This is the tale of two aunts. Two dearly departed aunts who both had a profound impact on my life. It is the story of two women with seemingly nothing in common, the similar paths they carved through our family, and the recipes they left behind.
First, my aunt Nabila, my mother’s sister. She was a force to be reckoned with, not that anyone would dare to reckon with her. Widowed at an early age with three children, she was a determined businesswoman who doggedly rose to the top against the most incredible odds. You think it’s tough being a woman in a man’s world? Try being a Christian woman in a Muslim man’s world.
She lived high above the city of Cairo, Egypt, on a mountaintop, which only seemed appropriate because nothing, and I mean NOTHING could take her down. Not diabetes, not cancer, not hepatitis, not anything. The more life threw at her, the higher she seemed to rise.
Her career took her around the world and I’m guessing it was on those travels that she developed her passion for the finer things in life. She surrounded herself with diamonds, rubies, sapphires, Swiss watches, and French purses. Her home was a palatial spread of marble floors, ornately carved furniture and hand-woven tapestries. “Less is more” was not exactly her motto. She was definitely the only one at my son’s 2nd birthday party in a beaded evening gown.
Like all good Egyptian women, my aunt Nabila loved food. Any gathering at her Cairo compound was sure to include dozens of giant silver platters piled high with grilled this and roasted that, enormous porcelain tureens of steaming soups. But unlike most Egyptian women, I never actually saw her cook anything. I’m certain she could cook, she just chose not to, preferring to take a supervisory role over her army of help.
On one visit to the States, she was supervising the cooking of rice before a family get together. Now, if you’ve never been fortunate enough to experience Egyptian rice, let’s be clear- we’re not talking about any boil-in-a-bag, grains of bland, sticky, white nothingness. No, Egyptian rice (“roz”) is a different story. It’s always nutty and fragrant and buttery, sometimes spicy and usually mixed with little bits slivered almonds or raisins or pinenuts or bits of vermicelli-like noodles that have been sauteed in some secret blend of what I can only assume contains unicorn powder and fairy dust.
“The rice, it needs some salt,” my aunt Nabila loudly declared, even though she hadn’t been in the room when the initial dose of salt was administered. But I wasn’t about to argue with her so I dutifully got out the salt.
“How much?” I asked, calibrated measuring spoons at the ready. “A teaspoon? A tablespoon?”
“Enough so that it tastes delicious, but not so much that it is tastes salty.”
Ummm…. OK? This non-recipe felt like so much in my life- chaotic, unruly, unpredictable. But I dutifully put in “some” salt and threw “some more” over my shoulder to ward off the potential Wrath of Nabila in the event I had over or under delivered on my duty.
“Now add the water,” she ordered. “And make sure you put enough.”
We sat and talked for a few minutes as the pot simmered away, and then in an attempt to show her how dedicated I was to the cause, I got up to stir the rice. I lifted the lid and was lowering the spoon when all you-know-what broke loose.
“NO!” she boomed, and jumped up next to me. My aunt Nabila was no small woman, and this was no small feat. She grabbed the spoon from my hand and shook it in my face. “You never, ever stir the rice while it is cooking,” she admonished. “When you begin, you mix, you season, you stir. But once you put the water in, you close the lid and trust. If you stir, if you shake, if you don’t have faith, it will fail.”
At least then the rice and I would have something in common, I thought to myself, feeling more like the black sheep of the family than ever over my obvious lack of riceability.
As it turned out, the rice that night was delicious: not too salty, just fluffy enough. Not shaken, and definitely not stirred. All it needed was a little faith and a whole lot of luck.
My aunt Nabila passed away in June of 2010 after a prolonged illness, and to this day, every time I make or eat rice I think of her. Maybe life isn’t really like a box of chocolates- it’s more like a pot of rice. You need to do what you can, mix it up while you can, and then sit back and trust. Let the water work its way in, let the heat build up and have faith that those hard grains will magically be transformed. It was more than just the way she made her rice (or delegated the task to others), it was the way she lived her life.
Then there was my aunt Dianne. She married my mother’s brother and found herself plucked out of Flint, Michigan and plopped down smack in the middle of a Big Fat Egyptian family. She was young, energetic and beautiful, someone I saw as a big sister figure from the very beginning.
Where Nabila was larger than life and more than a little bit intimidating, Dianne was warm and sunny, cheerful and calm. I think we both felt the chaos of living between two worlds, the Egyptian and American culture clash, and perhaps that’s why we got along so well.
She was in many ways my refuge. An older, wiser friend who had been through many of the experiences I struggled with, many my own parents couldn’t relate to. She’d tell me stories about high school dances, learning to drive on her dad’s lap, baking cookies with her mom.
And that became our favorite thing to do together: we were the family bakers. At Thanksgiving, she taught me to make pumpkin pie with flaky homemade crust. “Always keep the butter cold,” she explained. At Christmas, we’d churn out cookies and treats by the dozens. Shortbread, chocolate chip, Snickerdoodles and 7-layer bars, to name a few. We’d page through her cookbooks and recipe cards, lovingly handed down from generations before. Seeing those dog-eared pages, I could easily picture her as a child, standing over the counter with her mother or even grandmother, following the same steps and getting the same results. We’d measure everything out precisely, mix to exact specifications, and set the oven timer to bake the recommended amount. It was so deliciously predictable, and I hungered for every bite.
Our favorites to bake together were the raspberry thumbprints. Sweet, buttery pillows of delight that would be tasty enough on their own, but just to make things extra special, you press your thumb into the soft, squishy dough and fill that imprint with tart raspberry goodness. We’d bake a batch, she’d brew some coffee for herself and a hot cocoa for me, and together we would feast. “Sometimes you just can’t afford to save dessert for dessert,” she’d say with a wink, and pass me another cookie.
Dianne passed away in May 2011 after a brief but intense battle with cancer. As she slipped away from us in the spring, I found myself wanting to bake more than usual. To experience that sense of order, that deliciously magical process by which powdery flour and chunks of butter become food. I will always wish we could have shared one last cookie, but I hope she knows how much sweeter my life is because of her.
They were two aunts with very different, and yet somewhat similar stories. One lived like a queen in a palace in the Middle East, one came from the humblest of homes in the Midwest. Where one was hard, the other was soft. One loud, one quiet. One salty, one sweet. But both were beloved by all who knew them, both were tough as nails. Both were strangers in a strange land, fighting in their own way to find their way the best they could. Both had three children: two boys, one girl. Both loved their kids with a Mother Bear-like, animal ferocity. And both left me recipes I’ll cherish the rest of my life.
Now I find myself in a kitchen of my own, with a family of my own: two boys, one girl. Beautiful children who have brought out the Mother Bear in someone who once thought herself a failure of a cub. I’ve learned from the best that in life, you must stir while you can, you must take the savory with the sweet, you must always make time for dessert, and above all, you must always have faith.
Now it’s my turn to see what I can cook up.
Egyptian Rice (all measurements and times approximate)
1 c. vermicelli
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. long grain rice
1 c. onion, chopped
2 1/4 cup chicken stock or water
salt and pepper to taste
Break the vermicelli into 1-inch pieces (or use an Arab or Indian brand that is already broken up). In a wide non-stick skillet, saute onion in oil until translucent, and remove from pan. Saute vermicelli pieces in leftover oil till golden (this happens mroe quickly than you expect it to). Add onions back to pan and add rice; stir to combine. Pour in boiling stock, stir. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook over very low heat for about 20 minutes. Do not stir. Fluff, eat and enjoy.
Raspberry Thumbprint Cookies
1 cup of butter (2 sticks or 8 ounces), room temperature
1/2 cup of sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
2 cups of flour
1 cup of chopped nuts (optional)
3/4 cup of raspberry jam
Cream the butter and sugar on high speed for about 3 minutes. Separate the eggs. Add the yolks and vanilla extract to the butter mixture. If using nuts place the egg whites in a shallow dish on the side and whisk them until bubbly and frothy (the egg whites will be used to keep the nuts on the cookies). Add the flour and salt. Mix until just combined. Place the dough in the fridge for 30 minutes and preheat the oven to 350F. Roll the dough into balls about 1 inch in diameter. If using nuts, dip the balls into the egg whites then roll them into the nuts until covered. Place the balls on parchment lined cookie sheets. Press down with your thumb to make a small well in the center of the cookie. Do not press too hard or the cookie will fall apart. Fill with 1/2 teaspoon of jam. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until slightly firm. Allow to cool for a few minutes on the cookie sheet to firm up before moving them to a wire rack to finish cooling.