I recently watched the documentary, Oma and Bella, which tells the story of two widowed Holocaust survivors who live together in Berlin and spend most of their days cooking. Food seems to be one of the only things that eases the burden of their memories; through it, they’re able to forget. Even more importantly, food allows them to recuperate the flavors and smells of their lost youth. While there are moments when it’s difficult to watch, you can’t help but be charmed by these sweet elderly women who bicker over both clothes and ingredients and also simply in awe of their resilience. I also found myself thinking a lot about something that Bella said quite early in the film, “I only eat Jewish food. Everyone has become modern; they eat everything. Not me.”
These words really stuck with me. I started to wonder what my life would be like without the numerous options that I find myself facing each and every day. For the better part of a week, I kept coming back to the question, “What cuisine would I eat if I could only eat one?” Would it be Japanese food– pickled ginger and daikon, salty soy products, mayonnaise used in the strangest and most amazing ways, bonito and the never-ending quest for umami? Would it be crunchy corn tortillas, flavorful salsas, peppers that make my fingers tingle and pot after pot of beans? And what about cardamom and gravlax, and pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes? And then I thought about the tastes of Greece and Turkey: feta, sweet pies made gooey with honey, savory pies that melt in your mouth, the colorful garnish of pistachios and rose petals….In short, I think I found my answer, although, even with the realization that life without feta would be no life indeed (FYI: I felt this way even before I met the Greek; feta, save for chocolate and peanut butter, just may be my true soul mate), I’m really glad I don’t have to make this choice. It’s nice to know that I can have the best of all possible worlds.
This realization made me hungry and, naturally, I went looking for trouble. Baking trouble, that is, which, as we all know, is the best possible kind.
First, I started thinking about revani, a semolina cake drenched in syrup that I had tried in Greece last summer and loved. Then, I was remembering a dinner at Zatis, a fantastic, yet underrated Turkish restaurant in Oakland, with the Greek and a Greek friend of ours; there was a semolina cake on the menu, which the restaurant promised would be topped with pistachio cream. To my American palate, just the thought of pistachio cream was enough to get my vote; to the two Greek palates at the table, however, the addition of any kind of cream to any Mediterranean (i.e. the land of syrup) dessert was nothing short of sacrilege. We ended up ordering the poached figs that night, but only because I knew that I would eventually have my date with a pistachio version of revani. It was inevitable.
My moment came this past week when I was thinking about the annual departmental party for the admitted student weekend and about how, after seven years in this program, I had never baked for this event. Suddenly, I wanted to make my last trip up the winding Berkeley hills in early March a little bit special. Since I knew that we would be ordering the same food from the same Mediterranean restaurant and that, therefore, the same baklava (Lebanese style, which means little syrup) would be the only sweet thing on the table, I thought that I could make something that would complement the other dishes, but also provide a small, but welcome change to the other guests.
Searching online, I came across a recipe for a Pistachio-Semolina Cake from Leanne Kitchen’s Turkey. Even though I have a Turkish cookbook that I love, I still looked through this book longingly one afternoon in a local bookstore. And it seems that a dear friend of mine is enjoying her copy based on the fantastic recipes she’s been posting from it; for me, these posts have been a glowing endorsement, only strengthening my initial impression of the book. Baking from the book, too, has convinced me that this might just be a volume worth owning. The Pistachio-Semolina Cake is, at first glance, a humble little thing; there’s nothing all that pretty about its matte yellow color. Even worse, from a distance, it could just as well be a pan of baked polenta.
But don’t be fooled by appearances. Upon cutting into the cake, you realize its perfect sponginess; the cinnamon-lemon syrup that you poured over it, which was so thick that it could have served as a reflective surface, has been absorbed into its depths. What’s left is springy, fragrant and soft; when carefully cut into small pieces and topped with crushed rose petals, the cake becomes an object of beauty. The play of colors is just right. And the taste–that just right blend of lemon, cinnamon, pistachio and rose–confirms my belief that I could never sacrifice the offerings of the Mediterranean.
Slightly adapted (in method) from Leanne Kitchen’s Turkey
yields up to 25 very small pieces
Although I would definitely call this cake a winner, there were a few things in the recipe’s instructions that left me uncertain. Perhaps I’m just one of those people who likes to have things spelled out for me, especially when baking, but I found myself wondering if 100 grams of pistachios meant 100 grams of shelled pistachios or 100 grams unshelled pistachios? Being a lover of pistachios, I decided to go with 100 grams shelled pistachios and, after shelling all 100 grams, I can safely say that it was the right decision, although even today my fingers are still a little sore. I also wasn’t entirely sure about the butter–should it be at room temperature or should it be melted? Since it was supposed to be mixed with the milk, I went with my baker’s intuition and melted it. I’m not sure, however, that baking should include this much guesswork.
Also, on the topic of syrup, as much as I liked the final product, I was thinking that, rather than using a whole cup of syrup (NB: I made a whole cup of syrup because the recipe called for 1/2 cup of water to be mixed with 1 cup of sugar; to me, that seemed much too sweet, so I compensated by using a 1:1 ratio; using half a cup of sugar to 1/2 cup water would probably be ideal), half a cup of syrup might have served just as as well. Truth be told, it was a little tricky to remove the spongy cake from the cake pan–because of its dampness, it stuck a little. The next time I make this, I’m going to try it with less syrup and, for those of you who are looking to cut back on the sugar in your diet, I would suggest the same. Even with less syrup, the flavors would still be balanced and right.
For the cake:
100 grams (3/4 cup) shelled pistachios
210 grams (slightly less than 1 cup) caster sugar (I ground granulated sugar in the food processor)
75 grams (1/2 cup) all-purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
250 grams (2 cups) fine semolina (I used semolina flour)
310 ml (1 1/4 cup) whole milk (I used a combination of 2% and heavy cream)
125 grams (4 1/2 ounces) melted butter
handful of slightly crushed dried rose petals, for decoration
For the syrup:
210 grams (slightly less than 1 cup) caster sugar
1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
about 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (or the juice of 1 lemon)
-In a small saucepan, combine 1 cup sugar with 1 cup water and bring to a simmer. Add the cinnamon stick and, while the water gently simmers, let steep for 6-7 minutes.
-Remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice. Let the mixture cool and then remove the cinnamon stick and set aside.
-In the meantime, preheat the oven to 325 F and lightly grease and flour a 9-inch round (or rectangular) cake pan.
-In a food processor, combine the pistachios and sugar and grind until fine. Set aside.
-In a medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder. Then, stir in the semolina and the pistachio-sugar mixture.
-Pour in the melted butter and the milk and mix everything until well-incorporated; the mixture should be smooth.
-Pour the batter into the waiting cake pan and smooth the top of the cake with a spatula or spoon so that it’s spread evenly.
-Bake for 35 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove from the oven and set on a rack to cool.
-Pour the cooled syrup over the cake and let stand until the liquid has been fully absorbed (letting the cake sit for several hours is a good idea).
-Cut the cake into small pieces and line them on a serving platter.
-Sprinkle rose petals on the slices and watch as they cake transforms.