Happy 2016, everyone!
I have been baking away since the holidays and working on getting a little more creative with my cookie recipes. I’m finally getting to a place where I feel much more confident in my abilities as a baker, and that means there’s more room for adventure in what and how I bake.
I’ve also been thinking a bit about cooking in general. I don’t cook savory dishes as often as I used to, and I’m finding that I miss it a great deal more than I realized. I think I’m missing it because I miss being a more nurturing person. Food is a really authentic, heart-centered way to share your love and compassion with others. I certainly do that with my baking, but I just miss cooking. People always have to eat whole foods; they don’t necessarily always have to eat a cookie. (Though, I’m happy to argue the latter point ’til the cows come home.)
Thanks to a recommendation from a friend, I started watching episodes of “The Mind of a Chef” on Netflix. It’s a FANTASTIC show on PBS that follows the philosophies and work of some of the most inspiring and talented chefs in the country. And I am HOOKED. You are transported to a world where you can watch people cook, listen to their stories, delve into the whole world of farming, history, food science, and innovation. It’s utterly fascinating to me. It teaches you, once again AND if you’re listening, how interconnected we are in this world. Food, literally, is life. And for those of us who are passionate about it, food speaks stories, fuels bodies and minds, and serves as a medium for expression and revolution.
The third season (Episode 5 to be exact), takes you to Kentucky, where Chef Edward Lee lives and cooks. I was most struck by a conversation he had with another local chef, Chef Ouita Michel as they cooked together a dish with local ingredients. They discussed the idea that newer chefs that only have restaurant experience versus learning the tricks of the trade from home cooks and incorporating that into their culinary narrative are at a disadvantage. Chef Michel eloquently stated that, “Restaurants don’t define the food community in the United States.”
Now, I had been binge-watching this series all day while I baked for a client and those words made me stop what I was doing, sit down, and listen to the conversation with intent. Being the person I am, I struggle with the fact that I am not a professionally-trained maker of food and desserts. And while I honestly have no interest in being a world-renowned pastry chef, I feel like other people NEED me to be one in order for my work to have real merit. But, her words gave me freedom and reminded me that food is home and it doesn’t really matter where good food gets made.
One of the major threads I see woven into each one of these chef’s stories is how the food they grew up eating influences the food they cook today. I suppose it’s hard to separate the two. The food of your family is where you learned what you liked and what you didn’t like. If you were fortunate enough to come from a family where at least one of your parents, probably your mama, was cooking real food, you probably have a strong memory connection to the foods of your childhood. Use that. Don’t ever let those memories go. Use them to learn more about the food you grew up eating. Use it to comfort you in the moments when you need a hug from someone you love, but don’t, in that moment, have access to them for whatever reason. Food almost always tastes better when someone you love is cooking it for you, but there is immense comfort in being able to cook it for yourself, too.
I didn’t appreciate this enough when I was a kid, but I am SO unbelievably grateful that my mother (and father) inadvertently taught me the value of shopping for and making a meal. I get it now and it has fueled every aspect of this blog and my cooking/baking journeys.
So, I think I’m going to get back to trying out new savory recipes and documenting those experiences here. I have a few ideas in mind, but nothing concrete yet. I’ve just been studying and reading the topic of food for so long now that I want to get out of the theoretical and into the kitchen.
Hi Y’all! It’s been a year since I committed to the idea of Yalla Sweets and I wanted to share with you all the culmination of that work. Here’s the first ever Yalla Sweets menu (just in time for the holidays)! This menu is a testimony to this blog and the years I spent learning to cook and bake and reconnect with the memory of my mother and the food I grew up eating. It’s a combination of nostalgia and Middle Eastern-inspired treats that are MY nostalgia. It is my goal and hope that these sweets bring you and the people you share them with real joy.
Here’s a fun fact: I once paid over $10 for a teeny, tiny jar of lemon-infused sea salt flakes because I was hoping they’d inspire a new cookie recipe. That teeny, tiny jar of flavored salt has been sitting, unopened, in my pantry. I guess I’m still waiting for that bolt of inspiration.
What was the point of telling you that story? Well, you know how you walk into a specialty shop and see all sorts of interesting jars of artisan condiments or small batch bottles of jams or extracts? You’d be surprised to learn you can make a lot of those things at home.
I have been trying to find subtle ways to up my cookie-making game, and using good quality vanilla seems to be a great place to start. I figure, if adding a little extra pure vanilla extract to my baked goods can make such a huge difference in flavor, imagine what infusing sugar with vanilla would do!
Vanilla sugar looks and sounds fancy and complicated, but it’s really neither of those things. What it IS, is a great way to add subtle, sweet vanilla flavor into certain baked goods, your morning coffee, fruit, cinnamon sugar toast, homemade whipped cream, cocktails, and so much more! It’s a fun and easy way to get a lot of use out of a rather expensive little bean.
There are different types of vanilla bean/extracts. I happen to prefer the Madagascar Bourbon variety because the bean produces a sweeter, creamier flavor. Its vanilla flavor is straightforward and pure. It works great for baked goods that just need that little extra something to complement the other flavor notes in your recipe. If you’re looking to infuse your homemade vanilla sugar (or extract) with a more pungent, bold flavor you can opt for using Mexican or Tahitian vanilla.
Middle Eastern dessert recipes don’t typically utilize vanilla, but I’m all about changing that up and can’t wait to experiment with vanilla sugar.
How would you/do you use vanilla sugar in your cooking/baking? I’d love to read more about the unique ways you use this special condiment.
1 3/4 – 2 cups of granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean pod (I used a Madagascar Bourbon bean from Rodelle because they were on sale at my local grocery store. My preference is Nielsen–Massey.)
- Measure out 1 3/4 – 2 cups of granulated sugar. (This really depends on the size of the glass jar you are using. If you have a bigger jar and want to use more sugar, try to keep the ratio at 1 vanilla bean to every 2 cups of sugar.)
- Take a small paring knife and cut the vanilla bean lengthwise in half. Using the back of your knife, scrape out the seeds from the entire bean and place the seeds in the bowl with the sugar.
- Using a fork or a whisk, evenly distribute the vanilla bean seeds throughout the sugar. You’ll see lovely little specks of vanilla all throughout.
- Take the remaining vanilla bean pod and place it inside the jar.
- Using a funnel, pour the vanilla sugar inside the jar.
- Put the cap on tight and store the vanilla sugar in a cool, dark place for at least two weeks before using.
- Use and enjoy!
Note: Vanilla sugar (including the vanilla bean pod) has a pretty long shelf life. So, don’t worry about removing the pod after you’ve let the sugar and vanilla do their thing.
There’s no recipe sharing today, y’all. I wanted to take a few minutes to ramble away about this day and the woman that inspired this blog project and my future livelihood.
Today would have been my mama’s 61st birthday. My dad and I were reminiscing earlier today, and we both wondered aloud about what kind of woman my mother would have become had she been given the opportunity to beat cancer for good and live a more authentic life – one that wasn’t filled with fear and holding back.
She was an absolutely beautiful woman. I don’t say this because I have half her DNA and she gave me life; my mother was truly stunning. I’m not sure she realized her beauty, but her lack of awareness in that area didn’t change the fact that she was genuinely beautiful – both inside and out. She was incredibly hard on herself – a trait I picked up and haven’t quite been able to let go of just yet.
She was a good mother. And it has taken me a really long time to say that again. I spent a whole lotta years focused on the hurt and anger and frustration surrounding her illness and her death, and it took away from my ability to see my childhood in a more objective way. Though, I suppose childhood memories are one of those things that are meant to be a bit more subjective…
Anyway, a significant reason why I started this project all those years ago was to reconnect with the memories I had of my mama that were positive and nurturing and loving. Her cooking and baking have always provided comforting memories for me. I remember how hard she’d work to make us nourishing meals and I thought that if I taught myself how to cook her food, I’d be able to let go of the pain and the hurt and live my way into loving and appreciating her again.
Well, I’ve learned to make lots of yummy Palestinian food over the years, and I’m really in love with the fact that I am able to make the dishes I grew up eating. I still wish my mother was here to make them for me on occasion, but the next best thing is putting my love and soul into cooking and baking the food of my family, for my family.
It’s been 24 years since I lost my mother, and I am finally, FINALLY, in a place where my love for her outweighs my grief for her. Instead of focusing on the loss, I’m able to remember once again why I was so lucky to have her in my life for the brief 13 years that I did.
Her name was Nawal. She had a soul more vibrant than most people I know. She had one of those deep belly laughs – the kind that let you know she meant it when she laughed out loud. Her eyes sparkled with love, but, if you looked deeper, you could see there was a whole other person waiting inside of her to come out. She didn’t get the chance to reach her potential as a human being; as a woman; as a mother; a wife; a friend. I know, from the depths of my soul, my heart, that had she been able to live more freely, without the fear and anxiety of life, of family bullshit, of illness, she would have been unstoppable.
I understand now that I can’t live her unlived life. I can’t pick up where she left off or mend for her all the things she needed to sort out before she left this world. I tried, but it just isn’t my story to end.
My story is just beginning. At almost 38, I am finally beginning to understand what it means to live my best version of a life. It looks a lot like my kitchen does after I bake something – a complete and utter mess. (Have I mentioned I’m not exactly the tidiest of bakers?) But, that mess serves a valuable purpose. It’s one part of a whole. It’s the precursor to something sweet and satisfying that was made with my two hands and a little bit of my soul. It’s my way of reconnecting to my capability to love and nurture others. It’s one of those full circle kinda things, ya know?
So, with all these ramblings aside, I just really want to say: Happy Birthday, Mama. I love you.