Admitting to a sweet tooth these days seems rather illicit, what with sugar cast in the role of Public Enemy No.1. But here is my confession: I rarely go a day without a slice or bite or square of something sweet. If it's not cake, then it'll be a cookie, a slice of tart topped with fruit or a slab of dark chocolate, a little pop of joy to accompany a short black coffee or a tall cup of green tea.
But it's not the sugar I'm addicted to. Rather, it's the comfort, surprise and delight that dessert, or any food, can bring, that ideal match of the right dish and the right moment. The reason a colourful, vertiginously tall and booze-filled trifle brings so much joy at the end of a party is not because of the sugar in the list of ingredients. It's because nothing says "sharing" and "celebration" and "ta-da!" quite like it.
My cookbooks have been known so far for their focus on vegetables (in the case of Plenty and Plenty More), the food of my Middle Eastern childhood (in Jerusalem) or the food of my restaurants (as with the Ottolenghi and Nopi books).
When I started out in the world of cooking, however, I was firmly on the sweet side. I trained in patisserie, and my first job in the kitchen was as a pastry chef. It wasn't until the first Ottolenghi shop opened in London that one carrot led to another and I came to focus as much on the savoury side of things as I did on the sweet. It was never an either/or, but for a good decade, I was peeling and roasting more than I was beating together butter and sugar, or lining cake tins.
Recently, though, my work surfaces have become covered in flour, and my electric mixer has been getting a workout. I've been baking, and the kitchen smells good. I always find cooking for people satisfying, but there is something particularly – and instantly – rewarding about that moment of bliss that you see when someone bites into something sweet and delicious for the first time. Whether it's a rich and composed dessert, such as my kataifi nests, or a refreshing and light granita, the world, for that shared moment, is all about a simple and straightforward kind of pleasure.
Again, though: It's not about the sugar. I spend my days cooking and eating a wide range of foods, sweet and savory, Asian or Middle Eastern or Mediterranean in inspiration. Similarly, when I'm baking, I'm just as likely to reach for all sorts of ingredients.
The sugar is there, of course, just like the eggs, butter and flour, but the things that really excite me and deliver that pop of joy lie elsewhere. It's the pinch of golden saffron threads used to poach pears, the cubes of tangy feta whipped through some cream, the use of kataifi pastry (long strands of shredded filo) in the place of a more obvious shortbread base. It's the jewel-like slivered green pistachios that make me smile, and the ruby-red pomegranate seeds.
Yotam Ottolenghi's refreshing pomegranate and rose granita. Photo: New York Times
Pomegranate and rose granita
scant ½ cup (90g) castor sugar
3 sprigs mint (5g)
400ml 100 per cent pomegranate juice (such as Pom)
½ tsp rosewater
¼ cup (40g) pomegranate seeds
2 tsp dried rose petals
1. Add sugar and 100ml water to a small saucepan and place over high heat. Stir continuously, until sugar has dissolved and the liquid comes to the boil.
2. Add mint, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for one minute, stirring occasionally.
3. Remove from heat and set aside to cool, about 20 minutes. Strain the syrup into a large bowl, pressing on the mint to extract the water. Discard the mint.
4. Whisk the pomegranate juice and rosewater into the syrup until combined. Pour into a container and freeze for two to three hours, until clumps form and the edges are solid. (The shallower the container, the shorter the freezing time.) Use a fork to separate the crystals and freeze for another two hours. Repeat with the fork again, scraping across the frozen mixture, and continue this process until the liquid has frozen into separate crystals throughout, about eight to 10 hours total.
5. Just before serving, divide the granita between small glasses and sprinkle with the pomegranate seeds and rose petals.
Kataifi pastry nests with poached pears, and feta and saffron cream. Photo: New York Times
Pastry nests with poached pears and feta and saffron cream
For the pastry nests and pears:
½ cup (100g) castor sugar
2 star anise
2 cinnamon sticks
5 cardamom pods
pinch of saffron
zest from 1 medium lemon, cut in wide strips
1½ tbsp lemon juice, plus 3 tsp for the syrup
2 medium ripe Bartlett or Williams pears, peeled (360g)
150g kataifi pastry, defrosted if frozen
70g unsalted butter, melted
4 tsp honey
25g shelled pistachios, slivered or roughly chopped
For the feta and saffron cream
110g mascarpone cheese
55g finely crumbled feta, lightly packed
40g castor sugar
generous pinch of saffron, soaked in 3 tsp boiling water
120ml heavy cream
1. Poach the pears: Place sugar, spices, lemon zest and 1½ tablespoons lemon juice in a small saucepan. Add 700 millilitres water and bring to a boil over high heat. Once sugar has dissolved, add the pears, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes (depending on the ripeness of the pears), until they are soft all the way through. Set aside until slightly cool, then lift the pears out of the syrup and quarter them lengthwise. Remove the core and stalks and discard; return pears to the syrup to infuse overnight, or if that isn't possible, for at least three hours. (The longer they infuse in the syrup the more colour they will take on from the saffron.)
2. Heat oven to 180C. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.
3. Make the nests: Place the kataifi pastry in a medium bowl and gently separate the strands. Pour the melted butter over and mix together well, using your hands to make sure all the strands are coated. Separate the pastry into eight equal portions and then form each into nests that are a scant 7 centimetres wide, piling the pastry up on the sides so the edges are taller than the base. Arrange nests about 2.5 centimetres apart on the baking sheet and bake for 20 to 22 minutes, until golden brown and crisp, rotating the sheet halfway through. Set aside to cool.
4. Make the feta and saffron cream: Place mascarpone, feta, sugar, saffron and its water in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk until combined and smooth, then add heavy cream. Continue to whisk for one to two minutes, until light and thick. Transfer cream into a piping bag (if you have one) and set aside.
5. Remove the pears from the syrup and reserve. Strain the liquid into a clean saucepan and add honey. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the mixture is thick and you have about half a cup syrup left. Remove from heat, stir in 3 teaspoons lemon juice and set aside to cool.
6. When ready to serve, cut each pear quarter into three longish segments. Place two pieces of pear in the middle of each nest and then pipe (or spoon) about one quarter cup cream on top. Place one slice of pear on top of the cream, so that it sticks up, and sprinkle each portion with a teaspoon of slivered pistachios. Drizzle a teaspoon or two of syrup over each of the nests and serve. Reserve remaining syrup for another purpose, such as drizzling over yoghurt.
© The New York Times