29 May 2015

Strawberry Basil Cake with Balsamic Frosting

It is strawberry season! The strawberries we get here are gorgeous and I could eat them on their own a kilo at a time; but that does not mean that I don't like a strawberry dessert from time to time. I've played in the past with strawberry cupcakes and balsamic frosting and strawberry basil sorbet and this time decided to combine all the flavors.

Finally got a real measuring cup!

Even though I got an oven sometime ago it is only recently that I've really started baking. Part of the what's held me back is how difficult some key ingredients are to get; like vanilla. Sure I could buy vanilla beans at a spice shop, over pay by about 300% for a bottle of good vodka and make my own...but I just cannot pay that awful mark-up on alcohol. Luckily for me I found Simply Nicki's. She makes peanut butters, vanillas, extracts, and all sorts of good things. When I lived in the US I was a devotee of Mexican vanilla but Nicki turned me onto Ugandan vanilla and it is fantastic. I think I need to get some Tahitian vanilla from her as well.

The last few years I have been very picky about the ingredients I use for my desserts but that was not always the way! When I was younger I was unaware that there even was a difference between baking powder and baking soda. We (i.e. my dad) planted a ton of strawberries every year so strawberry short cake was a pretty common dessert in our home. Heck there were days when that's all dinner was too! I remember once, I must have been in middle school, I wanted to make the biscuits for the shortcake. They came out of the oven and were gorgeous. Fluffy, just the right shade of golden brown...I was so impressed with myself. Then we put the strawberries on them. Everything turned purple and started to fizz. It was a little like eating Pop Rocks. That's when I learned that baking powder and soda are two very, very different things!

I promise you really do need baking powder for this!

  • 400 ml flour
  • 1 1/2 Teaspoon baking powder 
  • 1/8 Teaspoon salt
  • 150 ml olive oil
  • 175 ml sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 Teaspoon vanilla
  • 100 ml milk
  • 1 1/2+ Cups sliced strawberries
  • 2+ Tablespoons chopped basil*
  • 230 grams cream cheese (or labne)
  • 115 grams siftened butter
  • 3+ Tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 100 ml powdered sugar
  1. Sift (or not, I'm lazy so I don't) the flour, baking powder, and salt then set aside.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk or beat together the oil and sugar. Then beat in eggs one at a time then the vanilla.
  3. Into that add, in 5 parts, the dry ingredients and milk (flour-milk-flour-milk-flour).
  4. Fold in berries and basil.
  5. Bake in greased 8x8 pan at 190C for about 20-25 minutes.
*Don't be afraid of the basil! I always forget that basil's taste is much milder than the scent and I chickened out and didn't put in enough.

27 May 2015

Turkish Wine of the Week - Diren Öküzgözü & Gali Blend

Today was to have been the last of my 4AM Twitter sessions with VinoRai and Protocol Wine Studio. I bought both of the wines on which the discussion was focused and was all set to drink two glasses of red wine at 4 in the morning. Unfortunately dealing with Turkish bureaucracy this week has given me a few headaches, including one last night. When I woke up in pain at 2:30 AM I knew I wasn't going to be able to participate in the session. Happily at least I can read what everyone Tweeted and, since my headache finally went away, drink a couple glasses tonight.

My desk right now

Let's start with the Anatolia-based Diren. I've had Diren wines before, the Kalecık Karası I believe, and I wasn't a fan. The nice thing about Diren wines is that they're everywhere. I picked up this one at La Cave in Cihangir for 25TL. 

The Diren 2012 Öküzgözü is an opaque purple-red; very 'berry' in color. In the nose I get dark red fruits and spice, maybe some chocolate? On the palate...eh. I find it to be a little on the thin side. There are no tannins to speak of but a fair amount of acid and despite having only 12% alcohol I think it tastes a little hot. I could see this going very well with grilled meats, particularly lamb but on it's lonesome it's not to my taste. Which, to be fair to Diren, I generally prefer Öküzgözü as a blend. One really interesting thing I learned though is that Öküzgözü grapes produce wines often compared to Beaujolais (which I don't like so it makes sense that I wouldn't like the Turkish version!) and can be served chilled! I'm totally putting this in the fridge for a bit.

Moving onto the Gali Blend (70TL at Solera). I heart Gali wines. They're a bit more dear to the pocketbook than other Turkish wines but are worth it. The Gali 2010 is a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. A denser color than the Diren, the Gali is a dense red with little to no opacity.

Gali, which is located in Gallipoli like my bffs at Suvla, produces Bordeaux-style wines and in fact employes a French wine maker. The nose of the blend is swoon-worthy, dark and rich. On the palate-holy tartness, Batman! I almost lost the tannins because of the tart. I'm not sure if that's the fruit or a high level of acid but I would let this one air a wee little while. However a longer. slower sip, letting the wine run over my tongue, produces a fair (read medium) amount of tannins and a nice finish; very rich and full of dark fruits. This would love a steak. So would I come actually. Sadly for me I have no steak on hand at the moment but this big wine did pretty well with what I did have for dinner: Parmesan and bread with oil and balsamic.

Oh Diren, I really wanted to like you but after drinking the Gali you're almost offensive. However I will put you in the fridge and we'll see what happens. Until then I shall continue to play Vivien Leigh to Gali's Clark Gable and swoon over here.

20 May 2015

Turkish Wine of the Week - Turasan 2013 Emir

For the last two weeks I've been getting up at 3:50 AM. No one understands why and everyone thinks I've insane, including my cat. There really is an excellent reason: wine! I'll wake up anytime of the day or night for good wine and this isn't just wine; it's wine and education (about wine). I like to drink wine, we all know this, and I like to write about it. However mostly I'm just making up things. I don't have a very refined palate and usually only am able to taste the top notes of wines. So these last two weeks, and next week, have been an opportunity to chat, via Twitter, with other wine lovers.

And not just about any old wine...about Turkish wine! Protocol Wine Studio, an organization dedicated to education about wine and wine culture, is partnering with VinoRai, a Seattle-based wine importer bringing Turkish wine to America, on a three-week discussion about Turkish wines. That is worth a pre-morning call to prayer wake up. The first week's discussion was focused on Turkey's history and politics (as they relate to wine) and general viticulture, growing regions, types of grapes, etc. This week we moved on to the wines themselves, specifically the Turasan 2013 Emir.

This is a very cool thing but 6PM on the west coast is 4AM in Istanbul!

Sherlock thinks I'm nuts for getting up so early.

Like Turasan, Emir grapes are from Cappadocia where they grow well in the volcanic soil of the region. 'Emir' means 'prince' and wines made from this grape have been drunk at lords' tables for millennia. I've seen a lot of wines here that are Emir blends but aside from the Turasan no stand-alone Emir wines. The folks at VinoRai told me why: Emir grapes are expensive and not overly easy to produce which makes producing 100% Emir wines expensive and not really sustainable.

The best old-world grape match to the Emir is Pinot Gris or Torrontes and you can food pair similarly: shellfish, fish, chicken, mild cheese, etc. Think Mediterranean food and you'll probably do well. That's for the 100% Emir. The more common blends (usually I see it with Narince) have a bit more body to them and will stand up to creamy dishes and likely stronger cheese.

 While I'm willing to get up at 4AM; this week I decided I needed to be drinking along with everyone else and picked up a bottle of the Turasan 2013 Emir (35 TL at Solara). When my alarm went off at 3:50 AM I rolled out of bed, started up my laptop, poured a glass of wine, and got ready to join the Turkish wine love fest.

Normally I eschew dry white wines because I find they generally are too oaky for my taste. I was prepared to dislike the Emir...but the first sip both surprised and hooked me! I read later that Emirs are not oaked because the grape doesn't do well with the wood. I wish more white wine grapes were of that attitude. But I get ahead of myself; one must start at the beginning.

The Turasan 2013 Emir is pleasing right out of the bottle with a pretty straw yellow with green highlights. The nose is all tropical fruits and flowers, citrus fruits, and minerals. On the palate it is lively and crisp with a medium body and a nice finish. One person put it very nicely that the Emir is a "meaty" white with a lot of heft in the texture. In the flavor I picked out largely the tropical flavors, lemon, apple, and minerals (stone mostly). There was one thing bothering me though-a flavor I just couldn't put my finger one but thanks to another participant I found out what it was: salty! So simple in the end but a flavor I don't recall every before encountering in wine.

I haven't tried many Turasan wines yet. Like my peeps over at Suvla they have a wide variety of wines with price points that run the gambit from cheap to 'when I win the lottery'. I will definitely be trying a lot more of these though and the next time I go to Cappadocia I will make sure a trip to the winery is on my itinerary!

Next week is the last in the two-part session and we will discuss the Diren 2012 Okuzguzu and the Gali 2010 blend. I have some shopping to do!

18 May 2015

PopUp Istanbul - Indian Food

Once again I got a seat at PopUp Istanbul...this time for Indian night! I so miss good Indian food. There are several Indian restaurants in Istanbul but...they're either really not good and expensive or only so-so and expensive. The last time I had good Indian food was November of last year when I was in the UK. Although walking home from Ortakoy Saturday night I spotted a place in Besiktas I didn't know about so I'll have to try that.

So the last time I had truly good Indian food was in November...until PopUp that is! K is an excellent cook and she brought a lot of spices (which are near to impossible to get here) from Europe. Along with, and I kid you not, bags of papadoms. She brought pre-made papadoms in Europe and brought them, intact, back to Istanbul. Dude. The full menu she prepared included:

Yoghurt with chilli oil dip served with whole wheat flat breads
Onion Bhajis
Pea and potato samosas
Mint and cucumber raita
Coriander sambal
(Sweet) Mango chutney

Gustaba (lamb/beef meatballs in curd gravy)
Od Delhi style butter chicken
Chickpea curry
Spiced yellow rice
Brinjal with chat masala
Spicy, hot mango pickle
Dried fruit chutney
Coconut chutney

Rose ice cream with apple pastry

Of course Suvla made an appearance!

K is a goddess. The food was amazing and, as was the Georgia night, enhanced by a group of really interesting people. I think that's part of what makes PopUp so great, so many people with different backgrounds, jobs, nationalities, etc all brought together by love of food. Great food, lots of wine, laughter, and interesting conversation (including my low-level sociopathy and a few tales from the 'dark farm') made for a wonderful night.

And since K never discourages dressing to theme I got to wear my salwar kameez out of the apartment! I bought four of them 12 years ago when I was in India and one of them (i.e. the only one that still fits) came with me when I moved here because, if nothing else, it's fantastic around the house wear. Now K just needs to do Moroccan night soon so I can wear one of the gorgeous dresses I bought in Rabat a few years ago!

So wonderful that it was about 2AM when I got home. Happily I don't live too far from PopUp so stumbling home at that time of the AM is never really a problem. Up the stairs though is something a little different. It was almost 3 by the time I was de-makeuped and settled down Sherlock for the evening so I was tired on Sunday and I'm afraid Mass was a bit of a haze; exacerbated by my low level understanding of Italian. But worth it? Totally. Can't wait until the next one!!

16 May 2015

A Disappointing Museum and Blue Cheese Mushroom Risotto

Last weekend E and I went to the newly reopened Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts in Sultanahmet. This museum has been closed for renovation since before E&M visited me the summer of 2013 (which incidentally is also the summer I was fired from a not-to-be-named DC-based organization somewhat famous for misappropriating American tax dollars). We've been waiting impatiently for this museum to reopen and a rainy Sunday seemed a great day to visit.

The museum, which sits at the far end of the Hippodrome was a little hard to reach. When we arrived in Sultanahmet the entire are was crowded with people there for both a bike marathon and I suppose to hear the Prime Minister who was there making a speech ahead of the June elections.

We finally made our way into the museum and I waited with my dripping umbrella while E bought her ticket. My Muzekart gets me in free and, after our visit I am so glad I did not have to spend 20TL on the entrance fee.

I love sundried tomatoes

It was so disappointing! The building itself is somewhat interesting and I enjoy an illuminated manuscript as much as the next person...but aside from a rather interesting coffin, a handful of moth-eaten rugs, and a few hairs from Mohammad's beard there's not much else in there. The collection covers only one floor. While it's a nice building it doesn't make up for the lack of content or information. It's not even like visiting the Native American Museum at the Smithsonian; really amazing architecture, best food court the Smithsonian has to offer...and that's about it.

Which wouldn't be so bad if there were at least some information. It's set up to take the visitor through the history of the area's peoples and their art. Information boards at the beginning of each age tell you that you will see examples of the art typical of the time. Typical how? An illuminated manuscript looks like an illuminated manuscript looks like an illuminated manuscript. Placards next to each item tell you only (in Turkish and English) that this is a Quran from the something period, or a cuzden* from a something period.

I think we left the museum with less information than we had going in.

You what is not disappointing? Risotto. Blue cheese. Mushrooms (except for shitake mushrooms to which I seem to be allergic). Except for Salmon Friday, dinner at E&M's, and eating out I pretty much live on pasta. It's just so easy. While I never made risotto in the States I often make it here, although usually I skip the Parmesan since it's so insanely expensive here. Of all the imported cheese here, blue cheese is oddly affordable. As is often the case with cooking and baking here, I decided to get a little creative with substitutes; and as long as I was adding blue cheese to the mix I might as well throw in some walnuts too.

I wasn't quite sure how well this would all turn out; between the blue cheese and deglazing with red wine which I've never done to risotto.I am happy to say that the blue cheese did not disappoint. Doing this again I would make a few changes though which are reflected below. Blue cheese is strong so I was a little shy about how much I used. Next time I would use the entire package. Also I need to stop being afraid of the truffle salt.

Paired with a spinach salad, a gorgeous Spanish red, and a terrace view of Istanbul my blue cheese mushroom risotto was lovely. It warmed up pretty well the next day too. In the end, a disappointing museum trip that ends with a lovely dinner is still a pretty good day.

*A cuzden is apparently a chapter or fragmented section from the Quran. We had to Google that.

  • 1 Tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 Tablespoon truffle oil (optional)
  • 2 white or yellow onions, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves garlic (crushed and/or chopped)
  • 140 grams mushrooms, sliced
  • 140 grams (3/4 Cup) risotto 
  • 75 ml dry red wine
  •  4 sundried tomatoes, chopped
  • 500 ml hot vegetable stock (or hot water)
  • 100+ grams (baby) spinach
  • 115 grams (1/2 Cup) walnuts, chopped
  • 100 grams blue cheese
  • salt
  • black pepper
  • truffle salt (optional)
  1. Heat the oils in a deep sauce pan or pot over medium-low heat. Add onions and cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and mushrooms and cook gently for another 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add risotto and stir until all the grains are covered in onion-garlic-mushroomy goodness. Pour in the wine and cook for another couple minutes, stirring occasionally, until all the wine is incorporated. 
  3. Reduce heat to low. Add the sundried tomatoes and about 125 ml/4 fl ozs stock and cook, stirring occasionally, until all liquid is absorbed. Continue to add the stock in small batches until it's all absorbed and the risotto is creamy and tender.
  4. Stir in the blue cheese and walnuts and season to taste. If you're using truffle salt don't be afraid of it. I never add enough. Once all that is incorporated, sprinkle the spinach over the risotto, cover, and cook for about 5 more minutes/until the spinach has wilted. Stir in the spinach and serve! Goes well with a spinach salad and/or some nicely rare meat. And more red wine. Always more red wine!

13 May 2015

Turkish Wine of the Week - Urla Nexus 2011

I recently was able to entertain some family members here in Istanbul. Two of my double second cousins* were in town. I have a rather large family. Really rather large. My dad is one of eight and all but one of his siblings have children. My mom is one of 12 and nine of them have children. My siblings and I are all at the younger end of the cousins so we have several cousins (on daddy's side) who are already grandparents themselves. So I have a hard enough time remembering all my first cousin's...I've kind of given up on remembering my second cousins and their kids.

I knew I'd met her mom before but Sara and I couldn't remember if we'd actually met or not.The first night I saw them here we had this moment where we both said, but you do look familiar so we must have met...and then realized that we both just look so much like the family, ergo each other.

I had them over one evening to admire the view from my terrace and to enjoy a glass of a good Turkish wine. My desire to make sure they had a really good wine backfired on me a little though! I chose the bottle of Urla Nexus that I picked up at Solera for a wee fortune of 105TL (140TL in the restaurant but Solera gives a 25% discount if you're buying wine to go). The backfire was not that it wasn't good-because the Urla Nexus is AMAZING. So much better than the Urla Vourla I had a while ago. However I realized when I read the fine print on the bottle that the Nexus is a blend of Merlot, Nero d'Avola, and Cabernet Franc...not one domestic Turkish grape in the bottle!

I might have developed a slightly skewed belief about how much one should (have to) pay for good wine since moving here...but I can confidently say that the Nexus 2011 is worth every penny. The one little fly in my wine was that I had a rather severe cold so I had a hard time picking out flavors. Cherries? Maybe? So really this post is a bit on the pointless side unless you're ok with a simple "holy crap this wine is outstanding and you should get it" take away.


The cold did not stop me from enjoying the beautiful tannins though. Powerful and velvety tannins coat the tongue and provide a strong backbone for this big and full-bodied red. I mean, when you're drinking this, you know you are drinking a red wine. It's gorgeous. 105TL is a little bit of a scary price to start dropping on the regular, especially when you only work part-time like I do. Full-time drinking and part-time working do not always go together well.

Adding to the experience of a truly fantastic wine was a great time spent with my cousins. Sara, who was here for a gig with a new Turkish band Barista, will hopefully be coming back for more gigs. Barista's debut at Babylon seems to have been pretty well received by both those of us in attendance and the media. So cheers to Urla's Nexus 2011, my cousin Sara, and Barista! May I see more of all of them!

*Double cousins really is a thing. It happens when two siblings marry two other siblings...although preferably they're not all one another's siblings. This has happened twice in my family. My grandmother and her sister married brothers making the resulting cousins doubly related. A few generations later my two favorite cousins also married brothers.

06 May 2015

Turkish Wine of the Week - Pamukkale Senfoni 2013 Sultaniye Sweet

I have now had and written about the Pamukkale Senfoni Sek and Domi Sek. I've always quite liked the domi sek but I never tried the full-on sweet. Until now.

Sweet wines pair beautifully with spicy food which is one of the reasons I find myself eating a lot of çiğ köfte; they go well with the oh-so quaffable Miskets I like to drink in the summer. Assuming that a sweet Sultaniye grape would pair just as nicely I decided to try the full on sweet Pamukkale Senfoni when I made blacked Salmon a few weeks ago. It was a good choice.

The color of pale hay with green lights, this wine is as pretty as it is delicious. The nose, full of florals, mango, and pineapple was a promise to be fulfilled by the taste. The tropical fruits and flowers lend themselves to a an easy to drink, not overly sweet wine that's smooth and refreshing on the tongue.

Why don't I drink this more? I should, especially at 25TL a bottle it and Pamukkale's other Senfonis are a steal. Now that spring has really and finally arrived in Istanbul I will be drinking more white wines. Although considering the backlog of posts I have about red ones one would never know that I'm trying to switch to white now!

Oh sweet white wines, I love you.