Coco: What inspired you to start blogging?
Joumana: I was sorely disappointed by the reality of working in bakeries and restaurant kitchens; all that matters is the bottom line (making $) and I had one of my bosses call me "an artist" and I don't think he meant it as a compliment. True, I liked to use the best ingredients and he liked to sell his clientele frozen crap. I felt that blogging was the perfect medium for self-expression, tackling the field I was so passionate about, cooking and baking and showcasing my Lebanese heritage.
Coco: Your videos remind me a lot of my happy childhood, running around fruit trees at my uncle's villa in the Persian countryside. Do you shoot on location in Beirut?
Joumana: I shoot the videos on location in Deir el-Qamar, in the Chouf Mountains; this is where my grandmother's family was from and where she and I used to spend summers.
Coco: Is food your occupation or you do have a boring desk job?
Joumana: It is a full-time occupation; I have done food styling gigs and menu consultation as well as demos and presentations to corporate clients.
Coco: Your cookbook is gorgeous. How long did it take you to create it?
Joumana: My cookbook took 2 1/2 years of solid work, because I insisted on taking the photographs myself (doing the prop styling etc) instead of having the publisher resort to stock photos.
Coco: Arabic food is a labour of love well worth the effort. How many hours do you spend
in the kitchen daily, making dinner?
Joumana: It varies. In Lebanon, luckily, I get to work with seasoned cooks; I learned a lot from them and cooking with others is more enjoyable.
Coco: There is a common misconception in the West that the Middle East is a desolate desert.
What is the most important message you want to convey?
Joumana: What interests me beyond food and recipes is culture; I try to weave it through the cookbook, blog posts, and social media.
Coco:: Describe Christmas @ your home: Crazy & chaotic or quiet & relaxing?
Joumana: N/A Christmas is at my cousin's and she is the consummate hostess, always inviting her closest 50 or so friends around a sumptuous feast.
Coco: Your recipes are authentically traditional. Do you ever sway and incorporate something trendy
like chia, spelt or quinoa?
Joumana: Authentic recipes are what I missed most living as an immigrant far from Lebanon and I strive to make authentic recipes more manageable for the harried cook. However, it is hard not to be creative in this field, so I allow myself some original creations. I am not interested in trendy foods.
Coco: Do you have your own garden? What do find most difficult to grow?
Joumana: Yes, the vegetable and orchard is located in Lebanon, in the Chouf Mountains and this is where I shoot the videos. Because the garden is at a relatively high altitude, some things do not grow well there such as citrus or tropical fruits such as mangoes. What does grow extremely well are eggplants, tomatoes, onions, Swiss Chard, grapes, green beans, apples, peaches, cherries, and mulukhiyeh (jute leaves)!
Coco: Are you a shoe or handbag girl?
Joumana: I am a minimalist. If I could wear a uniform every day, I would.
Coco: What's your guilty indulgence?
Joumana: Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate.
Coco: I see now why I like you.
Coco: What do you refuse to eat?
Joumana: After seeing animals getting slaughtered, I am finding it harder and harder to eat meat. I still do though. I do not care for raw meat at all. I refuse to eat cold cuts, unless I make them myself (it is not that hard). I refuse to eat very salty, greasy foods or supermarket cakes with frosting from a box.
No supermarket cakes and boxed frosting for this girl. She is an avid advocate for all-natural ingredients, cooking the way our grandmothers did. Everyone's mom adds her own special little touch to a recipe. And in the West, young immigrants and second-generationers incorporate new-fangled ingredients like spelt flour, chia and quinoa into the mix. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but somewhere along the way, the original flavours are lost. Joumana dusts off the books and returns old world recipes to their original glory. As such, her culinary library offers the how-to's for Lebanese favourites, including my beloved Aysh al Saraya. As sexy as its name, here is a luscious treat fit for a sultan, but surprisingly ready in a snap. Aysh means bread or life itself. Saraya is Arabic for royal palace. As such, this dessert is aptly named in reference to a life of luxury.
Something of a Lebanese version of bread pudding or tiramisu, Aysh al Saraya is a treat made of luscious cream on top of syrup-soaked bread, wrapped in the scent of rose petals and orange blossoms. Unlike most Middle Eastern recipes, this one is quick and easy, which means it won't be long before you can actually enjoy it. So, put the kettle on and let's get started.
Note: A few drops of green food colouring will make the pistachio pop, but I prefer to keep everything natural. Joumana would agree.
Source: Taste of Beirut
1 round loaf white bread or 20 slices sandwich bread, crusts cut off (use the bread crumbs if you are making individual servings, it is easier to manage)
9 ounces sugar (1 1/4 cups)
4 ounces water
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon of orange blossom water
1 tablespoon of rose water
2 cups of ashta (recipe follows) OR ricotta cheese (whole-milk or light version)
1 cup or more of pistachios
Preparing the bread:
If you are using a whole bread, you will cut off the crust on all sides and place the bread in a pan that fits its size. The thickness of the bread should be about one inch (2 1/2 cm) If you are using sandwich bread, use a food processor (or your hands) to obtain small pieces or medium-sized crumbs and place in the dish of your choice.
Place the sugar, water and fresh lemon juice in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a boil and let it boil for about 15 minutes stirring, until the caramel takes on a pretty golden-brown color.
Right before the caramel takes on that color, boil around one cup of water in a teakettle nearby. When the sugar is the color you want, place the saucepan in the sink, and while holding your face safely away from the pan, start adding very slowly the boiling water. Be very careful to avoid getting burned.
If using a whole bread, place the bread in the pan and cook it in the caramel until the caramel is absorbed. If using breadcrumbs, place them over the caramel and let the breadcrumbs absorb the caramel and cool, cooking them if necessary over low-medium heat, or in the oven till absorbed.
Homemade clotted cream or ashta:
2 cups half-and-half or a mixture of milk and whipping cream
2 slices of sandwich bread
2 heaping tablespoons of cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons orange blossom water and 2 teaspoons rose water
Cut off the crusts of the bread and cut in small dice or pieces.
Place the half-and-half and the bread on medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
After about 10 minutes, the bread will have dissolved into crumbs and started melding into the cream. Continue stirring until it is steaming. At this point, add the cornstarch and water mixture and stirring constantly let the mixture thicken for one or two minutes. Add the flavored waters and stir about 30 seconds more.
Cool the ashta.
Fast and easy method using ricotta cheese :
Add to the ricotta cheese the orange blossom water and the rose water, beating slightly with a fork. Use as you would the clotted cream. Use 2 cups of ricotta cheese.
Place the caramel-soaked bread (or crumbs) in the dish or ramequins that you selected, tapping gently to even out the top surface.
Cover the bread with a generous layer of cream or ricotta cheese. Place in the fridge for thirty minutes or so.
Cover the top creamy layer with finely chopped pistachios. Do not substitute any other nuts, if you want to stick to the traditional dessert.
Aysh al Saraya is a delightful dessert that is a surprisingly easy to make. The syrup can be made ahead of time and stored in the fridge for up to a week. The rest of the ingredients are basic staples that you always have on hand. So you can make this one on a whim, which is often how I like my sweets. The only real waiting time is for chilling, which can be fast-forwarded by popping the tray into the freezer for 15-20 minutes.
Every shiny page of Joumana's cookbook features tempting photos of beautiful plates and offers matching recipes that are easy even for a novice cook to follow. Enter below to win your own copy and learn to create classic Middle Eastern dishes that are sure to make a lasting impression. This contest is open to my readers in the US, UK and Canada.
Congrats to Kim N. from the UK for winning a copy of Joumana's delicious cookbook! Also, a big thanks to all of you who participated. Please stay tuned for a very sweet giveaway coming soon.
Food is the foundation of any culture. It sets the scene for gatherings where old friendships are renewed and