There were seemingly endless choices for lunch when I worked in Center City Philadelphia, but my long-standing favorite of nearly two decades was heading to the now-shuttered Mama’s Vegetarian for a falafel platter.
I’ve had many, many falafel balls from dozens of other places since then, but nothing has ever been quite the same for me. To me, Mama’s was how all falafels were meant to taste.
As I have grown in my culinary powers over the course of the pandemic, I have conquered several dishes previously far out of my grasp to prepare.
That lead me to ask: Could I create a falafel just as good at home?
At first, it seemed like the major challenge would not be perfecting flavor, but the actual cooking.
You see, I have a confession to make: I hate frying. It’s not a health concern so much as I don’t even like most fried foods (at my advanced age). As a result, I have developed neither the technique nor the patience for the mess of popping and splattering that comes with frying.
Luckily, here in New Zealand nearly every oven comes equipped with a “fan bake” mode, which effectively makes them just-slightly-larger air fryers. (Ovens here are tiny compared to US ovens.) If you brush something with some oil it usually crisps up quite nicely, so I have been fearless in converting fried things to fan-baked things.
Except… falafel is different, as I learned in my first attempt. Their uncooked texture could be described as “several hundred grains of sand who claim to have never met before.” To me, they seemed highly reliant on hitting some hot oil to give them a crispy exterior shell to hold them together.
That meant I not only had to screen recipes for flavor, but also adjust them for baking consistency. I tried a recipe from my typical healthy go-to Cookie & Kate, but it was too bland (rare for her!). Downshiftology’s recipe got me closer, but they were coming out too crunchy. The Guardian’s version tasted right, but the consistency wasn’t solid enough for baking.
After several rounds of test-kitchen-ing from their trio of recipes, I’ve landed on crispy baked falafel that – to me – tastes just like Mama’s without any of the fuss of frying.
Does that make my baked falafel authentic? Er… look, my approach to non-Italian cooking is the same to my approach to Italian cooking, which is: you can’t really make it offensive unless it tastes bad or you use the wrong kind of cheese.
More specifically: First, we don’t like cilantro in this house, so that’s a big departure from nearly every recipe. Second, falafel recipes all subtly disagree on the spices to include, with some recommending lemon zest while others use dill and cayenne pepper and some insist on cardamom. Finally, some of my adjustments I made were for baking stability versus frying.
All I can promise is that they authentically taste like my memory of Mama’s.
Krisis’s Mama’s Crispy Baked Falafel
First, food process the following to a fine, sandy texture:
- 1 cup dried chickpeas (pre-soaked in room temp water for 4-8hrs)
- ½ to ⅔ cup white onion (about 1 small onion), roughly chopped
- 1 cup fresh parsley (or 4 tablespoons dried parsley)
- 1.5 tablespoons pickled jalapenos (or, 1 small green chile pepper)
- 1.5 tablespoons diced garlic (go lower if you aren’t a big garlic fan)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 teaspoon brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon ground coriander
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ tsp black pepper
I found the mix wasn’t wet enough without the bit of olive oil and I found no difference in adding or removing the cardamom. The taste wasn’t quite right for me until I added the brown sugar, which replaces some of the sweetness lost from not frying.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Then add:
- 2 (or more) tablespoons sorghum flour
- 1 tablespoon tapioca flour
- 1 tablespoon brown rice flour
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
If you don’t have those flours, substitution options include chickpea and oat.
Pour a generous puddle of olive oil onto your baking sheet. Gently form golf-ball sized scoops in one hand, pressing gently to pack them but not trying to force them into a solid patty. Place on the baking sheet with space equal to the size of one between each.
They should generally hold together, but will crumble if prodded. If the balls are taking too much pressure to form, continue adding sorghum flour by the tablespoon until they hold together with just one press.
Fan Bake at 375F / 190C for 14 minutes and then carefully flip. Bake an additional 8 minutes, and then a final 4 minutes with “Fan Grill” or “Broil” if you have that available.
Ta-da! You have 3-6 modest servings, or about 20 falafels.