Last week was the first properly hot week of the year in Brussels. Some days felt like August, with a relentless sun above, dry grass below and a certain languor that is only possible when it’s very warm. The weather always has an immediate impact on what I want to eat, and in the heat I usually want to eat less. I also crave less sweats, but I still crave some.
I’m not big on ice cream (shocking, I know), so I need to find other ways to get my summery sweet fix. Fruits and berries are always a great option and when in Estonia, nothing beats wild strawberries with milk and a little bit of sugar. If I want serious sweetness, however, I think the flavours of the Middle World work well. Now, I know, I just love the food of that region (see here for proof) and would evangelise about it anyway, but hear me out.
To my mind, it makes sense that countries that experience high temperatures would make great summer desserts. The ingredients and flavours evoke – at least for me – the warmth of distant suns. Saffron, pistachios, cardamom, rose water, almonds, pomegranates, dates, walnuts, apricots, poppy seeds, mangos… Doesn’t is sound like they have soaked up all that sunshine and heat? The other thing I like is that these sweet treats often come in small pieces rather than Western-style cakes. Almond cookies and sweatmeats and halvas and little pastries are just the right size for me to enjoy with tea or coffee.
It was fortunate, therefore, that I had just bought Mountain Berries & Desert Spice, Sumayya Usmani’s beautiful book entirely dedicated to Pakistani sweets. I’m fascinated with Pakistani food since her first book, Summers Under the Tamarind Tree that I highly recommend. It reminds me of a cross between Indian and Persian cuisine and in the case of sweets, more of the latter. That’s not to say that Pakistani food lacks originality – it’s very much its own thing, influenced by the extremely varied and abundant produce of the country. And they do love their sweets.
The book is filled with recipes like rose water biscuits (below) and buckwheat pancakes with mulberry syrup*(main picture), rice puddings and stewed fruits and sweet breads. Most of these things are quite rich: trifle with lychee, mango, cardamom milk and vermicelli or spiced and floral truffles with dates, apricots, walnuts and pistachio. But there are also the refreshing pomegranate jelly and the amazing-sounding mango with thyme and pink salt.
This is of course not the only cookbook where you’d find inspiration. There’ll be something in this direction in all my favourite Middle Eastern cookbooks and also in Samarkand, with a Central Asian twist. One book I haven’t mentioned yet, however, is The Food of Oman by Felicia Campbell. I haven’t cooked from it much, but it gives you the context, beautiful pictures and some truly enticing recipes. Royal sticky date pudding sounds absolutely delicious (and looks gorgeous), as does the saffron sweet milk tea.
What are your favourite summer desserts? Let me know in the comments.
*It is not in the recipe, but I add some sour cream (and pistachios for crunch) and it works so well with the earthy pancakes and the sweet syrup that even a buckwheat skeptic like me is converted.