I’m standing in my kitchen on a warm spring day, cooking. Tomorrow’s my turn to host book club so, as is our custom, I‘m preparing a light meal that’s in keeping with the book we read.
Figuring out this menu was a challenge as we just finished reading Rebel Daughter, by Lori Banov Kaufmann “about a young woman who survives the unthinkable … in a tale of family, love, and resilience, set against the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.”
Ordering sushi was not an option.
After brainstorming, researching, and consulting with experts, I arrived at the perfect range of dishes to serve: curried red lentil soup, olive and mint tapenade, multi-seeded crackers, five grain bread, two kinds of berries, apple juice and wine. It required a special shopping trip, so first thing this morning, list in hand, I visited the spice vendor on main street. It’s a store that looks abandoned, smells amazing, and has constant foot traffic.
“Boker tov,” said the petite Yemenite woman behind the counter.
“Shalom,” I replied as warmly as possible, knowing what I was about to put her though.
She listened carefully as I butchered the words in Hebrew for ingredients I didn’t know in English, then, like a homing pigeon, she swooped around the wall-to-wall glass jars, hessian sacks and tins boxes collecting what I needed. With a small metal shovel, she scooped out colorful, textured goodies, dumped them in little plastic bags, weighed each one, punched numbers into her calculator, then sealed them with a twist. For the finale she reached under the counter and produced a tiny glass vial of clear liquid with a thick rubber stopper – orange flower water.
“Toda,” I said, gathering my precious spoils, and continued on my mission.
Half an hour later and 150 shekels lighter I was home with my apron on, pouring, measuring, and stirring as instructed. But when I stared into the mixing bowl I panicked. It was a slop of wet and dry black seeds, red pepper, green za’atar, white flour, yellow oats, brown date syrup, grey sunflower seeds and clear water. I checked the recipe, which said, “It will look like a sludgy mess. Don’t worry.”
A classic Israel moment. Nothing made sense but I trusted what I’m told, forged ahead and hoped that all the weird unrelated elements would come together and make something good, perhaps even something great.
As my hands busied my mind wandered. I wondered what Esther the protagonist was thinking when she stood in her kitchen making these crackers and looked in her mixing bowl.
She was just 16 in the first century and probably worried about her future. Romans were threatening Jerusalem, infighting amongst Jews was on the rise, and her older brother had joined one rebel group after another, determined to defend his people.
I’m in my 50s in the 21st century and still there’s trouble in Jerusalem, threats at our borders and infighting amongst the Jews. I was worrying about my youngest son, who, like his two brothers before him, was heading into the army soon, determined to serve his people.
She was scared. I was scared. I pressed on.
What about dessert?
I texted talented chef friend Shawna, the Canadian-Israeli who’d recreated the ancient recipes for the author’s website. She suggests dates stuffed with walnuts and a plate of ma’amoul cookies. I had to look it up.
As an Ashkenazi Aussie my comfort zone ends around ANZAC biscuits, so I asked my city’s Facebook friend group where I could buy some ma’amoul.
I called Lydia my fabulous friend with Moroccan roots who can cook anything standing on one leg with her eyes closed and no recipe.
“I need your help, it’s a cooking emergency,” I said.
She invited me over right away, which of course I was counting on.
I handed her the bags of pistachio filling and semolina dough that I’d diligently prepared. She tasted a pinch, made a face, and promptly threw them in the garbage. I’d switched the salt with the sugar.
By the time I’d returned from buying more semolina, milk and butter, she’d made perfect date and almond filling, rolled it in to balls and poured me a cup of sweet tea. Perched on her kitchen stool I watched her whip up new pastry with the ideal texture. After wiping her hands, she leaned in close and took from her pocket a small metal tool that her beloved late father had made for pinching and patterning the dough.
“This belonged to my parents,” she said.
I nodded silently, understanding its value.
“You roll the pastry into a ball like this, flatten it out, pop the dates inside then roll it all in a ball again. See?” Her hands moved fast.
“Then pinch the edges like this and the top as well, place on the tray. Bake till golden, and dust with sugar powder when they’ve cooled. Ok?”
I took a deep breath. I’d be making them alone as I had to wait two more hours for the semolina to expand. She lent me her treasured tool for the night and send me on my way.
The following evening at 8:30 sharp, my guests arrived – a fascinating group of Israelis who lived in America, Americans who live in Israel, a former South African, and our very special guest, the author herself. We talked and ate and laughed for hours and I thought of Esther again. Like her my life is filled with the most incredible mix of people and unexpected experiences, simply because I live here in Israel.
You can buy Lori’s book Rebel Daughter here: https://amzn.to/3rwjlJK
You can get the recipes from her site https://www.lorikaufmann.com/