“Jerusalem,” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, food photography by Jonathan Lovekin, location photography by Adam Hinton, Ebury Press, UK, September 2012, 319 pp., £27.
On Friday afternoon, the third day of Operation Pillar of Defense, there I was in Jerusalem browsing through “Jerusalem,” the fabulous cookbook by the chefs-proprietors of a string of famous restaurants in London: Yotam Ottolenghi, who grew up in Jewish West Jerusalem and Sami Tamimi, who grew up in Palestinian East Jerusalem.
Aided by evocative photographs, the prose accompanying the recipes gives a complex view of Jerusalem today, its history, its population and its food. The authors look at what Jerusalem eats, and what eats Jerusalem – like whether to observe kashrut at home and elsewhere, or not, and whether the wild hyssop used in the making of the spice mix za’atar is a matter for nature preservation or a move to oppress Palestinians by making it a protected plant and inhibiting the local culture.
The recipes themselves are like the city – varied, vivid and with many layers, usually topped off with a finishing touch: a handful of this, a sprinkling of that or a curlicue of something else, adding an aesthetic flourish like fur on a black hat for the Sabbath or an arabesque on a floor tile.
As I browsed, an occasional comment elicited bursts of Jerusalem local patriotism. For example: “Try to get small cucumbers for this as for any fresh salad. They are worlds apart from the large ones we get in most U.K. supermarkets.” Indeed, I thought smugly, the supermarkets of the land of milk and honey and Jerusalem the eternal, undivided capital of whichever politician is fulminating, are awash all year round in small cucumbers. And did you know that Jerusalem has more bakeries per capita than anywhere in Israel?
Then a friend in a moshav near Gedera phoned me, ending the call quickly when a siren went off there – “Hear it?” she said, holding the phone toward a window. “Bye. Gotta run.” A few minutes later another friend, in Tel Aviv, phoned me to say she had heard a boom and had decided (stoutly but perhaps foolishly) not to turn on the radio and to ignore events because they were making her nervous. “Yes,” I said. “We haven’t had the radio on either.” But I thought to myself: It’s getting near.
With the cannons roaring just out of earshot, I went into the kitchen – busy hands banish worry. Which of the 120 recipes in “Jerusalem” should I try? I had promised to bring a cake to a large gathering the following day, so I decided on the clementine and almond syrup cake – it’s clementine season.
Clementine and almond syrup cake
200 g unsalted butter
380 g caster sugar
Grated zest and juice of 4 clementine
Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
280 g ground almonds
5 medium free-range eggs, beaten
100 g plain flour, sifted
A pinch of salt
Long strips of orange zest, to garnish
Heat the oven to 180C (160C fan-assisted)/gas mark 4.0). Lightly grease a 24 cm spring-form tin and line the sides and base with baking parchment.
Put the butter, 300 g of the sugar and the lemon and clementine zest in a mixer bowl and use a beater attachment on a slow speed to combine everything – do not work the mix too much or incorporate much air. Add half the ground almonds and continue mixing to fold through.
With the machine running, gradually add the eggs, scraping the bottom and sides of the bowl a couple of times as you go. Add the remaining ground almonds, flour and salt, and work them in until the mix is completely smooth. Spread the batter inside the cake tin and level it off with a palette knife.
Bake for 50-60 minutes – check that it’s ready by inserting a skewer: it should come out a little bit moist.
When the cake is almost cooked through, put the remaining sugar and the citrus juices (you need around 120 ml, so remove some if need be) in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. The moment it comes to a boil, remove the pan from the heat.
As soon as the cake comes out of the oven, brush the boiling syrup over the top, until it has all soaked through. Leave the cake to cool down completely in the tin, then remove from the tin and serve it as it is, garnished with orange strips, or store it for up to three days in an airtight container.
Responsibly, because I knew I would be reporting on this, I decided to follow the recipe exactly as written. I looked up “caster” sugar: It is finer than regular granulated sugar but not as fine as powdered sugar, and you can make it by whizzing supermarket Israeli sugar in a food processor. I did that, though if I weren’t planning to write about this I know I wouldn’t have. “Plain flour” in American is “all-purpose flour;” if you have an American oven – set it on 360 Fahrenheit, the usual baking temperature. (There is also an American edition of the book, but it isn’t available in Israel.)
There isn’t a lot chef language here – no chiffonades and tempering – but the writers make assumptions about the readers’ culinary skills and their conditions for cooking: This isn’t a book for novices and it seems to believe there will be someone else working alongside you to do some of the prep work and cleaning up.
However, the extra pair of hands was doing other things, so I ground the blanched almonds myself in the food processor with two tablespoons of the sugar, to prevent the almonds from turning into almond butter. I don’t own a 24-centimeter spring-form pan so I used one that’s slightly larger (28 centimeters) and rather battered and having learned from experience I wrapped the outside of the pan in a layer of foil to thwart leaks. Finally, still in conscientious mode, as instructed I beat the eggs in advance in a separate bowl. In the future I will probably just crack them one-by-one directly into the bowl with the butter-sugar-almond mixture, beating after each addition – one less utensil to wash.
The cake came out of the oven looking just like the photo and smelling fantastic. After it had absorbed all the syrup, I covered it with the same piece of aluminum foil and stored it inside the microwave oven, which is about as airtight as it gets around here.
I then went on to follow the recipe for chicken sofrito for dinner, frying up cubed potatoes and 25 cloves of unpeeled garlic to serve as a base for the chicken but this time I deviated a bit from the instructions and didn’t add the required salt, because the chicken pieces I had bought were already salted for kashrut, and I didn’t add the sugar either, though a pinch of sugar in many savory dishes seems to be a signature of the authors. It tasted lovely.
Feeling like I was on a roll, since I already had hot oil I forged ahead and tackled the fried cauliflower with tahini. Huge mistake. Just as a batch of cauliflower was sizzling, the air raid siren went off – which never happens in Jerusalem. The other pair of hands and I looked at each other, shrugged, turned the gas off under the cauliflower and the sofrito, picked up the keys and a smartphone, went out into the windowless stairwell, waited with the upstairs neighbor for 10 minutes and didn’t hear any booms.
But the fried cauliflower with tahini bombed – limp and greasy and with the dressing ingredients carelessly measured and mixed. It isn’t the book’s fault – I was rattled. If one siren in many years can do that, imagine the cumulative waste and effect of the rounds of hostilities in millions of kitchens in Israel and the Gaza Strip, and that’s only in the small stuff of domestic mishaps – not the big stuff of trauma, death and destruction. Make food, not war.
The next day I took the cake out of its airlock. In the process of transfer from pan to platter it broke into three pieces but in its stickiness it reassembled nicely with some moderate physical pressure. I don’t have the citrus zester the book recommends for achieving orange peel strips so I improvised with a potato peeler and a sharp knife.
At the gathering, people liked the cake.
Maybe next time I’ll make the syrup a little less sweet, add a drop of orange blossom water and swap out some of the almonds for ground pistachios, or maybe This book is like that – from the layers, neuroses and passions of Jerusalem, it gets you dreaming. Buy many copies – one for yourself and the others as gifts.