening the onion and garlic, adding the chicken to the pan with the ras-el-hanout and other spices, and poaching. Ras-el-hanout (think French pronounciation, not hanowt, like a Philistine Briton would typically pronounce it haha) is a Moroccan spice mix, which can apparently be made up of over 100 different spices. Each mixture is different, as the truly authentic blends are made by the stall traders to be found in the souks of Morocco, and each trader seems to have his own recipe. Monsieur Tesco Finest made mine, and I'm sure it wouldn't stand up against an authentic recipe, but it did the job. 

I chopped and changed quite a lot of the order whilst making this, as it made more sense to attend to some parts of the recipe before others. One part which I found particularly exciting was frying ground almonds, definitely not something I'd done before. This was a very pleasing process, and as long as they are watched carefully, they will acheive a beautiful golden tint.

The other very fascinating stage was adding egg to the reduced chicken cooking liquid once the chicken was cooked and had been removed.

I know, this photo would not make me want to cook this meal either!

It was interesting to see the texture of the whole mixture change in the pan. 

Returning to the almonds, the recipe instructs to add icing sugar and orange flower water to it, before the construction of the pie can begin. I think this is one of the things which really attracted me to this recipe; the subtle addition of sweet ingredients into a savoury meal. 

I purchased the orange flower water in the delightful and so very welcoming Penylan Pantry. I spotted it on the shelf just when I wasn't looking for it, but was having a (not very) relaxing coffee with my mum and little Tonju.

The construction of this type of pie is ingenius and super simple. It is made in a cake tin, so as to afford support to the pastry whilst adding the fillings, which are added in layers.

Apologies to Anne Shooter for making her Moroccan pie Greek-style

I do love how this looks; as though it will be a sweet pie, perhaps a Baklava type thing, but is actually quite savoury. 

Lovely layers

I decided to serve this pie with a fairly simple salad of leaves, plus some fire-roasted beetroot which I happened upon whilst doing the shopping, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Now I admit, perhaps balsamic was not the kindest taste to team with the fragrance of this recipe; it was rather too harsh and certainly not gentle enough. But the pie itself- what can I say? I've made a note next to the recipe which says, simply, "interesting." 

I loved the idea of those flavours together. I was excited at the prospect of the first mouthful, those tastes combining and making a delicious explosion in the mouth, of richness and texture. I am sorry to say I did not have that experience. In fact, as I'm sitting to write this review, I still struggle to elucidate my thoughts even now, several weeks after eating it. I am puzzled and bewildered, because the explosion of taste I was anticipating did not occur, and the flavours, in my opinion, didn't actually fully complement each other. The sweetness was not quite right, and richness somehow misplaced. I'm not sure if this is because the ingredients the author used were so far superior to mine (as in, not bought in Tesco) or if I just made some sort of unnoticed-by-me mistake. The pie was by no means disgusting; it was perfectly edible. For me, the issue is misplaced expectation, especially since there are quite a few steps in the recipe, and that I was just so excited about eating this pie!

Finally readers, let me congratulate you because you've come so far and there is only one recipe left, and I promise you it's worth reading, because it is the documentation of a disaster! I decided, rather on the spur of the moment, to bake the stunning cake from which the book takes its name: the Sesame and Spice Cake. Now if you want ingredients, this has ingredients! Cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, tahini (YES!) sesame seeds, orange and lemon. OOOHHHH my mouth is watering just typing out that list! And the photo of the cake is really beautiful. I find lately that I'm much more drawn to cakes of the non-chocolate variety, and would much rather experiment with unexpected ingredients, seeking out a different kind of sweetness than that afforded by chocolate. This list would surely fulfill the wildest flavour dreams! I'm not going to dwell on this recipe, other than to say it's enjoyable to make, and really simple. I will also tell you that I forgot to add the sesame seeds and realised, five minutes into it having gone into the oven, so I removed it and hastily stirred said seeds into the mix as best I could.

Now readers, please prepare yourselves, because this odyssey of a post is going out with a bang. Please observe carefully the turning out of this cake, because it was one of those moments in baking when there really are no words.

Ok, well it certainly looks ready! It's in a bundt tin, it'll look awesome once it's turned out, right?

Oh dear, the top seems to have fallen off...

...oh dear, in fact the whole cake has fallen apart!

Yes lovely readers, the cake fell spectacularly apart. Not only did the top fall off, but it pretty much came out in bits. There was no beautiful, bundt ripple effect on the surface, only a little, slightly overcooked colour and a load of what can only be described as, pieces of cake. Absolutely gutted, but not to be daunted by a dismantled cake, I gritted my teeth and had a taste. It really was delicious, and it really did taste exactly how I expected it to. Fragrant, aromatic, lightly spiced and moist. It may not have looked the part, but it definitely tasted it! And I in no way attribute the collapse to the recipe. It was probably due to my having removed the cake from the oven to add the sesame seeds or not having oiled the tin sufficiently.

The best photo I was able to get...

It was also very sad because I'd just bought these very pretty glass plates in that store of wonder, Ikea, and I had wanted to grace them with something rather more... impressive. C'est la vie. 

Well, I hope you didn't have to refill your mug too many times whilst poring over this post. I also hope I've given a fair and realistic representation of my experiences making the recipes in this really lovely cookbook. There are plenty more I want to make, many more inspiring combinations of flavour, and I can honetly say that I recommend this cookbook. If you are inspired by exotic flavours, fragrant but (reasonably) accessible foods, richness and sweetness but not over the top, then this book is for you. It's also for you if you want to try something really different but don't know what that something could be. If you want to introduce yourself to some out of the ordinary flavours, or spices which can't be found in the herbs and spices section of your local metro mini-market! To be honest, it's worth it just for the Challah recipe!

Farewell, and I hope you return; I promise the next post will be considerably shorter ;)

xxx Sam

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