Sesame

It’s winter, but it doesn’t feel like it. In Florida, it rarely does. The temperature is in the 70s, the sun is shining. I am sweating beneath the shade of an old oak tree. I’m craving a reason to put socks on or perhaps even for a patch of snow on the ground. I think of the gray days I left behind in Maine, where I stopped over to visit two dear friends of mine. The long expanses of white, the leaden purple sky tinged with a peach that was meant to count as daylight. I wear my sweatshirt stubbornly, as if the clouds might roll in and save me.

The days are filled with simple tasks, the way vacation days should be. I drink tall cups of extra strong coffee, read the newspaper while our Dachshunds lace themselves around my feet in figure eights, and watch the neighborhood boys (no longer boys I suppose, most of them married with kids of their own) play round after round of half-court basketball. The squeak of their shoes against the slab concrete feels unerringly familiar.

When heat subsides a bit, I pull my tiny nephew around in the red Radio-Flyer wagon he got for Christmas, listening to the acorns crunching underneath the wheels. He sits up straight and grips the sides tightly with plump dimpled fingers. Most of the time, his seven-month-old face is masked in what could be wonder. I think he’s having fun, but it’s hard to tell. My father waves to him from his seat on the small terrace outside the kitchen. At one point, my nephew lifts his arm in what might be a wave, but his body flags in a way that makes me think of the drunken dance of a charmed cobra, and he grabs the rail again, his tiny fingernails white with the effort. He can’t sit up for long though, and as he loses energy, he begins to slowly slide down into the wagon until he’s a slightly crumpled heap. My sister picks him up again and repositions him. We roll on.

As we walk, I recount the items I have in the fridge to use before I leave: a tube of lemongrass paste (because I couldn’t find it fresh); a brick of red miso that made one meal and many dressings and still I couldn’t use it all; an unreasonably giant tub of tahini (because everything in America is extra large). I sift through memories of meals made and meals eaten, considering all the possibilities. I think of Israel.

Israel is a complicated place; there’s no doubt about it. But when it comes to mind, I try to leave politics behind and think not of its complexities but of its simplicities. I remember the endless stretch of white sand beach in Tel Aviv, a heart-wrenching view out over the water in Jaffa.

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I think of the food that we had throughout our journey: the smoky eggplant dish my friend had in Nazareth; the crunchy warm balls of felafel we ate in Bethlehem; the best labne I’ve ever tasted from a perch overlooking the sea.

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In Tel Aviv, we wandered through Carmel Market tasting almost all of the delicious varieties of sesame halva that dissolved sweetly on the tongue, while I restrained myself from dipping my arms into deep buckets of dried rose buds and fragrant herbs and spices.

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We drank frozen lemonade blended with mint at almost every meal and perched at a beach café right facing the sea for our early morning ritual of shakshuka, that dreamy baked egg dish made from roasted tomatoes, onions, peppers, garlic, and spices served in an iron skillet.

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We ate with our toes in the stand and stayed there until the sun moved high overhead, unbearable, and the servers moved among the tables to pop open the umbrellas.

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Because it was so good, we invariably ended up there again in the afternoons for bright green salads, topped with a rich tahini dressing and tiny cups of briny green olives.

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When the food wasn’t seducing us, the views certainly were. We spent days traveling up and down the country, trying to photograph errant camels through the window of the speeding car, while winding our way around the no-drive zones through some of the most gorgeous landscapes I have ever seen. We drove until the electric colors of Tel Aviv gave way to a softer palette of desert hues.

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We reached the Dead Sea, coated in salt, frozen in time.

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There, we swam and then traced the lake’s edge until we had to climb up out of the valley again, to return to Jerusalem, whose soft lights welcomed us home.

Israel

One day, too late in the afternoon, we left Jerusalem to head to the lowest point on the map, where Israel borders Egypt so that we could cross easily into Jordan. We traced our way around the dotted lines of forbidden territory on the map, our circumvention taking us too long and sending us south in the dark. We drove all the way down to the Red Sea that night, along a strip of lonely highway dusted with the sands of the encroaching desert. We realized at some point that we had taken a wrong road somewhere along the way. The street lights gave way to nothing. We drove for miles and miles in eerie silence nearly out of gas. When we finally arrived in the early hours of the morning, we headed straight to sleep, exhausted from the journey. We made our way into Eliat in the daylight, unimpressed with the murky gray sky mirroring a murky gray sea.

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When we finally made it across the strange no-man’s land at the border between Israel and Jordan, where life seems more surreal than it is possible to imagine, we negotiated a taxi toward Petra, a journey which I already recounted in another post.

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Eventually, we made our way back north again, toward Tel Aviv and a life less foreign. We spent those last few days on the beach, soaking up the last rays of sun.

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On one of those last days in Tel Aviv, I had the opportunity to visit the home of a former student of mine not far from the center of the city and spent time catching up with her wonderful family, who showed me the warmest hospitality and who fed me cookies that I still dream about. Someday if I’m lucky, her sister will pass me her recipe. Until then, I simply make do.

Tahini Cookies

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The first time I had these cookies, I ate one, and then another, and then a third. Somehow I restrained myself from upending the entire plate into my purse. Because I didn’t have the authentic recipe at hand when I made these, I turned to Martha Stewart. The recipe below comes directly from the domestic goddess herself, but for the addition of honey, which is mine. The honey I used for this recipe is pure raw orange blossom. It is heady with floral notes and redolent of the old orange groves I grew up with. It seems perfectly suited to the recipe’s Middle Eastern roots, a subtle counterpoint of sweetness against the bitter undercurrents in the tahini. But mostly I added it because it reminds me of home.

  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
  • 3/4 cup tahini
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons orange blossom honey
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • Sesame seeds (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line several baking sheets with parchment paper, and set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, tahini, and both sugars together until light and fluffy. Add egg, vanilla, and honey, and mix on medium speed until well combined. In a medium mixing bowl, sift flour and baking soda together. Add to the butter mixture, and beat just to combine.

Scoop out 2 tablespoons of dough, and shape into a ball. Place on one of the prepared baking sheets. Repeat with remaining dough, placing scoops 3 inches apart. Dip the tines of a fork in warm water; press the dough balls lightly with the back of the fork to flatten them slightly (dip the fork back in the water for each dough ball, to prevent sticking). Sprinkle with a few sesame seeds., transfer to the oven, and bake until golden brown, 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the baking sheets between the oven shelves halfway through baking. Transfer baking sheets to a wire rack to cool. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.

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