Recreating the traditional Persian recipes cooked by her mother in Tehran, Donia Bijan comes to terms with her feelings of loss and her relationship to her former home in Iran.
Donia Bijan, (DOH-nee-yah Bee-ZHAHN) is an award winning chef trained in France’s prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. She is the author of Maman's Homesick Pie: a Persian Heart in an American Kitchen.
Cakes and cookies were a rare treat when I was little. On special occasions, when I was allowed to choose a pastry, I never fancied rich, creamy confections, preferring the simple, unadorned cakes. Even today I’ll take a piece of pound cake over a frosted layer cake. One of my favorites, which my mother would buy for me with great ceremony, was a cardamom cupcake that could be found in any ordinary bakery.
My attempts to re-create this childhood treat resulted in an upside-down cake with caramelized sour cherries. As a child, I spent hours dangling from the branches of the sour cherry trees that lined the hospital grounds, but I ate most of what I picked. These days, I wait for the two weeks in July when a few markets have fresh sour cherries, and I buy as many as I can to make preserves or freeze. However, this cake works beautifully with Bing cherries, red or yellow plums, or apricots when they are plentiful and in season. The tart fruit juices seep into the cardamom cake, and it’s difficult not to steal bites every time you walk by.
Serves 8 to 10
Sour Cherry Compote
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups pitted sour cherries, fresh if available, otherwise substitute with Bing cherries, ripe plums, or apricots
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup brown sugar
1½ cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
Butter and flour a 9-inch round cake pan.
To make the sour cherry compote, melt the butter in a small saucepan and stir in the brown sugar. With a rubber spatula, gently fold in the sour cherries and pour into the bottom of your cake pan. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350°F.
To make the cardamom cake, cream together the butter and the sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer until pale yellow and fluffy.
Sift together the flour, baking powder, cardamom, and salt. Add to the creamed butter alternately with the half-and-half and mix until smooth.
Add the vanilla extract and the eggs one by one. Continue mixing just until the batter is combined.
Pour the batter on top of the cherries. Place the cake in the center of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Remove the cake from the oven. Allow to cool for 5 minutes. Run a knife along the edge of the cake pan before inverting the cake onto a platter. Don’t worry if the fruit doesn’t fall over the cake; it’s happened to me a million times. Simply scoop the cherries and spread evenly over the cake. Serve warm with pistachio ice cream.
Salmon Gravlax with Meyer Lemon and Tarragon
If you ask me, the best part of living in California is the Meyer lemon—a fragrant, smooth-skinned juice bomb, native to our back¬yards. It’s enough to make you cry when you see coarse, three-dollar lemons in stores elsewhere in the country. When our tree bears fruit, I pack these fragile lemons in Bubble Wrap and send them Priority to relatives on the East Coast. I’m counting on our lemonade stands to pay for college someday.
In late June, when wild salmon becomes available, gravlax is a nice alternative to smoked salmon. Curing it with salt and lemon peel lends a succulent flavor that pairs well with the potato waffles.
4 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chopped
3 Meyer lemons, zested
1 side (approximately 2 pounds) wild salmon fillet, skin on
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup Meyer lemon juice with pulp
2 medium shallots, sliced thinly
Two days before serving, toss the salt, sugar, tarragon, and lemon in a bowl. Lay the salmon on a long piece of foil. Rub the salt mixture on both sides of the fillet. Lay another piece of foil on top and neatly seal the edges. Place a weight on the fish, the equivalent of 5 to 6 pounds (6 cans on a tray will do; 2-or 3-pound hand weights work well, too) and refrigerate for 48 hours.
Rinse away the lemon and herb mixture under cold running water. Pat the fish dry with paper towels and lay on a plat¬ter. Brush generously with olive oil and pulpy lemon juice. Sprinkle with shallots. Cover and marinate overnight before serving.
To serve, slice horizontally into paper-thin slices and lay on a chilled plate, with fresh lemons, capers, and crème fraîche.