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Culture Club : Cooking Your Curds and Whey

April 29, 1993

It was almost dawn, and Susan Feniger had just landed at Poona on her way to the town of Ahmednagar in western India. Hungry, she investigated the street stalls that were already setting up for the day's business. From one of these she bought a small grilled pancake that had a pleasant, tangy taste. This was the inspiration for the Poona Pancakes that Feniger and partner Mary Sue Milliken serve at City restaurant. The batter, made with ground Indian lentils and basmati rice, is prepared in advance and allowed to ferment. Yogurt made at the restaurant goes into the batter and also garnishes the pancake. The recipe was adapted from their cookbook, "City Cuisine" (William Morrow: $19.95).

POONA PANCAKES (City restaurant) 1 cup basmati rice 1 cup peeled urad dal (Indian black lentils) 3 cups water 5 tablespoons plain yogurt 1 1/2 teaspoons salt 2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and finely diced 2 serrano chiles, seeded and finely diced 1 small red onion, finely diced 1/2 bunch cilantro, stems trimmed, roughly chopped 1/3 cup oil Homemade Yogurt Chopped tomatoes Chopped cilantro

Sort rice and lentils to remove pebbles or dirt. Grind sorted rice and lentils in food processor or blender until mixture resembles coarse flour, about 5 minutes.

Mix ground mixture in bowl with water, 5 tablespoons plain yogurt and salt. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside in warm place at least 12 hours or as long as 24 hours. When ready, batter should be smooth and foamy, slightly thinner than pancake batter.

Just before cooking, add diced tomatoes, serrano chiles, red onion and chopped cilantro. Stir to combine.

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in small, well-seasoned iron skillet over high heat until very hot. Pour in 1/3 cup batter, reduce heat to low and spread batter evenly with ladle or spatula. Fry until pancake is well browned on bottom, 2 to 3 minutes, then turn and fry other side until browned. Repeat procedure, heating additional tablespoon oil each time, until all batter is fried.

Stack pancakes between layers of foil in roasting pan and keep warm in 200-degree oven. To serve, arrange 2 pancakes on each plate and garnish with Homemade Yogurt, chopped tomatoes and chopped cilantro. For smaller servings, slice each pancake into quarters and serve with garnishes for dipping. Makes 8 servings or 64 appetizers.

Each serving, without garnishes, contains about: 34 calories; 58 mg sodium; 0 cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.22 gram fiber.

Homemade Yogurt 1 quart milk 1 cup half and half 1 tablespoon plain yogurt

Combine milk and half and half in medium saucepan. Bring to boil over low heat. Remove from heat and transfer to clean bowl. Set aside to cool to 115 degrees. Add yogurt and whisk vigorously.

Cover bowl with plastic wrap, then wrap well with heavy towels or heavy blanket. Set aside in warm place 6 to 8 hours, or longer for more acidic flavor. Store in sealed containers in refrigerator. Makes 5 cups.

"In Greece, we live on yogurt," says Sofi Konstantinidis, who grew up in an agricultural region in the north of the country. Konstantinidis uses yogurt at her restaurant, Sofi Estiatorion, as a meat marinade and in soups, salads, and desserts such as this syrup-soaked cake. It's an excellent ending for a large dinner party and delicious alone with coffee.

SOFI'S YAOURTOPITA (Yogurt Cake) 1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature 1 cup sugar 4 eggs, separated 2 tablespoons vanilla Flour 4 teaspoons baking powder 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 1 1/2 cups plain yogurt 1/2 cup blanched almonds, chopped Dash salt 1/4 cup whole blanched almonds Butter Cinnamon Syrup or Powdered Sugar

Beat butter and sugar in large bowl of mixer until light and creamy. Add egg yolks 1 at time and beat in. Add vanilla.

Combine 4 cups flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add flour mixture and yogurt slowly to butter mixture while stirring, not beating. Add chopped almonds.

Beat egg whites in separate bowl with salt until thick meringue forms. Fold into batter. Butter 13x9-inch baking pan. Dust with flour. Turn batter into pan. Bake at 350 degrees 45 minutes, or until top is golden brown. Serve at room temperature. Just before serving, spoon Cinnamon Syrup over entire cake until absorbed. Or omit syrup and sprinkle with powder sugar. Makes 16 servings.

Each serving, with Cinnamon Syrup, contains about: 371 calories; 155 mg sodium; 84 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 50 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 0.23 gram fiber.

Cinnamon Syrup 2 cups sugar 3 cups water 2 slices lemon 1 stick cinnamon

Combine sugar, water, lemon slices and cinnamon. Boil to make thin syrup. Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

The Epicentre Restaurant in the Kawada Hotel in downtown Los Angeles serves a good-looking, great-tasting chicken salad. Executive chef Mike Olmeda flavors the Yogurt-Curry Dressing with Patak's curry paste, manufactured in Great Britain, and Madras curry powder. A variety of greens and vegetables, and papaya spears and coconut make the salad interesting.

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