Vegan mango cheesecake, or how to eat fruit over a sink

vegan mango cheesecake slice

It is summer and the days are long and hot. Sweat seems to collect everywhere, from my brow to my armpits to the back of the knees. I can bring myself to wear little more than tank tops, shorts, and loose, flowy dresses. My hair is also getting everywhere, getting matted and knotted. It is as blond as it will ever be, a little living sun on top of my scalp. My mother works for hours to comb through it, gathering it in a braid or bun after a seemingly endless battle with a brush, hair-untangling spray and several scrunchies. My skin is brown and dry, an impossible task given the humidity. I am nine or ten years old, a small kid with a big head and a lot of worries.

vegan mango cheesecake cashews

There is little to do to break the July heat in the town of Be’er Sheva, smack-dub in the middle of the Negev desert. As the sandstorms blow through the streets, hiding indoors is all one can do to keep from withering and falling into a thousand pieces, like a pile of old, dry, raked leaves in your yard. Pools are few and far between, and their cost is much more than my parents can afford. I have plans to go to summer camp, but that is still some time away. For now, fans and ice are what is keeping me going. Life grinds to a halt.

vegan mango cheesecake slice 2

When my grandmother Inna decides to take this time to come for a visit, I am relieved. Summer is the time of both her birthday and mine, and it is something to look forward to. I adore my grandmother, and look forward to her all-too-rare visits with an ardent fervour. My parents plan the summer months, trying to decide how best to use this extra set of hands, a relief in their busy schedule.

Shortly upon arrival, my grandmother decides to go visit a relative in the city of Bat Yam. It is her brother or cousin, a man I had never met and had rarely heard of. My small nuclear family is distant from our relatives, a hodgepodge of Jewish emigrants that has dispersed throughout all corners of the world. The Russian habit of calling everyone a cousin doesn’t help, and the degrees of relativity often get dropped or forgotten. I understand this man is a member of the family, and I have spent time with his daughter and her family, but I have never him. My grandmother decides I should tag along.

walnuts for vegan mango cheesecake

Their reunion is teary and warm. Embraces are long, talks go into the night, and much weeping takes place in hushed tones, over pieces of salty cheese and sweet watermelon. My days are spent reading books in secluded corners of the tiny apartment in which my relative resides, a small child trying to become even more invisible. I eat well and sporadically, everything tasting good but unmemorable. There is a lot of cereal for breakfast, the type of food you will find in an old bachelor’s home.

Unsurprisingly, most of our time is spent at the beach. The apartment is minutes away from the Mediterranean shore, a short walk on grimy streets packed with strollers, the elderly, and loud corn horns. Smog and exhaust is everywhere, getting on the skin and dirtying my favourite summer frock, a white dress with tiny blue flowers. We wear out our sandals, carrying big bags of sunscreen, peaces and water to the beach in large totes. More accurately, my grandmother carries them; I hop, skip and jump my way to the beach, carrying little more than the hat on my head and an occasional extra bag. A book is always tucked somewhere.

vegan mango cheesecake whole

When we arrive at the beach, we spend our time lazying around. I splash around the ways and swim everywhere, intoxicated on sun, exhaustion, and my newly-acquired swimming ability. I am convinced I am the Water Girl, a long-lost mermaid on two legs who has been made to forget her true providence by an evil warlock. My grandmother spends most of her time fretting and panicking, interchangeably worrying I would  succumb to death by drowning, or death by skin cancer. The food is good, sweet, simple, but unmemorable. Except the mangoes.

vegan mango cheesecake crust ingredients

One day upon our return from the beach, my relative is already home, returned early from his work. He is joyful and clownish, a funny man who breaks the sweet monotony of beach-book-cereal-water. In his exuberance, he offers to cut us up some mangoes. I have never tasted them, and have no idea what to do with this strange fruit. He laughs at me and tells us to wear our simplest clothes before we come to the table.

When there, he expertly peels the skin of a mango with a sharp paring knife. He tells jokes throughout, my grandmother and him exchanging kindly barbs and taunts. I am mesmerized by the way his fingers move, deftly scalping the fruit to reveal a soft, flourescent-orange underbelly. The mango is so ripe, it almost waters upon contact. He cuts us small slices, letting the fall haphazardly on the plate. When the mango is all but picked over, cut apart to reveal a hard, hairy pit, he tells us to dig in, but carefully! He warns us that the juice of the mango will stain anything and will never come out, from our clothes to our skin. He is dead serious, and the warning keeps ringing in my ears, instilling a sense of dread.

I gingerly take a slice. My hands are shaking, and my fingers are so white and slippery that I drop the fruit. I am terrified by his words, but even moreso by the strangeness of the experience: the slippery fruit, the hot day, the unfamiliarity of it all. I am a shy kid with big dreams and a strong temper, but I am also painfully polite and respectful of strangers. New experiences have scarred me, and I have little courage left. But the juices of the mango pool in the plate, and the temptation overcomes me. I bite in, careful to not let a single drop of juice fall on my clothes.

The taste of the fruit transforms me. It is everything I could want on this hot day. The soft texture reminds me of wet sand, sand castles falling apart between my fingers. The dripping juices are the waves, beckoning me, lulling me into a calm, placid joy. It is thirst-quenching and parching all at the same time, a natural sweetness that is so deep and cloying that it forces one to keep eating, picking up piece after piece. It is like the call of the sea, for I am never as come as when I am by the sea, my skin wet and warm in spots, moving against with the cool, comforting water. And now, when I eat this mango.

Soon, I eat mangoes all the time, in dirty clothes or just in my underwear, when no one is around to see me. I eat them over plates and over the sink, letting the juices dribble down my chin and into the respectable below. I am careful not to let them drip on my clothes, but when they do, I do not panic. I am shedding my inhibitions and learning to eat fruit with wild abandon. This does not happen in one day, or even over one summer; but it begins on that day, in that Bat Yam kitchen on the top floor, with the taste of a luscious, ripe mango.

vegan mango cheesecake whole with bird

I made this mango cake for Passover, as part of the Seder celebration. It is an adaptation of a Dreena Burton recipe, from the book Let Them Eat Vegan!. The result is resplendent, befitting my love for the mango. It is light, creamy and cool, a cashew vegan cheesecake that does not want for dairy, made tangy with the juice and zest of lemons. It is draped with silky mango sauce, a nearly-pure blend of fruit and water that essentializes this delicate treat and preserves its tropical punch. The base is raw and gluten-free, a sweet mix of nuts and dates. Though a North-American recipe, this cake reminds me of the cloud-like Israeli cheesecakes of my youth, a perfect fit for spring or summer that would not go remiss in a small Mediterranean kitchen. And though it requires some prep, spread out over a couple of days, this cake is easy to throw together, requiring little more than a food processor and a springform pan.

Though as good as it is, it is not as good as simply eating a perfectly ripe mango over the sink.

vegan mango cheesecake slice close-up

Vegan lemon cheesecake with mango sauce
 
This is a bright and zesty cake with a light filling and a nutty base. Please note that mango sauce will discolour if exposed to air for too long, so don't decorate the whole cake several days in advance. The sauce will keep well in a jar for a couple of days. Also give yourself at least a couple of days to prepare the cake's ingredients, which take about 10 minutes each. The rest is waiting time.
Author:
Recipe type: dessert
Cuisine: vegan
Ingredients
  • Crust:
  • 1 cup raw almonds (soaked preferably, this is about ¾ cup raw, unsoaked almonds, see note)
  • 1 cup walnuts or pecans (soaking not necessary)
  • 1 cup pitted medjool dates
  • 2 tsps vanilla extract
  • ⅛ tsp sea salt
  • Filling:
  • 3¼ cups soaked raw cashews (soak first, then measure – this is about 2 ½ cups unsoaked)
  • juice of 3 lemons
  • zest of 1 lemon
  • ¼ tsp sea salt
  • ⅓ cup raw agave nectar (can increase up to ½ a cup, but I didn't think it was necessary)
  • 1 Tb vanilla extract
  • ½ cup coconut oil
  • Mango Sauce:
  • 1½ cups mango chunks (from 2 mangos)
  • 2 tbsp freshly squeezed apple or orange juice
  • 2 Tbs water
  • ½ tsp lemon or orange zest
  • Pinch sea salt
Instructions
  1. The night before, soak almonds and cashews.
  2. Lightly oil the bottom and sides of a springform pan ( I made this in a 12-inch pan, but the resulting cake isn't very tall. A 9-inch pan would be better).
  3. Prepare the crust: place the almonds and walnuts in a food processor, and pulse until mixture is very crumbly. Add the rest of the crust ingredients, and process until mixture can be formed into balls that stick together. Line prepared springform pan with mixture, forming the bottom of the cake. This can rest in the fridge or freezer for a couple of days, or you can proceed ahead.
  4. Prepare the filling: process and the filling ingredients until they are very, very smooth (can be a while, depending on your food processor, or high-powered blender). Pour mixture over crust and distribute evenly.
  5. Cover the pan with foil and let rest in freezer for at least 3 hours, or overnight.
  6. To prepare sauce, puree all sauce ingredients in a blender. Taste, and add more water if you want a more liquidy consistency.
  7. Spoon the sauce on each slice right before serving, if desired, or if eating the whole cake in one sitting, decorate the cake with the sauce and let rest in fridge for a couple of hours before cutting. When ready to serve, remove the cake from the freezer for 30 minutes to one hour, to soften before cutting.

 

Kneidlach (matzah balls), or my holiday of discovery

kneidlach bowl

For my first Passover, I wore a new dress. My parents went and bought me and my sister matching outfits, frilly white dresses with black aprons and lace peeking out from under our skirts. We had our hair washed, our faces scrubbed, packed into a relative’s car, and driven off to another city in the centre of the country. There we found a lush green garden, a house teeming with relatives we’ve never met and didn’t even know existed, and a lot of candy. All night, our relatives strung together words in a singsong inflection, strange phrases that conveyed stories of Pyramids, blood and locusts, and Rabbis who didn’t know how to ask questions. We understood very little, but experienced a lot. That night, a world of ceremony and tradition opened up to us, and we realized we weren’t so isolated in the world.

kneidlach balls

Growing up in a small family can be difficult. It gets even harder when your parents work long hours away from home, and your sole company most of the time is books and the one boy in your class who speaks your language. We saw our cousins rarely due to an unfortunate family dispute. My sister and I barely got along, and as is, she was only three at the time. My grandmother and I also rarely saw eye-to-eye. So most of the time, I was by myself, lost in a reverie of my own making. My mother recalls crying as she would look outside, only to see me pacing the street outside our home, talking to a doll in gibberish that I thought resembled Hebrew. Though I wanted friends, I was far too shy to seek them out. And I had no common language with the ones who approached me. At the end, I was often alone.

kneidlach vegetarian broth

But as we stepped out of the car that bright spring day, making our way through a yard crowded with laughing children of all ages, I realized we weren’t all alone after all. As we walked into a large home with a roof of red bricks, filled with the sound of classical music, I felt like people shared a language that was more than just words. As I was patted and hugged, squeezed and bribed with sweets, I felt that loneliness could be only temporary. And as I sat at a beautifully laden table and bit into my first kneidlach (matzo ball), I understood that it was easy to feel satiated by kindness.

kneidlach making

From that day on, Passover has always been a celebration of renewal in my eyes. As the years went by and I moved countries, twice, it took on a special meaning. We began to discuss our own release from bondage to freedom, and the different forms that freedom could take. Some years, my Seder nights were big and grandiose like the first; other years, they were small and a bit melancholy. But it never stopped feeling special to me. And a lot of that specialness has to do with the flavour of kneidlach.

kneidlach close-up

Your first kneidlach is an experience you won’t soon forget. Floating in a watery broth, these balls look like unassuming masses. Their colour a greyish-yellow, they are reminiscent of meat, and it’s hard to ascertain exactly what’s in just by looking. With the first poke of the spoon, you find out that they are dense, and resist slightly towards any attempt to cut them in half. But once your spoon breaks through the ball’s outer shell, a slew of soup pours in, and in it floats a little part of that strange sphere. A faint smell of onions emanates from the bowl. As you carefully bring that spoon to your mouth, you can’t help but prepare for some unpleasantness; the kneidlach’s colour and unappealing shape suggest nothing else. But when you bite in, your palette is transformed. The kneidlach is soft and pillowy, faintly eggy. The onions lend it a distinctly Jewish scent, reminiscent of chicken soup and soggy noodles. The broth is simple and comforting, an afterthought that fills your mouth with warmth. You quickly reach out for more, surprised that so much flavour can be locked inside something so simple.

kneidlach mix

Though the Passover table offers many treats, the kneidlach remains my favourite one. It reminds me of the surprise I felt when I walked into the doors of my great-aunt’s home all those years ago. When I was transformed from a homely girl who expected another evening with her small family, to a welcome guest who is to be lavished by gifts and attention. In that kneidlach are my childhood desires to be loved and accepted. In its flavour is the joy I felt when life turned out to be more than it seemed.

kneidlach soup

Whether you’re Jewish or not, I urge you to give this simple treat a try. Perhaps it will help you be transported as well. And even if it doesn’t – have a happy Passover.

kneidlach ballkneidlach for Passover

Kneidlach (matzah balls)
 
The kneidlach is soft and pillowy, faintly eggy. The onions lend it a distinctly Jewish scent, reminiscent of chicken soup and soggy noodles. It is a surprising morsel, full of texture and flavour. Just remember that they're quite fatty, and don't overeat.
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Cuisine: Jewish
Serves: 4-5
Ingredients
  • 1 onion
  • 3 Tbs oil
  • 1.5 cups of matzah flour (matzo meal)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1-2 tps salt
  • 1 cup of boiling water
  • Portions of your favourite simple stock (vegetables or chicken stock is best)
Instructions
  1. Dice onion finely. Bring a pan to medium-high heat, add oil, and fry the onion pieces until they are translucent (do not let it brown). Take off heat and let them cool slightly.
  2. Whisk the eggs, until the yolks and whites are well combined. I believe that the more you whisk, the fluffier will your kneidlach be (this is probably not true, but do whisk the eggs a bit). Fold the eggs into the matzo meal. Add the onions and fold everything together. Add salt and fold.
  3. Boil a cup of water. Then slowly add water to kneidlach. Start by adding ¼ of a cup and mixing to combine. If mixture is still dry, add another ¼ cup. Mixture should be sticky at this point, enough to form it into balls of similar size to meatballs. Let mixture rest for 30 minutes. Test stickiness level again, and if it forms into balls that stay together, then proceed.
  4. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. With clean hands or with two spoons, form the kneidlach mixture into meatball-sized balls, and drop them one by one into the boiling water. Let kneidlach cook on medium-high heat for 10 minutes, until water is boiling again and the kneidlach rise to the top (do not remove them as soon as they float to the top, but give them some time to fluff up). Remove them into a large container or bowl with a slotted spoon.
  5. When ready to eat, add two or three kneidlach balls to each bowl of soup. Garnish with cilantro or parsley, and dig in.

 

Apple and greens salad, or how I faced the sting of failure

Apple and greens salad left

The first salad I made was a disaster.

As a kid, one of the only ways in which I would eat vegetables was in a tomato and pickle salad. Finely diced tomatoes, joined by salty pickles (absolutely, under no circumstances, would I ever accept regular ol’ cucumbers), and smothered in a thick glob of mayonnaise was what my mother would serve me nearly every evening, alongside some bread with cheese. That was what she knew how to make, and what I would agree to eat. This concoction looked unappetizing, smelled acrid, but tasted divine to this 6-year-old palette. Sadly, I’ll admit it’s still one of my favourite salads to date (and you can all feel free to question my palette).

Buoyed by my love affair with zesty salads, I decided to make my parents a big bowl of vegetables after a long day of work. I was about 11, and this was around the time that I was first discovering the kitchen and the joys of playing around in it. After opening the doors to our small fridge, I was met with an open can of Israeli pickles in brine, tomatoes and carrots. Eggs were nestled in a ceramic bowl. Mayonnaise rested in its rightful place on the side of the fridge, glistening with the promise of flavour. Big, round apples sat in a fruit bowl on the table. My eyes took it all in, my mind started racing, and my mouth began salivating. I decided I would make them an omelette, one of the first things my mother taught me how to cook, and a delicious salad.

Apple and greens salad right

So into a bowl went finely chopped pickles, sloppily cut tomatoes, half of a badly grated carrot (I nicked myself on the grater and gave up halfway through), and nice, big, rosy chunks of apple. I think I even threw in the seeds. The whole thing was crowned with a big tablespoon of mayo, and a little bit of dill. I knew I abhorred the salad, but I saw no reason why my parents would disagree. I burnt the omelette.

Sadly, they felt otherwise. My father silently ate his portion, divulging no comments about the quality of the meal. My mother took one look at the salad and adamantly refused to even taste it. No amount of crying and complaining would convince her; “Ksenia, there is a limit,” she said, and tossed the whole sorry mess into the garbage. The omelette was inhaled, despite the visible char. And then they helped themselves to some bread with cheese and butter, thanking for my efforts but saying I should think a bit before putting apples and mayonnaise together in a bowl for others to eat.

I avoided salads for a long time after that.

Apple and greens salad aerial shot

But then, in high school, I started going with a group of friends to a cheap local restaurant for lunch. Between the five of us, we would always order an extra-large salad with fried pita, extra dressing on the side. We would scarf the whole thing down, and have room for cheesecake for dessert. Then we started skipping classes, using the time not to drink or smoke like other kids our age, but to make a pot of freshly squeezed lemonade and a big salad as a group (recipe coming, I promise). And I discovered salad making wasn’t actually such a big deal.

Since then, I have made salads of all shapes and colours. Some of them were posted on this blog. Others are thrown together late at night, when I need a good, fresh pick-me-up. In summer, salads make up my lunches and dinner. My parents eat a big bowl of Vinaigrette or Greek salad for breakfast every morning. Even more are prepped at home, in my parents’ kitchen in Israel, where the local produce is abundant and beautiful. Give me any ingredients, and the first thing I’ll want to make with them is probably salad. But I’ve avoided putting apples in them as long as I could.

Apple and greens salad up top

And then last Saturday, my partner’s parents were coming over for dinner. We had already cooked and assembled all the main dishes, but I knew I wanted a salad to cut through all the fat. After opening the doors to our medium-sized fridge, I was met with bright, fresh vegetables and cheeses. Avocados and tomatoes were laying in a ceramic bowl by the windowsill. Eggs were nestled in a cardboard box. Mayonnaise rested in its rightful place on the side of the fridge, glistening with the promise of flavour. Big, round apples sat in a fruit bowl on the table. Sadly, Israeli pickles in brine were nowhere to be found. My eyes took it all in, my mind started racing, and my mouth began salivating. But this time, what I came up with was actually not half bad.

The apples were sliced thinly and nestled on a bed of fresh, curly, crispy baby kale. Slivers of purple onions intermingled amongst the greens. A simple vinaigrette of Dijon mustard, honey, and white wine vinegar crowned the whole affair. The mayonnaise stayed in the fridge, none the wiser to the snub. The apple and greens salad was gone within 30 minutes, with seconds and even third helpings all around. And no one at the table threw their portion away.

Apple and greens salad with other food

That day, I learned a valuable salad: apples do belong in salads. It’s mayonnaise that should probably stay in the fridge.

Apple and bitter greens salad
 
This is a bright, seasonal salad full of fresh flavours. Use this as a roadmap to build your own: if you're out of baby kale, use other bitter greens, or even spinach, in its place. Use any type of apples or pears you have; in summer, firm nectarines will do the trick. Almonds, which I didn't have at the time of shooting these photos, would also make a great topping. Go nuts - just keep the mayonnaise away.
Author:
Recipe type: Salad
Cuisine: Other
Ingredients
  • 3-4 cups of baby kale, arugula, or other small leafy greens, preferably with a bite
  • 1 large, firm apple, pear, or 2 firm nectarines, according to season
  • ½ a medium-sized purple onion (you don't want too much)
  • ¼ cup of slivered almonds, optional
  • a handful of fresh dill
  • a handful of chives
  • ⅓ cup of extra olive oil
  • ¼ cup of white wine vinegar
  • 1 Tb Dijon mustard
  • 1 Tb maple syrup (or honey, if non vegan)
  • Salt & pepper, to taste
Instructions
  1. Wash and thoroughly dry your greens and fruit. Arrange the greens on a large plate.
  2. Core and thinly slice the apple (or other fruit that you're using). Thinly slice the onion. Place sliced onions and apples on top of the greens.
  3. Chop dill and chives finely. Sprinkle on top of the vegetables.
  4. If using almonds, toast them in a pan for 5 minutes, until they are fragrant and golden.
  5. In a small jar, mix all the rest of the ingredients. Pour vinaigrette on salad at the very last minute.
  6. Bring out the salad to your guests, and toss it at the table, allowing them to take in all the colours. Dig in, and forget about that mayo already.

 

Stewed cabbage with peppers, or the one dish to get right

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As I return home after a long day, my mother is standing at the kitchen counter, chopping vegetables. She greets me enthusiastically, asking how my day was. As she comes over to give me a hug, her leopard-print robe is falling off her shoulder, revealing a homely pyjamas underneath. Her hair is up in a messy bun and her make isn’t fully off yet, but the smudging is already visible. She smiles at me, the gap between her teeth showing.

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The smell of fried onions and freshly cut tomatoes is in the air. As I peek at the cutting board, I see she is chopping a full head of white cabbage, following my grandfather’s signature technique: cut the head in half, remove the core, and hold one half firmly in place, cut-side down. Move your knife around it, slicing thin strips of cabbage off the sides, not moving the head until you get to the last little nob. The cabbage is quickly reduced to a pile of shreds. She barely avoids cutting off her finger with the dull knife.

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Meanwhile, tomatoes and red peppers are browning in the pan. Their once-firm forms are now lazily strewn across the non-stick surface, crisping at the edges. I give them a toss, allowing more peppers to come into contact with the heat of the pan. My mother adds the cabbage to the pile, giving everything a good stir. The pan is then covered with an ill-fitting lid that belongs to a long-lost and forgotten pot. Our pot drawer is an orphanage for abandoned cookware of all shapes, sizes and pedigrees. Some enamel pans date back to the Soviet Union, and though nothing ever cooks in them, we still hold on, refusing to throw the dented memories away.

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We sit down at the little kitchen island. My dad makes me a cocktail, and I am privy to whatever strange concoction he is working on this week. Bitter grapefruit mixes with blue carcao, and I wonder for the umpteenth time if he gets his recipes from the Risky Business bartender’s book. We chat about this and that; my graduate studies are of some interest to them, but I avoid going into too much detail. The nuances of political theory and international affairs usually lead to arguments at our dinner table, and I would like to preserve the peace at this rare time that we all sit together. Time floats by as we nibble on cheese and olives. My mother adds tomatoes to the pan.

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After a few minutes, the cabbage is done. We reheat leftover potatoes and rice in the microwave, and I rush to remove them at the last second in order to avoid the machine’s ear-splitting beep. We ladle strands of cabbage smothered in smoky tomato and pepper sauce into our bowls, cooked into submission by the heat of the gas flame. My father replenishes our cocktails.

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We continue sitting there, eating languidly. It’s a dimly lit kitchen island in the middle of a crowded home. The table is laden with cheese, bread, packaged salads, chocolate, nuts, pills and yesterday’s mail. My mother and father are laughing, sharing stories over plates of brown rice and cooked potatoes, covered in silky, stewed cabbage. The stovetop is splattered, and the smell of a home-cooked meal is in the air.

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Stewed cabbage with peppers, or the one dish to get right
 
My partner describes this as "the best cabbage he's ever had." To me, it's one of the only dishes my mother could get right, thrown together at the end of a long day. It's comforting, delicious, an Eastern European dish with real flavour pedigree. You can serve it over brown rice, alongside potatoes, or just eat it on a crusty piece of wholegrain bread. If you're out of bell peppers, don't worry and omit them.
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1-2 onions
  • 1-2 red, yellow or orange bell peppers
  • 1 small or medium head of cabbage
  • 4 cloves of garlic
  • 1 can tomato paste, or 4-5 tomatoes, in season.
  • 2 tsps dry oregano or basil (if using fresh, 2 Tbs)
  • 1 tsp of salt
  • ½ tsp chili flakes (or more, to taste)
  • 1 Tb sugar
  • 1 Tb vinegar (white wine, apple cider. or regular)
  • Chopped parsley, cilantro, or chives, to taste (optional)
Instructions
  1. Slice onions and peppers into thin strips.
  2. Sauté onions on medium heat for 5-10 mins, until they become translucent. Add peppers, sauté another 10 mins, until pepper strips and onions start to caramelize, stirring occasionally.
  3. Chop garlic coarsely. Add to pan, sauté for 2 more minutes.
  4. Chop cabbage head into fine strips. Add to pan, stir to mix with other ingredients, cover with lid, and sauté on medium heat for 15 minutes. Every 5 minutes or so, check that the cabbage and peppers aren't sticking to the bottom, and give the pan a good stir.
  5. If using fresh tomatoes, chop them finely and let them cook without adding the spices for 10 minutes on medium-high heat. If using tomato paste, add spices right away and let cook, uncovered, for another 15 minutes.
  6. Taste, and adjust flavours as necessary.

 

Asparagus and ricotta tart, or new beginnings

asparagus and ricotta tart, ready

One of my favourite stories growing up was the Russian folk tale The 12 Months (Dvenadcat’ mesyacev). It tells the story of a poor orphan girl, who is sent by her stepmother to the deep dark woods in the middle of January to gather the first flowers of spring, the snowdrops (named in Russian podsnejniki, or “under-the-snows”). Her stepmother is looking to curry favour with the young Queen, who wants these flowers for an upcoming celebration. Naturally, there aren’t too many flowers to be found in the Russian woods in mid-January, and the girl ends up wandering through the woods for a while, until she chances upon a strange campfire. Around it are sitting twelve men, all of varying ages, who are singing songs and telling stories. The girl relays her trouble to them, and the “men” find a way to help her – they speed up time to usher in the month of April, as they themselves are the embodiment of the twelve months. The girl is able to fill baskets with those first flowers, which she takes back to her stepmother. The story, of course, doesn’t stop there, and involves a few important lessons about generosity and kindness, but those are the bits that stuck with me throughout my childhood.

asparagus and ricotta tart draining cheeseasparagus and ricotta tart main ingredients

The part I loved most about that story were the flowers. The snowdrop came to symbolize everything I held dear: the warming up of the earth, which takes place unheeded for many weeks; the pristine cover of white snowflakes, parting to give way to the most resilient, but seemingly fragile flowers; and the silent embrace of the dark woods around it all, teeming with life, oblivious to the little miracle taking place in its midst. These first flowers were beautiful and delicate, but they were also pioneers, daring to break through the cold and make way for the thawing off of lakes, rivers, and many more flowers. It represented the power of nature, quiet but relentless in its pre-charted path. For me, snowdrops were about change. And for some reason, I have always liked change.

asparagus and ricotta tart rolling out pastryasparagus and ricotta tart ingredients

I have already spoken about the deep importance the woods, and nature, held to my family. I have also spoken about my displeasure with the ongoing winter, and my desire for spring. So when I found the first affordable bundles of asparagus at the local store last week, I knew that despite appearance, nature was continuing on its pre-determined path. And just like this asparagus was able to break through the ground (in its heated greenhouse, no doubt, but still), so, somewhere in the woods, I knew the first snowdrops were also trying to make their way through the mounds of snow.

asparagus and ricotta tart ready for ovenasparagus and ricotta tart bakedasparagus and ricotta tart asparagus spears

I wanted to honour this first asparagus in a way that would pay homage to my favourite flower, and this dear childhood story. So when I came home and realized I had a container of soft, fresh ricotta in the fridge, the image of this dish materialized immediately. Nestled on flaky puff pastry, in a bed of pillowy ricotta, bright green spears of asparagus herald the coming of spring to the Northern Hemisphere. And I don’t care whether the snow outside accepts this or not. The sharp tanginess of Dijon mustard helps cut through all of the creaminess and provide a nice contrast to the softness of the dough. Together, they make a perfect package, just like those first snowdrop buds.

asparagus and ricotta tart restingasparagus and ricotta tart ready for slicing

Asparagus and ricotta tart
 
Nestled on flaky puff pastry, in a bed of pillowy, soft ricotta, bright green spears of asparagus herald the coming of spring to the Northern Hemisphere. The sharp tanginess of Dijon mustard helps cut through all the creaminess and provide a nice contrast to the softness of the dough. Together, they make a perfect package, just like those first snowdrop buds.
Author:
Recipe type: Tart
Cuisine: Other
Ingredients
  • ½ a package of puff pastry, defrosted overnight in the fridge
  • 500 grams of ricotta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon of lemon juice (or a bit more, to taste)
  • grated zest of ½ a lemon
  • 1 asparagus bundle
  • Freshly grated pepper
  • 3 teaspoons of Dijon mustard
  • A few pinches of sea salt
Instructions
  1. If your puff pastry was in the freezer, let it defrost overnight in the fridge. Drain ricotta cheese in a colander for a few hours, or even overnight in the fridge.
  2. When ready to assemble the tart, Preheat oven to 450F.
  3. Mix ricotta with lemon juice and grated lemon zest. Add sea salt and pepper, to taste. Taste and adjust flavourings - the filling should be light and just a bit zesty, but not acidic.
  4. Wash your asparagus carefully. If desired, chop it into 1-inch pieces; these will be easier to eat, but I really like the way the whole spears look.
  5. Roll out pastry on a lightly floured surface into a shape that is a bit bigger than the bottom of the pie shell or glass baking dish that you are going to use (ensure there is a border of 1 to 2 inches all around the bottom, to make small sides for your tart).
  6. Butter or oil your baking dish. Place the pastry in it, ensuring there is a 1-2 inch border all around the bottom. If you rolled it out too big, cut off any excess pastry (you can cut the excess pastry into small squares, topping them with extra ricotta and a few pieces of asparagus for little amuse bouches).
  7. Spread mustard along the bottom of the pastry. Spoon ricotta mixture over mustard. Top with asparagus spears (or chunks, if you decided to chop it up).
  8. Drizzle a bit of olive oil, sprinkle some more salt and freshly grated pepper on top.
  9. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until pastry is golden and the aspragus is a little browned on top.
  10. Serve with a fresh and sharp green salad on the side for a light lunch. A glass of white wine would also be a nice way to welcome in the spring.

 

Bosnian “pita” (pie), or what to eat during a civil war

Squash Bosnian pita

cheese Bosnian pita

The following entry is not my own story. It is another immigrant’s recollection of how food got her and her family through some of the hardest times imaginable to our generation: the civil wars of the former Yugoslavia. I would like to thank Rose for agreeing to share her beautiful skill, recipe and story.

traditional Bosnian pita

Bosnian pita slice

“I’m the only one in our group of friends who makes this,” Rose says to me simply, but her eyes are glinting with pride. She knows that few people nowadays take the time to make a true Bosnian pita. Few of us have the time or ability to roll out dough, make filling, and assemble one of the most complicated pastries I have ever seen. And yet, back home, this was “everyday food,” even during the turbulent civil wars of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. “Now, it’s for special occasions,” Rose remarks, and I can’t tell if this disappoints her, or makes her even prouder to be one of the last bearers of this skill.

Bosnian pita rolls

Bosnian pita squash coils

Rose grew up in the former Yugoslavia, in the Bosnian town of Tuzla. She is a slight woman with dark curly hair, big eyes that crinkle at the edges, and a captivating smile. She keeps an immaculate house, full of tasteful personal touches and lots of light. Little Bosnian artifacts are displayed in various corners, bringing a touch of the Middle East to her otherwise modern home. Rose is a little shy, slow to open up at first, but her warmth radiates through her words, breaking down barriers and making one feel welcome at her home and table.

Bosnian pita dough rollsBosnian pita more rollingBosnian pita discs

After many years of practice, her Bosnian pita-making technique is flawless. She moves through the kitchen with confidence, gently massaging the dough, tugging at the edges of paper-thin pastry, stretching it to a seemingly impossible size. Yet Rose didn’t start making pita until “The War” started, when she could no longer go to her mom for this traditional pie.

Bosnian pita techniqueBosnian pita paper thin doughBosnian pita spreading fillingBosnian pita rolling dough

Learning how to make Bosnian pita herself proved to be the perfect solution for days of war, when transport was cut off, supplies were uncertain, and people often had to make due with very little for very long stretches of time. “You can put anything in a pie. Whatever came from the garden, or whatever comes from humanitarian aid,” Rose says nonchalantly, as though the experience of waiting on Red Cross and UN planes to drop off food and bandages was a regular occurrence for me as well.

Bosnian pita squash prep

On the day we cook together, Rose assembles three fillings: butternut squash, cottage cheese, and apples with cinnamon and brown sugar. They are simple, free of superfluous ingredients and shock-me spices. The resulting flavours are clean, vibrant. But the fillings could really be anything: add some spinach to your cottage cheese, or some raisins or walnuts to your apples. Rose is as resilient today as she was during the war. “Until today, that’s how I cook. Open the fridge, and [I take] whatever is in it, as long as there’s no waste.”

Bosnian pita apple filling

 

Bosnian pita apple filling 2Bosnian pita nut and apple fillingBosnian pita walnut and apple pita

This adaptability is a hard-earned skill, an openness to changing circumstances that is familiar to others who have experienced strife, food shortages, poverty, or uncertainty. Yet not everyone who makes Bosnian pita is that open to improvisation. Not everyone adapted to the war, Rose says. “My mom couldn’t adjust to the limitations. She stopped making it (pita),” she lowers her eyes, her voice getting taut.

Bosnian pita cheese pita slices

When Rose rolls out her dough to make Bosnian pita, she brings this history with her into the kitchen. She brings in the days when the fridge was bare and the garden overflowing with nothing but spinach. And above all, she brings in that sense of resilience, the make-do-out-of-nothing attitude that I recognize from my own grandmothers. I believe it is precisely this that makes this immigrant’s table so welcoming.

butternut squash Bosnian pita coils

5.0 from 1 reviews
Bosnian "pita" (pie) with cottage cheese, apple, and squash
 
Hand-rolled dough is stretched into a paper-thin, translucent phyllo pastry, stuffed with a variety of fillings, and rolled into a beautiful, traditional Bosnian pie. This pie takes about three to four hours to make. Dough can be frozen to save some time on future occasions, or kept in the fridge for up to a week. You could always use these fillings in store-bought phyllo dough and just use several layers of it, but if you want the real experience, take a few hours and make this dough. You won't regret it.
Author:
Recipe type: pie
Cuisine: Bosnian
Ingredients
  • Butternut squash filling:
  • 1 medium-sized squash, peeled and shredded
  • a pinch of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon of salt, or more, to taste
  • Cottage cheese filling:
  • 2 cups cottage cheese, drained
  • 2-3 eggs (depending on egg size)
  • 1 Tb olive oil
  • ¼ cup of feta cheese (optional)
  • salt, to taste (hold off until the last minute)
  • Apple filling:
  • 4-5 sour apples, shredded (use Granny Smiths, crab apples, or preferably apples from your own apple tree)
  • 1 cup of walnuts, crushed
  • 2-3 Tbs brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Dough:
  • 4 cups of AP flour, unbleached
  • 1 cup of AP flour, reserved for dusting counters, etc
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 2 cups warm water (use a mixture of boiling and cold water)
Instructions
  1. To make butternut squash filling:
  2. Mix squash, sugar and salt. If you want to add more salt, only do so at the last minute (otherwise, the squash will get soggy and bleed, making the dough too wet).
  3. To make cottage cheese filling:
  4. Mix cottage cheese, eggs, feta cheese and olive oil. Add salt at the last minute, to taste.
  5. To make apple filling:
  6. Mix cinnamon, brown sugar and walnuts in a separate bowl. Keep apart from shredded apples until the last minute (otherwise, the apples will get soggy and bleed, making the dough too wet).
  7. To make dough:
  8. Place 4 cups of flour in a large bowl. Add water gradually to it, until dough is soft but not sticky.
  9. Flour work surface generously. Place dough on counter and knead down gently for about 10-15 minutes, until the dough is springy to the touch. Knead in soft motions, almost stroking the dough and transferring it from hand to hand. Do not be too violent.
  10. Divide dough into 4 pieces. Flour surface lightly, and roll each piece into a ball, transferring from hand to hand gently. Then, adding a bit of flour as needed. roll out dough thinly with a rolling pin, like thin pizza dough.
  11. Cover another area with clean kitchen towels, and arrange rolled out dough circles close to each other, edges touching. Drizzle a tiny bit of olive oil on each disc, and spread it out evenly across the surface with your hands. Cover the discs with plastic wrap, and let rest in a warm place for about 30 minutes. Afterwards, dough should be very elastic, like good pizza dough.
  12. Cover a large dining room table with a clean tablecloth. Transfer one dough disc to the table, laying it in the middle. Start spreading the dough very gently, pinching the ends with your fingers (never touch or pull from the centre, only from the edges). Pull the ends towards you gently, going around the table clockwise (or counter-clockwise, just try to go in one direction all the time), spreading the dough into a very thin layer as much as you can. Continue expanding the dough by pulling on the edges gently until the paper-thin dough covers the whole table like a tablecloth, draping over the edges.
  13. Preheat oven to 400F.
  14. Start spreading filling onto the dough with a tablespoon, dropping dollops all over its surface, but leave one line, the width of about 3 inches, empty all across the middle (please see photos for this). Drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Fold the corners of the dough that are draping over the table, making the dough contained on top of the table.
  15. Now, gently raise one edge of the tablecloth, allowing the dough to roll towards the empty part in the middle. Stop when the dough gets to that part. Repeat on the other side. You should now have two long snakes of dough and filling, with a thin layer of dough separating them. Cut that line in half with a sharp knife, separating your two snakes from each other.
  16. Oil a casserole dish. Arrange the rolls in the dish, shaping them into spirals and tight coils, like tightly-wound snakes that are ready to pounce.
  17. Repeat with three other dough discs. You can vary the fillings in each disc (which separates into two rolls), using half of one and half of the other in the same disc (because the coils will be separated from each other, it really doesn't matter).
  18. Bake for 40 minutes at 400F, until pita is golden brown on top. Serve right away, or eat in room temperature for lunch the next day.

 

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