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!

A Christmas Tree Cake Story

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.

Layers ready, lemons and yogurt cake and chocolate cake

For the flavors I used my own Lemons and Yogurt Cake and my own Chocolate Cake 

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.

Take a moment to marvel at the beauty of layered cake and butter cream

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.

Used a cardboard to map my carving. In retrospect I think I could have gone down to 5 inches in tapering…ah well next year!!

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.

The crumb coat done, and cake was ready to go into the fridge until the rest of the decorations were complete.

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!

The challenge begins!

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.

Little hands wanted to pipe…
Little hands wanted to help…

Slowly but surely we made progress….

I used various direction in piping the leaves, to give the illusion of movement and add an extra dimension

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!

“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, its a way of looking at life through the wrong end of the telescope. Which is what I do, and that allows you to laugh at life’s realities.” -Dr. Suess

No enchanted Christmas tree is complete without a dusting of edible gold glitter dust, and strawberries and small golden sugar balls for decorations.

And I huffed and puffed until everything around me glistened with edible gold glitter dust!

Strawberries to stand for Dr. Suess like ornaments

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!

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. 

Angel Food Cake: A simple recipe and a simple story

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

Recipe Taken from: Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book p. 169

Inside me resides a good old southern women who loves her fried chicken, collard greens, mac and cheese and sweet potato pie. Enter Angel Food Cake. My first contact with this cake came in the form of a Betty Crocker box.  I was a hungry and tired college student who was looking for a sugar fix. I whisked the box contents  with two cups of water, poured them into a pan, and in the oven it went. Thirty minutes later, nothing could have prepared me for what happened. Apart from the slightly burnt bottom, the pieces that made it into my mouth were super sweet, melt in your mouth pieces of fluff.  If we could eat clouds, this is what they would taste like.


1 1/2 cups egg whites (8-12 eggs, depending on their size)

1 1/2 cups sifted powdered sugar

1 cup sifted all purpose flour 

1 1/2 tsp cream of tartar

1 tsp vanilla

1 cup of granulated sugar

My obsession with the perfect cake is something I really cannot explain.  I want a cake that is spongy and springy that soaks up my worries with every bite.  And while my first love was chocolate cake, dark, mysterious yet sweet; my relationship with cake evolved in multiple directions, and  I found myself searching for the perfect piece everywhere I went. Angel food cake was many things I loved, it was spongy, springy, airy. It was a cross between cotton candy and cake; simply irresistible.

Fast forward a little over 20 years later.  I had just used 8 egg yolks to make Peter Rabbit Ice-cream Homemade Chocolate (Peter Rabbit) Ice-cream and in my excitement to add a little bit of mastic taste to it, added a bit too much.  My children’s faces were so disappointed, my heart broke.  I had all the dishes from the ice-cream making to wash, and 8 egg whites staring at me, daring me to throw them out.  I poured them into a glass container, closed it and put them in the refrigerator promising myself that tomorrow they will be put to good use and my creative juices will be flowing after the huge ice-cream disappointment. I don’t waste food,  I will serve leftover Mujaddara (lentils and rice pilaf) until I can no longer serve it. Nothing gets thrown out…

In a mixing bowl allow the egg whites to stand at room temperature for thirty minute while you sift the powdered sugar and flour together three times. 

A week later, while cleaning out the refrigerator, I pulled out the egg whites and on the spot made the decision to make angel food cake. It has been a while since we had a spongy cake sitting on the kitchen counter, I had taken a hiatus from baking. Summer was too hot and stuffy, and it was all about ice-cream and salads.

In a stand mixer bowl add cream of tartar, the 1 1/1 cups of egg whites and vanilla. Beat egg whites until soft peaks form. The peaks are foamy. Slowly add 1 cup of sugar, 2 Tbsp at a time. Continue beating until stiff peaks are formed. 

So, I pulled my Better Homes and Gardens cook book, I knew that I could count on it, and followed instructions meticulously.  The end result was a cloud of fluffy sugary crunchy crusted, soft as pillow center cake. The children loved it, and within an hour we had gone through  most of it!

Sift half of your powdered sugar and flour onto the egg whites, and fold them using a plastic or wooden spatula.  Then add half of the remaining amount, fold again, and add the last bit and fold again.  Be gentle, don’t let the egg whites collapse.  I have done this way too many times, and had the whites collapse and the cake was dense and not fluffy and very disappointing 

The origins of angel food cake are not clear, some say that it was first made by African-American slaves.  The earlier recipes were recorded in the 1800s with slight variations, but the signature here is no fats added, no butter, and definitely no egg yolks. One has to wonder why would anyone invent a cake that needed only egg whites.  What did they do with the egg yolks?  Or was this an act of food conservation?

The slightest presence of fat can cause the whites not whip into stiff peaks, however in other versions of the recipe, butter is added to the batter and stiffly beaten egg white are folded into it. I like the silver cake in particular.   Jessie Sheehan author of The Vintage Baker offers a great recipe.

Cakes are fascinating. A direct descendent of bread, with all its pleasures, cakes bring sugar, air, and gluten in an unbeatable mix. My quest for perfect cakes continues, on the other hand my pursuit to creating beautiful cakes from gorgeous Palestinian ingredients has just commenced. So stay tuned!


The Perfect Birthday Cake: From gods to mortals….

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

Vanilla Cake with Chocolate Icing

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.

Smooth as butter batter, the smell of vanilla was incredible.

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 riyam.kafri@gmail.com or simply leave a comment. Advice, hints, recipes for butter cream frosting are all welcome!

Taima’s Pancakes

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

Taima, my six year old daughter  loves pancakes in all shapes forms and styles. Today she stood by me in the kitchen  and added three of everything to make pancakes.  She was hungry, dinner was not ready yet, and she wanted something sweet tihlayeh as she and her brother like to call it. “Something to give us a sugar rush mama!” 

3 eggs

1.5 cups all purpose flour (or as Taima puts it 3 halves)

3 Tbsp Yogurt

180 mL Milk (3 x 60 mL portions) 

3 tsp baking powder

3 tsp vanilla 

Pancakes in our home are a favorite.  They are a reminder that life can still be as fluffy and spongy and soft even if just for a brief moment.  But perhaps pancakes serve a bigger purpose,  they are our Sunday breakfast ritual, and a staple during Christmas break.  They are a sanctuary from the rigorous schedule we keep and an important element of their  favorite past-time, “quality time with Mama and Baba.”

She added three eggs, to three tablespoons of yogurt, to 3 (60 mL) portions i.e 3/4 cup of milk, and whisked them in a bowl.  

Having spent six years in Tennessee, nothing says lazy weekend like a stack of pancakes, and while I love my Palestinian cuisine, nothing warms my heart like butter milk panckakes with melted butter and warm maple syrup.  It seems that somewhere along the line of raising my children, I passed this love to them. And as you can imagine, we have gone through many versions of panckakes, until today Taima literally made the best version!

She then added 1.5 cups of all purpose flour in 3 half cup measurements and whisked even more.  After that she added the baking powder (3 tsp) and the vanilla (you guessed it 3 tsps!   

I think our complex personalities shine through our cooking.  I am Palestinian, but there is a good old warm Southern woman, with wide hips, a messy bun, and an apron around her waste hiding inside me, waiting to pop out at the site of the first pancake, or the smell of the first piece of fried chicken!

Beyond the pancakes, and the fact that Taima’s recipe tasted much better than mine,  what started like a tingle in my heart turned into a full fledged wrench in my chest. My daughter was growing up.  Less than four years ago, she had her first bite of my panckakes and today she hands me over the fork to have a bite of her own.  And before we know it,  she will be graduating high school heading to college.

Whether intentionally or not, but letting the pancake batter stand for about ten minutes allowed the baking powder to work its magic. We heated the a small pan, slathered it with lots of butter and poured a ladle of batter. We lowered the heat, and watched the bubble form and pop, then flipped it over. Taima used also a teddy bare shaped pan. 

There is so much of Taima that reminds of me as a child. Her eagerness to learn, her dedicaiton to her studies, her love of reading and writing. As I watched her gulp down the pancakes, I couldn’t help but worry whether  she will get the same opportunities (if not better ones ) I had as a child and a teenager or not.   What will it be like to live here in thirty years?  It is already difficult now, will it bettter?  Will it be worse?

Taima stacked the panckakes then dusted them with powdered sugar, she cut a piece (with my help) and we then took a photo that immediately made it onto instagram right before she dug in!

Will she be uprooted from her home, forced to leave in the middle of the night, leaving all of her memories behind including our favorite picture ?  Uncertainty is part of life, but in Palestine uncertainty can mean the difference between living and dying having a home or loosing everything.

I am sure that mothers across the word worry about their children’s future every waking minute and in their dreams. I am sure they watch their children in the rear mirror while driving and wonder what will it be like five, ten and twenty years down the line for them.  I realize I am no different than any soccer mom in any suburb anywhere else in the world, but then again, I have watched Palestine dip into what many call the worse era of our history.  I watched Syria destroyed, torn into bloody pieces. What about all the soccer moms there, did they ever think their children will end up in refugee camps?  I watched Yemen burn into a pile of black soot, what about the mothers there? Did they ever expect that one day they are making pancakes, and the next  their children are dying. And then there is Gaza…expected to be inhabitable by 2020.  A few hours away, and there, I am sure people don’t need to wonder what their children’s future would be like, because the present is proof enough of what waits just around the corner of time….


Taima, I hope the twinkle in you eyes never fades, that smile never shrinks in width, and that eagerness to learn only grows. I hope you will always measure you self worth by the good you do in the world, not by the length of your hair, the width of your waste, or the color of you lips.  I hope you will pursue your dreams, and never succumb to the harsh realities.  I pray that your father and I will have the strength and ability to stand by you always, and that we will help you raise your children, and spoil them with unnecessary gifts.  We love you and Basil very much, you light our lives with joy! 



Kaak El Eid: A coming of Age Story

By: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

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

powdered Sugar

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…

Dusted with Sugar

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!

For more advice or questions about kaak making, you canfind us on Facebook, or you can email us at riyam.kafri@gmail.com 

Notes from the Field: Zamnning

This piece isn’t about cooking in particular, but rather about a space where I spent many days working when my children where still very young, and when working with two six months old babies was practically impossible at home.  This was my sanctuary, and with my reocrrucing visits I discovered a  microcosm that was worth examining.  At the risk of sounding judgmental, or having the piece misunderstood, I chose to write it with  a comic, and imaginative point of view. This is meant to make you laugh, and if you know me roll your eyes at my science nerd self.  It is also meant to offer indirect commentary on societal trends and relationships. Since I gave birth to my twins,  my relationship with coffee changed. A good cup of coffee brings about a great sense of safety and security; it is a legitimized break from everything that waits for me to get done.  At the end of the cup of coffee there is much to worry about, but at the beginning…the promise of a break is seductive…. 

This article first appeared in This Week in Palestine in May 2013, issue no. 181

by: Riyam Kafri AbuLaban

8:30 am, Tuesday. The weather is fairly amiable, fall is finally settling in in Ramallah, and everyone is enjoying a much needed respite from the hot weather. The watcher sits on her favourite table at Café Zamn, also known as her observation point in this particular habitat. She has a full and busy day of watching and working. People watching is much like bird watching. You must be still, quiet, silent. You must blend in with the environment you are observing. For this particular habitat, the perfect camouflage is a laptop, books, and headphones. The headphones will help fend off a particular species of Café Zamn patrons or Zamners called Socializist totalus. Socializist totalus is a super friendly subspecies of human beings. Often, they are NGO workers based in Ramallah who travel throughout Palestine fully believing that, one day, their NGO-ised work will save it.

S.Totalus visit this particular habitat for one objective, to engage in its most favourite activity, socialising. This includes small talk, a bunch of “how are you’s,” when they could not care less about how the subject of their socialising activity is actually doing or feeling. Their physical appearance can vary from trendy to normal. They mostly congregate in the smoking area, where they chain-smoke and chat at ridiculously high rates. A special subspecies of S.totalus is S.totalus wanderitis, commonly known as the wanderers. They do not belong to one particular congregation or table, but actually wander from one to the other, chatting away with any species that will listen to them.

Amongst their species, the wanderers are the non-conformers, as they like to engage with other species and do not stick to their own, a “birds of a feather flock together” in reverse. Their preferred targets are Activus foreignorus, and Fakes actives, two very talkative and colourful Zamner species, which today of all days are abundantly present. The watcher is overly excited, despite the humongous pile of work she has to get through. She cannot help but look up quietly every now and then and watch who just came in. She has been trying to catch a glimpse of A.foreignorus and F.actives for the past few weeks, but the habitat has been overly crowded with Brandus totalus and Workus officionalus. Thankfully, today, Zamn was truly budding with all types.

Observing A. foreignorus is quite satisfying. Members of this species come in all shapes, sizes, colours, and hairstyles. One thing they do have in common is a loud voice and an assumption that no one is listening to their conversation. A.foreignorus is a migratory species not native to this habitat. Based on their indigenous homes (mainly North America and Europe), it is absolutely understandable that they assume that no one is actually listening to what they are saying to their fellow A.foreignorus or any other species that they mark as good for communication (they pick their communication partners based on the lack of language barriers).

Sadly, they are highly mistaken and have yet to adapt to this new habitat, where a sense of curiosity to hear other conversations happening at nearby tables is built into the genetic makeup of the indigenous species. This is after all Palestine, and everybody’s business is everybody’s business. But I digress. A.foreignorus has become more visible in this particular region in the past few years. Scientists hypothesise that this sudden surge in this particular species of Zamners is directly proportionate to several factors: easier migratory conditions, better travelling routes, and a far friendlier climate for new species. One also cannot ignore that the large number of NGOs sprouting up serves as a perfect nesting place for such species. It will be very interesting to consider what social and evolutionary changes happen due to their presence.

A.foriegnorus is usually accompanied by a native species F.actives. F.actives is a direct product of the gradual evolutionary decrease in activism. Most F.actives are offspring of a disappearing species, True actives. T.actives is marked by a serious commitment to activism as a lifestyle. Sadly, with the death of the leftist movement, the disappearance of grassroots movements, the increase in the NGO-isation of the Palestinian cause, and its boosted dependence on international aid, T.actives have retreated into smaller, almost negligible, communities where they choose to focus on child rearing, career building, and, in many cases, dream house building. Their resultant offspring are a bunch of self-proclaimed activists who actually belong to a universal group known as Bobos, or Bourgeois Bohemians. Their physical appearance is palatable, clean, and trendy. Sometimes they have multiple piercings, and other times not. F. actives have an intrinsic tendency to organise the next Palestinian uprising on Facebook by employing the very powerful resistance tool, Twitter.

F.actives is considered to be a mutated form of T.actives. The mutation has been amplified by environmental factors such as occupation and a vacuum devoid of the leadership that could ordinarily help organise such wasted talent. Most of F.actives are intelligent, smart, and have received degrees from world-class institutions. They are normally seen socialising with A.foreignorus. Some are friends who met in some small liberal arts college where they pursued their bachelor’s degree. Coincidentally, both species do belong to the same universal group, the Bobos.

9:00 am, Thursday. Zamn is brimming with all types of species. But today the watcher is particularly excited to locate several flocks of Brandus totalus. B.totalus is, in essence, an evolutionary descendant of the peacock. Their physical appearance is that of complete beauty, but please keep in mind that beauty is relative and it is in the eyes of the beholder (scientists have yet to reach a conventional set of beauty standards). This species in particular shows off with a fully branded appearance, with a Louis Vuitton bag, Burberry shoes, Hermés scarf, and Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses (conveniently worn inside). This species is specialised in the art of showing off.

B.totalus travels in small or large flocks, and when an unassuming individual is caught alone, they are usually standing tall, head high, eyes completely covered with the latest brand of sunglasses bought at full price. (By the way a shrewd businessman friend of mine once told me that if you are ever to buy any merchandise on sale, it would have to be sunglasses, as the profit margin goes up to 300 percent. Again, I digress.) This particular posture is what has been labelled amongst behavioural scientist as the Peacock Post (PP). The PP is meant to attract attention of other species. It invites visual admiration, and repels strangers from attempting any form of direct contact.

B.totalus females are particularly experienced and have mastered the PP as an evolutionary defence mechanism of some sort (scientists are still not sure what exactly it defends against). The females of this particular species are quite interesting. As a friend of the watcher noted to her (a friend who like the watcher belongs to Workus officianalis, a very hard working and industrious species), when she comes in contact with the B.totalus females they are often discussing the difficulties of child rearing in the presence of nannies, the challenges of philanthropic and charity work in Palestine, and how difficult it is to do work outside of their indigenous habitat.

Zamn was brimming with B.totalus today. A morning ritual of theirs is to drop their offspring to school and come enjoy a morning coffee and an idle chat together. But the real treat came around 10 a.m. when a young female B.totalus arrived and plopped herself down on the couch right beside the watcher. Young B.totalus are fabulous to watch: loud, full of life, and totally trusting of their surroundings. The mix of English, Arabic, and sometimes even French is music to one’s ears, and one cannot help but notice that the young are usually well educated, because no matter what happens in Palestine, education remains a top priority.

This particular young B.totalus was discussing a familial situation with her mother, loudly. The details of the problem went something like this: the young woman was annoyed by the curfew set by her father who works in Saudi Arabia. She was arguing that she is now 23 years old and refuses to lie to her parents and, therefore, they will have to come to terms with her going out and staying out late (the disputed curfew time was 11, she was trying to push to 12. VERY REASONABLE, the watcher thought). She then expanded her argument and declared that her father sent her to Palestine to come in contact with her roots, which she has been doing by socialising at cafes and restaurants (notice the roots for this young lady are at cafes and restaurants in Ramallah). He was also apparently hoping she would find herself a very kind, well educated, ambitious, well-to-do young man who she could take as a mating partner. She then exploded into asking a very obvious and valid question, how could she possibly do that if she was under curfew and was asked to work and socialise only during the hours when the sun was up. Please note that B.totalus prefers to mate with its own or other species they mark as acceptable, such as F.actives or Workus officianalus (as long as the potential mate fits their minimum criteria of financial stability and appropriate social status).

The conversation carried on for about 45 minutes while this young female argued over Skype (A new means of communication for this generation. Whatever happened to written letters and home phones where families could have all types of arguments in the privacy of their own homes and the silent pages of handwritten letters), at which point the watcher could no longer focus on her lecture notes and decided to pack and leave. B.totalus had succeeded in marking this particular area as her own.

8:00 am, Tuesday. Tuesdays are an excellent day to observe Workus officianalus. This species is studious, industrious, and is always trying to get something accomplished in the midst of waves of cigarette smoke, sips of cold coffee (left untouched for a while as they busily typed away on their laptop). W. officionalus treats Zamn as its office and is present almost daily, particularly in the early hours of the morning. They spread their belongings over a fairly large space, order food, and feel free to clear their plates. They immediately detect any disruption in Internet signal and will demand a quick fix (sometimes their demands can get a bit aggressive). Many of them carry more than one bag, a couple of files, several books, and one set of headphones. They are always requesting the music volume to be turned down as they are on a serious deadline. And some may even have such a special relationship with the wonderfully friendly Zamn staff that they have documents dropped off and picked up from behind the desk, further supporting their impression of Zamn as a library or office.

Their general appearance is clean and sometimes elegant, although many of them who are experiencing particular pressures at work may have the occasional “unravelling at the seams” look: uncombed hair, dark circles, pale skin, dry lips, and a general do-not-talk-to-me vibe. W.officionalus hold different positions and come from different backgrounds. There are the journalists, the young professors, the NGO program coordinators, the writers (some excellent and well known writers belong to this species), the sociologists, the scientists, the graduate students finishing their PhD work in Palestine, the young foreigners trying to learn Arabic, editors, CEOs, general managers, publishers, small business owners who have yet to acquire an official space for their business, graphic designers, young entrepreneurs, bloggers, Tweeters, and the list goes on and on. They all share one passion, typing on their laptop at a high rate (a lot like what the watcher is doing at the moment), vacillating between typing, writing, reading, and occasionally taking a break to talk. They travel in small groups, two to three at a time. Behavioural scientists theorise that this is necessary to accommodate their space requirements. And they only come to Zamn with members of their own species. After all, isn’t Zamn their office space, their library, and their place of work? Some will not only work at Zamn but will even hold appointments and office hours.

W. officionalus has indigenous as well as migratory members. The watcher is a self classified W.offcionalus daughter of two honest and hardworking T.actives, friends with many A. foriegnorus, F.actives, and B.Totalus.  I have used Zamn as my office for many months, it has been my refuge away from two toddlers, my space to think, write, prepare lecture notes, and grade. During this time, I could not help but make the observations I share with you, so allow me to end this piece with the following statement.

I only write this out of a place of utter love and admiration for Palestine in general and, most importantly, for Ramallah in particular. Be that as it may, Ramallah appears to be a bubble, immune to the Israeli Occupation practices and effects felt in other cities, villages, and refugee camps. The city even sometimes appears totally aloof to the refugee camps that are within her own periphery or just outside her borders. And while other cities are ailing under the Occupation, Ramallah seems to be thriving culturally, economically, and socially. She has also, unbeknownst to her and by no personal choice, become the melting pot for all types of NGOs and governmental organisations. People also flock to Ramallah from other Palestinian cities for work, business, education, etc. She appears to be rich while everywhere else is poor, which generates quite a bit of anger and discontent. Many imply she is Palestine’s whorehouse. Some have gone as far as calling her Palestine’s whore. But we must all remember that Ramallah’s charm is her open arms, her welcoming nature, and her ability to accept all of us (different species) as part of her diverse makeup. This piece is intended for all of us to examine and reflect on ourselves, laugh, and remember that it is this exact nature that allows a chemist like me feel comfortable writing a piece like this. And this is for all of us to remember that we make Ramallah what it is. We are major contributors to the bubble effect we criticise her for. So here is to you Ramallah and the friendly staff at Zamn (thank you for letting me sit there endlessly). Salut!