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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Cardamom Date Tart with a Browned Butter Crust

This tart is sometimes referred to as cheesecake because of the creamy layer of sweetness above a cookie crust, but I lovingly call it Tamr Tart. 'Tamr' is the Arabic word for 'date' and if you know anything about Arabs you know we have a love affair with dates. Moroccans and Algerians use them in savory food, many traditional Palestinians use them in a molasses, and all Arabs include them heavily in many sweets. Tamr tart is a relatively modern dessert that developed recently in Syria. I tried it there about 10 years ago and was surprised with how well East met West in this delicacy.

 Fast forward a few years later when I wanted to make it and couldn't find a single version online that was close to what I had enjoyed while on vacation.  Finally a friend of mine emailed some family members of hers in Syria and got me their version...which was a start on the right path to the mythical one in my mind ;)  I translated the emailed recipe from Arabic to English and began to play around with the recipe, removing most of the butter from the crust (like 12 tablespoons to be exact), finding American replacements for the Arab products, testing out different cookie options for the base, playing with the cream ratios, adding all the spices and nuts...and years later here I am with what I consider the best tamr/date/tart/cheesecake to be found!

Note that all the 'optional' spices are things I always include, but I realize not everyone is a fan of cardamom or anise and the tart still tastes delicious without them. I have tried every variation of cookies you can imagine for the crust layer and my favorites are the tea biscuits. Recently I've been using the butter shortbread cookies that get sold during the holidays in big tins to use up the ones I have, and they make a really good crust because of the added butter flavor! Other crusts that would taste delicious are my gingerbread molasses crust or an easy chocolate Oreo crust

This tart is on the sweeter side, so I recommend enjoying it in modest portions and for the more sophisticated foodies out there it is DIVINE with a sprinkling of sea salt! The only desserts I prepare when hosting a gathering are ones I can do in advance...and I really seek out desserts that taste better the longer they last. This is that dessert. Make it and pop it into the freezer until you're ready for it, no need to even thaw before serving! The dates will firm up and the cream layer gets thicker. If you keep it in the fridge the dates and cream will be soft and smooth...either way you can't go wrong. I've had a couple mini tarts that hung out in the freezer for about 2 months one time and when I took them out to eat they were honestly just as delicious (obviously they need to be sealed properly to preserve freshness).

Makes about 16 slices

-2 1/2 cups tea biscuit cookies/graham crackers/vanilla wafers/speculous cookies
-1/4 cup browned butter (4 tablespoons) OR coconut oil
-2 teaspoons cinnamon powder
-dash of salt

Cream Layer:
-2 cans Nestle table cream
-1 can sweetened condensed milk (I always use fat-free!)
-1 tablespoon vanilla
-2 cups pitted and chopped dates (about 16 medjools)
-1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom 
-1/4 teaspoon anise seeds
-1 cup chopped nuts (my favorites in order: pistachios, pecans, walnuts or almonds)
-light sprinkling of sea salt after tart has baked 

To make
-Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Butter a tart pan, taking care to spread the butter into the rim of the pan, and set aside.
-Place a skillet on stove and heat through. Add 4 tablespoons butter and whisk on medium heat until the color turns a golden brown and you smell a nutty and caramel odor. Remove from the heat and allow to cool for a moment. (Alternatively you can just melt the butter quickly in the microwave for 15 to 30 seconds then add to the cookie crumbs. I like to brown the butter to add a dimension of flavor in the crust.) *If using coconut oil do not brown, just melt and add to cookie crumbs*
-In a food processor (or a ziplock bag) crush your cookies by pulsing until they are fine crumbs. Add the melted butter to the cookie crumbs, along with the cinnamon powder and a dash of salt and continue pulsing until the butter is well incorporated into your cookies, forming a crumbly mixture.
-Press the crust evenly into your buttered tart pan, and go up along the edges to create a crust.  Bake on the middle rack of oven for about 5 minutes, until the crust is lightly browned or puffed up.
-While the crust is baking, remove the pits and roughly chop dates. I slice each date in half lengthwise then chop it into 3 parts, getting about 6 pieces from each date. Mix together the Nestle cream, condensed milk and vanilla then stir in the dates and optional ingredients.
-Spread the cream layer over the crust and space out the date pieces if needed. I usually have about 1/2 cup of extra filling that I make a mini tart with or save for another time, but if you have a deep tart pan you can use it all. 
-Place the tart pan on a larger baking sheet (to catch any potential overflow as it bakes, which hasn't happened to me but I like to be safe lol) and return the tart to the middle rack of the oven and bake for 25-30 minutes. You are looking for the cream to start bubbling and browning all around. Once you are satisfied with the browning remove it from the oven and let it cool.
-Serve warm or cold (I prefer it cold but my sister always likes a slice straight from the oven)

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Check out my other date dessert...its one I love!

For a savory take on dates, try my sweet and savory lentil salad :)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Lemon Garlic Chicken and Potatoes (Jaj iw Batata)

I learned to make this from my grandmother in Syria many years ago. Every time I make it I feel a little nostalgic about childhood summers when she cooked it for us and I'm proud to prepare it for my own children now. Of course I've adapted it slightly to save preparation time, but it still tastes just like my grandma's :)

This is a simpler version of my popular sheesh tawooq recipe because everything gets thrown into one pot and its ready to eat in about 30 minutes. No special produce is required, just some chicken, potatoes, garlic and lemon...ingredients which are pantry staples for most of us.  I make this on nights when I'm pressed for time and my ingredients are limited. Of course squeezing fresh lemons is a more natural way to go, but when I'm in a pinch I've used bottled lemon juice and I'll tell you there's no shame in that game (although my Grandma would probably disown me if she found out I've done this because she's so authentic and natural in her cooking that she even prepares her own red pepper paste...)

This is a great dish for dinner parties because you can prepare it the night before and just place it in the fridge until you're ready to cook it. You can also use your slow cooker, following the same directions except increasing the cooking time to 4-6 hours. 

Ready to cook :)

Serves 4-6

-2 1/2 pounds boneless skinless chicken breast
-2 pounds gold potatoes (or russet, but you need to peel those first)
-1 cup lemon juice (you can add 1/2 cup extra if you like a strong lemon tang)
-1/2 cup minced garlic
-2 tablespoons red pepper paste (found in the ethnic section of large markets or in most Middle Eastern stores)
-1 tablespoon ground coriander
-1 tablespoon lemon pepper (optional)
-1 teaspoon salt
-1/2 cup olive oil
-4 cups water

To make
-Cut chicken breast into 1 inch cubes and place in pressure cooker (you can make this in a regular pot but increase the cook time to about 40 minutes or until chicken and potatoes are tender.)
-Wash and cut potatoes into 1 inch cubes and add to pot.
-Add lemon juice, minced garlic, red pepper paste, coriander, lemon pepper, salt, olive oil and water.
-Cover pot and pressurize. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 25 minutes.
-Release pressure from your pot,  uncover and stir gently. If you have too little sauce add some water. This is also a good time to adjust the lemon taste by adding more if you need it.
-Serve with pita bread and enjoy!

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