There are no specifics when baking with Syrian women in a small Toronto apartment. I watched the simple batter of eggs, milk, flour, sugar, vanilla and baking soda thicken and thin as their recipe from home was recalled to their minds; more flour, then milk, then flour. Each was added in increments until the wooden spoon found its nostalgic tempo of pull and stride through the batter. The measurements were right.
There had been some debate about whether the baking soda would be okay. In the hot kitchens of Damascus, baking powder is the sixth ingredient in the batter, but in the cupboards of this kitchen there was none. Maybe because we were in my country, or maybe because I took a year off of school to perfect my baking skills in the fifth grade, but definitely not because I understood the debate which had happened in Arabic, both ladies were looking at me for the verdict. I looked back at them without hesitation and said that the soda would be fine- after all, the rest of the batter was already mixed.
In a small pan warmed up to medium heat I watched one spoonful of batter cook at a time. They were thin pancakes, or thick crepes, except only one side was cooked; then each was transferred via spatula to the table to cool- raw, bubble pocked side up. Between each pancake the batter was fiddled with and the air became intoxicating with the sweet smell that usually only lingers around specialty ice-cream shops, where waffle cones are made fresh on hot round griddles. While the friend stood over the stove with her spatula and fell back in to the rhythm her muscles remembered of pouring, waiting, removing, Samar began to work on the fillings.
There are two ways to fill the Arabian pocket desserts; the fillings are similar by cinnamon and brown sugar, and they differ between ricotta cheese and walnuts. A small food processor was filled with walnuts and almonds to be finely ground. The friend at the stove, adequately satisfied that I was really involved in process, made sure to point out that in Syria, for Saint Barbara’s day when this dessert is made they only use walnuts, the almonds, tonight, they are just for fun. The ground nuts are then tossed into a bowl with some cinnamon and brown sugar. Another bowl is made with ricotta cheese, cinnamon and brown sugar.
Samar shows me how to pinch and stuff and pinch and stuff. The Ukrainian in my fingers and fore-arms would have picked it up quickly, the same motion of making perogies, the same laughter of women in a kitchen. Actually I have never made perogies and hardly know any of my Ukrainian relatives, but I do know that it is in my blood and there is something familiar feeling to what they were doing. They pick up each pancake and almost fold it in half pinching the raw, sticky dough on the inside of the bottom corner together, with thumb and index finger, to make a small lopsided cone. Then they fill a small amount and pinch a small amount and fill a small amount until we pinch the last edge closed. The process is intense until the filler has caught up to the batter maker and then we make tea and laugh and talk and they take turns casually creating more sweet large Syrian perogies as the cooked batter comes out of the pan one by one.
Somehow the last spoonful of filling is scraped out of the bowl and placed into the last pancake just before the last pinch, and it occurs to me that these women have been doing this for years, and their mothers for years. Through all of the fiddling with measurements, whether consciously or not, they knew precisely the right ratio of batter to pancake to filling so not a drop is wasted at the end.
Over a dozen atayef, half of the batch, line the baking pan that has been generously brushed with olive oil. The first pan is put into the oven heated to just under 400’. When I ask how long they bake for I am told, “until they are very crispy but not burnt”. Continuing to follow the recipe that we do not have, the timer is not turned on. It seems that they need to bake for the amount of time that it takes to get the last step of the sweet recipe ready and to tell a few stories about what Saint Barbara’s Day is like in Syria.
Samar produces a tall glass jar with a yellow lid from a low cupboard. It is filled with a home made sugar syrup. They pour this syrup into a cool pot, and realizing that it wont be enough for all of the dessert we have made Samar mixes a new batch on the stove top: twice as much sugar as water boiled for five minutes and a bit of lemon just for the flavors. While she mixes both her and her friend share stories with me of Saint Barbara’s Day.
Saint Barbara’s Day is celebrated in the beginning of November. It comes from the same original idea as our Hallowe’en and was brought to the city of Damascus, which they both grew up in, by the country people that moved in to the city to work. Out in the country on Saint Barbara’s Day night the children would dress up in ghoulish, scary costumes and visit their neighbours homes. Every home would have prepared a combination of five traditional desserts. Most of the desserts use different combinations of sweet dough, walnuts, cinnamon, and syrup. Atayef is one of these desserts. The children go out to enjoy the treats, but also to perform some tricks. The tricks are the highlight of the night and the towns would go wild. When they came to the city the tricks decreased slightly but the women would still bake their desserts and the children would still dress up. When Samar was young in the city, people would light fires all night long out in the streets and neighbours would come out of their small apartments and gather, sharing treats and drinks and stories. Now she says it is too busy for that; there are too many cars and the roads are too nice.
Without having checked on the contents of the oven once during the duration of syrup making and story telling the friend opens the door and pulls out the pan. She turns over and inspects each piece, finding them all perfectly crisp without being burnt.
The second last step is to dunk the hot atayef into the cooled sugar syrup and let the hot dessert soak up as much of the sweet cool drink as its body, already pregnant with flavor can bear. The entire apartment, like the atayef, is soaked in the sweetness. We each bite into one, not knowing which contents it will have. We swap them back and forth, our finger tips turning pink then red from the hot pastries and shining with the sticky syrup.