One of the most intriguing food writers I follow is Sawsan and I really enjoy her food blog. I love the dishes she creates as well as the old favorites that she tweaks but it’s the peek into what life is like living in Jordan that really gets me excited.
Many of us have never traveled to Jordan and haven’t got a clue what life is like for an everyday person living there. For me, her blog is like a reality show. Sawsan shows us a view of Middle Eastern life vastly different to the one we see on the nightly news.
She’s a strong, well educated, confident woman who’s been a joy to get acquainted with. You can get acquainted with her too by following her blog at Chef in Disguise, on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
She makes terrific cakes like this little train complete with animal car. What a lot of work went into this cake. I’m not sure I’d have the patience but it’s very cute.
In her post she takes her readers through every step from making the cake to shaping all the circus animals out of fondant. It’s an amazing post.
Another post that caught my eye was her recipe for Nabulsi Cheese, one of the most popular white brined cheeses made in the Middle East. She says it’s a great cheese for grilling or frying and I do hope to make this one day soon. Okay, what I REALLY want to do is make this cheese and invite some friends over and casually mention, “This is a recipe from my friend Sawsan who lives in Jordan.”
Sawsan was born in Jenine in Palestine but moved to Jordan when she was only 3 and has lived in Amman, the capital of Jordan ever since. When she was growing up her favorite food was watermelon. Her mother tells the story that when Sawsan was little, her mother had prepared a big platter of watermelon for guests and that little Sawsan climbed up on the table and ate it! Just a glance at the most recent post on her blog is Minty Watermelon Popsicles. She hasn’t changed much.
One of my favorite posts are the travelogue ones like the one she did earlier this month about Petra, The Rose Red City Half as Old as Time where we see photos she took of this historical city. I’d love to see those buildings cut into the rock. They’re just beautiful.
Where does your inspiration normally come from when you create new recipes?
A dish I had and loved at a restaurant, or saw on TV or on a blog can sometimes inspire me to make something new. You see the more you cook and bake the more you know what flavor and texture combinations work for you and what doesn’t and it becomes fun to try and explore trying those combinations in a new recipe with different ingredients or maybe a different method of cooking.
When asked what recipe she’d created that she was most proud, she certainly chose one that I love, her Cinnamon Sweet Bread. She admits that before this bread she’d had trouble with yeast and had dumped heaps of dough in the trash but when she made peace with yeast, this gorgeous bread was the result.
Like many of us who care for a family, work AND produce a blog, it’s always juggling commitments for Sawsan but she does it really well. I enjoy her photographs. She’s self-taught but really enjoys the styling and photography part of her blog.
I asked her what tips she could share withnew food writers to help them produce food photos that honor the dishes they’ve created.
My tips to anyone interested in food photography are:
- Read up on the topic.
- Know the places in your house that have the best light and the best time of day to take your pictures to make the best of that light (and the way to do that is to take pictures in different places and different times of day)
- Eliminate the background, one of the biggest problems I had with my earliest pictures was the busy background. Use things as simple as a white wall or a sheet to neutralize the background. That makes the thing you photograph receive the attention it deserves without the distraction of the background
- Step back! getting too close to the dish can do more harm than good
- Think of the colors in your dish and use that to style your photo. I have a whole board on pinterest for color swatches to see what colors work with each other and which don’t
- Last but not least, practice, take as many pictures as you can, practice makes perfect
As a food blogger who posts what she eats and rarely plans ahead (I know, it’s bad), I’m impressed by Sawsan’s approach to her blog. She cooks and photographs five or six dishes and then posts the photos on Facebook and surveys her followers as to which they’d like to see first. I bet it helps to whet their appetite.
I was interested in which holiday was her favorite food-wise. The American in me instantly thinks Thanksgiving but what does someone in Jordan think? It’s Eid which comes a month after Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Eid marks the end of Ramadan and Sawsan has fond memories of making maamool with her mother. Maamool is a type of stuffed cookie that is imprinted with hand carved wooden molds before baking.
Surely I’m not the only one who is curious about what dish must be included in every family gathering.
In my house the dish that is in every family gathering is lasagna http://chefindisguise.com/2011/10/04/four-cheese-lasagna/ and I am the one who makes it. In my parents house it is Kabseh http://chefindisguise.com/2011/08/21/you-say-kabsa-i-say-kabseh/or mixed vegetable rice topped with nuts and meat http://chefindisguise.com/2011/03/26/my-vegetable-rice/
Something that may sound crazy but I never cooked anything in my parents house. I was busy with school and then university and mum doesn’t really like anyone making a mess in her kitchen so I never made these recipes before getting married. I do make them now on a regular basis because they are family favorites
That lasagna is her signature dish that’s most requested by family and friends. She says it’s delicious but not so waist friendly. I’d eat the lasanga and go for a long walk.
Sawsan’s blog gives her a window to express herself through stories, food and photographs and almost as importantly her blog gives her the opportunity to meet people like you and me from around the globe. The daring bakers and cooks challenges require uncommon ingredients so she is buying things she’s never tried before, all because of her blog.
What’s comfort food for her? Anything with chocolate, especially her current addiction, chocolate mint almond butter. The food she could eat every day without ever becoming bored is an apple. It doesn’t matter if it’s raw, cooked, in cake, cookies, pancakes or pies, if it’s got apples in it, she likes it. She even puts applesauce in her granola.
When I asked Sawsan if she cooks from cookbooks, I had a little chuckle at her reply because I’m the same way. I buy, buy, buy cookbooks and then get my recipes from blogs and so does she.
If she and I cooked together in her kitchen, I’d need a stepstool. She’s really tall and had her kitchen cabinets raised so she doesn’t whack her head. I’m really short and I could cheerfully do without upper cabinets because I always need the darned stool (or a tall person). In that kitchen yesterday she prepared a pea and carrot stew with a side of rice — in case you were wondering.
Finally, my Food Writer Friday series is about food memories and how they impact on our lives as adults. Sawsan’s earliest and fondest food memory is from her grandmother’s kitchen and it’s Fteer falahi (Cheese and anise flat bread) and every time she makes it, she thinks of her grandmother.
- 1 kg all purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon yeast
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ cup olive oil
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- I usually half the recipe to get 4 squares, you can double or half the recipe according to your needs
- 3 cups of nabulsi cheese (or any firm salty cheese that holds its shape during baking) cut into small 1 cm cubes
- 2 tablespoons anise
- Mix the filling ingredients in a bowl , set aside
- In a ¼ cup of warm water dissolve the yeast and sugar and wait for the yeast to bubble (this is called proofing the yeast, if the yeast does not bubble and foam, it has gone bad and you need to buy a new one)
- Add the salt to the flour, whisk to combine, add the yeast/water mixture and start kneading adding water gradually till you get a soft sticky dough consistency (I needed 2 cups of water but the amount varies with the type of flour)
- Knead the dough for 5-7 minutes, allow to rest , covered in a warm place for half an hour
- In a bowl add the vegetable oil and olive oil and keep it next to your working area.
- Wet your hands with a little oil and cut the dough into 8 balls , brush each ball in the oil mixture and allow to rest for another 10-15 minutes
- Brush a pan or your working surface with a little oil, start with the first dough ball you cut and spread it into a circle roughly 25 cm or 10 inches in diameter
- Brush the top with a little oil then fold one-third of the circle onto the middle third of it (as you can see in the picture)
- Spread your filling onto the folded part of the dough then fold the other third over the filling (the dough should now look like a rectangle)
- Fold one-third of the rectangle over the middle third, cover it with your filling of choice.
- Fold the other third over your filling (now you should have a square dough)
- Allow this one to rest while you start working on the next one.
- Once you have stuffed and folded all the dough balls, go back to the first square and brush it with oil and spread it into a larger square using a rolling-pin or your hands. Then do the same with the rest of your squares.
- Note: The larger and thinner you spread the filled dough, the more crispy the final bread will be. If you would rather have a soft and chewy bread, don’t spread the filled dough squares too much
- Transfer the dough to a baking sheet that you have brushed with oil and sprinkle them with anise.
- Bake on the middle rack of a preheated oven (270 C or the highest temperature your oven will go)
- Once the bottom is golden brown, turn on the broiler till the tops are golden brown too.
- Don’t leave this bread unattended, it browns quickly because it is thin
- Allow the bread to cool on a wire rack for 7-10 minutes and then cover with a clean dry cloth to keep it from becoming dry.
Coming up on Chef in Disguise soon will be a cold Middle Eastern no bake dessert called Madlouah, made from ilk and semolina, decorated with fruit and pistachios and drizzled with syrup. Sounds pretty good to me.
p.s. Sorry there weren’t other posts this week, I’ve been a bit under the weather.