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!

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!