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
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.
Prepare your dry ingredients: in a bowl whisk together the flour, semolina, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This entry has no other purpose but to bring you joy on this second day of the year two thousand and nineteen. Because baking and food are a passion, and Christmas is my favorite time of the year, and because Christmas in Palestine and particularly in Ramallah is a holiday for all, we host a big family Christmas Eve Dinner and a rather loud New Year’s Eve Party….The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, right as we go into winter break, is magical. I leave behind me the worries of the first semester and enter my fantasy land of baking, cooking, and gift wrapping. My children are still in Santa and Elf land, and for that I am thankful.
I am thankful that their innocence has so far been preserved. I know that this magical land will not last much longer, be it because they are getting older, or the reality of this country that we live in, where very little hope much less magic seems to survive. But I also hope that as they get older, they will find comfort in this enchanted world, a place rich in imagination, and will take their own children to it.
During this week, time seems to be suspended in thin air, and the realities of life blurred out and replaced by a world of Christmas trees, presents, plans, cooking and baking. It is a happy and safe place, in a far away land, where owls deliver the mail, and that can only be reached on a magical train off of Platform 9 3/4.
To capture all the magic, the hope, and the love, a cake of fairytale proportion had to be created… And below I share with you its making. The cake was first inspired by Red Velvet Christmas Tree Cake created by Style Sweet Daily CA
I will say this before I leave you with those pictures, I am blessed to be able to escape to this world every year. December in Palestine has a special glow to it. Palestinians of all backgrounds share the celebrations of Christmas, and exchange Holiday greetings. A friend of mine notes on his Facebook account and in his article in this month’s edition of This Week in Palestine, “that Palestine is probably the first in the Arab World, if not in the World, in the number of inter-faith Holiday Greetings.” And I can only hope that December will continue to light up with the brightest of Christmas lights, and the warmest of Holiday Greetings, despite all.
In Palestine we must work hard to preserve our humanity, and sometimes a little imagination, and a dash of fantasy remind us of that and help us persevere in the face of a very real occupation. “Fantasy (after all) is a necessary ingredient in living.” (Dr. Suess).
Here, the Christmas spirit is well and alive; interfaith holiday greetings crowd news feeds on all social media platforms as Muslims and Christians share in the holiday cheer; for we, Palestinians of all faiths and backgrounds, are entrusted to guard the diverse social fabric that makes us. This is the land of Christ, and sharing Christmas with each other goes beyond the religious ritual and becomes a cultural obligation to preserve the Palestinian narrative and identity.
In reality, we are not blind nor deaf to the alternative narratives on Palestine that sprout everywhere in the world. But the truth is, the brightness of December, the generosity of Ramadan, and the sounds of prayer calls mixed with church bells ringing is at the heart of Palestinian resistance and perseverance against all odds. Plurality, love and tolerance must endure…much like the Christmas spirit!
Sure it is not all Christmas cookies and imaginative cakes, as social medial might imply, but I hear brave voices rising to preserve the pluralistic Palestinian narrative against a more fundamental and rather new discourse trying to impose itself. We are the guardians of this culture and we must do everything we can to preserve the magic of December…We need to raise our children immersed in the Christmas story, so that they may be entrusted to preserve our identity…
Ok, ok I said it will bring you joy, so I will stop now and share with you the photo story below!
Making the Cake
For this cake I used five 9 inch layers and one 8 inch layers, I then sculpted it into the shape I wanted. The cake topper was made from the cake pieces that came out of sculpting. There is really no rule on how to make this cake, your imagination is the limit. I also felt that bigger layers can always be made smaller but smaller layers cannot be made bigger. I wanted a high rising cake, something monumental. Something that matches the enchantment of the week, because even as I write this , reality is banging on my door, and I am trying very hard to hold on to what is left of the magic for one more day.
After the baking was finished and with ample encouragement from my friends and family, there was layering with butter cream. I used a simple vanilla butter cream recipe, but added to it 1/4 of a tablespoon almond essence to offset the sweetness and give it a marzipan after taste. When creating the layers, be sure to add the butter cream on each layer, cool in the fridge then stack on top of each other.
Then I set out to carving two portions, the bottom which will remain around 9 inches with a bit of tapering up to 8 inches, and the top part which will taper to around 6 inches. This is fun and messy, and must be done with intention. One wrong cut and your entire shape is gone! I also used plastic straws instead of cake dowels, they worked just as well to give extra support.
The top of the cake was made from cake crumbs and butter cream shaped into a cone around two plastic straws, a rather large cake pop! Then a crumb coat of butter cream was slathered and smoothed out. The cake was set in the fridge until green buttercream was made. The same recipe was used with green gel food coloring was added to the milk and stirred well before adding it to the icing sugar and butter whip.
When you make your butter cream wrap in cling film and roll it into long tubes. . Simply cut open the plastic wrap and place into the piping bag. No mess no fuss!!! (sorry didn’t get a photo of this). Then using the star tip, the attempt to create the illusion of evergreen pine tree leaves began!
And there were plenty of helpers to take photos, and videos and take over the piping when my Carpel Tunnel started to act out! My twins had a blast and were begging to do the whole thing.
Slowly but surely we made progress….
With many stops on the way to make more butter cream, the cake was finally complete and moved into the refrigirator.. An extra bonus a la carte making this cake was that my entire fridge was taken apart, and cleaned to make way for the cake! A cake of fantastical proportion and shape!
No enchanted Christmas tree is complete without a dusting of edible gold glitter dust, and strawberries and small golden sugar balls for decorations.
Fourteen hours later, the task was complete. Around 1.5 kg of butter, and around 5 kg of icing sugar, give or take, were used to complete the look. I am still dusting glitter off my pots and pans two days later…The cake was cut and distributed to loved ones and family. Each had a taste of the fantasy and the magic of this week….
Wishing you a joyful, peaceful and prospersous year!
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
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.
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.
Add the egg yolks mixture to the milk and stir until the mixture slightly thickens. Turn off the heat.
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.
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.
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.
When I first set out to make this cake it was really an attempt to make a Gin and Tonic Cakefor 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
Grease to 9 inch pans and line the bottom with parchment paper, preheat oven to 150/160 C.
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.
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.
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.
Spoon the batter equally into the pans and smooth it out.
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.
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.
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.
I love cake…As a child I would sneak into the kitchen to get an extra piece of left over cake that my mother baked for one of our birthdays. I could never get enough of the spongy, airy, sweet creation that was light enough to melt on my tougue, dense enough to leave a taste mark. My mother’s chocolate cake in particular was just that, and I could swear the air bubbles trapped in the cake itself tasted like chocoalte. Of course now I know that that the air trapped in cakes or even bread travels to the back of our mouths carrying aromatic compounds into our sinus cavities, enhancing our tasting experience and amplifying flavors. This is probably why spongy, airfilled cakes are an obsession for those of us who love to bake. My mother’s chocolate cake was all that and a bit more with a homemmade chocolate cream frosting that I do not have a recipe for, just a memory of a taste explosion in my mouth. Since then I have been in search of the perfect birthday cake. Along the road, I fell in love with spongy, white vanilla cakes and below I am sharing with you a recipe I developed after trying out so many. I cannot say it has been perfected, but I think it is worth a try..
375 g unsalted butter (room temperature)
375 g Confectionary Sugar
5 tsp vanilla
8 large eggs at room temp.
150 g Palestinian Yogurt (sour and delicious)
503 g all purpose flour.
51/4 tsp baking powder
5 tbsp water
For the frosting: Pick your favorite Buttercream frosting and go to town! I haven’t found the perfect recipe and I am still experimenting with the different ones I have.
In my search for the perfect cake, a quest that took a more serious commitment about four years ago, I discovered the origins of birthday cakes and celebrations. There isn’t one conclusive story on where birthday cake came from. It is thought that its orgin dates back to Ancient Egyptian celebrations of Pharoh coronations. They believed that when a new Pharoh was crowned they became a god, and they celebrated their “birth” by making a sweet bread like cake. This celebration was exculsive to pharoh’s coronations and not their actual birth, and meer mortals did not have birthdays at the time. The Egyptians were also the first to introduce the concept of Ka’ak El Eid (Kaak El Eid: A coming of Age Story ) so the fact that the tradition of celebrating birth with something sweet comes at no surprise. Considering that they were the first to invent bread, it is not surprising that they were the first to make birthday cakes, even if to celebrate the transcedence to immortality.
Preheat oven to 180 C. Pull out the eggs and butter from the fridge, and be patient with your self. Having eggs, and butter at room temperature is important and makes mixing the ingredients together easier and smoother.
Putting together wheat, water, fat, and sugar is truly fascinating… The discovery or the invention of bread, was certainly a turning point for us as a species. The ability to mix water, with flour and then bake it may have been the reason we survived. It is such a simple recipe, and with the addition of sugar, fat (butter or oil), chocolate, eggs, bread became more interesting, and cake was born.
Cream the butter, and the sugar together in a stand mixer at medium speed. Add the vanilla and eggs alternating egg, vanila. Sift your flour and whisk the baking powder in it.
The Ancient Greeks borrowed the clebration of pharohs “births” from the Egyptians to celebrate their goddess of the moon,Artemis, by offering her a round cake decorated with candles. The candles were lit to emmulate the glow of the moon and the goddess’s beauty. In both ancient Egypt and ancient Greece “birthday celebrations” were exculsive to religious figures. No comoner’s birthday was celebrated at the time.
Alternate the addition of flour and yogurt. Mix well until you have a homogeneous batter. Add the water one tbsp at a time and mix a little longer on medium speed.
Comoner’s brithdays were first celebrated during the Roman empire. Roman citizens held birthday parties for family and friends, while more famous citizens were celebrated by the government publically. Perhaps the most special birthday for Roman citizens was the fiftieth when a special cake made with wheat flour, honey and cheese was baked, and the half century old citizen was celebrated by their family and friends. I cannot help but wonder if the origins of the big five-O, or the big four-O birthday parties comes from this particular Roman empire tradition.
Interestingly enough, the birthday cakes mentioned above did not look anything like today’s versions. If anything they were cultural expressions of the places they orginated from. Wheat flour, cheese, honey were all abundant ingredients and it makes sense that they made an appearance in sweets.
Allow the cake to cool down, then cut into three layers. Decorate with your favorite chocolate butter cream icing. I use a recipe from the Better Homes Cookbook, but there are plenty of version online like the one from the Stay At Home Chef. The truth is, don’t be afraid to experiment with this until you find the perfect version for you.
Birthday cakes as we know them today are the creation of German bakers in the 18th century. Germany has a rich tradtion of baking, just take a look at their amazing cheese cakes, chocolate cakes, strudles and more. It is the home of the haute coutour version of chocolate cake, black forest cake. That the birthday cake came form German bakers is not surprising. Cakes, however, remained exclusive to the wealthy, because ingredients were considered a luxury. It wasn’t until the indsutrial revolution and mass production taking over the world, that they became readily available, and birthday cakes became a popular tradtion.
With that, the transformation of birthdays was complete. What started as the celebration of the immortal gods, became the celebration of the mortal human birth.
Birthday cakes take different shapes and forms, frosted, filled with fruits, filled with jelly, covered with sugar frosting, covered with nuts and drenched with katar (sugar syrup), but the purpose is the same; it is a an opportunity to be thankful and share in the joy of having completed another year on this earth. It is an opportunity to appreciate the belssings of sharing life with those we love. Life is a delicate gift that is never guaranteed and easily terminated. So go ahead take a bite of your birthday cake and thank God for another chance at life, so many may not have this opportunity.
Note: I would love to hear back from you after you tried the cake. You can email me at email@example.com or simply leave a comment. Advice, hints, recipes for butter cream frosting are all welcome!
The first time my mother made Kaak o Maamoul for Eid, I was around 12 maybe 13 years old. She did her research, and by research I mean she called friends, and visited with neighbours to understand how maamoul is made. The internet was the stuff of the future, and no one’s life was powered by Google at the time.
New recipes were shared frantically among friends, or discovered on an idle weekend morning while watching television, preferably the Syrian channel, because Syrians are the best at food.
Let me explain, back then you had access to about 5 channels. The Jordanian television (channels 1 and 2). The Israeli television; channel 1 in Arabic which you only watched for the 7:30 news and the Friday evening Arabi film, and Channel 2, which we never watched since we did not speak Hebrew. The Syrian television, channel 1, which we could watch only if the weather was clear. In the winter, someone had to go on the roof to adjust the antennaa to get a signal.
1 kg of Samolina
400 g margarine (two 200 g sticks)
2 ounces vegetable oil (or canoal oil)
1 kg of date paste (the good, owey goowy kind)
2 Tbsp Sugar
1 tsp Active Yeast
Rose Water (1 L)
Orange Blossom ( 1 L)
Mastic Gum ( 1 tsp)
Anise (2 Tbsp)
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp nutmeg
2 Tbsp olive oil
For the nut fillings you can use pistachios with honey, or walnuts with cinnamon. I always start with the dates because everyone loves the dates!
Preheat the oven to 185 C
So my mother researched kaak and maamoul making, bought the raw materials (ingredients listed above) and embarked on this new experiment. She stood in her small kitchen and started what we call Bass El Smeed (kneading the samolina). The Samolina is worked with the softened margarine by hand (these days I use a mixer, and it works beautifully), and is left to soak up the fat for at least one full day.
In a bowl, add the softened margarine (400 g) to the samolina ( 1000 g/ 1 kg) and mix until the samolina is crumbly and is well coated with the margarine. Add 2 0z of vegetable oil and mix a bit more. Let stand until the following day. The longer it stands the softer your samolina is and the more incorporated the fat is with it.
Then there were decisions to make, important ones. What should we use, the famous Ma’amoul mold, or the decorating tongues? In Tulkarem, my mother’s hometown, everyone used the mold. Those are hand made from wood, and you can still buy them from Nablus. There are also the made in china plastic molds (picutred below, but they are too slippery to use). The molds we use today are probably direct descendants of the molds used in Ancient Egypt, the origin of Ka’ak and Ma’amoul.
The Ancient Egyptians were ther first to make these cookies for a variety of occaions, and it is thought that they made around 100 variations in shapes and stuffing. Drawings on Pyramid walls detail the making and offering processes. Although this cookie continued to make its celebrated appearances throughout the history of Egypt, research indicates that it gained popularity during the Fatimy Dynasty rule, when a center “Dar Al Futra” was created especially to make what these cookies and everything else usually exchanged during Eid holidays.
One day later (or maybe two), ground your anise with your mastic gum (2 Tbsp of Anise and 1 Tsp of mastic gum) Add 1 Tbsp of the ground mix to your samolina with 2 Tbsp sugar, and 1 tsp active yeast.
Another important decision to make, a decision that will essentially become your siganture, is what will you work your samolina with? Orange blossom and rose water? Milk? Will you add a little bit of flour? Will you add mastic, what spices and herbs can you add? Or will you buy the ready spice mix? Every answer is a key ingredient to the kaak maker you become and the level of expertise you will be viewed to hold. For example a cookie made of only smeed (samolina) and decorated with tongues not the mold is often a sign of culinary mastery….
As you could have guessed, my mother, chose the all samolina, rose water and orange blosom recipe and from then on, spent years experimenting every Eid until she was finally happy with the outcome, and so where we. I have since then experimented with her recipe, and what I share with you is one version I found to gurantee a crumbly cookie that holds beautifully. We both use the tongue to decorate the cookies not the mold.
In a measuring cup, measure 200 mL of rose water and 100 mL of Orange blossom water. Add the water mix gradually to you dough and work with your hands until you have a maleable, slighly moist dough that does not stick to your hands. The art and magic is in this step. Too much water will make the dough difficult to work, and dry dough will crumble way before you put it in the oven.
Since its inception, Kaak making, was a team effort. The women in the family or in the Hara (the block) would get together to help each other. So for her first time making maamoul, my mother joined our neighbors at Um Amjad’s house. Together I believe ( I could be wrong) they made 12 kg of samolina which can easily translate to 24 kg of ready to eat cookies. I remeber my mother was gone for a couple of days, we were left to fend for ourselves. This meant we played with our bicycyles endlessly in the street and ate ridiculous amounts of ice-cream. She did come home to give us lunch, but left in a hurry to return to Um Amjad’s house.
We were not allowed near the kitchen for fear that our long hair will make it into the dough, or worse, that we would get burnt by the round electric ovens used to bake the cookies in. Both are equally tragic incidents that must be avoided at all costs.
Cut your dough into small balls. The balls should be smaller than the size of a golf ball, I think a generous pinch is the perfect size because you want enough dough to protect your tender date paste
In Um Amjad’s kitchen the sub taks at hand were divided amone the women. The one who mixed the rose and orange blossom water with the dough, the one who cut the dough into circles, the ones who rolled date paste into strings, the one who stuffed the dough , and the one who decorated the kaak.
In Ramallah, people opt for decorating tongues not molds. They are small tongues with a zizagged edge used to doecorate the cookie with patterns. It is thought that this pattern is meant to give the cookie the look of a crown similar to the one Jesus Christ wore during his Crucification. I am not sure of this fact though, and I will confirm it once I can. In Ramallah, almost everyone uses tongues, so no matter what the origin of the docoration is, the tradition clearly melted across religious lines and is now nothing but a sign that Easter and Eid are here! And the cookies are symbolic of the sweet reward after long days of fasting for both Christians during lent, and Muslims during Ramadan.
Mix your date paste with 1 Tbsp cinnamon, 1 tsp cloves, 1/4 tsp nutmeg and 2 Tbsp olive oil. Work the paste with your hands unitl evenly mixed. Cut into small balls. You can also roll out into short strings. Or you can keep in a lump and take a small amount for each cookie.
In many years to come, my mother would encourage us to help. We were charged with two tasks; rolling the date paste into strings, and if we proved to be trustworthy, we were asked to decorate the cookies which meant we could proudly boast about it when guests came to our home for Eid.
Take one ball, flatten it with your fingers into a circle; take a small amount of date paste and place in a ring on the insdie of the circle. Fold the dough over the dates and shape into a disk. Take the unsharpenned end of a pencil and make a whole in the center. Put down and repeat.
Making Kaak o’ Maamoul is a power play in one’s own kitchen. It is a mark that you are a force to be reckonned with. And it speaks volumes on kitchen power relations within a family. Palestinian (and Arab kitchens) much like other tratidional kitchens in the world are filled with power relations. Some are cross generational others are not; new bride vs. older women, new mother trying to establish her own traditions, unamarried daugther vs. daughters-in-law; unmarried daughters vs mother.
Kitchens are complex hieracial power houses. You can of course choose to look at them as a place where women are held in bondage; cooking, cleaning, barefoot, and unkept. Or you can re-iamgine them as places of bounty, fertility and love.
You can choose to imagine an unkept woman sweating her way through a summer afternoon while she makes ka’ak, or you can look passt the sweat and watch a rather curvacious goddess with a messy bun piled on top of her head, wiping away smudges of flour as she tenderly stuffs the cookies, decorates them and then relentlessly sears them in an unforgiving oven.
Using tognuges gently pinch the cookie all the way around in vertica lines. Pinch the top of the cookie in diagonal lines. Make sure you do it gently and you don’t over pinch that your date filling (or nut filling) is showing) Place on parchment paper and allow to rest for at least an hour.
She is perhaps a successful business woman, a well educated professor, a teacher, and a writer. Or she is staying at home to care for her children until they grow up. Women are complex and multilayered, and they are able to transition in and out of their kitchens into the work force with what seems like a lot of grace. They pursue everything they do with attention to detail, never compromising any, always expecting perfection.
Bake in a preheated oven at 185 C. Watch over your cookies carefully, and turn the pan twice. It will take about 10 minutes to bake, pull out just as the tops start to get a sligh golden brown color and let cool.
Kitchens are the womb of sustenance, the center in which our early identities are formed. They are symbols of perseverance acrosst the ages. If we did not learn to cook, we would not have survived as a species. And while the discourse on kitchens is often been associated with women opression, it might be worth entertaining the idea that kitchens are strongholds, not prisons, that a kitchen is the epicenter of our cultural identiy.
The most important conversations I had with my mother as a child were in the kitchen. The decision to study abroad, the news that I met someone I want to marry, the endless discussions of career choices, countless tears of joy, and just as many tears of pain. When my mother had a stent placed in one of her coronary arteries, the kitchen became my source of power, as I prepared the Eid meal for all of us and she watched over. I want us to dare to reimainge the kitchen as place where we are most human, because cooking is an essence of our humanity. What if we reclaim the kitchen narrative away from tradition and mysogynistic discourse.
Whether it is a co-op kitchen in Burj El Barajneh refugee camp in Lebanon where women cook traditional Palestinian dishes of their destoryed villages and sell them, or a large modern state of the art kitchen in a new home in Ramallah, where a PhD in Chemsitry dares to admit her love of food, cooking and food politics, we are all connected. Our early identity is formed through our food experiences as we watch our mothers, aunts and grandmothers cook and serve food. As they discuss what vegetable is in season, and where to get the best labaneh. Our connection to our land begins with a boiling pot of mlokhiyyeh or bamieh.
Once cooled, dust with powdered sugar or don’t, whichever you like…drown each bite with a sip of coffee (Arabic coffee, Espresso, or filter coffee, your choice really) or even better a cup of tea with mints…
Kaak and Maamoul is a silent conversation I have with myself. When I make it, I do it alone; a far contrast from Um Amjad and my mohter’s noisy kitchens when all the neighbours came around to help out. Cooking for me has always been a solitary act, a place to lose one’s self away from day to day life. But making kaak is also a silent coming of age conversation I have with my mother; a daugther who left the nest to maker her own.
On the first day of Eid my parents visit me in the afternoon; my mother sits in our living room and reaches for one of the cookies. She bites into it, and across the room she approves of the taste, or offers a hint for next year. In that moment, we become equals, two career women who never shied away from their rolls as mothers and wives meticulously providing their families a life time of love and traditions…
She acknowledge the similarities we share whether at home or in our career choices; even if she openly objects to the many projects I get myself into and she most certainly does not fully understand why after ten years of a PhD in chemistry, I have abandoned the lab completely and moved into the kitchen instead!
Happy Eid Adha to all!
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65 g of milk chocolate (Easter Chocolate Bunny medium size)
1/3 cup unsweetened coco powder
1 Tbsp Vanilla
1 tsp crushed gum Arabica (mastic) (absolutely optional and only if you like the taste of mastic do you use this, and use it sparingly so it does not overpower your tastebuds, without it the ice-cream has a creamy chocolate taste)
The original recipe came from Betty Crocker, German Chocolate Ice-cream (www.bettycrocker.com). Changes were made through trial and error. We called it Peter Rabbit ice-cream because we were watching Peter Rabbit when we made it and we used an Easter chocolate bunny since we were out of milk chocolate chips.
My family loves a good bowl of ice-cream. It is hard not to, when you grow up eating Rukab and Baladna ice-creams. In Ramallah, everything begins with Rukab Street (officially named Main Street) which connects the city center (Al Manara Square) and the old town. A busy and often crowded artery, this is where life happens. A street that bore witness to an evolving city, a brutal occupation, and a never-ending beat of hope.
Separate the egg yolks from the eggs whites. My daughter loved this part, we cracked the eggs, and poured them into her palm. The egg whites slid off seamlessly, and the yolks where placed into a separate bowl.
If you ask someone for directions, they will immediately re-orient you to Main street by asking “Btiiraf wain’ Rukab?(Do you know Rukab?)” And then directions are skillfully given from there.
In a heavy sauce pan, add three cups of heavy cream (or heavy cream substitute, both work) and one cup of whole milk (you can substitute with low–fat milk)
At the heart of this artery is Rukab’s ice-cream shop. A family business passed on from one generation to the next, serving delicious, gooey ice-cream in all kinds of flavors.
Add 1/3 cup coco powder, and 1 crushed Easter chocolate bunny (medium size, 65 g in weight). The bunny can be substituted for 65 g of any kind of chocolate. Bring to a simmer then add 1 teaspoon of gum Arabica (Mastic). ّI must here emphasize that you should only use arabic gum if you like the taste and if you do choose to use it, use it sparingly since it can overpower the chocolate taste. Trust me I know from the disappointed looks on my children’s faces and my sister’s face when we tried adding it the first time. They said it tasted like wood! Without it the recipe works beautifully and tastes creamy and chocolaty!
Rukab has been serving ice-cream since the 30’s. It began in the family’s kitchen, where their mother made ice-cream to be sold by her children after school. In 1941, the father opened a coffee shop, in what is now the iconic Rukab Ice-cream Shop. The delicious gooey scoops are unmatched. The gooeyness is due to the use of Arabic Gum and Sahlab (Salep). Chemically when those two are added to the simmering cream mixture, they form a gel, giving the ice-cream the stretchy texture. It is thought that this might be one of the oldest ways of making ice-cream. Some attribute it to Syria, others believe its beginnings were in Turkey.
In the meantime, beat the egg yolks until light yellow, adding the sugar and 1 Tbsp of vanilla.
Today the business is run by Jimmy Rukab, the grandson of the founder and his father. Just passing by the place in the morning makes you crave the stretchy ice-cream even on a cold winter morning. Rukab’s shop survived and persevered through the painful history of Ramallah and Palestine, and it stands witness to the utter destruction and loss the city experienced throughout time, but also to the rebirth. Rukab’s history is as rich as its taste.
Temper the egg yolks by gradually adding the cream mixture using a ladle. Do not add quickly, your eggs will cook too fast and you wont have a custard.
Down the street from Rukab, is Baladna ice-cream. Both shops have an intertwined history. Baladna also serves gooey ice-cream to die for. In 1999, when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I remember carrying containers of Baladna Pistachio ice-cream across the Jiser(Bridge) to bring it to her in Jordan where she was receiving chemotherapy. At the time chemo was unavailable in the West Bank, and it was easier for her to go to Jordan than get treatment in Jerusalem. During one of her sessions, she admitted craving the ice-cream. I will never forget the owner’s kindness and warmth as he wrapped those containers, and heartily wished my mother gets better.
Once done mixing, put back and cook on low heat until mixture thickens. (Don’t rush, cook slowly so that it doesn’t curdle).
It was a miracle that the containers survived the Jordan Valley heat, the endless lines, and the humiliation of crossing the border. It is hard to believe that human survive it, let alone ice-cream.
Pour into a glass container and cover with plastic wrap making sure it touches the surface. Place in refrigerator for at least six hours, or overnight.
Every time I came home during my studies in the United States; first on the endless culinary requests I made was Rukab and Baladna ice-cream. I took turns visiting both shops, and with every bite a piece of my childhood came alive. The stretchy ice-cream offers respite from the summer heat and the grind of living in a country still under occupation. Visitors to both shops come from all over Palestine. They stop by on their way to a doctor’s appointment, or on their way home, or they bring their families just to eat the ice-cream. For a few minutes, they indulge in a simple pleasure that perhaps relieves them ever so slightly of the checkpoints they have to cross to get home…
Pour mixture into your ice-cream maker and use according to manufacturer instruction. Freeze until it is time to serve.
The recipe I share with you here is a first step in my journey to discover ice-cream making. I hope that this gives my children memories they can re-visit time and time again as they grow up and come to grips with the realities of life and life in Palestine in particular.