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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!

The Bahá'í Gardens in Akko


This spring I visited the Baha'i gardens in Akko (aka Acre). At the gate of the gardens, there's a beautiful marble fountain with red and white flowers planted around it. It is not only beautiful, but serves a purpose: cleansing one's mind in preparation for meditative, slow-paced walk on the garden's coarse gravel trails, and prayer inside the fragrant holy temple. You see, bathing is not merely an act of rinsing off dirt, but also bring on the clean, through the pure water that seeps through your pores; and the sound of water alone has the power to clear the mind's worries and establish a sense of peaceful calm.


The Bahá’í Gardens at Bahjí in Akko was built around the historic mansion where Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, resided during the final years of his life (he spent most of his life imprisoned by the Ottoman empire - first in prison and then in a house-arrest in this Turkish mansion near Akko - where he wrote the Kitáb-i-Aqdas - the central book of the Baha'i faith); and the shrine around his tomb. And quoting from their website: "The approach to the circular garden is a long, straight path framed with cypress trees and informal plantings. As you walk, the silence seems to grow in intensity. Entering the heart of the site is like arriving in a world of peace and serenity, a wall-less sanctuary that is protected without being enclosed. Here the formal, precise gardening flows around historic buildings and natural elements that include a centuries-old sycamore fig tree and the remains of an ancient olive grove".



The style of a Baha'i garden reminds me of the Persian miniatures book I would look at for hours at my grandmother's home. Everything is very manicured and precise. Each bed is tended daily to remove old and dying flowers - which are hand collected or even vacuumed by the gardeners. Flowers are cut at their peak before they come into seed to avoid any chaos in this orderly garden. The result is a vast space with defined areas for flowers, greenery, white gravel, black pebbles... Everything is very orderly and symmetric, like the artistry of a Persian carpet.

At the innermost part of the garden, there is the temple where the prophet-founder Bahá'u'lláh is buried. After removing one's shoes, one can enter this sacred space. Complete and total silence is demanded at this holy place, and touching of any of the objects is prohibited. In this total silence, you surrender entirely to the light, sights, sounds and scent of the place. It is sprinkled with copious amounts of rosewater, and together with the skylight and hanging greenery that grows towards the naturally-lit ceiling, the soft Persian rugs under one's feet, there is a sense of harmony, peace and serenity in this place. Yet, there is also a certain heaviness that is hard to quite pinpoint or explain, but it is felt - perhaps because the Baha'i faced prosecution at its beginnings in both Persia and the Ottoman Empire.




Roses seem to have a symbolic place in the Baha'i faith and were favoured by the Bahá'u'lláh, and surrounded his roses picked in the gardens:
Every day," Nabíl has related, "ere the hour of dawn, the gardeners would pick the roses which lined the four avenues of the garden, and would pile them in the center of the floor of His blessed tent. So great would be the heap that when His companions gathered to drink their morning tea in His presence, they would be unable to see each other across it. All these roses Bahá'u'lláh would, with His own hands, entrust to those whom He dismissed from His presence every morning to be delivered, on His behalf, to His Arab and Persian friends in the city." 

 I can't know for certain their significance, but in other traditions, roses symbolize harmony, love, peace - the core values of the Baha'i faith, which tried to create a unity of faith across the globe. Although a different faith - the Sufis (mystics of Islam) practiced meditation in rose gardens, which are the most important theme in Persian art – Persian miniatures as well as carpet designs depict such rose gardens. And not unlike the Sufi poets - they have noticed the relationship between the Rose and the Nightingale:

"One night," he continues, "the ninth night of the waxing moon, I happened to be one of those who watched beside His blessed tent. As the hour of midnight approached, I saw Him issue from His tent, pass by the places where some of His companions were sleeping, and begin to pace up and down the moonlit, flower-bordered avenues of the garden. So loud was the singing of the nightingales on every side that only those who were near Him could hear distinctly His voice. He continued to walk until, pausing in the midst of one of these avenues, He observed: 'Consider these nightingales. So great is their love for these roses, that sleepless from dusk till dawn, they warble their melodies and commune with burning passion with the object of their adoration. How then can those who claim to be afire with the rose-like beauty of the Beloved choose to sleep?'

Visiting the gardens I learned a few things - not just about the Baha'i religion history and heritage; but also about how important it is to dedicate a space for meditation, prayer and spirituality. Making a space for that in your physical world makes it also easier to give it space in our packed and fast-paced timetables. 

And tying it back to spring cleaning (my seasonal obsession): As daunting as clearing and organizing one's personal space may seem, it is also truly therapeutic and a spiritual process in which you rid your home of negative and stagnant energy, and make room for positive forces to flow. Beyond cleaning, one’s home should be an oasis from the outside stresses of the world. This is why in so many Eastern cultures there is a custom of removing one's shoes before entering a place of worship, or even someone's home. In the Middle East, washing the feet was an important part of hospitality.

In this day and age of fast-paced living, creating a barrier between work and rest, secular and holy is always a challenge. Using incense and candles to scent the home also creates a warm and inviting atmosphere, and ultimately forces us to pay more attention to our breath, subconsciously coaxing mindfulness into our hectic schedule, and will make us feel more connected to our surrounding. If you work from home, using a special scent at the end of the day to mark the beginning of your "off" time might also be beneficial. Additionally, burning a natural wax candle (made of bees or soy wax) candle helps create negative ions in the air, contributing to a sense of well-being and clarity of mind.

Sprinkling of water - especially fragrant ones - can also be a cleansing experience, both spiritually and physically. Regardless of one's religion, or lack of it thereof - there is power to such rituals of cleansing that goes beyond what meets the eye. The intention of the action has a lot more impact than the pure science of these action (using anti-bacterial agents; or using plants - in incense or water - that symbolize those values to you: Are you cleaning your home to make it bacteria-free? Or are you doing it to make space for positivity and renewal?

By the way, there is an important Baha'i holiday coming soon: the Festival of Ridván, beginning April 21st, this 12-days-long festival celebrates the public declaration of Bahá'u'lláh's mission. 

Malabi (Recipe)


Malabi by Ayala Moriel
Malabi, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
Malabi is a Middle Eastern dessert, a milk pudding thickened by rice flour, which is usually served cold like Panna Cotta. Unfortunately, most of the malabi recipes, as well as what you'll find on street corners and even in restaurants are made with the inferior cornstarch, giving it (what I think is) an unpleasant aftertaste and a rubbery texture.

The dessert is made simply by cooking milk and starch as if to make a pudding. It is only minimally sweetened, if at all, and always must be flavoured with rosewater and orange flower water, which is the only thing that really sets it apart from the old fashioned baby-food that was served in the 1950's (when mothers were convinced that fattening a baby with modified starches is the way to prove that their kid is not malnourished). You may serve it warm; but the traditional recipe is for chilled malabi, which gives you room for many creative serving suggestions (i.e.: using moulds, fancy cups, garnishes, syrups and toppings).

This recipe is adapted from May S. Bsisu's excellent book "The Arab Table" (p. 322) and from Israeli Kitchen. Please note that malabi has many other names and spellings (i.e.: Mohalabia, Malabia, Muhallibieh, etc.). She also offers several regional variations on this dessert (for instance: whole green cardamoms and saffron strands are cooked with the pudding in Saudia Arabia), including the explanation about the Syrian and Lebanese version using rice flour instead of corn starch, which is my personal preference. Note: if you want a more gooey, jelly like consistency, use Sweet Rice flour, aka glutinous rice, which is easily obtained in Asian grocery stores. For a more wholesome variation (which is great especially if served warm) use brown rice flour. Note regarding the mastic: this resin adds to both the flavour and the texture of the dessert, making it more gooey, but also making the flavour a bit different (and it is an acquired taste). 

8 Tablespoons Rice Flour, whisk and dissolve in 1/3 cup of water.
4 tsp sugar
1 L whole milk
1 Tbs rosewater
1 Tbs orange flower water
Pinch of mastic resin (optional).

For the garnish:
Date honey (also called molasses), Pomegranate molasses, grenadine, rose syrup or rose petal jam.
Toasted, crushed, unshelled and blanched pistachios or almonds; OR fresh pomegranate seeds; OR ground cinnamon and cardamom plus crushed nuts. 

 - In a small saucepan, begin heating the milk and sugar.
- Gradually add the rice flour and water and rice mixture, and cook over medium heat and simmer, stirring continuously in order to prevent lumps from forming.
- Add the mastic, if desired. 
- Once the mixture had thickened into a custard-like consistency (in about 5 minutes), add the rosewater and orange flower water. 
- Pour into small ramekins or dessert bowls, a bring to room temperature. Cover with a plastic warp and refrigerate for 2 hours. Serve with a garnish of nuts and your favourite syrup.
- Please note: These do not invert well (like panna cotta), but will have to be eaten out of the ramekins, similarly to a custard or a Crème brûlée. 

Rosewater Buttercream Cookies

Rosewater Buttercream by Ayala Moriel
Rosewater Buttercream, a photo by Ayala Moriel on Flickr.
With Valentine's Day around the corner, and the winter greyness in full swing - there is no better timing for something bright and pink and optimistic. Rosewater buttercream, anyone?

This recipe is an improvement on another one that I've tried from Canadian Living Magazine's special baking edition that came out in the fall, especially for the holiday season 2012. I love getting those special edition magazines: some of the recipes there I swear by and they have surprisingly original combinations, and are usually quite well-tested. This was an exception - whilte the buttercream frosting and the technique was fantastic; I was not at all happy with the dough. Contrasted with the soft, yielding texture of the buttercream filling - the dough must have a more flaky, absorbent consistency. Otherwise every bite will squish out the frosting before you can even get through the (rather thin, I must add) double cookie layers.

So I went off and decided to give you a tried and true cookie recipe instead, which I am sure will produce finer results: it's a classic pâte sucrée recipe, taken from Dorie Greenspan's wonderful Paris Sweets. The reason I'm telling you all this is not just because I want to give due credit to the origins of my new recipe; but also to let you in my recipe baking process. I often get complemented about my "creativity" in baking; where in fact - all I do is amalgamate components that I like from different recipes in my repertoire. It's true that I stop at nothing when it comes to flavour combinations, and these can be rather daring. But as far as consistencies go, the science of baking is something I consider myself to be a complete novice at. I keep making mistakes, learning from them, and keep trying adventurous new recipes to understand who all of this works. So don't be afraid of experimenting in the oven - baking, just like cooking - can be creative and rewarding. And once you come up with your own flavour, it's already your recipe, really. You own it - and best of all: you can share the treats with friends, family and colleagues. And that's more than half of the fun.  

Hot Hearts
For the rose-almond cookie dough:
1-1/4 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup (50gr) ground blanched almonds
1/2 tsp almond extract
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
3 drops rose absolute (optional)
1-3/4 cups unbleached white wheat flour
2 Tbs rosewater, for brushing the cut cookies1/2 cup Coarse sugar, for decorating

- In a food processor or standup mixer, beat the butter, salt and sugar together until smooth and creamy.
- Beat in the eggs, vanilla and almond extracts, and rose absolute (if using).
- Add the blanched almonds. Scrape the sides of the bowl if necessary.
- Add the flour and continue beating/blending just until the dough forms moist-looking chunks and can form a ball. Avoid overworking this dough as it will affect the crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth texture!
- Divide the dough into 2 balls, and roll each into a flat disk.
- Cover in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 4 hours or up to 2 days.
- When ready cut and bake the cookies, roll each disk into 5mm/1/4", between 2 layers of wax paper.
- Chill the dough for 10-20 minutes if it has become too soft and difficult to work with.
- Use heart shaped cookie cutters if you got them, a fluted round (as used for Linzer cookies), or any shape you like. Dip the cutter into flour to avoid the cut cookies from sticking to it.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.
- Refrigerate the cut cookies for 20 minutes.
- Brush (or spray) half of the cookies with rosewater, sprinkle with coarse sugar.  The other remaining half should be left alone as they are - they will be the base or bottom of the sandwiched cookies once you assemble them.
- Bake the cookies for 8-10 minutes, just until the edges are slightly golden.
- Place on a wired rack to dry.

Rosewater Buttercream
For the Rosewater Butter Cream Filling:
1/3cup unsalted butter, softened

2 cups icing sugar
Pinch of salt (use Hawaiian Red or Pink Himalayan salt if you want to be really fussy!)
2 Tbs whipping cream
2 Tbs rosewater
2-4 drops of red food colouring (optional)

- Beat the butter, salt and icing sugar until completely combined.
- Stir in the whipping cream and rosewater, one tablespoon at a time, beating thoroughly between additions.
- Add the red colour and blend till it is evenly distributed and the frosting is tinted a light cheerful pink!

IMG_9820
To assemble:
Pipe the butter cream frosting on the cookies that do not have the sugar decoration. You may use a spoon or a butter knife if you don't have a piping bag/syringe: you will need about 1 teaspoon per cookie - place filling in the centre of the cookie, and press the sugared cookie on top so that the filling reaches the sides of the sandwich.

Store in an airtight container until serving. You may store them in the fridge for up to 5 days. Just remember to bring them to room temperature before serving, for the best texture and flavour.

And - voila!
Your rosewater buttercream cookies are ready to enjoy!

Rosewater Buttercream Cookies

Rosy Rhubarb Crumble


Summer Fruit, originally uploaded by Ayala Moriel.

As promised, I’m sharing with you my rhubarb crumble recipe. I couldn’t help but add something perfumey to the otherwise quite simple North American classic of rhubarb and summer berries bake – probably owing to the fact that I’m a Middle Easter perfumer, the pairing with rose was just inevitable.

Rosewater and rose sugar complement the tartness and slightly floral nuances in the rhubarb, strawberries and raspberries in this otherwise easy and laid-back recipe. It’s a heavenly summer treat and with reduced sugar comparing to other rhubarb recipes I’ve seen. I think the tartness is refreshing and overdoing the sugar takes away from the flavour (this is true for many recipes – and in fact, I usually cut the sugar in half in most North American dessert recipes – sugar is way overrated and overdosed in our continent!).

For the fruit "filling":

4 stocks of fresh rhubarb

2.5 lbs fresh garden strawberries

0.9 lbs fresh raspberries

2 Tbs. rosewater

2 Tbs. corn starch

½ cup raw cane sugar

1 Tbs. butter for the pan

- Butter a large and deep rectangular pan
- Clean and stem the strawberries and cut into half
- Place in a bowl and add the raspberries
- Slice the rhubarb and add to the berries
- Sprinkle the rosewater and sugar and toss well
- Sprinkle the cornstarch and toss until evenly spread within the berry and rhubarb mixture, and spoon into the prepared pan.
- Preheat the oven to 350F.

For the crumble topping:

1 cup rolled oats

1/2 cup whole wheat flour

1 oz. butter (about 2 Tbs.)

¼ tsp. salt

2 Tbs. rose sugar (reserve 1 Tbs. for topping)

2 Tbs. Demerara sugar (reserve 1 Tbs. for topping)

50 gr. Sliced almonds

- Stir the oats, flour, salt and half of the sugars together.
- Cut in cold butter and mix with fingers or with a hand blender, until large crumbs are formed
- Mix in the sliced almonds
- Sprinkle the crumble topping onto the rhubarb and berry mixture in the pan. Sprinkle the remaining 1 Tbs. each of rose sugar and Demerara sugar on top of the crumble.

- Bake in the pre-heated oven for 40 minutes.
- Serve warm or at room temperature, on its own or with vanilla ice cream, crème fraiche or whipped cream.

P.s. A little note about the crumble topping: since these fly out of the pan pretty fast, I actually double the recipe for the crumble and reserve half for the next batch. The crumble is the only “pastry” like part so that makes the next crumble a no-brainer to whip up even on short notice, as long as you got some fresh fruit around!

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