A Coffee Bundt Cake from the North for a Fertile Season, And an Award Nomination

Finnish Date & Coffee Bundt Cake | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-17

I. The Girl from the North and Her Secret Ingredient

On a warm Spring day, a girl with mousy hair worn in two long braids, walked down the stairs of an airplane in Rimini, in north east Italy. The hot sun kissed her pale skin, and the humid air filled her nose thrills with the smell of the sea. As she took her first steps on the Italian soil —that couldn’t be more unlike her cold, dark and quiete country— she felt as though she had finally come home. She was glowing with that light of those who have found something they had long lost when she met the dark-haired, dark-skinned, fascinating young Roman who stole her young heart away. He happened to be in Rimini by pure chance, substituting a fellow tour driver who had fallen ill at the last moment. He could hardly understand a single word she said, but he fell in love with the Fin girl nonetheless. 

More than a year later, she gave birth to a baby boy that decades later I shared a significant amount of my life with. Although our paths later drifted apart and we didn’t get the dolce vita happily-ever-after of his parents, I am eternally grateful for the numerous ways this encounter enriched my life. She evoked the love for great north in me. For a magical Finland that glows in the aurea borealis, that is home to Santa Claus and its breakfasts always smells like big coffees and freshly baked cinnamon rolls.

Although back in the seventies that handsome Roman would bring his own pasta and tomato sauce whenever they travelled to Finland, it warms my heart to say that years later we shared many Christmas and Easter meals (untouchable staples of the Italian cooking tradition) with bountiful spreads of Italian, Finnish and Iranian dishes. If this is not one those marvelous immigrant food stories, I don’t know what is.

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One of the Finnish treats that she often baked is this incredible coffee bundt cake. Traditionally the cake is baked around Christmas time, but it’s so good that you’d want to eat it all year round. The cake is dark, moist and sweet just to the right point. There is something of a mystery to the taste of this cake, if you don’t know what the ingredients are. Coffee arrives first of course, but right after that a caramely, nutty note sneaks in, sometimes so stealthily, as if it was disguised in chocolate.  There is no chocolate, rest assured. The secret ingredient that together with coffee creates the unnamed flavor, is dates. You know that feeling when you were having a nice dream, yet you can’t quite remember what you were dreaming about? That’s how the combination of coffee and dates tastes like. 

Dates are the heart of a Finnish Christmas cake! Isn’t that mesmerizing? Think of the snow, the North Pole, the berries, and dates? There must be another immigrant food story about it that we just don’t know. I also add a good dose of cardamom powder, first because the cardamom-coffee match is made in heaven in North, second because the cardamom and dates match is made in the heavens in the middle east

II. New Season, New Projects & an Award Nomination

We’re nowhere near Christmas of course, but my I have no few reasons to be celebrating. First, Norouz, the Persian new year on the first day of Spring is just upon us (annual Norouz post coming super soon). I will be moving to a new apartment at the end of April and I have many plans and projects for the new place to share with you in person,  and last but definitely not least, I am among the finalists of the first edition of Cucina Blog Award, run by Italian daily paper, Corriere della Sera. Angela Frenda —the food editor of Corriere and cookbook author— has been working hard in the past years to raise the level of the food communication to the top measures of the world. I am honored beyond words to be in the group of 18 talented bloggers, most of whom have been of incredible influence and inspiration to my work.

If you like Lab Noon, you can show your support and vote for my blog in the Best Social Blog category. 

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The award is part of the yearly food conference called Cibo a Regola d’Arte, organized by Corriere and held in Milan from March 21st to April 2nd. I also have the pleasure to hold a Persian cooking lesson during the very same event on April 1st, that you can subscribe to here. The award ceremony is on the same night where the one and only Honey & Co from London will hold a pop-up restaurant. I can’t wait to meet them and taste their food, and I am thrilled to meet and reunite with other amazing finalist bloggers such as Fotogrammi di zucchero, Two for The Bar, Betty Liu, Il Gambero Russo, Miss Foodwise (Remember my post about her book? I am taking it with me to get it signed!), Juls’ Kitchen, Con le Mani in Pasta, Gnam Box, Valdirose, Hortus Cuisine, Naturalmente Buono, Kraut Kopf and others. Continue reading

Immitating ‘Kuku Sabzi’, a Persian Frittata with local Roman greens to celebrate Spring, Norouz and Easter

Kuku Sabzi Persian Frittata with Local Greens | Frittata alla Persiana | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-34

Sale No Mobarak (Happy New Year!)

I thought I’d started by saying that this has been un unusual Norouz; The Persian celebration of Spring and therefore the start of the new year. Year 1395, if you’re curious. But then I thought, what was quite unusual about it anyway? I have been celebrating my “Sal  Tah’vil“s (That second the Earth enters enters March equinox) here in Rome for eight years now. Sometimes alone, when it occurred in unlikely hours to celebrate –like 5.30 AM as it was this year– but mostly accompanied by good friends. Like almost all Iranians around the world, for the occasion we enjoyed a good dish of ‘Sabzi Polo ba Mahi‘; Persian style pilaf with fresh herbs such as chives and dill served with fish.

Maybe what was unusual about this year’s Norouz was that I was so caught up in other matters of life, that I failed to stop a moment and and breathe in the arrival Spring and the new year? Maybe because it is impossibile to get fully in the mood of the most significant holiday you’ve grown up with in a place where almost no one knows what you’re talking about? Or maybe because Spring arrived so early  this year to Rome that by the time we got to Norouz we were already too used to nice weather, greens and blossom on the trees. Maybe all of it. 

Kuku Sabzi Persian Frittata with Local Greens | Frittata alla Persiana | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-6As for food, apart from those tiny little biscuits and pastries in one billion varieties and huge bowls of flavored nuts and pistachios, I have more and less eaten proper Spring/Norouz food accordingly to tradition. Lots and lots of greens, seasonal and local. In Persian cooking we use tons and tons of fresh aromatic herbs, that much more than mere condiments. In fact, in so many dishes these herbs are the main ingredient, used in really large quantities. Dish such as Ghormeh Sabzi (herb stew with beans), Kuku sabzi (herbs frittata), Ab Doogh Khiar (cold soup with yoghort) and many others fresh herbs such as mint, cilantro, parsley, chives, etc define the flavor of the dish. 

Kuku Sabzi Persian Frittata with Local Greens | Frittata alla Persiana | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-28
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Kuku Sabzi Persian Frittata with Local Greens | Frittata alla Persiana | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-8

Kuku Sabzi Persian Frittata with Local Greens | Frittata alla Persiana | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-31The same attitude characterizes most of the simple dishes of Easter here in Italy. On the large banquets of roasted lambs there are always simple savory pies and frittatas made with fresh asparagus, artichokes, ‘agretti’ (local Roman greens called saltwort) and broccoli e broccolini (small broccolis called broccoletti in Roman dialect).

That’s why I thought Kuku Sabzi, the Persian style frittata with fresh herbs, is the perfect dish for the occasion. Nothing extraordinary as a matter of fact; In most cities of Iran, Kuku Sabzi appears right next to herbs pilaf and fish on the Norouz menu. The original recipe contains parsley, chives, coriander, dill, spinach, lettuce, fenugreek leaves and almost each family varies the quantities regarding their culinary memories.  Continue reading

The Light after the Longest Night of the Year, Olive Harvest Retreat & Banana Pancakes with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Lab Noon-21

I. Surviving the Long, Dark Night

More than a month has past since I went to the Olive Harvest Retreat at the end of October. I know I should’ve written this post a long time ago, but I didn’t. Yes, I had taken way too many photos (more than 500!), and no, I haven’t really had a moment of free time. But now I know, these were not the reason. I needed time. Time to reflect, to recover, to comprehend. Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-106 Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-77Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-69
I had recently come back from Iran, and I knew it was time for me to take an uncomfortable but necessary step in my life, when I saw that my creative friend Kat from Zero the One has organized this Olive Harvest Retreat with a friend of hers, Susie, the founder of Oreeko. The event took place in the heart of Italy, the province of Umbria, in a 100% organic farm run by mother Lucia and daughter Alina. There would’ve been the stunning Italian nature in its Fall glory, good, real organic food, handpicked and cooked with love, and a bunch talented and creative people to share all this goodness with. As Italians would say “mi inviti a nozze”, or it’d be a wedding feast for me. So how I could I not go? 
Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-110Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-33Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-83Little did I know however, that the slow living weekend would’ve gone far beyond this. Mind you, there was nothing quite slow in the weekend per se. We walked the grounds, we toured the farm, we cooked, we picked olives of course. And most importantly, we gathered around a table, often with a full glass, and we told our stories, upon a shared meal. This must have been the key to the transformation that occurred to me at the end of that weekend. Without me realizing it.

Telling stories during long nights has been therapeutic since ancient times. In the darkest of times, people gather round dear ones, light candles, share a meal, tell stories, communicate, and together they wait for the new day to arrive. Together, they overcome the fear of never seeing the daylight again.

That’s what happens in Yalda, the antique Persian holiday that celebrates the Winter Solstice and . As I said last year, Yalda shares many common roots with Christmas, Chanukah and other Winter celebrations. During the longest darkness, we keep each other company, ready poetry, break a pomegranate or two, go through the stock of dry fruit, and wait for the sun to shine on a new day.

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Something similar happened as a result of the Olive Harvest Retreat. New things arrived. I took a new professional course in Social Media and Digital Marketing, I started a new job, I have met so many amazing new people, and closed an old, crippled door behind me. It hasn’t been easy, it hasn’t been fun (all the time), but for the first time in more than a year, I am feeling alright. I am ready for the new day, for the new year, trusting that (yet another time), the dark night is overcome.

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Susie, is a survivor. By changing her lifestyle, she has tamed down a horrible disease that consumed her twenties in numerous surgeries and medications. She went vegetarian, and swears by all things natural, organic, and eco. That’s how she came up with her business Oreeko, a directory of all eco-friendly, green businesses around the world.

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Kat, is an explorer, I would say. She’s a multi-talented creative, who creates videos and has an extraordinary interior and spiritual dimension.

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Olive Harvest Retreat | Lab Noon-55Tip, the amazing Australian lady with Chinese and Thai background living in the Netherlands (wow! I know!), is a many things, among which a life coach. There’s some sort of fluidity and weightlessness about her that made me feel extremely comfortable as soon as I met her in Tiburtina station. She’s co-run a quite successful interior design blog  and then just this summer she decided to stop. She not only helps people reorder their spaces, but their lives too.

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Zara, is a physician with a passion for fashion, lifestyle and creativity, who’s trying to find a way for these things to coexist in the rigid world of medicine. She joined us from London.

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Emily and Harrison, an adorable couple from London again, are professionals of the world digital content and video, with a huge enthusiasm about nature and natural living who dream of having their own little farm.

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Agata, is a Polish girl who quit her big corporate job to follow her dream of being an interior design creative and consequently moved to north of Italy.

Ewa, another Polish girl, living in Warsaw runs an interior design blog and online shop.

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Veronique, who flew all the way from New York City to be with us, runs an online green and eco-friendly shop of artisan products.

And Nardia, the Aussie girl of Florence, tells the story of bests of Italy; the food, the wine and the travels.

We were different but we were somehow alike. We retreated ourselves together. We harvested olives, we shared our stories with little or no filters. We lived together, slowly, just for a weekend. That weekend, I left a chapter of my life behind me and moved on.

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The love that Alina and her mom put into growing, harvesting and taking care of their olive oil is remarkable; you can actually taste it drop for drop in their incomparable, organic extra virgin olive oil. No wonder they say it’s the best Italian olive oil. They have created a peace of heaven in their farm in Umbria, where you can relax, get in touch with nature and live the real Italian country, slow living. If you ever get to Umbria, you should pay them a visit. You’ll love your stay. 

II. Celebrating the Light of the New Day

Banana Pancake with Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil | Banana Pancake con l'Olio Extra Vergine di Oliva | Lab Noon-5
Breakfast. What better way is there than to celebrate a new day with a good breakfast? I made this unbelievably simple recipe one morning during the Olive Harvest Retreat, with whatever I had at disposal. Many eggs and bananas, and excellent extra virgin olive oil. 

There is this belief that pancakes MUST be made with butter. I don’t believe in sacred ingredients. I believe in using local, fresh ingredients. When I am at huge olive farm with fresh olive oil, I don’t use store bought butter. If I was in the Alps where they make incredible fresh butter, I wouldn’t have used olive oil.

So this is not a recipe to celebrate Yalda, the longest night of the year. These banana pancakes, celebrate the rising of the sun in the next morning. Imagine the smell of fresh coffee, early morning light, the mist of winter, looking over a field of olive trees.

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Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, that should be nutrient and fuel for a little nag working day. This is the basic recipe, which is 2 eggs for a banana. You can change it any way you desire. Although the egg whites give a you a fair amount of protein, you can add seeds and nut (better if ground) to enrich the pancakes. Nonetheless I don’t suggest adding sweet elements such as raisins or cranberries. You’ll be surprised how naturally sweet these pancakes are! Mashed banana releases all of its sugar (which is A LOT), And that’s why these pancakes are dark on the surface. They’re not burned, it’s the sugar of the banana that caramelizes quickly.

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My only trick is to beat the egg white separately until firm and then gently fold it into the mashed banana and egg yolk mix. A pinch of bicarbonate soda always helps too. In this version I added cardamom and nutmeg to the batter and served the pancakes with different types of apples, diced and dressed with fresh lemon juice and a lot of cinnamon. (Because there should ALWAYS be cinnamon, ya know!). A little acidity goes a long way with these sweet banana pancakes. You can of course serve them with any fresh fruit of the season. Serve them with pomegranates and mince pistachios to add a festive touch and bring in the spirit of Yalda. Continue reading