Imambayildi al Pomodoro Semplice

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Written correctly in Turkish, the name of this dish is imambayıldı, where each of the two dotless “i” are pronounced like the letter “e” in “herbs”. Translated, it means “the imam fainted” and there are several versions about why this happened. One says that when it was first prepared for the imam by his wife, this dish was so delicious that the pleasure he felt simply knocked him unconscious. Another, more elaborate story, says that when the same imam married the woman, her dowry was a hefty supply of the most exquisite olive oil. On their first night together, she cooked him this meal. He loved it so much that he couldn’t eat anything else. After several days of strict imambayildi diet, the supplies of the olive oil, which was one of the main ingredients, ended. Realizing that he lost the precious dowry of his wife, the imam fainted.

By far it must be clear that this dish is extremely delicious but you can probably guess from the title that I’m not going to follow the original recipe. So if you are a culinary purist, leave this site immediately and never come back. The rest of you should know that the method of preparation of imambayildi can differ significantly from region to region. It has been prepared for ages in the Ottoman Empire, from where it probably spread as far west as France, turning into the famous Provencal ratatouille. Or perhaps it was the other way around, who knows.

In Bulgaria, where olives aren’t grown, people use sunflower oil instead. I stick to this tradition. You can make your own choice but please don’t go using olive oil just out of culinary snobbery. It won’t make you a better person. Also, my eggplants are not stuffed but simply sliced and I add some zucchini as well, just for flavor. The moment when I definitely break with the Bulgarian tradition is when I make the sauce, which is inspired by Italian cuisine and my favorite pasta.

Ingredients

Main: eggplants, zucchini, sunflower oil;
Sauce: garlic, tomatoes, sugar, salt, fresh basil leaves, black pepper.

Let the Frying Begin

Cut the eggplants and the zucchini in thin slices. Heat up the oil in a deep pan. Keep in mind that the eggplants will soak in a lot of oil, so be generous and also be prepared to add more if necessary. There is no need to deep fry them but make sure the base of the pot is always well covered, otherwise frying will soon turn to roasting. Turn each slice occasionally, so it can fry uniformly on both sides. It’s important to start with the eggplants first and fry the zucchini last, since their juices will turn the oil slightly green and that might interfere with the golden color of the eggplants. Frying the zucchini can be slightly more annoying, since by nature they contain a lot of water, which soon will start to spatter all around, carrying droplets of hot oil with it. This is why it’s important to use a pan which is deep.

After each slice is fried, leave it aside in a dish. You can sprinkle a little bit of salt over each batch.

Let’s Make the Sauce

The pomodoro semplice sauce is very easy to make. Translated from Italian it actually means simple tomato sauce. However, with the risk to cause anger and public protests on the streets of every major city in Italy, my recipe contains a little twist to it.

First, let’s prepare the ingredients. Peel a bulb of garlic, then crush each piece with a flat spoon or a knife. Leave it aside and start chopping the tomatoes in little pieces. After you are done with everything, heat up a pan on medium fire and sprinkle a table spoon of sugar on the bottom. Wait until it melts and just when it’s about to turn golden, lower the fire, throw in the crushed garlic and stir well, then add a little bit of oil and stir again for several seconds. Be careful when you fry garlic, especially caramelized one, because it burns quickly and it turns bitter. According to my experience, the optimal time is about 10-15 seconds. This is why it’s important to have your tomatoes already chopped and ready. Throw them in and the frying will turn to cooking. Cover and leave to simmer for about 15-20 minutes until the tomatoes get really soft.

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Fusion

When the sauce is ready, remove it from the fire and throw in the fried eggplants and zucchinis, along with freshly chopped basil leaves and the black pepper. Stir gently with a large spoon and leave it covered to cool down.

Designer’s Advice

Slice a baguette in small pieces and top each one with a spoon of imambayildi. Add half a lemon slice as well if you’re adventurous. It’s an excellent tapa to accompany a glass of wine or beer.

Home Made Yogurt for Dummies

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Most people think yogurt is made by illegally employed underage fairies somewhere in the deep forests of mainland China. I’m sorry to shatter their idyllic dream but that’s as true as a speed measurement result from an Italian neutrino detection lab.

The truth is that yogurt is made by two types of bacteria, Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and Streptococcus salivarius subsp. thermophilus.

All you need to make yogurt at home is milk and a starter culture from the bacteria. If it’s difficult to find a starter culture, you can use natural live yogurt from a store. Guessing which types of yogurt on the market contain live bacteria can be hard but most likely they would be brands that are marketed as “natural”, “plain” or “simple”, and without additives like fruits and sugar.

Boil the milk, then leave it to cool to about 40-45 degrees C, which is the optimal temperature at which the bacteria will start to ferment it. You can use a cooking thermometer to determine the temperature or alternatively you can try the classical method of my Balkan forefathers, who used to dip their pinky in the milk and count to 15. If you can endure the hotness of the milk without removing your finger until you finish counting, everything is set. If you can keep your finger longer than that, the milk should be slightly heated again. If it hurts and you’re forced take it out earlier, it needs further cooling.

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For 1 liter of milk you need about a table spoon or two of yogurt. Stir the yogurt well until it becomes a homogeneous paste and then mix it with the warm milk. Pour the mixture in a container and wrap it with a cloth that will keep it warm for the next 4 hours. Alternatively, you can put the container in a large pot with a little bit of warm water around it and cover everything with a lid, so the heat loss would be minimal. After 4 hours the yogurt should be ready and you can put the container in the fridge.

Your first attempt may not produce ideal results but that shouldn’t prevent you from trying again. You should also remember that what you’re making is real yogurt – its texture and taste may be different from the one sold on the market because commercially produced yogurt usually has a lot of additives that “improve” its consistency, for example milk powder or cream. By making it at home, you’re getting rid of them and what’s left is a product which is much healthier.

If you intend to continue making your own yogurt at home, it would be a really good idea if you use a table spoon from your previous batch as a starter for the new one. That way each time you’ll end up with higher content of live bacteria and that will improve the consistency and texture.

“Live” yogurt secretes lactic acid, which is a yellowish liquid that forms around the edges of the container. Its presence shouldn’t be alarming, right the opposite, it’s a sign of a job well done. However, if there’s too much of it, it may be an indication that you overheated the milk.

The type of milk you use matters a lot as well. I would advise you to use whole milk. The difference between 4% and 1% fat content is not that much, so whoever told you you’re going to lose weight by consuming skimmed milk lied. You will loose much more weight by removing sweeteners from your diet instead of tiny insignificant amounts of milk fat.

Last but definitely not least – some people with poor knowledge of biology freak out every time they hear the word “bacteria”. This is not only unnecessary, it’s downright stupid. I’ve seen recipes for yogurt online in which people are advised to keep sterile conditions as if they are going to perform a surgery. Don’t get paranoid about it, just maintain the usual hygiene necessary for handling any other food products and use clean utensils, pots and jars. I come from the Balkans where yogurt is a staple food and we have the highest yogurt consumption per capita on the planet. Trust me, my great-grandmother didn’t use aseptic surgical gloves, just soap and water.

Pan de Jamón, Venezuelan Style

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Rumor has it that pan de jamón was invented in the beginning of the 20th Century by Gustavo Ramella in his bakery in Caracas, Venezuela. He was looking for a way to use the ham leftovers during the Christmas season and decided to roll them in a loaf of bread. It didn’t take long for the recipe to become hugely popular and today, it’s one of the main delicacies served on Christmas eve in Venezuela. With time people started to add many other ingredients to the recipe, turning it into an epic culinary celebration in its own right.

That’s why you don’t necessarily need a holiday pretext to try it out. It’s no more difficult than making pizza at home and it’s definitely a lot of fun.

Ingredients

Dough: 1 kg plain flour, 1 table spoon salt, 1 table spoon sugar, 4 table spoons melted butter, 15 gr dry yeast, 200 ml water, 400 ml milk.
Filling: ham (in slices or chopped in small pieces), grated cheese (Emmental, Gouda, Maasdam or any other Swiss-style cheese) squashed olives, raisins, crushed walnuts, finely cut pickled cucumbers, powdered fenugreek, paprika powder, vegetable oil.

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Dough Preparation

Making of the pan de jamón dough is similar to the one for pizza.

Mix the water, the sugar and the dry yeast in a bowl. Leave to rest for about 10 minutes, so the yeast can activate and start to grow. Sieve the flour on a flat surface, add the salt to it and make a well in the middle Start adding the yeast mixture while stirring gently. Continue with the milk and the melted butter. When the consistency becomes more solid, start kneading the dough with your hands. Knead for about 5 to 10 minutes then place the ball of dough in a large bowl, cover it with a kitchen towel or folio to prevent its surface from drying out and leave it to rest for an hour or two. It should increase its size significantly.

Rolling Out, Adding the Filling and Rolling In Again

Take the dough and put it back on the flat surface, knead for a while to push the air bubbles out. Divide the dough in 4 pieces. Take one part, start spreading and rolling it out carefully in a rectangular shape. Try to make it as thin as possible without forcing it to break. When ready, spread some vegetable oil on top and start adding the ingredients for the filling one by one like you would on a pizza. Try to distribute it as equally as you can. Then start to roll in the sheet carefully. When ready, leave aside and start with the next one.

Repeat all steps with the rest of the dough pieces.

Baking

Oil the surface of each bread roll well. Oil the baking pan and gently dust it with a little bit of flour. Place all 4 bread rolls inside and bake for about 20-30 minutes in a preheated oven at 180 degrees. During the baking, you can sprinkle some water on top several times to prevent excessive drying out.

Designer’s Advice

Serve it sliced. It looks quite impressive on its own, so no further decoration is necessary.

Sauerkraut Sarmi with Couscous and Peanuts

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When I posted my previous sarma recipe on my Facebook page, I got some suggestions for alternative versions. There are tens, maybe even hundreds of ways you can prepare it only on the Balkans, imagine how many more there may be in Turkey or in the Arab world. I am sure many of them are irresistibly delicious and some are definitely part of the national cuisine dogmas of the various countries throughout the region.

I may have mentioned it before but I hate to follow recipes to the last letter and neither should you. The more often you are able to surprise yourself, the better. Tonight I was in for an unexpected surprise. In the last few days I managed to find whole sauerkraut leaves on the Spanish market and I was finally about to make Bulgarian sarmi just like my grandma used to make them. Until I noticed I didn’t have enough rice. That was the moment when nostalgia gave way to good old adventurism. I took a look at my kitchen stand and the next suitable thing for a filling turned out to be Moroccan couscous.

Mixing ingredients from different cuisine types may sound too risky but it’s actually nothing new – half of the products you would describe as native to your country originally came from somewhere else, sometimes thousands of miles away. The only reason you consider them national is because someone in the past dared to experiment and… succeeded.

So there I was with a pile of glittering sauerkraut leaves and a package of couscous, thinking what other insult I can add to the injury of twisting my culinary heritage beyond recognition. I opted for peanuts, soy sauce and nutmeg.

Ingredients

Filling: 300g couscous, 300g champignon mushrooms, 2 onions (bulbs), fresh green onion, fresh green garlic, a handful of peeled peanuts, whole black pepper grains, nutmeg, soy sauce, vegetable (olive or sunflower) oil, 1-2 sauerkraut leaves (usually those who aren’t suitable for rolling)
Wrapping: Whole sauerkraut leaves (about 20-30 pieces)
Sauce: yogurt, crushed garlic, olive oil, salt, dill

Few Notes

In case you can’t find sauerkraut leaves, you can use fresh cabbage leaves following the method explained in the previous recipe. Needles to say, you can replace any of the ingredients above with ones of your liking, usually on the Balkans sarmi are prepared as a vegetarian dish only on Christmas, on all other occasions minced meat is a substantial part of the filling. If you insist on consuming minced meat, you can replace the mushrooms with it.

Preparation of the Filling

It would be handy to begin in an organized way. Cut the onion bulbs, the fresh onions, the fresh garlic and the mushrooms in tiny little pieces. Do the same with the 1 or 2 sauerkraut leaves that you put aside from the rest especially for the filling. Then crush the black pepper grains and the peanuts with a suitable tool.

Put the couscous in a large bowl. If your sauerkraut leaves come with juice (which is the likely scenario), pour 300 ml of it in the bowl. Alternatively, you can use water for the same purpose. Leave the couscous aside to absorb the liquid while you prepare the rest of the filling.

With everything handy, heat up the oil and start adding the ingredients. First come the cut onion bulbs. Saute them for a while until they start to turn golden. Then add the crushed peanuts, black pepper grains and mushrooms. Leave them to fry for a while and stir occasionally. Pour some sauerkraut juice (or water) occasionally to the mixture to prevent it from sticking. Add soy sauce as well. Remember that soy sauce is salty, so use your own judgement about the quantity. After the mushrooms are fully cooked, add the cut sauerkraut leaves, the fresh onions, the garlic and sprinkle some powdered nutmeg on top.

When the mixture cools down a bit, add the couscous and stir well. Now you’re ready to roll.

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Let the Wrapping Begin

Wrapping sauerkraut leaves is much easier than fresh cabbage leaves, so you shouldn’t have problems at all, especially if you already tried the previous recipe.

First, prepare the pot. Spread 2-3 sauerkraut leaves on the bottom to form a blanket. Then start rolling the individual sarmi by putting a spoon (or two if the leaf is very large) of the filling in the middle, then wrapping the rest of the leaf over it. Start placing the sarmi in the pot one by one, position them tightly next to each other, so the boiling water won’t be able to move them around. When there is no place on the bottom, make another layer on top and continue piling more sarmi until you wrap them all. At the end, place a large, heavy dish on top to press the sarmi and prevent them from moving and unwrapping accidentally. It’s best of the diameter of the dish is slightly smaller than the one of the pot, so it can fit well inside it. Pour the rest of the sauerkraut juice (or water) in the pot until the liquid reaches the level of the dish. Cook everything on medium fire for about 40 minutes.

Designer’s Advice

Serve sprinkled with paprika and topped with the yogurt sauce. Add some guindilla peppers on the side.

Cabbage Leaf Sarmi with Rice and Mushrooms

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The sarma is one of the most famous dishes in Balkan cuisine, the word itself comes from Turkish and I believe it means “something wrapped”. It’s a really simple concept – you wrap some food in a leaf, then cook it. However, in case you decide to put the simplicity aside, you can do wonders of complexity with it.

There are different customs in preparing sarmi across the Balkans but my recipe is inspired by Bulgarian cuisine and specifically the winter version of the dish, often served on Christmas, which uses whole sauerkraut leaves for wrapping. Unfortunately, they may be hard to find outside the Balkans, since all types of commercially available sauerkraut I’ve seen come already shredded. Thankfully, fresh cabbage is widely available and there is a trick to make it taste sour without waiting for it to ferment. Let’s start one thing at a time.

Ingredients

Filling: 300g rice, 300g champignon mushrooms, 2 onions, 1 tomato, wine, salt, dill, whole black pepper grains, vegetable (olive or sunflower) oil
Wrapping: 1 whole sauerkraut (or in case you can’t find it – 1 fresh cabbage, 2 lemons, salt, vinegar)
Sauce: yogurt, crushed garlic, olive oil, salt

Preparation of the Cabbage Leaves

If you’re lucky enough to have a whole juicy round ball of aromatic sauerkraut, thank Superjesus, skip this section and just dismember the deliciousness by carefully peeling off the leaves one by one. Be sure to collect the dripping sauce, it’s an exquisite drink that will make your farts audibly and chemically superior to any other weapon of mass destruction on Earth.

If you are a mere mortal like the rest of us, put the whole fresh cabbage in a large pot with water, add 2 teaspoons of salt, the juice of 2 lemons and a spoon of vinegar. Bring it to boil at medium fire for about 15 minutes. Then allow it to cool down for a while before you start to peel off the softened leaves. You can leave it rest even longer after cooling to improve the taste. I prefer to let the cooked cabbage soaked in the brine overnight, so it can really absorb the saltiness and the acidity. Whatever you decide, keep the juice after you remove the cabbage from the pot because you’ll going to need it later.

Start to gently peel off leaf after leaf. It may seem a bit difficult if you’ve never done it before but after several attempts, you’ll get the hang of it. To make things easier, carve out the hard stem of the cabbage with a knife in advance. It’s the place right at the bottom, where all leaves are joined together. Don’t worry if you tear some leaves, put them aside, their time will come as well.

After you totally dismember the cabbage, it’s time to begin with the filling.

Preparation of the Filling

Cut the onions, the mushrooms and the tomato in tiny pieces. Crush the whole black pepper grains. Put everything to fry in a pan with the olive oil. I usually start with the onions, then I add the crushed pepper grains and the mushrooms. The tomato comes last, after the mushrooms soften and release their moisture.

Continue cooking the whole mix for several minutes, in the meantime, add a little bit of wine for flavor and sprinkle with dill. Finally, add the rice and stir well. Here’s when the cabbage juice you made earlier comes handy. Start pouring small amounts of it to the rice mixture, just enough to prevent it from sticking to the pan. Note that the goal is not to completely cook the rice but to let it absorb enough moisture, so it can increase its volume before we start wrapping it with the leaves. Depending on the type of rice, that should happen after 3-5 minutes.

Remove from fire and let it cool a little bit, so it won’t burn your fingers when you start wrapping it in the cabbage leaves.

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Let the Wrapping Begin

Wrapping may seem difficult but in fact, it’s easier than peeling the leaves. You should also remember that perfection is a lost cause, so don’t stress too much and have fun.

First, remember the leaves which you tore apart in the beginning? You thought they were useless? Actually, they have a role to play as well. Prepare the pot in which you’re going to cook the wrapped sarmi. Spread those leaves at the bottom, so they cover all of it. Now every time you wrap a sarma, you’re going to place it gently over this blanket.

Let’s wrap the first one. Take a single leaf and try to spread it gently on a horizontal surface. If the stem of the leaf is too hard, which is often the case if you use fresh cabbage, use a little hammer or the back of a big knife to crush it gently. That will help you bend it easier. Put a spoonful of the rice and mushroom filling in the middle of the leaf and start wrapping it. Bend the side of the stem of first, then wrap the other parts of the leaf one after the other. This is your first sarma. It wasn’t that hard, was it? Now put it in the pot close to its wall. Continue arranging the new ones tightly next to it and when you cover the entire bottom, start putting the new ones on top to form another layer until you are completely finished.

After you put all the sarmi in the pot, take a large dish with a diameter slightly smaller than the pot itself and press it on top of everything. The weight of the dish will prevent the boiling water from unwrapping the sarmi on the upper layer. Now pour the remaining cabbage juice and add extra water if necessary until the liquid reaches the level of the dish. Cook everything on medium fire for about 40 minutes.

Designer’s Advice

Serve sprinkled with paprika and topped with the yogurt sauce.

Chocolate Vanilla Cream Plum Cake

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Carl Sagan once said making a cake from scratch meant first creating the whole Universe. From a strictly astrophysical point of view that’s beyond valid. From culinary, it’s a bit of a stretch. It’s sad that most people don’t need a famous astronomer to dissuade them from trying it. They seem to think cake-making is like stem cell cultivation and any attempt to do it in your own kitchen is painfully dangerous and slightly immoral.

As many of you know, poor Marie Antoinette even lost her head trying to convince people cake was totally affordable. What a brave young woman she was!

So there you go – wherever you find cakes, you can also find a lot of fear, dashed hopes, missed opportunities, regret and just a little bit more blood than necessary. I’m sure that hits the right spot in your stomach, so let’s begin.

Ingredients

Dough ingredients: 5 eggs, 1 teacup of sugar, 1 teacup of flour, backing powder, vanilla
Jam ingredients: plums, sugar, water
Syrup ingredients: sugar, water, vanilla, milk
Icing: vanilla cream, a chocolate bar (a standard, ~120 g one)
Optional: cocoa powder, cinnamon, raw ground coffee, lemon zest

Dough preparation

Whisk the eggs, then slowly add the sugar while you continue to beat the mixture. Be merciless, the more air bubbles you are able to produce the finer your cake will be. Add the baking powder, the vanilla and the flour and continue to mix until everything becomes silky smooth.

Pour in a cake pan and bake in a preheated oven for about 10-15 minutes at 180-200 degrees.

Remove from the oven, let it cool for a while and slice in two even layers. One very convenient way to slice a sponge cake is by using a wet thread instead of a knife. If you feel insecure, you may split the dough in 2 even parts before pouring it into the cake pan and then bake each part separately one after the other. The only disadvantage of this method is that it doubles the time for preparation and the number of pans you will have to use and – subsequently – wash.

Let’s make some jam

Let’s bust another myth. The one that says jam is made by forest nymphs at full Moon. Jam is so easy to make it’s practically offensive. Cut some fresh plums, the amount varies but it would be good if you could cover the surface of a standard frying pan. Before you put the plums in it, add about 6 teaspoons of sugar and let them melt. Mix with a large cooking spoon to help the sugar spread evenly on the surface and be careful, sugar melts easily but also burns easily. Add the plums. Stir well and add a little bit of water. Leave everything to boil for about 10 minutes. Check periodically and continue adding water if needed. Remember, warm jam is more viscous than cold one, so don’t expect it to reach the same thickness while on fire because if it does, when it cools down you’ll end up with a pan full of clay.

Remember, you can always buy plum jam from the supermarket but if you do, you will betray me. And when you do, I will appear in your nightmares to chase you relentlessly. I will pass through walls, sneak in through keyholes, follow you in the shower. You don’t want that to happen. So let’s move on.

Making things juicy

Now that you have 2 delicious sponge cake layers and some jam, it’s time to make ‘em soak some extra sweetness. And because I am slightly detail-oriented (thank you Steve Jobs, may you rest in iPad Heaven), I like to use 2 separate sauces for each layer. Before you start sprinkling goodness, it’s a good idea to actually place the first layer on the actual plate you intend to keep the cake until it gets fully eaten.

For the bottom layer I use simply milk. That’s exactly how you heard it – milk, no additives, no sugar, no flavorings and certainly no words like “skimmed” attached. I can’t tell you the exact amount needed because there is no universal formula. Just use your best judgement and remember, cakes don’t taste very good if they are dry.

The reason why I use only milk is because after the layer is wet enough, I will spread the plum jam and a large portion of the jam’s sugar will leak down. You are free not to follow my advice and sweeten the milk but don’t come back complaining when you catch diabetes. So spread the jam evenly over the bottom layer. If it’s still too hot, waiting a little bit would help you spread it better. As a rule, you should be able to touch it with your fingers without feeling any discomfort. After you’re done, put the second layer on top.

For the top layer I use vanilla flavored caramel syrup, which is very easy to prepare. Just put several teaspoons of sugar to caramelize, pour some water after it starts to glitter like gold and add few drops of vanilla flavor. Again, wait a bit and let it cool because if you pour it boiling, it will turn the silky spongy cake into a coarse creamy paste. And if you do that at this stage, you better go and kill yourself because everything you made so far would be in vain.

Breathe deeply, we’re almost over.

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Icing the gorgeousness

The final hours of the struggle! Okay, to speed things up, I won’t force you to make an icing from scratch, you can use any vanilla flavored cream you find on the market. Spread it well on top and on the sides. Don’t make it too thick, you don’t want to look cheap. Finesse comes in small packages.

When ready, melt a whole chocolate into a pan at low fire, add a tiny amount of milk, just enough to make the hot mixture a bit more fluid and prevent it from burning. After everything is silky smooth, start spreading or sprinkling it over the cake. Put the whole thing in the fringe and don’t look back for several hours. Then return with a vengeance and cut it with your knife. Take a bite.

Now you know how Heaven tastes like.

Designer’s advice

There is a very easy way to make your cake look even yummier. Before you put the dough mixture in the baking pan, split it in two parts. To the first part add lots of cocoa powder, a pinch of cinnamon and sprinkle some raw ground coffee. Grate some lemon zest over the second part and mix it into the dough. How are you going to proceed from then on is completely up to you.

For example, you can bake every part in a separate pan. This way you will have one brown and one yellow layer. You can also pour the first mixture in a pan and then add the second one on top without too much mixing. This way it will resemble a Marmer cake. With the risk of repeating myself – don’t limit your imagination!

Bon appétit!