Sometime in my graduate school career and the long road to a PhD in Chemistry, I remember standing over the stove for hours making qatayef.  I got the recipe from my mother on the phone, back in those days social media, blogging and online recipes were still a novelty; YouTube was  still an invention of the future.  I hovered over the small frying pan, praying very hard that this experiment of mine would work.  I do not think I willed any of my reactions in the lab to work as much as I did this one.  

Earlier that day a reaction between sodium and ammonia worked so beautifully in the lab and most definitely got me closer to my dissertation, but the elation I felt as the qatayef hissed gently then sighed as the last bubble formed and popped was only reserved for the kitchen.  With every pancake successfully lifted from the pan, and stuffed with walnuts or cheese, I got closer to home in an instant. 

Fast forward about 15 years, April 2020… A pan much larger than the one I had back in my Tennessee kitchen, sizzled. I poured the batter out of a measuring cup.  The perfect circle formed, then slowly bubbled.  Success!!! The recipe worked! This was at least the fourth trial as I  tweaked multiple recipes to make it work. 

As the small bubbles popped, the same elation of fifteen year ago swept over me.  Life was so different, but the act of making katayef had the same grit and perseverance of fifteen years past, albeit for different reasons.  I was not in search of a taste home, I was home.  Locked down at home that is, with a husband who  was a far superior human being than I could ever hope to be, whose patience for my kitchen adventures was the embodiment of true love, and two tiny versions of myself in the form of children.   

That spring the kitchen adventures intensified. I found myself, much like the rest of humanity, kneading dough, shaping it into loaves of bread, or spreading it for fteer bizaatar, or sprinkling it with cheese to make mana’esh, losing myself in the dust of flour, running away from the intangible virtual life we were living to the very real sturdiness of dough, and batter.  

As the pandemic continues to rage on with virological supremacy,  we find ourselves in the same place. Perhaps a bit more nuanced in our virtual lives, but exactly in the same  place in the real world, at home, tucked away, staring in disbelief at the crowded shops, and secret weddings as the infection curve rises into the unknown. 

As I try to make sense of the world, the kitchen seems to be the only place I have control, and the exhale of fresh qatayef makes me feel more safe and more at home than ever before. 

This recipe is featured in the April 2021 edition of This Week in Palestine.  Click on the link below


Servings: feeds an army, or the neighborhood. 


260 g flour

100 g semolina

1 tsp baking powder

1 tsp yeast (I use instant yeast)

¼ tsp Baking Soda 

Dash of salt

1 Tbsp Sugar 

1 Tbsp Milk

2 Tbsp Rose water 

750 mL warm water

Electric Blender


2 cups roughly chopped walnuts

1 tsp cinnamon

½ kg sweetened Palestinian goat cheese. 

Kater: (simple sugar syrup) 

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp Orange Blossom Water 


  1. Activate the yeast: add the water, milk, sugar, and yeast into the blender, mix with a large spoon,  then leave for ten minutes. The yeast should start working and you should see bubbles forming. 
  2. Prepare your dry ingredients: in a bowl whisk together the flour, semolina, baking powder, baking soda and salt. 
  3. Mix the batter: mix the dry ingredients with the water mixture in the blender by adding the flour mixture slowly into the water and blending well.  Add the rose water in the end. Pour the batter into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap or a kitchen cloth and store in a warm, draft free spot in your kitchen for at least 30 minute.
  4. Cook the qatayef:  heat a large non stick pan, or a pancake griddle.  To know if the pan is hot enough, sprinkle a few drops of water and watch for a frantic sizzle, you want the pan hot (i preheat mine on medium heat for 15 minutes). Pour small amounts of the batter (¼ cup or so) in the middle of the pan.  Watch as bubbles form and pop. If the pan is too hot, the qatayef won’t have time to form the bubbles and will cook too quickly.  If the pan is too cold, the batter will stick and not cook all the way through. Depending on your stove, play with the heat until you get the perfect setting . Watch the qatayef closely.  When all the bubbles popped, remove the qatayef and place in a large plate covered with a towel. Repeat until batter is finished. 
  5. Filling: take the qatayef in your hand, pinch the end to make a small pocket, place a teaspoon of crushed walnuts and cinnamon in the middle, then bring the edges together by pinching the dough between your fingers to seal the qatayef closed.  Do the same for cheese. 
  6. Make Kater: place sugar and water in a saucepan on medium heat. Allow water to boil and sugar to dissolve completely.  Then heat for a little longer until it starts to slightly thicken, turn off heat, stir in lemon juice and orange blossom. 
  7. Grilling Qatayef: Preheat the oven to 180 C, brush the filled pockets generously with butter, and place on a baking sheet, insert into the oven and cook until it is a deeper golden color, the center is crunchy.  Remove and soak in lukewarm Kater; serve immediately.  Note: many choose to fry qatayef, which is equally delicious.  Heat oil and deep fry them then quickly transfer them to the kater as they come out of the oil. 

Ramadan Kareem!

Lentil Sweet Potato Soup

Lentil soup is a staple in Palestinian cuisine, this recipe brings together my Palestinian self an my sweet potato loving southern self together.


3 medium to large sweet potatoes cubed

2 medium to large regular potatoes cubed

1 large onion chopped

2 cups lentil

A piece of ginger (2 inches long)

1 cube chicken bullion in 2 L of boiled water (you can use chicken broth)

1 Tbsp Butter

Salt to taste


  1. Heat your sauce pan and add the butter to melt

2. Add the chopped onions and saute until they become clear

3. Add the sweet and regular cubed potatoes and sprinkle with salt

4. Stir around a bit then lower the heat and cover the pot for a minutes allowing the potatoes to steam cook and become tender

5. Add the washed lentils stir a bit

6. Add the water and chicken bullion, bring to a roaring boil then let simmer until everything is cooked (around 30 mi)

7. Turn the heat off, allow soup to cool, then pure using a blender

8. Pour the pured soup in a pot and warm before serving

9. Serve with lemons and a dash of ground cumin.

Orange Cake

Oranges are a Palestinian national treasure, a staple on our tables, and most definitely in our desserts. Orange cake makes an appearance on birthday tables, and with afternoon coffee and tea. We have all grown up eating orange cake, some are made with semolina and drenched with kater (qater) , others made with flour and decorated with a sugar based glaze. The recipe below is adapted from vibrant book of Palestine on a Plate and have been changed in many ways to reflect my style and love for baking and cake decorating. It is one of my attempts to make Palestinian orange cake into a layered cake.


3-4 oranges (depending on size)

115 g butter

115 g olive oil

250 g sugar

6 egg whites

437 g flour

3 Tbsp Baking Powder

5 drops vanilla flavoring or 2 tsp vanilla extract

For the Butter Cream

340 g Butter

680 g powdered sugar sifted

40-60 mL whole milk

2 tsp vanilla extract or 5 drops vanilla flavoring (whatever is available).

Edible Gold Dust for dusting.

To Make The Cake

  1. Boil the three oranges for 30 minutes in turning water, let cool for a while, until you are able to handle them. Then cut up, remove seeds and puree in a food processor.
  2. Sift flour, and measure baking powder.
  3. In a bowl of a stand mixer or using a hand mixer, whip the olive oil and the butter together for a minute, add the sugar and continue whipping until mixture is light and airy. Slowly add the egg whites, and continue whipping at medium speed. The mixture should become more fluffy and soft.
  4. Add baking powder to orange pure and stir, the mixture will start to bubble.
  5. Switch from whisk to paddle attachment on your stand mixer and alternate adding the flour and the orange-baking powder puree. Once all are incorporated, add the vanilla.
  6. Allow the batter to rest while you grease and line three 9 inch round pans. Preheat over to 170 C.
  7. Divide the batter into the three pans, and bake each layer around 16-20 minutes, depending on your oven. Check with a toothpick, if center comes out clean, remove immediately.
  8. Allow to cool, then turn over and remove parchment paper from the bottom.

To Make The Butter Cream:

1. Sift 680 g of powdered sugar.

Place 340 g of butter into the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the butter for a minute. Add the lemon juice and vanilla (if you are adding any) and continue beating. I like to add my flavors to the butter first before adding the sugar.


2. Start adding the sugar 1/4 cup at a time. Please be sure to add slowly and allow the sugar to incorporate so that you continue to have a smooth buttercream and avoid graininess.


3. Halfway through adding the sugar, add 60 mL of room temperature-warm milk. Whisk well then continue to add the sugar.

To Decorate a Regular Cake:

  1. I made a chocolate butter cream along with the vanilla butter cream for the filling, in addition to the ingredients for the butter cream above add 4 Tbsp chocolate powder.
  2. Once the chocolate butter cream is ready, place one layer on the turn table and apply a generous layer of chocolate butter cream, place the second cake, make sure it is level. Here you want to get in there really, and make sure everything is sitting right. Add the final layer.
  3. Add a crumb coat and smooth it out. Refrigerate for thirty minutes.
  4. Add another butter cream layer and smooth out for a final look

For the Crescent Cake:

  1. Carve out the shape of a large Crescent. You can find templates on the internet, just print them in the size that you need and use it to guide your carving. I eyeballed it and it worked well.
  2. Apply crumb coat to the crescent, refrigerate for thirty minutes.
  3. Apply a final coat in the color you prefer, and decorate as you wish. I used star cut out and dusted them edible gold dust to capture the Ramadan Spirit at the time.

Palestinian Coconut Layer Cake

Coconut cake soaked with qater (Sugar Syrup) is a staple in many Palestinian homes and across the Levant: Jordan, Syria and Lebanon to name a few. It is usually made as a one layer cake then served warm or chilled with tea or coffee. Simple, but absolutely delicious. Some versions use semolina, others use flour.

I am presenting today, my own version of coconut cake, which still can very much be made into a one layer cake, or it can be made into a layered cake. I developed this recipe especially for Ahmed (my husband’s) birthday.

What you will find is a meeting of East and West. Middle eastern notes of rose water and lemon, come through and mix with vanilla and creamy butterness in the cake icing…exactly what I want to accomplish when I set out to make this cake


For The Cake:

115 g Butter (room temperature)

115 g Canola oil

300 g sugar

2 tsp vanilla extract

5 drops vanilla flavoring

6 large egg whites (room temperature)

360 mL Yogurt thinned with water

1/4 cup Labaneh

437 g Cake Flour

100-150 g Coconut Shaving

For the Syrup

60 mL Lemon Juice

175 mL Water

175 g Sugar

2 Tsp Rose Water

For the Butter Cream

340 g Butter

60 mL Lemon Juice

40-60 mL whole milk or cream (slightly warm)

680 g Powdered (Icing Sugar)

5 drops vanilla flavoring

10 mL Rose Water

30 mL Lemon Juice

Various gel food coloring.

Edible Gold Dust


For the Cake:

1. Separate egg whites and let stand. Cream oil, butter and sugar until they become light in color and fluffy. Add egg whites gradually and continue to whisk using stand mixer or hand mixer until it becomes white in color and fluffy.





2. In the mean time, sift the flour and baking powder, measure coconut, labaneh, and yogurt and switch from the whisk to the paddle attachment.


3. Start by adding the labaneh. Then alternate the flour, yogurt, and coconut. Make sure that every time you continue to scrap the sides every now and then. Add 2 tsp vanilla extract and 5 drops vanilla falvoring


4. Pre-heat the oven to 180 C while allowing the cake batter to rest. The batter will double in size.

5. Divide the batter into three cake pans greased and lined with parchment paper.


7. Place pan in the oven and take down temperature to 160 C. Bake each layer for 20 minutes watching closely and checking with a toothpick before taking out of the oven. Please do not open your oven door the first 15 minute. Start checking the cake after fifteen minutes. Depending on the heat of your oven, the cake should be ready in twenty minutes or so.

For the Syrup

Mix 125 mL lemon juice with 175 mL water and 150 g sugar. Bring to a gentle boil. Let it simmer until syrup thickens slightly, then remove from the heat.

Add 2 tsp rose water and let the syrup cool for a few minutes, then pour onto baked layers, one layer at a time.

Vanilla, Lemon and Rose Butter Cream

1. Sift 680 g of powdered sugar.

Place 340 g of butter into the bowl of a stand mixer, using the whisk attachment, beat the butter for a minute. Add the lemon juice and continue beating.


2. Start adding the sugar 1/4 cup at a time. Please be sure to add slowly and allow the sugar to incorporate so that you continue to have a smooth buttercream and avoid graininess.


3. Halfway through adding the sugar, add 60 mL of room temperature-warm milk along with vanilla flavoring and rose water

Finish adding the sugar.

4. If you are going to use this butter cream with various colors, divide into different bowls and add the coloring to each separately. I used Turquoise, purple and orange gel color to produce three different colors.

I then created the water color illusion using the three colors.

For a magical touch, I finished the cake with gold dust. See Gallery below!

Cake Decoration

Happy Birthday!

Lemonade Summer Round and Ramadan Round

This is a very simple recipe:

For every one cup of lemon juice add 1.5-2 cups sugar. Stir at room temperature for a couple of days until all sugar has dissolved. Pour into clean dry glass bottles and seal.

Ready to be poured into the

Bring out one bottle at a time. Use 1-1.5 cups of lemon syrup in a large pitcher, pour 1L of water and add ice…Enjoy the lemonade!

Tomato and Onion Salad

This is a simple recipe, for what could be the most perfect salad of my childhood. Salata Fallahiyyeh is a staple on every breakfast table in Palestine.  You can serve it with breakfast dishes like Manae’sh, Ijjeh (egg fritters), Falafel, Zaatar o Zait (fool), or you can use it to garnish labaneh and spruce it up, or fava beans.  I have even served the traditional version as an appetizer with tortilla chips and yogurt. The traditional version is made with finely chopped tomatoes, onions (red, white or green, depending on what is available) and a dressing of lemon, olive oil and salt.

I have seen modern versions of it were tomatoes are sliced in larger pieces with slices of red onions. And what I share with you here, errs on the modern side.

This may seem like a simple and easy recipe, which for all technical reasons it is. However, I think it is far more significant than just a simple salad. Tomatoes are a life line crop in Palestine. In the winter, with the cold weather, and restrictions imposed on Gaza transporting produce to the West Bank, tomatoes can become expensive ( a conversation I am going to delve into in a later piece).

Palestinian baladi tomatoes taste earthy. When sliced open, the smell of acidity and sweetness travel through your nostrils and awaken your taste buds. You can almost smell the nitrogen rich earth they were grown in.  

This salad has a sister, which is also a staple on the Palestinian table, where vegetables, usually freshly picked from the land, like green onions, cucumbers, bell peppers and lettuce accompany the tomatoes. A simple chopped salad dressed with freshly harvested, Palestinian olive oil known for its sharp after taste, and fresh lemon juice and salt.

Sometimes the greatest gastronomical pleasures are found in the simplest of things.


Two to three large tomatoes sliced

1 medium red onion (2 small ones)

One to two lemons juiced (depending on the time of the year, and the amount of juice the lemons have)

Sea Salt to Taste

2-3 Tbsp of Olive Oil

1 square of Arabic Cheese

Served on its own with a piece of warm bread and olives.

To Make the Salad:

  • Slice the tomato into two longitudinal halves and then slice each piece into half circles.
  • Layer into your salad bowl
  • Slice the onions into thin needles and layer on top of the tomatoes
  • Sprinkle the salad with sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil.
  • Cut the white cheese into thin rectangles.
  • Heat a skillet until sizzling hot, and place the cheese on it until it is golden brown on both side. Place on top of your salad.
  • Serve your salad with Ijjeh, or Hummus, or on its own!


Salad served with Ijjeh (Egg fritters)

Ftayer B’Za’atar (Za’atar or Thyme Pastries)

There is much to be said about Za’atar, and I want the opportunity to write elaborately. I will revisit Za’atar on another day when my to do list is a bit less overwhelming than a Pacific Ocean tsunami.

For now I am going to keep it simple with a brief intro, a recipe and a method.

While Mana’esh is shared throughout the Middle East particularly the Levant, fteer b’za’atar is, in my opinion, unique to Palestine and Palestinian farmers in particular. The fresh Za’atar is captivating. In its velvety thick leaves there is an aromatic lightness that opens up your heart and lungs.

I think ftayer b’za’atar is an acquired taste. A flavor you grow to love as you age. What I love the most about this is the roundness of the dough mixed with the sharpness of za’atar (Thyme) and the earthiness of olive oil. If you add a tinge of yogurt to every bite, I can guarantee you will demolish one pastry at a time without knowing it.


For the Dough

1 kg flour

1 cup vegetable (or canola) oil

3 tbsp powdered milk

3 tbsp yeast

4 tsp sugar

salt (a generous pinch, go ahead make it a Palestinian pinch)

3-4 cups of warm water

Zaatar Filling

8 generous cups of fresh Zaatar leaves (Thyme Leaves)

1 large white onion finely chopped

1 medium red onion finely chopped

Salt to taste

Olive oil to coat the leaves.


  1. The Dough: I like to start by activating the yeast. Dissolve the sugar and dried milk in one cup of warm water, then sprinkle the yeast and stir thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap and leave to ferment. You should start seeing some bubbles forming. In some of the baking books I have seen, you can add a little bit of flour to make what is called a sponge. Here I like to simply activate the yeast, no need to complicate things.
  2. Add flour into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough handle. Slowly add the oil and mix on medium speed continuously scraping the sides of the container with a plastic spatula.
  3. Once the oil and flour are well incorporated, you will have a crumbly mixture, add the activated yeast and continue mixing. Add the remaining water slowly until you have a soft and shaggy dough dough. Here you need to be courageous enough to add the water, but observant and deliberate not to turn your dough into a sticky batter. If you add too much water, gradually add 1 Tbsp at a time of flour until the dough is soft but holds together. If the dough is dry, then up the courage a bit, and add more water.
  4. I like to divide my dough and place into two separate well oiled bowls, but one big oiled bowl will do too. Then cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise for thirty minutes, while you prepare the filling. On cold days, I warm the oven to about 50 C and place the covered dough in there after turning it off
  5. The Filling: Za’atar smells incredible when it is fresh. One whiff is enough to open up your airways and expand your lungs. Za’atar also collects a lot of soil on its leaves. Wash it under running water until it runs clean.
  6. Squeeze the leaves well to get rid of access water and place into a bowl
  7. Add the chopped onions, the salt and drizzle a generous amount of olive oil. Mix together. You want well coated leaves so feel free to add more oil if you feel like it is still dry. Start with a small amount mix and then slowly add more oil as needed.
  8. Stuffing: Take the risen dough out and immediately cut into balls. Leave them to rise for ten minutes again.
  9. Oil your working surface (I used a baking pan as my working surface). I coated it with a generous amount of canola oil. Using my fingers I spread the dough into a square/rectangular shape, then sprinkle a handful of za’atar filling in the middle. Fold the side edges inwards, followed by the top and bottom edge. The pastry should now look like a small envelop. Press with your fingers until it takes on a rectangular shape. It is ok if the dough has some holes and the za’atar is peaking through.
  10. Repeat until all the filling and all the dough are finished.
  11. Allow the stuffed and shaped dough to rest for another 10-15 minutes.

  1. Baking: You can bake these in a preheated over (190 C). Or you can cook them on the stove top (I like mine baked in the oven). Oil the baking pans you plan to use and place two to three pieces at a time (depending on size). Bake for 10 minutes or until the bottom is light golden brown, flip and brown the other side.
  2. Pull out of the oven and allow to cool.
  3. Serve warm with yogurt, tomatoes and cucumbers!

Chocolate Cake

This is a recipe of my own, that took several years of trying various ingredients to get to where we are, and I expect there will be many improvements to be made in the coming years. For now here it is!!!


360 g Flour

295 g Softened-melted butter ( i like to have some of the butter in liquid form, and the rest in solid soft form)

1.5 cups sugar

5 eggs at room temperature

1 cup yogurt

1 Tbsp vinegar or lemon juice (or any acid you have, orange juice works too)

4 tsp baking powder

90 g coco powder

a pinch of salt

a pinch of baking soda


  1. Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease and line pans with parchment papers ( two 9 inch pans, 1 sheet pan, or cupcakes)
  2. Start by whipping your butter in a stand mixer (using the paddle extension) or a hand mixer until it is soft, light and has almost doubled in size. Add your sugar and continue mixing.
  3. Add one egg at a time ensuring that each egg is completely incorporated before adding the next one. Add a pinch of salt.
  4. Sift the flour, coco, and baking soda together.
  5. Add the baking powder, to the yogurt and lemon juice and stir. The mixture will start bubbling.
  6. While the mixer is on low speed alternate adding the dry ingredients and the yogurt, scraping off the sides frequently. Optional: you can thin out your yogurt with a little bit of water or add two to three tbsp of water to the batter.
  7. Once the mixture is fully incorporated add turn off your mixer, remove the bowl and fold the mixture using a spatula to ensure that all ingredients are mixed in and nothing is stuck on the sides. The batter is thick and has a chocolate pudding consistency.
  8. Spoon the patter into two 9 inch round pans filling 2/3 of each, or one sheet cake pan. Or scoop into cupcake carton cups (1 ice cream scoop per cup, depending on size). Allow to rest for ten minutes. (Optional: lick the batter or have your children lick the batter that is left on the spatula)
  9. Place in the oven at 180 C and prop your oven door for ten minutes with a wooden spoon, then take down the temperature to 150 C and bake for another 30 minutes at least.
  10. You can also use the water bath method for baking the cake at 160 C (see Lemon and Yogurt Cake for this method)
  11. When a toothpick is inserted and nothing comes out your cake is ready. Do not check the cake until at least 30 minutes have passed.
  12. Take out of the oven and let cool in pans before turning out.
  13. You can dust with icing sugar, or make your favorite butter cream.

Um Ali and Damascus

Revenge is best served cold…but if you are an Egyptian Princess from the Fatimy Dynasty, then it is warm, silky and sweet….

It is said that Um Ali is a dessert that dates back to the Fatimy Dynasty in Egypt, and that this dish is what sweet revenge tastes like.  First made by Um Ali after killing Shajart Al Dur, the dish has also been known as Halawet El Dam, or sweetness of blood in Egypt.  The dish mixes bread (or croissant) or any type of thick dough with milk, butter, sugar and an assortment of spices, nuts and dried fruits, and it holds a light almost golden color that is definitely far from red blood.

My first time tasting Um Ali was in Damascus, October 2010.  It was my first time in Syria as well. I travelled through the Jiser (also known as the Allenby Bridge), the only way out of the West Bank, through Jordan, and by land to Damascus.  The trip was tedious to say the least. The humiliation of Jiser never changes, the long ride to the Jordanian-Syrian border, and then the several hour delay (two hours if I recall) was a far cry from the beauty that awaited me in Damascus.

Damascus is beautiful, period.  It is almost as if you are continuously traveling through time, moving into the mystical Omayyed period and back to the modern hustle and bustle of the present. Out of my hotel window, we stayed at the lavish and luxurious Four Season’s Hotel, stood the Omayyad Mosque, proud and austere; a live testimony of the beautiful Bilad Al Sham, the cradle of many civilizations, and just five minutes away, you could get easily lost in the labyrinth of Souq Al Hameediyyeh. 

The two day trip wore me down, but the love, hospitality, and incredible cuisine that greeted me the following morning, soothed my whip lashed headache.  See, Palestinians have a complicated relationship with their neighboring countries.  Most of whom, fled Palestine in 1948 and again in 1967 live to this day in refugee camps peppered through Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Never fully assimilated into the country they sought refuge in; their paper work never fully normalized, Palestinian refugees remain trapped in time, neither home nor every made to feel at home.  And for those of us who still live in Palestine namely the West Bank, the relationship is even far more complicated and complex, filled with political calculations of peace treaties, Oslo accords, acceptance of the Palestinian Authority, support for armed resistance and much more. A more difficult equation than the genetic algorithms I used in my PhD. 

But away from politics and political leaders, I was received with unwavering love and warmth  from my fellow Syrian colleagues and friends. To them I came from the land of honey, and olive oil, the land of sumood and resistance, and their hospitality was heart warming. 

On my first morning, I managed to pull myself out of bed and drag my heavy headache down for breakfast, and there I met Um Ali for the first time, bread soaked with sweet milk and butter, crunchy yet tender.   Like my friends, Um Ali greeted me with folds of tenderness, and layers of taste that engulfed my mouth and traveled warmly down my throat.  

Everything else about Damascus was like that first bite of Um Ali, layered with history, smells of spices, amazing stories and best of all  incredible hospitality.  I still regret not buying that handmade table cloth from Sooq El Hameediyyeh, with its elegantly matching napkins. Little did I know at the time that I would get married in a year’s time and would find myself wishing for it at every dinner table, especially as Syria hastily spiraled into war soon after I was there and the prospects of me, the Palestinian visiting it again, are next to none. 

Less than a year later the Syrian revolution began, and I watched how quickly the situation deteriorated, how fast Syria fell under the claws of so many who clearly were waiting for her to fall, like a beautiful doe surrounded by hungry wolves; she seemed trapped in an eternal fight for her life.  

The brutality from the inside out and the outside in, the loss of human lives, and the bloody stories that came out of Syria were a jarring contrast to the beauty, history and elegance that greeted me in Damascus, and the love and warmth that engulfed me.   Often as I listened to news from Syria, my mind would wander back to that first morning and that first bite of Um Ali and a dehumanizing feeling of helplessness would wash over me. 

Syrians are the best cooks in the Middle East.  Their food touches you deep down in the folds of your soul.  And while many of their dishes are common place to other middle eastern tables, their tabbouleh seems to taste better, their kibbeh is crunchy on the outside soft on the inside and it is never overcooked, or undercooked.  One dish in particular that had me spinning around my own self in pleasure is the Aleppo Kabab with cherry molasses.  The combination of sweet and meat is simply a stroke of genius. 

Damascus streets are lined with all kinds of restaurants, the authentic Syrian,  the modern fusion,  and the Italian pasta and pizzeria place.  Syrians could take any dish from anywhere in the world and bring it to life, as if literally blowing spirit and soul into it.  I had the best Pizza of my life in Damascus. So it comes at no surprise to me  that  they would take Um Ali and prepare it even better than anywhere else in the Middle East. 

 Um Ali is a dish that came out of  revenge and blood.  A first wife’s (Um Ali’s) loyalty to her husband, the sultan, and her attempt to save him from his second wife (Queen Shajarat El Dur) plotting his murder.

The irony that a dish of revenge and blood would taste so sweet and warm is inescapable.  The irony that my first contact with such sweetness and warmth came in Damascus is especially painful now, and leaves me only praying that warmth and peace will wrap its fragile hands around  Syria soon. 


(recipe adapted from Manal Al Alem, video link below)

4 Egg Yolks

6 cups milk

120 g butter

1 1/3 cup sugar

1 Tbsp Vanilla

10 croissants/ or 10 large puff pastries baked

1/3 Cup sliced Walnuts

1/3 Cup Coconut flakes

1/3 Cup almonds

1/3 Cup rasins

1 Tbsp Cinnamon

1/4 tsp cloves

1/4 tsp nutmeg (optional)

1 cup whipped cream

2 Tbsp Honey

Zest of one lemon

1 tbsp of rose water

1tsp of orange blossom water

To Make Um Ali

  1. Bake your puff pastry then cut into pieces and place into your over safe dish.  I like to use my Fokhara for this, don’t hesitate if you have one.  
  2. Add the milk, the butter and the sugar into a heavy sauce pan.  Slowly simmer on a medium to low heat, stirring regularly.  Separate your eggs and beat the egg yolks.  Once the milk and butter are warm enough, temper your eggs by adding a few small ladles of the warm mixture to the eggs and beating them. Do not add too much milk, because this will cook your eggs too quickly.  
  3. Add the egg yolks mixture to the milk and stir until the mixture slightly thickens.  Turn off the heat.
  4. In an oven safe container, add the puffed pastries (brake into medium sizes), the fruits, the nuts and spices along with the coconut shavings. Pour the custard mixture on top and let stand while you make the whipped cream.
  5. Whip the cream with honey and lemon zest until it gives you stiff peaks.  You can load into a piping bag and pipe it on top of the mixture or you can simple spoon it and spread it even on top.
  6. Bake in the oven for 15 minutes or until the mixture starts to bubble and the cream starts to turn gold in color. Take out of the oven, allow it to cool for 5-10 minutes then serve.



Lemons and Yogurt Cake

Lemon Cake with sugar nests lit by birthday candles

When I first set out to make this cake it was really an attempt to make a Gin and Tonic Cake for my brother-in-law’s fiftieth birthday. Seeing that he is quite the eligible bachelor, I thought that a funky recipe would be far more appropriate than a classic one. 

But you know by now that my search for the perfect cake is wrapped around the notion of reimagining Palestinian ingredients, because in Palestine you grow with this great sense of who you are, where you  were born, and how you are viewed by the rest of the world.  And with that deep sense of self, comes an even deeper sense of responsibility, the Palestinian woman’s/man’s burden if you will.  

An what starts as a hobby and an attempt to escape the daily stress of raising children, serving a community, doing laundry and cooking,  inevitably turns into a documentation project of Palestinian cuisine, trying to add an authentic voice  to the many voices and opinions on food and Palestine. 

So here we are,  what started as an attempt at the BBC  Good Food recipe took a turn half way through into a recipe of my own using two very important ingredients and products of Palestine: Lemons and Yogurt.

The lemons used here are homegrown, and their smell and taste take me back to the endless citrus orchards my aunt owned, and duly harvested every year in Ellar, a small village near Tulkarem.  But more significantly is the reminiscence of Yafa and its beautiful citrus orchards ever so present in Palestinian literature and discourse. 

Recently I was reading the memoir of Tamam Al Akhal.  She tells of her time as a child in Yafa, and the day they left  to become refugees in Lebanon, it was the smell of oranges that haunted her memories, and her work.  And the story of Ester (written by Raja Shehadeh), a Palestinian from Yafa who buried her jewellery between two lemons in her backyard, as she fled the city. When she left, Ester believed that this departure was only temporary and that she will soon return.

Many years later she pleads with her priest to go back and dig up the box. And he obliges her and sets on what could have easily turned into a deadly misadventure only  to find the lemon trees standing there as she described, slightly bigger in size, witness to a changed time accented with loss and yearning.  The home was inhabited by an Israeli family who took it over in 1948, and who were either blissfully oblivious to or completely unmoved by the fact that they live in a home that was lost by another family at gun point.  A family that found themselves living   an hour away from Yafa yet unable to return home.  

Yogurt is a staple in Palestine, served with olive oil and hot bread, or cooked into a thick soup with stuffed kusa (Makhshi), or with large pieces of cooked lamb and rice.  Yogurt tends to make its appearance on the daily Palestinian table, and is without a doubt a childhood favorite for many.  My discovery of yogurt in cakes dates back to about seven years ago, when I wast trying a chocolate cake recipe, and a friend suggested that I use yogurt to give it moisture.  Since then, many of my recipes will use yogurt very often in place of butter milk.  


For the Cake

250 g butter (room temp) 

200 g sugar

250 g all purpose flour

4 eggs (room temp)

80 g Palestinian Yogurt 

1 juice of a lemon (if they are small use 1.5-2 lemons, depending on how much juice you get) 

2 1/4 tsp baking powder

a dash of salt (1/4 tsp)

a dash of baking powder (1/4 tsp) 

50 mL Gin (if you wish to make add alcohol, if not just add a bit of water to the yogurt to make a bit more soupy around 20 mL should do). 

For The Syrup

150 mL Seven up or Sprite

125 g Sugar

The juice of one lemon (if small use 1.5 to 2) 

You can add: 1 Tbsp of Orange Blossom water or 1Tbsp of Rose water (whichever one you prefer, I personally find orange blossom to balance out the lemon juice) 

For the Icing

200 g butter (room temp)

2 Tbsp warm milk

5 mL lemon juice

Zest of a lemon

400 g powdered sugar (if you want a thicker icing add around 500 g) 

For the Sugar Nests

2 cups sugar 

A sauce pan 

To Make The Cake and Syrup

  1. Grease to 9 inch pans and line the bottom with parchment paper, preheat oven to 150/160 C. 
  2. In a bowl of a stand mixer beat the butter for 1-2 min on medium speed, slowly add the 200 g of sugar and beat on medium speed for five minutes (I personally time this, because technique is everything, and the butter really needs to be smooth and aired out).  The butter-sugar mixture will lighten and double in size.  
  3. Lower the speed of your mixer and add the eggs, one egg at a time.  Make sure the egg is fully mixed in before adding the following one.  You may notice after the third egg the mixture is separating, do not worry, add your last egg and a little bit of your flour and make sure the mixture is well incorporated. 
  4. Add your flour, you may fold it in by hand, i like to add it one Tbsp at a time on a low to medium speed in the mixer. Once the flour is mixed in. Mix 80 g yogurt with the juice from the lemons, and thin it out with about 10-20 mL of cold water if needed. If the yogurt is a bit on the thin side, reduce or do not add the water at all. Once the yogurt is mixed in, you will get a silky smooth batter. 
  5. Spoon the batter equally into the pans and smooth it out.  
  6. Baking using the water bath method: take a large kitchen towel and fold into a tube. Place your pan into a larger pan and wrapt it with the towel. Add boiling water on the towel and around it (make sure the towel is soaked).  Place into the oven and bake for 35-38 min, or until a skewer comes out clean. This method will give you flat cakes with no doming. You can do away with the towel and simply place your pan in a water bath, but the towel method is cleaner and easier to handle. 
  7. In the mean time make your syrup. Add the sugar (125 g) and the Seven up or Sprite (150 mL) into a sauce pan, bring to a boil until all the sugar has dissolved, add the lemon juice and cook for another 6-7 min, it should start to thicken.  It needs to be runnier than katr . Remove from heat, cool and add your orange blossom water or rose water, stir and let stand until the cakes are ready. 
  8. When the cakes are ready, pull out of the oven, cool for five minutes, then prick the surface at several points and spoon your syrup on both cakes generously.  Let them stand to cool in the refrigerator for at least one hour. 

To Make the Butter Cream

In a stand mixer beat the butter for a minute or two then slowly add the powdered sugar using a spoon, making sure that the sugar is fully incorporated, add the zest of one lemon, 5 mL of lemon juice and 2 Tbsp of warmed milk. Add all components gradually making sure that the butter cream doesn’t begin to separate and become grainy. Don’t use cold milk it will cause your mixture to separate. 

To Make the Sugar Nests:

In a small sauce pan add the two cups sugar and heat on medium heat, stirring frequently so the bottom of the sugar does not burn. The sugar will start to melt rather quickly, continue to stir until the sugar is completely liquid and brown to dark brown in color. Remove from heat and cool for a few minutes (around five). Check with your fork, swirl your fork and then pull it out, it should drizzle in a continuous stream for this to work. If the sugar is too hot, it wont work, because it won’t be continuous.  Grease a ladle, pick your sugar syrup with a fork and drizzle on the back of the ladle in random swirls, lines or whatever you like. For this cake, I made twelve or more nests. 

Watch this video that my friend sent me and I found very useful to get a better idea. 

Assemble the Cake

Place your first layer on a turn table and cover with a generous amount of icing, spread with a spatula, then place the next layer and cover with the icing.  Using an icing spatular cover the sides generously, you may make little curves into the icing to give movement.  Carefully arrange the sugar nest on top of each other forming a random pile.  Allow the cake to cool for a bit in the fridge before serving.