The plaza in Rabat that holds both the Tour Hassan and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V is a salute to Morocco old and new and contains many icons of the country:colorful tiles set in neutral stone, ornate carving, gold lanterns, fountains, large Moroccan flags fluttering in a sea breeze and palm trees. The tower was built in 1195 by the Almohads and was intended to be the tallest mosque minaret in the world. Construction was abandoned, however, and it stands now at 145 feet tall. After an earthquake in 1755, all that remains of the mosque itself are the pillars, visible in the photographs below. The mausoleum next door where the current King’s father, grandfather and uncle are laid to rest, was designed by a Vietnamese architect and finished in 1961. It is adjoined by a mosque, built at the same time.
These ruins, which combine a Roman city called Sala Colonia with Chellah, a Merenid encampment are fascinating and peaceful. Just up the banks of the river, as it snakes inland, further from the ocean than the medina or the new city, the area had several groups of inhabitants over the years, as is the case with much of Rabat. It was first settled by the Phoenicians, and then expanded by the Romans in AD 40. They built a temple, a forum, a bath, a water distribution center, including the Pool of the Nymph, the overgrown and crumbling foundations of which can be seen. The Romans abandoned the city in 1154, but in the 14th century a Merenid sultan began building on top of the existing Roman site. Still discernible are the minaret tower, school building, tombs and gardens. In one far corner lies a pool built for washing before prayers. At one point the pool began being fed by underground springs from the river and eels were discovered in it. Lore says that women who feed hard boiled eggs to the eels will receive good fertility and easy childbirth. We visited Chellah on a cloudy day, which made it a bit cooler than the previous days 90 degree heat. Now, Chellah is abandoned by all but visitors and the hundreds of storks that winter in nests built in every tree and on every high tower. The clacking of the bills makes a unique, if loud, soundtrack to a visit.
I believe I have somehow made it through two and a half years of posting about Morocco without once mentioning a certain song by The Clash from 1982. It is probably best not to start now. The Kasbah of the Oudaias (alternatively Oudayas and Udayas), being a fortress, has a highly defensible position atop a hill at Rabat’s edge with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Bou Regreg River on another. Original construction took place in the first century and then the structure was added to, altered, and/or repurposed by the next inhabitants over the years. It is now mostly residential, (fun fact: kasbahs are apparently very hot property for foreigners to buy up) but also inside the walls are a jewelry museum in what used to be a palace, an Andalusian garden in the palace grounds, a café overlooking the river, and the oldest mosque in Rabat.
Naima, the woman who lives downstairs and who cooks dinner for us most nights is, in addition to being warm, friendly and generous, a wonderful cook. In fact, she tells us she is the main cook in her family, the one who provides meals and pastries for family weddings and events. We asked if she would show us how to make one of her dishes so that we could learn about authentic Moroccan cooking straight from the source. Because she cooks fresh and local, she goes to the market around the corner and buys what looks best to her. On this day, it was lamb, peas, beautiful young purple artichokes, green onions and zucchini, so she showed us how she makes a classic tajine. A tajine (or tagine) is so named because of the cooking vessel in which it’s cooked. The clay pot, with a flat bottom and conical lid, was originally made to go straight into a fire or cooking oven, where the lid protected the dish from ashes and helped funnel all the juicy steam back into the dish. They are now usually cooked on a stovetop. A tajine can be made with pretty much anything: beef, lamb, chicken, kefta (ground meat, or even fish as you saw in a previous dinner) and vegetables. It is really endlessly adaptable and anything that strikes your fancy or is in season would be a perfect addition to the tajine. We noticed when we were up in Northern Morocco, in Tetouan, that tajines were usually either meat, or vegetable, but not both. But Naima says here it’s common to have meat and veg in one tajine, which makes for a perfect one-pot meal. If you don’t have a tajine it is, of course, possible to make it in a pot, in fact, some Moroccans cook it that way.
Three things in particular stood out to me as being unique: the prevalence of lemon, both preserved and fresh. Lemon juice was added to almost everything, even rubbed on some of the vegetables. Acid, any good chef will tell you, gives that all-important pop to other flavors. Second, the various flavoring mixtures, all made separately: the dry mix, the fresh, herby pureed mix, and then the tomato sauce for the top, allowing layers of flavor to develop. And last, I was surprised to see Naima didn’t add any salt. Although arguably the first rule of cooking is “season”, with all the lemon and the three different spice mixtures, (the herby one may have had some salt, although she didn’t mention it), the salt isn’t missed in the final dish.
Lamb and Vegetable Tajine
- 2-4 pieces of lamb or other meat, bone-in if possible
- 2 cloves garlic
- half an onion
- olive oil
- blended fresh herb mix (lima beans, cilantro, lemon)
- 1 potato, peeled and cut into chunks
- peas (preferably freshly shelled)
- 4 small artichokes (or 2 large), cleaned, hulled and sliced into 4 pieces each
- 1 zucchini, cut into large pieces
- 1 scallion, coarsely chopped
- handful of parsley
- chili pepper
- Tomato mixture: juice of two tomatoes (or 1 tbsp tomato paste), pepper, saffron, lemon juice and water. She also added a bit of cornstarch to thicken the sauce, I think a personal preference.
Rabat, Morocco sits on the Western coast of North Africa. Slightly north of Casablanca, and west of Fez, Rabat feels calm for a city of well over a million. The fifth-largest city in Morocco and the capital of Morocco since independence in 1956, it is sort of an in-between city; not quite as cosmopolitan as Casablanca, not quite as touristed as Fes and Marrakesh, and less hectic than Tangier. But with lovely sites and scenery, it is a pleasant place to spend some time. Settled as early as the 8th century, BC by Phoenicians and Romans, it outlasted the empire and became the home to Berbers. The city takes its name from the ribat, or “fortified place”, the fortress that the Berbers built on the Northern shore, which later became a kasbah. Over the centuries, the area saw waves of popularity, becoming home to many different groups, including the Almohads, Muslim refugees and pirates. Because it is bordered on one side by the Atlantic Ocean, it was an excellent spot for war campaigns, shipping, and yes, looting. Now, there are several beaches, particularly good for surfing, since the waves are untempered by a bay or much of a breakwater.
On the Northern tip of the city lies the Kasbah of the Oudaias, the site of the original ribat, now mostly residential. Just across the Bou Regreg river lies the city of Salé. Through the centuries, power often changed hands between the cities. Now, a tram runs neatly between them.
As you can see from the fog blanketing the Kasbah, the Atlantic Ocean plays a large part in the climate. This was quite an unusual amount of fog, and, although winter can be wet and chilly, March has been sunny and a warm 68 degrees.
Just below the Kasbah is the Medina, or old city, the quietest , most well-laid out medina that I’ve seen (not that I’m particularly an expert, I grant you). To the south of the medina is the new city, where most restaurants, cafes and business occurs. Below that are more residential neighborhoods, including the one we are staying in, as well as Mechouar where the Royal Palace is, and the wealthy Agdal. The new-ish tram system provides fast, easy, affordable (one ride is 6 dirhams, about 74 cents) transport to most of the city.
The main sites of the city which we will be exploring are the Kasbah, which is also the site of the Andalusian gardens, the Tour Hassan and the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, where the previous two kings are buried, and the ancient Roman site of Chellah. There is also a very good archeology museum, and even a zoo.
We arrived in Rabat, Morocco just in time for some gorgeous spring weather, in time to miss all that air pollution in Paris, and in time for dinner! We are staying in an apartment in a neighborhood on the South-Western side of the city which Guillaume found on AirBnB the first time he visited, back in January. There are four apartments in the building: the older couple who own the building live on the bottom floor and all of the other apartments (probably initially intended for their children and their families, who instead live in France and Spain), are rented out to travelers. The apartment is quite spacious; if you want to know what luxury is, I will tell you: having two bathrooms so that one can be the “toilet seat up” bathroom. The woman who lives downstairs, Naima, offers to provide us with dinner every night. Unfortunately for our laziness and wallets, her cooking is so excellent we have taken her up on the offer nearly every day. The one night we decided to cook for ourselves, she brought us dinner anyway. She communicates with us mostly in French, with a bit of Arabic thrown in, and made sure to tell us that all of her cooking is traditional, local, organic and seasonal and that her homemade bread contains omega trois! She also taught us how to make a traditional tajine, the process and recipe of which I look forward to sharing soon. These are some of the delicious meals she has made for us. One of these days we will get to a restaurant, but I think we might end up being disappointed!
I first came across cheesecake here in France when we were in Nantes. We saw it on the menu at several restaurants (at one, specifically “Virginia cheesecake,” whether this means the State or a lady, I don’t know. Does Virginia have excellent cheesecake?), and it came with the café gourmand at L’Industrie. But I thought it was sort of a fluke: a new trend, popular because of the youth of Nantes, like Brooklyn Brewery beer being popular with certain factions in Paris. In the months since, though, I’ve noticed that it is everywhere. At many restaurants, plenty of cafés and even in grocery stores in several incarnations including frozen and what I like to call “potted” desserts. And they are largely the same as the delicious American-style cheesecake that you make at home/get at Junior’s except for one thing: the crust. Graham crackers, arguably the most common, and definitely the most delicious crust material for cheesecake, are not really known here, and “they” (I don’t know, cheesecake police?) have decided that the closest approximation is something called speculoos. Speculoos cookies, or speculaas in Dutch, are thin, lightly sweet and spiced cookies of Belgian, Dutch and German origin. In English they are sometimes called Belgian Spice or Dutch Windmill cookies. They are traditionally made around Christmas using a springerle mold or rolling pin with shapes cut into it to create a pattern or picture on the dough before baking. Speculoos are now commonly sold in the Biscoff or Lotus brand. Although originally a very spiced cookie (with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamon, even pepper), a quick glance at the ingredients list tells me that, commercially, they are spiced with mostly cinnamon.
The first time I heard of speculoos was when that waffle truck, Wafels and Dinges, first came to New York and their speculoos spread began getting press. Then Trader Joe’s came out with a speculoos spread which they call “Cookie Butter”. Speculoos is now becoming a recognizable name in the US; some even rate it as a trend. We like novelty. But speculoos cookies are ubiquitous in France, even sometimes arriving in tiny plastic-wrapped form next to your espresso or coffee at a café, which was the way I was first introduced, without even knowing what I was eating. I would describe the flavor as a mix of graham cracker, gingerbread and snickerdoodle. It’s a nice cookie, crisp, not too sweet. And I will tell you that dipping peanut butter pretzels in the spread makes for a certain kind of snack heaven. But what really surprised me is, with a darker color, more caramelized flavor, and hint of spice, I actually think that speculoos makes a better crust for cheesecake than graham crackers. So they’re doing good work with cheesecake, and I might even try to replicate it when I return to the US. But I still don’t know what they are doing to the cookie and the hot dog.
This is the first in a series of features I’m calling “Challenge:Accepted!” wherein I propose a challenge to myself having to do with some aspect of living in Paris or traveling around the world and I accept that challenge. Totally normal. This particular feature will be called “From the French Kitchen”. In it, I challenge myself to explore French ingredients and French home cooking traditions by cooking or baking 5 dishes I’ve never made before. These will be more from the traditional home cooking than the Julia Child/Jaques Pepin classical way, if only because I have no interest in making an aspic. My first choice is this Gâteau au Yaourt, or Yogurt Cake, which is perfect for reasons fivefold: it’s simple, has a quaint story to the recipe, I’m obsessed with yogurt and the cups they come in, it can be easily made with ingredients from American grocery stores so you can try it at home and it is super versatile and can be made as pure or as fancy as you like.
The recipe is simple: 2 parts yogurt (plain, whole milk), 2 parts sugar, a bit less than 1 part oil, 4 parts flour*. Add 2 eggs, baking powder and soda, a pinch of salt and any flavorings you wish to add, et voilà! The ingenious bit is that these “parts” are traditionally the yogurt cup itself, making it a simple, easy, dish-free way to measure. (Assuming your yogurt cups are a half-cup each, although it worked when I used a slightly smaller yogurt cup and adjusted the rest of the volumes accordingly.) It is also a perfect recipe for young bakers, and one that is often the first dish a child learns to make. Its just the perfect anytime cake- easy to make, easy to eat, infinitely versatile, and you may just have the ingredients to make it right now.
Gâteau au Yaourt
- 1 cup plain, whole milk yogurt
- 1 cup sugar (or ¾ for a less sweet cake)
- 1/3 cup vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 large eggs
- 1 2/3 cup flour
- 1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- pinch of salt
- Optional additions, see “Flavor Ideas” below
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit, 177 degrees Celsius.
- Grease a 10 x 10 round pan** with oil and line with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl mix together yogurt, sugar, oil and vanilla. Add eggs one at a time, mixing after each, and mix well.
- Over the same bowl, sift flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. If, like me, you don’t have a sifter, I recommend whisking dry ingredients well in a separate bowl before adding to the wet so that you don’t end up with unpleasant baking soda lumps in your cake. She said from experience.
- Mix until incorporated.
- Pour batter into pan and spread evenly with a spatula.
- Bake for 30-45 minutes. Mine took only 30 minutes in a convection oven, with a regular oven it would take longer, and if you’ve added extra liquids or very wet fruits it could take 40-45 minutes. A toothpick or knife inserted into the center of cake should come out clean. Let cool 10 minutes before turning out onto a plate.
Some Flavor Ideas!
The recipe as written above is very simple and fairly begs to be gussied up with a favorite flavor, whatever is in season or what you have on hand. These are some ideas, not all of which I’ve tested, mostly because my taster will not go near a dessert with citrus, but I think this cake can handle almost anything.
Rum: A very traditional French addition, add 1 tablespoon of dark rum to batter.
Apricot/Pear/Peach: Also classic French, add ½- 1 cup chopped fresh or canned apricots, pears or peaches to batter.
Lemon and poppy seed: Add ¼ cup lemon juice, zest of one lemon and ¼ cup poppy seeds to batter at the end.
Lime: Add ¼ cup lime juice and zest of one lime to batter at the end.
Apple and Brown Sugar: Replace sugar with brown sugar and add ½-1 cup chopped, peeled apple to batter, or layer slices on top of cake before baking for an elegant presentation.
Blueberry/Raspberry: Add ½-1 cup fresh or frozen berries to batter.
Chocolate: Why not? Stir dark chocolate chunks or chips into batter. Could be very nice with pears too.
Olive oil: Use olive oil for the vegetable oil for a slightly fragrant cake, almost savory cake. Remove vanilla and maybe add pears and rosemary.
*Like all good classic recipes, these proportions will be different depending on which French person you ask.
**Let’s be real here, use whatever pan you have. I feel certain you can try a loaf pan or muffin tins if you want to and just adjust cooking time.
During my time in the US, besides enjoying spending time with family and friends, I also took advantage of some things that I don’t have access to in Paris. I wrote about the more food related things in this earlier post, but for the most part these are things that are either too expensive, hard to find, or simply don’t exist here. Here are some of the things that I enjoyed while in New York:
Also delicious, delicious coffee from places like Gimme! Coffee and Ithaca Coffee Roasters complete with half and half. Not pictured because I drank it. Lots of pumpkin goodies like cookies that were dairy and sugar free because that’s how my parents roll these days. They were yummy, although not that photogenic. My mom also made delicious (and photogenic, it must be said) vegan pumpkin pie. Last but not least, there was more than one bagel that came to an end at my hands.