By the time my mother was twenty-five, she had two children, ages five and two, and was to leave my father’s side to move to Beirut where we were to be schooled. She lived and shared her kitchen with her mother-in-law, a practice not uncommon to the Middle-East: elders, especially when widowed, lived with their children.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, my mother and grandmother worked around each other. The kitchen was large enough to accommodate both of them and to allow for overlap in activities, but they preferred to work on separate schedules, focusing on different tasks.
My mother was an excellent and meticulous cook and we loved her cooking, but her personal preference was to hone her baking skills. Her savory pastries were the best. With their various fillings—za’tar or cheese for the sambusek or onion, meat and pignoli for the open-faced meat pies, Lahm ba’jeen— these pastries were not only delicious but their claim to fame was in the perfection and consistency of flavor, shape and texture— the dough was crusty on the outside and spongy on the inside. She made dozens and froze them, hoarding and saving them for special occasions or to bring out at a moment’s notice to impress unexpected guests, sending them squealing with admiration and praise.
In response to her mother-in-law’s austerity and to satisfy her own sweet tooth, my mom transferred her life’s frustrations into exuberant cake and cookie baking. When holiday season came around she’d turn the kitchen into a factory. She spent days on end doting over her Western cook books making cookies, fruitcake, stollen and lebkuchen at Christmas time. Easter called for the traditional semolina cookies (Ma’moul) filled with either dates, crushed pistachios or walnuts and delicately flavored with orange blossom and rose waters. Over the years I helped her occasionally and witnessed several friends and relatives sit with her in the kitchen for hours while she taught the art of making and decorating those specialties with a pair of serrated tweezers. Most people used wooden molds, but she preferred the personal touch of the dainty methodical patterns.
I don’t know when and how her love for western baking began, but my father made sure she had a stand mixer and a special electric oven for cake-baking purposes alone. She made a delicious apple pie, pineapple upside-down and Dutch apple cakes: those three were her regular repertoire. Occasionally, a most elaborate Blitz Torte with lemon custard filling and meringue and slivered almond topping would make its appearance for my father’s birthday. Each of us had a favorite, and each of us got theirs for their birthday.
She gave it all up when we became aware of the ills of sugar and refused to indulge in her sugary confections. I don’t believe she minded. By then, all of her three children had moved away to England, Scotland and the U.S.. and she finally had a chance to join my dad permanently: first in Saudi Arabia then in Dubai and Cyprus, leaving behind the mixer, the oven, her baking paraphernalia and her mother-in-law!
Baking was my mother’s art and salvation for many years. She took pride in her work as though she was in some eternal competition or on a mission to impress and please. It was a creative outlet and an escape. She had many other skills and a few other talents but none that she could fully develop.
Her savory pastries and her tweezer-pinched Easter cakes would continue to be produced year-round wherever she went for her children and grandchildren to enjoy. They became the treasure and tradition that she carried with her from kitchen to kitchen all the way to Washington, D.C. where she spent the last years of her life.
And so we indulged when we came “home” to visit. We cherished the treats and she delighted in watching us bite into them slowly, carefully and thoughtfully, appreciating and savoring every ounce of love and care she had kneaded and folded into them.
Ma’amoul resources: recipes, videos and where to order.
- To watch the process of hand making and decorating semolina cakes. on marlenematar.com under walnut and date pastries. The video is in Arabic and the photo and method are identical to my mother’s confections.
- For instructions and recipe in English watch Chef Kamal on Youtube
- And if you can’t be bothered making them yourself, you can order on line in the U.S. from Shatila Bakery in Detroit @shatila.com
p.s. this blog is not sponsored by any of the chefs or businesses mentioned here. Those are the result of my personal searches and choices I thought to share.