I get cranky when I’m hungry. In an embarrassing “I’m a grown woman and I know I shouldn’t be acting like this” kind of way. I’m not proud of it and I try to prevent it. When friends invited us to Eastern Market in Detroit this weekend, I jumped on board and immediately shouted “YES, OF COURSE!” but I knew to pack a snack in case we had a late lunch (and we did! 3 PM, but it was soo worth it). I wanted to make a snack that was small, easy to transport, and that could be shared with my gluten intolerant friend.
Date balls! They’re a simple no fuss sort of snack. No freezing, no baking, no complicated instructions. Just blend, roll into balls, and eat. Since they’re made with just nuts and dates, it’s not like you’re spoiling you’re next meal, right?
With 4 date balls carefully stored away in my purse, off to Detroit we went!
Eastern Market is the largest historic public market in the country. Something I didn’t know before visiting, and once I got there I was completely overwhelmed. I anticipated doing all of our weekly produce shopping there, but I was so overwhelmed I ended up forgetting lots of staples. Oops. I also got distracted by all the beautiful dogs.
Look at that giant dog!
Lots of pretty flowers, too. But they’re not as good as dogs. Adopting a dog just isn’t something that’s going to happen for a very long time, so I tend to go a little overboard when I see any dog.
Today’s lunch, made with lots of fresh bounty from Eastern Market. Pasta with pesto, cucumbers, and bell peppers. Toast with mayonnaise and pesto, chopped up radishes, scallions, pickled carrots, and tossed in pesto. Sauteed dandelion greens.
Oh, right. Date balls! This is a very forgiving and customizable recipe.
Have an assortment of different types of nuts in the pantry? Just throw a hodgepodge of them in the food processor. You don’t need 2 cups of a certain type of nut, just use what you have. Don’t have 2 cups of nuts? Use as much as you have and replace the rest with oats. Don’t have ground cardamom? Try cinnamon. Feel free to experiment with coconut flakes, vanilla extract, or unsweetened cocoa. Don’t have dates? Well, go get some! They’re date balls, after all. Let the dates act as a base for any ingredient in your pantry that you think sounds good for date balls.
2 cups nuts (walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, whatever you have on hand. For this batch, I used 1 cup walnuts and 1 cup pistachios)
2 cups medjool dates, pitted
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
Add ingredients to food processor and blend for about a minute and test for stickiness. If the mixture sticks together when you pinch it, it’s ready. If not, blend for another 30 seconds. Take about 2 tablespoons of the mixture at a time, forming it into balls. Repeat until mixture is gone. Can be eaten right away or refrigerated.
I’ve missed figs. Summer came and went with no trace of them and I thought the same would happen this year. Recently, when stocking up on frozen fruit at Trader Joe’s I discovered…
Figs! Precious figs! Frozen, but FIGS! The mission figs we’d buy in San Francisco would often be so ripe that one of us would have to carry them by hand on the way home, lest they’d burst open within a bag. They would have to be eaten in just a couple days, though that never seemed to be a problem for us.
During a recent mini-heat wave, I’d pop a couple of these in my mouth to temporarily stay cool, but I ultimately wanted to incorporate them into a frozen treat. Popsicles, of course! They were a staple of our diet last summer and I suspect things won’t change much this year. However, by the time I got around to making some popsicles out of these guys, it was cold again. Oh well. Practice for summer, right?
The amount needed for the popsicles depends on the size of your molds. I use these molds from Tovolo and they are fine and dandy. The popsicles are plenty sweet from the figs and the addition of yogurt lends a nice tanginess. Before adding the mixture to your molds, I recommend giving them a taste test. If it’s not sweet enough for you, drop in a tablespoon of honey and give your blender a good pulse.
Vanilla Fig Popsicles
1 bag of Trader Joe’s whole green figs, minus 4 (I ate those four!)
1 1/4 cups milk of your choice (I used full fat cow’s milk)
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon honey (optional)
Add figs, milk, yogurt, and vanilla extract to a blender and blend until smooth. Give the mixture a taste test. If not sweet enough for you, add a tablespoon of honey and blend again for a few seconds. Transfer the mixture into popsicle molds and freeze for at least five hours. Once frozen, run the popsicles under warm water for about 30 seconds and gently remove the molds. Serve and enjoy!
We all know of the Queen of the Nile and her affairs with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius and of the boy king whose otherwise unremarkable life left behind a remarkable glimpse into the Egyptian afterlife. But do you know who the name of the last woman to rule Egypt? Cleopatra is not a bad guess, but it’s not correct. Her name was Shajar al-Dur (sometimes inaccurately called Shajarat al-Durr). She ascended the throne in 1250 and ruled for a total of 80 days. Although Shajar al-Dur is a well-known figure of Egyptian history and folklore, she is not very well-known outside of the Arabic-speaking world. I first discovered her name in a footnote in a reading I had for a class in college. I then spent the following couple of months learning everything I could about her. I’ve read and been told so many versions of her life, I’m not sure what’s fiction or folklore. When I visited Shajar al-Durr’s mausoleum during my last visit to Cairo in 2008, I was heartbroken to find it neglected and covered in garbage.
Shajar al-Durr was originally slave girl of Turkic or Armenian origin. She was purchased by al-Salih Ayyub, who would later become the Sultan of Egypt. In 1250 CE, al-Salih Ayyub died suddenly of a fever at a turbulent time in Egypt’s history. It was the Seventh Crusade and Egypt under attack by King Louis IX’s army. Shajar concealed the fact that al-Salih Ayyub had died by telling people he was merely ill, making sure to have servants deliver food to his room so no one would suspect anything. She was then able to rule as the Sultana of Egypt. Friday prayers were read in her name and she even had coins minted with her name on them. During her short reign, King Louis IX was released from captivity after paying an enormous ransom and peace was temporarily made with the Franks as they recovered from their agonizing defeat.
After 80 days of rule, she announced her husband’s death and relinquished power over to Turanshah, al-Salih Ayyub’s son from another wife. The army, however, trusted Shajar and had Turanshah killed. Despite her support from the army, the Caliph in Baghdad (who, by the way, was murdered two years later by the grandson of Genghis Khan when the Mongols sacked Baghdad) refused to recognize a woman on the throne. So he sent a trusted army commander to Egypt, to marry Shajar and rule as Sultan. Defeated and humiliated, Shajar surrendered the throne over to her new husband, Aybak.
It is said Aybak and Shajar shared a great affection for each other, but she was clearly the one who dominated the relationship. Shajar was the jealous type. Before they married she had Aybak divorce his current wife Umm Ali, with whom he had a son. Shajar still continued to sign the Sultan’s decrees and made sure to have coins minted in both of their names. After seven years of marriage, Aybak wanted to take on another wife, the daughter of the amir of Mosul. Shajar felt betrayed and refused to share Aybak with anyone else, so… off with his head! She had Aybak murdered by servants while he was taking a bath. Now she could have Egypt for herself, or so she thought.
In vain, Shajar hastily told people that Aybak died in his sleep. Aybak’s men were suspicious of Shajar, and her servants eventually confessed to the murder after being tortured. Shajar and the servants were arrested. The servants were eventually executed and Shajar was beaten to death with wooden clogs by slavegirls – and Aybak’s former wife, Umm Ali and their son al-Mansur Ali (who became Sultan after Aybak’s death). Her half-naked body was dragged around the city and thrown into a moat. After wild animals feasted on her body for three days, her remains were gathered in a basket and she was eventually laid to rest in a mausoleum she had built for herself.
Umm Ali rejoiced at Shajar’s death and putting her son the throne and created this dessert to celebrate.
Or so the story goes.
A cab driver (yes, there was a time where I talked about Shajar al-Durr with just about anyone) once told me Umm Ali made rice pudding and not bread pudding to celebrate Shajar’s death. There are so many versions on how the dessert originated I prefer to pick and choose as I like. A popular theory is that an English nurse living in Egypt named O’Malley created the dessert. Hmph! Where’s the intrigue and scandal in that? Make this dessert and tell the story of Shajar al-Durr.
When it comes to desserts, I gravitate toward the homely and easy to make. Give me rice pudding or bread pudding and I’m over the moon. Since there are so many different versions of how and where Umm Ali originated, I figured there’s no harm in deviating from the usual recipe. I strayed from the norm by using puff pastry (it puffs! It’s magical!) instead of filo dough, decreased the amount of milk and cream, and added more nuts. I found that with less milk and cream, the texture held up quite well for leftovers for several days. Umm Ali is a rich and heavenly dessert that would taste even better with a scoop of ice cream, if you’re feeling decadent.
1 17-oz package of puff pastry, thawed
6 tablespoons better, melted
2 cups heavy cream
3 cups milk (I used whole)
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups chopped nuts (pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts)
1/2 cup shredded coconut, unsweetened
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon, for dusting
Let the puff pastry thaw for at least a half hour. Preheat oven to 350 F. Roll out the puff pastry, brush with the melted butter and transfer the puff pastry to the oven. Bake the puff pastry for 15 minutes, or until puffed and golden. Remove from the oven and set aside.
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat milk, cream, and sugar together just until the sugar dissolves – do not boil. When the puff pastry is cool enough to handle, break it into bite-sized pieces and transfer to a large baking dish (I used an 8″ x 8″ baking dish, I’d recommend something a little larger). Toss in the nuts, raisins, and shredded coconut, making sure that everything is mixed evenly.
Pour the milk/cream mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle with cinnamon and bake for 20-30 minutes, or until slightly golden.
Let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving. Serve hot.