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

Birthday Wishes

mama

There’s no recipe sharing today, y’all. I wanted to take a few minutes to ramble away about this day and the woman that inspired this blog project and my future livelihood.

Today would have been my mama’s 61st birthday. My dad and I were reminiscing earlier today, and we both wondered aloud about what kind of woman my mother would have become had she been given the opportunity to beat cancer for good and live a more authentic life – one that wasn’t filled with fear and holding back.

She was an absolutely beautiful woman. I don’t say this because I have half her DNA and she gave me life; my mother was truly stunning. I’m not sure she realized her beauty, but her lack of awareness in that area didn’t change the fact that she was genuinely beautiful – both inside and out. She was incredibly hard on herself – a trait I picked up and haven’t quite been able to let go of just yet.

She was a good mother. And it has taken me a really long time to say that again. I spent a whole lotta years focused on the hurt and anger and frustration surrounding her illness and her death, and it took away from my ability to see my childhood in a more objective way. Though, I suppose childhood memories are one of those things that are meant to be a bit more subjective…

Anyway, a significant reason why I started this project all those years ago was to reconnect with the memories I had of my mama that were positive and nurturing and loving. Her cooking and baking have always provided comforting memories for me. I remember how hard she’d work to make us nourishing meals and I thought that if I taught myself how to cook her food, I’d be able to let go of the pain and the hurt and live my way into loving and appreciating her again.

Well, I’ve learned to make lots of yummy Palestinian food over the years, and I’m really in love with the fact that I am able to make the dishes I grew up eating. I still wish my mother was here to make them for me on occasion, but the next best thing is putting my love and soul into cooking and baking the food of my family, for my family.

It’s been 24 years since I lost my mother, and I am finally, FINALLY, in a place where my love for her outweighs my grief for her. Instead of focusing on the loss, I’m able to remember once again why I was so lucky to have her in my life for the brief 13 years that I did.

Her name was Nawal. She had a soul more vibrant than most people I know. She had one of those deep belly laughs – the kind that let you know she meant it when she laughed out loud. Her eyes sparkled with love, but, if you looked deeper, you could see there was a whole other person waiting inside of her to come out. She didn’t get the chance to reach her potential as a human being; as a woman; as a mother; a wife; a friend. I know, from the depths of my soul, my heart, that had she been able to live more freely, without the fear and anxiety of life, of family bullshit, of illness, she would have been unstoppable.

I understand now that I can’t live her unlived life. I can’t pick up where she left off or mend for her all the things she needed to sort out before she left this world. I tried, but it just isn’t my story to end.

My story is just beginning. At almost 38, I am finally beginning to understand what it means to live my best version of a life. It looks a lot like my kitchen does after I bake something – a complete and utter mess. (Have I mentioned I’m not exactly the tidiest of bakers?) But, that mess serves a valuable purpose. It’s one part of a whole. It’s the precursor to something sweet and satisfying that was made with my two hands and a little bit of my soul. It’s my way of reconnecting to my capability to love and nurture others. It’s one of those full circle kinda things, ya know?

So, with all these ramblings aside, I just really want to say: Happy Birthday, Mama. I love you.

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!

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.

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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!