So, it’s been about five-six years since I’ve posted to this blog. I’ve logged in a few times over the years in an attempt to say hello, but I just stared at a blank screen and eventually gave up.
While I haven’t cooked as much over the years, I have been baking. I love cookies and baking A LOT and I turned that love into a home-based baking business. It’s been five years (I can’t believe it!) since Yalla Sweets came to fruition. And while I haven’t been as active with YS (are we seeing a pattern here??) as of late, it is always on my heart – just like this blog has been.
I know this year has been a super weird cluster of experiences many of us haven’t faced before. At the beginning of it, I baked and cleaned a ton. I figured it would be a good way for me to reconnect with my cookies and my obsession with food. And, it was for awhile until it wasn’t.
After having a conversation with a friend recently, I was reminded of Zayt and Zaatar and how much I loved this project. When I started this blog, there were only a few cookbooks that focused on Palestinian food/food from the Levant region. I’m so thrilled and proud to say that over the last decade, we have seen a number of gorgeous Palestinian cookbooks published. I love seeing the stories, memories, and recipes from other Palestinian food lovers. I especially love that our food is preserved in writing for others to learn about and appreciate.
I share all of this to say, I’m back! Zayt and Zaatar started as a personal project that allowed me to reconnect with the memory of my mama through learning and cooking her recipes. It was a powerful moment in my life and I hope that the stories resonated with those who took the time to read. I hope the recipes were made and shared with those you love (and turned out okay!).
Moving forward, I’m just going to write. I’ll write about food. I’ll write about cookies. I’ll write about baking. I’ll share recipes when I feel excited to share. I’ll write about memories around food. I’m not going to hold myself to a theme. I just want to write.
I’m going to give myself the grace to ease back into this and if there is a recipe you’d like to see or a food/baking-related topic you’d like me to touch on – feel free to leave a comment and ask!
Many months ago, I used my mama’s recipe to make one of my favorite meals – kifta wa batata in tahini sauce. Kifta is a kabob/meatball-like dish that’s made with either ground lamb, ground beef or a combo of the two. It’s mixed with onions and parsley and baked with potatoes and sauce (either tomato or tahini) and served over rice. I’m sure there are hundreds of variations of this dish, but that’s how I grew up eating it and how I enjoy it most.
Well, over the last several weeks, I’ve been a little burnt out on cooking Arabic food. I was still cooking, but I opted to cook food I’d been craving instead. I needed a little culinary inspiration to get back into the kitchen and back to my mama’s recipes. I tried out a few salad ideas and discovered I need some serious help with dressings. I have an unhealthy addiction to vinegars – particularly the balsamic variety – so I tend to overdo it with the acid. I had no idea making salad dressing from scratch could be so difficult. Any pointers on a full-proof vinaigrette?
Thankfully, all of the impromptu cooking I did over the last few weeks was exactly what I needed to jump start my desire to get back to basics. One of the things I hoped to learn from this project is the confidence to take my mama’s recipes and add my own flavor to the classics. I am a timid chef and tend to try to follow the letter of the law when it comes to measurements and ingredients.
This time around, I decided to spice things up and give kifta and batata (potatoes) a makeover. I opted for grilled kifta vs. baked. I roasted up the potatoes separately and opted to make a cold couscous salad instead of plain white rice. I also made a refreshing cucumber-yogurt dipping sauce to accompany the kifta kabobs. I didn’t have recipes for anything but the kifta and just took a chance on creating dishes based on flavors I thought might work well together. Feel free to ignore the less-than-mouthwatering names I came up with for these side dishes. : )
couple of tablespoons of semneh (clarified butter)
cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, salt and pepper to taste
Coat the potatoes (leave skin on for texture) with the semneh and the spices to taste. I think I went with a tsp. of everything but the salt. I added a bit more salt. Spread out onto a cookie sheet and bake in the oven on 450 for roughly 20 minutes or until golden brown and cooked through.
Cold Couscous Salad
1 package of plain couscous cooked according to the directions given. I used chicken stock vs. water to give some extra flavor.
Let cool and add:
1 tomato, chopped
variety of olives, chopped (kalmata, green, etc.)
marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
couple handfuls of feta cheese
1 1/2 tbsp. olive oil
juice from half a lemon
tsp or so of fresh black pepper
Mix it all up and there you have it!
Cucumber-Yogurt Dipping Sauce
1 english cucumber, chopped
3 cups plain yogurt
half a lemon
tbsp. olive oil
7-10 fresh mint leaves, chiffonade
2 cloves of finely chopped garlic
salt and pepper to taste
Chop cucumber into small bites and mix into the yogurt. Add lemon juice, olive oil and pepper. Chop garlic and chiffonade fresh mint leaves and add to the mixture.
I tried to keep the flavors consistent to the ingredients you see throughout the meals I’ve cooked. I just tried to use them in different ways. It was fun being a culinary “rebel”!
Many months ago, I made my mama’s recipe for a dish called Mulukhiyah. Mulukhiyah is a leaf that has a really distinct flavor to it. It’s bitter, but not the familiar bitter of something like a mustard green. Additionally, cooked mulukhiyah leaves have the same kind of slimy consistency that cooked okra does, only about 100 times slimier. I have never been a fan of the leaves themselves, but have always enjoyed the broth that accompanies the dish. It’s a nice balance of pungent savory with the lamb (or beef, depending on which you prefer to cook with) stock to bursts of tart with the addition of lots of lemon. It’s the perfect soup to pour over a bowl of rice – assuming you’re able to render the soup down to a manageable consistency that is mostly devoid of the glue-like thickness made possible by the mulukhiyah leaves. My mama’s version of this dish was always pretty spot on. I, on the other hand, was not able to escape the goo, and so I opt to love a less adventurous version of leafy goodness over rice.
Sabanekh Bel Ruz (Spinach with Rice) isn’t a dish I recall my mother ever making. She very well might have, but if it was green and limp and served over rice, it was all the same recipe to me. This is actually a dish my tata used to make for my dad and one he still enjoys. I find it to be a much more palate-pleasing option to serve. Spinach has such a comforting sweetness to it. I absolutely adore the way the leaves embrace the spices that get added to a spinach dish. It’s like the leaves know exactly how to absorb the right amounts of flavor in order to enhance their natural yumminess.
Sabanekh Bel Ruz is a very straightforward recipe. There’s nothing fancy about this meal, making it the perfect contender for comfort food. The added bonus is how much better the dish tastes the next day and the day after that. And coming from a family that made enough food to feed a small country, that added bonus is a gem. Rarely did a meal get made in my house that wasn’t intended to feed us for multiple days, so it was vital that the dish only get better with age.
Here’s my mama’s recipe for Sabanekh Bel Ruz with some additional pointers from my pops:
1 lb. cubed beef steak (or lamb)
3 10 oz. packages of frozen, chopped spinach
1 medium onion
3 tbsp. olive oil or semneh
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
5 cups of water
Saute the onion in the oil or clarified butter until brown. Add the meat and brown for several minutes before adding water and spices. Boil until the meat is tender and then add the spinach. Add additional spices to taste and simmer for 25-35 minutes. Add the lemon juice near the end and cook for a couple of minutes longer. You want the meat super tender and the spinach to almost melt in your mouth. Serve over rice.
Although this project is meant to be dedicated in equal parts to cooking (and writing about said cooking) and the memories of my mother, I have found it much harder to write about her than I have about the recipes and the food. While I struggle, to an extent, with the fickle friend that is my kitchen, I have found it even more difficult to share my history, her history, with strangers. I’m not sure why that is, exactly. Though 19 years is a long time to be apart from someone, I quickly learned that the loss of a mother is one that defies all conventional sense of time. I don’t think there has ever been a time in my life, since her death, that I haven’t felt that loss. I sometimes feel silly for still being so emotionally raw about something that happened so long ago. I’ve decided that today, the day of what would have been her 56th birthday, I am going to give myself all the time in the world to miss her the way I need to miss her.
In recognizing my extended vacation with grief and mourning, I have come to realize that I have failed to also focus on the good times. Not too long ago, I was at a gathering and one of my friends, in the context of the event, asked me to recount some of the happiest moments from my childhood – and I couldn’t think of any. I just sat there trying to find something to share and all I could do was shrug my shoulders and try to change the subject. But, I know I have plenty of good memories from being a kid and I decided to share one of them with y’all today.
I seriously don’t know what it is with my family and baked goods but when I went rummaging around for old pictures to share, I found so many pictures of cake. There are pictures of random tables just covered in all sorts of cakes; birthday cakes; children with frosting on their faces; children gathered around cakes waiting for candles to be blown; smiling faces awkwardly facing a camera whilst also trying to cut a slice for posterity. The lesson you will most likely walk away with today is: we love cake!
My mother baked her share of sweets. And while Arabic sweets were high on her sweet-toothed agenda, she also loved baking cookies (especially of the M&M variety) and bundt cakes. Her absolute favorite cake was carrot cake and so I decided to make her recipe for a bundt version of that cake to celebrate her birthday. I think my mama would have totally appreciated this gesture.
I remember one Christmas (well I remember it because we have documented footage of the event) she baked a birthday cake for Jesus. I want to say it was in the shape of a Christmas tree, but I’ll have to get back to you on that. We have video of my family standing around our kitchen table – a table that was covered in, you guessed it, cake, and singing happy birthday to Jesus. I’m pretty sure that is the first and only time that ever happened. It still amuses me to no end.
So, I’m sharing her recipe with y’all and hope that you’ll make it for someone you love someday – even if that someone is only with us in spirit.
Carrot Cake of the Bundt Variety
1 1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 1/2 cups sugar
4 egg yolks unbeaten
1/4 cup hot water
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour – sifted
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground clove
2 1/2 cups freshly grated raw carrot (about 3 large carrots)
1 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
4 egg whites
1 cup powdered sugar
tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Mix oil and sugar together and beat in one egg yolk at a time. Add the hot water. ( Although not in the recipe, I added about a tsp. of pure vanilla extract to the oil/sugar/egg batter for extra flavor)
In another bowl, add all the dry ingredients into the sifted flour.
Slowly add the flour to the wet ingredients and whisk until smooth. Slowly add the carrots, nuts and egg whites to the mixture until complete.
Grease a bundt pan with oil, non-stick spray or butter and pour the mixture into the pan. Preheat the even to 350 and bake for 60-70 minutes depending on your oven.
The glaze can really be anything you want. You can opt to use a more authentic cream cheese frosting, but my mom went with a simple glaze that I ended up sprucing up a bit. If you go the simple route, just add a little lemon juice and a splash of water to a cup or so of powdered (confectioner’s) sugar and drizzle over the cake when it’s finished baking.I did that but also added a little vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg for an extra kick and to tone down the lemon a bit.
It’s a simpler, but still yummy, way to enjoy a classic cake recipe. Plus, I like saying the word bundt.
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.
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.
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.
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!