Remembering Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen fans would make their way to the sites associated with their beloved author to ingest the world that shaped her novels. 

One good spot to start this reverence, as I did, is the Jane Austen’s House Museum located in South of England in the tiny village of Chawton, near the town of Alton in Hampshire. The village also boasts Chawton Estate, an Elizabethan manor associated with the famous author’s family.

The museum recently celebrated its 70th anniversary 202 years after Austen’s death.

The daughter of a clergyman with modest means, Austen lived here during the last eight years of her life. The house inspired and nurtured her literarily. That’s where she revised and published three novels, including the classic “Pride and Prejudice” in 1813, and wrote three more.

The dwelling was part of the Chawton Estate that belonged to Austen’s brother, Edward, who had the good fortune to inherit it from the childless Knight family for little more than a change of surname and an endearing personality. Edward allowed his mother, Cassandra, sisters Jane and Cassandra, and their friend Martha Lloyd to live in the home rent–free for life.

Those days, chickens clucking about the outhouse, grunting pigs and a donkey carriage would have been commonplace sights and sounds.

Nowadays, what’s usual are tourists — more than 40,000 flock to the museum annually. About 30% come from overseas and many of the most loyal and enthusiastic fans travel from the United States.

Getting to the picturesque English village of Chawton is half the fun. Once off the A31 Motorway that leads south from London, the drive to the heart of Jane Austen country features wooded areas lined roadside by wildflowers.

Helpful museum signposts begin about 15 minutes before the destination, but my companion and I still managed to lose our way. However, it added to the experience: meandering through the lanes, we were rewarded with sights of thatched-roof cottages, a quintessential feature of the English countryside.

The verdant Chawton countryside remains as unchanged today as it did in the 19th century when the Austen family resided.

“Many of the buildings would have been known to Jane Austen, and we know that she used to walk to visit friends and family locally,” says Jen Harris, the museum’s marketing manager. “During her time here, the road directly outside the house would have been busier than it is now, as it was the main coaching route from Winchester to London.”

The traffic, however, would have been of horses and carriages.

The first glimpse of the 17th century red-brick house with white-framed windows is poignant. This is the only dwelling where Austen lived and wrote that is open to the public. The museum describes it as the most important Austen site in the world also because this is where her genius flourished.

To think of the technology and facilities at the disposal of modern writers brings focus to what little was available to Austen, and marvel even more at her talent.

These thoughts are reinforced in the Dining Parlor.

Placed in a corner is the three-legged table at which Austen devised plots, engaged her sparkling wit and weaved social commentary into endearing prose. (The table base is dated later, but the top is original.)

At this round walnut tabletop, a little bigger than an extra-large pizza, she described the privileged landed gentry of the 19th century and women’s dependence on marriage for existence; hence the stuffy social gatherings where matchmaking was ceaseless, the gowns, the balls with their rigorous etiquette, the conquests and the animated sibling conversations that followed.

Here she created the matchmaking Emma Woodhouse, starched the pompous Mr. Collins, and outlined sense and sensibility in the form of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne.

This fictional world was created with a quill pen dabbed in ink. (The nib pen was not in use until a few decades later.)

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

As the story goes, after breakfast each day, Austen would settle at this table for a morning of writing. Remarkably neat, she pinned together about 20 smallish sheets and wrote on them in her sloped handwriting. She hid the manuscript from prying eyes by giving ear to a creaky swing door that was prevented from getting attention.

Now there’s no Austen writing by the window, so there’s no need to safeguard manuscripts. Hence, the door doesn’t creak and is used as a fire door.

Research indicates that Austen was developing cataracts in her eyes, which drove her to move the table through the house in tandem with the light; hence her preference to using a small work surface.

Another item that gives visitors pause is the lock of straw-colored hair kept upstairs in a glass case. The lock was snipped off by sister Cassandra upon Austen’s death at age 41 in 1817. It was presented to the museum by its American owner at the museum’s opening in 1949.

And then there’s the mystery ring. Was it purchased by her or was it a gift? Is the stone turquoise or the cheaper odontolite? It’s hard to verify.

On the subject of rings, in 1802, Austen entertained a marriage proposal from Harris Bigg-Wither, but changed her mind overnight. Did the insight and emotions she imparted on romantic matters in her novels not translate to real life? Or, did Cassandra, with whom she shared a bed and room since childhood, nudge her to remain single, as she herself stayed?

The museum preserves the first editions of Austen’s books, newspaper clippings from The Courier and The Morning Chronicle announcing the publishing of her books, dozens of hand-written letters and other documents, a coverlet, the Rev. Austen’s bookcase and the family carriage. In Austen’s bedroom hangs her likeness sketched by sister Cassandra, considered the only accurate portrait of her because Cassandra was a talented artist.

It’s best to visit early in the day because the true Janeite will need a good length of time to browse the objects and peruse the documents.

Visiting early would also allow time to walk the few minutes to Chawton House, past the sloping meadows. Austen would often make her way there, to get away from the smaller confines of the cottage where privacy was elusive. While the House Museum is the obvious draw, the “Great House,” as Austen called it, is no less interesting to “dawdle away” the time.

Chawton House, in the Knight family since 1582, doesn’t quite boast the grandeur of Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Pemberley. Researchers believe that Mr. Knightley’s Donwell Abbey in Emma was modeled on this estate.

Janeites would do well to bump into volunteer guide Jeremy Knight, who happens to be the fourth-great nephew of Jane Austen and grew up in the Great House. It is now leased in trust for 125 years.

The Chawton House Library conserves a rare collection of early women’s writing, from 1600 to 1830, which was neglected during the 20th century. While Jane Austen is the most famous woman novelist of her time, others such as Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, also paved the way to the modern novel.

Fans eager to connect the Great House to Austen would note that the library contains the first editions of her novels. She also would have read the books that are in the shelves.

“Some of the books from the Knight collection that the librarian had worked out that we know Jane would have read,” Knight said. “She would have come up here and got permission and read them. So there are books that she would have touched and read herself. We know she came up here to the library quite regularly.”

The Dining Room bears the same long mahogany table at which she dined with her brother’s family when she visited. She would have eaten out of her brother’s Wedgewood dinner service; some of its pieces are in the house museum. Knight inherited the crockery set as a wedding gift from his family.

The Reading Alcove in the Oak Room was one of Austen’s favorite spots from where she would look down the drive.

Among the many portraits is one of her favorite niece, Fanny Knight, while another, a 1783 silhouette, depicts a young Edward Austen being introduced to the Knight family.

During the final part of her life, an ailing Austen moved to Winchester to be closer to her doctor. She died in 1817 and is buried in Winchester Cathedral.

After the author’s passing, her mother and sister continued to live at the house for the rest of their lives. They are buried in the church in the Chawton Estate.

In 1845, the house was split into three dwellings to provide homes for staff on the Chawton estate and the building remained in this state until it went on sale in 1947.

Following an appeal by the Jane Austen Society, the house was bought by a lawyer from London, T. Edward Carpenter, who opened it as a museum in 1949. A registered charity, it’s independent and receives no regular public funding. Jane’s Fund, launched in 2017, raises funds to help protect and restore the home, an ongoing process.

The museum continues to collect her memorabilia and build its collections. A campaign in July raised 35,000 British pounds to retrieve a letter that she wrote. The Bank of England placed her portrait in its new 10-pound note, and the museum asks fans to donate their notes to Jane’s Fund, set up to protect the home. 

On this 70th anniversary year, a special exhibition titled Making the Museum relates the story of the characters, hard work, luck and determination that has gone in to preserve this place of pilgrimage for Austen devotees.

Sadly, she didn’t strike riches when she could have used them; her lifetime’s work earned her as much as her father earned annually. Like many authors that contributed to English literature, she, too, was ushered into greatness posthumously.

Especially after the BBC’s dramatization of Austen’s novels, new legions of fans have discovered her writing and often make their way to the museum. Some are inspired to don a bonnet and gown, which are available to those who want to try yesteryear’s fashion, or dip a quill pen in the inkpot and scratch their names.

Some Janeites have even received offers of marriage in the gardens.

“I know of at least two proposals,” Harris says. “The last we heard about was in 2018 and involved a couple from the States.

“The young girl was a huge Jane Austen fan. Her boyfriend booked her the holiday of a lifetime, brought her to Jane Austen’s House, and then surprised her with his proposal in the garden. He’d even booked a local photographer to capture the moment.”

Austen would have approved.

Details: jane-austens-house-museum.org.uk.

In a divisive part of the world, a shared culinary background is not enough.

For the past six months, you loyal readers (both of you) have indulged me in my quest for a better understanding of countries singled out in Trump’s travel ban through an investigation of their culinary traditions. My journey began at LAX, shouting and waving signs, and has ended with me being literally afraid to turn on the news. Every day is worse than the last. But in that time I have gained a vast appreciation for these countries. They are all suffering so much more than I can even imagine. Being on Trump’s stupid list is literally the least of their worries.

So far, I have covered the history and culinary traditions of Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Iran. I am finishing with Syria, for a few reasons. I’m guessing that, if you are not fully aware of the intricacies of the conflict, you at the very least are aware that the Syrian situation sucks. It has certainly gotten more media coverage than the other travel-ban countries, in no small part because of the staggering flood of nearly 5 million Syrian refugees. The death toll has surpassed 400,000; 13.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance; 6.3 million are displaced internally.    

But in reality, I saved Syria for last because I have a special connection to that country.  My brother-in-law is Syrian, which makes my sweet niece and nephew Syrian, and it means I have shared all of our family’s milestones with an extended Syrian family and have been a lucky guest at their tables. But to be honest, we have never really discussed the political situation in Syria. It is an understandably upsetting topic. Something I imagine akin to a bad break-up. 

Really? Do we need to talk about it? Can we just move on? 

Lucky for me, my brother-in-law has never shied away from sharing his cuisine with us. I have had my fill of (and learned the intricacies of) hummus, baba ghanouj, tabouleh. I have become a devotee of kanafeh, a superior variation of baklava made with shredded phyllo (kataifi), filled with cheese and soaked in a rosy sugar syrup. But my favorite, by far, is kibbeh. Oh, how I love the kibbeh. 

Imagine the best, most succulent meatball you’ve ever had. Now add bulgur, nuts and exotic spices. I like it best grilled, but you also find kibbeh baked, stuffed and even raw (a Lebanese specialty), like a heavenly exotic tartare, served with mint, onion, olive oil, peppers and flatbread. Kibbeh is found across the Middle East, with dozens of regional variations. The meat is typically lamb or beef, but poultry and fish kibbeh are not unheard of. The meat can be mixed with fruit (such as quince, lemon, pomegranate or cherry) and sometimes yogurt. They are served plain, or swimming in thick sauces or floating in soup like a dumpling. Kibbeh means “to form into a sphere,” but it can take a number of forms apart from the standard meatball — oblong, football-shaped, patted into small or large discs, molded into long sausage shapes and teardrops or packed into an outer shell of bulgur or rice. There are also unique variations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, where there are a substantial number of Middle Eastern immigrants.

When I asked my brother-in-law about Syrian foods, he sent me his favorite recipes from a Lebanese cookbook. Granted, much of the region’s cuisine is similar, because of the long shared history. “But why not a Syrian cookbook?” I asked. 

“Because Syria has been living under strong government control since 1963,” he replied. “No room for creativity.” I was aware of the repression, but I had no idea it extended to the kitchen. 

A quick Amazon search proved him wrong. There were several Syrian cookbooks — except, wait — they were all published in the West. Suddenly I am feeling lucky that I have someone who passed these traditions down.

After Ottoman rule, French control under a League of Nations mandate, attacks on Christian and Assyrian populations, occupation by Vichy France during World War II, Syria experienced a short, tumultuous independence, suffering through 20 different cabinets and four constitutions. A brief union with Egypt from 1958 to 1961 ended in a transition to secular presidential government, putting power in the hands of the Ba’ath Syrian Regional Branch (socialist in its initial creation, but fascist in its final practice), making Syria the second Ba’athist state after Iraq.

In 1970, Hafez al-Assad declared himself president and created a government based on loyalty to the leader, whose wisdom was portrayed as “beyond the comprehension of the average citizen.” Government, military and intelligence organizations were soon dominated by Alawites (a minority branch of Shia Islam), and nepotism was rampant. His leadership dominated Syrian politics, and a new constitution in 1973 removed the mandate that the president be Muslim, which led to armed revolts by the Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless of opposition, Assad’s rule of this one-party state survived until his death in 2000. The nation’s first multiparty elections in 2001 placed his oldest surviving son, Bashar al-Assad, in power, and there was, for a brief moment, hope for democratic reform. 

But in 2011, the Arab Spring emboldened the opposition, and those who called for reform and Assad’s removal were violently suppressed. The protests quickly devolved into an armed conflict, with the Assad government and its allies fighting against a loose alliance of Sunni Arab rebels (the Free Syrian Army) and ultra-conservative Sunni fundamentalist Salafi jihadist groups, including the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). 

Over time, moderate forces split off from their original groups and joined Islamist militant forces. In 2015 the mostly Kurdish militia called People’s Protection Units (YPG) led a multiethnic Syrian Democratic Force, hoping to create a democratic, secular Syria. But outside forces continue to support the war, directly and indirectly, with Russia and Hezbollah supporting Assad and NATO forces fighting ISIL. Also on Assad’s side are Iran, which provides financial, technological and training support, and Shia militias from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Also in the mix are the pro-Assad Syrian Armed Forces, National Defense Force, Shabiha (an Alawite and Shi’ite militia created in the 1980s as the regime’s enforcers — considered semi-criminal gangs by critics) and anti-ISIL Christian militia. There is even a Female Protection Force, all-female Christian soldiers fighting ISIL. 

Really, the conflict is so convoluted, so deeply ingrained, that there is no way I can shed much light on it here in my little food column. I haven’t even touched on the Damascus Spring, the intellectual salons, the socialists, communists, fascists, anti-Semites or anti-Persian factions. Nor have I discussed the mindboggling list of massacres, imprisonments, torture and rampant human rights violations. To summarize, this region — in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, inhabited since the Paleolithic era, ruled by ancient Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, Persians, Macedonians and Romans, and home to the great ancient cities of Palmyra and Dura Europos — is a goddamn catastrophe. 

I urge you to familiarize yourself with Syrian history and to support the population in any way that you can. There are local resettlement agencies that could use your help, including the Episcopal Diocese of L.A.’s Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Service (IRIS), Catholic Charities of L.A. in Glendale, the International Institute of L.A. and the International Rescue Committee, also in Glendale.

In addition, find a Syrian family and make friends. I will always be thankful for my husband’s sister’s exotic taste in men, which brought these people into my life. And I am thankful that my brother-in-law and his extended family and friends are here rather than there. I am grateful to have been given the chance to be a part of their family, and I am supergrateful for kibbeh. 

Kibbeh

There are at least 50 variations of kibbeh. This is the one I like best so far, but that’s only because it’s the one I have the most. I’m totally open to more kibbeh suggestions.

Ingredients

1 pound bulgur

1 pound ground lamb or beef

½ onion, minced

½ cup pine nuts

½ cup fresh mint, chopped

1 teaspoon bharat (see below)

½ teaspoon sea salt

Method

1. Wash and drain bulgur, cover with an inch of cold water and let stand for 10 minutes. Rinse and drain again, pressing out excess liquid. It should be soft but not mushy.

2. Add the remaining ingredients to the bulgur and mix well. At this point, some cooks run the mixture though a meat grinder or food processor to create a finer meat paste. I do not, because I like a thicker texture. Also, I am lazy. Form the mixture into balls and skewer for the grill (cook at medium heat until marked and firm), or place in a baking dish (350° for about 30 minutes, or until firm to the touch). You can also press it into a baking dish and score it into 2-to-3-inch square or triangular portions before baking at 350° for about 40 minutes, until firm. Serve it with a minty yogurt sauce, a spicy tomato sauce, a heaping helping of hummus and baba ghanouj and flatbread, or just eat it, reheated in the microwave at 2 in the morning in your PJs, standing over the sink, which I have been known to do.

Bharat

Combine ingredients below

1 tablespoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon crushed black pepper

½ teaspoon ground cinnamon

¼ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

¼ teaspoon ground cardamom


Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.

Soup and Tea and Revolution

As predicted, President Donald Trump’s travel ban is back on thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, albeit this time in a modified version. So now the White House is hating on only some Muslims. Those with a bona fide” tie to the United States are cool — translation: we like you if you can help us or pay us.
So it’s time once again to explore the culinary wonders of these countries. This time, we travel to Libya, which was once the wealthiest, most stable country in Africa. Its Mediterranean coastline and strategic location next to Egypt have made Libya irresistible to outsiders, who controlled it from the Bronze Age to independence in 1951. In between, it was ruled by the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Arabs, Spanish, Ottoman Turks and, in the early 20th century, Italy.
As is the case with many African nations, Libyan cuisine is influenced by all of these occupying cultures. There is an especially strong Italian influence, including the use of pasta, because at one point nearly 20 percent of the population was Italian settlers.
There are several distinct regional cuisines — Shargawi (eastern Libyan), Gharbawi (western Libyan), Amazigi (food of Berber mountain tribes), southern Libyan cuisine and cuisine imported from the Arab world. Couscous, which is popular throughout North Africa, is the national dish here, and tagines (stews, slowly cooked in a cone-shaped earthenware pot) are popular too. And although the long coastline provides an abundance of fish, lamb and chicken remain the most popular proteins.
Ancient foods are still enjoyed, with olive oil, dates, grains and milk — all ancient foods that have sustained Berber tribes since prehistory — still the most important ingredients. Bazin (or bazeen) is an ancient bread similar to Sudanese jelly bread. Water, barley flour and salt are boiled, then beaten with a special stick (magraf) to activate the gluten. The dough is set aside to harden, then steamed or baked into a hard paste and served like an island in the middle of a tomatoey stew.
Asida is a similar dumpling, served with ghee, honey and a thick date syrup called rub. Another Berber dish, bsisa, is made from a mixture of toasted grains ground with fenugreek, anise, cumin and sugar, which is then reconstituted with milk or water, then eaten with dates and figs. All of these easily transportable foods make perfect sense in a nomadic, pastoral culture. The Tuareg, a Saharan Berber tribe known as “the blue people” because of the indigo-dyed clothing that stains their skin, use the hot sand to cook their foods. Simple breads, whole eggs and potatoes are buried after first heating the sand with fire.
Since Libya is a Muslim nation, Ramadan is the season for many of the country’s favorite dishes. Soup is the preferred dish throughout the monthlong holiday, with each region having special variations made with lamb, chicken or fish. Harissa — which simply means paste — is different throughout North Africa, but in Libya it is a spicy red chile condiment served with everything from tagines to tuna sandwiches. Herby salads with grilled or pickled vegetables and fruits are common accompaniments, and you find myriad variations made with cucumber, tomato, yogurt, carrots and local sour apples.
Teatime is an important daily ritual throughout Libya. Family and friends gather to eat small pastries and sip unusually thick black tea served in three specific courses. The tea is boiled for 10 to 15 minutes, then sweetened and boiled again before being poured back and forth between two mugs at a great height to create a foaming head, and then served in tiny glasses. A second round is served, sometimes with added mint, and in the third round, glasses are filled with peanuts or almonds before being topped with tea.
There are restaurants throughout Libya, but they are frequented mainly by tourists. In general, most Libyans eat at home, seated on cushions at low tables. Much of the cuisine is eaten by hand or with bread. Spoons and forks are relatively recent additions to the table, the former having been introduced by the Ottomans, the latter by Italians.
Though foreign influence is strong in Libya’s cuisine, there has always been an indigenous resistance movement against occupiers. The Libyans remained colonized until after Italy dragged the region into World War II in support of its German allies. Their defeat left the region in Allied control, and in 1947 Italy gave up all claims.
The United Kingdom of Libya declared independence in 1951, ruled by the country’s only monarch, King Idris I. (Gotta like the optimism of naming yourself “the First.”) In 1959 substantial oil reserves were discovered, and one of the poorest countries in the world suddenly became incredibly wealthy. But instead of using the money to build Libya’s economy, King Idris’ government was riddled with corruption scandals, and that led to the 1969 coup staged by the Libyan Revolutionary Command Council under the leadership of — ta-da! — Muammar Gaddafi.
Gaddafi established the Libyan Arab Republic, directing government funds to public programs like free education and free health care. The country’s per capita income rose to one of the highest in Africa, which sounds pretty good — except the wealth was again concentrated among the ruling elite. Gaddafi’s support of rebel movements and terrorist groups, invasions of neighboring countries and strained relations with Western nations (including the furor over the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) fueled opposition, leading to United Nations sanctions, which were eventually lifted. Meanwhile, the regime imposed medieval Islamic purification laws and campaigns of violence against dissidents, dubbed “the Green Terror,” resulting in mass incarcerations, assassinations (even overseas) and the world’s most censored press. These erratic policies and the neighboring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (part of the Arab Spring) fueled a civil war, and in 2011 the anti-Gaddafi National Transitional Council — backed by NATO forces — overthrew Gaddafi’s government and liberated Libya.
Unfortunately, four decades of autocratic rule had left no governmental infrastructure, providing a perfect nest for Islamic extremism. Now, multiple factions are fighting for control. Making matters worse, Libya is on the central migration route for African refugees heading to Europe, and therefore a prime target for human trafficking. In all respects, Libya is now a completely failed state.
But Libyans in the diaspora continue to celebrate their heritage and hold out hope of returning to what was once a beautiful nation. There are relatively few Libyan communities in the U.S., but a substantial community exists in the U.K. Unfortunately, its largest community, in Manchester, has long been a worrisome hotbed of extremist recruitment specifically targeting those of Libyan descent. Those fears were realized at the recent Ariana Grande concert. It’s a tragic culmination of centuries of tragic events. And it leaves me, as do most of the tales of these travel ban countries, feeling hopeless and helpless. My best defense is to learn as much as I can about these cultures and celebrate them in my kitchen. It does the victims of these atrocities little good, I know. But recognizing the humanity in these regions is all I’ve got. Follow me, won’t you, into the kitchen, and cook up some compassion.


Lamb Stew with Pumpkin and Chickpeas

Soups and stews are beloved elements of Libyan cuisine, and this one is particularly mouthwatering. It calls for shaiba, which is a dried lichen, also known as dagad phool in Indian cuisine. You can leave it out, but it’s readily available on the Internet, and if you’re up for a field trip, you can find it in Indian markets.


Ingredients

¼ cup olive oil

1 large yellow onion, diced

10 whole cloves

5 bay leaves

3 cinnamon sticks

1-inch ginger root, grated

3 to 4 shaiba leaves

1 pound cubed lamb meat

28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

1 pound fresh pumpkin or butternut squash, peeled and cubed to 2 inches

15-ounce can chickpeas, drained

1 cup golden raisins

Sea salt to taste


Method

1. In a large Dutch oven or stewpot, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion, spices and lamb, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft. Add tomato and water as needed to cover, and bring to a boil. At the boil, reduce to a simmer, cover and cook on low heat for 1 hour.

2. Remove lid, add pumpkin, chickpeas and raisins, and simmer another 30 minutes, until pumpkin is tender. Season with salt to taste, and serve. (You may prefer to fish out the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks and shaiba — I prefer to eat around them.)


Magroodh (Date-Filled Semolina Cookie)

Libyans love their sweets, and this cookie is a particular favorite.  Serve it at teatime to good, thoughtful, compassionate friends.


Ingredients  (For the dough)

3 cups semolina

1 cup all-purpose flour

1½ teaspoons baking powder

1 cup vegetable oil

1 tablespoon orange-flower or rose water

1 to 2 cups warm water


Ingredients  (For the filling)

1½ pounds date paste (store-bought or homemade by pulverizing pitted dates in a food processor)

1 teaspoon cinnamon

2 teaspoons nutmeg

½ cup sesame seeds, toasted

Olive oil as needed


Ingredients  (For the syrup)

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

Zest and juice of 1 large lemon

3 tablespoons orange-flower or rose water

2 tablespoons honey


Method

1. Mix together semolina, flour, baking powder and oil, then cover and set aside for 1 hour. 

2. Meanwhile, make the filling. Mix together date paste, spices and sesame seeds, adding oil a little at a time as needed to create a smooth mixture that holds its shape. Divide the paste into four equal portions and roll each into a log about 1-inch in diameter.

3. Add to the semolina dough the flower water and enough water to create a firm dough that holds its shape. Divide this dough into four equal portions and roll each into a log the same length as the date logs. 

4. Preheat oven to 400°. Press in a lengthwise trench down the center of each dough log, and nestle a date log into it. Press and mold the dough around the date log until it is completely concealed. Slice inch-thick cookies off the logs at an angle, and place them on a cookie sheet. Bake until lightly golden, about 10 to 15 minutes. 

5. Meanwhile, make the syrup. Combine all syrup ingredients in a large saucepan, bring to a boil, then remove from the heat and cool.

6. Drizzle syrup over the baked cookies, a little at a time, letting it soak in slowly. Sprinkle with more toasted sesame seeds before serving with foaming tea or Arabic coffee.


Leslie Bilderback is a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author. She lives in South Pasadena and teaches her techniques online at culinarymasterclass.com.