FOOD: #CookforSyria Experiments 2.0

My mum’s best friends came to stay last week. Whenever Susan and Helen come round, lovely people that they are, they always come baring baked goodies. Susan’s tiffin is renowned and Helen’s flapjack mysteriously disappears as soon as it is unwrapped. Emboldened by the (near) success of my Syrian fatti dajaj, I volunteered to return the goodwill and bake a little something myself. #CookforSyria recipe book in hand, I flipped to the final section (best for last: “sweets and desserts”) and searched for something with a reasonable chance of success.

  One recipe stood out: barazek. These eggless sesame and pistachio cookies seemed right up my street flavour-wise – but a glance at the method checked my ambitions. Having been a teensy bit scarred by the many stages of fatti dajaj, I was reticent to embark on a cookie that required more than one mixing bowl – especially if guests were to eat it. So I mentally set the barazek to one side and carried on flipping. I was tempted by some turmeric biscuits, but a few pages later, lo and behold, I found barazek shortbread. This blissfully simple recipe required no yeast or honey sauce (as had the original barazek). Feeling optimistic about the short ingredients list, I set the oven to 180℃ and donned the ancient pin-striped apron that lives in the cupboard under the stairs.

  Step one: sift the flour and sugars together. Easy peasy. I carefully weighed the ingredients and had a merry time waving a sieve about. Flour and sugars sifted, I turned back to the recipe book for Lily Vanilli’s next instruction: add the cold butter and rub with your fingertips to form fine breadcrumbs.

  I groaned. Call me shallow, but I’d only just had my nails done. As someone who never has her nails done this was quite a big deal; I’d been exceptionally careful not to ruin them thus far. Resigned to my fate, I washed my hands, took one last loving look at the glittery purple perfection of my fingertips, and plunged them into the mixing bowl.

  ‘Abi,’ my mum wandered in about ten minutes later and peered over my shoulder at the slow progress. ‘That’s the long way round. Why don’t you use your new food processor?’

  ‘Mother,’ I replied sagely. ‘Lily Vanilli says to do it by hand. One must adhere to one’s recipe book in such instances.’

  Why I’d chosen this particular instance to follow the recipe is now beyond me. Still, stubborn as I am, I pressed on until fine breadcrumbs were indeed formed. I carefully washed away the buttery residue from my hands and was pleased to note that my nails had survived virtually unscathed.

  Now to separate an egg. I found the egg separator buried amongst a jungle of spatulas and spoons. The only other time I’d use this cursed tool was during an unhappy experiment with macaron three years ago. The results had been enough to put me off baking for life. Taking a deep breath, I tapped an egg against the counter so delicately it would not even have noticed its own shell breaking, balanced the separator over a mug, and cracked the egg in two with baited breath.

  ‘Huzzah!’ I cried. The yolk had landed perfectly in the middle of the separator, the white flowing gracefully off into the mug. I was Nigella Lawson. I was Delia Smith. I was Mary fucking Berry. I felt sure my career as a baker was about to begin.

  Until it came time to decorate the cookies. The kneading and rolling and cutting into shapes part had gone swimmingly, and now all that was left was to adorn the shortbreads with crushed pistachios and sesame seeds. Lily Vanilli made it all sound so easy. Dust one side of the cookie with egg white and sprinkle with crushed pistachios, she said. Then turn over and do the same with sesame, she said. But did she mention what a colossal mess such a process makes? Of course not. Because Lily Vanilli wants you to actually make her shortbreads.

  ‘Abi,’ my mum came in for a glass of water and witnessed the floury, nutty, sesame-seedy carnage on the kitchen counter. ‘Why don’t you put something on the counter to catch the seeds?’

  ‘Mother,’ I replied, pretending to be calm as a clam. ‘I’m almost finished. It’s not so much to clear up.’

  ‘Alright,’ she said in that knowing voice of a mother who allows her children to make their own mistakes.

  Eventually the cookies were pistachioed and sesamed and into the oven they went. I set about cleaning up the mess that had become my kitchen. After much brushing and sweeping and wiping and washing up, the surfaces sparkled and my cookies were browned at the edges. I transferred them to the cooling rack with a quiet satisfaction. They might not have looked exactly like the picture, but they looked (and smelled) good enough for me.

  The next morning Susan and Helen arrived. And what better elevenses than a cup of English Breakfast tea and some Syrian barazek? I was unfortunately at Tescos during said elevenses (where I had to send my younger brother back into the shop to buy us alcohol, because being a numpty I’d forgotten my ID) so could not have witnessed the initial reaction. However, upon interrogation later in the day Susan and Helen were kind enough to supply the following highly impartial reviews:

“I really like them – I want the recipe! I really like them because they’re not too sweet, and they’re really filling…normally I’d have two biscuits but this time I only needed one!” – Susan (mum’s friend #1)

“They’re quite filling actually…and crunchy…kind of…interesting” – Helen (mum’s friend #2)

  So not so much to Helen’s taste, but Susan was chuffed. I’ve noticed the contents of the tin has depleted significantly – I think my parents must have enjoyed them too! Worth all that mess, then. In any case, who doesn’t enjoy making a mess from time to time? Another almost-success for the #CookforSyria book! Stay tuned for my next experiment…

If you want to buy a #CookforSyria recipe book, you can order them from the campaign website. The book contains over one hundred recipes inspired by Syrian cuisine, and all proceeds go directly towards UNICEF’s work in Syria. It also contains advice on fundraising through food – a fantastic way to connect with others whilst raising money for a good cause.

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