Nowruz – Rosewater Shortbread with Chocolate and Pistachio

Rosewater Shortbread

I was invited to write a little piece for the Express Tribune Magazine, published in partnership with The International New York Times, in Pakistan, about Nowruz (see article below) and how I celebrate it in my home with my husband and son.  If any of you residing in Pakistan are reading this – do pick up a copy of the magazine!

Shameem Saadat

‘Mader’ means ‘mother’ in Farsi, and that’s what we affectionately called my paternal grandmother, Shameem Saadat. My father tells me that Mader’s grandfather, Syed Nadir Ali Shah, was a Sufi saint who travelled from his home in Iran to present-day Pakistan, to spread the Sufi word. He fell in love with a hazel-eyed girl, married her, and ended up spending the rest of his life in Lahore. That hazel-eyed girl was Mader’s grandmother.

Syed Nadir Ali Shah came from a province in the northeast of Iran called Khorasan, which means ‘where the sun comes from’, also known as the land of saffron. Mader never told me this story; I suppose she was not a very nostalgic person. Or perhaps she simply did not have time for such frivolities. Born in 1916, she lost her father when she was merely nine years old, leaving her mother with the responsibility of bringing up four daughters. Educated — Mader was one of the first women in Pakistan to obtain an MA in Economics from Government College Lahore in 1938 — she went on to become a civil servant, a wife, a mother, a grandmother and a fabulous and curious cook.

Mader was not only my grandmother, she was also my partner and my best friend. I went to live in Pakistan with her when I was 13 years old and every day after school, we used to have lunch together at home. There were spiced tomato stews with chicken or mutton, eaten with naan from the local tandoor, burnt aubergine raitas, which we both loved, and seasonal, sliced fruit, langra mango or custard-hued guavas eaten with globs of fresh, thick cream on top.

I wish I could tell you that she prepared these meals for me with her own hands, but she was not that kind of grandmother. She was an avid cook, but she was not one to enter the kitchen on a daily basis, plus, her expertise did not lie in Pakistani cuisine. As for dishes from her heritage — Pakistani or Persian — as a working woman for most of her life, I suppose she felt those were best left to the experts, the cooks in her kitchen.

When Mader did cook, she made crème anglaise with an apple tart (thanks to her cookery lessons at the French Cultural Institute in Lahore) or a roast chicken, with crackly skin alongside a zucchini gratin which she learnt to make from the chef of her friend, the US Consulate General in Lahore.

I had always heard stories of my grandmother’s Irani ancestry, but after moving to Toronto I became keenly interested in finding out more about where her family had come from. By that time, Mader was long gone.

In my home, on Navroze, you won’t find the ceremonial table of the haft-seen nor will you find me making the traditional Navroze dish, sabzi polo mahi (fish with herbed rice). For me, Navroze is very personal and indeed, it is about new beginnings — such as my move to Toronto after my marriage. It was a new place, strange and far from my adopted home in Rome. Navroze also reminds me of Mader’s resilience and how she carried on as the strong matriarch of her family even after suffering a double mastectomy.

On Navroze I like to bake something sweet for my husband and son, maybe some shortbread spiked with a little rosewater, which Mader would have loved to enjoy with her cup of tea and I buy some roses, because Mader loved Damasks and grew them in her garden in our family home in Lahore. And on March 20th, on Navroze, I will read a bit of Ghalib’s poetry, which Mader loved — she always used to quote the stanza: Go haath ko jumbish nahin aankhon mein toh dum hai.

Eid e Shoma Mubarik.
Shayma Saadat is a food writer, photographer and stylist who also writes the award-winning blog, Spice Spoon. You can follow her visual diary on Instagram @SpiceSpoon.

The recipe for the rosewater shortbread I bake for Nowruz is below (and also published in the Express Tribune Magazine – in case you have a copy of it).

Wishing everyone a beautiful Nowruz in advance x

PS I made these treats last year for Nowruz, in case you want to try something which is gluten-free (cookies made with rice flour).

Rosewater Shortbread with Chocolate and Pistachios

225g unsalted butter, softened
75g powdered sugar
325g all-purpose flour
½ tsp salt*
1 tbsp rosewater**
30g crushed, unsalted pistachios
2 tbsp crushed, organic dried rose petals (it should look like rose petal dust)
250g dark chocolate, chopped***

*Use sea or pink salt, not table salt.
**I use a Lebanese brand here in Toronto, which is quite mild. Be sure to taste and test your rosewater and adjust the amount accordingly.
***I prefer dark chocolate, but you can use a milk chocolate too.

*Divide shortbread disks in two separate batches and bake separately, so that they bake evenly.
Pre-heat an oven to 160°C and line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. Sift powdered sugar and set aside. Sift flour and salt in a separate bowl and set aside. Whip softened butter with a mixer on medium-high speed for three to five minutes (alternatively, you can do this by hand), scraping down the sides of the bowl when required, till it turns a pale yellow and is light and fluffy.
*Add powdered sugar in batches, beating between each addition, till the mixture looks pale, for a total of three minutes.
*Reduce the mixer speed to low, and gradually add flour mixture and rosewater. Mix until combined. Do not overmix. The dough will look dry. Transfer dough to a large piece of parchment or wax paper and gently form the dough into a 35cm log by wrapping the paper around it.
*Chill the dough in the fridge for at least 2 hours (can be chilled for up to a few days). When ready to bake, slice chilled log into ½cm slices. (Tightly wrap half of the sliced dough with plastic wrap or parchment paper and place back into the fridge.)
*Arrange first batch of disks on the baking sheet, leaving 3cm between each disk. Bake for 15 to 17 minutes or till the sides of the shortbread disks start to turn slightly golden.
*Remove from oven and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes. Repeat the same process with the second batch of shortbread disks.

To decorate:
P*lace chopped chocolate in a double boiler set over simmering water (or you can melt it in a microwave). Stir chocolate for about five minutes, until it melts and looks glossy. Then remove from heat.
*Dip the end of each disk halfway into the chocolate, allow chocolate to drip back into the bowl and then place the shortbread disk on parchment paper.
*Sprinkle crushed pistachios and dried rose petal dust on the dipped part of the disk. Allow to rest for one hour till the chocolate has hardened.
*The disks can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week, but I doubt they will last this long.

Cardamom Brownies – Spice Spoon in the New York Times

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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.

Saffron-Scented Aubergine Stew in the Persian Manner

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Mehregan Mubarik! Today, along with thirty other Persian food bloggers, we are celebrating Jashn-e-Mehregan – the ancient Persian festival to celebrate the Autumn Equinox. Historically, in ancient Persia, this festival was an occasion to honour the god of justice – Mehr – and to give thanks for the end of the harvest season.

The first thing I think about when the leaves turn ruby-red and my shawls come out of the hidden part of my closet, is a hearty tomato-spiced stew. Now that the days are shorter and we are beginning to spend more time indoors, the scent of saffron, mingling with tomatoes and cumin, bubbling away on the burner, seems to be the best way to spend a night in. Aubergine, with its glorious shades of violet is in season right now and one of my favourite ways of preparing it is to incorporate it into a khoresht; a stew. With its jammy tomato base, all you need to have with this Khoresht-e-Badejmaan is a tahdig – saffron-crusted basmati rice – and creamy strained yoghurt. It seems to be the best way to start a new season and to give thanks for all that we have.

Speaking of giving thanks – I recently became a Canadian citizen and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of this country – a country which this Pakistani-Persian-Afghan nomad now calls home.

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Khoresht-e-Bademjaan (5 of 1)


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Before you get to my recipe below, I hope you enjoy reading all the beautiful dishes my fellow Persian food bloggers have put together for Mehregan.

Ahu Eats: Badoom Sookhte Torsh | Sour Caramelized Almonds
All Kinds of Yum: Jeweled Carrot Salad
Bottom of the Pot: Broccoli Koo Koo (Frittata)
Cafe Leilee: Northern Iranian Pomegranate Garlic and Chicken Stew
Coco in the Kitchen: Zeytoon Parvardeh  | Marinated Olives with Pomegranate & Walnuts
Della Cucina Povera: Ghormeh Sabzi | Persian Lamb & Herb Stew
Fae’s Twist & Tango: Rice Meatballs | Kufteh Berenji
Family Spice: Khoreshteh Kadoo | Butternut Squash Stew
Fig & Quince: Festive Persian Noodle Rice & Roasted Chicken Stuffed with Yummies for Mehregan
Honest and Tasty: Loobia Polo | Beef and Green Bean Rice
Lab Noon: Adas Polo Risotto | Persian Lentils Risotto
Lucid Food: Sambuseh
My Caldron: Anaar-Daneh Mosamma | Pomegranate Stew
My Persian Kitchen: Keshmesh Polow | Persian Raisin Rice
Noghlemey: Parsi Dal Rice Pie
Parisa’s Kitchen: Morasa Polow | Jeweled Rice
Sabzi: Ash-e Mast (Yogurt soup with meatballs)
The Saffron Tales: Khorosht-e Gheimeh | Yellow Lentils Stew
Simi’s Kitchen: Lita Turshisi | Torshi-e Liteh | Tangy aubergine pickle
Spice Spoon: Khoresht-e-bademjaan | Saffron-Scented Aubergine Stew
Turmeric & Saffron: Ash-a Haft Daneh | Seven Bean Soup
The Unmanly Chef: Baghali Polow ba Mahicheh | Rice with Fave Beans and Lamb
ZoZoBaking: Masghati | Persian Scented Starch Fudge

Recipe notes:
• I like this stew with a thick, reduced sauce, if you prefer your stew to be more fluid, with abundant sauce, simply add more water when you add the aubergine in the end.
• Always adjust for salt, because it really depends on your taste as well as the type of salt you are using.
• I prefer chicken with bone because it makes the sauce more flavourful. You can use boneless chicken thighs, too, just remember to decrease the weight to about 700g.
• Feel free to adjust for black and cayenne pepper, as per your preference.
• If you don’t want to broil the aubergine, feel free to gently sauté the flesh side of it in oil, till it is bronzed. I do often use this method, but you have to be quick, because aubergine sucks up a lot of oil when it is sautéed or fried.

*2-3 tbsp olive oil
*125g finely chopped onions (approximately ½ a large onion)
*1 kg chicken thighs (weight with bone)
*2 garlic cloves, minced
*½ tsp turmeric powder
*¼ tsp black pepper
*Pinch cayenne pepper
*¼ tsp cumin powder
*½ + ½ tsp salt
*1 tsp saffron threads, crushed into powder in a pestle and mortar, dissolved with two tablespoons of water
*300g chopped tomatoes, including juices (blanched and skin removed)
*2 tbsp water
*Neutral oil for frying
*350-400g baby aubergine quartered (the slices should be approximately 8-10cm long and 2cm thick)**
*juice of one lime
*1 tsp rose water (optional)***
*8-12 cherry tomatoes

*Place a wide  heavy-bottomed pan, which has a lid, (the one I use is 30cm in diameter)on the stove on medium heat and add oil. Add onions and sauté for ten minutes, till they become slightly golden, but not brown.

*Turn heat to medium-high and add garlic, chicken, turmeric, black pepper, cayenne pepper, cumin, ½ teaspoon salt, saffron water and sauté for five minutes, till the spices are fragrant and the chicken has lost its raw pink colour.

*Add tomatoes, sprinkle with two tablespoons of water, lower the heat to medium and cover the pan for twenty minutes. (If you feel the tomatoes are sticking to the bottom of the pan, add a few more tablespoons of water and lower the heat a bit more.)

*In the meantime, brush the flesh side only of your aubergine with a neutral oil (don’t use olive oil, as it has a low smoking point) and transfer to a baking sheet. Place directly under your broiler (skin side down) and allow the flesh to turn bronze. This will take between five-ten minutes. Keep a vigilant eye on them, they can burn easily.

*Transfer aubergine to the pan at the 20-minute mark, (once the chicken has tenderised), skin side down, and sprinkle with the remaining salt, rosewater and lime juice. If the tomato sauce looks like it has reduced significantly, add more of water. Cover with lid and allow to cook for 25-35 minutes, or till the aubergine is fork tender but still holds its shape.

*When the stew is still hot, before serving, dot the stew with cherry tomatoes, cover with lid and wait till the skin of the tomatoes wilts a bit (five minutes). It adds an extra pop to the dish.

*Serve with your favourite fresh herbs strewn on top, tahdig (saffron-crusted rice) and strained yoghurt.

**You can use any aubergine of your choice, just remember to keep the chopped dimensions in mind.

***Rosewater can be found in Middle Eastern or Pakistani/Indian grocery stores.

Spice Spoon in Hello! Magazine

Hello, lovelies – As you know, I was featured in Hello! Magazine this summer, and I finally have the feature online, to share with all of you. I hope you enjoy reading it. Click on this link here.