Home is Where the Heart Is

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.

Stay tuned!


History & Mission of Yalla Sweets

Hey all!

Yalla Sweets is a project that means a lot to me. Its origin is rooted in my love of sweets and my heartfelt desire to share my family’s recipes. They mean a lot to me and they also happen to taste pretty fantastic. I’ll let the mission statement speak the rest.


Yalla Sweets (and Hi! I’m Back!)

YS-FbcoverHi y’all!

I know it’s been a couple of years since I’ve posted on this site, but I’m thrilled to see that it’s proven to be a useful resource for folks interested in Palestinian cuisine. Though I haven’t been documenting my culinary adventures, rest assured that I’ve been working away in my little kitchen.

One of my biggest dreams, and one I’ve pushed aside for years and years, has always been to work with and create sweet treats that people can’t help but crave. I started baking in college because I was broke but still wanted to give thoughtful gifts to friends during the holidays. I figured tins of homemade cookies were the way to go, and I was right!

When I started this project oh so many years ago, I was more focused on the savory side of Palestinian cooking. I still learned to cook a few signature sweets, but my goal was to learn to cook meals the way my mama made them. It was a life-changing project and I’m so thankful that so many of you connected with the stories and memories. I hope some of you had success making a meal or two from this blog and I hope you and your families enjoyed every bite.

These days, my focus is solely on all those lovely desserts my mama and aunts made when I was a kiddo. You can find Middle Eastern sweets a lot more readily around Houston than you can home-style Palestinian (or Middle Eastern cuisine in general, really) food, but I honestly haven’t found a dessert I just can’t live without. So, I decided to teach myself how to make a handful of my mama’s recipes.

Over the last several months, I’ve been immersed in learning how to make namoura, ghraybeh, yansoon cookies, katayef, and loads more. I’ve been baking cakes and cookies and tarts and pies. And I have loved every darn minute of the learning process. I’ve been experimenting with butters and flours, textures and flavors and I THINK I’ve finally figured out my oven’s sweet spot. I’m interested in keeping the traditional recipes from my family alive and well, but I also want to take those base recipes and make them my own. And I have.

What does all this mean? It means I’ve gotten pretty okay at churning out tasty little sweet things and I want to share them with you all!

Yalla Sweets is the result of a lot of hard work and a lot more hard work to come. It’s where you can go to get mini namoura cakes in all sorts of flavors (traditional namoura is ready to go; flavor variations are in the works!), ghraybeh, rock cookies, pistachio butter cookies, and lots more. My mama had a fantastic recipe for M&M cookies and I’m quite fond of Rice Krispie Treats (and other marshmallow-y cereal treat variations). It’s heart and soul and while I know eating tons of sweet, sugary things all the time isn’t the greatest plan, when you do make the choice to treat yourself, I hope you’ll consider splurging on something I’ve made.

If you want to get an idea of the kinds of things I make, feel free to follow my accounts on instagram for more info:



I’ll be posting a bit more often with updates, new menu items, and stories from my kitchen. I hope you’ll enjoy this new project as much as the journey that brought me here.


Z&Z Is Back In The Kitchen!

So, I just looked back over my posts and can’t believe that a) I’ve been away so long and b) that this idea of mine has been poking at me and sticking around for over two years now. I don’t think I’ve done this blog justice and it’s my mission to change that over the next several months.

The format I’ve been using to post is an exhausting one that I think needs a little updating. I’m still working on trying to figure out how to present these recipes to you in a more interesting way. I also hope to share more of the personal stories with you all. I’m just going to write and cook and create and hope that it all kind of falls into place eventually.

I asked my friends and family on Facebook if they had any suggestions for recipes they’d like me to share. I’ve got a few ideas but if you have anything you’d like me to focus on, please feel free to share in the comments below.  I want this project to be fun and educational for all of us!

I have been toying with the idea of doing a series on the snack foods (like zayt and zaatar) that I grew up eating as a way get back into the writing. I thought it would be fun to reminisce about the stuff I munched on while I was glued to the television.

So, stay tuned!

Update!: It’s Been Too Long

Katayef with Sweet Cheese & Pistachios

Hello Everyone!

Boy, it’s been a little while since I’ve sat down and written over here. I’ve still been cooking away (see Katayef pic above for proof), I just haven’t been writing about it as much.

I hope that changes in the coming weeks. I have a lot of yummy recipes, pictures and stories to share.  I am also kind of in awe that it’s been almost a year since I started this project. I’m fairly certain I had lots of high hopes and expectations for where I thought Zayt and Zaatar would be at this stage in the game, but I decided to throw out all of those limiting factors. I have come to accept that sometimes I’m going to want to cook and write and write and cook, and other times I’m just going to want to eat and not share any of that with anyone. This new philosophy has helped me maintain my love of food and my desire to continue to learn how to cook.

What I’m finding now is that I am seriously craving interaction when I cook. I have been so incredibly blessed to have had all these many months to cook and learn my mother’s recipes with my father. It’s something I will cherish forever and will continue to do. But, I’d also liked to learn from others and share the food I’ve been making with my friends and other family members.

I was at an event recently where someone mentioned that when we entertain or gather as friends, we tend to do so outside of our homes. Houston is crawling with delicious food, so it makes sense that we opt to plan our social outings at restaurants vs. our homes.

I’d like to change that up a bit. I am still a little shy about my cooking skills, but if any of you ever feel like having a cooking companion or want to get together to make some yummy food, share stories and swap recipes PLEASE let me know. I’ve spoken to a few people able this in the past, but I’m really committed to moving this idea past the brainstorming phase.

On a random note:  I recently discovered the beauty that is goat’s milk caramel sauce and have been trying to come up with interesting ways to incorporate it. I have a bunch of leftover katayef with the cinnamon-sugar walnut filling that I think would be a perfect sponge for the caramel. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

What yummy things have you been eating/making lately?


Recipe of the Week: Makloubeh

Well hello there!

In case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t been cooking as regularly as I have in the past.  I just kind of hit a lull and found it hard to get back into the swing of things. I love cooking – more than I thought I would actually. I guess I just thought this project would bring me some sort of enlightenment or connection to my mother in a way nothing else has so far. And, so far, it hasn’t.

But, you know what? I’m done worrying about all that. Instead of focusing on the “feelings” I’m apparently not getting from this endeavor, I’m opting, as of now anyway, to focus on the fact that what I have gained from learning how to cook over these past several months is the chance to spend more time with my dad, to learn about the food I grew up eating and to reconnect to food in a more holistic way.

Let’s hope that’s the last time I’ll be revisiting this subject. On to the food!

So, this week I decided to make a dish I have grown to love over the years – Makloubeh. Until recently, I thought there was only one way to make Makloubeh. My mom’s recipe included rice with cauliflower, potatoes,  onions and chunks of lamb or beef.  Since I was a kid who wasn’t very fond of cauliflower or onions, I had to pick my way around the pot until I emerged victorious with a plate full of rice, meat and potatoes.

My taste buds are different now and I’ve learned over the course of several months that Makloubeh isn’t limited to cauliflower. It can be made vegetarian with veggies like eggplant, tomato, potato and even carrots. My dad is allergic to eggplant and I just don’t care for the taste much, but eggplant with this dish is supposed to be pretty tasty. I have an unhealthy love of carrots, so I’m wondering how this would work with a carrot/potato combo.

Anyone ever tried it like that?

The recipe below was pieced together from my dad’s recollection of the dish and some pointers from my mama’s recipe.


3 cups of rice (I used parboiled though I think my mom used long grain)

1 lb. beef steak (I used a cut of angus beef that was pre-cut for use in stews)

1 large head of cauliflower

1 large onion

3 large potatoes (I used white potatoes)

Light olive oil for frying

7 cups of water

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. ground pepper

3-4 tsp. salt

couple cloves of garlic – sliced

Cut the meat into smaller pieces and boil in a pot of water (go with about 4 cups of water for this). Skim the froth that collects at the surface of the pot and after several minutes add the spices (but only half the salt at this point), reduce heat and cover until the meat is tender. Strain the broth and set aside the broth and meat separately for later use.

Cut cauliflower, potatoes and onions into bite size pieces. Cut the potatoes into flat, half-moon wedges, the onions into strips and the cauliflower florets into manageable chunks. Throw into a big bowl and sprinkle with salt.  Preheat a large, flat skillet with 1/2 – 3/4 cup of light olive oil for frying. Fry up the veggies (including the garlic)  until they are golden brown and place each batch on a plate with paper towels to absorb the excess grease. (Note: If you want to make a healthier version of this dish, you can coat the veggies in a little olive oil and spices and pop them in the oven to roast up versus frying.)

Sprinkle each batch of fried vegetables with a little cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg and add to a large pot that will be used for cooking the makloubeh. Bottom layer is the meat, then layer the fried veggies on top. Once all the veggies are in the pot, add the 3 cups of rice (make sure to rinse thoroughly before cooking) the broth and an additional 3 cups of water to cover the rice and veggies thoroughly. Add salt to taste and bring to a boil. Reduce to low heat after boiling, cover and cook for 30-40 minutes or until rice is tender.

Let cool and then invert into a large, cylindrical baking pan for serving.

Note: If you use the long grain rice, the makloubeh has a better chance of staying in tact and may make for a lovely presentation.

Serve with plain yogurt (laban) and a simple salad (lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper)!

Recipe of the Week (well, last week): Semnah

Oh, blog.  How I’ve missed you.

It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to sit and write here. My days were consumed with a pretty awesome event and I’m now in the process of recovering and attempting to do a little thing called RELAX.  It would appear that I’m not very good at relaxing, as evidenced by the very long list I made this afternoon of stuff I just absolutely must do.  I sincerely welcome suggestions and encouragement for learning how to take a break. Seriously. See the comment box down there? Go for it.

So, week before last I didn’t cook anything because I had the previously referenced awesome event to occupy my time. This past week, I just didn’t feel like cooking. I believe exhaustion is finally starting to kick in and I had no desire to shop, and prep and cook something – so I didn’t.

I did manage to flip through my mama’s cookbook and find a couple of things I wanted to make sooner than later and I noticed that they all required the use of semnah (clarified butter). I’d never made semnah before, so I decided to make that my recipe to try. Semnah isn’t a terribly involved process, but you still have to have a couple of hours to dedicate. The good thing is once you make it and jar it up, you should have enough to last you for several months without needing to refrigerate.

I never really understood what the purpose of semnah was and my dad explained to me that the rendering process draws out a lot of the water and salt from the butter. Doing this allows you to store the semnah unrefrigerated for longer periods of time and it also allows you to cook/bake at higher temperatures than if just regular butter was used.  It’s very similar to ghee and I now have a huge jar of it chilling in my pantry. I guess I have no choice but to start making more sweets since semnah is a staple in many of those recipes.


5 lbs. of butter or margarine ( You can adjust this depending on how much you think you’ll need. This renders one large jar of semnah. Also you can opt to use 50/50 butter to margarine, just butter, or just margarine.)

1/4 – 1/2 cup coarse burghul – rinsed (but don’t soak!)

Melt butter under low-medium heat until melted. Do not stir. Add the burghul once the butter has melted and allow the butter to render out. A heavy foam will form on the top while cooking/boiling.  Keep heat low and allow about 20 minutes or so for the melted butter to turn clear. Remove any residual skin/foam on the top and set aside to cool. Once cool, use a coffee cup to pour only the melted butter into a glass jar and seal tightly with a lid. Make sure to leave the burghul at the bottom of the pan.  Store in a cool, low-moisture environment and use as needed.

In addition to the semnah, my dad made his shortcut version of the mahshi that I’d cooked a few weeks ago. Mahshi is a very laborious dish to make and my pops found a way to make it just as yummy without all the work.

Basically, refer to the recipes from my mahshi post . You take the stuffing (in this case it was about 3/4 cup ground beef to 2 and a half cups of rice with allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper and salt to taste) and cook it up with about 3 lbs. of thinly cut yellow squash and a small can of tomato sauce and I’m sure some water – though I don’t know how much. I’m sure my dad will read this post and comment to correct whatever I’ve missed – so keep a look out.

It’s a great way to enjoy something I love to eat, but don’t have the time to make. Thanks, Dad!

Stay tuned. Pictures to come!

Recipe of the Week: —

Hello All!!

I just wanted to offer a quick update.

I won’t be cooking this week, but I have another great reason for taking a wee break. : )

I am taking a little road trip the latter part of this week to attend the wedding of a very dear friend of mine. I think this might officially be the last wedding I’ll be attending for awhile, seeing as a majority of my friends and family are already hitched. Who knows, maybe the next wedding I’ll be attending will be my own. Heh.

We’ll be back to our haphazardly scheduled programming next week.

In the meantime, I’m itching for ideas for what to cook next, so please leave suggestions in the comments. I’d also appreciate suggestions for other fun and interesting food-related blogs to check out.  I really want to connect with others who love food and are learning to cook.

In addition, I hope to incorporate more non-food related writing in the near future. I know a big part of this experience was learning to cook, but this project was also meant to be an opportunity for me to force myself to write more consistently and creatively. I’ve been apprehensive to do so thus far, but I’m working on changing all that. So, stay tuned and feel free to offer some encouragement.

See y’all next week with a new recipe!

Mother’s Day: The Recipes

Happy Belated Mother’s Day to all my mamas out there!

As I mentioned in last week’s post, I was really struggling to find a dish to make that really represented my mama – or at least the memories I had of her cooking. After flipping through her cookbook over and over again and talking to anyone I could who might have remembered, I got a phone call from my dad.

Kousa Mahshi.

Now, I’d thought about making this dish. I had planned to tackle it at some point, I was just apprehensive because it is so time consuming. But, mahshi seemed to come up more often than any other meal I considered, so it won!

And, instead of trying to fit a million thoughts and images into one post, I’m going to break things up a bit over the course of this week. There is a lot I want to say and I need time to process it all out into words that aren’t all sappy and sentimental. There is a lesson somewhere in all of this; I just have to find it.

Today’s post will include the recipes for the kousa mahshi (Stuffed Squash) and this dessert I used to love when I was a kid. I didn’t have a recipe for it, so I went off of my hazy memory. If anyone, ANYONE has a recipe for this dish, please share. I think we (family/friends) all kind of deduced that this dessert recipe probably came off the back of a Jello pudding box. Gotta love the 70s!

Kousa Mahshi

4-5 lbs of yellow squash (about 15-20 pieces of about medium size)

1 1/2 -2 lbs. of lamb (preferably leg of lamb, but you can use shoulder)

3 1/2 rice

2 8 oz. cans of tomato sauce


salt, pepper, allspice, cinnamon, nutmeg to taste ( I think we did 1 tbsp. salt, tsp. pepper, 3/4 tsp. of allspice, tsp. of cinnamon, 1/2 tsp. of nutmeg)

Wash the squash and cut off the tips just enough create a hole large enough to core the squash. Save the tips to cook along with the mahshi. Use a vegetable corer and core out the squash until it is a thin, but sturdy shell. Wash and rinse the cored squash in water and salt.

The meat for this dish can be done one of two ways. If you don’t have the time to cut meat, you can use ground lamb or beef that is more coarse (as if using for a chili). If you do have the time, prepare the meat by cleaning the leg of lamb (removing fat, skin, etc.) and cutting into small, pea-sized pieces. This is really time-consuming, but the difference in taste and texture is worth the effort.

Once meat is cut, add it to the rinsed rice and mix. Add spices and a little butter if the meat is really lean – say 1-2 tbsp.

Fill the squash about 3/4 of the way. Don’t pack the mixture down inside the squash and don’t overfill. Lay side by side inside a large pot in stacks. Add the squash tips and the cans of tomato paste. Fill the rest of the pot with water and let it come to a boil and boil for about 5 minutes before reducing heat and cooking on medium for about an hour.

(Make sure to save the the squash pulp to make Lub Kousa – see recipe below)

Lub Kousa

Squash Pulp (from squash you carved)


Olive Oil

Salt, pepper, lemon

Saute the onions in a couple of tbsp. of olive oil until. Add the washed squash pulp and cook together for another couple of minutes before adding the spices (we added a serrano pepper, whole just for some additional flavor). Mix everything together and cook on low heat for about 30 minutes or so. The squash needs to be really soft – almost like mush. Serve hot or cold as a side with the Mahshi.

Pudding Dessert (because I have no clue what the actual name of this dessert is!)

1 large box of Cook and Serve Chocolate Pudding (should make 3 cups)

2 small boxes of Instant Pistachio Pudding (should make 4 cups)

Tea Biscuits(about 3 packages)

Make the puddings and while you are waiting for the chocolate pudding to cool, roughly crush the tea biscuits and place the crushed biscuits at the bottom of a glass pan. Just enough to coat the bottom and make a crust of sorts.

Add the chocolate pudding and then another thin layer of the crushed biscuits.

Add the pistachio pudding and sprinkle a little bit of the crushed cookie on top and some crushed pistachios for garnish.

Put in the fridge for a couple of hours to set and then serve like cake.

Recipe of the Week: Bazailah

I’m back!!  After ten days of being in Austin, I couldn’t be happier to be back in Houston and back to cooking and blogging. I missed Z&Z more than I thought I would, and apparently my dad did too. I got a call from him before I even got back into town wondering which dish we were going to tackle next.

SXSW is an exhausting endeavor, so I opted for something easy to make but still pretty hearty. I was hanging out with some of my cousins a couple of weeks back and my cousin Donald mentioned how much he missed his mama’s Bazailah.  Since I hadn’t had it in awhile, I decided on this dish and invited my cousins over to try it out.

Bazailah is a pea stew that is served over rice. It turns out my mom didn’t write down a recipe for Bazailah, so I opted to cook this dish from my dad’s memory of how she used to make  it. I also got some great feedback from my cousins that I will be sure to incorporate for next time.


1 1/2 lbs. beef stew meat (or lamb)

2 – 12 oz. packages of frozen peas

1 medium onion – finely chopped

2 garlic cloves  – finely chopped

2+ garlic cloves – whole

1 – 6 oz. can of tomato paste

3 – 3 1/2 cups water

salt, pepper, allspice, cumin

Saute 2 cloves of garlic and 1 medium yellow onion in 2 tbs. of olive oil or samneh (clarified butter) until brown. Add the beef and saute for about 10 minutes and add spices towards the end of the cooking process.

1/4 tsp. pepper

1 tsp. salt

1/4 tsp. allspice

1/2 tsp. cumin

Add one 6 oz. can of tomato paste and 1 1/2 cups of water. Stir and slowly add 2 more cups of water and another round of spices.

1/2 tsp of salt (could probably use a little more)

1/2 tsp. pepper

1/4 tsp. allspice

Add a couple of cloves of whole garlic for taste.

Bring to a boil  then lower to medium heat and cook for another 20-25 minutes.

Don’t over cook the peas. You still want them to have a bite to them.

Serve over rice.

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