Cake Culture Shock
People often ask me casually, “And how did you adapt to the culture?” I usually sigh, unable to respond to the enormity of the question, “With God and a sense of humour.” Thirty-five years ago, as a young newlywed coming from the UK to live in Nazareth and the challenge of so many new customs and social protocols, one of the biggest culture-shock experiences was facing the Easter Cake Season. It can barely be explained to the Western ear, but I will endeavour to enlighten. I admit that in my first year or so I felt amazement and incredulity at the preparation, quantity and social implications of this annual ritual but as the years went on and my own kids started demanding these cakes, (I had got by with just helping others before that), it became a feeling of dread and pre-exhaustion!
The cakes themselves are small pastry rings stuffed with a spiced date and/or nut filling meant to represent the Crown of Thorns and also little round cakes stuffed with nuts to represent the Tomb (though obviously not the empty tomb).
One of my first mistakes in my newlywed innocence occurred as my first cake season approached and I was having coffee with a group of women who were discussing when to start making them – I dropped the huge clanger by asking for the recipe. Oh dear – there erupted a cacophony of each woman simultaneously giving me her tried-and-tested recipe, raising volume and pitch in an effort to persuade everyone why her recipe was the best. I didn’t dare choose one to write down in case World War III broke out. And I never made that mistake again…
The process has to be seen to be believed. It begins the night before when the butter is melted down and allowed to get solid again overnight in order to drain off the water. Next comes the preparation of the date filling or “ajuwi.” For this they use packets of squished dates and (until recently, when at last some entrepreneur started to manufacture them smoother) they were full of the stalk heads and hard bits which needed to be removed by hand and then all put through a mincer with spices and more butter and then rolled into thin sausage shapes (which look pretty gross to be honest). The next step is to make the dough and add minute quantities of some special spices.
NOW you are ready for the real work – you take a blob of dough, make it into a flat oval shape, place the date sausage on it, pinch together, roll to elongate, join ends carefully and then “na’qish” which means making pretty patterns on it with tiny-teethed-tongs. Then, it is ready for baking.
I remember one of my first attempts was disastrous as I used the fan oven and the filling turned to rock!
As if the process wasn’t complicated enough, it was the quantities that really freaked me out. Coming from a small-family culture, I was used to making cakes in 8 inch tins or cupcakes for 12 or 24 maximum. I was not prepared for this. When I heard the women casually asking one another how many kilos they were making, I assumed it was the weight of the finished cakes. Oh how simple I was. No, it wasn’t even the weight of flour, it was the date filling they were referring to!
I did note that whoever was attempting the greatest number of kilos, commanded the greatest respect, and I could see why. This meant that the number of finished cakes came well into the hundreds and beyond. Cakes would be stored in every corner of the house, cupboards, boxes under beds etc. When I stupidly asked why they made so many, I was told that half of them were to be given to others – who of course had made equal or greater amounts. By the time Easter actually arrived most people were sick of them already and so they went into the freezers.
The Social Aspect
Now we come to the real heart of the Easter Cake Season. Such quantities are utterly impossible to do on one’s own, so recruitment of labour is essential. Over the years I noted a number of tactics used for this. One is to call a beloved aunt and praise their dough-making skills and ask if she can come to “just make her wonderful dough” for you – of course she is flattered and accepts and will hopefully bring with her a trail of cousins or daughters-in-law to help. Another tactic is to call a neighbour and invite them for coffee just as you are about to start the rolling. You tell them, “No need to help, just have coffee and watch,” but who can just watch when surrounded by such intensive industry? Another way is to go and help someone doing theirs, in the hope that they ask when they can help you in return. Whichever way, the whole procedure invites a good chinwag and quite a party atmosphere although it does wear rather thin after the 999th cake.
Now my kids have grown and flown, I accept the Season with a new grace. I am happy to help others with their cakes (and take any contributions) but my personal manufacturing days are over. When my husband starts to pine for them, I remind him of the high fat content and rest my case. Or shall I invite some neighbours for coffee? “No need to help…”
- The Bedouin Brit