Saffron & Sun-Drenched Tomato Focaccia

Saffron in everything! Well I am Persian and it is important to us as garlic is to the Italians. Here is my simple no-knead focaccia recipe with the addition of saffron and sun-drenched tomatoes.

Focaccia is a flat leavened oven-baked Italian bread. It can be served as a side dish or as sandwich bread and it can be round, rectangular, or square shape. I love making focaccia in the summer and this recipe feels particularly summery with its warming saffron notes and the use of sun-drenched tomatoes.

So what is the difference between sun-dried and sun-drenched? Sun-drenched tomatoes have had less time in the sun (to remove some of their water content) and are slightly less chewy than sun-dried but you can totally substitute with sun-dried tomatoes. Feel free to add rosemary or other herbs to the focaccia, my sun-drenched tomatoes come in an oil and basil dressing so I just use that.

You achieve a rise from a no-knead focaccia by leaving the dough it in the fridge over night but if you want the focaccia quicker, then mix all the dough ingredients and knead by hand for 10 to 15 minutes, leave to prove until it has doubled in size (up to 2 hrs) and then follow steps 3 to 5 below.

I usually serve mine with a Charcuterie-style board of Italian cold cuts and picky bits as pictured above.

Picture above – before the focaccia is popped in the oven.


Saffron & Sun-Drenched Tomato Focaccia

No-knead focaccia
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time20 mins
Total Time40 mins
Course: Appetizer, Side Dish, Appetiser
Cuisine: Cross-cultural
Servings: 10
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

  • 400 g strong white bread flour
  • 5 g fast-acting dried yeast
  • 4 tbsp olive oil (plus extra for greasing)
  • 160 g pack sun-drenched tomatoes (I use Waitrose ones which have a basil dressing)
  • 1 tbsp sea salt flakes
  • 250 ml tepid water plus 1/4 tsp of ground saffron (bloom the saffron in the water for about 5 minutes before adding to flour)

Instructions

  • Add flour, yeast, 1 tbsp olive oil and 1 tsp salt into a large bowl. Add 250ml saffron water and mix with a wooden spoon to make a sticky dough. Cover with cling film and put in the fridge overnight or up to 24 hrs.
  • Once the dough has doubled in size, remove from the fridge and leave in a warm place for no less than 1 hr to bring up to room temperature.
  • Oil a 23cm (ideally square) roasting tin and scrape the dough in. Oil your hands and push the dough out towards the edge of a tin to create a rough square shape. Cover and leave for about an hour or two in a warm place.
  • After this further proving time, the dough will be very soft and airy and filled the tin comfortably. Scatter and push in the tomatoes, sprinkle the remaining salt over and drizzle with a little olive oil. Use your fingertips to create dimples in the dough, pressing in the tomatoes and spreading the dough to the corners. Cover and leave to rise for another 1 hr.
  • Heat oven to 220C/200C fan/gas 7 at least 15 mins before cooking the bread. Uncover the dough, drizzle with the remaining oil and bake on the middle shelf for 20 mins or until golden brown. Cool in the tin for about 10 mins before transferring to a wire rack, or eat warm.

Simit

Turkish Bagels

Simit is a circular bread encrusted with sesame seeds, which is common to the cuisines of the former Ottoman Empire and the Middle-East. It is widely known as a Turkish bagel in the USA and Koulouri in Greece. They are commonly eaten at breakfast and are a much loved street food available on many corners in Istanbul. They have a crispy exterior and a soft doughy interior, which can be created using a standard bread dough mixture.

The distinctive taste of Simit comes from a combination of toasted sesame seeds and a grape molasses glaze. Grape molasses can be found online or at Middle-Eastern supermarkets. Sesame seeds are widely available in their raw form, so you will need to toast them in a dry frying pan before coating the Simit rings.

I was first introduced to Simit during one of our holidays in Turkey. Many of us Iranians love holidaying in Turkey as it feels familiar but with the freedoms we cannot enjoy in our own motherland. In fact, I have travelled to Turkey more than I have to Iran. The hospitality, the food and the weather make for the perfect destination for my family and it feels like home. 

The variety of baked goods available in Turkey is incredible and Simit is no exception. My local artisan bakery has Simit sandwiches available to be toasted and eaten with a strong Turkish coffee to follow, which has become a favourite weekend brunch option for my husband and I. 

When I bake them at home, we either eat them with feta and halva (as pictured above) or with jam. We also love having them as an accompaniment to egg dishes (pictured below). The recipe foe Nargessi (Persian spinach Eggs as pictured) can be found here.


Simit

Turkish Bagels
Prep Time20 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Proving Time x 21 hr 30 mins
Total Time2 hrs 15 mins
Course: Breakfast, Accompaniment
Cuisine: Turkish
Keyword: Simit, Turkish Bagel, Gevrek, Koulouri
Servings: 6
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

Simit Dough

  • 500 g strong white bread flour (plus extra for sprinkling on your surface when shaping the Simit)
  • 7 g fast-action yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 300 ml tepid water
  • A little olive oil (to oil the bowl the dough proves in)

Simit Topping

  • 100 ml grape molasses (üzüm pekmezi)
  • 50 ml water
  • 2 tsp flour
  • 300 g toasted sesame seeds

Instructions

  • Mix strong white flour, salt and fast-action yeast in a large bowl making sure the salt and yeast are kept apart at this initial stage. Make a well in the centre, then add 300ml water, and mix well. If the dough seems a little stiff, add another 1-2 tbsp water and mix well.
  • Tip onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for around 10 mins. Once the dough is smooth, place it in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with cling film. Leave to rise for 1 hour or until doubled in size.
  • Mix the grape molasses, water and flour in a large bowl.
  • Prepare the toasted sesame seeds. Take the raw sesame seeds, toast in a dry pan until golden, shaking and stirring the pan regularly. Take care not to burn the seeds. It should only take a few minutes to toast the sesame seeds.
  • Preheat the oven to 220°C / fan 200°C / gas 7 / 425°F. Place a baking tray in the oven.
  • Once the dough has proved, cut the dough into 12 equal sized pieces. Sprinkle some flour on the surface and roll each piece into a long sausage about 25cm long. Take two of the rolled dough pieces and place them alongside each other. Squeeze the ends together and roll the ends in opposite directions, causing them to braid. Squeeze the two ends together to form a ring. Repeat with the remaining dough.
  • Dip the simits into the grape molasses mixture until covered. Cover completely with sesame seeds. Stretch the dough a little as you do this to ensure the Simit is even but don't worry if it is not perfect - rustic is a great look! Place the ready Simits on a piece of baking paper, cover with a tea towel and let prove for a further 30 mins.
  • Bake in two batches until cooked through and golden brown on the outside, 20 - 25 minutes. Check the Simit occasionally to make sure it doesn't burn and turn the heat down if necessary.
  • Leave to cool on a cooling rack. Simit is best eaten while still warm so if you don't eat them straight away, reheat in the oven before consuming.

 

 

A Persian Homage to the Victoria Sandwich

 

I love cake. My cake love came later in life as I was a real savoury food seeker until my thirties. Then the delightful past-time of cake and coffee on a lazy sunday afternoon developed and it is a ritual I like to keep up. Most of the time I like to venture into my local coffee shop and bakery but once in a while I channel Mary Berry and produce a home-baked goody.

One of my Mary Berry moments resulted in this delight. I really fancied a Victoria Sandwich, mostly because it brings so much joy with very little baking effort! The only problem was I only had Persian sour cherry jam in my cupboard as opposed to strawberry or raspberry. I briefly contemplated heading out to the nearest shop for jam but it was a Sunday, my pyjamas felt snug and frankly I couldn’t be bothered. I rummaged around my kitchen cupboards for flavour inspiration to match with the sour cherry jam. I landed on lime and vanilla for the sponge, rose water flavoured whipped cream and ground pistachios for the decoration. The experiment was a success and my Persian version of the British classic Victoria Sandwich is a firm favourite in my household.

The cake batter is the standard ‘225 grams of  butter, sugar and self-raising flour plus 4 eggs’ mixture. It’s a great cake batter and one where even the novice baker will yield the perfect crumb. I also use this for cupcakes.

You can get your hands on sour cherry jam, rose water and pistachios from most Middle-Eastern food shops or online. The brand of sour cherry jam I use is ‘1&1’ but ‘Anjoman’ is also an excellent alternative. If all else fails just use a good quality cherry jam from your local supermarket which will also have rose water and pistachios.


A Persian Homage to the Victoria Sandwich

A lime and vanilla sponge layered with rose flavoured whipped cream and sour cherry jam
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Total Time55 mins
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: Persian, British, Cross-cultural
Keyword: cake, victoria sandwich
Servings: 12
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

  • 225 g golden caster sugar
  • 225 g unsalted butter (plus a little extra to grease tins - at room temperature)
  • 4 free range eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • zest of 1 lime
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 225 g self-raising flour
  • 1 jar sour cherry jam (290g)
  • 300 ml whipping cream
  • 1 tbsp rose water
  • 1 to 2 tbsp icing sugar (to dust)
  • 2 tbsp ground pistachios

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C conventional / 160°C Fan / Gas mark 4. Grease and line the bottom of two 20cm/8in sandwich tins with a circle of baking paper.
  • In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light in colour and fluffy. Crack the eggs one by one and beat each one in before adding the next.
  • Add the vanilla extract and lime zest. Then sift the flour and baking powder into the bowl and gently fold into the mixture.
  • Divide the mixture evenly between the tins, using a spatula to remove all of the mixture from the bowl. Gently smooth the surface of the cakes. Place the tins on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Don’t open the door while they’re cooking.
  • While the cakes are cooking, add the whipping cream and rose water to a mixing bowl and whip until it forms stiff peaks.
  • The cakes are done when they’re golden brown and coming away from the edge of the tins. Remove them from the oven and set aside to cool in the tins for 5 minutes. You can use a thin skewer or the tip of a sharp knife to check the cakes by gently poking the centre to the bottom. It should come out clean of cake batter. Run a palette knife around the inside edge of the tin and carefully turn the cakes out onto a cooling rack. Set aside to cool completely.
  • To assemble, choose the sponge with the best top, then put the other cake top-down on to a serving plate. Spread with the sour cherry jam (I use the whole jar - reserve some of the jam liquid to drizzle on top of the whipped cream), then spread the whipped cream on top of the jam and drizzle the remaining jam liquid over the cream. Place the other sponge on top and dust with icing sugar and the ground pistachios.

Noon-e Barbari

Persian flatbread with nigella & sesame seeds

Barbari is a yeast-leavened Iranian flatbread. It is one of the thickest flatbreads we have and is commonly topped with sesame and nigella seeds. The top layer of the bread is similar to a pretzel due to a glaze made of baking powder, flour and water, brushed on before baking. It is widely known as Persian flatbread.

Barbari is an obsolete Persian term (meaning Easterners) for the Hazara people living in the Khorasan province, Iran. They are the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and are also a significant minority group in neighbouring Pakistan. The Hazara people speak Dari, a form of Farsi (the main language of Iran). Farsi and Dari are mutually intelligible, with differences found primarily in the vocabulary and phonology.

Barbari bread was first baked by Hazaras and taken to Tehran over 200 years ago. Hazaras are no longer called barbari, but the bread is still referred to as noon-e barbari in Iran while Hazaras refer to it as nan-e tanoori (tandoor oven bread). The Turkish have a similar bread, with theirs being slightly thicker. The bread is usually 70 to 80 cm long, and 25 to 30 cm wide. It is the most common style bread baked in Iran. It is usually eaten at breakfast with Lighvan cheese (a ewe’s milk cheese similar to feta cheese) and preserves such as sour cherry jam and carrot jam as pictured above.

My version of Barbari has been a 6 month process of experimenting with various baking styles in order to replicate this wonderful bread in my oven. Ultimately it has similar measurements to most bread recipes but it is a wetter dough, which I have found is the key to achieving a version close to the traditional Barbari. Also the glaze takes the standard bread recipe and transforms it into an extraordinary tasting bake. My version is smaller than the traditional Barbari, as most of us cannot fit an 80 cm long flatbread in our oven but it loses none of its deliciousness. I knead my dough by hand, as I find the process therapeutic, but please feel free to use any electrical mixer with a dough hook that you may have to help you with this stage. 

There are no rules as to how you should eat your Barbari. Although it is commonly eaten at breakfast, we also eat ours with various Persian dips and appetisers, as a sandwich bread or with soup. 


Noon-e Barbari

Persian flatbread with nigella and sesame seeds
Prep Time30 mins
Cook Time20 mins
Proving2 hrs 30 mins
Total Time3 hrs 20 mins
Course: Accompaniment
Cuisine: Persian, Iranian
Keyword: noon, nan, barbari, nigella seeds, sesame seeds
Servings: 2 medium-sized flatbreads
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

Barbari Dough

  • 7 g sachet of instant yeast
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 350 ml luke warm water
  • 500 g strong white bread flour (plus extra for kneading)
  • 1 tsp salt (heaped teaspoon)
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

Glaze and Topping

  • 1 tsp strong bread flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 100 ml water
  • Nigella and sesame seeds (to sprinkle on top of the bread)

Instructions

  • For the Barbari dough - Use 150 ml of the water and pour into a bowl. Add the sugar and yeast, stir and leave to work for approximately 15 mins (bubbles will form on the surface).
  • Place the flour in a large bowl, add the oil and then add the salt to one side of the bowl.
  • Add the yeast mixture to the bowl and begin mixing the ingredients together. Gradually add the remaining water (200 ml) until all the flour leaves the side of the bowl and you have a soft, rough sticky dough.
  • Sprinkle a bit of flour onto a clean surface and sit the dough on the flour and begin to knead. Do this for 5-10 minutes, or until the dough becomes smooth and silky - it will be a little stickier than your standard loaf dough. Once the correct consistency is achieved, place the dough into a clean, oiled bowl. Cover with cling film and leave in a warm place for 2 hrs or until it has tripled in size.
  • To make the glaze - place a small saucepan on a medium / high heat and add 100 ml of water, 1 tsp of flour, 1/2 tsp of baking powder and stir until it forms a shiny white paste. Remove from the heat and set aside until you are ready to glaze prior to baking.
  • Once risen, place the dough onto a floured surface. Knock back the dough a few times to remove the air but no need to knead again.
  • Halve the dough and take one half and begin to shape it. I use a floured rolling pin to roll the dough into an oblong shape and then hand-stretch it until it gets to approximately 40 cm in length, 20 cm in width and 1 cm in depth. Place it on a grease-proof paper lined baking tray. Then take a knife and lightly score along the length of the dough about a finger-width apart.
  • Repeat the step above with the remaining half of the dough.
  • Cover the baking trays with tea-towels and leave in a warm place for 30 mins.
  • Pre-heat the oven to 200°C (fan) / 220°C (conventional) / Gas Mark 7.
  • Take a baking tray containing one of the Barbari breads and brush with the glaze. Use your fingers to push the dough between the scored lines down so you end up with small ridges. Then top with sesame and nigella seeds. Repeat with the other Barbari bread.
  • Place the bread in the oven. Bake for 20 minutes until golden and cooked. I slice mine into squares so they can be easily toasted for breakfast.

Cherry and Pistachio Brownies

We Iranians love our tea (chai).  As far back as I can remember my maman has always had a samovar in her kitchen. Samovars are traditionally used to make tea. Originating in Russia, the samovar has spread through Russian culture to other parts of Europe and the Middle-East, including Iran. 

Samovars were typically crafted out of plain iron, copper, polished brass, bronze, silver, gold, tin, or nickel. A samovar usually consists of a body, base and chimney, cover and steam vent, handles, tap and key, crown and ring, chimney extension and cap, drip-bowl, and teapot. The body shape is usually like a barrel and the water is boiled in this section.

Many samovars have a ring-shaped attachment around the chimney to hold and heat a teapot filled with tea concentrate (tea leaves with water). The tea pot is placed on the chimney and is steamed by the boiling water in the body of the samovar. The tea is then poured into a glass (so you can see the colour of the tea) and then hot water is poured in to dilute the tea to your liking i.e. the right colour. No milk is added to our tea, although at times my Iranian family can be partial to a good old ‘builders’. Modern samovars now look like giant kettles and are made using plastic. When my maman replaced her metal ornate samovar I was deeply disappointed but I appreciate the new models are safer and easier to clean!

Most Iranian households will have a special blend of tea leaves that they mix themselves from varieties such as Early Grey, Darjeeling and Assam. I remember my maman pouring all her chosen tea leaves into a large bowl and mixing them by hand with the aroma of the leaves filling the kitchen. That aroma is amplified into another level of joy while it steams in the little tea pot on the samovar, and then when the fragrance hits your nose before you take your first sip.

Part of tea drinking ritual is having sugar cubes or sweet nibbles served alongside our tea. The veteran tea drinker will place a sugar cube in their mouth and sip their tea, with the cube breaking down and sweetening each intake of the beverage. Some of us like our tea with the well-known Middle-Eastern sweet treat, Baklava. With a table full of Persian treats ranging from biscuits to nougat, we are often spoiled for choice. Despite the array of these Persian delights my heart always belongs to chocolate! Being born and brought up in the UK, chocolate was introduced to me at a young age and if it is on offer I always choose it first over other sweet treats. Whether it is the posh stuff that a Swiss-based relative has brought over as soghati (a gift from their travels) or the cheap stuff we gorged on as kids – I am not picky!

This brownie recipe is one I created to add to the selection of tea-accompanying sweet treats for the chocolate lovers in my family. I have adapted a standard brownie recipe and added Luxardo Cherries and fresh pistachios to add a little Persian touch to a familiar friend. For those of you who have not come across Luxardo Cherries, these are candied cherries soaked in Luxardo marasca cherry syrup. Often used by mixologists for their cocktails, replacing those bright red cocktail cherries, with a deep purple, slightly sour cherry. They are incredible in cocktails but also an amazing addition to baking recipes or just being poured  (with the syrup) over a vanilla ice cream. Using them in a brownie recipe adds to the gooey texture and balances the sweetness with a subtle sour note.

These brownies can be eaten as a dessert with cream or custard, should you fancy. I break mine down into little bites and enjoy them with a glass of hot Persian tea.


Cherry and Pistachio Brownies

Prep Time10 mins
Cook Time35 mins
Total Time45 mins
Course: Dessert, Sweet Treats
Cuisine: Cross-cultural
Servings: 12 portions
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

  • 175 g unsalted butter (cut into cubes)
  • 200 g dark chocolate (good quality - 70%+ cocoa)
  • 325 g caster sugar
  • 130 g plain flour
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 3 free-range eggs
  • 125 g Luxardo Cherries (chopped) (plus 2 tbsp of the syrup)
  • 2 tbsp ground fresh pistachios (the pistachios do not need to be finely ground as you want some texture in the brownie mix) (plus extra to decorate)
  • 1 tsp icing sugar (to decorate)

Instructions

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C (fan) / 180°C (conventional) / Gas mark 4. 
  • Line a baking tray (33cm x 23cm x 5cm) with baking paper / grease-proof paper.
  • Put the chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Do not let the base of the bowl touch the water. Leve the mixture to melt. Stir to ensure there are no lumps and the butter and chocolate are full incorporated.
  • Remove from the heat. Add the sugar and stir until incorporated.
  • Add the flour and salt and stir until well incorporated.
  • Stir in the eggs and mix until smooth. The mixture will have a thick consistency.
  • Add the chopped cherries, the cherry syrup, ground pistachios and mix in. Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking tray.
  • Place the tray in the oven for about 30 to 35 mins. The brownies are done when they are flaky on top but still gooey in the middle. Be careful not to over-cook as the edges will become crunchy and hard.
  • Once baked, leave to cool before dusting with the icing sugar and sprinkling with ground pistachios.

Persian Delights

Rose water & pistachio cupcakes

I first made these cupcakes over 10 years ago for a friend’s wedding and they have been a firm favourite ever since.

Cupcakes enjoyed a lot of attention and glamour following the episode in Sex and the City featuring Magnolia Cupcakes. The UK saw Violet’s Cakes, Hummingbird Bakery and Lola’s Cupcakes as the UK’s representation in the delicious world of luxury cupcakes. For about 5 minutes, I considered the possibility of starting my own cupcake business until I did a few weddings and charity events for friends and realised I needed a holiday to recover from all the baking and decorating.

I experimented with many flavours but these were the favourite among my family. Not surprising really as they are flavoured with Rose Water and pistachio. Had I found a use for saffron in the recipe, then I would have had the holy trinity of Persian desserts! But I felt the pink and ivory tones were perfect for the cupcakes’ presentation and that the yellow effect of incorporating saffron would not have been as aesthetically pleasing.

If you are using the traditional fairy cake tin for your cupcakes, then the recipe below will yield 24 cupcakes.  If you are using the deeper cupcake tins (like I do), which are also used for muffins, then the recipe below will result in 12 cupcakes.

For the decoration, I used crushed fresh pistachio slivers and edible rose petals, which are both available from Iranian and Middle-Eastern food stores. If you cannot get your hands on rose petals then crushed fresh pistachios are equally lovely for decorating the cupcakes. You can make more elaborate / delicate decorations for your cupcakes, the reel below which I posted on my Instagram account has the version I made for various weddings over the years.

 

 

 


Persian Delights

Rose water and pistachio cupcakes
Prep Time25 mins
Cook Time25 mins
Total Time50 mins
Course: Dessert, Sweet Treats
Cuisine: Persian, British, Cross-cultural
Keyword: cupcakes
Servings: 12 large cupcakes
Author: Mersedeh Prewer

Ingredients

Cake Batter / Sponge

  • 225 g unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 225 g caster sugar
  • 4 medium free range eggs (room temperature)
  • 225 g self-raising flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 to 2 tbsp rose water (depending on how floral you want it)
  • 1 to 2 tbsp ground fresh pistachios

Buttercream Icing and Decoration

  • 250 g unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • 450 g icing sugar
  • Pink food colouring (if you want your cupcakes to have a pink tint - I do a mix of ivory and light pink cupcakes)
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 to 2 tbsp rose water
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • Ground pistachios and edible rose petals (for decoration)

Instructions

For the Cupcake Sponge

  • Preheat the oven to 160°C (fan) / 180°C (conventional) / Gas mark 4. Line a 12-hole cupcake tin with cases (deep fill cupcake tin).
  • In a mixing bowl, beat the butter and sugar until light in colour and fluffy.
  • Crack the eggs one by one and beat each one in before adding the next.
  • Add the vanilla extract and rose water. Then sift the flour and baking powder into the bowl and gently fold into the mixture.
  • Add your ground pistachios and again gently fold into the mixture.
  • Divide the mixture equally into your cupcake cases and place in the oven for 20 to 25 mins. To check if  the cupcakes are done, use a thin skewer to check one by gently poking to the bottom. It should come out clean of cake batter. Leave the cupcakes to cool completely on a wire rack.

For the Buttercream Icing and Decoration

  • Make the buttercream by beating the butter until light in colour and then sift the icing sugar gradually and beat until fully mixed.
  • Then add the vanilla extract, rose water and milk and mix. I halve my icing mixture and add pink food colouring to one batch and leave the other half an ivory colour. 
  • Make sure your cupcakes have cooled and then pipe or spread your icing onto the cupcakes.