This article first appeared in This Week in Palestine April 2013. My background in medicinal organic chemistry, along with two years spent in Palestinian Medicinal Plants research motivated the writing of this particular piece. Back then, i was still searching for my voice as a writer and a foodie, and I could not reconcile my PhD self with my writing self. So I used science to justify my love for writing and for cooking. Today, I have come a long way, and i am no longer afraid to admit that I love to research and write about food and that I wish to use food as a tool to tell bigger stories of love, hope, family, sumood (perseverance and steadfastness) struggles medicinal and scientific knowledge. Enjoy the read, and leave me your comments.
Cut the leaves right at the stem, slice in half and remove the main vein. Place in a strainer and wash repeatedly with water, squeezing the leaves between washes….
Arum Palaestinum, Black Lily, Loof Falasteeny, is a beautiful plant with bright-green leaves and a black calla lily flower that blooms in early spring in Palestine. This unassuming beauty is a busy manufacturing centre of antioxidant, anti-cancer, and anti-many-other-diseases compounds. It belongs to the plant family Aracea (a-RAY-see-eh), the genus Arum, and the species so appropriately known as Palaestinum. Reports of this particular plant flowering in California are found in the literature; usually it is reported to flower alongside its white calla lily cousin. But in Palestine, Loof blooms in shady warm areas, on its own. It is a culinary delicacy served in a variety of forms – sautéed in olive oil with onions, cooked in a tomato-based sauce with wheat flour or whole wheat bread – a delicacy enjoyed for years in the kitchens of those who appreciate it and know how to prepare it.
You must wash and squeeze the leaves to get rid of their bitter taste, which causes numbness in the mouth. A sign of a master chef is a Loof dish that does not numb one’s tongue. Some might prefer to boil the leaves and decant them several times to get rid of the toxins.
It is this exact toxicity that makes Loof an interesting plant to study for biological activity. Herbal medicine in Palestine forms an integral part of medical care and has been largely unchanged for many generations. All Palestinians are subject (throughout their lifespan) to all types of decoctions, macerations, and oil-based remedies. Mothers get their knowledge from their own mothers who have inherited this information from their own mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, etc. For an upset stomach, drink sage tea; for a cold, make chamomile tea, quickly and hurriedly, and infuse with fresh honey from this year’s harvest. For beautiful hair, massage your head with olive oil before washing it. For beautiful skin, use sugar, lemon, and olive oil to scrub your face, the resulting glow competes with the best and, of course, most expensive spa treatments. And for anti-aging or anti-cancer effects, a Loof-based cream, or pill? Maybe?
Also important to note here Palestine as a region holds 3 percent of the world’s biodiversity, including medicinal plants.
Although Palestinian herbal medicine is deeply ingrained in the culture, a serious and central effort to document the ethnopharmacological knowledge and support it with a comprehensive natural-product-screening programme is still lacking (at the time it was lacking, and was limited to individual effort, this may have changed in this day and age). Many brave efforts of young scientists in various Palestinian universities exist, but a more central project is needed. Much like everything else, traditional medicinal plant knowledge is being hijacked by Israeli culture and scientists.
Pour a good amount of olive oil into a saucepan on medium heat. Chop an onion or two into fine squares; add to the warm oil, and sauté. Add your chopped Loof leaves and stir. Keep stirring until the onions are clear and barely visible, and your bright green leaves are dark and wilted.
Studies show that Loof has antioxidant activity. Chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and ageing are all associated with the presence of high levels of reactive oxygen species, in other words radicals. In general, radicals (as chemists like to call them, not to be confused with other types of radicals such as political ones) are reactive species that can pretty much eat through anything. They can attack proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, and cause both structural and functional changes. Radicals are serious troublemakers for those in search of eternal youth. They can break down skin tissue and cause wrinkles, age spots, and fine lines. So imagine if in Palestine we find the one plant that can seriously stop such damage, or, to be less vain and more humble, at least significantly slow it down. Radicals are also associated with cancer. Cancer, till this day, remains a shape-shifting disease. It has many causes that range from lifestyle, nutrition, age, weight, and genetics on the macro level, to the more precise causes, such as the uncontrolled cell proliferation – the inability of our cells to stop dividing. The presence of radicals that can cause genetic damage to our cells and render them unable to stop dividing is hypothesised to be a cause of cancer. Medicinal plants with antioxidant compounds that can neutralise these highly reactive species may be another mode of attack. It may be just another weapon that can help secure at least one victory in a battle in the war against one of the worst diseases in the history of modern medicine.
According to the literature, Loof has significant amounts of phenolic compounds. Phenolic compounds are a special family of alcohols that exhibit interesting biological activity. For example, they are responsible for the red colour in berries, which also exhibits antioxidant and anti-aging activity. Phenolic functionality has also been associated with other biological activities and has made excellent medicinal compound targets. The key feature of phenols is their acidic alcohol group, which is significantly more acidic than a regular alcohol (for example, ethanol). The presence of a benzene ring (a special unsaturated six-membered ring) causes this high acidity as well as the ability to react with radicals to form more stable compounds. We call benzene rings a conjugated pi system that is capable of resonance stabilisation. In other words, the presence of the benzene ring stabilises the compound and accounts for its ability to react in various ways.
To serve this in a tomato sauce, peel your tomatoes, chop them into fine pieces, and gradually add them to the saucepan and stir. Then add water, a dash of salt and some pepper, and let the mixture simmer over low heat.
As Loof blooms around this time of the year, we natural-product explorers and foodies alike feel a bit of hope, a tinge of potential, and a skip of the heartbeat as we macerate leaves in the lab, or chop in the kitchen. A sense of stability mixed with a dash of aspiration engulfs us as we serve Loof to a sick relative, or as we push through a small extract on the HPLC in the lab.
We hope that perhaps this time next year, we might hold in a test tube an extract that promises a treatment for cancer or a wrinkle free old age. We hope that Palestinian research will blossom into efforts to document a long history of herbal medicine and further support what is recognized to be folk knowledge with scientific results that can preserve this tradition and protect it from theft and appropriation, as well as provide a basis for serious research efforts, achievements, and publications. The importance of research-active academics cannot be highlighted enough. Not only will it provide working opportunities for many highly educated Palestinians but it will ultimately make us better teachers.
Once the Loof stew is ready you can serve it with whole wheat bread for dipping, or with whole wheat maftool (couscous), or with bread crumbs covered with the stew.
Equally, food research and anthropology is just as essential. Understanding the ethnobotany of Palestinian plants, the traditions by which they are prepared and served on tables for centuries now is a fundamental factor in preserving and dispersing our story and narrative.
You may choose to garnish the stew with lemon… Bon Appetite!
This is a simple recipe, for what could be the most perfect salad of my childhood. Salata Fallahiyyeh is a staple on every breakfast table in Palestine. You can serve it with breakfast dishes like Manae’sh, Ijjeh (egg fritters), Falafel, Zaatar o Zait (fool), or you can use it to garnish labaneh and spruce it up, or fava beans. I have even served the traditional version as an appetizer with tortilla chips and yogurt. The traditional version is made with finely chopped tomatoes, onions (red, white or green, depending on what is available) and a dressing of lemon, olive oil and salt.
I have seen modern versions of it were tomatoes are sliced in larger pieces with slices of red onions. And what I share with you here, errs on the modern side.
This may seem like a simple and easy recipe, which for all technical reasons it is. However, I think it is far more significant than just a simple salad. Tomatoes are a life line crop in Palestine. In the winter, with the cold weather, and restrictions imposed on Gaza transporting produce to the West Bank, tomatoes can become expensive ( a conversation I am going to delve into in a later piece).
Palestinian baladi tomatoes taste earthy. When sliced open, the smell of acidity and sweetness travel through your nostrils and awaken your taste buds. You can almost smell the nitrogen rich earth they were grown in.
This salad has a sister, which is also a staple on the Palestinian table, where vegetables, usually freshly picked from the land, like green onions, cucumbers, bell peppers and lettuce accompany the tomatoes. A simple chopped salad dressed with freshly harvested, Palestinian olive oil known for its sharp after taste, and fresh lemon juice and salt.
Sometimes the greatest gastronomical pleasures are found in the simplest of things.
Two to three large tomatoes sliced
1 medium red onion (2 small ones)
One to two lemons juiced (depending on the time of the year, and the amount of juice the lemons have)
Sea Salt to Taste
2-3 Tbsp of Olive Oil
1 square of Arabic Cheese
To Make the Salad:
Slice the tomato into two longitudinal halves and then slice each piece into half circles.
Layer into your salad bowl
Slice the onions into thin needles and layer on top of the tomatoes
Sprinkle the salad with sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil.
Cut the white cheese into thin rectangles.
Heat a skillet until sizzling hot, and place the cheese on it until it is golden brown on both side. Place on top of your salad.
Serve your salad with Ijjeh, or Hummus, or on its own!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Squeeze the leaves well to get rid of access water and place into a bowl
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.
Stuffing: Take the risen dough out and immediately cut into balls. Leave them to rise for ten minutes again.
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.
Repeat until all the filling and all the dough are finished.
Allow the stuffed and shaped dough to rest for another 10-15 minutes.
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.
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!
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
Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease and line pans with parchment papers ( two 9 inch pans, 1 sheet pan, or cupcakes)
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.
Add one egg at a time ensuring that each egg is completely incorporated before adding the next one. Add a pinch of salt.
Sift the flour, coco, and baking soda together.
Add the baking powder, to the yogurt and lemon juice and stir. The mixture will start bubbling.
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.
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.
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)
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.
You can also use the water bath method for baking the cake at 160 C (see Lemon and Yogurt Cake for this method)
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.
Take out of the oven and let cool in pans before turning out.
You can dust with icing sugar, or make your favorite butter cream.
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.
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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or simply leave a comment. Advice, hints, recipes for butter cream frosting are all welcome!