Sunday, April 26, 2015

Confessions of an Accidental James Beard Award Nominee + Strawberry Semolina Cakes with Lemon Rosewater Glaze

I am not exactly a culinary professional. I am a Data Scientist, which is another word for “I do not cook food for living, only for dinners”. For living, I write formulas, code and scientific papers. I never had a cooking lesson in my life, unless you count the ones from my mom, my grandmothers, aunts and grandaunts. On that thought, it is funny how in our family women outnumber men by four to one ratio; this is a highly conservative estimate, given that I lost track of one branch of our family, which, according to the accounts of the elderly members of our clan, for centuries produced only daughters. I wonder if it is a part of our genetic material, or because of who we are, a byproduct of our characters. “You just need a glimpse inside one’s soul to tell if one will bear sons or daughters,” my great grandaunt Cica used to say. And her fortellings were correct ninety nine percent of time. Perhaps this is something science should look into? But that’s not the topic of this post, so back to cooking. My food library is by all means quite moderate; I am currently in possession of about hundred and twenty three cookbooks. This too is a conservative estimate, given that the poor souls are scattered all over the apartment, and occasionally my office, and establishing an exact count would be a little bit of an endeavor. I wish that there is time to buy more books and read more books -- especially Harold McGee -- I have been devouring his words in bits and pieces over many years, because: A) there is only so much Harold McGee you can absorb in one afternoon, B) scientific papers and code come first, and C) Miss Pain’s dinners, homework, playdates, writing lessons, theater lessons, skating lessons, and swimming lessons occupy the very last ounce of free time I have left, hence only bits and pieces remain for Harold McGee. (At the moment, an ideal life I aspire to is to take a month off, and do nothing but read “On Food and Cooking”, go to the market, photograph and sleep.)

I have been cooking for thirty years and it still amazes me how little I know. So how did someone like me turn out to be a 2015 James Beard Award Nominee? I don’t know, I have been asking myself the very same question, over and over again. I pondered it from the day James Beard Foundation announced the nominations, in the weeks following the announcement, and I kept on pondering it two nights ago as I buckled my very fancy shoes, got dressed in my very fancy outfit, and walked out of the house... And I kept on pondering as Dr. V and I hopped back and forth between north-east and south-east corners of Church and Franklin, trying to hail a cab – an activity totally unbecoming of a James Beard Award Nominee and the very fancy shoes she was wearing.

And I kept on pondering it, in awe, during the entire night of the awards. We came to Pier 60 with my phone fully charged, and Dr. V’s phone fully charged, as I swore to photograph and immortalize every single nanosecond of the event, until two photos later, I fell under the spell of the evening and my photographic intent got lost to a blur. I am proud to report that we have two photos from that night, one of the Hudson river, and one of my James Beard Nominee badge against the very unphotogenic dark red tablecloth. We also have a photo of me standing in front of the James Beard backdrop, but I am a kind of in the shadow, which happens in ninety-nine percent of cases when Dr. V is in control of the camera, hence, that photo does not really count.

I did not get to take home the Award. Molly won, and it was so well deserved! (Molly’s writings are always on the list of things I would like to read more of in my currently non-existing free time.) But I did get to take home the nominee badge. It still resides on the fancy Helmut Lang jacket I wore on the big night, which, by the way, now presents a couple of challenges: A) Will the badge get off of my HL jacket? B) If it does, will I be able to put it on something else again, and wear it around a bit longer to preserve the glorious JBFA feeling, and C) Would it be too weird to wear it around, let’s say to the market, or perhaps to a restaurant? There is this snobby waiter in one of our favorite joints, and I so feel like wearing my badge once and shoving it into his face. Except that it is totally un-yogic and unworthy of a JBFA nominee, and I will not do it. But on the other hand, I am sooooo tempted.

How did we celebrate being nominated for the James Beard Award? We celebrated by simply being happy. Sometimes it is the best. And we celebrated by drawing princesses on the sun drenched floor of our apartment, and by baking strawberry cakes, not because we wanted to, but because Miss Pain requested them for her school snack. “Mama,” she said, “you never make anything for me! I am neglected and treated like rotten tomatoes.” Apparently the strawberry cakes from the last week, and the carrot loaf from the week before, and the zucchini bread from two weeks ago, did not count. Have you noticed how seven-year-olds apply “never” when they actually want to say “in a long time”. Which in Miss Pain’s world is about a week.

p.s. The badge did peel off. And is reusable! I think that I am wearing it to the restaurant. But then again, maybe not. What would you do?

Strawberry Semolina Cakes with Lemon Rosewater Glaze

for the cake

* 1 cup full fat Greek yogurt  
* 1/2 cup olive oil  
* 1 cup granulated sugar  
* 10 oz strawberries  
* 3 large eggs  
* 1 cup all purpose flour  (I used King Arthur organic AP)
* 1 cup semolina flour  (I used Bob's Red Mill)
* 1 tsp baking powder  
* 1/2 tsp baking soda  
* 1/2 tsp salt

for the glaze

* 1 cup sugar  
* 1/2 cup water  
* 1/4 cup lemon juice (juice of one lemon)  
* 1/2 tsp rosewater (I used Cortes)


twelve 2x3-inch cake molds (I use silicon ones), muffin molds, or a 9x5-inch loaf pan

Heat the oven to 350F.

Puree the strawberries in a blender.

In a large bowl, mix together yogurt, olive oil, sugar and strawberry puree. Gently beat the eggs and add them to the mixture. Mix until combined.

In another bowl, mix the flour, semolina, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients into the wet ones. Mix until combined without overworking the batter.

Pour the batter into the molds (I like to use silicon molds for these cakes, as they do not require oiling. If you are using loaf pan, grease the pan generously with butter and dust with flour.) Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 25-30 minutes, for the small cakes, and about 45 minutes for the loaf.

Remove the cakes from the oven and let them cool before taking them out of the molds.  

While the cakes are resting, prepare the glaze. In a small saucepan, mix the sugar and water and bring to a boil. Boil until the sugar is fully disolved and the mixture becomes slightly syrupy. Remove the saucepan from the heat and add the lemon juice and rosewater. Be careful with the rosewater (the quantity will depend on the brand you are using). I do not like to use too much, because it can easily overpower other flavors. It really should be just a hint of roses.  

Once you remove the cake from the molds, pour the warm glaze on top of the cakes. Let the cakes cool completely before serving.


p.s. This is the best part -- you might have some glaze remaining – keep it in the fridge. You can squeeze and extra lemon or two, add cold water or seltzer, throw in a strawberry and a mint leaf for extra style – and voila, you have a wonderful rosewater lemonade.


  1. Aleksandra, what an incredible honor, in my opinion you should have won, I love your blog, visuallys stunning, beautifully written and photographed and the recipes are more than amazing. Warmest congratulations, it's so well deserved and now I can say I know a James Beard nominee.

    1. Suzanne, thank you -- you have been always so supportive. But hey, maybe next time, and if not, at least I will have something to share with my grandchildren :)

  2. Congratulations on your nomination! I love the writing in this post, too. You are as great of a writer as those who won. :)

  3. I vote in favor of wearing the badge to the restaurant. And congratulations on the nomination!

    1. Thanks a bunch for the vote! I know I should do it. But I must admit it takes a little bit of courage to wear the badge around. I keep on putting it on and then taking it off. (Plus my hubby swore not to be around if I go around wearing the badge.)

  4. Sjajno i inspirativno kao i uvek!
    Nominacija zasluzena 100%. Iako jako volim Molly, mozda zbog toga sto smo ispod istog neba rasle pa bolje i dublje osecam tvoje pisanje, navijala sam da pobedis :)
    Steta za bedz, bas bi bilo super natrljati nos njime onom konobaru :)

    1. Cao Nevena! Hvala, hvala puno. Ko zna, mozda sledeci put :) Jos uvek imam bedz, ali nesto mi je ponestalo hrabrosti...


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