Last week, the kids and I got a very exciting invitation. Back in March, my friend Aziza volunteered her time to help me during my March Break kids' cooking workshops. I had asked her if she would teach me some dishes she liked to cook, and so last Saturday we went to her home for a midday visit and cooking class. As 4-year-old Polly said, "It's the first time WE have done a cooking class not at home!"
Our friend Ghada, who had also generously helped out with my March workshops, joined us. The women had laid out all the ingredients and tools in a beautiful way (we have similar ideas about presentation!). We made three dishes: little pizzas with za'atar spice on top, buns filled with cream cheese, and for dessert, small pancakes stuffed with cinnamon-sugar walnuts. We used the same dough for the first two dishes; Aziza told me she had made it using yogurt and olive oil, and it was soft and pliable and so delicious when baked. Cash, Polly, and four lovely children ages 3-11 (Aziza's family and friends) helped out with all of the preparations.
For the first dish, Manakish, Aziza and Ghada made their own za'atar mix out of ground sumac, dried oregano, and sesame seeds. Then they mixed it with olive oil and a little salt, and we spread it on the pizzas. They told me that you can buy it premade, but it's much better when you make it yourself! This dish is often eaten for breakfast in the Middle East, with olives, tomatoes and sweet tea brewed with sage leaves. The tea Aziza made was so delicious, and we drank it out of delicate glass cups.
The kids loved learning how to make the cream cheese buns. Ghada showed us how to pull the dough around a dollop of cream cheese filling and hide the cheese so none is peeking out; the dough should be tightly sealed around it. This task actually seemed easier for small hands than for adult ones, and all the kids could capably handle it.
The final recipe was called Qatayef: thin pancakes, cooked on only one side and then folded around two different fillings - cinnamon-sugar walnuts, and a custard filling that Ghada had set with cornstarch. The pockets can be baked or deep fried. Aziza deep fried them, dipping them in a sugar syrup flavoured with rosewater as they came out of the hot oil. Aziza's 9-year-old son found us some edible violets in the backyard for a garnish, and we added crushed pistachios on top, too. They tasted wonderful.
To add some humour to the morning, our batter ended up exploding all over the kitchen and Aziza! But it still made delicious (extra light?) pancakes.
It was such a pleasure to cook with these generous women. They are dedicated to helping children learn cooking, as I am. I got the chance to work with unfamiliar (to me) ingredients, such as rosewater and sumac, and learn new ways of preparing things I've worked with before (soft dough, pancakes). Arabic desserts tend to be a bit sweeter and feature more nuts than the desserts I grew up with; I have always loved nuts in both sweet and savoury dishes and it's exciting to expand my horizons with new recipes. Thank you so much, Aziza and Ghada - until the next lesson!