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!

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.

YS-history

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:

@YallaSweets

@BrigitteZ

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.

Sahtein!

A Fruit For Every Occasion

orange

I love fruit. I don’t eat it as often as I should, but there is very little fruit out there that I don’t genuinely enjoy eating (I’m looking at you, cantaloupe). So, over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been bringing a combination of fruits with me to work so I can snack on them throughout the day. Oranges have been making a frequent appearance – mostly because they are in season and really cheap to purchase as a result.

I have convinced myself that the vitamin C in these little guys is going to be my main resource for fighting off all the germs and keeping that flu nonsense the hell away from me. And I probably just jinxed myself by typing that – so there’s that.

Anyway, my point in writing to you about oranges isn’t to discuss their nutritional value as much as it is to share with you some of the memories I have of fruit and my family. The moment that sparked this idea happened recently during an interaction at work. I’d just finished peeling a rather fragrant orange and one of my coworkers came over to my desk to snag a couple of wedges. During this dialogue, he also shared a really sweet exchange he and his father used to share during the times when his father would peel an orange for him to eat. I love these moments with food – the times when something as simple as a piece of fruit can bring about cherished recollections of brief but profound moments in our personal timelines.

This made me think about all the things that fruit symbolizes for me. One of the very first memories that came to mind involved the ritual of hosting. When I was a kid, my immediate and extended families used to open their homes as a way to stay connected. I loved weekends because it meant I would get to hang out with my cousins and drink Coca-Cola out of fancy glasses and eagerly await the passing around of a box of See’s chocolates. (If you’re from Ramallah and live in Houston, it was standard protocol to have a box of See’s in your house. I’m sure it still is for many to this day.)

The most memorable part of these visits for me, however, involved the evening’s menu and how each course symbolized one pumpkin seed shell closer to calling it a night. The evening started with drinks (alcohol for the adults and soda for the kids) and small, fancy bowls of various nuts and seeds. Ashtrays were put out to collect the various shells from pumpkin or watermelon seeds, pistachios or turmous. The adults would crack things between their teeth whilst discussing various topics and the kids would be off playing video games or getting into some kind of trouble. After an hour or two, cups and bowls would be taken away and replaced with plates and a huge platter of fresh fruit. Back in the day, my mom and aunts used to spend a significant amount of time going to farms, farmer’s markets, and grocery stores to pick the best fruit. I remember the time it would take her to pick the just-right pieces for stuffing or pickling or chomping away on. It’s a neurosis I’ve carried with me into adulthood. It’s just unfortunate that I don’t currently have children of my own to stand next to me at the grocery store while I fondle every apple in the joint until I find one that doesn’t have a scratch, dent or bruise.

The fruit course also meant that we were getting dangerously close to the last service of the night and that meant, of course, that we all had to part ways. This was usually the point in the evening where elaborate plans for asking about sleepovers were drawn up. The fruit course wasn’t terribly exciting unless grapes or watermelon were involved.

The final offering for any given visit included coffee and sweets. The coffee was sometimes standard coffee (think Folgers), other times it was the much more fragrant and delicate Arabic coffee being served. My level of excitement over the sweets varied between zero when it was baklawa or ma’amoul to a hundred when it was ghraybeh or kanafeh. There was also much jubilation, from me in particular, when Pepperidge Farm apple turnovers made an appearance.

The evening would end with someone’s kid crying because of exhaustion or because someone got smacked or because the dream of spending the night away from home got squashed before one of us could finish sharing our proposal for why a sleepover was the best idea ever. The parents would say goodbye in stages – starting in the living room, and then again at the front door, and then one last time outside by the car. Brevity is not a thing my family has ever done well.

Those weekend nights were some of the best times of my life and I honestly hadn’t thought about them in ages until that random incident with the orange. It’s not a thing we do much anymore unless it’s associated with something specific. I really hope I’ll get the chance to resurrect them someday with my cousins as we begin to build our own families.

I know this post was more memory based than food/recipe based, but I did want to leave you with a very simple fruit dish that I grew up eating and still really love. I know fancy restaurants offer a variation on the watermelon/cheese idea – but the way I  learned to appreciate this combination was with huge wedges of ripe watermelon paired with a little salt and boiled white cheese. You can find more information about the boiled cheese here. I prefer using the boiled cheese versus pairing it with feta or any of  the other variations of salty white cheeses. Using a salt of your choosing (I stick with regular ‘ol Morton) allows you to better balance the sweet with the the salty. Plus, the chewy texture of the boiled cheese combined with the crisp crunch of the watermelon is a really delightful bonus. 

 Hope you enjoy if you decide to give it a try! 

Soup’s On

Red Lentil Soup

 

We’re just going to gloss over the fact that I haven’t written a damn thing about food or cooking in over a year. I haven’t cooked much in that time but when I do, I remember how much I miss this project and miss cooking and sharing it with you all.

To be honest, I’m kind of floored by how much people enjoy reading my words. Though, I do very much understand the power of connecting with others through family history and food. Each day that passes shows me just how amazing food really can be. I recently sat down to answer a handful of questions to help me reflect on this past year and one of those questions asked me to list five things that make me good and truly happy. Food/cooking made number three on that list.

Cooking is one of the few things in my life where I am able to completely immerse myself in the process and not worry about all the other millions of things I normally worry about. Yes,  I can be a little rigid about following recipes, but I attribute that less to my Type A personality and more to the fact that I am still in the beginning stages of this process. I think I show a lot of promise though and I believe that my genuine passion for food will more than likely guide me through this hobby.

So, what inspired me to finally sit down and write after so many days of not writing? The answer is many-fold:

1. My health. I have a sizable amount of weight to lose and I’d like to learn to cook interesting, healthy meals instead of burning out on chicken, salad, and canned soup.

2. I am on a limited budget but I am convinced there is a non-complicated way to eat nutritious, flavorful meals and I’m determined to figure out how to do that.

3. I just miss this. A lot.

The recipe I tried out today was not my own nor one from my mama’s cookbook. I was on the search for soup recipes that looked yummy but weren’t packed with all that unnecessary sodium. One of the biggest issues with canned soup – whether you buy high-quality organic or not – is that their cup runneth over with sodium. I was looking at the nutritional information on a can of Amy’s soup and the sodium in one can would use up my recommended sodium intake (which is 1500mg for those who have high blood pressure or certain other health concerns) for the day. That is absolutely ridiculous.

So, I searched the internet and found loads of interesting lentil soup recipes to try. Lentils are great because they are chockfull of dietary fiber and protein without the fat, cholesterol, or sodium. And they are cheap and very easy to find unless you are the red lentil. I had to go to SIX different grocery stores before I found them.

Anyway  – the recipe I used was one I found in the NY Times Fitness & Nutrition section of their online site. It’s a simple recipe for a Red Lentil Soup. My dad helped me make it and we went with adding 1 quart of chicken stock and 1 quart of water. I’d like to try it with just water or a veggie stock to make it vegan/veggie friendly. And while the recipe suggested adding cayenne to add some spice toward the end of the cooking time – we went with a few pinches of berbere that my dad brought back from Ethiopia. It added a subtle dimension of heat that was a welcome treat. We topped it off with fresh cilantro and plain yogurt and it made for a very filling meal on a cold night.

And that’s why I love cooking. It offers you the chance to take tried and tested recipes and make them your own. You can explore and learn and begin to understand the beauty of other cultures through the complexity of spices and a meld of ingredients. There is passion and history and stories behind these meals and I love that it’s such an accessible thing for all of us. All of the ingredients for this soup totaled less than $10 and could feed at least six people with a hearty bowl. It was healthy, inexpensive, cooked with love and brought together culinary gems from several different regions. Plus, this gave me a chance to cook with my dad again and feed my body a meal it deserved.

Do you have a favorite lentil soup recipe? Want to share the recipe with me? I’d love to try it out!

A Song For The New Year

 

Yes. I know the New Year isn’t quite here yet. I’m just getting giving you a little background music to help you get ready. Though this song isn’t technically about food, it most certainly says a lot about my childhood. This was one of my very favorite songs growing up. My mother used to play it for me and sing to me as we listened. I didn’t realize until recently that the reason why I had such a hard time tracking this song down is because it was a song from a movie Sabah starred in and not one from an album. Apparently the scene in the movie is Sabah singing this song to her daughter which would, in turn, explain why my mama liked singing it to me.

The title “Aklek Menain Ya Batta”  very roughly translates to “You are so adorable. I just wanna eat you up!” Batta in Arabic translates to duck and is also used as a term of endearment. I loved the song so much because of the “quacks” you hear in the background. Hearing it again after all these years just makes me smile and it also really makes me miss my mother.

I’m excited to get back to cooking out there and writing here. Not all my posts will be recipe-related but I’ll try to keep them relevant to the memories and the food of my youth. In the meantime, enjoy a little music from the past and have yourselves a very HAPPY New Year!

Sahtein!

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!

Writer’s Week Post – Macaroni and Cheese Doesn’t…

writers' week

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-childcombinations 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.

Happy New Year from Z&Z!!!

Well, hello there!

I know it’s been awhile, and trust me, my dad has done enough of the “gently reminding” me that this blog exists and I need to “stop being lazy and start writing again.”  So, the part where I feel guilty about not doing so is covered. My dad’s got your back.

I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on this past year in respect to Zayt and Zaatar. Even though I haven’t written in a couple of months, I’ve still been cooking pretty regularly. As mentioned in my last post, (which was what? two months ago) I made katayef. I’ve since conquered a beast of a dish that I was scared to make – Mansaf. And it actually turned out pretty darn alright! The fact that I now have the ability to make a decent laban soup means that shushbarak is on the top of the list for next year.

Zayt and Zaatar has been an incredible experience for me. It taught me that I’m actually a fairly decent cook. It taught me that even if something stresses me out and makes me kind of crazy in the kitchen, I can still love doing it and want to keep doing it all the time. Cooking is one of the few things in my life that I can sincerely say I enjoy doing even if there are moments when I’m not composed or good at it.

This blog taught me it’s okay to fail sometimes, and that is a might big lesson to have learned.

A humongous THANK YOU goes out to my father for being so patient with me throughout this process. It was such a gift to be able to learn all these recipes with you beside me.  I hope you had as much fun as I did.

Another equally big THANK YOU to all my friends and family who took the time to read this blog, to encourage me and to share your own ideas and stories. I hope I’ll get to cook alongside many of you in the New Year!

That’s it. The plan is to be around cooking and writing in 2011. I hope to do more cooking and eating with friends – and actually DOING that, not just saying I’m going to do it.

Here’s to a great New Year!

Sahtein!

In Pictures: Boiled Jibneh

There are a few variations of how to make this particular kind of cheese. I’m sure the cheese we have available to us in the U.S. isn’t quite the same as it is back home. We opted to use a panela cheese instead. Basically, you take a few wheels of the panela cheese and place them in boiling water with a small muslin bag filled with both gum arabic and mahlab (a fragrant spice made from the seed of the St Lucie Cherry). I know that once the cheese is boiled some choose to store in jars with additional spice and more of the gum arabic and mahlab. It is reboiled before serving.  A couple of my aunts just freeze individual wheels in plastic and reboil when they feel like eating it. Either way – this cheese tastes incredible and is so good with fresh baked bread, olives, zaatar, and cucumber.
Cherry Pits & Gum Arabic

Panela cheese waiting for its fate...

Care to guess what this is??

Boiling cheese

Jibneh. Ready to consume before being put into jars of salted water.