Holiday Menu!

The holidays are here! And you know what that means, right?

Cookies!!

I’ve put together a Holiday Menu that offers a ton of gift-giving ideas! Options include a variety of cookie tins, decorative jars of spiced walnuts, and gift certificates.

There are also plenty of catering options  for your upcoming holiday gatherings, office holiday parties, dinner parties, school functions, etc.

If you’re looking for thoughtful + yummy gifts, cookies made with lots of love are definitely the way to go!

HolidayMenuYA2015

 

The Menu

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. YS-Menus_WEB

Sesame Candy (Recipe Included)

It’s my belief that almost everybody has one or two (or ten, if I’m being really honest here!) types of candy that evoke some major memories from childhood. It’s not necessarily the candy you loved eating the most, but the candy that you associated with the people you loved the most.

For instance, one of my favorite uncles, one of my father’s brothers, always had these super minty blue candies in his candy dish. A quick search leads me to believe that those little candies were the Brach’s Ice Blue Mint Coolers, and I LOVED them. I’m not sure I loved them because they reminded me of my uncle or because peppermint has always been one of my favorite flavors. Heck, for all I know, it’s those candies that helped developed my flavor palate. One thing is for certain though, whenever I see these candies somewhere I am instantly transported back into his quirky little home amongst my loving family.

My grandmother used to keep these gorgeous individually wrapped chocolates inside a wooden candy bowl that was hidden inside one of her crowded cupboards. She’d bring them out on two occasions: to surprise me or whenever I asked for one (which was often). I have been searching for these chocolates for years, and I still have no idea where she got them. They were wrapped in blue and purple and red and orange crinkly metallic wrappers (if memory still serves me correctly) and the chocolate inside was subtle and never too sweet. They weren’t like the Hershey’s bars I grew up eating. They were made with what seemed like less sugar and tasted slightly sweet but mostly bitter from the subtle cocoa flavor. Some were shaped like triangles, others like rectangles with chopped nuts inside. The texture was almost crumbly, but that could’ve been from how long they were sitting around. I’m not gonna lie, I kind of love old chocolate that has gotten a little powdery over time. And I’m sure those chocolates are the exact reason why I love a slightly strange variation on chocolate.

Now, my mother always had sesame candy in our home. If I think about it, a lot of my family members had sesame candy on hand. It is a pretty neutral candy. It’s not the almighty chocolate, but, let’s face it, it’s not a peppermint candy either. Let’s say it falls somewhere in the middle of our candy spectrum. I’ve always loved the way it tastes, but it was never my go-to candy (please note that this fact has, literally, never stopped me from eating it when I see it around). My mama used to buy a big bag of individually wrapped rectangular pieces of sesame candy, which can prove dangerous. If they’re just sitting in a bowl nearby, it’s super easy to just keep unwrapping piece after piece and mindlessly popping them into your mouth like pistachios. They hold for me great memories of my past, and even my recent past. And the thing I appreciate most about sesame candy, the thing that is the most comforting to me, is that it’s always around. When I see it in someone’s home or at the grocery store or a specialty store, it reminds of a simpler time. It reminds me of summers with my family. Of laughter, Of hugs. Of what childhood might have been like for my parents growing up in Ramallah. And for those reasons, I wanted to try to hand make my own candies to share with others.

For a candy with only a few ingredients, sesame candy has a really rich, complex flavor. Toasted sesame seeds have a deep, nutty flavor that is a genuinely pleasant. You can make these candies with honey vs. sugar, and I recommend it highly. I chose to stick with sugar and water for this recipe because my attempt at using honey was a bust (THIS TIME!). I’ll revisit the recipe with honey at a later time and will share if all goes well.

This recipe is adapted from the Sahtein cookbook and worked remarkably well. My only hangup was in cutting the pieces without a) repeatedly burning myself b) making them into pleasant-looking shapes. I’ll get that down the next time around, but, rest assured, they taste great! A thermometer is required for this recipe, preferably a candy thermometer or at least a digital one. Have fun making them and please tag #yallasweets on Instagram if you give the recipe a try!

Sesame Candy

Sesame Candy

Ingredients

2 cups pure cane sugar

1 cup water

2 1/2 cups sesame seeds

1 1/2 tsp. vanilla

1 1/2 – 2 tbsp. lemon juice

Directions

Toast the sesame seeds via one of two methods:

1. You can pour the sesame seeds on to a small, ungreased baking sheet and place them in the center rack of your oven to toast for 8-10 minutes at 350°F. Check on them often to avoid burning. Every oven is different, so be mindful of the time. 

OR

2. Place the sesame seeds in a large pan and toast on the stove over a medium heat, stirring occasionally to make sure the seeds toast evenly. Do this for 3-5 minutes, and, again, be mindful of the time to avoid burning.

You want your seeds to turn a light brown color.

Once that’s done, set the sesame seeds aside.

Combine the water and sugar together and bring to a boil. Once it’s reached boiling point, add in your lemon juice.

Continue to cook, stirring the mixture consistently, until the syrup reaches a “hard crack stage” which means your syrup needs to reach 300° F. (Use your thermometer for this and be careful! This syrup is HOT!) If access to a thermometer isn’t possible, another way to test the syrup’s readiness is to place a drop of syrup into a clear cup of iced water. If the syrup drop hardens immediately inside the iced water, it’s ready.

Using a towel, remove the syrup off the heat.

Stir in your sesame seeds (do this quickly, but do it in 1/2 cup intervals) and after you’ve added about half your sesame seeds, add in the vanilla.

Pour the mixture on to a greased baking sheet (use a neutral oil like vegetable) to about 1/4 inch thickness. My strong suggestion is to place a towel under the baking sheet and use a greased spatula to spread and oven mitts/gloves to cut the mixture. You need to work while the mixture is still relatively hot, so be careful and work fast. You can use a sharp knife or a pizza cutter to cut the candy into squares, rectangles, diamonds, etc.

Remove the pieces from the baking sheet before they harden completely and place them onto a large plate or non-stick surface to let them cool. Don’t use parchment or wax paper!! Once completely cooled, you can store the candy in Tupperware or even a Ziploc bag. The candy will keep for quite awhile as long as it’s kept in a cool place (you can even freeze them!).

Note: If the mixture hardens while you’re still working, you can place the baking sheet into a slightly warm oven (around 175-185°F) for just a minute or two. This helps melt the mixture enough to continue cutting without too much added heat.

Sahtein!

Pistachio Macaroons (Recipe Included)

If you haven’t guessed by now, I REALLY adore the pistachio nut. It was one of my mama’s favorite flavors, so it was a major component in the cuisine I grew up eating. Thankfully, unlike many other foods that did not make the cut, pistachios scored big with my taste buds.

During one of my recent baking adventures, I decided to search around for cookie recipes that included pistachios. I happened upon one that was labeled as a Flourless Pistachio Cookie, but looked suspiciously like a variation on a traditional coconut macaroon to me. A happy discovery it was! Coconut and pistachios were a staple of my childhood and macaroons are one of my favorite treats.

I had never thought to make macaroons before this recipe came into my life. I know, like with everything else baking-related, there are hundreds of variations on this very simple concept; and we all know I like to keep things sweet (very!) and simple. The thing I like most about this particular recipe is that it allows the rich flavors of both the pistachio and the coconut to take center stage. There are only four ingredients in these little guys, and the other two make way for the bold flavors and textures of the star players.

The original recipe didn’t do much in the way of specifying the type of coconut or pistachios to use, so that’s where my preferences come into play. I opted to use roasted and salted pistachios because they have a greater depth of flavor. The salt gives a nice balance to the sweetness from the coconut and the powdered sugar. I probably would have added an extra tablespoon or so of egg white, but as is, this recipe is pretty solid. I also used a combo of dessicated (medium grate, unsweetened) coconut and shredded, sweetened coconut to help with texture and the level of sweetness. You can use whichever you desire, but I like things a bit on the sweeter side.

I’ve linked the original recipe above, and would be curious to hear feedback if you give them a try!

Pistachio MacaroonsPistachio Macaroons

* 1 cup of finely grated pistachio, aka pistachio powder. (I used salted, roasted pistachio nuts.)

* 3/4 cup powdered sugar (Plus about a tablespoon+ for making the pistachio powder)

* 1/2 cup dessicated coconut

* 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut

* 1 egg white from a large egg, room temperature

Directions

Note: I haven’t been able to find finely grated pistachio in any of the supermarkets in my area, so I make my own. Simply take about a cup of shelled pistachios and place them in a food processor. Add about a tablespoon of powdered sugar to help prevent the pistachios from forming a paste. Pulse away until you achieve the desired consistency. This takes a minute or two. You want a fine powder, though it really is up to you how fine you want to grate them. I like a little crunch so I pulse to an ALMOST fine consistency.  Set aside. (This can be done in advance and kept in an airtight container in the freezer for months. Just use when needed!)

1. In a medium metal mixing bowl, pour in your coconut and pistachio powder and mix together by hand until well combined. Add the powdered sugar and combine well. Lastly, add the large egg white (whisk the egg white slightly in a cup or small bowl before adding) and mix gently by hand until the egg white is fully incorporated and sufficiently sticky. It might not seem like the egg white is enough, but somehow it manages to bind just right. If it doesn’t,  just add small amounts of slightly whisked egg white until everything comes together.  To test, you should be able to break off about a 1/2 tablespoon to tablespoon piece and roll into a cohesive ball. If that happens, you’re good to go.

2. Place mixture in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least two (2) hours.

3. Preheat your oven to 340F. I use a convection oven, so I baked them at 320F.

4. Using a large baking pan, place parchment paper down. (Don’t skip this step!)

5. Using your (clean) hands, take about 1/2 tablespoon to a full tablespoon (I wouldn’t go much larger than this) and roll them into balls. Place on baking sheet. You don’t have to worry about placing them too far apart as they don’t (shouldn’t) spread.

6. Place in the oven and bake for 7-9 minutes depending on your oven. Mine took 8-9 minutes. I like mine a little more baked, but watch for slight browning on top to know they’re good to go.

7. Take out of the oven, and let sit for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Wait until they have fully cooled before eating (they taste better this way, in my opinion).

Note: This makes roughly 15-16 macaroons, depending on how big/small you roll them out. As with most baked goods, store in an airtight container and enjoy for up to a week or so!

Sahtein!

Follow me on Instagram to get updates on what I’m baking next!

 

Apricot “Truffles” (Recipe Included)

Growing up, my family and I used to snack on a large, sticky sheet of something called Dried Apricot Paste (see photo below). We used to purchase it from a place named Droubi’s (a local Middle Eastern grocery store of sorts) and it has always been one of my favorite snacks. It’s essentially fruit leather, but much more substantial than those little strips you get for fifty cents from your local Whole Foods. This stuff is thick and chewy, tart and sweet, and just so addictive.

apricotThe other day, when I was chomping on square after square of this delightful paste, I started getting some ideas. Well, mostly I got the idea to look for recipes using apricots and pistachios. What did I find? About a bajillion recipes for something called an Apricot “Truffle.” I was intrigued, so I did some research and found that no two recipes for this concept were the same. Some used (a lot) of condensed milk, some used lemon, some used honey, some used different kinds of dried apricots and opted for pecans vs. pistachios. Some called for sweet vs. unsweetened coconut, while other just threw a bunch of stuff into a food processor and called it a day.

Now, I tend to get VERY overwhelmed when faced with too many options. If I can’t find one specific recipe that speaks to my sweet tooth, I find it’s best just to create my own based on the best bits and pieces I’ve found from ALL the recipes and make adjustments as I go along.

So, that is exactly what I’ve done with Apricot “Truffles.” These guys are essentially lovely little balls of apricot paste flavored with anything from lemon juice to sugar to nuts and brown sugar. I wanted my truffles to be healthier, so I kept things simple. I really like the final product this recipe yielded, but I still plan on making other variations and will be sure to post standout combinations here or on Instagram in the future! Please post a comment below or tag me on Instagram if you make them!

IMG_9900

Apricot “Truffles”

1 1/2 cups dried apricots, chopped

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Zest of one small lemon

1 tablespoon honey (I used a local clover honey. This gave the truffles a significant undertone of sweet and floral flavors)

1/2 cup dessicated coconut (in other words, medium, finely shredded unsweetened coconut) – for rolling

2-3 Tablespoons finely chopped pistachios (we’re talking powder consistency almost) – for rolling

15-17 mini cupcake liners/cups/etc.

Directions

Chop up the dried apricots and put them into a food processor. Pulse until the apricots forms a thick, sticky paste.

Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and honey and pulse until combined.

Using your hands, take about a tablespoon-sized amount of the paste and roll into a ball. You can make these whatever size you want – bigger or smaller. It’s up to you!

Take the balls and roll them in either the coconut or the pistachio (or both if you’re feeling adventurous) and put them in your mini cupcake liners.

Place them in an airtight container and put them in the fridge for about an hour before serving. You can keep these at room temp, but I find they taste better cold.

Sahtein!

(*Note – This recipe yields a very tart “truffle”. If you want yours sweeter, I’d opt to cut about a 1/2 tablespoon of the lemon juice. You can replace it with a little more honey if so desired. You can also roll these guys in any nut or topping you choose. I think they’d be good with cashews, pecans, or macadamia nuts!)

The Process of Trying Something New

So, one of the reasons why I love baking so much is that there is so much opportunity to create amazing flavors. I hear so often from people that they love to cook but can’t get down with baking because there is less room for error. If there is anything I’ve learned from these last many, many months, it’s that baking has PLENTY of room for error, and it is in the grey area that you discover some pretty tasty flavor combinations.

Once I finally felt comfortable enough with the traditional versions of some of the sweets I was learning, I decided to start dreaming up other flavor ideas to try out. I tried dipping my ghraybeh cookies in dark chocolate and sprinkling chopped pistachios on top. I’ve added chopped up cinnamon sugar candied pecans to my ghraybeh batter in the past and I highly recommend doing that with pretty much any cookie you make.

At the moment, I’m working on trying to merge traditional Middle Eastern flavors with flavors and textures I enjoy in other types of sweets. If you haven’t guessed by now, I have a massive sweet tooth. I LOVE sugar, but as I get older, I’m not able to eat it all the time the way I wish I could. What that means for me, and ultimately you guys, is that I have to work extra hard to create desserts that are worthy of the extra sugar intake. Palestinian desserts weren’t my favorite thing ever growing up because I wanted chocolate and hydrogenated oils in my sweets. Nuts and syrups and pastries and doughs were just not on my radar when I was a kiddo. Don’t get me wrong; I ate them anyway. And I ate them often. I just dreamt about eating an Oreo while I shoved a dozen pieces of Burma in my face hole.

IMG_9788
Coconut + Katayef-inspired baby Namoura cakes

These days, Namoura is proving to be my favorite thing ever. Even more than cookies and cake. And that’s saying something. Since the batter for namoura is pretty bland pre-baking and syrup pouring, there is a lot of room to work with new flavors. This past week, I experimented by adding shredded, unsweetened coconut to part of the batter. With the other half, I decided to make a batch of cinnamon-sugar walnuts (the same you find in desserts such as katayef, baklava, and kaak) and throw them on top of the namoura before baking. Both tasted great, but need tweaking in terms of texture and amount. I’m very excited to try the other ideas I have floating around in my head. I just need more taste testers!

I also tried out a recipe I found that married pistachios and chocolate together in cookie form. I threw in some brewed coffee and cardomom to up the flavor factor. Not a bad pairing of flavors, but the cookies themselves were just a bit too flat and heavy for me liking. I enjoyed the flavors though, so I just need to find a better medium to bring them together.

Dark Chocolate & Pistachio Brown Butter Coffee Cardamom Cookies
Dark Chocolate & Pistachio Brown Butter Coffee Cardamom Cookies

Overall, I’m having a lot of fun working with different flavors. I got a small bottle of lemon-infused sea salt flakes and can’t wait to find a reason to use them. If you know anyone in the Houston area who is willing to taste test in exchange for feedback, send ’em my way!

Recipe of the Week: Harisseh

Sugar:  the lovely white crystals of sucrose that I crave almost obsessively.  See, some people are addicted to the hard stuff like booze or pills or reruns of The Golden Girls. Me? I’m addicted to sweet things and savory things. Things that require lots of butter and milk fats and mmmmm…sugar.  Things that will inevitably make my butt bigger and my cholesterol levels soar.  I am an eater. And when I was a kid, despite the fact that I ate pretty much anything I could to keep my roly-poly prepubescent figure intact, my major weakness was, and still is, sweets. (I’m eating a box of Reese’s Pieces as I type this. No lie.)

My mama, and the rest of my family for that matter, definitely played her part in enabling my addiction. My mother had a pretty sizable sweet tooth as well and our house was always full of cookies, bundt cakes or some sort of 70s-inspired JELL-O/Cool Whip concoction. Not to mention the hoards of Arabic desserts that lived in our spare freezer waiting to be consumed when nothing else was readily available.

Oh, yea.

My mom would keep tupperwares full of baklava or mamoul– the kind with dates or  cinnamon-sugary walnuts. If she ever made katayef (a sort of pancake filled with the aforementioned cinnamon-sugary walnuts that was shaped into a half-moon, baked and doused in simple syrup), she’d make enough to freeze for later enjoyment.  The funny thing is – I never really loved Arabic desserts when I was younger. I had a couple that I couldn’t live without, specifically ghraybeh, but mostly I thought they were all kind of boring because none of it was covered in chocolate, stuffed with cream or oozing hydrogenated oils.

And though I still love sweets dunked in chocolate and injected with sugary lard, I’m learning to expand my palette in order to embrace desserts like the one I made this week. Desserts that are simple and straightforward and made with ingredients you can pronounce – mostly. Harisseh is basically a semolina cake – a little dense and perfectly sweet when you add simple syrup.

Harisseh

3 cups smeed (semolina flour)

1 1/3 cup whole milk (warmed)

1 cup sugar

1 cup semnah (clarified butter) (warmed)

2 1/2 tsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. baking soda

tbsp. of tahini

handful of slivered, blanched almonds or pine nuts

Mix the sugar, warmed semneh, baking powder and baking soda together until smooth. Slowly add the smeed and warmed milk to the mixture until evenly mixed. I use my hands for mixing because you get a better sense of how much it needs to be worked.

Line the bottom of a cake pan (a little bigger than 9 x 13. Make sure it’s not too deep or too shallow) with the tahini and pour in the mixture. Top with slivers of blanched almonds (or pine nuts) in such a way that each square gets one almond and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until golden brown on top.

Attir

3 cups sugar

3 cups water

tbsp. lemon juice

Pour sugar and water into a sauce pan and bring to a boil. Once the mixture comes to a boil, add the lemon juice and let it reduce for another 7-10 minutes. Take off the fire and let cool while harisseh is baking. Once it’s finished baking, let the harisseh  cool for a bit, cut into squares and pour the warm attir over the cake.  Let it soak  in all the syrupy goodness for a bit and enjoy!

Mother’s Day: The Outcome

Mama & Me - c. A Long Time Ago

This past Sunday was Mother’s Day (Yes, I know you all knew that. I just like stating the obvious. It’s fun.) and I had a heck of a time trying to come up with a recipe to make to commemorate a day that celebrates the inspiration for this blog – my mama.

I know I was stressing myself out, and subsequently my family, trying to come up with an idea. If I am being really honest with myself here, I guess I was so stressed because I hoped cooking the just-right dish would bring me some sort of clarity.  I hoped that all those things that are supposed to align would and I’d get a chance to feel her presence in my life again. Silly, I know.

Aside from my family, not many people knew my mother. I’m not sure I’d call her shy, but she definitely was wary of strangers, I guess.  She had an enormous smile and a laugh ten times bigger than that smile. You couldn’t ignore her presence and she wasn’t even trying to be noticed. She had an annoying habit of bursting  into song whenever a word or a phrase or a moment reminded her of a tune. I inherited this habit, but I keep the song-bursting on the inside. You’re welcome.

She laughed as much as she yelled. She hugged as much as she pinched. She loved as much as she fought. And, she cooked the kind of food that kept me pudgy, but satisfied throughout most of my childhood.

So, maybe now you can see why it was so imperative to me to cook something that spoke to the soul of who she was as my mama and as the individual who nurtured me through food. Hey, we’re Arabs. Food was at the heart of well, our hearts. When I finally settled on making Kousa Mahshi, I had to mentally prepare myself for how long this dish would take to cook. I failed to take into consideration how hard it would be to find the staple ingredient – yellow squash.

I learned a valuable lesson on Saturday. I spent the morning getting a lovely sunburn at the Art Car Parade, and the afternoon scouring the city for squash. I went from one side of town to another and eight grocery stores later, I arrived home empty-handed. I learned how much I take for granted that things will just be there waiting to be purchased when I want or need something. I never took into account which foods are in season. I didn’t take into consideration the myriad of reasons why squash or tomatoes or meat might be in short supply. The experience was humbling. It made me wish I knew how to garden. It made me ashamed to realize that I don’t pay enough attention to where my food comes from and what I eat.  My mama put a lot of effort into making sure the quality of the food we ate was the best she could find, and doing so takes a great deal of time and patience.

Making mahshi turned out to be  a rather relaxing experience overall. (Yes, Dad. I know you would beg to differ.) Once Once I stopped spazzing, I found the carving of the squash and the tediousness of cutting the lamb into tiny little pieces to be kind of calming. It was the first time in ages that I was able to focus solely on the task at hand and tune out my normal, obtrusive inner dialogue.  Mahshi entails carving and cutting and stuffing and boiling and waiting and it’s all worth it. It took us four hours worth of prep work and cooking to get from Point A to Point B and I loved it.

I felt like I accomplished something real and tangible. I completed a task that resulted in something that could be consumed and enjoyed and discussed. I created something that can be recreated at another time, only better and with less anxiety and more precision.  Let’s hope so, at least!