Hais; or, Arab trail mix

Sometimes Mrs Hindle likes to go out of her comfort zone of 18th-19th century Europe and USA. Today we plunge far outside the aforementioned zone when we visit 13th century Baghdad.

In 1226 Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate and the centre of a vast empire deep in the middle of its golden age of culture and learning. The House of Wisdom was founded to collect and foster all the knowledge in the world, and advances were made in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and much more. Stories and fairytales from all over the empire were collected into “The Book of One Thousand And One Nights”. And in 1226, this centre of learning also encouraged Muhammad bin Hasan al-Baghdadi to publish a collection of the city’s most popular recipes, the “Kitab al-Ṭabīḫ” or Book of Dishes. Only a few decades later Baghdad was sacked by the Mongol army of Hulagu Khan in a fury of destruction that saw almost the entire population massacred, irrigation systems filled in, buildings torched and the manuscripts of the House of Wisdom thrown into the Tiber river. A contemporary account famously states that the waters of the Tiber ran black for days with the ink from the manuscripts.

Needless to say, Mrs Hindle does not approve of the Mongols.

At least one copy of al-Baghdadi’s book survived the destruction and was preserved at a library in Istanbul, from whence it influenced the cooking traditions of the Ottoman empire and is also now available to us.

Most of the recipes in the book are so unfamiliar to me I haven’t been brave enough to try them, but today’s dish is called hais and seemed less challenging than many others.

I made half a batch, so the ingredients look like this:

  • 225 grams breadcrumbs
  • 170 grams dates, pitted
  • 40 grams unsalted pistachios and peeled almonds, about half and half
  • 30 grams sesame oil
  • 1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, cumin and coriander
  • powdered sugar

Sesame oil might be difficult to come by and can be replaced by clarified butter, but for the flavour I really recommend sesame oil. The recipe does not specify what spices or in what quantities to use, so I made it up.

Not one for macerating anything by hand, I put the breadcrumbs, pistachios, almonds and dates in a food processor and gave them a whirl. Next, heat the oil and spices in a small saucepan. Heating the spices will release their aromas more effectively. Pour the oil onto the macerated mixture and mix it all well. I had to add more oil at this point because the mixture was too crumbly, so use your fingers and evaluate for yourself.

Crumbly, and smells heavenly.

Once the mixture is of a consistency that sticks together, form small tight balls out of it with your hands and roll the balls in powdered sugar. Stack and serve.

 I especially liked the halo effect.

This is good for travellers“, al-Baghdadi writes, and I can definitely see why. The hais had a strong but pleasant flavour of sesame and spices, the sweetness of the dates was tempered by the other flavours, and the nuts and dates see to it that these little things are packed with energy. I strongly recommend trying these, because the preparation process is very simple.

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Risen Cake, or, Boy that’s a lot of eggs

We’re back in antebellum Virginia again, hanging out with Mary Randolph. I love that word, antebellum. Not only does it roll beautifully off the tongue, it also exemplifies how language is shaped by concepts that are deemed particularly important to a community. For there to be an adjective specifically describing a part of the United States the way it was before the US Civil War, that way of life must have been, in hindsight, deemed worthy of rememberance and description, of longing and nostalgia. I’m further fascinated by this because from my perspective, “antebellum” describes a lifestyle that was built on exploitation and misery and not particularly worthy of being placed on the pedestal of nostalgia.

And that brings us to our Virginia Housewife again, presiding over her kitchen staff of servants and slaves. This time she’s directing her cook to make something called “Risen cake”.

I make that:

  • 1,4 kg flour
  • 670 gr sugar
  • 1 tsp powdered cloves
  • 1 tsp mace
  • 1 tsp powdered ginger
  • yeast – I used about 50 grams
  • 12 eggs (yes, that’s right – 12)
  • 450 gr butter
  • 2,4 dl brandy
  • 900 gr raisins

That’s a lot of eggs. Also, that red box is only half the amount of raisins I used.

At first I considered making only half the amount of dough, but after some egging on (no pun intended) by Mr Hindle I decided to go for it and see what would happen. The first thing that happened was that once I’d mixed the flour, sugar and spices and was going to add yeast and many, many eggs, I realised I didn’t have a bowl big enough. So I had to resort to mixing it all in a bucket.

That brownish stuff is yeast. I know, this looks awful.

Yet again, a reminder that kitchens in the old days often had to cater to larger crowds than today.

Now, I had to make an educated guess about the amount of yeast. I went for 50 grams. The recipe doesn’t call for the yeast to be added to a warm liquid, as is the usual way, but to let the dough rise overnight. Now, technically this should work. I’ve made bread this way before, successfully, letting time rather than heat make the yeast function. So with full confidence in myself and my dough I mixed the vast quantities together in the evening and set it to rise in the fridge.

Naturally, it didn’t work. In the morning my dough had not risen one iota. So I had to resort to what the kids these days call a life hack – toss the dough into the microwave oven and heat it up, place in a warm spot under a towel, then cross your fingers and pray to Hestia. This completely unacceptable treatment of yeast worked, and an hour and a half later I finally had the beginnings of a “risen cake”.

I then cut the soft butter into small chunks and kneaded the butter and the brandy into the dough. It turned out, rather predictably, to be very sticky. The 900 grams of raisins reduced the stickiness a little, but the dough still had to be scooped and smoothed into the forms. Naturally I had to use my two largest forms. The dough smelled pleasantly of brandy at this point.

In a cookbook written for wood-heated ovens you never get very good baking instructions, so again it was guesswork. I had the oven on about 180 degrees C, which I think may have been too hot. The cakes took upwards of two hours to bake through and by the time they were done they had gotten a bit too dark on the surface. Try a lower temperature and prepare for a long cooking time!

   

They ended up looking nice enough anyway. The finished cakes were dense and heavy stuff with a strong flavour of brandy. I served the cakes in slices garnished with a bit of whipped cream. The raisins made the cakes very rich and a little piece went a long way, but if you like, say, English fruit cake then you’d like this cake too. If you do try this recipe I would recommend halving or even quartering the recipe and using a lower oven temperature.