Archives for February 2015

Cardamom Brownies – Spice Spoon in the New York Times

Cardamom Brownies NYT 3

Hello and a Happy New Year to all of you!

I was asked to be a Contributor for a piece on ‘How to Deal with Heartbreak’, in the New York Times – I hope you enjoy reading it. Here is the link (that is an edited version). Many of you asked me for the full text, because what was printed in the New York Times had to be edited down. Here is the full text:

How to Handle Heartbreak

It was a cold and wet day in the winter of 2002, when I first arrived in Rome. I remember sitting in my apartment on the Aventine hill on that first night, next to the window overlooking the Giardino degli Aranci, flipping through Vanity Fair in Italian, trying to eat slices of pizza ai funghi my landlady, Cristina, had bought for me from Passi, the local bakery down the hill. Feeling depressed and lonely, I didn’t have much of an appetite. I had made a decision to end a relationship and leave my family home in Washington, DC, for a new job at the United Nations in Rome – as a way of starting over again. I turned to my left and stared at the beautiful marble counter in the kitchen – Cristina was a chef, after all – and at the stone mortar and pestle sitting on that counter, brought back from Cristina’s travels to South America. I thought about all the special meals I had made for the man I had loved and shared so much of my life with – the braised Afghan-style lamb stew with burnt aubergine (his favourite), eaten alongside bowls of the Levantine-style of rice with broken vermicelli I had learnt to make from his mother. Heartbroken in Rome, I wondered how I could ever be happy again.

My second morning in Rome, Cristina invited me to host a dinner party with her, as a means of introducing me to her Roman friends. My last few weeks before leaving Washington, DC, my mother had been cooking for me, as I had lost all enthusiasm to go into the kitchen. The thought of cooking for strangers in a new city, who were not familiar with cuisine from my part of the world, excited me just a little bit, so I decided to make those very dishes which would remind me of the comfort of home and my mother – to help me forget the heartbreak, just a little. I decided to make koftay – spiced meatballs in a jammy tomato sauce; chana dahl – lentil soup; and tah-dig – saffron-crusted rice, as a nod to my paternal grandmother’s Persian heritage. And to round off the night, I would serve something with chocolate and fragrant notes of cardamom – the scent of home.

After a trip to Castroni, a specialty store, where I bought basmati rice and saffron and other whole spices like cumin, coriander and cardamom, Cristina and I began to cook together in my new kitchen. I crushed strands of saffron, staining my fingertips vermillion, while Cristina helped me sauté ginger and garlic in olive oil till it turned bronze. I mixed brownie batter, while Cristina transformed cardamom seeds into powder in her pestle and mortar before sprinkling it into the bowl. Our guests arrived later that night, holding hot bowls of chana dahl in their hands and ladling spicy tomato sauce over mounds of saffron-stained rice, washing it down with Pinot Nero. We ate squares of brownies with thimbles of espressi before the end of the night and just for those few hours, I laughed with others and realised that I was lucky to be living in such a fascinating city.

If it were not for that second day in Rome, when I had cooked with Cristina and hosted a dinner party, I may have still been sitting on my dining table, staring out the window onto the Giardino degli Aranci for weeks on end. It was that morning, whizzing through the streets of Rome with Cristina on her motorbike, and that ritual of cutting, mincing and stirring, which made me forget – for some moments of time – all the pain and heartache that had paralysed me in Washington, DC. Even though this was a meal which began with a spell of heartbreak, it reminded me of all the good things in life, which includes cooking for others and breaking bread together.

And as part of the piece, you will find the recipe for my cardamom brownies – they are quite moist and sticky – I hope you enjoy making, eating and sharing them.

*8-10 green cardamom pods
*120 g chocolate (60-70% cocoa solids)
*170 g unsalted butter
*200 g white sugar
*75 g brown sugar
*2 teaspoons espresso grounds
*3 eggs (medium)
*150 g flour
*2 tablespoons pistachios, unsalted
*Dried rose petals (optional; available in Middle Eastern grocery stores)
*Cocoa powder, to dust on top

*Preheat oven to 180C. Butter the sides of a 20cm x 20cm baking dish. Dust the sides with flour, and tap out excess. Line the bottom with parchment paper.
*Remove cardamom seeds from their pods. Discard pods. Crush seeds in a pestle and mortar. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar, wrap the seeds in a newspaper and crush with a rolling pin (or the base of your frying pan). The seeds should not be crushed to a dust. The result should look like freshly cracked pepper. Set aside.
*Melt chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl set over a pan of simmering water, and gently stir. Take off the heat and add white and brown sugar, espresso and cardamom powder and stir to combine. Set aside and allow to completely cool.
*Add eggs to chocolate mixture and stir to combine. Add flour and mix until smooth.
*Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread evenly. While baking, crush pistachios in a pestle and mortar. If you don’t have a pestle and mortar, wrap the pistachios in a newspaper and crush with a rolling pin (or the base of your frying pan).
*Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out with moist crumbs. Cool in the pan on a rack, then use the parchment paper to lift out the brownies before slicing into squares.
*Adorn with pistachio dust, rose petals and a dusting of cocoa powder.