ROSE AND ZAATAR

A TASTE OF A LIFE IN LEBANON

Month: October, 2013

One to remember: Teething (and more eating!)

Your favourite thing to have for breakfast is toast, with or without cream cheese but not with strawberry jam.

You don’t seem to have inherited either my English love of porridge or you Italian papa’s love of cake for the first meal of the day.

This was a conversation we had over breakfast about a month ago:

Me to baby: Would you like to try some of mama’s cake? (the much blogged about baby friendly banana loaf)

Baby: head shaking, hand waving, mouth closed (three of her many ways of saying no)

Me to husband: She doesn’t want it. I was so sure she’d like it. She doesn’t seem to like sweet things that much. How can I have produced a child that doesn’t like cake.

Husband:How many teeth does she have?

Me:Four, but I don’t think she’s teething now.

Husband: No, but maybe she hasn’t got her sweet tooth yet.

I half laughed and rolled my eyes at the time but maybe he was right and your sweet teeth, or sweet taste buds, are still to come, the way that my tomato taste buds didn’t arrive until I fell in love with an Italian at 21. And I’m still waiting for my olive ones.

A break for cake

I’m taking a little break from my ‘One to remember’ series of posts about my sweet girl’s first birthday and writing this unusual early Sunday morning post over breakfast (the clocks have just gone back, but having a baby means an extra hour of being awake rather than an extra hour in bed!).

Today is the first birthday of my beautiful vegan friend’s little girl so last night I made cupcakes to take to her birthday brunch using this incredible recipe which worked like a dream- thank you Angela– a vegan baking angel. I made a few tiny substitutions as I wanted the cakes to be sugar free as well as vegan- my version is at the end of the post (so I can remember what I did for next time!).

Today is also is my husband’s two year anniversary of moving to Lebanon (I followed him 2 weeks later) and it has made me think back to all that has changed in that time. I remember the first cake I made here, when I had no measuring cups (except a yogurt pot) or temperature gauge on my oven (except a small flame and a big flame). I also had no experience of taking risks with recipes and I never would have dreamed of making the changes to the cupcakes that I did so confidently last night. Back then I was just amazed that my cake (a yogurt one!) actually worked.  Here is something I wrote at the time:

Today I am delighted, if somewhat shocked, to discover that I can cook by eye, by the weight of my experience rather than the actual weight of the ingredients, that I know when the cake is ready by the gauge of my senses rather than by the temperature gauge on the oven (as there isn’t one, just hot and hotter).

I am someone who has always cooked with precision, with weighing scales and measuring spoons, and a recipe book open just to make sure, even if I have made the dish a hundred times before.

But today I discovered that maybe I do know the measure of things, after all. 

Two years in Lebanon has taught me that this is true as well as teaching me a whole new set of measures!

 

Little family of measuring cups, gift from a little family who just left Lebanon

Little family of measuring cups, gift from a little family who just left Lebanon

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VEGAN CHOCOLATE CUPCAKES

Ingredients:

2/3 cup of agave syrup (natural sweetner in place of of 1 cup sugar)

3/4 cup non-dairy milk (I used oat milk- if using sugar use 1 cup) 

1 tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 tbsp pure vanilla extract

1.5 cups all-purpose flour

1/3 cup cocoa powder, sifted

1 tsp baking soda

3/4 tsp salt, to taste

1/3 cup oil (I used sunflower)

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to gas mark 4 and line a cupcake pan with cupcake cases. With an electric mixer, beat together the following ingredients in a large bowl (milk, oil, sweetner, apple cider vinegar, vanilla extract).

2. Now sift in the dry ingredients (flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt). Mix well, until the clumps are gone.

3. Spoon the batter into prepared cupcake pan, about two thirds full (3 spoonfuls) for each. Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the cupcake slowly springs back when pressed with a finger. Allow to completely cool before icing.

I’m about to ice them now, with an icing that has changed my (cake decorating) life- but I’m saving it for another post- coming soon!

One to remember: Growing- A Thousand Steps

A couple of weeks before turning one, you had a fragile few days, as though there was a constant cloud casting a shadow over your usually bright face. You didn’t seem to know what you wanted and I certainly didn’t. You probably cried more than you did as a newborn baby and I felt less equipped to meet your needs than I did as a newborn mother.

If I had done some research on the internet, or in one of my many baby books*, I probably would have come across very useful explanations for this strange unlike-us time. I would have read about wonder weeks, mental leaps, or cognitive growth spurts as a sweet friend suggested when I expressed my distress one particularly challenging day. It was a day when the only thing that made you smile, briefly, was dancing round and round the room together to Mil Pasos (one of your most favourite songs that we usually listen to while you’re eating and is perfect for banging your hands or spoon in time to). The song is about steps, which is in fact what you were busy trying to take, and what I needed to take too.

I thought a lot about it that evening. It was as though I could see the mother- the me- I wanted to be, standing just a little way off in the sun, waving and smiling and beckoning me to join her, if I could only cast off my heaviness, my impatience, my irritation with imperfection. If I could only go through my own growth spurt, make my own leap.

Which somehow I must have done, as the next morning, miraculously, the clouds shifted, and our sunny selves came shining back. But not quite the same as before, bigger, brighter, a few pasos further down the road.

*I stopped reading baby websites and books a while before you were one. It was around the time that I read the following: some babies can’t sleep for 8 hour stretches until they are 7 months old. You had just  turned 7 months and your sleep only stretched two and a half hours at a time, on a good night. Our ‘facts’ were so different from their ‘facts’ that I decided to go back to fiction and read novels before bed instead. I think we are both sleeping better as a result.

One to remember: Eating- The Italian Way

I realised recently, while watching you eat, that I am not just married to an Italian but also mother to an Italian.

Your favourite foods are pasta, especially al sugo just like your nonno, risotto, meatballs, mozzarella, tomatoes and bread, bread, bread- like your papa.  (Unlike your papa you aren’t that keen on cake for breakfast- even baby friendly cake– but that’s another story- post coming soon).

And it isn’t just your taste buds that are Italian, it is your whole way of being at the table- or as close to the table as you can get in your high chair. You are so involved in the event of eating and will happily spend long lunches alongside us, as long as there are lots of people, lots of noise and, of course, lots of bread.

Happy New Year

During our recent stay at Pinelands we told one of the hotel porters, who said he had a girl about your age, that you would be turning one in a few days time.

Happy New Year he said and we all smiled.

Last night it actually felt like New Year’s Eve. There was late loud music and fireworks in our street,  which were for Eid, but which I pretended were for you (even though you slept through it all, while I stayed up late, waiting for a cake to cook and wrapping up boxes in shiny paper).

And so today is your New Year’s Day.

Happy Birthday my slightly-less-little one, my baby-but-not-really-anymore, my sweet girl.

p.s. My next few posts will be for you, for us, for one day when we want to look back and remember one year.

3 Rooms with a View

We’ve spent the last few days as tourists in Lebanon.  It was our first ‘holiday’ as a family of 3, celebrating 3 anniversaries- a marriage, a meeting and a birth- that all take place in the space of 3 weeks.

If my baby was writing this post she would probably tell you about the food; being allowed to stay up for dinner with her parents 2 nights in a row; her first taste of hommos from Jacqeline (and nearly first taste of Arak from Toni); and 3 Lebanese breakfasts- cucumber, tomatoes and labneh spread on her most favourite thing of all- bread- which she probably ate a kilo of over the holiday.

If my husband was writing this post he would probably tell you about the sleep-as deep and dark green as the valley-and the beds; the first one just slightly too soft; the second just slightly too hard; but the third just right- so fairy tale perfect in fact and we even lifted up the huge, high mattress, looking (in vain) for the label, hoping that one day we could buy one for our happily-ever-after-house.

But my baby and my husband are not writing this post, I am, and as I am drawn to windows wherever I go I will tell you about the views, or better still show you.

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View from Mar Antonios Monastery, Qadisha Valley
In the morning you can still see the moon, wafer thin like a shred of Arabic bread

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View from Jacqueline and Toni’s B and B, Hasroun
In the corner of the shot you can just see two women, perched precariously on a rooftop, like birds.

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View from Pineland Resort, Ras El Metn
At night you can watch the fireworks from your widescreen balcony, bursting across the valley.

Nearly the most expensive cake ever*

On Saturday I baked my first ever vegan cake (adapted slightly from this wonderful recipe– I used sunflower oil, oat milk, only 50g dark choc and no nuts). The imported ingredients, especially the $10 a bottle maple syrup, Italian ‘tender whole wheat’ flour and organic oat milk made it one of the most expensive cakes I’ve ever made (see * below). But it was worth it. And I now have a cake my vegan friend can eat, and my possibly-allergic-to-egg baby too! Just in time for her birthday.

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*I made ‘the most expensive cake ever’ last Christmas but never wrote about it (except in my head) because I wasn’t blogging at the time. It was our first Christmas away from our families and our first one as a family of 3. We celebrated with friends and one of our baby’s many twins (a sweet teddy bear of a boy two weeks younger than her, but here in Lebanon if ever we go out with more than one baby at time, you can bet your buggy we’ll always be asked are they twins?). I had offered to bake ‘the cake’ and instead of a traditional Christmas one I went for Mary Berry’s Victorian Christmas Cake because I thought the ingredients would be easier to find (really what was I thinking!). I spent Christmas eve searching high (TSC-boutique supermarket at the souks) and low (Idriss/Calimera- little local shops) for the glace cherries that may as well have been rubies and the ground almonds that were like gold dust. A real treasure hunt. But I would do it all again, especially as now I know where to look.

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Birthday Cakes

A few days ago I baked for a friend’s birthday- vanilla fairy cakes cut in half, filled with jam and cream and dusted with icing sugar, becoming mini Victoria Sponges. We ate them after lunch in the Spaghetteria Italiana, borrowing the waiter’s lighter for the candles, pink, purple, blue, while outside the rain fell grey, grey, grey.

It reminded me of the last time I baked for a birthday, a few weeks ago, when it was still oven hot; when Beirut felt like another city, suspended on a thread; when I started a blog post but never finished it… until today. Here it is, almost a month old:

We are invited to a party.

I bake fairy cakes- little vanilla cushions laced with lemon icing, studded with jelly bean jewels and four bright yellow candles.

I put on a pretty white dress, frothy at the collar, given to me by the concierge’s wife (one Saturday evening when I had gone out to buy a last minute melon and come back with the gift instead).

At just after 7pm we go downstairs to the two roomed house on the ground floor where the concierge’s family live, all 7 of them. 

We sit on the floor around a table cloth of newspaper, spread with plates piled high with kousa and batanjane (stuffed courgettes and aubergines), and deep dishes of yogurt. There are no knives or forks, but there is no need, as we all use disc-dishes of bread to scoop, roll and wrap the food, some more expertly than others.

The baby sits between us, suddenly hungry for a second dinner, sucking fat green grapes or chewing her own pale strips of bread and playing a game of pass the teaspoon with the family’s only son.

We are celebrating the eve of their third daughter’s birthday, born in Syria 4 years ago, when it was another country.We are laughing and learning each other’s languages; how to  use your whole body to say ‘yes'(head down, hands out) and ‘no'(chin raised, eyes up) in Arabic. 

I catch sight of a headline and Obama’s face on our newsprint table cloth and think how, somewhere far away, it is still morning, and people who weren’t born there are discussing what to do about Syria. Is it yes or is it no?

Now we know the answer, but then when we didn’t, all that mattered in that moment was sharing an occasion, sharing food, sharing words, one mouthful at a time.

Friday afternoon in Hamra

Hamra means red in Arabic. Red for waiting (or not) at the lights, for warning, for danger.

I used to be afraid of her streets. Or rather my buggy used to be afraid of her streets, flinching at every flyaway scooter; balking at every badly positioned bollard; recoiling from the roar of the road and its roll of traffic.

Today, the streets are the same but the buggy is tougher, toughened, and so am I. Today red is for life, pulsing, pressing forwards (or sideways, or even diagonally, but always determinedly) to our destination.

Like everywhere in Beirut, I think of Hamra Street in landmarks.

The shady square by Fransabank at the start of Hamra Street- or awol Hamra- as I said in Arabic the first time I ever took a service taxi here, so proud of myself, for arriving at the very beginning. Today we wait here for my husband, halfway home from work. We are early, he is late, so we pass time by the fountain, and the getting-grumpy-baby is soothed by its slanted splashing. Suddenly she looks up at the square of sky above us, prompting me to do the same (why is it I always forget to look up) and we see a single bird, passing from one side to the other, its path uninterrupted, unlike ours.

Red Shoe, is a shop right in the middle of the stretch of street I usually cover. If you’re coming from Fransabank, turn left here to walk up towards Verdun and the number 2 bus stop, turn right to walk down to HSBC, Cafe Younes and Bliss Street. Today I don’t want to turn at all, just keep walking straight, but a magnificent obstacle course is laid out for me, consisting of a motorbike parked across the pavement, draped in green netting from the building site next to it; a tree planted just close enough to the edge of the pavement to tip my wheels over and of course a car trying to park on the exact same piece of pavement. I am about to give up and retrace my route, when a group of men see my predicament and somehow manage to manoeuvre me past it all, which involves some reversing, 3 point turning and stopping the flow of pedestrians through the narrow gap.

And finally we reach Starbucks where nearly a year ago my husband met the local mayor and handed over $200 in exchange for a brown envelope containing my new born baby’s birth certificates in Arabic, English and Italian (with mistakes- I am the oldest mother ever, born in 1908- but that’s another story). Today we go just beyond Starbucks into the courtyard, where tucked into a corner, next to ‘Wild Willy’ the wonderfully named toy shop, is a carved wooden door leading to the lovely  t-marbouta. We settle on a sofa and eat an early dinner, keeping the baby up past her bedtime, chewing on triangles of Arabic Bread and making faces at the waiter.

The baby on the bus says…

The children’s song The Wheels on the Bus is a favourite with my baby and one I remember well from my own childhood. But I recently discovered that there are endless subtle variations to the verses depending on where you’re from, and when we go to our local baby music group I have to remind myself that the wheels on the bus go round and round ‘all around the town’ instead of  ‘all day long’.  This difference only mildly surprised me, but I was almost shocked to learn from a friend that while in the UK the babies on the bus go ‘boo hoo hoo’ or ‘wah, wah, wah‘, in Norway they go ‘tee hee hee’, giggling with glee. Maybe Unicef took this into account when compiling their report on  child well being in rich countries and it may explain why Norway ranked more than 10 places higher than the UK.

Meanwhile in Lebanon (not rich enough for Unicef’s list), the baby on the bus, or rather the baby at home listening to The Wheels on the Bus, says ‘beep beep beep‘ just like the horn/bell in the verse number 3/5/6.

Or perhaps more like the horns outside. How fitting a ‘first word’ for a baby born in Beirut!