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Christmas in the Middle East

Despite globalization and Santa's great commercial success (and global take over) - Christmas in the Middle East (where it originated, let me remind you) has very different vibe than in Europe and North America. That's not to say that Santa and his reindeer do not make appearances here despite the alarming lack of snow (and sometimes no rainfall either). But it looks, sounds and smells different here, nevertheless.

Last week we went to the Christmas Market in Kfar Yassif (one of the largest Christian communities north of Haifa), with full-on expectations to have my Canadian standards of Christmas markets to be blown to bits. And to my delight, they did. First there is the reckless parking culture of the villages up north (parking is always a conundrum in big events, but we survived it quite heroically), and then there is the winter atmosphere of an Arab-Christian village in wintertime: lights everywhere, little children carrying light toys they purchased at the market, and street vendors selling boiled lupin and fava beans doused with cumin and lemon-salt (Middle Eastern street food is quite healthy), and sahleb (a warm, thickened milk beverage perfumed with rosewater, mastic resin and topped with spices and nuts).

Before you get into the market, you'll have security at the entrance (because any event of large crowds, especially that of a minority group, requires security in Israel, to remind you that something bad could happen at any moment but the army and police is there to protect you). And then there was lively and upbeat music - dumbak drums on the stage were performing Baladi beats by the town's square and the largest Christmas tree, later on succeeded by other performances such as a Middle Eastern violin musician, and more. And this pre-Christmas party was going to last till at least midnight, by the way. Proceeding to the market area, an overwhelming smell of barbecue filled the air - thick smoke of charcoals grilling meats of any kind (except perhaps turkey), including shrimps skewers. There were shawarma (aka donair) and felafel booths, and I think I've spotted some ma'amouls (fragrant and buttery semolina shortbread cookies filled with dates or nuts). There was absolutely none of the "Holiday Smells" such as eggnog or hot apple cider etc.

We circumvented the very crowded lineups and that's were we found the artisan stalls (there is a lovely new carpenter/woodworker in town that sold the most adorable ornaments, carved out of olive tree, some shaped like little guitars or oud - the musical instrument, not the incense tree); charity sales, and also those selling German-style mulled wine and green and red donuts (that look like they're made of plastic so of course we didn't eat them), and even something that looked like Japanese-style octopus pancakes next to stalls of chocolate syringes for chocaholics shooting up during Midnight Mass.

And speaking of mass - religious artifacts were offered as well lots and lots of incense was burnt. I don't think I've ever been to a Christmas market in Canada where frankincense and myrrh is openly burnt in cross-bearing copper censers! And keeping up with the syringe theme, there was the customary street-perfume-vendor stall, where perfume knock-off were sold out of large vats that make them give the illusion of precious cargo. The lady at that stall was advertising her wares by squirting cheap jus out of a large syringe (that is normally used to decant her merchandize into bottles for sale).

Around that time, we figured it would be a good moment to call it a night and go home with the loot we found - a little crocheted doily made by the local employment centre for adults with special needs, a bit clear helium bubble wrapped in lights, and the cheesiest Christmasy tiered tea tray, which for two years I've managed to avoid purchasing and always regretting I didn't...

And with this we'll close, but not before I'll give you recipes for a couple of regional sweets that are unique to the region around these holidays:

Ma'amoul Cookies Recipe
Ma'amoul
Ma'amoul are stuffed shortbread cookies from unsweetened dough, stuffed with dates or slightly sweetened nut fillings. The cookies originate in Jerusalem, but are popular all over the Middle East and each region has slightly different variation on the spices and dough recipe. For example: The nut fillings are usually walnut, but in Syria, where pistachios are abundant this is also a very popular and very elegant filling. The dough may be made from either fine semolina (cream of wheat), or from flour, or a mixture of both. Of course, the semolina ones are the best! They provide a rich, nutty and interesting texture to the cookie. In the Galilee, ma'amoul cookie dough is often flavoured with malepi (black cherry kernels), which give them a peculiar, inimitable aroma that goes especially well with the date filling (which, in turn, is likely to be spiced with cinnamon and cloves rather than the  nutmeg in the recipe to follow).

The ma'amouls are shaped in multiple ways, in order to be able to differentiate between different stuffings. The shapes can also have other religious meanings, especially in the Christian communities - where this was originally an Easter pastry. The round ones are stuffed with dates, and signify the crown of thorns and Christ's suffering, and and the nut filled ma'amouls are oval-shaped, and said to symbolize Jesus' tomb.

The following recipe is adapted from May S. Bsisu's excellent book The Arab Table, p. 303-304; and some improvements based on Dokhol Safadi and Michal Waxman's book "Baladi: Four Seasons and Nazareth" (in Hebrew), p. 288-289. Naturally, I've added my own perfumey touch to the filling flavours and also my tips from many hours of rolling ma'amoul cookies with my adopted Syrian family.

Aside from the usual kitchen and baking equipment (large mixing bowl, chopping board, knife and large cookie sheets and baking paper), you'll also need one special piece of equipment, which is very easy to find in the Middle East but not so easy to come by outside of it: little metal clips that are made especially for pinching the decorations and marking the ma'amoul. Some books will also recommend specialty cookie molds. These are very pretty and make for great (and impressive) kitchen decoration, but I found them to be way more difficult to work with (the cookies get stuck in the molds).

But most importantly - this is not a task for one person. It is best to make ma'amoul (or any large amounts of hand-shaped pastries, especially stuffed ones) with company. I sometimes wonder if it's not the cooking together rather than the eating together that keeps people together.

Semolina dough: 
4 cups fine semolina from Durum wheat, or regular sized semolina (AKA cream of wheat)
1.5 cups (3 sticks, or 375g)  unsalted butter, melted 
0.25 cup orange flower water
0.25 cup rosewater
0.5 cup unbleached all-purpose wheat flour 
1 tsp freshly ground malepi (optional)

- Melt the butter and add the floral waters. 
- Stir in the semolina until a dough is formed.
- Place in the fridge overnight, in order for the semolina to absorb all the moisture. 
- The next day, mix the flour with the ground malepi (if desired). 
- Knead the semolina dough with the flour mixture
- Roll into small balls (about the size of a golf-ball) and flatten them between your index finger and thumb. Place a small but significant amount of filling (about 1tsp) and close the dough in (it will look like a money pouch where all the dough gathers, this is the place you will place on the pan. The top will get the metal clips treatment, with decorations as imaginative as yourself. 
- Bake in pre-heated oven (to 350F or 180c) for about 15min, or until slightly golden on the bottom. 
- Let the cookies cool on a wire rack. Once cooled completely, sprinkle icing sugar on top. Keep as many as you're planning to eat within 2-3 days in a jar, so they don't turn stale. The rest are best to keep frozen. They will taste fresh once thawed again. 

Date filling:
1lb pitted and mashed dates (see note below)
1.5 Tbs unsalted butter
 1Tbs rosewater
1/4tsp grated nutmeg
* If you can't find pre-mashed dates, finely chop Barhi dates - the ones that are sold in small carton boxes and often mistakenly referred to as "fresh dates" in Persian and other Middle Eastern shops). If using pre-mashed dates (in vacuums package) be sure to remove any calyx or stem or occasional pit that were left behind).

Walnut filling:
2 cups walnuts
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbs orange flower water
1 tsp cinnamon, ground 

Pistachio & Orange Blossom (Ma'amoul filling)

Pistachio filling:
0.75 cups raw pistachios (unshelled)
2 Tbs sugar
2 Tbs unsalted butter, melted
1 Tbs orange flower water
0.5 tsp cardamom, freshly ground 

Stay tuned for additional Middle Eastern Christmas specialty from my region, including Pumpkin Jam!

Summer Sage & Honey Soap

Summer Sage Harvest
In the harsh summer conditions, certain plants developed a defence mechanism that prevents them from complete dehydration in the long drought conditions. The Three-Lobed Sage (Salvia fruticosa) is one of them. Naturally, the leaves in the summer produce a different aroma, and seem more concentrated to me. When not covered totally in desert dust, the leaves have a beautiful silvery-yellow-green colour, and are crinkly and "closed". They open in the winter after they get a few gulps of rain; and then will become larger and greener, with the texture turning from dry suede into fresh velvet.

Sage harvest and olive oil infusion (for use in handmade soapmaking)

This particular sage (in Hebrew it can be translated literally into "Triangular Sage" because of its leaf made of three sections), shares many similar actions and properties with the garden/common/culinary sage, or as we call it in Hebrew, מרווה רפואית - literally translated as "medicinal sage" (Salvia officinalis), which is native to Europe. Our sage is actually gentler and safer than the latter, especially because of the lower thujone levels. Thujone interfers with the hormonal activity in the female body especially; and also has neorotixic and hallucinogenic influences when used in high dose.  Thujone in the wormwood plant is what gives the liquor absinthe its hallucinogenic properties.

Sage infusion in olive oil
Sage (S. fruticosa) is one of the most valued plants in the region, and so it is only natural that I wanted to include it in one of my concoctions. It is used for myriads of ailments, mostly using its antiseptic, expectorant and "drying" properties to treat colds, and is also an aid for women who wish to wean their babies from nursing - it dries the milk and saves the agony of breast infection in the process. It also helps with menstrual cramps and pain, and in all matter of indigestion. It also helps to clear and prevent Nephrolithiasis (kidney stones) and to fight fungal infections. It helps to calm the nerves, and used to treat headaches (especially as synergy with other local cure-alls such as za'atar and mint, in an oil infusion rubbed onto the temples). It is also used for anxiety and depression - the latter treated by the flowers, a less-known use of the plant.
As for its skin-related properties - it's a valued antimicrobial, astringent, cleansing and purifying plant, which is good against fungal and bacterial infections, but also eczema and psoriasis. Sage tea is excellent rinse for the scalp and will improve colour for dark hair, as well as give a shine and body to it if used instead of a mainstream conditioner.

Spent Sage Leaf
After I infused the leaves for one month in organic, local, cold-pressed olive oil, I strained the leaves (and composted them, of course).
Late Summer Sage
Another batch of leaves I brewed into a very strong tea, and made into ice cubes. If I didn't do that, all the nutrients and plant matter in the tea would get scorched by the caustic soda in the process of making the lye water.
Sage Tea Ice Cubes

Sage Tea Ice Cubes

Bringing on the Lye!
Once the caustic soda comes in contact with the water, a chemical reaction begins to take place, which generates heat very fast, and melts the ice cubes. Because i used only ice cubes, this lowered the temperature of the lye dramatically, which also results in less damage to the oil phase (once these two are mixed together).
Sage Lye Ice Tea...
The other oils I used in this particular soap are the same as all my soaps - a winning formula of olive oil, coconut, palm and castor oils. To this I added oil-infusion of myrrh and frankincense resins (added at the very end of the saponification process, which prevents their demolition by the lye), and honey. This was left for 48 hours before unwrapping the moulds (I use 1L milk cartons as my moulds - a great way to reuse something that would have otherwise be thrown directly to the trash; an also saves me miles of wax paper and rinsing and washing).
Sage & Honey Soap
I panicked at first because of the white crystals that formed on the top. I was certain that they were lye flakes that didn't melt. After consulting with my soap mentor, and testing, I was much relieved to learn that they are just soap crystals.

How this soap bar smells was a big surprise to me: it smells almost edible, in an earthy, wholesome kind of way. Not like candy but a little bit like honey cake. If you love a bar of soap that smells sweet and spicy but not in a conventional Christmas candle or cinnamon bun style - this is definitely for you!
Sage & Honey Soap Bar with Frankincense & Myrrh Resins
The soaps are hand-sliced and left to cure for a month. They will be ready a month later, on November 10th. You can pre-order them online though - I only have 16 bars so if you love sage and honey and incense, you want to make sure you got one set aside for you!

Yoreh

Yoreh

It rained for the first time, all day and all night. Peeling steadily through the layers of arid earth, the raindrops activated and supercharged with fresh water, permeated by the intoxicating scent of new rain. It was so pure and fresh, new and familiar that I could not sleep all night, waking up every hour or so to the changing scent, releasing nuanced versions of petrichor into the air, crawling into my bedroom window like trails of smoke from a Japanese incense clock.

The thought that went through my mind: maybe, just maybe, it was worth all the suffering of summer to arrive at that special day and experience this outburst of watery blessing.

Looking forward to a few months break from the heat, dust and constant race against the harsh sun clock... Being able to exercise without my head exploding, walking outdoors any time I wish, and hanging out with this creature, who is the epitome of Hygge (don't you agree?).

Cozy Cat
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