Sunday, April 22, 2012

Spring has Sprung Cupcakes

When I arrived here in Cairo and moved into our house, I was wondering what our neighbors would be like.  I should tell you that we live on a little side street with only two houses and an enormous shared parking space.  So good neighbors next door would be an important thing.  Well, we were here for several weeks and never saw them up close.   From a distance, I knew there was a woman, a man and a little boy.  I told dear husband that they must not be American because Americans would have come over to say hello.  And, then.  Then!  I heard them outside talking.  And the lady called to the little boy and he shouted, “Yes, ma’am!”  And I declared, “They are not only American, they are from the South!”  Americans would come over to say hello, but Southerners are duty bound, raised to be polite.  We bring warm cookies or pie!  Yes, we do!  But still no one came to welcome us to the neighborhood.  And I sat in judgment and found them lacking.  Not that I dwelled on it, but it stung a little.  (I have to say that I did go over once and ring the bell, but no one answered, despite the car in the parking space and the gardener telling me they were home.) 

I was in the kitchen last Sunday.  I am fortunate in that my sink looks out on the front garden.  All of a sudden, I caught sight of one of my neighbors, the elder male of the clan, watering his lawn.  About the same time, my doorbell rang and it was the meter reader or someone else that is not important.  Finally, I had a chance to meet my neighbor!  I rushed out and introduced myself.  We chatted.  He is a very nice man.  And he shared with me within those first few minutes that they had lived in Egypt for many, many years and were raising their five-year-old grandson since last August when his mother, their daughter, was murdered by her ex-husband.  In front of that sweet boy.  I maintained composure and I think I said all the right condolencey-type things, even offering to babysit if they ever needed a break, but once I got back into the house, I was so ashamed.  The very last thing on that woman’s mind is surely welcoming a neighbor to the neighborhood!  She is raising her grandson and grieving the loss of her own beloved child.  Dear God, forgive me!  I pray I will remember this lesson forever.

In the face of loss and grief, I do what Southerners do:  I baked them cupcakes.  Does it make up for judging them?  Hell no.  But it made me feel the tiniest bit better.  And I hope the bright cupcakes cheered them up just a little.

For the vanilla cupcakes:
2 ¼ cups or 280g flour
1 ½ cups or 340g sugar
¾ cup or 170g shortening or butter, softened
3 eggs
¾ cup or 80ml milk
2 ½ teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For the butter cream frosting:
16 oz or 450g confectioners sugar
6 tablespoons or 85g butter, softened 
11/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3-4 tablespoons milk
Food colorings of your choice (I use Wilton gels because a little goes a long way.)

For the decorative flowers:
About 70 mini marshmallows (for 18 cupcakes) 
1/2 cup or 110g fine sugar for each color you make (Store leftovers in a airtight plastic bag - these will keep indefinitely.)
Food colorings of your choice

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C).  Grease a muffin tin or use cupcake papers.

This is the easiest cake ever.  Into a large bowl, mix ALL the cake ingredients at low speed until smooth, scraping bowl occasionally with a spatula.

Increase speed to medium and beat five minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally with a spatula.

Spoon out the batter into the prepared muffin tins.  I use a small ice cream scoop for this because I find it easier to distribute the batter evenly and get it neatly in the muffin tin.  This batter should make 18 cupcakes.   Drop the muffin pan gently on the cabinet a couple of times to let the air bubbles come to the top and pop.

Bake for 20-30 minutes or until nicely browned and a toothpick poked in them comes out clean.  Remove from pans and let cool completely on rack. 

The ones on the right didn't get quite as brown because they were too close to the right side of the oven, because I had another pan of six in there with them.  If your oven doesn't heat evenly, as mine apparently does not, bake the two trays one after the other instead. 

Meanwhile, make your butter cream icing and decorations.  For the butter cream, mix all the ingredients together with your electric mixer until it is creamy.  

If the mixture is too thick, add just a little more milk.  

Add in your food coloring and mix again.  I chose green but you can make whatever color you like best.

For your decorative flowers, mix your food coloring gel in a few drops of water and stir with a toothpick until it is dissolved.  I tried adding the gel directly to the sugar and that didn’t work out so good since my gel was too thick and sticky.  I ended up with a light color that didn't contrast enough with the white of the marshmallow.  If you have liquid food colors, you might be able to skip this step and put the colors straight into the sugar.

Too light with bits of gel still visible. Don't do it this way!
Add it to the sugar in an airtight container and shake vigorously until the color is even distributed. You will need at least two colors to make a daisy.  Or you could use M&Ms for the center. 

Much better, don't you agree?

Once your colored sugars are ready, cut the mini marshmallows diagonally for the petals, and straight across the middle for the center of the flower.   

I will be petals!

I will be the center!
Pop them into the airtight sugar containers and give them a shake.  They will plump back up in just a few minutes.

Once your cupcakes are cool, frost them.  

Add the marshmallows to the top, flat, non-cut side down.  Start with the center and then add the petals at 9 and 3 o’clock and then fill in the other two on each side. 

Share them with anyone who might need some springtime sunshine.


Hey, see that little green Facebook symbol up in the right hand column?  If you click on it and then hit LIKE when Facebook opens, you will never miss a post because they are automatically updated to my Facebook page.  I mean, just if you want to.  Thanks!

Credit for the marshmallow flower idea goes here.  Aren’t hers beautiful?!  

The cake and frosting recipes came originally from the Good Housekeeping Illustrated Cookbook, 1980 edition.    

Friday, April 20, 2012

Lahma Mashshiya or Beef Rolls with Onion Gravy

The traditional Egyptian dish Lahma Mashshiya calls for flattened beef or veal, rolled up around cheese and herbs, tied with string, marinated, pan-fried, covered with an onion gravy and then baked till tender. It's absolutely delicious and, since the beef is pounded flat and tenderized, it can be make inexpensively with a cheaper cut of meat.

If you have ever been a new parent at a school that encourages involvement, or a newly arrived member of an association that needs volunteers, I can guarantee you that some old timer there has looked you over with raised-eyebrow interest and thought “Fresh meat!”  I did it.  We all do it.  (And if you look particularly intelligent and amenable, we practically knock each other over after the event to sucker you in talk to you first!)  I have learned over the years to tread lightly when entering a PTA meeting or association coffee morning for the first few times.  My advice is to get the lay of the land, so to speak, before looking like you might have some skill or talent to offer.  And definitely DO NOT raise your hand.  You may just be asking a question, but that looks way too much like interest and the next thing you know, you are in charge of their magazine.  Or sitting on the executive board.  Or both.

I have been in Cairo three months now and laying low.  But I do want to get involved and make friends.  So when the sweetest lady, with grey hair that flips up endearingly at the ends in the most Mary Tyler Moore of ways, invited me to join what she called the Benevolence Committee, I said yes!

We met in one of the rooms at St. John’s Church (which shares the premises with the Maadi Community Church) on Wednesday and sorted out bags and bags of donations into boxes labeled by size and gender:  infant, little girl, big girl, women, little boy, big boy and men.   Then, according to the master list and some algorithm which made my math phobic soul cringe, we divided the boxes into piles dedicated to each orphanage/organization/home for the mentally or physically disabled it would go to.  Some have little girls, some have big girls, some have both, etc.  The label might read La Providence – 1 BG, 2LG – which means they got one box of clothes for pre-teens and teenage girls and two boxes of clothes for smaller girls from ages 2-10.

Here is the incredible thing.  When we had finished dividing it all up, I counted 34 piles of two or more boxes!   Then we added 15 kilos of pasta and 10 kilos of beans to each pile, plus two more.  (Two homes didn’t request clothing, but they still received the food.)  

As the representatives came to pick up the donations, they were invited to enjoy some home-baked goodies and soft drinks.  There were also cash donations towards summer camp expenses for those who had requested them.  

As you can imagine, there were smiles all round.  But hardly any broader than those of the volunteers.

In the spirit of being small part of the Egyptian community Wednesday, I’d like to share with you a traditional recipe, another one I have adapted from Apricots on the Nile by Colette Rossant.  I am serving two here but this could be easily doubled or trebled.

1lb or 450g beef or veal, sliced thinly into four pieces
2 good handfuls of fresh parsley or cilantro (coriander) or a mix of the two
3/4 oz or 20g of Kashkaval or cheddar cheese
3/4 oz or 20g of crumbled goat cheese
Black pepper
Sea salt
1 onion
2 cloves garlic
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 1/2 cups or 360ml beef stock (made from a stock cube if fine)
Olive oil
1/8 cup or 15g flour

Use a flat-sided mallet or the bottom of a frying pan to flatten the meat out even thinner than it already is.  Putting it between two pieces of plastic keeps the mess to a minimum.  Some butchers will do this for you.  Mine did a little bit but then I flattened it some more at home.

Grate/crumble your cheese and chop your herb of choice.   Using a light hand or a fork, mix the herbs and cheeses.  Add a good couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. 

Divide the cheese/herb mixture between your pieces of meat and cover somewhat evenly. 

Roll the meat up and secure with some kitchen string and a knot at either end.  Continue till you have done all four meat rolls.

Chop your onion and garlic put them in a bowl just big enough on the bottom to hold your meat rolls.  Add in 1/2 cup or 120ml cup of the beef stock, the lemon juice and the grated nutmeg.

Put the meat rolls in the marinade and spoon some juice and onion over their tops.  I used veal so I only marinated it for an hour but you could leave the rolls in the marinade up to two hours for beef.   

Turn them over occasionally and redistribute the onions over their tops.

When marinating time is almost up, preheat your oven to 350°F or 180°C.

Heat a non-stick skillet and give it a little drizzle of olive oil.  Brown your rolls on all sides and remove to a small baking dish.

Add a couple of more tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and then the flour.  Stir this around until all the lumps are gone.

It's a roux, folks. 

Turn the heat down to a low simmer then add in the marinade.  

Add in the remaining beef stock, whisking if necessary to avoid lumps.  Stir until the onions are a little cooked and the gravy thickens.

Spoon this over the meat rolls and then bake them in the oven for 20-30 minutes.  

Your gravy should darken slightly and be really bubbling and then, the meat rolls are ready.  

I drizzled the meat rolls with a little olive oil.  The gravy really isn't oily.  And then
I completely COVERED the potatoes with more onion gravy.  After the photo was taken.  Divine. 


N.B. If you live in Cairo, we will be collecting used clothes again in the Fall, but if you are moving away this Summer, please let me know.  The church has storage room for donated goods, including clothes, small household items and shoes.  I can assure you that your things will find needy homes.