It’s that time of year again. The Muslim holiday, Eid was yesterday and keeping my mother’s tradition going I spent the days before creating a feast of different Arabic desserts. By no means was this an easy task given that I worked everyday this week, but I did it! I recreated all the sweets that my mom makes every year.
See that’s the problem with being so far away from home. It’s not hard to leave traditions behind, packed away in a cardboard box. Sometimes, you need to unpack that box to give your kids the fond memories you had growing up. A constant reminder that being an expat is no reason to leave the box closed.
All right. Let me tell you a little more about our sweet making tradition. My mom, along with my sister and later my sister-in-law would bake up a storm twice a year, filling our house with the sweet aroma of rose water and orange blossom. They buttered phyllo dough and moulded perfectly shaped semolina cookies.
Where was I when this was happening? On dish duty! Yes, my responsibility was to clear the dishes and keep the area clean!!!!
In time (and by time I mean YEARS!) I was promoted to oven duty! I was given the privilege of crouching in front of a radiating oven to make sure that the Ka’ak didn’t burn. One tray out, one tray in. I would like to say I was damn good at my job…. but that would be a bit of a fib. I burnt more than my fair share of Ka’ak. Luckily I liked the burnt ones so I was less bothered than my mom.
There I was. Relegated to oven and dishes. Occasionally allowed to pound a Ma’moul out of the wooden moulds formed
by mom albeit only when baking sheets were first put in the oven or when all the dishes were washed. I think I was okay with my role in the kitchen. Everyone else did all the hard work while I skirted around the edges sneaking a baklava or six!
This all changed when I moved to London. It was then that I decided to unpack the box of traditions. That year I worked alone, dutifully making the sweets following my mom’s recipes notoriously void of proper measurement. I pushed my mom hard enough and she finally gave in and substitute directions like a “a couple of spoons of ground anise to a more precise ONE TABLESPOON. with measurements in hand I was able to bake away! That year I baked up a frenzy of sweets. Baklava, Ma’Moul, Ka’ak, Harissa, Ghrabiye… Drool!
I promoted myself from oven duty to head chef! My London friends loved everything. I was on top of the world! I did it ! I filled the house with the scents of my childhood!
Last year we were out of town for the Eid so I only made Ka’ak after I came back from vacation.
This year I made up for it all! I made:
- Harissa: A semolina cake drenched in orange blossom syrup
- Baklava: Crushed walnuts tightly rolled in a phyllo dough crust.
- Ma’moul: A semolina cookie stuffed with walnuts or dates
- Ka’ak: Flour based sweet bread made in the shape of a cookie. Usually made without a filling but my mom stuffs them with dates and now that’s the only way my family will eat them!
( I brought most of the ingredients with me on my last trip to the USA. I’ve never seen semolina here although I have to admit I never really looked. The phyllo dough also came from back home but it is available at Mark & Spencer’s as well as Pines. )
I did not have to work alone! My cool son and several awesome neighbors stopped by to pound out Ma’Moul moulds, roll baklava fingers and of course taste test everything! One of the most popular and easiest desserts I made was the Harissa so I figured I would share that recipe with you today! If you can get your hands on the semolina orange blossom and rose water, you’ll be able to make it at home without any special tools.
- 3 3/4 Cups Coarse Semolina
- 2 1/4 Cups Fine Semolina
- 3 Cups Sugar
- 1 1/2 Cups Yogurt
- 4 1/2 teaspoons Baking Powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons rose water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons orange blossom
- Peeled almonds
- tahini to coat the pan
- 4 Cups Syrup
- 1 Cup Butter
- Brush tahini on the bottom of a half-sized sheet pan (13×18 aluminum pan- world’s best pans for baking Lebanese sweets and for $6 a piece it’s a steal!!)
- By hand, mix together, both semolinas, sugar, yogurt, baking powder, rose water and orange blossom until the mixture thickens and holds together.
- Press it into a leveled layer onto the sheet pan. It will puff up a little bit in cooking so keep the mixture a few millimeters below the lip of the pan. If any remains, press it into a second smaller pan (I used a Pyrex Pie Pan)
- Let rest for 2 hours on the counter (this allows the semolina to soften)
- While the Harissa is resting:
- Syrup: Bring to boil 4 Cups Sugar with 2 Cups Water. Allow to boil for 5-7 minutes so that sugar dissolves and syrup thickens. Add 2 Tablespoons Orange Blossom extract (can be found in Middle Eastern stores or check out Amazon) and 1/2 squeezed lemon. Allow to cool completely before pouring onto Harissa.
- Almonds: Peel the almonds and cut them in half. The easiest way to do this is to soak the almonds in cold water for about 30 minutes, then the peel will easily come off).
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees
- Cut the Harissa into squares. Push an almond into the center of each square.
- Bake for 40 minutes or until top is golden brown.
- IMMEDIATELY after taking out out of the oven you must pour the 1 cup of melted butter on top followed by the syrup.
Don’t be intimidated by the amount of syrup you’re pouring on top. The cake will absorb the syrup like a sponge! The last time I made this I decided to half the syrup. Big mistake. The top of the cake was sweet but the rest was dry and missing it’s signature syrup coating!
Another tip… watch your gloves! I accidentally put my gloved thumb into the Harissa while trying to pull the pan out of the oven. OOPS!! I decided I would have to eat those pieces first!