The collection of cookie molds.
The collection of cookie molds. Photo by Dan Peretz
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During Ramadan, Balkees Abu Rabie begins baking at dawn, after the morning prayer and a final light meal and before a day of fasting. On the big table between the living room and the kitchen she places bowls of dough − a different dough for each of the varieties of traditional cookies. The doughs differ in the types of flour, the ratio between flour and fat, and the texture. There are also several sweet fillings. Work tools were handed down from her mother and grandmothers.

The portable oven, built to order by an ironworker from Hebron, stands in the corridor outside the door of the family home. At 9 A.M. the stairwell is already suffused with the heady aroma of fresh baked goods. At 1 P.M. the fragrance could drive a person mad, all the more so when there are another seven hours of fasting until sundown. None of the neighbors complain, despite the unbearable temptation of the fragrant pastries produced by Balkees, who is named after the ancient Queen of Sheba.

All the residents of the Nazareth apartment house belong to her husband’s extended family, and they will all receive a share of the goodies. From the other apartments, from the ground floor to the roof, waft delicious smells of home-made dishes prepared by the women of the family. In the ancient world, whose rules believers obey to this day, fasting and feasting were closely related, and a day of fasting is followed by the Iftar feast.

All those who fast need sugar-rich foods to provide energy after the long period without food or drink. Atayef, pancakes filled with nuts and immersed in sugar syrup, are the sweet food most closely identified with the month of Ramadan and the meals served at the end of the daily fast. But prior to Id al-Fitr, a three-day holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the women of the family customarily prepare an increasingly large selection of baked goods and sweets. In the modern world, with its abundance of sweet foods, it is easy to forget that in earlier times, cakes, cookies and sweets were precious treats that were prepared only on rare festivals and holidays.

“Some of the pastries that I’m preparing today, such as the ka’ak bi ajwa or the ka’ak bi samid, my mother and grandmother used to prepare only twice a year, for Id al-Fitr and Id al-Adha ‏(Feast of the Sacrifice‏),” says Balkees. “Later they began to bake them for weddings, and slowly but surely the baked goods began to appear on weekdays too, and on the shelves of large bakeries.” The taste of the homemade pastries prepared by Balkees is nothing like that of the products of semi-industrial bakeries, even the best of them. The women have stopped making many of them at home because of the hard work involved in their preparation.

The perfect pastries produced by the talented hands of this autodidact baker ‏(“I attended a short course in the community center in my native village; I hope that one day I’ll be able to attend a real professional baking course”‏) are so good that friends, acquaintances and distant neighbors plead with her to sell some to them. Meanwhile Balkees, who was born to a family of farmers in the neighboring village of Reineh, continues to bake for her immediate and extended family.

In her kitchen kingdom, there are no compromises and no shortcuts: The grains of wheat used to prepare white flour are bought from friends and ground with home millstones or in the mill of one of the neighboring villages. Olive oil is produced from trees in the Nazareth area, a vestige of bygone days when city residents grew some of their own foods. Balkees prepares balls of labaneh and simple homemade cheese in her own kitchen.

Homemade, handmade

Early in the morning during the month of Ramadan, she bakes karkish, a traditional poor-man’s sweet made of thin sheets of dough flavored with a little sugar, sesame and anise. Those who could not afford expensive ingredients like dried fruit or different types of nuts made do with this dough dipped in a little honey or sugar. The village children, recalls Balkees, used to compete to see who could eat the thin round cracker, which was originally baked on a saj ‏(a convex metal griddle‏), without dropping even one crispy crumb. She places the pans of karkish to cool on the window sill, which overlooks the surrounding hills and the red-tiled roofs of the Old City, and carries on with her work.

The next pastry is ka’ak bi ajwa, or date rings. The village women used to make them big enough for the celebrants to actually wear. Balkees insists on decorating the surface and sides of the dough one at a time with sharp tiny pincers. The makrouta cookies are made of a mixture of white wheat flour and semolina and are filled with date paste, using the same meticulous and exhausting manual labor.

There are ka’ak bi samid, delicate semolina cookies with a crumbly, sandy texture; ma’amoul cookies, filled with walnuts perfumed with rose water and neroli oil ‏(produced from a bitter, aromatic species of orange blossom‏); and rhuraieba cookies filled with pistachios. Balkees uses beautiful decades-old carved wooden molds bequeathed to her by her mother and mother-in-law. Each type of cookie is made in the appropriate mold, where it acquires its unique pattern, then placed on silver-plated trays purchased in Gaza more than 50 years ago, which go into the oven. The baking also requires requires a great deal of attention: Each tray in turn is moved from the bottom of the oven to the top, and from there to the middle shelf, where the heat comes directly from blue gas flames.

“Yesterday at 6 P.M. I allowed myself to faint. There was no choice,” says Balkees calmly to her friend, cookbook author Abbie Rosner, who looks worried about the baker − who woke up at 4 A.M., hasn’t eaten anything since, and continues to knead, bake and cook without letup.

Biblical fare

Balkees Abu Rabie is one of the most impressive figures in Rosner’s new book, “Breaking Bread in Galilee: A Culinary Journey into the Promised Land,” a memoir that describes the journey of the Jewish American-Israeli through the historical and contemporary cuisine of the land of the Bible. Each chapter deals with an ingredient or a dish typical of the area, and begins with a biblical verse that mentions it. Rosner also provides simple, sensitive portraits of the people who generously led her on her journey of discovery: Bedouin brothers who are experts at harvesting wild grasses; farm families who have been making a living for hundreds of years from olive trees or vineyards; the last farmer in the country who grows sesame; and other men and women, of various faiths and nationalities, all of whom are residents of the Galilee and scions of its ancient inhabitants.

The fascinating book and the strong ties Rosner developed with the citizens of Israel also remind us of sad facts − how little the graduates of the local education system and the Jewish residents of the country know about the customs of Islam or Christianity, about the everyday life of Arab families in the Galilee and about the cuisine created in the course of hundreds and thousands of years, during which these families have been living in the region that became the State of Israel.

Rosner, U.S.-born and without the prejudices and historical baggage of native Israelis, is able to see and describe the way in which these people have remained loyal to ancient local traditions that are also preserved in Jewish biblical literature.

Rosner met Abu Rabie three years ago, at a wheat-harvesting activity held in the Archaeological Museum at Kibbutz Ein Dor. One woman demonstrated the preparation of bread by traditional methods, the other was impressed by the expertise and the exceptional taste of the pastries. The two started a conversation and later became friends.

An entire world ostensibly separates the two neighbors from the Galilee. Balkees Abu Rabie, 42, is a believing Muslim who was born in an Arab village in the Galilee, married at the age of 19 in an arranged marriage, and at the age of 20 gave birth to her first daughter, the eldest of four. She never left the home of her husband’s family to pursue academic studies or join the job market. Rosner, 52, a secular woman from a Jewish American family in Washington, immigrated to Israel 25 years ago when she fell in love with an Israeli farmer from the Galilee, raised a family on Moshav Alonei Abba and became a writer, translator and editor.

The two women communicate in Hebrew, which is not the mother tongue of either of them. Yet, the universal language of love of food and respect for ancestral tradition succeeded in connecting their souls and bridging biographical and cultural gaps. In recent years, and as a result of her culinary research, Rosner has been leading small groups on culinary tours of the Galilee. One of the tour routes begins in the alleys of the market of old Nazareth and ends at Balkees’ home with a meal based on local ingredients and a baking workshop on traditional pastries and desserts.

To order a book or reserve a tour and a baking workshop with Abbie and Balkees:

052-3728452; http://turl.ca/scp