When I was still at the office, every day, around 3 or 4 in the afternoon, my coworker would inevitably ask me what I was making for dinner that night. It didn’t matter what I told her–pasta, eggs, rice–she would sigh and say: “You’re such a grownup.” I would laugh and ask her if she was sure about that, since, unlike her, I didn’t have a 401K or any remarkable savings to speak of. This, of course, isn’t to say that financial achievement makes anybody more of a grownup than eating an omelet with asparagus for dinner does. It’s just that, when we’re both 70 (or, as I like to say when retirement planning comes up, if we should both live to be 70), the manifestation of one set of grownup skills might far outweigh those of the other.
You see, I am what is known in common parlance as a spendthrift, although one that, unlike the big spenders of literature, could hardly be called profligate. It just so happens that I like things and, by things, I really mean books. I’ve lost count of the number of books in my collection and I won’t even attempt to count my cookbooks these days for fear of causing a mild heart attack, but suffice it to say that the one thing preventing the Greek and me from completely settling into our new home is the need for more bookshelves. And this is after we sold, donated and gave away many before we moved.
What can I say? For the book lover, it’s a never-ending battle.
In my defense, I like being surrounded by ideas, by the endless possibilities and enjoyment that these books both might and do offer me. Although I understand that once you own a few dozen cookbooks, you start to observe patterns–a twist on the classic roast chicken or a new way of making granola–I still find myself somewhat obsessed with the makings of this particular genre. These books invite you into a person’s life (what, after all, is more personal than the act of eating?), allowing your story and theirs to be connected for a moment.
Through cookbooks, I’ve visited an Ottoman palace, sampled street food from Bangkok, become, in some small way, an honorary Greek who can douse greens with olive oil with the same ferocity a fireman uses water to put out a fire. But it’s not just the recipes and flavors themselves, or my belief that every cookbook, even in the overstocked Age of the Cookbook, contains a few teachable moments and solid handful of recipes. It’s not even the pleasure I derive from seeing how they neatly sit on their shelves, from biggest to smallest, lined up like old and reliable friends. Jane, Diana, Nigel, Vefa, James, they are always there when I need them. It’s the history of the books themselves and the moment when they came into my life: a package jammed into my mailbox from a friend in New York who, when she passed the Magnolia Bakery, would think of me and my love for cupcakes; the carefully wrapped copy of Vegetable Literacy that the Greek gave me as he sat juicing a whole bag of limes to make cocktails for my 30th birthday party; the Thai book that reawakened my appetite on my first trip out of the house after having bronchitis. I’ve found that it’s the books that you aren’t expecting that, cliched though it may sound, surprise you the most.
I felt this way about Maria Elia‘s Smashing Plates, another book that I discovered while randomly browsing at Mrs. Dalloway’s one sunny day. I remember that I had promised myself I would buy nothing, that I was there just to look, but as soon as I opened this book, her second cookbook and the first devoted to the flavors of her childhood, I found myself wanting to cook with her, to learn from her. It was a Greek cookbook that, while it adhered to tradition (oh, the Greeks, how they love their traditions), also welcomed the opportunity to turn some of these traditions on their head. She and I, in short, were clearly cut from the same cloth.
In every recipe, Elia applies a whimsical touch: the Greek love of figs is channeled into a dried fig leaf pasta, baklava abandons its standard trappings of walnuts and honey to become a celebration of plums and lavender, and moussaka, one of the national dishes of Greece, is transformed from a heavy casserole into a light(er) dish of tomatoes stuffed with bechamel, eggplant and spiced minced meat. All of the ingredients that you anticipate in a Greek cookbook are there, but are combined in such a way that you can’t help but see–and taste–them in a new light.
With Elia, I’ve rubbed lamb shoulders with a paste of lemon zest, garlic, sea salt and olive oil before braising it with green beans in a tomato sauce. I’ve been tempted by blackberry and ouzo popsicles, as well as a panzanella that uses peaches instead of tomatoes. I have also braved unmolding dangerously molten chocolate cakes laced with tahini. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was this recipe that made me want to buy the book. Although I think of neither chocolate nor tahini as standard ingredients in the Greek pantry, something about it seemed quintessentially Greek to me. Without meaning to sound too lofty, I would say it represents Greece’s place in the world, its position between the traditions of the Middle East and Europe. You, like me, may think Greece is wholly European, but you may very well be wrong. Once, during a long car ride in northern Greece, I voiced this idea aloud to the Greek and his parents as they were telling me about the origins of the financial crisis: “But I always thought Greece was part of Europe!” Their laughter was swift and merciless, instantly dispelling several of the ideas on which my frou-frou liberal arts education (and many other myths of Western civilization) had been founded. Fortunately, this dessert, even if it challenges your conceptions, offers a gentler introduction into the Greek plight of being caught between two traditions. Be warned, though: even with a light dusting of lime zest and sesame seeds to cut through its chocolate depths, it might prove too rich a lesson to fully absorb in one day. A double recipe might be necessary.
Chocolate Tahini Cakes with Creme Fraiche
From Maria Elia’s Smashing Plates
Yields 4-6, depending on the size of your ramekins
One tip that I will give you for this recipe is to use the same size ramekins. I did not do this (wisdom comes after the fact) and, while it didn’t affect the texture of the cakes, it did lead to some unnecessary worrying on my part.
Another piece of advice: since I dislike melting chocolate in a bowl over a pan of simmering water, I use the microwave (yes, the microwave!). This is fast and surprisingly painless and effective. All you do is heat the butter and chopped chocolate for intervals of 30 seconds, stirring at the end of each cycle.
In her instructions, Elia says to bake the cakes for 12-14 minutes. To me, this seemed like too little, especially as, when I checked on them in the oven after 12 minutes, they appeared more liquid than soft solid. If your oven temperature is spot on, I would check them at 15-16 minutes; at this point, even if you’re still not certain about their texture, remove them. You want these cakes on the softer side and remember that they will firm up a little once they’ve had a chance to cool.
1 stick + 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the ramekins
1/3 cup cocoa powder, plus extra for sprinkling at the end
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
5 1/2 ounces dark chocolate (I use 60%, but Elia suggests 70%), chopped into pieces
1 cup caster (or superfine) sugar
5 tablespoons tahini
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
zest of one lime
creme fraiche (or vanilla ice cream)
Preheat the oven to 350. Grease the ramekins with butter and dust them with cocoa powder. Sprinkle sesame seeds into the bottom of each mold.
Melt the chocolate and the butter in the microwave, stirring after each 30-second blast of heat. Continue to melt and stir until the chocolate is smooth and glossy. Set aside.
Sift the flour, cocoa powder and salt into a small bowl. Set aside.
Whisk the eggs and sugar in a large bowl for 5 minutes (you can either do this by hand or use an electric or standing mixer), until pale and fluffy. Stir in the tahini and, once fully combined, pour in the melted chocolate. The mixture will be thick and heavy.
Add the sifted flour, cocoa powder and salt and fold in until no traces of the dry ingredients remain. Pour the mixture into the prepared ramekins and place on a baking sheet.
Bake for 12-14 minutes (16 maximum. Keep in mind that the baking time will change according to the size of your molds, so use your baker’s judgment). The cakes may appear wobbly and have a small pool of chocolate resting in their center (a cake skewer or toothpick will not come out clean), but they will firm up a little as they cool.
Cool the cake for 15-20 minutes and then gently, but confidently (no wavering allowed) turn them out onto individual plates or a large serving platter. Sprinkle with cocoa powder and lime zest, as well as a few more sesame seeds if you’d like. Serve with creme fraiche or ice cream.
Leftovers should be stored in the fridge; that is, if there are any.