Thursday, December 05, 2013

Sfef: a holiday whodunnit

Recently, I came across a recipe I got from Priscilla Martel, whose All About Food business was serving Mediterranean delicacies at a James Beard Awards ceremony many years ago, and though it is called Sfef – a North African Wedding Cookie, I decided it would make a delicious and somewhat mysterious and multicultural addition to a holiday cookie plate.

It also provides a refreshing change from other cookies in the way the dough is put together, as each ingredient is cooked before being combined, including the flour, which is roasted in a dry pan. My next thought was, Hmm, I wonder how this was made in the olden days, before Moroccans became so first-world as to take white flour and confectioners sugar for granted, and so I burrowed into the past a little bit by going online and asking some Moroccan cooks what they could tell me about sfef.

There was a thundering silence and then, “Do you mean sffouf?” Well of course I had no idea if I meant sffouf, but I went along with it.

“Sffouf is not a Moroccan wedding cookie!” Oh, well, what was it then?

“It is served only on the naming day of newborns and in Ramadan.” The more nuts you add, they said, the more flavor you get, and each Moroccan state makes it differently from the others. “I, personally,” one cook said, “don't add any flour. I make it with just nuts, fennel, and pure organic honey.”

Another cook added, “For the history of it my information is they used to give it to the woman that is breast feeding,” and when I hazarded a guess as to why that might be I was told that it was to prevent colic, as fennel (and anise) are both good colonics and digestives; and furthermore sffouf was said to increase the flow of mothers’ milk.

Another cook remembered, “My mom used to make huge buckets of sffouf and zomita for my father when he was in Army to take with him because during war they can't cook. So those were the only things they ate.”

Being a real pain, I then asked what Zomita was, and was told, “Zomita is the cousin of sffouf , but more healthier and has lots of seeds, whole wheat, nuts, and you toast everything and you grind. It’s popular in Fes, Meknes, Rabat, and Sale' and we have a very famous song called Zomita. All Moroccan people know about it.”

Okay. All right. I thanked the Moroccan cooks profusely and came back to my kitchen and made the original recipe I had from Priscilla. All she’d done to alter it in the last twenty years was to halve the recipe. I was glad of that because forming those little cones is a time intensive, backaching business. I was half done when I realized that a small, cone-shaped coffee scoop could do a much neater and faster job. 

These things are absolutely delicious! They’re even better frozen, which in my household is a severe drawback to the longlastingness of Christmas cookies.

Although nothing about this is very local (except the flour, butter, and, possibly, fennel seeds), all ingredients are available at the Co-op.

Note: Times for baking and roasting and mixing are highly individual. Keep a sharp eye out not to burn and/or over process.

Sfef (or Sffouf)
adapted from a recipe from Priscilla Martel

Yield: about 2 dozen

•    1/2 cup (3 ounces) hulled sesame seeds
•    1 cup (5 ounces) whole blanched almonds
•    1 ½ teaspoons fennel seeds
•    1 cup (4.5 ounces) all purpose flour
•    1 cup (4 ounces) confectioner’s sugar
•    1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted
•    grated whole blanched almonds or blanched almond flour for garnish

Preheat oven to 350°
  1. Place the sesame seeds on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven for 3 minutes. Pour them into the bowl of a food processor and set aside while toasting the almonds
  2. Place the almonds on the baking sheet and bake 8 +/- minutes until they darken slightly Add them and the fennel seeds to the food processor along with the sesame. Process this mixture for 3 minutes until it is finely ground and well blended.
  3. Cook the flour in a large, dry, skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly until the flour develops a pale yellow color.
  4. Add the flour to the nut mixture along with the sugar. Pulse to combine.
  5. Pour in the warm melted butter and pulse until it forms a pliable mass.
  6. To form the cookies, place a large teaspoon of the mixture in the palm of your hand, form it into a small cone about 1 1/2 inches high and slightly pointed. Place the cookie on a tray and proceed with the remaining dough (or use a cone-shaped coffee scoop like the one pictured).
  7. Let the cookies set for at least 2 hours before serving, then dust them with freshly grated blanched almonds or almond flour.

These will keep, well covered, in a cool place for about 1 week or in the freezer until you need them or have gobbled them one by one. 

This little article was published in the Rutland Area Food Co-op Newsletter , Winter, 2013

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

too many recipes, so little memory

A recipe card fell out of a book today, so timely, so true, for a delicious and provocative appetizer that Diana Kennedy scribed in her Recipes from the Regional Cooks of Mexico, which, if you don't know, is a classically beautiful book and worth acquiring if you haven't already. Especially if you like Mexican food, are literate, know anything at all about Diana Kennedy, and have a buck or two to spend and an hour or so to read.
People have been known to do that with recipe books, and perhaps you are one.

I've been making Sikil-P'ak for probably thirty-five years, and I can say that because I remember taking it to a party in Shrewsbury and JP asking me if it wasn't Sikil-P'ak. I stared at him: how would this person, a lawyer for gawd's sake, know what this ground mash of roasted pumpkin seeds and tomato was? (He could because he had/has a quite sophisticated palate; a bit like James Beard's, both gotten at the ends of rich apron strings belonging to mother, father, or further.)
And since we were all young and beautiful then and could stay out until 4 and get to work by 8, and since it's been thirty years since JP and I've found anything at all to say to each other, it had to've been thirty-five years ago. At least.

But I have not made it in several years because it had fallen from my memory, absolutely.
Cilantro berries and flowers

What makes this appetizer so timely is that tomatoes are ripe just now, or at least ripening, and the cilantro berries are perfect for using before they harden into seeds. (BTW, I wrote last year about cilantro berries here.) 

Never mind that the recipe doesn't call for cilantro berries, it does call for cilantro and the berries just go the extra mile, adding a bursting juiciness to the texture of the whole thing.

Hot peppers are also coming into season, and because Diana, Ms. Kennedy, explains that she has added the habanero pepper on her own – it is not traditional – I have taken the liberty, in addition to adding the cilantro berries, of changing the pepper to one jalapeno and one pepperoncini, because that is what I found at the Farmers' Market Saturday. Habanero, as you may know, besides being flavorful, are excruciatingly hot. I would NOT know, because I'm chicken. But I love the green taste of jalapeno, cool and juicy and crisp, as well as hot, but not as hot as habanero. I preserve that coolness and that greenness by not charring them, but carving them up into tiny squares, a brunoise, if you please.

As for the pumpkin seeds, you would not want to use the big tough pumpkin seeds from your Halloween pumpkin – you would want to use the tiniest "unhulled" pumpkin seeds you could find. The ones in the Co-op bulk section are perfect.
With all that said, in case you are reading this because you want to make this traditional Mayan dish, here is the recipe.

My own notes: 
  • Although I pour the pumpkin seeds into a heavy dry skillet, I sprinkle them with some olive oil into which some garlic has been macerated. Not too much. heat them over medium-low heat, shaking or stirring constantly.
  • I cover the tomatoes with boiling water, cover, and let them sit for 15 minutes. Skin and chop them when they have cooled a bit.
  • As mentioned, I cut the peppers into tiny squares and combine with the chives and chopped cilantro and whole cilantro berries before stirring them into the tomato/seed mixture.
  • Correct for salt.
  Ms. Kennedy notes that the correct name for this dish is ha'-sikil-p'ak: ha' (water), sikil (pumpkin or squash seed), and p'ak (tomato). As for how you might pronounce it, I simply say "sickelpack." It's served as a dip "(horrible word!)", she comments, and dipped up with tortilla chips.

That's about all. Bon apetit!

Thursday, January 10, 2013


When it comes to endeavors such as writing, no one else cracks the whip, so lest one be left standing on the far side of a wasteland on the day of one's death, it behooves one to sit oneself down in front of the computer and say that life might commence only after the act of creation has taken place. That, anyway, has been my practice, and it usually works.

But with this article, when sat before the machine, Mind simply went elsewhere and, when drawn back bodily to the task at hand, deigned barely to give it a dismissive glance; said, "Poof, I'm not interested," and, arms akimbo, went away again.

"Mind," I pled, "what shall I do without you? We have responsibilities. You cannot desert me now."

And Mind glanced back and said, "If you are so fond of me, jailor, follow me awhile."

And so, with reluctance and with a sense of impending deadlines, I humored the poor emaciated tyrant.
Our first stop was an upstairs window where we contemplated the village laid out below, the chimneys spewing white pillars straight up through frigid silver air that looked dense with diamonds, taut with cold, as though it might chime if we were out in it.

But, "It's not summer," I said, "Oh woe is me, I only like summer." Mind regarded me with disdain, and I began to leave.

"Wait!" said Mind, breathing deeply and forcing our body into the mountain asana, fingers fluttering upward into a relaxed tent.

"This feels too good," I said, trying to keep my edge and breath shallowly, "and times a'wasting."

But Mind said, "I hate to get tough with you, but if you want something from me you'll have to give me something to work with. Now slow down and breath," and I obeyed.

When finally I went to sit down at the machine, Mind thrust paper and pencil into my hands, "Let's wander," it suggested. I looked at Mind oddly. It was not usually such a levitous thing.

 "Ha, Ha," I said.

"Seriously." Mind began to leave.

"Wait, wait," I said, "I have to get all this on. It's cold out there." Heavy sweater, down coat, boots, leggings, muffler, hat, gloves...

"C'mon, Josie," I said, and the old Airedale got up lethargically, then paused in the door and declined.

"Walk? You don't want to go for a walk?" I said. "You love walks!" but she declined still, and I rushed to catch up with Mind. "Dog won't go," I said, shivering, "Too damned cold."

"Her loss," said Mind absently, and I trudged in its wake, stupefied by the bright cold. "I wish I was in the Caribbean," I said bitterly. "...sand, sun from six to six, turquoise waters..."

"You see," said Mind with delight, ignoring me, "the air does chime. Everything is pillowed in white, the sun shines so brightly through the silver air, the sky is so densely blue... Ahhh, I've needed this. Now lean forward," it said, "and let your feet follow."

It didn't work, I was almost running, and a sense of balance almost overtook me, as though a silver wind were running through all my bones, connecting them. I breathed hard and my lungs seemed to expand. I began to sweat under all that wrapping. My mind shone luminously. "I'm going to get hypothermia," I cried in gasps, "my arthritis will act up. I need a cigarette," I finished.

Mind flinched. "The body''s been crying out for exercise. I can hear it perfectly well, I don't know why you ignore it so, you slave-driving..." Its voice deteriorated to a mumble. But we'd reached the apex of the little-traveled hill and Mind let me slow to a walk in order to gaze out at the town laid out below.

"Say," said I, with inspiration that came from I knew not where, "If you're over there, and I'm over here, and you speak of our body as something totally outside, then who am I?"

"Wuh..." Mind puzzled, " might be soul if you had any sense, or you might be sense if you had any soul, but since you have neither you must be id/ego, that is super and know-it-all and... lost without me."

Mind beamed with insincerity, then took a skip and a jump, and I heard a skitter behind me. Ah, the dog had come after all, I thought, but when I looked around only one little tan leaf was skittering merrily along beside me. I looked closer to see if there was not a black leaf too, to imitate the dog's colors, and then I looked accusingly at Mind. "You're playing tricks on me," I exclaimed.

"Hee, hee, hee," cackled Mind with uncharacteristic merriment; then settling down said, "Now take out your pencil and lean here against this fence and let me look around and enjoy this moment. Perhaps I'll have something to give you."

"It's too cold!" I was horrified. "I'm liable to go to sleep and freeze to death." But I obeyed, and Mind came up with a first sentence of article. I wrote it down with excitement, Mind cautioning me, "Easy, easy, don't get too excited. I can't work when you get too excited."

Another sentence. And another. And finally there was the first paragraph. "I've got it!," I said, jumping up. "I've got it, by damn I've got it," I hurried on my way. "Let's get back down to that infernal machine before I don't got it."

Gasping with exertion, Mind followed in my tracks, muttering, "Lunch, I think I need to be fed, and then, okay, we can sit down at that machine, but if it doesn't work, I warn you, you're going to have to follow me some more."

Lunch, however, was not a simple thing. Mind insisted that I smell and feel and see the salad of tofu and cucumbers I had left over from supper last night, as well as taste it; and cut some fresh bread and, "Now," said Mind. "sit down, breath deeply and chew it well. There's not anything much more important in this life than chewing well and breathing deeply."

Finally, lunch over and well-digested, we got to the machine. Mind immediately took a nap, so I played solitaire while it dozed. "All right, all right," I said when I heard it stir, "can't we get on with this?" And with a yawn, Mind began.

After spending some hours at the machine, Mind, having lost its oomph and vibrancy, again got up and wandered. My fingers slowed. "Come back here," I said impatiently. "You get back here now!"

But Mind had become insatiable. "I wish to see the snow in the woods," it said with insouciance, "Kindly clamp the skis onto our feet."

"Oh, but Time passeth, Deadline looms, and Responsibility calls," I protested weakly.

"Screw Them," snapped Mind," and I rose to get the skis, having learned, we hope, a valuable lesson -- that Mind without play is rather a dull and vicious fellow.

In the following days, or should I say weeks, Mind had me shoveling snow, hauling wood and helping out our neighbors, all strenuous activities that seemed illogical for Mind to be concerned with, but it was adamant. "You are not working just to get aerobic exercise; you are also going for the neurological benefit of cross-patterned movement and the visual, tactile, and proprioceptive stimulation that exercise affords me," Mind said.

"You read that somewhere," I accused.

"With all that cross patterning, you might even find a waist, or even a thought, down there amongst all the detritus of holiday stress and greed and Mince Meat Pie..."

"The Buddhist meditation masters know how flexible and workable the mind is... everything is a question of training and the power of habit. Devote the mind to confusion and we know only too well...that it will become a dark master of confusion, adept in its addictions, subtle and perversely supple in its slaveries. Devote it in meditation to the task of freeing itself from illusion, and we will find that with time, patience, discipline, and the right training, the mind will begin to unknot itself and know its essential bliss and clarity...
"...Our minds can be wonderful, but at the same time they can be our very worst enemy. They give us so much trouble. Sometimes I wish the mind were like a set of dentures, which we could take out and leave on our bedside table overnight. At least we would get a break from its tiring and tiresome escapades."