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!
I know it’s been quite awhile since I’ve posted much of anything around here. I’ ve still been cooking (I recently made my own homemade labneh for the first time and it was rather yum), I just haven’t been doing much of the writing. Hoping that changes soon but in the meantime, here’s a little story I wrote for submission to a writing contest called Writer’s Week that I thought y’all might enjoy!
Macaroni and cheese doesn’t taste the way it used to taste. Well, to clarify, Kraft Macaroni & Cheese doesn’t taste the way it used to taste. See, when I was young, my mother would make my brother and me macaroni and cheese as a treat; a break from all the Arabic food she cooked that we resisted with little kid vigor. A 10-year-old can only stomach so much of the lamb-with-rice-in-various-but-unappetizing-to-a-child–combinations before said kid revolts and demands a hamburger.
My brother and I were chubbier than most of our elementary school pals. The fact remained that sugar clung to our rotund frames with the same level of enthusiasm that we had for eating pretty much anything within reach that we deemed “yummy”. Our mother didn’t listen to our culinary demands often but when she did, our favorite surrender were the times she agreed to make macaroni and cheese.
There was something so comforting about watching her gently rip open the top of that familiar blue box. The uncooked macaroni rattling around inside its cardboard walls making that click-clacking sound uncooked pasta makes when the pieces collide. The way she pulled out that small white packet of powdered “cheese” and placed it on the side of the stove always sparked a serious dance party in my belly. That crinkly envelope filled with Tang-colored powder meant deliciousness was imminent.
I’d run to the refrigerator and grab the other ingredients she needed. I always hoped my contributions would help speed things along, but my mother didn’t like us to hover in the kitchen while she cooked. I think maybe it made her self-conscious. Or maybe it was just really annoying to have two noisy kiddos foaming at the mouth for a snack.
After what felt like for-ev-er, the noodles would finally be done and we’d watch, bug-eyed, as she drained the pasta; the plump elbows swooshing out towards the safety of our worn-out colander. There was always a singular whoosh of steam that wafted upwards as the last piece escaped unharmed. She would give the sieve a few shake shakes to ensure maximum drainage and then back into the waiting pot they went!
My mother never followed the instructions on the side of that empty Kraft box. She just knew the exact right combination of powdery cheese to milk to butter. She’d stir the contents of our comfort with an aged wooden spoon until all the ingredients mixed together creating this glorious melody. There was the whip of the wooden spoon against the side of the pot followed immediately by a noise that most closely resembled the repetitive smacking of one’s lips after devouring something delightful. It was these sounds that most often triggered toothy grins and drooling pants of joy in our home.
The final step in this process included the way in which this long-awaited gastronomic masterpiece was served. No ordinary plate or bowl would do. Kraft Macaroni & Cheese must be ladled into plastic Tupperware bowls or nothing at all! Each bowl came in either pastel pink, blue, green or yellow – usually pink for me. The bowl fit perfectly into my eager hands. I was the stout, girly version of Oliver Twist begging for more. And boy did I beg.
I know it’s just a bowl of macaroni and cheese, but back then the ritual of my mother preparing this meal meant so much more than her feeding us. It meant she loved us. It meant she was listening when we would say we’d had a rough day. Sometimes, we didn’t even have to say it. She just knew we needed comfort and nourishment. She knew in the way that a mother knows her children.
So, when she died and other people tried to replicate her efforts in the macaroni and cheese department, I knew I’d never again taste this particular food in the way I most loved to savor it – with her around. I knew that every time I’d open a box of Kraft’s and attempt to recreate the past, I’d always fall short.
Macaroni and cheese doesn’t taste the way it used to taste, but memories of how it used to be will last me a lifetime.
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.
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!
Since my recent adventure with grape leaves, I decided to keep the rolling streak alive and try my hand at making malfoof this week. Malfoof, or cabbage rolls, are cabbage leaves that have been slightly boiled and then stuffed with a rice/meat mixture and rolled up into cigar-shaped rolls of yumminess. Since I am only making this dish for a few people, I’m hoping the tediousness of the rolling won’t be too bad.
I can’t find an exact recipe for Malfoof in my mama’s cookbook, but I do have the recipe for the rice mixture which is more important anyway. I’m going to include the steps for preparation from Sahtein and the rice/mixture from my mama.
I have so many memories of my family sitting around a given kitchen table, gossiping and picking at a huge pan of perfectly rolled malfoof. They are addictive and I loved eating mine with tons of lemon juice. I would pick through the pile looking for the lighter-colored leaves because those were always sweeter to me than the darker cabbage leaves. To be honest, I’m not sure there’s much of a difference in the taste of the leaves based on the color of the leaves, I was just a weird kid who refused to eat the dark green leaves.
Malfoof is one of those meals that I think tastes better when it’s shared by many because it tastes just as good cold as it does warm. So, when you and your family get caught up in a discussion about why you’re in your thirties and still not married, you can be sure that the malfoof you made will still taste good a couple of hours later.
1 large head of cabbage ( this can vary depending on how many people you’re making it for)
Lemon juice (also varies, but at least the juice from 1 large lemon for dish)
8-12 cloves of whole garlic
Separate the leaves of the cabbage. Put a few leaves at a time in boiling water and boil for about 2 minutes. Once you’ve boiled them all and they’ve cooled down, cut the heavy membrane in the middle of the leaf to make rolling easier. Make sure to keep a few leaves in tact to place at the bottom of the pot to help prevent sticking.
Place a little of the rice mixture in the middle of the leaves (this will depend on the size of the leaf – DO NOT overfill!) and roll. Make rolls about 1/2″ in diameter and 4″ long (but I’d imagine, again, that this depends on the size of the leaves). Place cabbage rolls side by side and in layers until the pot is full.
Place the whole garlic cloves in between the layers of the rolls. Add boiling water to cover the rolls, add the lemon juice and a bit of salt. Bring to a boil and cook slowly for at least an hour over low heat and until water is gone.
Let stand for about 10 minutes and then flip the pot onto a large pan for presentation.
1 cup rice
1 lb. of coarsely ground meat (lamb or beef – I’m using beef)
Vegetable oil – about 2 tbsp.
Make sure to wash the rice several times to get the starch out and then add all the ingredients together. Use for stuffing.
One of the niftiest – and most unforeseen – things about starting a food-centric blog is how often people reach out to invite you to learn,cook and eat with them. Last night, I took advantage of one such invitation and attended a small gathering of women who came together to learn how to roll stuffed grape leaves, share conversation and learn a little bit about how to make good Arabic food.
My friend Hadeel (known as @gazawia on Twitter) loves food and her passion no doubt originated from her amazing mama. She was so kind to extend the invitation to a handful of us and I feel very privileged to have learned a few tricks of the trade from women who know what good food looks like. I am even more appreciative of the fact that I met a few incredible women that I hadn’t known before and became inspired by the energy in the room.
I genuinely understand now why my mother never cooked the tedious meals alone – it’s boring otherwise. Rolling grape leaves is an arduous process; especially when it’s being done for a large number of people. The act of snipping the stems, laying out the leaf, stuffing the leaf and then rolling is monotonous and tiresome. But the work is instantly transformed when good conversation is added into the mix.
I am also still trying to digest how significantly dishes vary by the culture of one’s family or their city of origin. For instance, I recall my mom and aunts making grape leaves one of two ways. They either stuffed them with a rice/lamb mixture or they opted for the vegetarian version (siyami) which is a mixture of rice, tomatoes, onions, mint, parsley, lemon, oil, salt and pepper. Sometimes they would cook the grape leaves in a tomato broth and other times they’d almost steam them dry and serve with laban (yogurt) for dipping. We grew grape leaf vines in the backyard of my childhood home, so I have fond memories of helping my mom pick the leaves. I remember being very careful not to pick ones that had succumbed to the wrath of a hungry creature.
Once the rolling was done, my mother would line the bottom of the pan with oil-treated grape leaves to help prevent the bottom layers from sticking. I learned last night that you could also use potatoes to line the bottom of the pot and they are apparently delicious to eat as well. Who knew?? I also learned that apparently the concept of siyami rice for dishes like grape leaves or stuffed squash originated from Christian Palestinians (like me) as an alternative to meat-heavy dishes during Lent.
It was so much fun to share memories and swap ideas. I had a wonderful time and I’m actually hoping to find a group of lovely ladies who might up for a monthly sort of cooking pow-wow in the future. Any takers?