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.

Finnish Date & Coffee Bundt Cake | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-2
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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

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

Persian Delights - Rosy Candies for Christmas Edible Gifts | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-title-01

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.

Persian Delights - Rosy Candies for Christmas Edible Gifts | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-2

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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. 

Persian Delights - Rosy Candies for Christmas Edible Gifts | Lab Noon by Saghar Setareh-5

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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

Spring Celebrations, a Fragrant Ricotta Cake & Saveur Blog Awards Nomination (Wow!)

healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon

1. Thirty feels good & I love this Spring!

Too many things have happened in the past couple of weeks. Important matters, life changing events and personal/professional achievements. Spring bloomed and with that, a light breeze of relief and satisfaction started to blow in my life. And… it happened.

I had dreaded it, tried in vain to escape from it and obsessed about it so much, but when I finally turned 30, I realized that I already liked it. I figured out that my previous birthday had been more scary. On that day (my 29th birthday), my friend Tommaso and I were shooting my head shots (the one on the right and here) for this blog. I was so scared of getting old without having constructed enough foundations. This year however, despite some difficulties, I was just happy, with no need for many descriptive adjectives to communicated how I really felt. My birthday party was an unconventional, casual picnic in one of Rome’s beautiful villas with a bunch of intimate friends, some easy peasy veggie pies made with home-grown, Sicilian vegetables from a friend’s garden, and a big, Easter chocolate egg. Even the weather was on my side; We enjoyed long hours of laying on the grass with the warm sun kissing our skin, chatting, eating & drinking.

healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon

Before my birthday however, there was my thesis defense session and graduation. As I mentioned, as the final project in my graduate studies in Graphic Design & Photography in Rome’s Fine Art Academy, I created a cookbook with my own recipes & photography, and designed every single detail from typography to layouts. I was very satisfied with the project (despite being exhausted) and I was quite speechless by the flattering compliments of the professors and everybody else. This has made me more confident in the journey that I have chosen to step in; the one that embraces good food, photography, editorial design and a lot of determination. 

healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon
healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon

I will soon add more photo/info about this cookbook prototype but in the meanwhile let me say that YOU appear in the acknowledgments! How could I not thank each single one of you who reads, likes, and share what I do and gives me a lot of support?

Speaking of your support, as you probably know (if you follow me on facebook and/or twitter), Lab Noon is a finalist in the 6th Annual SAVEUR Blog Awards! From a record-breaking pool of nearly 50,000 submissions, it was selected as one of top six contenders in its category. This was a dream when I had just started this blog, and thanks to Saveur editors, previous winners (among the editors) and most importantly, thanks to you who have nominated me, this dream came true in the very first year of this blog! This too, encourages me to work harder and push this little blog and its affiliated projects forward. 

Lab Noon is nominated in “Best Special Interest” category with other 5 blogs of great talent and originality. This is the great thing about Saveur blogs awards; you get to know a lot of amazing people who are doing beautiful things. To know us better please read the presentation of our blogs and our bios on Saveur’s site. 

In order to vote your favorite blogs simply click here (or on the Saveur badge in the sidebar) and register/log in to Saveur’s website. I would appreciate it if you supported me and cast a vote! Remember to check other wonderful blogs in every category. I’m sure you will find a lot of pleasant surprises. Share the love on your social media with the link saveur.com/blogawards and the hashtag #‎SavBlogAwards‬.

healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon

2. Let’s celebrate with a healthy, moist and fragrant cake!

I didn’t have a birthday cake right on my birthday. But since it was Easter, and as I told you there were just too many reasons to celebrate, I baked this one a couple of days later. Easter, just like any other holiday in Italy (and many other places) means a lot of heavy meals, chocolates and Colomba (a typical Italian Easter cake similar to Panettone for Christmas). And then, there are those of us who have just finished celebrating Norouz, the Persian new year with —again— a lot of food, sweets and pastries and salty nuts.

This one is a relatively light and healthy cake. There’s no butter in it and the only fat is 4 tbsp of olive oil. The main ingredient is fresh sheep ricotta. Ricotta makes the cake incredibly moist and soft. Spring is the time when the milking season of sheep begins. So if you know some farms around, ask for fresh sheep dairy. I remember when I was little, by around May you could find excellent sheep yogurt in shops. The supermarket near my home has some products from local farmers and fresh sheep ricotta is one of them. However, if you don’t find sheep ricotta, by all means use normal ricotta cheese. Just make sure you find a skim one (to keep the cake lighter). The ricotta cheese I use normally has 150-160kcal/100g and 11-12g fat.

healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon
healthy Ricotta Cake | Torta di Ricotta senza burro | Lab Noon

Ricotta is also the base of the frosting, mixed with orange blossom water and some maple syrup (depending on how sweet you like it). The southern cities of Iran such as Shiraz and Kerman are famous for excellent citrus. Dry, warm weather is essential for good quality and fragrant citrus. Just like in Italy, where best oranges grow in Sicily and best lemons & citrons in Campagna. We owe that refreshing scent to the sun of the south. They say if you walk in the allies of Shiraz in this time of the year, you’ll get drunk by the mesmerizing aroma of orange blossoms that have invaded the city. Continue reading