When my mom passed away in February 2009, my siblings and I moved my dad to a small studio apartment. He had been living with my mom in a senior care facility.
Although the apartment is small it has one feature that he has been longing for since he moved to the senior facility several years ago – a kitchen!
My dad is Syrian and he has sorely missed preparing his favorite Syrian foods. To say that the food was bland at the senior home is a bit of an understatement. I’ve always wondered how all the food there could smell and taste the same no matter what it was!
Although we gave away most of their books when we closed and sold their house, my dad insisted on taking his favorite cookbook, The Art of Syrian Cookery by Helen Corey with him to the senior facility.
He was elated that he could once again crack open its pages and get cooking.
The first day he moved into his new apartment, my sister took him grocery shopping. A few pots and pans and a bag of lentils and he was in business.
Growing up in Indiana, I must admit that Syrian food was not something I craved.
Unlike his father who went back to Syria from America to find a bride after WWI, my father married a local Indiana girl of English/Scottish descent. As such, the food I grew up with was roast beef and noodles and not the Syrian foods of my father's youth.
When I was in grade school, my older brother and I would walk from our elementary school to my Syrian Grandma's house for lunch since our mom worked during the day.
Grandma always made us scrambled eggs cooked in lots of butter and served with icy cold coke in a glass bottle. A strange combination to be sure but in her eyes, it was very American. I don't remember if my brother and I turned up our noses at the thought of eating Syrian food or if it didn't occur to her to serve it to her very American grandchildren.
While we ate, we would watch Grandma prepare Syrian dishes to be served to her family later that evening. She never used a measuring cup. She would sift dry ingredients into the palm of her hand, feel its weight for a few moments, then add or subtract as needed.
By the time I was in middle school, my Grandma was blind. But being blind didn't stop her from cooking -- with my aunt's help at the stove, my Grandma still prepared her Syrian foods.
Eventually I did grow to love several of the dishes Grandma made although the Syrian dish I disliked the most but loved by my siblings is a dish called yubrak. It is ground lamb or beef mixed with rice then rolled in cabbage leaves and simmered on the stove until done. I can still smell the mix of cabbage and steam to this day.
All the siblings loved baked kibby (kibby bil sin-ee-yah) which is ground lamb or beef, cracked wheat (bulgur), onions and pine nuts. Although now that I know a thing or two about good nutrition, the cup of melted butter she poured over the pan of kibby before baking it now makes me shudder. The meat pies (sfeeha) were also a favorite.
But the easiest foods to love were the breads. Bread, khobaz, is very important in Syrian life. The traditional round yeast bread served at most meals is called talamee. It is a thin round loaf about sixteen-inches in diameter.
But the Syrian food I loved best was a bread that my Grandma made only at Easter although in Syria it is a typical street snack. It is called ka'ick, which means anise. It is very similar to talamee but it is sweet. The sweetness comes from syrup that the bread is dipped into after it is baked. This syrup, called qatir lil ka'ick, is made from milk, butter, sugar and rose water.
On our Easter buffet would be the typical Easter ham served in the mid-west but our Syrian heritage was also represented by ka'ick and it always disappeared fast.
Recently I was in one of my favorite used bookstores. I tend to haunt its cookbook section more often than my budget allows. While there, I was surprised to find a copy of The Art of Syrian Cookery.
In the book I found the recipe for the sweet Easter bread. It was as good as I remembered.
Note: The names of the Syrian dishes and their spellings were verified by the book, The Art of Syrian Cookery, by Helen Corey published in 1962. The recipes for Ka'ick and the syrup are also from this book.
8 cups flour (spoon and sweep)
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon anise seed
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 pound butter
About 1 1/2 cups milk
1 package active dry yeast
Mix flour, sugar, anise seed, and salt. Heat butter with milk to lukewarm. Dissolve yeast in milk and add to flour mixture. Add eggs and knead well. Cover and set about 2 hours until dough rises. Then cut in small pieces 3 inches in diameter. Cover with damp cloth and allow to rise for 30 minutes. Flatten each piece to 1/2 inch thickness and place in dry pan in slow oven (250 degrees). Bake until bottoms are golden brown, then place under broiler until tops are light brown. Dip in the syrup while both syrup and bread are still hot.
Qatir lil ka'ick
Syrup for Anise Bread
1/4 stick butter
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon rose water
Combine all ingredients and boil 2 minutes. Place in a bowl and dip each ka'ick in this syrup.