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Posts Tagged ‘Holly S. Warah’

Book Review ~ The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

May 28th, 2012 4 comments

In the opening scene of Keija Parssinen’s novel, The Ruins of Us, we meet Rosalie, a red-headed Texan who has been living in Saudi Arabia for more than two decades. In these first pages, Rosalie discovers that her Saudi husband of 28 years has taken a second wife.

Later, we meet Rosalie’s husband Abdullah, a man who keeps secrets, the biggest of all: his second wife of two years lives in a villa down the street. Abdullah explains to a friend why he’s grown apart from his wife Rosalie: she has become “too Saudi” for him. If he wanted a Saudi wife, he would have married one.

At the center of the story is the Al-Baylani villa, grand and garish, located in a neighborhood called The Diamond Mile, where Rosalie and Abdullah host vast family meals on Friday.  The home may look impressive, but inside is a family collapsing. At one point Rosalie says, “I’m disintegrating in that house.”

The solution to Rosalie’s problem is not simple. She has transformed herself to fit into life in Saudi Arabia—“The Kingdom,” as it’s called. Rosalie has so entangled herself into Saudi life that returning to the US presents its own challenges: she has no professional skills and she has even forgotten how to drive. Meanwhile, a Saudi divorce ultimately means a mother’s loss of her children.

And then there’s the teenage son Faisal, who has his own set of problems, less captivating than Rosalie’s, but still compelling. Faisal is a young man who copes with his bicultural background by rejecting one side of his identity (American) and embracing the other (Saudi). His confusion and self-hatred leads to new, bigger problems for himself and for his family.

The novel has four plot lines, some more convincing than others. My favorite chapters are about Rosalie. I would have been content if the book were entirely about her—this American who speaks fluent Arabic, who does daily yoga practice, who dons all the trappings of a Saudi wife but who slips into her Texas dialect whenever she’s upset.

The Ruins of Us is a story of not only one lovers’ triangle, but two—overlapping and intersecting, set against the dusty, grim backdrop of Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around the themes of cross-cultural marriage, expatriate life, betrayal, polygamy, religious extremism, midlife dissatisfaction, and cultural identity.

Many books have been set in Saudi featuring the same clichéd images, and Ruins of Us has some of that, too. Yes, it would be easy to criticize Ruins of Us in this regard, declaring this scene as unbelievable or that character as stereotypical. However, to do so would miss the point. This is a worthwhile novel, a new take on an old setting—with authentic details throughout. In the end, it’s a story about a cross-cultural family falling apart and trying to come back together.

Question: Have you read The Ruins of Us? What are your thoughts?

A Year of Blogging

May 20th, 2012 14 comments

Thank you to all the new followers and readers of my blog. I appreciate your support and encouraging comments. The past year has flown by—70 posts, so much to blog about.

Who knew?

Meanwhile, here is a review of some of my favorite posts from the past year, in case you missed one.

Cultural Posts

I started this blog with the post Sharing my Zeal, which explained my original goals. So, I’m wondering … have I brought down barriers between Arabs and non-Arabs? Well, my eldest son tells me I should simply work on bringing down barriers between myself and my Arab in-laws. Ha Ha Ha. Teenagers are so funny.

My most popular cross-cultural posts were the three-part series I wrote about Raising Arabic-Speaking Children. These posts generated a lot of questions and comments from other parents—many more successful with biligualism than we have been.

Another noteworthy post was Our Desert Dog. I was hesitant to blog about my pet, but my writers group encouraged me to go ahead with it. It indeed struck a chord, as some of the comments from readers were posts by themselves.

For those of you who are writers, you might appreciate my piece Writing about another Culture. I offer tips on how to avoid cultural stereotypes and clichés in your writing.

Food Posts

I started out the blog thinking I might include “a few recipes.” Well, I’ve gradually discovered that I enjoy developing Arab recipes and taking photos of food. It has thrilled me to learn that people actually prepare my dishes. Not only that—three other bloggers have blogged about testing my recipes—with positive results. Wow. That made me happy.

I guess my favorite food posts are the Ma’amoul recipes—Arab pastry secrets revealed! Also, I like my Grilled Halloumi Salad post. After all, I eat that salad nearly every day.

Look forward to more recipes coming up—especially during Ramadan. I’m now working on printable recipes. Stay tuned.

Book Reviews

I’ve stumbled a bit with my book reviews. However, now I think I figured it out: keep them short and sweet. Focus on new books that people want to know more about.

My most popular book review was a review of five books: Memoirs by Western Women Married into Arab Culture. I received lots of positive feedback on that. I also enjoyed writing a review of my favorite Palestinian memoir: In Search of Fatima. I love this book.

Travel Stories

The travel story of the year that I am most proud of is about our family trip to Mecca: My Umrah. I also liked my post Journey to Jerusalem, a story that will always stay with me.

Thank you again for reading. It’s been a fun year, and I look forward to another 70 posts, which I hope will not disappoint.

Question: What kind of posts would you like to see in the upcoming year?

Kunafe Nabulsia ~ The Queen of Arabic Sweets

March 14th, 2012 59 comments

If there’s one dessert that rules as the Queen of Arabic sweets, I would nominate Kunafe Nabulsia, the sticky pastry made of gooey sweet cheese sandwiched between layers of shredded kunafe pastry. This specialty from the Palestinian city of Nablus is prepared in enormous round trays, saturated with rose-scented syrup, cut into slabs and garnished with chopped pistachios.

In the Middle East, people don’t typically prepare kunafe at home. Kunafe is an occasion to go out. That’s how I first got to know it—in pastry shops in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, such as Al Jaffar & Sons pastry shop in the Old City.

And yet there are those who do make kunafe in their kitchen—typically Arabs in the diaspora, longing for home. So, I ate kunafe in Jerusalem, but learned to fully appreciate it in Seattle, where it’s lovingly prepared by homesick immigrants.

Last year, inspired by the photo and tips in the cookbook When Suzanne Cooks by Suzanne Husseini, I attempted to make kunafe again. And so, I’ve made it many times over the past year (always a big production) for house guests and dinner parties. Kunafe offers a “wow” factor to any celebration or meal, and it never fails to impress. Recently I made kunafe as the dessert for a good-bye dinner for a nephew and his family immigrating to Canada. As Palestinian immigrants, I suspect they will be making kunafe for themselves in Toronto one day.

While kunafe is my favorite Arabic sweet to eat, I confess, it can be a challenge to make. However, I believe I have worked through all the kinks that deter home cooks.

Things to know about making kunafe

Tools: Most recipes for homemade kunafe require a 30 cm (12 inch) round pan. However, I use a 15 inch deep-dish pizza pan from Crate & Barrel. Since the pan is a few inches bigger, the pastry comes out thinner and more like what’s found in pastry shops. You can also use a rectangular cookie sheet with sides.

You will need a serving tray that is the same shape and size as the baking pan—or slightly larger—to invert the pastry into. Most Arab bakers I know use two identical baking pans and flip the pastry from one pan to the other. You’ll also need a food processor and pastry brush.

Specialty ingredients: The cheese filling is what trips up most people. The standard cheese for kunafe is akawwi, a mild, slightly salty cheese that holds its shape when baked. Find akawwi in the deli or cheese aisle of most Arabic supermarkets. If you live outside the region, look for it in Middle Eastern grocery stores or substitute ricotta, which is softer, but still a good stand-in.

Whichever cheese you use, you’ll mix it with mozzarella, which gives the pastry its gooey quality so distinctive of kunafe. Fresh mozzarella is best, but any mozzarella will do. Most recipes call for a total of 1 kg (2.2 lbs.) cheese. I like to use a little less, as this also makes a thinner and more delicate kunafe.

Because it’s a sweet dessert, the mozzarella and akawwi cheese require desalting—a simple task of soaking it in water for a day. (No need to do this with ricotta).

The kunafe pastry comes shredded and looks like vermicelli. It’s readily available in the Middle East and sold in 500 g packages in the freezer section. In the US, look for it in specialty supermarkets or Middle Eastern grocery stores.

To give kunafe its traditional orange color, you’ll need orange food coloring—either drops, paste or a special power made just for kunafe. I’ve tried it all and I prefer using cake decorating paste. The orange coloring is worth the extra effort, as it gives kunafe its festive appearance which looks exquisite with the green pistachios on top.

Finally, this recipe requires scented simple syrup and clarified butter, both easily prepared at home.

Below is my recipe for this Queenly dessert.

Kunafe Nabulsia

Serves 8-10

Ingredients

700 g akkawi cheese (or substitute 500 g ricotta)

200 g mozzarella (if using ricotta, use 400 g mozzarella)

1 package (500 g) frozen kunafe pastry (thawed one hour on the counter)

1½ cups butter to make slightly more than 1 cup clarified butter, melted and hot

4 Tablespoons sugar

3 Tablespoons orange blossom water

4-8 drops orange food coloring (powder, paste or drops)

3 cups rose-scented simple syrup

½ cup ground pistachio, to garnish

Method

1. The day before, slice the akkawi and mozzarella cheese into thick slabs. In a plastic container, cover with water to soak overnight in the refrigerator to desalt the cheese. Change the water several times the first day.

2. Also in advance, prepare the rose-scented simple syrup so it’s completely chilled before the kunafe comes out of the oven.

3. About one hour before cooking, remove the kunafe pastry from the freezer to thaw on the counter. Make the clarified butter.

4. Prepare the pan—a 30 cm (12 inch) round pan or a 15-inch deep-dish pizza pan. Spread 4 Tablespoons of the clarified butter in the pan. Add the orange coloring a little at a time. Using a pastry brush, spread the butter and the coloring evenly all over the pan and up the sides.

5. Preheat the oven to 350° F (190° C).

6. Prepare the kunafe pastry. Remove from package and cut into four sections. In a food processor, gently grind one quarter of the thawed pastry at a time with a few pulses keeping it coarse.

7. Place pastry in a large bowl and gradually pour the remaining hot clarified butter over top. Use the full amount of butter or the pastry will be dry or stick to the pan. Using your fingers, mix in the butter to evenly coat the strands of pastry.

8. Drain the desalted cheese and pat dry with a dish towel. Grate cheeses into a large bowl. (If using ricotta, no need to grate.) Sprinkle the sugar and orange blossom water over the cheeses and gently mix together.

9. Layer the pastry. For the bottom layer, sprinkle handfuls of the buttered pastry and press into the prepared pan going slightly up the sides. Use approximately half the pastry mixture or a bit more to completely cover the pan. (This will be the top when the pastry is flipped.)

10. Add the cheese filling, spreading the cheese evenly and pressing to cover completely.

11. Cover with the remaining layer of pastry, evening it out and pressing gently.

12. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes until pastry becomes crisp and slightly golden.

13. Remove pastry from oven and give it a gentle shake. The kunafe will separate from the sides of the pan. If not, separate with a butter knife. The moment of truth: invert the hot kunafe onto a serving platter. As you flip it over, say bismillah (In the name of God).

14. The orange pastry should be slightly crisp. Pour the cold simple syrup over the hot pastry until the kunafe is saturated and glistening. Reserve the remaining syrup to serve in a small pitcher on the side.

15. Cut the kunafe into squares or diamonds, 2 inch x 2 inch or larger. Garnish with pistachio nuts and serve while still hot. Leftovers can be stored for up to four days in the refrigerator and warmed up in the oven or microwave.

 Question: What are your experiences with making or eating kanafe?