This time last year, my wonderful old friend Nadia was hospitalised. A few days later she died, surrounded by her family. It was her birthday too, so the end of October is double memorial to Nadia. She is much-missed and I think of her often, especially when I’m cooking.
I lived with Nadia and her family in the mid-1990s, in a kind of long-term WWOOFer role on a farm called Old Man Mountain in the verdant, wild Buller Gorge on New Zealand’s South Island. Although I worked on the farm for its owner, Susie, I spent a lot of time with Nadia in the kitchen of her yellow house, talking about and making food. She was one of the key cookery mentors in my life.
During my year there, Nadia and I went through phases. We obsessed over French patisserie, and I made my first croissants in her oven. We made samosas and curries and south Asian feasts; Nadia was part-Indian, but hadn’t travelled, so my experience of growing up in a country with a huge South Asian food scene were a useful source of information for her. Then we obsessed over Middle Eastern food. I’ve always been more inclined to sweets, cakes and pastries, so I dug out recipes along those lines. Some made it into my journals.
After Nadia’s death, I revisited those journals and transcribed more of the recipes. This is one of them. It’s called cinnamon pistachio crescents in my notes and it says it’s of Middle Eastern origin. I’ve no idea if it is a genuinely Middle Eastern recipe either, or the Arabic name of these pastries. They may well be related to croissants though, given the shape and the high butter content, so perhaps they’re a hybrid of Arabic food heritage and French imperialism. A terrible lack of information, I know. All I know is that they’re a bit like croissants, but there’s no lamination here, so they’re a lot easier to master. Perhaps they’re related to the Jewish rugelach. If anyone does know the name of Arabic pastries like this, please do enlighten me!*
The recipe, now somewhat tweaked by me, may well be from a Middle Eastern cookbook my mother sent out to me in 1994. I saw it last, in October 2013, just after we’d left Rome and had gone travelling to see international friends and family: on a shelf in Nadia’s house in the Marlborough Sounds. Perhaps it’s still there. One day I may be able to check it, when we next visit NZ. Who knows? With the recent eleventh hour failure of our adoption match, I don’t really know what life holds next. While we nurse our bruised dreams I know at least there will be more baking.
Baking of things like these. I’m making them thinking of Nadia, bustling around her kitchen at Old Man Mountain, twenty years ago. I wish I could email her to ask her to look in that old recipe book. It’d take her a week to find the time away from her precious, precarious garden and connect to her agonisingly slow dial-up, but I miss her communiqués, her snatches of life, her ardent discussion of food.
10g active dried yeast or 15g fresh yeast
25g caster sugar
125g strong white flour
125g plain flour
4g fine sea salt
200g unsalted butter, melted
2 eggs, beaten (that is, 120g beaten egg)
6-8g cinnamon (to taste)
80g caster sugar
50g pistachios, roughly chopped or quickly broken up in food processor.
1. Mix the yeast with the water. You can use tepid water to get the yeast going if you like, but as these have a long prove in the fridge it doesn’t really matter.
2. Stir in sugar.
3. Combine the flours in a bowl, add the salt, then mix in yeasty water, melted butter and egg.
4. Mix up to a dough. It’s very moist from all the egg and melted butter so it really is a case of mixing, with a spatula. Cool the dough in the fridge a bit to firm up the butter then you can give it a knead, just to make sure everything is nicely homogenised.
5. Return the dough to a clean bowl, greased with a little oil, cover, then put in the fridge and leave for at least three hours, or even overnight.
6. Take the dough out of the fridge and allow it to come back to room temperature. (The butter will have set hard again, so it’ll be difficult to handle until it’s warmed up a bit again.)
7. Combine the cinnamon, sugar and chopped pistachios to make the filling.
8. Preheat the oven to 180C and prepare several baking sheets, lining them with parchment or silicone sheets.
9. Divide the dough into six balls, each weight about 111g, then cover and let them rest for 10 minutes.
10. On a lightly floured surface, roll out each ball into a disc, keeping them moving to avoid sticking. Roll to about 20cm in diameter.
11. Sprinkle the filling onto the discs, then cut each one into eight segments.
12. Roll up the wedges, starting from the wide end, and shape into crescents.
13. Place on baking sheets, cover and prove for about 20 minutes until slightly risen.
14. Bake for around 12 minutes, until nicely browned.
15. Cool on a wire rack.
I imagine these would go very well with a nice strong, short cup of coffee, but as I don’t drink it, I can’t say! I can say they also go nicely with tea, black or green. But the ideal drink to have them with would be that sweetened blend of black and mint tea, served in glasses, as drunk in Arabic world, especially the Maghreb. I like to think that when I first made them at Old Man Mountain in 1994, me and Nadia sat down to try them with a with a cuppa, critiquing them. Nadia probably said they were good, but she preferred savouries.
* Since writing this, I’ve done a little more research. In Arabic countries, such a pastry might be referred to as a sanbusaj, sambusak, sambosak. It’s the same in Hebrew. And similar in many other languages across the Middle East, western and southern Asia. Indeed, they’re probably all from the same Persian root word: sanbosag. A more familiar related word here in the UK is the Indian Subcontinent samosa.
But, you may be wondering, what’s a usually savoury, deep-fried parcel got in common with a crescent, yeasted dough, buttery pastry? Well, broadly, there’s all just variation on a theme of filled pastries. This recipe, for example, is savoury, but uses a similar technique to mine here, and as such nicely bridges the gap.
15 responses to “Pistachio-cinnamon pastries and memories of Nadia”
What a lovely story of your happy relationship with Nadia, mentors are very important, as are happy memories of treasured people. I am sorry to hear that the adoption process is causing you both so much pain. I can’t begin to imagine how frustrating and painful it is. I hope the baking is proving at least a little therapeutic. These pastries look very tasty and I think I will give them a go. I am trying to perfect my laminating technique at the moment so these might be perfect when laminating is not what I want to be doing.
Thank you. Yes, baking is always therapeutic.
And good luck with the lamination!
thanks for a beautiful recipe and for your homage to Nadia
hope someone remembers me like this some day!
And now I understand your connection to New Zealand. Having that time with Nadia must have been magic and these little pastries look great – I will be sure to try them while I am still making butter.. c
I had 3 times in NZ when I was younger but that year was the longest stay.
I also stayed on old man mountain Wwoofing in 1996 and remember Nadia very well – a wonderful person. Have very much enjoyed reading this. So sorry she’s gone.
How long were you there Rebecca? We must have just missed each other as I was there 1995, then again in 1997.
I was there for about a month I think it was June 96. My brother and his family had been there previously and told us about it. An incredible place (not without it’s ups and downs for those there at that time) – I so loved staying in the Wwoofers hut – read about 100 of the National Geographics stacked up in that place! Are you still in touch with Nadia’s family, or Susie and her family at all? Rebecca
Yes, they’re like family. I made the bed in the WWOOFer hut (though it’s now called The Cottage). Had a few nights there Nov 2013.
Reblogged this on Chef Ceaser.
What a lovely post. I never had anyone to cook with growing up, so I’m so glad you had Nadia. Great pastries as well.
Hi Daniel I made these today thankyou for the beautiful words in describing your time with Nadia my gorgeous and dearly missed friend and also in describing your shared love for cooking. Mine taste lovely but they have a rustic air to them which is very typical of my cooking style. I loved making these with Nadia in my heart x.
So glad to hear it. They are slightly fiddly to roll aren’t they?
What’s your connection to Nadia? I first met her when I lived in the Buller in 1990, then I ended up living at Old Man Mountain for a year in 1994-95, then again for six monts in 1997. Saw her again in 2007, then on our last trip to NZ in October 2013 at her place in the Sounds.
Nadia was a dear friend. I spent a lot of time with her in the 80’s including old man mountain. We then moved to Australia.
Have a share in the land in the sounds and head out there every year. When Nadia was there we had lots of great food as always.i have some treasured recipes!! lovely to pay homage to an amazing cook. lovely that you were able to share your interest in cooking with her. Thanks for sharing xx