Tuesday, April 8, 2014


I’m late posting this, and I’m under the gun, because I leave in a few hours to catch a plane to Istanbul, and then a connection on to Erbil, in (Iraqi) Kurdistan. I am so pleased to be able to go. It’s part of the research for my Persian World book.

I had hoped to travel to Azerbaijan for the book, leaving in late March, and then to go to Kurdistan. But the Azeri visa application process just got more and more complicated. I felt as if the embassy people were moving the goalposts, asking for more and more documents from the friend (a generous-minded American woman who is working in Baku) who had invited me. The Azeri visa process has been famously difficult for a long time, the government being paranoid, they say. 

But with current events, who can blame them? Azerbaijan, like Georgia, is a small country which borders on Russia. The events in Crimea were unfolding as I was applying for my visa…. And so I withdrew my application (rather than risk having it refused).

It’s always good to remember that we do not have the “right” to travel to other countries. It is a privilege. And so I am feeling very privileged to be setting out on this trip. I am due to land in Erbil, and then I will head to Sulaimaniya and Halabja. I don’t like racing around, so I don’t expect I’ll get further north to Dohuk and the region near the Turkish border. I’m just hoping to get a glimpse of home-cooking, and some glimmers of understanding about Kurdish and Assyrian food traditions.

A good friend here in Toronto spent time in Kurdistan two years ago and has passed along the names and info of some of her contacts. She was talking to women about their lives… I am grateful to have my passage eased. And a friend of hers who lives here, who is Kurdish, has also connected me with a couple of people, including his mother and sisters. I can’t wait!

Meantime, after a long delay, spring has truly sprung today, just as I am leaving. On Sunday too it was sunny and mild. A bunch of us who do shape-note singing got together to sing out of the Northern Harmony book. We were at my place, with the back doors open and the sun streaming in, just glorious.

I had a little food for singers to snack on, including bread from Woodlot, hummous from Evelyn’s Crackers, cheese from Cheese Magic and some pate from Sanagan’s. But I’d also put a little effort of my own into the food: I’d made skillet cake, a medium and a small one, using my usual somewhat casual approach. But the cake has evolved, as all recipes tend to do. I now use all whole wheat flour: Red Fife with a little La Milanaise whole wheat pastry flour, and my toppings in this season of little fruit are usally frozen cranberries, or other frozen berries (raspberries and/or blueberries).

Because some of the singers asked for the recipe, I’m putting recipe notes here, so everyone can have access:
You’ll want to have two bowls for mixing, and a ten- or eleven- inch cast-iron or other heavy skillet, or two smaller ones (I use an 8 and a 6) or you can use a cakepan that gives about the same area – about 80 square inches.

Preheat the oven to 400 F.
And heat the skillet on the stove-top, add oil and spread it well. Remove from heat. Make sure your butter is at room temp.

The proportions are simple:
In one bowl put 1 ½ cups whole wheat red fife flour, and ½ cup whole wheat pastry flour; or all Red Fife; or use all-purpose and pastry flour 50-50, as you please. Add 1 teaspoon baking powder and ½ teaspoon baking soda, and a ¼ teaspoon salt.
Spices I use are cinnamon, cloves, dried ginger… you could try a little nutmeg…

In the other bowl cream ¼ pound butter and 1 cup (I use brown) sugar, and then add 1 cup full fat plain yogurt. Add ½ teaspoon good vanilla if you wish. Whisk 4 eggs briefly and add them and mix well, then add the wets to the dries.
Stir just enough to mix them so that the flour is all wet.
Pour the heavy gloopy batter into the ready skillet(s)

Sprinkle on cranberries or other frozen fruit, or sliced apple or whatever pleases you. I sprinkle on a little extra sugar if using cranberries.

Bake at 400 (in the middle of the oven) for 15 minutes then lower heat to 385 until done (a skewer comes out clean), about another 30 minutes.

Let stand for five minutes to let the starches firm up, then turn onto a plate, (fruit side will be down) then place another plate on the under side and flip it back so it’s fruit side up.
Cake is better the day after it’s baked, but usually no-one waits around to test that assertion!

I hope this becomes an easy-to-remember staple in your house, just as it is in mine.