Persian Delight, Easy Turkish Delight/Lokum as Christmas Edible Gifts from the East & a Yalda Celebration

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I. Christmas Flavors from the East

Would a Christmas with Middle Eastern flavors sound outrageous or alternative to you? What if I told you that your Christmas at times — tastes and smells like the feasts and celebrations of the East, and it has been so for centuries? Warm spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves that evoke the spirit of Christmas, form the flavor pallet of so many ancient and modern Middle Eastern recipes. Many roast or braised meats that we serve on Christmas are enriched with dried fruits such as raisins, plums, dates and apricots; a normality in many dishes from the East.

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Winter feasts, regardless of their location or origin, celebrate togetherness in order to survive the dark. There’s often dry fruits and nuts in the festive dishes, mainly because fresh fruit was not available in the cold season. In the medieval ages spices, figs, dates, nuts, turkish delights, and even sugar were luxury goods that were imported to Europe from the Middle and Far East. So naturally, they were consumed in banquets and feasts. The medieval Christmas has left a footprint of Middle Eastern flavors in the Christmas dishes of northern Europe, and consequently, North America and Oceania. As for Italy, apart from Sicily, Naples and other Southern parts where the dominations have permanently inserted some Middle Eastern flavors to many dishes, the rest of the country does Christmas with little or no warm spices.

If you’ve followed this blog for a long time, you might remember that in Iran we don’t celebrate Christmas, but we do celebrate Yalda, a celebration of the Winter Soltice. Although Yalda is a laic festival based on ancient seasonal traditions, it is similar in some ways to Christmas, which I talked about in details here. Eating nuts, dry fruits and Turkish Delights is one of these similarities. 

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One of the sweets that we always serve on the Yalda table along with nuts, pomegranates and —oddly enough— watermelon, is Baslogh. Also known as Lokum, Rahat Lokum (راحة الحلقوم) or more commonly, the Turkish Delights. The Turkish-ness of these sweet, gooey, soft and fragrant candies however can open a never ending debate. They are common in all the Balkan region and the Middle East, and we must admit that choosing the name Turkish Delight has been an incredibly clever marketing tactic, that has opened the way of these festive sweets into the western shops and even literature. 

Turkish Delights are featured in the Chronicles of Narnia, as a sweet temptation of an evil witch that uses them to get information from a boy who loves the candies. The amazing Diana Henry (food writer and author of many books) on a podcast on Channel 4 Food Programme digs deep into the Eastern flavors for Christmas celebrations and a very interesting part of the podcast is dedicated to Turkish Delights. 

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II. Persian Delights: More Delicate, Easy Turkish Delights

No matter the name, these rose scented candies have been present all this Holiday season in my kitchen, beside my tea, all over my apron, in my travels and also in my cooking events! I knew I wanted to make a blog post about them as an edible Christmas Gift (my type of gift, remember this post?), as well as making them for the Christmas Pop up Kitchen we held on December 18th at Latteria Studio. Last weekend I went to Milan to make these Persian Delights with Alice aka A Gipsy in the Kitchen and we filmed it live on Facebook (in Italian). This post is my contribute to the virtual Yalda Celebration of the Persian Food Bloggers, so do check out other Iranian recipes for the festive season at the bottom of this post.

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There really is something fairy tale-ish about these sweets. They’re incredibly soft, yet they have a satisfying texture too. My version of this recipe is super delicate, as I have reduced the sugar amount. After many tries (including some embarrassing failures), I finally realized how to perfect the gummy effect by using a lot of gelatin sheets. The key is to use the double dose of gelatin for the amount of water in the indications, as we’re making a solid candy, not a jelly to be eaten by the spoon.  Continue reading

For the Love of Books, Apples & The “Art” of Food Blogging; A Review of Pride and Pudding by Regula Ysewijn

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The three chapters of this post are interconnected, but if you only want to read my review of the Pride and Pudding cookbook jump directly to Part.III. Enjoy!

I. The Original ‘Sin

The more time has passed from school years, the keener I am to appreciate Autumn. You see, I used to absolutely hate the arrival of September, the end of Summer, and the beginning of school.

My school years back in Iran were not easy. Yes, my best friends are still the ones I made during school, and yes, we have plenty of stuff to laugh about at the slightest remembrance of any silly thing that we did back then, but the school I went to was very much of a Pink-Floyd’s-The-Wall sort of school, to make you get the picture. 

Our whole educational system —particularly my school— was very focused on scientific subjects such as mathematics, physics and biology. Arts and sports were neglected to the point of disappearance. Everything out of this tight circle was considered a hobby, not much worthy of a teenager’s precious time.

That’s why my range of hobbies was quite wide. I spent half of the afternoons of each week at the English school for many consecutive years, (which was incredibly educational, and much more fun that you could imagine). Apart from that and private music lessons (at which I helplessly sucked), during those years I took various courses of drawing and painting, which later led me to choose Graphic Design as my major at University. It was a rather radical decision for that moment in time, one that my mom still remorses just as much as I’m grateful for it (she still dreams of a doctor or an engineer). 

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Looking back, I don’t find it surprising at all. After all, the thing I cared most about when filling my notebooks with scientific content was the neatness, the harmony of colors and size of the writing, and the fact that when I flipped through pages, it must have evoke an “Ooooh” sound, as for what a beautifully written notebook.

Good editorial design, beautifully created books and magazines, and harmonious compositions of text and images just sing to my soul. The visual presentation of a text is for me just as important as the content, if not more so. This plays an important role in my choice of cookbooks. Don’t think I’m shallow; a cookbook to me is a source of inspiration, not just in the kitchen, but also in design. That’s why the only cookbooks I purchase new with the intention of keeping them forever, are the ones that are well-designed books, with interesting recipes. Others can be borrowed, bought on kindle or second hand.

II. Apple, the [Un]Forbidden Fruit

Another quick flashback to school days will bring us closer to the core of this piece: my mom’s obsessions with healthy school snack. She was extremely against any junk food, that’s why I was not allowed to take any money to school. She always baked simple cakes at home (such as this one); an afternoon activity that evolved a lot of fun in the kitchen and licking some batter off the bowl. My school snack was a piece of cake and some fruit; almost always an apple.

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I had my soft and moist cake during the first break, and the apple on the second one. So that it also worked as a natural toothbrush. Although I knew that my mom’s home-made cake was a precious thing, I couldn’t help craving for chips, or digging my fingers in cheetoz bags that left them all orange and cheesy, or longing for really terrible cold cut sandwiches that somehow tasted like a noble food when wolfed down at the backyard, where other greedily hungry teenagers couldn’t find you.

I have grown up with apples. In Iran we begin the new year with red apples, as they’re part of our famous “7 S’s” table. Later in Spring rosewater apples hit the market; a small and fragrant variety of apples I have had only in Iran. And we knew Summer was ending when the green, crunchy and slightly sour apples appeared on our tables. These are still my favorite type of apples.

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Often we neglect the common, ordinary apple as a fruit we can find anytime, anywhere. But apple’s story is tied to human’s story. From the Garden of Eden to Snow White, discovery of gravity to modern technology, apples have always been present in mythology, religion and pop culture. Although maybe it’s worth saying that the most (in)famous of these stories that features apple as the forbidden fruit, is a big historical misunderstanding. In fact, the apple is not mentioned at all in the Genesis section of the Bible and neither in Quran*. The only fruit mentioned in that section is the fig, which leaves Adam and Eve use to cover their nakedness. But since in the medieval west the fig was too exotic to be recognized, the common and familiar apple became the forbidden fruit. However, Michelangelo has painted a very clear fig tree on Sistine Chappell’s ceiling. 

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The apple’s story is so fascinating that drink writer Pete Brown has written a book called The Apple Orchard: The Story of Our Most English Fruit. He has done an outstanding research on this fruit, which was not born in Britain, as is commonly believed. As Brown explains clearly, it has been scientifically proved that the apple grew in Kazakistan for the first time. Not so surprising considering the fact the Almaty means the location of Apples, and Alma-Ata, the other pronunciation of the name of the city means the father of the apple in Turk languages. Alma, (apple) is also a common girl’s name in the whole Silk Road region. 

*Biblical and Quranic narratives, Wikipedia.

III. Pride and Pudding, “A Very Tasty Masterpiece” by Miss Foodwise

I am almost sure that Regula Ysewijn aka Miss Foodwise was the first food blogger I came upon and I started following seriously. At that time I was very obsessed with my diet and did not know much about the food blogging world. I had just debuted my presence on Instagram. Beautiful, dark photos inspired by the Dutch masters, intriguing historical recipes from the great Britain, and the stories behind them, tuned into a faithful reader of hers.

A Simple Persian Pumpkin Dessert, Fading Borders & The Travel to Iran

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I. On Home & Borders

I always have contrasting feelings whenever I travel to Iran. When I am about to leave, when I just get there, in the middle of the trip and by the time I am back in Rome I always experience very intense, and diverse emotions. No matter how many years have past since I left my country —eight, to be precise— each time, I fail at the vain attempt of keeping a sort of neutrality.  It’s that very simple word, with its captivating sound, that causes all the confusion. Home. The more time passes, the more I am convinced that I can no longer attribuite that word to one physical place, but more to a sensation, as it also said here long ago.  #BeautifulIran Visit Iran Pt.1 | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-57

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I firmly believe that our times will be later named as the era where borders began to disappear. Those borders, are more than the imaginary lines between territories that decide who can get to a certain fortune/misery and who can’t. The borders between our cultures, our lives, our food, are fading away. And I am one hundred percent for it. 

Whenever people hear about my cooking stories and the supper club (more on that soon!), usually they first thing they ask is “Do you cook Iranian food, or Italian food?“. My answer to that question is always none. As an Iranian who has lived in Italy for more than eight years now, I can never say the food I cook a hundred percent Italian or Iranian. I have been contaminated —in the best way possible— by the culture of totally different country, that happens to have one of the best cuisine of the world, I have inherited an incredibly sophisticated and refined culinary tradition; and in between, I have tasted the world! I have met a lot of people from different countries. “Who cares what your passport say, or even if you’ve got one. Let’s eat!“. Show me what you got, I wanna try it all.

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We are not all that different after all. Not just food wise (you might find it surprising how some Italian and Iranian dishes are similar, like I said here), we human beings, at the end of the day like and dislike the same things. No matter where we come from, what spices we use more in our food, and who we worship, we like to be happy and safe. We hate to know that our family is danger. We all aspire to live a better life. We want to put some pieces together to make prospect. Some of us, like me, are much luckier than others. I wanted to attend a conference for food bloggers in London. I wanted to learn more, to make this blog —therefore my business, my life— better. But because of those imaginary lines, borders, I couldn’t. Despite the time, money and energy I had put in it to make it happen.

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Those who don’t have the our privilege of living in safety and peace, spend much more of time, energy and money, to try to aspire to live better. They risk their lives, just for having a mere chance at that. Can —and should— those imaginary lines really determine who can, and who can’t get a chance to aspire for a better life?

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II. Seasons Change, Everlastingly. So Bring a Pumpkin Dessert.

Nature is the best example when it comes to show how really similar we all are, in spite of our names and documents. All human beings celebrate the change of seasons and natural changes of the nature. We might’ve interpret it in different ways through history due to our different geography and history, but we are all talking about the same fact.

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By now that October is already here, we all have tuned into Fall. Shorter days and cooler breeze. The comeback of the blankets on sofas and soups on the stove tops. The return of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and cacao. It’s time for the last harvest of the year and to get ready for the cold season. Dry fruit is more popular. Walnuts and hazlenuts. And of course, the glorious, orange presence of pumpkins, butternuts and kabochas. All types.

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In ancient Iran, at these times of the year, they celebrated Mehregan. It’s a festivity of harvest, they say. They brought red fruit and many legumes. They celebrated all together.  It was exactly last year at this time when I had the honor of joining of other Persian food bloggers for a recipe round-up. Last year, I shared the recipe for a perfect matrimony between Persian and Italian cooking, —Lentil Risotto. This year, I am sharing a recipe so simple it could be from anywhere. At the bottom of this post you can find the links to all the other Persian food blogs sharing seasonal recipes for the occasion of Mehregan. Remember to check them out! My mom used to make this simple Persian pumpkin dessert during school days, —because it’s so simple and healthy that it doesn’t count as a treat. (and I absolutely hated it! That’s because back at my school days I hated pretty much every vegetable.) Continue reading