30 April 2017

Familiar but different

It smells of black tea leaves, steeped and left since dinner in the pot on the kitchen counter. The night air.

I'm at knifepoint, and yet I'm mostly concerned that my feet are cold. I cringe.

– It really feels it should be a different time of year, don't you think? I say to a man who is about to, what, rob me? I'm really cold, I add. I draw out 'really' and shuffle from one foot to the other. It's close to freezing. My eyes are watering from a flu.

– Where have you been? The man asks me.

I'm looking at his sharp jawline first, then at the knife blade at my throat. It's beautiful, engraved with a female silhouette. I feel more relief when I notice the birthmark on his neck, right above where the collar of his shirt grips it tightly. It's dark out, but I can make out its color – merlot. A wine stain on the pristine white tablecloth. I saw it before.

– I know you, I say slowly and pause after 'you'.

Suddenly there is a shriek, and another, they are coming from around the corner. It's loud and unexpected and makes me jump. Take it easy, must be a sea gull, he says and pulls away the knife. It sounds human to me, like someone is laughing, I say and look around. There is no one in sight.

– I know you do. Is there something you wanted to tell me last time?

I know the man, I'm sure now. Before, I sat next to him on the train. He was asleep and his phone kept ringing. I remember he had on a nice perfume – citrus fruit and incense smoke. I was studying his exposed neck. It felt intruding but exciting to be so near to someone's live artery and stare at it uninterruptedly and with impunity. The birthmark was close to it.

– You smelled of knives, I wanted to tell you then.

– Why knives?

– My metaphor for danger, I guess.

– I would have liked to hear that. What stopped you?

– I woke up.

Another shriek, strong enough to shatter glass. Someone is patting me on the shoulder, asks me if I'm O.K.

– Wake up, Anya, wake up. Are you O.K.?

I open my eyes; my forehead is covered in sweat. Anthony is sitting on the edge of the bed, looking concerned. It's getting light out, close to a sunrise.

– I had a strange dream, really strange, I say to him, drawing out 'really' again.

I'm making coffee. I think you'd like some?

Bitter Orange and Walnut Bars (Mabroosha)
Adapted from The Gaza Kitchen, by Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt
Makes about 24 pieces

This one here is a very interesting recipe, no need to draw out 'interesting' – only, maybe, 'very'. Interesting because in essence it's a crumble kind of thing, except that all crumbles I know of are butter-based, and for mabroosha a combination of butter and olive oil is used, with a bigger emphasis on olive oil than butter. I like recipes like this: familiar but different.

Also, try to say mabroosha and not feel comforted by the sound at the same time, a bunch of consonants and vowels that conspire to sound, to me, like babushka.

Actually, mabroosha means 'grated' in Arabic, and that's because the recipe will have you grate half of the dough over the jam and nuts. It's good if you have a medium-sized cheese grater for it. Bitter orange marmalade is a tradition choice, but any kind of jam can be used for mabroosha.

Of course it goes very well with coffee. It crunches pleasantly under the teeth, and has soft pockets of jam, is sweet but olive oil pulls it a little towards savoury, plus cinnamon, orange zest and rosewater, it's got a lot of good stuff, this great little mabroosha.

380 g (3 cups) all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
220 g (1 cup) sugar
Pinch of salt
60 g (4 Tablespoons) butter, softened to room temperature
180 ml (¾ cup) olive oil
2 medium eggs
1 Tablespoon rosewater
2 teaspoons orange zest
160 g (1 ½ cup) bitter orange marmalade
100 g (1 cup) finely chopped walnuts
½ teaspoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 180 C (350 F). Thoroughly grease a 33 x 23 cm (13 x 9 inch) rectangular pan.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. To this, add the butter, olive oil, eggs, rosewater and orange zest. Knead together until they are well combined. The resulting dough should not be sticky. If the dough appears too crumbly, add a little more rosewater. If it appears to be too wet, add a little more flour. Divide the dough into two equal parts.

Using the palm of your hand, spread out one part of the dough in the prepared pan. Spread the jam or marmalade evenly over the dough. Mix the walnuts with the cinnamon and top the dough with this nut mixture. Using a medium-sized cheese grate, shred the remaining dough evenly over the jam and nuts.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the crumbs are slightly golden and the jam is bubbling out. Let it cool, then divide it into bars.