Check Out This Cookbook! "Middle Eastern Sweets" by Salma Hage
By: Khelil Bouarrouj / Arab America Contributing Writer
Salma Hage, the Lebanese British author of the new cookbook “Middle Eastern Sweets,” readily concedes that a collection of recipes dedicated to sugary desserts, pastries, creams, and treats might appear, at first, out-of-touch with our health-obsessed culture where added sugar has been thoroughly demonized. Hage is herself very health-conscious but abides by the rule that “a little of what you fancy does you good,” and the belief that our diets should be guided by a sense of moderation and not absolutism. Moreover, as Hage notes, sweets are a universal symbol of hospitality and celebration. We need cakes and cookies to enrich our birthdays, new babies, marriages, and simply to enliven our tea and coffee time with our loved ones.
In that spirit, Hage has written an irresistible cookbook dedicated to highlighting the sweet traditions of the Middle East. Although many of the recipes are anchored in her native land of Lebanon, Hage’s cookbook encompasses delicious treats from across the region — Iran to Morocco — and even farther afield. French colonialism bequeathed pastries and cakes now deeply entrenched in the cafe culture of several Arab cities from Tunis to Beirut. What’s unique about Hage’s collection is that she refuses to be bound by rigid notions of what is Middle Eastern.
For Hage, the region’s ingredients are immensely versatile. And so she showcases plenty of French and British and even Mexican recipes with a Middle Eastern spin. You wouldn’t expect to see a margarita recipe in a Middle Eastern cookbook. But why not? Mexican and Arab gastronomy share a lot in common; both cultures prize hibiscus, for instance. So Hage presents her thirst-quenching Pomegranate and Rose Water margarita. Or try the Tahini Chocolate Date brownies. In the mood for a Middle Eastern baked good à la française? The Spiced Pistachio Brioche might be the most delectable recipe in the entire book. Or go for the Tahini cheesecake. (Tahini is one of the most salient ingredients featuring in numerous recipes, including Tahini Swirls and Tahini and Pistachio and Cacao Hazelnut halvas; there’s also a Greek Hazelnut & Orange halva pudding recipe made not of tahini but semolina.)
This is a book that presents sweets without being too decadent. The healthy-minded will find plenty to delight their tastes and sugar concerns. Haga offers plenty of helpful advice on how to sweeten your recipes without relying too much on sugar. For instance, date syrup is a great substitute to sweeten your baked goods. Cooking methods can also reduce the need for added sugar. For instance, grapes that are baked are sweeter and more flavorful and thus her Green Grape Filo Pie requires less sugar without sacrificing taste. Rose and Orange Blossom Water can also serve as alternatives to sugar in sweetening a dish. These fragrant distilled waters were introduced to Europe via the region where they served Westerners both in hygiene (washing your hands or masking foul smells) and cooking. And there are vegan alternatives for kunafa and baklava. And, lastly, a recipe for almond milk that’s bound to be much more flavorful than the store-bought kind.
And Haga is time-conscious as well. Take her booza recipes. This stretchy ice cream popular in Lebanon and Syria is both time-consuming and physically taxing. No fear: Hage innovates by adding sahlab (orchid root powder) to her recipe to get that thick and stretchy quality without all the time and effort of the traditional method. It is her ice cream chapter that really won my heart. Cardamom is common in Middle Eastern countries (especially North African) and has an ineffable flavor. Her cardamom ice cream recipe balances the “menthol-meets-cinnamon-and-citrus flavor” of the spice with black pepper whose “gentle heat enhances the ambrosial quality of the cardamom.” Yum. The Pomegranate and Mint Sorbet, Dark Chocolate and Tahini Ice Cream, and Persian Saffron and Rose Water Ice Cream (Bastani in Farsi) all look like winners, too.
One shortcoming of this otherwise exceptional text is the lack of historical knowledge. There are a few drops here and there: the Barazek (Sesame and Pistachio Biscuits) are believed to have originated in Damascus where they were originally sold in decorative tins. The recipe for Qatayef (Stuffed Arabic Pancakes) first appeared in the tenth-century cookbook “Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen” by Ibn Sayyar Al-Warraq. But it would have been very interesting to learn more about the history of many of these recipes. “Middle Eastern Sweets” does however include a useful glossary where Hage lists some of the benefits, textures, and aromas of many of the ingredients featured in the cook. Did you know that beyond being a natural sweetener, date syrup is high in potassium, calcium, and fiber when consumed raw? Now you do.
Most Middle Eastern cookbooks are mainly focused on savory dishes with desserts confined to a chapter. Moreover, they usually limit themselves to dishes originating from the region. “Middle Eastern Sweets” fills a gap in the kitchen library with Hage’s comprehensive and easy-to-understand recipes of traditional sweets. And Hage’s decision to broaden her horizons and add Arabesque aromas and flavors to non-Middle Eastern sweets makes this cookbook all that sweeter.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a writer and editor in the Washington, DC area specializing in Middle Eastern affairs. His favorite dish is couscous.
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