Around the World in 80 Plates: Marrakech, Morocco

Synonymous with both tea and a blend of herbs and spices born from within its bustling marketplace, Marrakech, Morocco is a city that truly has its own distinct flavor. The entire continent of Africa remains largely a mystery to me, having never visited any corner of this huge section of the world, and yet I feel strangely connected to Morocco in particular, all thanks to its strong food culture. Two of the most amazing ladies I worked with, side by side for many years at Health in a Hurry, both hailed from this northern nation. So many of the recipes were infused with their unique palate of flavors, that they became a common, comforting taste, even in our sleepy little New England town.

Upon hearing that this was the next destination on our frenzied food tour, immediately my mind went to tagines. Perhaps the best known of all Moroccan dishes, most modern renditions aren’t even made in the vessels they’re named for- At least, on US soil, that is. Still, I fought the urge to take the easy way out. It may be a culture with a sweet tooth, but desserts are often that final course that American restaurants inevitably ruin. Delicate pastries somehow turn into soggy, leaden mush, and fruit salads leave me uninspired. Thus, with only the idea of Moroccan ingredients and sensibilities to guide me, I found my answer… With a more modern twist.

Plate provided by Steelite

Mourad, a cookbook that bills itself as “new Moroccan” cuisine and is derived from the fine dining establishment of Aziza in San Francisco, held the answer to my prayers. A startlingly Italian-sounding panna cotta got my wheels turning, and from there, everything simply fell into place. Delicate rose water perfumes the firm pudding itself, which is placed atop a shallow pool of pale pink hibiscus sauce. Lightly spiced almond brittle is the crown to this humble tower, with orange supremes, pomegranate arils, and fresh mint leaves accenting with their fresh, bright, fruity flavors. Incredibly, it all came together in the eleventh hour, bringing this exotic yet curiously familiar palate of sweet seasonings back into my kitchen again at last.

Be sure to tune in to Bravo this coming Wednesday at 10/9c to see what Moroccan delights the chefs come up with, too!

Rose Water Panna Cotta

Panna Cotta:

2 Teaspoons Agar Agar Powder
2/3 Cup Plain Non-Dairy Milk
6 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2/3 Cup Vegan “Sour Creme”
2 6-Ounce Containers Greek Coconut Yogurt
2 Teaspoons Rose Water
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

Hibiscus Sauce:

2 Cups Cold Water
3 Bags Hibiscus Tea
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Orange Zest
2 Tablespoon Cornstarch

Almond Brittle:

1 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Water
2 Tablespoons Light Corn Syrup
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
Pinch Salt
1 Cup Sliced, Toasted Almonds

To Serve:

Pomegranate Arils
Orange Supremes
Fresh Mint Leaves

Lightly grease six 3 1/2-Inch fluted mini tart or brioche molds and place them on a sheet pan for easier maneuvering. Set aside.

In a small saucepan, vigorously whisk together the agar, “milk,” and sugar until there are no lumps remaining. Set the pan over medium-low heat, and gently whisk until the mixture begins to bubble and thicken. Take the pan off the stove to stir in both the “sour creme” and coconut yogurt, mixing until smooth, and then return it to the heat very briefly. Cook the mixture just until bubbles begin to slowly break on the surface, whisking the whole time. Add in the rose water and vanilla, whisk to incorporate, and quickly transfer the contents of the saucepan to your prepared molds. Gently tap each one on the counter to knock out any air bubbles before smoothing out the tops with a spatula. Let cool completely at room temperature before thoroughly chilling.

For the hibiscus sauce, plunk the tea bags into the water in a small saucepan. Place it on the stove over medium heat, and bring to a boil. Immediately turn off the heat and cover, allowing the tea to steep for 20 – 30 minutes. Once deeply rose red in hue, remove the tea bags and allow the excess liquid to drip out, but do not squeeze them- This will cloud the mixture. Separately, stir together the sugar, orange zest, and cornstarch until thoroughly combined, and add these dry goods into the saucepan. Return it to the heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar is dissolved and the liquid bubbling and fully thickened. Let cool before chilling in the fridge.

To make the almond brittle, begin by combining the sugar, water, corn syrup, cinnamon, and salt in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Resist the urge to stir, and gently swirl the pan to mix the contents instead. Bring the mixture up to a boil, and continue to cool until the sugar caramelizes and turns a pale amber color. Meanwhile, set out a silpat or piece of parchment paper nearby where the brittle can come to rest. Once the sugar syrup has reached the right shade of golden brown, quickly stir in the sliced almonds to coat them evenly in the mixture, and waste no time in pouring everything onto your prepared silpat or parchment. Smooth out the brittle into as thin a layer as possible. Let cool completely before breaking it into pieces.

To serve, spoon about 1/4 – 1/3 cup of the hibiscus sauce onto the plate, and turn out one panna cotta on top. Wedge a piece of the almond brittle into the crest of the panna cotta, fan out three citrus surpremes alongside, and sprinkle pomegranate arils on top. Finish it all off with a few mint leaves to garnish. Repeat for the remaining plates.

Makes 6 Servings

Printable Recipe

For participating in this competition, Bravo has compensated me for my time, but all recipes and opinions are solely my own.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Going through the motions of the daily grind, beginning with the same flavors and same approaches everyday, everything starts to taste the same after a while. It’s simply so easy to get lost in the same cycle of cookies and cakes, cookies and cakes, that all the other options slowly fade from memory. Plated desserts? Part of another life time, from a whole different skill set. That so much time has elapsed without something more spectacular on these virtual pages is a downright shame, and now awoken by spring and craving a positive change, something that I plan to correct.

Starting slow, this fairly humble panna cotta, composed of rich coconut milk and complimented by thai-inspired aromatics such as lemongrass and galangal is an easy composition with complex flavors. Though mine was garnished with excess matcha coating leftover from my peppermint patties, molded into leaf shapes, it was ultimately agreed that a plain fresh mint leaf would have made for a more pleasing, light finish.  Successful plated desserts don’t have to call for the most complicated preparation possible, after all!

Topped off with pineapple cubes sauteed lightly in brown sugar and surrounded by a generous pool of raspberry sauce, each plate remains very light and refreshing, while nicely satisfying the craving for a sweet ending. Perfect for serving after a heavier meal, this would be ideal to whip out after any spring brunch, or either Easter or Passover (yes, it is “accidentally” pasedich!)

Lemongrass Panna Cotta:

1 13.5-Ounce Can Coconut Milk
2 Cups Water
2 Stalks Fresh Lemongrass
1/2 Cup Fresh Mint Leaves, Loosely Packed
Zest of 1/2 Lemon
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Agar Agar Powder

Sautéed Pineapple:

1 Cup Chopped Pineapple, Fresh or Frozen and Thawed
1 Tablespoon Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Galangal or Ginger
Pinch Freshly Ground Black Pepper

Raspberry Sauce
Fresh Mint Leaves, for Garnish (Optional)

In a medium saucepan, combine the coconut milk and water, and set over medium-low heat. Whisk well, and set aside.

To extract the most flavor out of your lemongrass, you’re going to have to get rough with it; Don’t be afraid to show it who’s in charge. Take the flat of your knife to the side of each stalk, and bash the living daylights out of them. Then, chop them up into pieces as small as you can manage- But don’t drive yourself crazy. They’re very fibrous, so it will be difficult to get the stalks very fine. Next, lightly mince the mint leaves, and slice of the lemon zest in long strips. Add all of these aromatic ingredients into the coconut milk mixture. Bring the liquid up to a boil, clamp on the lid, and then turn off the heat. Allow your flavorings to infuse for at least 30 minutes, or up to an hour.

Set out 6 – 8 4-ounce custard cups or ramekins to prepare for the finished dessert. If you wish to unmold them and serve your panna cottas as photographed above, lightly grease the insides, or leave them alone if you plan to serve the panna cotta right out the dishes.

Once properly infused, strain the mixture through a fine cheesecloth, and return the liquid to the pot. Mix together the sugar and agar in a separate dish first to make sure that the agar is fully dispersed throughout the sweetener, before pouring both into the pot. Whisk thoroughly, and turn the heat up to medium. Stir occasionally until the liquid comes up to a boil, and then cook, stirring vigorously, for another minute.

Pour the hot, liquid panna cotta into your prepared dishes. Let cool out at room temperature for a full 2 hours before transferring them into the fridge, to prevent syneresis. Wait until fully chilled before serving.

For the pineapple topping, simply combine all of the ingredients in a small sauté pan, and cook over medium heat, stirring often but gently so as not to break up the pineapple pieces. They should take just 5 – 10 minutes on the heat, simply to dissolve the sugar and soften up the fruit a bit. Let cool, and either serve on top of the panna cottas while still warm, or chilled.

To complete the plated dessert, tip out on panna cotta onto a plate, and top with a spoonful of sautéed pineapple. Pour a ladleful of raspberry sauce around the base, and finish it off with a sprig of mint on top. Repeat with the remaining desserts.

Serves 6 – 8

Printable Recipe