Favorite Things: A roller rolling pin

Unlike my mother, I have never been much of a collector. Her mind takes just about anything she loves and turns it into a collector’s odyssey, a search-and-find presence of mind that is always with her. She’s done it with antique teacups, with her Fostoria glass, a slew of teapots, flow blue china and porcelain pillboxes. She started me on a collection of little pitchers a few years ago and have I bought one little pitcher to add to it? Nope, it’s all her, and I love every interesting piece she brings home.

But every time I pull out my wooden rolling pin, I think of how I’d like to start a collection of them. A whole drawer full, the top drawer in a prominent place in the kitchen. Or hung on the wall, my rolling pin art.

The only problem with that is my complete devotion to one type of rolling pin and one type only: the roller type, with an internal axle and two handles that make it roll with grace and ease. This is the type of rolling pin my grandmothers used and it’s the rolling pin my mother uses. We save our pins, hand them down the generations so that by now we have Sitto’s and Aunt Hilda’s and Grandma Abowd’s and Aunt Latifi’s too. You can get them lots of places new (this is a nice one), but really the older the better, because they get a smooth, worn patina–the better to channel the good karma of all the bakers that went before me. And they spin with such ease, they’re like…well…butter.

The look of the French tapered pin is wonderful, beautiful. And yet, for me it has nothing over on the roller pin for functionality and for lifting your hands up above the dough so that they don’t knock into it every time you glide across it. I do want to love the way the French pin does its job, though, just so I could buy these.

There are a few other rolling pins made from marble or other heavy weight for candy making or to hold the cold. These can make for a nice and even rollout and require a lot less brute strength to get the job done. I do have to tell myself sometimes mid-roll that if I can stand to go to the gym and lift weights, then I can stand to push down and out on this dough and take control of its destiny. Frances, our teacher at Tante Marie’s, was insistent that we control the dough, and not let the dough control us. You are in charge! Za’atar croissants, here we come.

What type of pin is your favorite? Do you collect? I’m jealous. I might just have to put my mother onto the job. Before you know it I’ll have a drawer full, a wall full, and plenty of beautiful rolled out dough to boot.

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Ingredient: European-style butter (for our Za’atar Croissants)

Happy spring—it feels official now, even in Up North in Michigan, where it snowed as recently as last week. While we are far from the first crop of anything here, there is still the sense that the place is waking up and good things are coming our way. There are daffodils, and the cows are grazing a greener field. They must be as relieved as we are. I bet they’re going to give us some great dairy this year.

But try as they might, their butter isn’t likely to be European-style. That’s fine, but when it comes to baking things like the za’atar croissants we’re going for this week (new readers: not to worry, we make mostly simple Lebanese recipes here, with some more complex ones only every now and then), it’s the rich texture and flavor of European butter that we can’t do without.

The distinction of European-style butter is simple but important: it contains a higher percentage of butterfat than regular butter, 83 to 86 percent. Perfect for the pliability we need making croissant dough, and for encouraging the fluffy, airy croissant layers. European butter is also “cultured,” which means that the butter has a more complex, slightly acidic, flavor–better said, it’s luscious. This comes from cream that has been allowed to mature, or ripen, as well as from the introduction of bacterial cultures into the mix. I like to think of good butter the same way I do good cheese—the higher the fat content and the riper flavor, the (much, much) better.

And not for nothing, European-style butter often comes wrapped in a parchment-backed foil. Yes, this creates a barrier to protect the butter from other scents and flavors. But also: Is there nothing more exciting than unwrapping something wonderful to eat from its luxurious foil? It’s my chocolate Easter egg, my golden Wonka ticket (“I’ve got a golden ticket, I’ve got a golden ticket!”).

Which brand of European-style butter to choose may be as simple as what you can find nearby. But you can be sure there are many opinions about which is the finest. Read about some of them at Cook’s Illustrated and Saveur.

I’m using Plugra unsalted European butter, which is produced not in Europe but in Pennsylvania, and whose name is derived from the French plus gras, meaning, appropriately, “more fat” (this butter is excellent, and yet if you can find an organic European-style butter, that’s great too.).

Do we really need more fat in our lives? I mean, my meatless sweetless recent months have me feeling better than ever, and I’m going to keep right on with it. But there are times when more fat is absolutely called for, especially when it comes to making your own croissants (you can do it!!). It’s a special thing, a treat, just like the release of winter into spring, and we’re going to enjoy it wholeheartedly.

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Best Lebanese Recipes for Easter, a glass of ice water, and a word of thanks

It has always struck me that the first thing that happens whenever someone walks up the front steps and enters the home of anyone in my family, they are welcomed with a tall glass of ice water. It’s our pineapple, our refreshment. As my father used to say: don’t even ask them. Just put the glass out there, and watch what happens (they’ll drink). That he anticipated a need was a simple, but true, satisfaction.

Many of you have been here at Rose Water & Orange Blossoms from the start, and a great many of you have just walked up the front steps recently. Old and new friends, welcome. Thank you so very much to everyone who last week found this place worthy of a vote (and the time that took) in Saveur’s Best Food Blog Awards—there were so many great blogs in the running, and in the end, we won!  Your support means the world to me, and I am honored every day to share in our love for fresh and heritage Lebanese recipes, good stories, and beautiful photography—it’s my way of handing you a tall drink of water, in hopes you’re refreshed, in hopes you’ll come back often.

 

I’ve been enjoying hearing from cooks around the country who are planning their menus for Easter, and asking about Lebanese recipes to make for their families and friends. People like my Aunt Louise have already rolled at least a good hundred grape leaves and put them in the freezer, so when it’s go time, they’re ready. She’s putting out a spread, as she always does, that is not just a feast, but a serious feat, given all of the dishes she makes.

 

 

How cool is it that spending Easter with my soon-to-be in-laws, as I will this year, is so much like spending it with my own family (miss you all). As my mother says, because Dan and I are both Lebanese and come from such similar families, we “speak the same language.” And yes, I call Dan’s mother Aunt Louise. But he is not my cousin. No, not even a little bit. She is an aunt by affection, not blood, and I’m quite content to keep right on calling her that after the wedding. Don’t you think so?! It’s fun making people wonder, anyway.

So the menu, for a meal that falls anytime after 11 a.m.—for us, holiday meals always take place at about 2 p.m. One meal for the day, but with plenty of grazing before and again in the evening. Here is something of what goes on in the kitchen at Aunt Louise’s (her menu, believe it or not, is far more extensive). It’s not unlike what went down at Aunt Hilda’s (that’s a blood aunt, my father’s sister), and then not surprising that the two of them were best friends. They spoke the same language, too.

Grape Leaf Rolls, Vegetarian or Meat & Rice
Always, at every big meal.

 Spinach Fatayar
Some work. Worth it.

Pink Deviled Eggs with Yogurt and Mint
Not a tradition here, but maybe time to start one.

Lamb Lollipops with Fresh Mint Sauce
One of life’s great pleasures. 

Kibbeh Sahnieh
We’ll also eat it raw, the favorite. 

Za’atar Roasted Potatoes
A mid-winter, mid-manuscript discovery for me this year. It’s here to stay. 

Fattoush Salad with Lemon Vinaigrette
Big and crunchy. 

White Asparagus with Pistachio Oil
For the spring we wish we were having in Michigan. 

Ka’ik Spiced Sweet Bread with Rose Water Milk Glaze
Aunt Louise’s specialty of the season.

Lemon Meringue Tart, the Most Extraordinary
My specialty of the season.

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Postcard from Up North


Thaw, with her gentle persuasion, is more powerful than Thor with his hammer. The one melts, the other breaks into pieces. ~ Henry David Thoreau

(Little Traverse Bay responds beautifully to gentle persuasion, as we all do…. )

Thank you for your patience these months of work on my book, my dear friends. First draft is complete!

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May I ask for your vote for Lebanese cuisine?!

 

   

   

Great news! Rose Water & Orange Blossoms is a finalist in the Saveur Best Food Blog Awards…I’d be so honored to have your vote (takes just a moment, right here), which closes April 9th.

As a warm welcome to all of our new readers, the photos here (they’re linked to stories and recipes) are meant to give you, and all of us, a little taste of the Lebanese table we love to gather around….

   

Being recognized by Saveur means a lot to me for a whole slew of reasons.

Food magazines like Saveur have been a staple of my reading diet for a lot of years. As long as I can remember, really, since my mom always had them around when we were kids. I remember sitting behind the family room door (the only place the fourth of five kids could find some privacy) to dive into Bon Appetit and, for good measure, Ladies Home Journal. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t meant to be reading the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” column so religiously at 10 years old, and I don’t think it did much for me after all (this happened), but the food stuff—that stuck with me.

As soon as I had my own address, my mama started me on my own magazine subscriptions. I signed on for others whenever I found a magazine I didn’t want to miss a single issue of, which included the then-brand-new Saveur magazine (launched in 1994). Saveur’s way with story, with history, and above all with culture and cuisine was completely unique and riveting.

From the start I thought This is my food! These are my people! I remember telling a guy I was dating that if I could do anything at all, it would be to have Lebanese food, written by me, published in Saveur. That I might even like to write books about it. He kinda laughed, and not in a way you’d approve of. He, also a writer, thought I was reaching a little too high. Good thing that one ended when grad school did.

    

Then, when I was living in Chicago working on everything but my food writing, I could see the eyes of the culinary world turning its gaze and palate toward Middle Eastern ingredients and recipes and culture. I was anxious that I wasn’t in the mix. I was living with my sister, and every month when the magazines arrived, we’d scan for traces of our food.  Each time we saw a tidbit, Peg would wait for my reaction, which was not pretty. Yes, happy for Lebanese and other Middle Eastern cuisines, happy for the world to get to know how special, delicious, and interesting it is. But not happy, not happy at all, that I wasn’t the author of any of it.

One day I walked in and Peg said: Ummmm, go in the kitchen?

Saveur was on the kitchen table, opened to a full-on spread about hummus. I stared at the thing viciously. Tears burned my face. I grabbed it and tore the story out of the magazine. Peg thought I was going to trash it in the alley before she could even read it.

Instead, I marched to my desk and taped the ripped pages to the wall above it, directly in my daily line of vision.

Not too long after that, I did publish a short piece in Saveur, about learning to make laban, yogurt, with Sitto. And then some other stories, here and there, inspired by the beauty and love of Lebanese cuisine.

I started taking the (not always obvious, not always easy) leaps from one stone in the path to the next: leaving my corporate job in the city, going to culinary school out west, moving back to my hometown in Michigan, launching the Rose Water & Orange Blossoms blog, and now, publishing a Lebanese cookbook.

Do I still freak out whenever I see our food authored by other writers in all kinds of places? A little (okay, sometimes a lot; just ask Peg). Do I struggle not to laugh away my own big dreams? The “yes” to that has an expletive before it, it’s such a big yes. But above all, I’m so very glad the stories and the writers of the Lebanese way in the kitchen, and the wonderful magazines that publish them, are out there shining the light. And I’m grateful to be right there with them, sharing the love.

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