Brunch Inspired by the Middle East

photography by Penny & Finn

Not long ago, Lakeland wasn’t part of my five-year plan; I wanted to be anywhere but here. Give me San Francisco, Nashville, or New York. Give me a place with culture and interesting people, a place that’s just as inspiring as the creatives who live there. I was on a constant search to get more out of life. I wanted to squeeze every drop from every moment, sometimes to a fault. I’ve never been OK with just OK, and I still want quality, depth, and substance in the place I choose to call home.

And I want great food!

The truth is, Lakeland is experiencing a burgeoning and vibrant culture, as well as a craft movement that invites and welcomes its residents to stay right here and create something new, exciting, and of great quality. And, now, Lakeland is in my five-year plan.

I know what you’re thinking: what does any of this have to do with brunch?

This has everything to do with brunch. Brunch turns ordinary breakfast into a fantastical eating adventure. A self-professed foodie, I measure moments by the tastes and textures I experience within them. When I travel to a new place, across town or across an ocean, I’m on a quest for something great and authentic. I’m not interested in tourist attractions but real food experiences that I can carry with me forever.

Last May I visited Bruges, a little town in Belgium. Picture this: stone streets, sidewalk cafes, and back-alley beer gardens, all within walking distance. The people were friendly; craft beer was served with pride; and the brunch was uniquely extraordinary. It was simple stuff, but the quality and freshness made my experience unforgettable. Cured meats, sliced cheeses, croissants, toast, jams, a soft boiled egg, freshly squeezed blood orange juice, and espresso filled my brunch in Bruges’ plate. Everything was local, fresh, and homemade.

My second morning there, I asked the owner where he got the jams and bread. He stared blankly at me for a few seconds. He seemed confused but answered, “I make them.” By the end of the trip, I understood that this is simply their way of life. It’s a beautiful town of local restaurants, farmers, breweries, bakers, and artisans. I went to Bruges to find it but came home to find it in my own backyard as well. This culture of artistry and creativity and an appreciation of great food is being cultivated in our city right now.

When is the last time you enjoyed a memorable meal?

Each of my travel experiences has fed both my soul and my belly in ways that allow me to fold what I’ve learned into the dough of my life. It’s true that certain foods are better for the body while others are intended for the soul. My body, for example, loves avocado anything, whole grains, and Honeycrisp apples. My soul, however, relishes fresh bread and French butter, Parisian chocolate, pistachio pastries, street hot dogs in Israel, crème brulee donuts in NYC, handmade pasta in Italy. Food is part of the human experience, so much so that it’s easy to let the act and art of it disappear. But, with a small amount of effort and commitment, we can create meals that we, our families, and our friends will remember. With a little thought and exploration, we can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

RECIPES

SHAKSHUKA
1 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 medium brown or white onion, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, minced 1 medium green or red bell pepper, chopped
4 cups ripe diced tomatoes, or 2 cans (14 oz. each) diced tomatoes
2 Tbsp. tomato paste
1 tsp. chili powder (mild)
1 tsp. cumin 1 tsp. paprika pinch of cayenne pepper (spice it up!)
salt and pepper to taste
5-6 eggs
1/2 Tbsp. fresh chopped cilantro or parsley for garnish

Heat oil in a large skillet or sauté pan on medium. Add chopped onion, sauté for a few minutes until the onion begins to soften. Add garlic and continue to sauté until mixture is fragrant. Add the bell pepper and sauté for 5-7 minutes until softened. Add tomatoes and tomato paste to pan, stir till blended. Add spices, stir well, and allow mixture to simmer over medium heat for 5-7 minutes until it begins to reduce. Take a second and give it a taste; now is the time to add any spices if desired. Add salt and pepper to taste and more cayenne pepper for a spicier shakshuka (I’m a spice fanatic, but my niece is not, yet! Keep your eaters in mind). Crack the eggs, one at a time, directly over the tomato mixture, making sure to space them evenly over the sauce. Place 4-5 eggs around the outer edge and 1 in the center. Cover the pan with lid or aluminum foil and allow mixture to simmer for 10-15 minutes, or until the eggs are cooked and the sauce has slightly reduced. Keep an eye on the skillet to make sure that the sauce doesn’t reduce too much, which can lead to burning.

Note: Some people prefer their shakshuka eggs more runny. If this is your preference, let the sauce reduce for a few minutes before cracking the eggs on top. Then, cover the pan and cook the eggs to taste. Garnish with either the chopped cilantro or parsley, if desired. Shakshuka can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Serve with warm, crusty bread.

TURKISH COFFEE
This recipe was supplied by Berna, owner/operator of Café Zuppina. This quintessential, unassuming mom and pop restaurant is a Lakeland gem and home to some unforgettable brussel sprouts. More on that another time… Enjoy this coffee before or after your meal, and enjoy every sip.

Turkish coffee kettle

2 small espresso cups

2 Tbsp. Turkish ground coffee 2 tsp. sugar

Fill espresso cups with water and pour into the kettle. Add the ground coffee and sugar. Stir. Heat kettle over medium heat for 3-4 minutes until a foam begins to form. Divide the foam and half of the coffee between the two cups, and return the kettle to the heat for an additional minute before pouring the rest. Note: Turkish coffee is finely ground and does not need to be filtered. After you’ve enjoyed, there will be grounds at the bottom of the cup.

“If you drink this coffee without foam, it is not Turkish coffee.” ~ Berna

NO-KNEAD BREAD
Bread has a special place in my heart. I had the pleasure of sitting down and chatting about bakery business with the creator of this famous recipe, Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. No matter your bread-making skill level, this is one of the best introductory baking recipes. It’s so approachable, just like Jim.

3 cups all-purpose or bread flour

1/4 tsp. instant yeast

1-1/4 tsp. salt cornmeal, wheat bran, or multigrain mix as needed

In a large bowl combine flour, yeast, and salt. Add 1-5/8 cups water, and stir until blended; dough will be shaggy and sticky. Cover bowl with plastic wrap. Let dough rest at least 12 hours, preferably about 18, at warm room temperature, about 70 degrees.

Dough is ready when its surface is dotted with bubbles. Lightly flour a work surface and place dough on it. Sprinkle it with a little more flour and fold it over on itself once or twice. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rest about 15 minutes.

Using just enough flour to keep dough from sticking to work surface or to your fingers, gently and quickly shape dough into a ball. Generously coat a cotton towel (not terry cloth) with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; put dough seam side down on towel and dust with more flour, bran, or cornmeal. Cover with another cotton towel and let rise for about 2 hours. When it is ready, dough will be more than double in size and will not readily spring back when poked with a finger.

At least one half-hour before the dough is ready, heat oven to 450 degrees. Put a 6- to 8-quart heavy covered pot (cast iron, enamel, Pyrex, or ceramic) in oven as it heats. When the dough is ready, carefully remove the pot from oven. Slide your hand under towel and turn the dough over into pot, seam side up; it may look like a mess, but that is OK. Shake the pan once or twice if dough is unevenly distributed; it will straighten out as it bakes. Cover with lid and bake 30 minutes. Then, remove lid and bake another 15 to 30 minutes, until loaf is beautifully browned. Cool on a rack.

BAKLAVA BISCUITS
What’s not to like about a pastry with beautiful layers of flaky pastry sheets lightly brushed with butter and filled with a thick honey-and-nut spread? After deciding that a Middle Eastern brunch was the direction I’d take for this article, I was inspired to add something sweet and balance such a wonderfully savory main dish.

Biscuit recipes are often underrated. There are a variety of tastes and textures with each. For this recipe, I wanted something layered and flaky similar to the dough used for traditional baklava. After the biscuits have cooled for a couple minutes, unfold one of the layers close to the center, fill with walnut butter, replace the top, and generously spoon honey syrup. The recipe makes 15 biscuits. You will probably have leftovers. Thank you letters can be mailed to The Lakelander office, haha.

FLAKY, LAYERED BISCUITS

4-1 ⁄ 2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. cream of tartar
2 tsp. baking soda
1-1 ⁄ 2 tsp. salt
1 ⁄ 2 cup cold unsalted butter cut into pieces
1-3 ⁄4 to 2 cups cold buttermilk
1 ⁄ 2 cup unsalted butter, plus 1 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened to room temperature, cut into 1 Tbsp. portions
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter melted (optional, for brushing tops)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees (500 degrees if using a convection oven).

Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. In a bowl, combine flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, and salt. Cut cold butter into dry ingredients with a pastry blender. (Mixture should resemble coarse crumbs, with no large chunks of butter.) If butter gets very soft at this point, refrigerate mixture for 20 minutes. Add 1-3/4 cups buttermilk, stirring just to moisten all ingredients.

Dough should be soft and moist; add remaining 1/4 cup as needed. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and knead gently about 10 times or just until dough holds together. Roll or pat dough into a 14-by-10-inch rectangle.

With the short side nearest you, spread top two-thirds of dough with 3 tablespoons soft butter, leaving bottom third, closest to you, unbuttered. Fold dough into thirds (like you would fold a letter) by pulling the bottom third up over the center and then pulling the top third over the middle.

Turn dough so the short side faces you. Pat into a 9-by- 12-inch rectangle.

In the same manner, spread again with 3 tablespoons soft butter and fold letter style. Turn once more in the same manner. Pat into a 9-by-12-inch rectangle; spread with remaining 3 tablespoons of soft butter and fold up.

Note: Work quickly and gently so as not to overwork dough or allow the butter temperature inside the dough to get too warm. Pat dough into a rectangle 3/4-inch thick on floured surface. For more consistent sizes, trim dough edges and cut into squares with a sharp chef ’s knife. Place on pan, 1 inch apart. Lightly brush tops with melted butter (optional). Bake in center of hot oven about 20 minutes (about 12 minutes in convection), until golden brown.

INFUSED HONEY SYRUP

1 cup sugar
1 cup honey
3/4 cup water
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 cinnamon sticks
1 (1-inch) strip lemon zest

Combine the sugar, honey, water, lemon juice, cinnamon sticks, and lemon zest in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon, until the sugar has dissolved. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the syrup is slightly thickened, about 10 minutes. Remove the cinnamon sticks and lemon zest, and set syrup aside to cool.

WALNUT BUTTER

2 cups walnuts
1 tsp. salt
5-6 tsp. walnut oil (preferably roasted)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Spread nuts in one layer on a baking sheet. Toast until fragrant and lightly colored, about 10 minutes. Stir about halfway through the baking time. Add nuts to a food processor, discarding any dried skin and dust. Add the salt, and chop the nuts finely. With the motor running, drizzle in the oil. Whirl until the nuts are ground into butter, stopping to scrape down the sides two or three times. Keep in covered container and enjoy a new kind of nut butter.