It’s funny what time does: each day a drop of water, and without you realizing it, the stone below the drops wears a smooth divot. -Claire Messud (The Burning Girl)
Here we are, suddenly in mid-February. The days have grown just a little bit longer and, although the sun has gone into temporary hiding (his way of boycotting the complicated role that global warming has forced upon him–too many costume changes, methinks), spring has again started to feel like a distant possibility. I wish I could say that, with this glimpse of the season to come, I also knew something conclusive about our future, but things are as up in the air as ever.
It’s funny too because, in the most mundane moments, I’ve started to realize that my life here is coming to an end. The details may still be murky, but when recently watching the season finale of the phenomenal The Good Place (The Good Wife, The Good Place, I must have a thing for shows that (rightly) tout their own goodness, while also challenging the very definition of good), I had the thought that, when I next saw Eleanor and Chidi and Michael, I would be living in another house in a life maybe not so different from this one, but different enough in its everyday trappings to be somewhat remarkable. And once you’ve had this thought, it’s hard to erase it. Impending finality has a way of lingering in the very air you breathe. I’m now hyperconscious of all of the lasts that we face: last trip to Longwood, last term of pottery at the museum, last blossoming of the rosebush we planted out front when we moved in…
But we’re obviously not there yet, and, as my weekly yoga class constantly reminds me, it’s best to focus on the present, or at least to try to. I guess this is what you can say I’ve been doing–sometimes with limited success–since the onslaught of on-campus interviews started in mid-January and I’ve become a de facto single dog mom. There have been endless loaves of dark-crusted bread, some a little more misshapen than others, the act of finely slicing pounds of citrus peel for multiple batches of marmalade, the heavy and steady weight of a book in hand, trips to the UDel gym for exercise classes with 18-22 year olds, which, believe me, have started to feel a little humbling (pulse, a word that I’ve always pleasantly associated with a function my food processor performs, has now come to be a despised thing involving squatting and standing with my own two legs), the recent happy diversion of the Olympics (like most of the world, I cannot believe that the Canadian ice dancing powerhouse of Virtue and Moir are not actually in love; has Moulin Rouge ever been so sizzling? And, yes, I realize that, as an American, I ought to be 100% behind the Shib Sibs, but it’s very hard to get behind a brother/sister team, as well as their decision to perform to Coldplay. Whyyyyy?) and the consumption of lots and lots of leftovers. This last thing has been the most difficult, as it’s shifted the whole nature of my cooking and general kitchen routine. How much, after all, can one person actually consume?
The answer is, as you would imagine, not that much, which means that vegetables sit in the crisper for a little longer than would be ideal, that culinary experimentation has slowed somewhat, and also that I haven’t done things like bake a cake in months because, without a husband and a lab to send leftovers to, it’s hard to justify. Not that I couldn’t eat a whole cake myself, but, given the workouts with 18-22 year olds and articles about the dangers of consuming too much sugar, prudence is foremost in my mind. But since prudence can be a boring bedfellow, I still do my share of looking; in fact, in a weird way, all of this time alone has given me the chance to sit down–to really sit down–and look through some of the cookbooks that have piled up without seeing as much kitchen action as they probably should have.
One of the great surprises of the past few weeks has been the Soframiz cookbook, which I’m certain I perused when I first got it in early 2017, but simply never got around to cooking from. Yes, this is one of the great pitfalls of avid cookbook consumerism, but every dog, as they say, has its day, and Soframiz’s came on a rainy Sunday full of laundry and other menial tasks. While I wish I could say I tackled one of the fantastic and complex Middle Eastern recipes–Orange Blossom Morning Buns; their famous Sesame Cashew Bars; Chicken and Walnut Borek–that the Boston cafe puts out on a daily basis, I was instead transfixed by a recipe that not only looked appealing on the page, but also screamed easy and looked happily bite-sized in the way that most desserts at Middle Eastern restaurants are: Apricot Halawa (halawa, or halva, can either refer to the more commonly known crumbly sesame-based candy or, more generically, to any kind of sweet confection) with White Chocolate Ganache. It also didn’t hurt that, although we don’t really make a fuss over Valentine’s Day, the Greek and I were planning on a dinner of roasted lamb and my favorite couscous (I will one day share the recipe for this with you here) during the 36 hours we spent together this week; this dessert seemed like it would fit right into our Greek/Middle Eastern theme.
And the dessert really is as simple as one could hope. One potential snag is that the recipe, as written, calls for the somewhat hard-to-find mastic, dried tree resin from the island of Chios. On its own, mastic has a bracing flavor, but in this particular recipe is fairly innocuous, since its notes of pine are offset by more dominant flavors of rose water and apricot; while I would recommend trying this if you can, I ultimately don’t think it is essential to the flavor, nor do I think that, even with its binding properties (it can, if not mixed with sugar when being ground, turn into a gummy paste) that it is essential to creating a firm base of ground dried apricots, which in and of themselves are sticky enough. The white chocolate ganache, if you can believe it, gave me a bit of trouble, but I suspect that this is more because I used two different brands of chocolate–the cookbook recommends the queenly Valrhona, but I had only the humble grocery store Ghiradelli and Nestlé–and also European butter, whose fat content is greater than its American counterpart, than anything else. Although my ganache was more runny than I would have liked and consequently more gooey, neither the Greek nor my pottery class companions complained about this; one woman, in fact, called them “nasty good,” which is perhaps her highest compliment. And, as I now hear Mary Berry’s and Paul Hollywood’s voices in my head when baking (more Mary’s than Paul’s), I could hear Mary saying that the “flavor was very good” and that my ganache had a “nice shine” to it, which indeed it did. It’s not the last recipe I’ll be making from this book, but I suspect it will be one I return to again and again when I need or want something sweet and in a pinch.
Apricot Halawa with White Chocolate Ganache
Serves 32 (they are rich, so smaller pieces are better)
Adapted from the Soframiz Cookbook
I can’t say that the changes I made were either many or great, but I did, based on what I had in the pantry, make a few small changes. Firstly, I used roasted and salted pistachios to top the sweets with, as I personally like the contrast of salty and sweet; secondly, as I fear the potency of rose water–nobody wants to be eating things reminiscent of soap–and am more than certain that I am not using as high-end a brand as the Sofra Bakery and Cafe, I used one teaspoon of rose water, rather than the suggested two. And, of course, there was the ganache snafu that led to softer topping and some time in the freezer, as that is the only way I could get it to set. In fact, I might recommend a little time in the freezer, since the refrigerator didn’t quite work in my case.
1/2 teaspoon ground mastic (remember to grind the mastic tears with a pinch of sugar), optional
1 pound dried apricots
1 teaspoon rose water
10 ounces white chocolate (be sure to use a baking bar or, as suggested in the cookbook, Valrhona’s 35% Ivoire), chopped
2 tablespoons (1 ounce or 1/4 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
1/2 cup heavy cream
shelled pistachios (salted or unsalted), to top each piece
Line an 8-inch square baking pan with plastic wrap, wax paper or parchment paper.
Grind the mastic, if using, into a powder with a mortar and pestle.
Place half of the apricots into the food processor with half of the mastic and process until a rough ball forms. Transfer the mixture to a bowl, then repeat with the remaining mastic and apricots. Add the rose water to the processed apricots and mix in with a fork, mashing everything together.
Press the apricot mixture into the prepared pan in an even layer, using a fork or a measuring cup to create as smooth and even a base as possible. Cover and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
While the apricot mixture is resting in the fridge, make the ganache: place the chopped white chocolate and the butter in a small bowl, then heat the cream until almost boiling. Pour the heated cream over the chocolate and butter, let sit for 5 minutes, and then stir with a small rubber spatula until smooth. Place the bowl of ganache into the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes, or until it has started to set around the edges, but is still soft and pourable.
When the ganache is ready, pour it over the chilled apricot layer. Cover and refrigerate (or freeze) until firm; this should take at least 4 hours. Once the chocolate has set, lift the plastic wrap, wax paper or parchment to remove the halawa from the pan. Cut the halawa into 1-inch squares and top each piece with a pistachio. Store in the fridge for 2 weeks and in the freezer for a month. Bring to room temperature to serve.