Friday, February 6, 2015

Tweaking Ottolenghi Recipes


I have two cookbooks (Plenty and Jerusalem) by Yotam Ottolenghi, the London-based Israeli restauranteur, and have tried quite a number of recipes from the books and from those gleaned online, where he is everywhere.

I like his big bold flavours and sometimes unusual combinations, but I also have some caveats--his penchant for not easily obtainable foods (cobnuts or barberries, anyone?), the high fat content, the complexity of many recipes, their narrative style which does not always progress in the most logical order, the cooking times that sometimes bear no relationship with my experience. You wonder whether his recipes are actually tested in a home environment. I've been surprised in going through my cookbook notes that I've often had comments like "disappointing", "too dry", "mango doesn't work in this",

So I tweak his recipes, trying to reduce the fat where possible, substituting or omitting unobtainable ingredients, adjusting proportions and cooking times. I go to him for vegetarian inspiration, because he does have great ideas.

Here is one of my favourites.

Cauliflower Cake

This is a great vegetarian main dish. It would make a good dish for a picnic or buffet because it can be eaten hot or cold, and is sturdy enough to be picked up and eaten with your hand. In small slices, you could serve it as hors d'ouevres.

The original recipe calls for 10 eggs (!) and is intended to make a 24-cm cake that he says will serve 4 to 6 people. The man is mad, as that will easily serve 8-10 people. The following recipe makes an 18-cm cake that will serve 4 people as a main course with sides. I've reduced the oil, eggs, and cheese, increased the proportion of onion, and simplified the method.

31-Oct-2015: Even more variations are possible! These days I often add something spicy to give this cake a bit of a kick--a chopped chili pepper sauteed with the onion, or a couple of teaspoons of sambal or hot chutney. And I substitute chickpea (gram) flour for part of the flour to give it a more Indian vibe.

1 tablespoon of butter
2-3 tablespoons of nigella seeds (aka black cumin, onion seeds) or sesame seeds
1/2 head of cauliflower (350-400g)
1 tablespoon (15ml) olive oil
1 red onion
1 teaspoon of finely-chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon dried basil, or 10g fresh basil, chopped
4 eggs
3 tablespoons (45ml) milk
90 grams flour
1 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
freshly-ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon turmeric
100 grams of sharp cheese, such as parmesan, aged Gouda or aged cheddar


  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F.
  2. Line the bottom of an 18-cm springform cake tin with parchment paper and use the butter to grease the bottom and sides of the tin. Sprinkle in the nigella or sesame seed and toss them around to coat the bottom and sides. This will add a pleasant crunch to the crust. (If you haven't got an 18cm springform, you can line a loaf tin with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on the sides so that you can lift it out.)
  3. Cut the cauliflower into medium florets and steam covered over simmering water for 10 minutes until just tender. Set aside to drain and cool.
  4. Peel the onion and cut a few rings off to use as decoration, and chop the rest of the onion rather finely (1.2 cm dice). Mince the rosemary.
  5. Over medium low heat, saute the chopped onion and minced rosemary in a tablespoon of oil for about 8 minutes until soft. Take off the heat and mix with the steamed cauliflower and basil.
  6. In a large bowl, mix the flour, baking powder, turmeric, salt, and a generous amount of pepper. Grate in the cheese and mix well.
  7. In a small bowl, beat the eggs and milk.
  8. Add the egg mixture to the flour and cheese mixture and stir until just combined.
  9. Gently fold the vegetables and herbs into the batter, then pour into the prepared cake tin. Decorate the top with the reserved onion rings.
  10. Bake for 35-45 minutes until golden brown and let cool for 5 minutes. Take knife around the edge to loosen the cake, before loosening and removing the side ring. 
  11. Serve warm with a green vegetable and sharp salad (steamed spinach and three-bean salad or tabouli). Or let cool and wrap in cling film and eat it the next day.