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.
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!
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
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.
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.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I REALLY adore the pistachio nut. It was one of my mama’s favorite flavors, so it was a major component in the cuisine I grew up eating. Thankfully, unlike many other foods that did not make the cut, pistachios scored big with my taste buds.
During one of my recent baking adventures, I decided to search around for cookie recipes that included pistachios. I happened upon one that was labeled as a Flourless Pistachio Cookie, but looked suspiciously like a variation on a traditional coconut macaroon to me. A happy discovery it was! Coconut and pistachios were a staple of my childhood and macaroons are one of my favorite treats.
I had never thought to make macaroons before this recipe came into my life. I know, like with everything else baking-related, there are hundreds of variations on this very simple concept; and we all know I like to keep things sweet (very!) and simple. The thing I like most about this particular recipe is that it allows the rich flavors of both the pistachio and the coconut to take center stage. There are only four ingredients in these little guys, and the other two make way for the bold flavors and textures of the star players.
The original recipe didn’t do much in the way of specifying the type of coconut or pistachios to use, so that’s where my preferences come into play. I opted to use roasted and salted pistachios because they have a greater depth of flavor. The salt gives a nice balance to the sweetness from the coconut and the powdered sugar. I probably would have added an extra tablespoon or so of egg white, but as is, this recipe is pretty solid. I also used a combo of dessicated (medium grate, unsweetened) coconut and shredded, sweetened coconut to help with texture and the level of sweetness. You can use whichever you desire, but I like things a bit on the sweeter side.
I’ve linked the original recipe above, and would be curious to hear feedback if you give them a try!
* 1 cup of finely grated pistachio, aka pistachio powder. (I used salted, roasted pistachio nuts.)
* 3/4 cup powdered sugar (Plus about a tablespoon+ for making the pistachio powder)
* 1/2 cup dessicated coconut
* 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
* 1 egg white from a large egg, room temperature
Note: I haven’t been able to find finely grated pistachio in any of the supermarkets in my area, so I make my own. Simply take about a cup of shelled pistachios and place them in a food processor. Add about a tablespoon of powdered sugar to help prevent the pistachios from forming a paste. Pulse away until you achieve the desired consistency. This takes a minute or two. You want a fine powder, though it really is up to you how fine you want to grate them. I like a little crunch so I pulse to an ALMOST fine consistency. Set aside. (This can be done in advance and kept in an airtight container in the freezer for months. Just use when needed!)
1. In a medium metal mixing bowl, pour in your coconut and pistachio powder and mix together by hand until well combined. Add the powdered sugar and combine well. Lastly, add the large egg white (whisk the egg white slightly in a cup or small bowl before adding) and mix gently by hand until the egg white is fully incorporated and sufficiently sticky. It might not seem like the egg white is enough, but somehow it manages to bind just right. If it doesn’t, just add small amounts of slightly whisked egg white until everything comes together. To test, you should be able to break off about a 1/2 tablespoon to tablespoon piece and roll into a cohesive ball. If that happens, you’re good to go.
2. Place mixture in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least two (2) hours.
3. Preheat your oven to 340F. I use a convection oven, so I baked them at 320F.
4. Using a large baking pan, place parchment paper down. (Don’t skip this step!)
5. Using your (clean) hands, take about 1/2 tablespoon to a full tablespoon (I wouldn’t go much larger than this) and roll them into balls. Place on baking sheet. You don’t have to worry about placing them too far apart as they don’t (shouldn’t) spread.
6. Place in the oven and bake for 7-9 minutes depending on your oven. Mine took 8-9 minutes. I like mine a little more baked, but watch for slight browning on top to know they’re good to go.
7. Take out of the oven, and let sit for a minute or two before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely. Wait until they have fully cooled before eating (they taste better this way, in my opinion).
Note: This makes roughly 15-16 macaroons, depending on how big/small you roll them out. As with most baked goods, store in an airtight container and enjoy for up to a week or so!
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Growing up, my family and I used to snack on a large, sticky sheet of something called Dried Apricot Paste (see photo below). We used to purchase it from a place named Droubi’s (a local Middle Eastern grocery store of sorts) and it has always been one of my favorite snacks. It’s essentially fruit leather, but much more substantial than those little strips you get for fifty cents from your local Whole Foods. This stuff is thick and chewy, tart and sweet, and just so addictive.
The other day, when I was chomping on square after square of this delightful paste, I started getting some ideas. Well, mostly I got the idea to look for recipes using apricots and pistachios. What did I find? About a bajillion recipes for something called an Apricot “Truffle.” I was intrigued, so I did some research and found that no two recipes for this concept were the same. Some used (a lot) of condensed milk, some used lemon, some used honey, some used different kinds of dried apricots and opted for pecans vs. pistachios. Some called for sweet vs. unsweetened coconut, while other just threw a bunch of stuff into a food processor and called it a day.
Now, I tend to get VERY overwhelmed when faced with too many options. If I can’t find one specific recipe that speaks to my sweet tooth, I find it’s best just to create my own based on the best bits and pieces I’ve found from ALL the recipes and make adjustments as I go along.
So, that is exactly what I’ve done with Apricot “Truffles.” These guys are essentially lovely little balls of apricot paste flavored with anything from lemon juice to sugar to nuts and brown sugar. I wanted my truffles to be healthier, so I kept things simple. I really like the final product this recipe yielded, but I still plan on making other variations and will be sure to post standout combinations here or on Instagram in the future! Please post a comment below or tag me on Instagram if you make them!
1 1/2 cups dried apricots, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Zest of one small lemon
1 tablespoon honey (I used a local clover honey. This gave the truffles a significant undertone of sweet and floral flavors)
1/2 cup dessicated coconut (in other words, medium, finely shredded unsweetened coconut) – for rolling
2-3 Tablespoons finely chopped pistachios (we’re talking powder consistency almost) – for rolling
15-17 mini cupcake liners/cups/etc.
Chop up the dried apricots and put them into a food processor. Pulse until the apricots forms a thick, sticky paste.
Add the lemon zest, lemon juice, and honey and pulse until combined.
Using your hands, take about a tablespoon-sized amount of the paste and roll into a ball. You can make these whatever size you want – bigger or smaller. It’s up to you!
Take the balls and roll them in either the coconut or the pistachio (or both if you’re feeling adventurous) and put them in your mini cupcake liners.
Place them in an airtight container and put them in the fridge for about an hour before serving. You can keep these at room temp, but I find they taste better cold.
(*Note – This recipe yields a very tart “truffle”. If you want yours sweeter, I’d opt to cut about a 1/2 tablespoon of the lemon juice. You can replace it with a little more honey if so desired. You can also roll these guys in any nut or topping you choose. I think they’d be good with cashews, pecans, or macadamia nuts!)