First Kitchen Memories-Part 2

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Ma’amoul mold next to my mother’s old tweezers. Photo: 2016 Fadia Jawdat

 

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.

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Za’tar mini mana’eesh. Photo: Fadia Jawdat

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.

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Date & walnut Ma’amoul. Photo: Courtesy of marlenematar.com

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.
    http://www.marlenematar.com/videos/walnut_and_date_pastries_video.html
  • 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.

Favorite Mid-East Cookbooks: the link to a distant past.

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Photo © 2016 Fadia Jawdat

My family’s women were preoccupied with food and cooking.

Lebanon was the crossroads of civilization and it’s cuisine reflected it. My mother and grandmother’s culinary repertoire was mostly Levantine with hints of Greek, Egyptian, Iraqi and Armenian. There were no written recipes or records, files or cookbooks, yet there were endless conversations about the latest failures and successes in the kitchen. The spontaneous barrage of questions, detailed comparisons of methods and styles between friends and relatives would lead you to believe that this close-knit community was about to produce a thesis on comparative cookery.

The women I knew were immersed in complex relationships of subliminal competition or undisclosed complicity. Pride bordered on arrogance, admiration was only a diplomatic façade, and praise was a cover for envy. However, it would have been unthinkable not to share one’s tips and secrets. Recipes were handed down from mother to daughter and, each generation, by virtue of marriage, would gain some  hints of new culinary influences. Syrian, Palestinian, Jordanian and Lebanese cuisines were similar but had nuances that only the experienced cook could decipher. As I recall, Aleppine and Armenian cuisines were highly regarded and sought after. If you were lucky enough to either marry or befriend someone with either of those backgrounds, then you had it made!

Over the last few decades of wars and revolutions, my family and friends moved to different continents seeking safety and stability. With the upheaval, we clung to memories of togetherness around the table. We longed to re-invent the experience in our own new homes and the countries we’d adopted. We were westernized, but our heritage and culture was still to be found in our kitchens, in our pantries and at the table.

By the time my generation had their own kitchens, we already had a few Middle-Eastern cookbooks for reference and a couple of decades later we witnessed an explosion of books, blogs, and an entire Food Network—who would have thought!

When I began cooking in my (so-called) “kitchen” on the Upper West side of New York City, we only had a landline (phone). The raging civil war back home made it difficult to get through to my mother, but it was still my only life line. I would call her long-distance from NYC to Beirut, Saudi Arabia, Dubai or Cyprus, to grill her on ingredients and methods. It helped that I grew up eating the stuff; I knew what it should taste like. I kept a notebook, cooked religiously and followed tradition to a T.  I had no children then and had time to impress and compete with—yes I inherited that sense of competition—  friends who, like me, were homesick, and yearned for their mama’s cooking.

Between gifts and purchases, I acquired a decent cookbook collection. And although I have embraced many new cuisines, I still seek more Middle-Eastern  books than any others—I am still perfecting variations on a theme, so to speak.
In the late seventies, Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food was my favorite. Her book helped me overcome the feelings of exile and yearning I experienced at the time.  She made complex recipes accessible, and often mentioned regional spins on certain dishes. It was a relief in contrast to my mother’s long-distance vague garble of instruction that lacked precision and clarity. Ms. Roden’s introduction to the book describes the history, origins and influences of the cuisine which tells an interesting story.  The New Book of Middle Eastern Food has excellent reviews. It is a revised and improved version of her first publication. I will undoubtedly buy it on Amazon along with a newer copy of the first book to replace my stained, shredded and yellow pages held together with layers of aging tape.
An excellent comprehensive new-comer is The Lebanese Kitchen by Salma Hage. It is big, thick and probably intimidating to the novice. But it is clear and well organized. Instruction is slightly inconsistent at times—sorry Phaidon (publisher). It is, however a good addition to any library with its beautiful photographs of Lebanon.

Another impressive and thorough coverage of fine Lebanese recipes is Classic Lebanese Cuisine by Chef Kamal Al-Faqih. It has step by step instruction and photographs that could turn you into a professional, if you are so inclined. Finally, I must mention and recommend Mary Laird Hamady’s Lebanese Mountain Cooking (first published in 1987 by David R. Gordine). I find it uncomplicated, earthy and easy to grasp. It also has sparse but evocative and helpful illustrations by Jana Fothergill.

My life changed with the birth of my daughters. My cooking changed too. Time and energy were considerably compromised, especially when holding down a full-time job on top of everything else. Forever adapting my family meals to our changing lifestyle, I took shortcuts and taught myself tricks. Whether in re-adapting old recipes or experimenting with new cuisines, my kitchen remains a meeting place that upholds traditions (with a twist) while remaining open to innovation. A place where my daughters learn, experiment and practice, where new bonds are fused, wider circles of friends are formed and cookery continues to be an exciting adventure.