A Mesopotamian sweet from 1750BC

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food / historic recipe

This recipe is for Mersu, from Mesopotamia circa 1750BC. It is inspired by the ancient tablets, and has only two ingredients: dates, and pistachios. Pistachios originated in the region of modern Syria, and have been eaten from as far back as 9000 years. Date orchards were being planted by 3000 BC, and play a large role in the Mediterranean diet. In the ancient world dates offered one of the few sources of concentrated sugar. Date syrup was used in cooking, and to sweeten food as it was cheaper and more available than honey.

Sweet confections like mersu were made with flour and oil to which other ingredients were added. In the ancient city of Mari, ancient cooks added dates, nuts, and different spices.


2 cups dates (pitted)
1½ cups whole pistachios

Mash the dates into a smooth paste. I used dates, which I pitted and then soaked in hot water for 2-3 minutes. This has the effect of softening the dates. Allow the dates to drain. They can then be mashed by hand, or in a blender. Grind the pistachios.

Combine one cup of the pistachios with the date paste, and mix. Roll the mixture into small, uniform balls 20-25mm (¾-1″) in size. Put the remaining ½ cup ground pistachios in a bowl, and roll each mersu in the ground nuts, covering them.


Swiss biscuits – Totenbeinli

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biscuits / Swiss food / Switzerland

This is a traditional Swiss Christmas biscuit. It translates to “dead legs” in English, but is essentially  hazelnut biscuit in the similar vein of an Italian biscotti (in shape, and taste). Sometimes they are known as haselnussstängell, (hazelnut sticks) or simply nuss-stengeli. These biscuits come from eastern Switzerland in Chur (Graubunden). There are Swiss French variants (Bâtons aux Noisettes) which seem to use only grated hazelnuts. Some variants become quite hard as they age.

Note that in Switzerland you can buy these in Swiss supermarkets, like Coop and Migros.


75g Butter, room temperature
200g sugar
2 eggs
½ lemon, zested
1 tsp cinnamon
1 knife-point ground cloves
1 pinch salt
50g ground hazelnuts
200g whole hazelnuts (roasted)
250g flour
egg-white for brushing on top of biscuits.

Cream the butter and sugar in a mixer bowl, until light in colour. Add in the eggs, one at a time, and combine well. Add the lemon zest.

Mix in the cinnamon, clove powder, salt and the ground hazelnuts. Roast the hazelnuts (I buy pre-roasted ones, because they are just as expensive as the raw ones), halve, and stir into the dough. Finally add the flour and knead everything to a firm dough. Let it rest in the fridge covered, for at least one hour (or overnight).

Preheat oven to 390-400°F (200°C). Roll out the dough on the floured work surface to a thickness of about 1 cm (½”) thick. Cut strips, about 15mm (5/8″) wide along the dough, then cut finger-length biscuits from each strip.Place the biscuits on a tray lined with baking paper. Brush with egg whites and bake in the middle of the oven for 15 to 18 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a grid.

These are made in a “slab” form, by rolling out the dough to 1cm (½” thick), baking it as a complete sheet, and then cutting it after it is baked, however in some other recipes the dough is rolled into 18mm (¾”) logs before being cut into individual biscuits.


Swiss biscuits – Tirggel

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biscuits / cookies / Swiss food / Switzerland

Some regions or towns in Switzerland have their own biscuit specialities. Zürich is home to the Tirggel, a very hard, flat, decoratively moulded biscuit. This biscuit was made from the 13th century, and is first recorded in the literature as Dirgel in 1461. Until 1840, only bakers in the city of Zürich had the right to bake them. The Tirggel is made from honey, flour, and a blend of different spices, and hails from a time before the widespread use of sugar as a sweetener. This is a moulded biscuit which means using a wooden mould, traditionally made from pear wood. The imprints would classically represent coat-of-arms, biblical scenes, landscape or city scenes. The moulds quite often have shallow details. In commercial bakeries (of which there are now few), these biscuits are baked at 400°C for only 90 seconds.

Chill dough: 48 hours
Baking time: 5-6 min
No. of biscuits: 20-25


200g honey (a light honey)
50g icing sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
1 pinch ground ginger
1 pinch nutmeg
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tbsp rosewater
250g flour

Warm the honey, icing sugar, and spices in a pan. Add the rosewater, and stir continuously until liquid. Remove pan from the heat and allow mixture to cool. Sift flour into a bowl, and add the honey mixture, kneading it into a smooth, soft dough. Wrap in wax paper, and allow to rest in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours.

Preheat the oven to 420-430°F (220-230°C) – I would use bottom heat, as opposed to fan-forced. Remove the dough 30 minutes prior to use, to allow to soften. Knead the dough until smooth, and roll out on a floured surface to a thickness of 4mm. Use a pastry brush to dabble the wooden mould with flour. Place the mould in the dough, and press down. Cut around mould with a knife, and place biscuit on baking sheet covered in parchment paper. I use some of the newer polycarbonate cast moulds.

Bake on the top rack of the oven for 4-6 minutes, until the Tirggel is brown on the top, and pale on the bottom. Remove from oven and allow to cool. These biscuits will harden as they cool (and get harder as they age). Here’s another recipe from Stiftung St. Jakob, in Zürich.


The humble blood sausage

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food / Swiss food

After I was born we spent 1-2 years back in Switzerland, and although it is really hard to remember anything when you are that age, I do remember one thing very vividly – the taste and smell of Blutwurst. It was something I longed for growing up later on in Australia, but never really encountered. In every likelihood there were Swiss or German butchers that produced them, but access to those staples probably required membership in some underground charcuterie network. Most people don’t really like the idea of eating blood sausage, maybe because they are squeamish eaters? The reality is, unlike some of the processed junk we eat, blood sausages are filled with protein, iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Black pudding on a “full Scottish” breakfast (at The Old Bakery, in Carrbridge, Scotland).

In Canada the Blutwurst is better known by its French appellation, boudin noir. The English have a variant known as black pudding (or blood sausage), the Iberian peninsula, morcilla. Regardless of its origin, the main ingredient is of course, blood. This usually means pigs blood, but some places they use blood from cows, oxen, or sheep. To the blood are added fillers, usually to give the sausage substance. The Scots add oatmeal, or sometimes barley to it, while in Europe, potatoes or rice. In Denmark, it is known as Blod-Pølse and contains sheeps blood in combination with ingredients such as fat, bacon,  barley, brown sugar, raisins, rye flour, applesauce, spices, and, salt. Austrians make it using the roasted meat from a pigs head, pigs blood, dumpling bread, and root vegetables. The French like to add onions, pork cheeks or bacon, and lard pieces. The Swiss use a combination of pigs blood and milk (or cream), in addition to a small amount of fat, and maybe onions, giving a very smooth textured sausage.

Boudin noir slowly sautéing in the pan.

Blood sausages date back to a time when a select number of animals were butchered in the late fall or early winter to provide food during the winter months. Nothing would be wasted, so the animal’s blood was mixed with fat, oatmeal and seasonings, and packed into a length of the animal’s intestine. This was then boiled, and could be stored for a few weeks. In Scotland, the black pudding is a breakfast treat, usually prepared as a slice from a large sausage which is then fried. In the Germanic countries they are cooked as whole sausages, sometimes fried, or gently cooked in hot water. In Europe they are eaten with potatoes and sauerkraut, or potatoes, or maybe just sautéed apples. The modern tradition of boudin noir in France is more diverse than other regions. Dishes include émincé de boudin noir aux pommes (et aux pommes de terre), where the blood sausage is sliced before grilling and is served with caramelized apple wedges and fried potatoes, or tarte au boudin noir et aux deux pommes, which is boudin noir in tart form!

The cooked boudin noir with apples slowly sautéed in butter.

The thing is, blood sausages don’t actually taste or smell of blood. They usually have a deep, dark red colour before cooking, but after cooking they appear almost black, hence the name black pudding (the term black pudding however derives from the French boudin noir, with “pudding” being an anglicized pronunciation of boudin). Depending on the additions, they can have almost a pudding-like mouthfeel (obviously adding oatmeal belies a grainier texture). This is because as the blood proteins coagulate during cooking they form a gel, similar to that of an egg white as an egg is boiled whole.

Getting hold of a tasty boudin noir in Canada use to be confined to shopping in Montreal, where one can also buy boudin blanc, the fine-textured white version of the sausage which is traditionally French (it is made with pork meat, and can include pork liver and heart meat). In Montreal you can find it at Marche Jean Talon, or any number of the fine butchers at Marche Atwater. In Toronto you can find it made fresh at a number of select new generation butchers – Sanagan’s Meat Locker produces a fine version, at Cumbrae‘s you can typically find it in the freezer section, and I have also bought it from Butcher’s of Distinction on Queen East. If you want to eat blood sausage at a restaurant, head to Montreal, where you can order an extremely rich foie gras and boudin tart at Au Pied de Cochon.

Note that blood sausages are considered to be “cooked” sausages, whereby most of the ingredients, except the blood are pre-cooked. In the German-speaking regions of Switzerland there is a cousin to the Blutwurst – the Leberwurst, or liver sausage, made in a similar fashion.

Swiss biscuits – Schwarz-Weiss (checkerboard)

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baking / biscuits / cookies / Swiss food / Switzerland

Schwarz-Weiss Gebäck (classically called checker-board cookies in English) are black-and-white biscuits, which use vanilla and chocolate dough to form contrasting patterns on these “log” cookies. They seem like a lot of work to get set up, but the baking is a easy. There are many different doughs which can be used to make these. Some biscuits use more of a shortbread-type dough, but I use the Mailänderli dough to do these. Some of the more common patterns I make include checkerboards, swirling pinwheels, and striped squares.

(makes 90-100)

Make a full batch of Mailänderli dough and split it in half. To one half add:

 2 tbsp  unsweetened cocoa
 1 tbsp  milk

Make the dough as suggested in the Mailänderli recipe, split in two, and add the cocoa and milk to make the chocolate dough. The darkness of the chocolate really depends on the darkness of the cocoa used. Alternatively it is possible to use 75% chocolate which has been melted. Form both halves of the dough, vanilla and chocolate into rough brick shapes, and let rest in the refrigerator for 4-6 hours (or overnight).

Usually there is enough dough to make three different types biscuits. Biscuits are constructed using a glue of an egg-white which has been lightly whisked. Once your shape is formed, wrap it in wax paper or cling-wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour (or you can put in the freezer for 15min), to make it easier to cut. They can then be cut into ¼” slices, and baked for 9-10 minutes in a 375ºF (190ºC) oven. The cookies should be slightly brown on the edges, and golden on the base.


Checkerboard biscuits are generally 3×3, or 4×4 in size, although you could technically make any number, or even rectangular forms.

For the checkerboard, roll the dough out to roughly 3/8” (7-8mm) thick and cut long square strips. Once you have enough strips you can assemble them in an alternating manner by gluing them together using water (or egg white). Once one layer has been assembled, the next layer can be added on top.


For the pinwheels, roll out each piece of dough into a large sheet, approximately 2mm thin. Then using egg-white, join the two pieces together. Then, after lightly brushing the surface with egg-white, start at one end, and begin rolling up the sheet.


A core is simply a 15×15mm core of vanilla, surrounded by a 4mm chocolate layer (or vice-versa).


Make layers of alternating vanilla and chocolate dough. The layers can be thick, or as thin as 2mm.


Usually there will be trimmings, and left-over pieces of dough, both vanilla and chocolate. To make, just combine all the left-overs, and form into a cylinder.





What’s with muesli?

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Birchermüesli is more fruit, and less oats. Most packet muesli’s are mostly grains. Take Alpen for example – developed in the 1960s – it is 37% wholegrain wheat, and 35% rolled oats. It also says it contains “Juicy raisins for added sweetness and fibre”. Last time I looked, raisins weren’t exactly juicy. Even muesli’s from companies like dorset cereals, have a high cereal content. Now I do like their muesli (what varieties you can get in Canada), because they do offer a number of “no raisin” types, like “simply nutty muesli”. Their “spectacular grains” line consist of 72% grains, which can be expected given it is all about grains. However their advertising says that their “blackberries & fig” cereal is “topped with fruity blackberries and sumptuous figs”, if you consider “topped” to mean 1% of each – and both are “freeze dried”, not exactly fruity or sumptuous in the same way that fresh berries are.

In addition, how many actually include pieces of dried apple? Very few. If we go on to look at muesli’s sold in Switzerland, there isn’t a better picture. Migros (one of the large two grocery retailers) sells “Farmer Birchermüesli Original”, but it contains 58% oats, 12% barley flakes, and 11% spelt flakes, making cereals 81% grains. It does however contain 2.5% dried apple. For many years the only fruit packet muesli’s seemed to contain was raisins (because they were cheap maybe?) Now many gourmet packet muesli’s like “Rude Health No Raisins Muesli” proclaim the fact that their muesli contains no raisins. Probably a good thing.

If you are going to eat healthy, I would almost spend the time and make some original Birchermüesli. Add in some different nuts, and fresh fruit. Avoid packet muesli, and definitely avoid granola, you know its bad for you when the #2 ingredient is golden syrup (partially inverted sugar syrup).  The modern versions of Birchermüesli: include many variations:

Soaking – Oats can be soaked in milk, apple juice (sweet cider), or a mixture of the two. Or maybe a 2:1 ratio of milk and cream.
Dairy – Yogurt, either whole-milk or Greek, Skyr, or a mixture of milk and double cream.
Fruit and nuts – Apples can be Granny Smith, or another sweeter, crisper apple like an Ambrosia. Dried fruit? cranberries, cherries, apricots. Flax seeds, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds, goji berries?

The wonders of Birchermüesli

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recipe / Swiss food / Switzerland

You know that muesli they sell in the store? The one that usually has raisins or sultanas in it? It isn’t *really* muesli. Not like it was meant to be. For that you have to go back to the original recipe for Birchermüesli introduced in 1900 by Swiss physician Dr. Bircher-Benner. In the late 19th century, Switzerland had been touted by the likes of English tour operator Thomas Cook, as a bastion of healthy living. Bircher created muesli for the patients in his Zurich sanatorium. Birchermuesli was not a breakfast idea, it was intended as a starter to every meal. His work began with a crusade to counter the ill effects of tuberculosis through improved diet, and his first experiment was Apfeldiätspeise, however the original recipe was also not what we associate with muesli today.

The original recipe for 4 people is:

6 tbsp. oat flakes (the large variety, not quick oatmeal)
12 tbsp. cold water
6 tbsp. sweetened condensed milk
Juice from 3-4 lemons
1 kg apples
6 tbsp. grated almonds, hazelnuts or walnuts

Soak the oat flakes in the cold water for 12 hours, or leave overnight. After this mix in the sweetened condensed milk, and the lemon juice. Using a medium grater, grate the apples directly into the oat mixture. Combine immediately to stop the grated apple from browning. Sprinkle with the nuts and serve immediately.

We often had this as a Friday night meal when I was growing up, although it was often a bit different. As I recall, the lemon juice was replaced with orange juice, and the condensed milk with yogurt, and I never do remember soaking the oats for any great length of time. Best of all there were no dried grapes of any sort.

Fun facts:
– The legacy of Dr. Bircher-Benner is The Centre for Scientific Natural Medicine Bircher-Benner, located in Switzerland.

The ubiquitous garlic press

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kitchen tool

One thing I often find strange in recipes are instructions that call for garlic to be minced. Who wants to mince garlic? It always seems like a messy task. Yes, I guess you could squash the garlic clove with the flat side of a knife.  Why not use a garlic press? A garlic press will break down a clove of garlic in a finer manner than mincing, potentially releasing more garlic flavour. But not everybody likes them of course. Anthony Bourdain for one, loathed them. In his book Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain calls the misuse of garlic a crime. He says “Old garlic, burnt garlic, garlic cut too long ago, and garlic that has been tragically smashed through one of those abominations, the garlic press, are all disgusting“. Fair enough, I guess. But home cooks aren’t preparing hundreds of cloves of garlic, probably only one at a time, and the garlic press does an admirable job. Finely chopping a small clove of garlic is no mean feat, so unless you are honing these skills day-in, day-out (as most chefs do), the use of a garlic press is justified.

When it comes to garlic presses though, I much prefer the vintage kind. There are a bunch of different garlic presses, and the vintage ones are sometimes the better ones. I have two. The first, one a Susi, made in Switzerland by manufacturer Zyliss uses a nutcracker-type hinge mechanism, and does a great job at crushing garlic (these are never identified as Zyliss/Zylyss, but usually have a SWISS MADE imprint). The only downside is that the tiny holes do get clogged, and are hard to clean.

In the photo below you can see dried garlic clogging up some of the holes.

The second is a Fortuna A Ahner garlic press from Austria. This one uses a pincer type motion, and provides much less crushing force, but an easier cleaning mechanism in the guise of a matching grid of pins.

Part of what I like about this press is its design, it has a very streamlined look. A classic example of where a garlic press works well is fondue. A clove of garlic is used to rub the fondue pot, and some (myself included) choose to add the clove to the fondue two-thirds of the way through. The best way of doing this is by passing it through a garlic press.

Of course the alternative to a garlic press is a microplane grater, which will also do an admirable job, but you do have to watch out for your fingers! For anyone interested, there is a cool website dealing with just garlic presses, which in German are called “knoblauch pressen“.

Tahiti lime pie (or key lime pie if you’ve got key limes)

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baking / dessert / recipe

I never made key lime pie before. I don’t know why, it just never popped up on my radar… ’til this past weekend when I made one for Thanksgiving. Well, that and I’m not a big fan of the huge meringue topping normally associated with these pies. But this one is sans meringue. I made a quick and easy Tahiti lime pie (not key lime pie, because I couldn’t find any). I’m sure it would taste different using key limes, which do have more aroma, and are more acidic. But here it is.

Firstly the crust, which is made of Graham crackers, but could just as easily be made of (British) digestive biscuits, crumbed sugar cones, or maybe even cornflakes? Turn the oven on to 350°F.

100g butter, melted
2 cups Graham crackers
¼ cup superfine sugar
¼ tsp. salt

Turn the crackers into crumbs, and place in a large bowl with the sugar and salt. Mix in the melted butter, until well combined. Place the crumb mixture into a 9″ pie dish, and press down using a fork, up to the rim of the dish. Bake this for about 10 minutes, remove from the oven, and allow to cool.

Now onto the filling:

1-1½ tbsp. fresh lime zest
3 egg yolks
1 can (300g) sweetened condensed milk
¾ cup lime juice

Whip together the lime zest and egg yolks in a bowl (I did this with a whisk for about two minutes). Then add the condensed milk, and mix for another 3 minutes (I swapped to the Bamix here). Finally add the lime juice, and mix. Pour the lime mixture into the crust. Now the interesting part of this is that the combination of the egg yolk, condensed milk, and lime juice causes the filling to thicken without any baking. We do bake the pie for 15 minutes though, just because we are using raw egg yolks. Remove from the oven, and let cool for 30 minutes before refrigerating for at least 3 hours.

Once set, the pie can easily be removed from the dish. Serve with whipped cream, or just by itself, it’s soooo good.

Norway Trip (xiv) : Food

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food / travel / vacation

Norway’s food is good. The food, like much of what can be found in Nordic countries, is wholesome, and of course the seafood is fresh. Norway’s national diet harks back to its days as a poor country, with a focus on preserving fish and meats in salt, lots of potatoes and simple sauces. There is of course, *lots* of seafood – from tiny shrimp salad to pre-fried fish cakes.

When we went to Bergen, we stayed at an AirBnB for five nights, which allowed us to cook some nights (and have breakfast at home). This meant shopping! We shopped at REMA 1000, which seems to be a popular grocery store. While not super large, shopping in Norway was better than both Denmark and Iceland. Prices aren’t terrible, but some things just cost more.

Like Copenhagen and Reykjavik, there seem to be few independent butchers or cheese shops. There are some greengrocers about, usually attached to shops that sell more ethnic groceries. In Oslo, the more gourmet end of the spectrum can be found in Mathallen Oslo, the food hall in Grünerløkka. There you can find butchers like Annis Pølsemakeri. A bit further north of Mathallen Oslo is another butcher, Strøm-Larsen. (These are suppose to be the best independent butcher shops in the city).

For basic food there are hundreds of convenience stores. Here are some costs from basic foodstuffs:

– 500g Yoghurt NOK 18.90 (C$3.00)
– 4 pack Coca Cola  NOK 49.90 (C$7.90)
– 750g Muesli NOK 49.90 (C$7.90)
– 1L lactose-free milk NOK 33.40 (C$5.30)
– 1L apple juice NOK 13.90 (C$2.20)
– small yoghurt NOK 12.90 (C$2.00)
– pack of fusilli pasta NOK 6.20 (C$1.00)
– bananas NOK 25/kg (C$4/kg)

There were also some amazing pastries: Norwegian pancakes, Skillingsbolle (cinnamon buns), pastries, and a classic Norwegian “Skuffekake”.