As a kid, I remember feeling a little burst of joy whenever the rice steamed and rested just long enough in the hot rice cooker to build up crispy little bits on the bottom.
My mom would scrape them up and pile them on my plate, knowing how much I couldn’t resist the juxtaposition of soft fluffy grains with cracklingly crunchy ones.
Later as an adult, when I first tasted tahdig, the Persian rice specialty that guarantees a bottom crust of full-on golden crunchiness, I was even more smitten.
Now comes “Rice Cake,” which much like this inverted dish itself, I’ve completely gone topsy-turvy for.
It’s Persian goes Italian.
Or tahdig in the spirit of risotto.
As it’s fortified with a load of butter, Parmesan, and creme fraiche.
This amazing recipe is in the new cookbook, “Bavel: Modern Recipes Inspired by the Middle East” (Ten Speed Press), of which I received a review copy.
It’s by husband and wife, Chef Ori Menashe and Pastry Chef Genevieve Gergis, owners of the acclaimed Bavel and Bestia restaurants in Los Angeles. It was written in conjunction with Lesley Suter, the former food editor for Los Angeles magazine.
Menashe, who grew up in Israel, and Gergis, who is of Egyptian heritage, offer up more than 85 enticing recipes with inspired Middle Eastern flair and Southern California vibrancy. Take your taste buds on a journey with everything from “Tomato & Plum with Sumac Dressing,” “Grilled Dourade with Whole-Seed Chermoula,” and “Turmeric Chicken with Toum” to “Persian Mulberry Pudding Cake” and “Dalia” cocktail made with tarragon-infused gin.
Saffron and turmeric infuse this delightful and dramatic rice cake, lending it a marigold color. The recipe calls for 60 threads of saffron. Rather than try to count each minute one by hand, I turned to trusty Google and came up with the equivalent of 1 teaspoon of threads, which I added to the recipe.
The recipe calls for par-boiling the basmati rice in more than 3/4 cup of salt. That whopping amount certainly gave me pause, but I did as instructed. Because the rice is then drained and rinsed, the rice does not actually end up tasting salty at all, but just well seasoned through and through.
The rice is then enfolded with the saffron and turmeric, plus a generous amount of melted butter, grated Parmesan, and thick creme fraiche before being placed in a frying pan, where it bakes for one hour.
Then, steady yourself and take a deep breath as you invert the baked rice cake onto a serving platter, all the while hoping it not only comes out of the pan cleanly, but is the perfect golden shade underneath.
I almost made it. I had one small sliver stick to the bottom of the pan. I just peeled it off and stuck it back in place atop the crunchy rice cake. Voila! OK, so maybe it looked as if my rice cake bore the vestiges of a surgical incision. But to me, it was imperfectly perfect.
Especially since the taste and texture were immaculate. The crusty outside emerges as crisp as the best fried chicken. The interior is creamy and incredibly rich tasting with the sweet warmth of saffron. It’s a rice cake that’s as lavishly buttery as a fine French pastry.
Enjoy a slice with a green salad for a light dinner or lunch; or as a side to most any grilled meat or seafood.
And don’t fret. Even if the unmolding doesn’t go spot-on, you will still revel in this Bavel beaut.
(Serves 8 to 10)
12 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon plus 3 teaspoons kosher salt
60 threads saffron (about 1 teaspoon)
2 cups basmati rice
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 cup creme fraiche
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted, plus more for coating
1 cup packed grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
In a large saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Add 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon of the salt. Place the saffron in a small bowl, then scoop out 2 tablespoons of the boiling water from the pot and pour over the saffron threads. Set aside.
Meanwhile, rinse the rice thoroughly in a colander until the water runs clear. Add the rinsed rice to the pot of boiling water and cook, uncovered, for 6 minutes. Using the colander, drain the rice, then rinse under cold water until the rice has cooled down, about 30 seconds.
In a large bowl, combine the turmeric, creme fraiche, butter, the remaining 2 teaspoons salt, eggs, Parmesan, and bloomed saffron along with the blooming water. Stir to combine, then gently fold in the rice and let and let sit for 10 minutes.
Lightly coat an 8-inch nonstick frying pan with a small amount of butter. Add the rice mixture to the pan and cover with aluminum foil. Bake in the oven for 1 hour.
Remove the rice from the oven, uncover, and let rest in the pan for 10 minutes. Using a plate that is slightly larger than the size of the pan, turn the plate upside down and cover the pan. Use your hand to stabilize the plate from the center and carefully flip the pan, so that it is now on top of the plate. Carefully lift the pan to check if the rice has formed a golden crust. If the crust isn’t golden, flip the pan back over, remove the plate, and cook on the stove over low heat for 2 to 4 minutes. Turn out onto the plate once more and slice to serve. Refrigerate any leftovers for up to 3 days and warm before serving.
Adapted from “Bavel” by Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis with Lesley Suter
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