On Ramadan's Sweet Side
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
As a little girl in Cairo, Aida Mady helped her mother bake cookies for Eid al-Fitr, the feast celebrating the end of Ramadan. There were eight children in the family -- Aida was the youngest -- many relatives and friends, plus the poor with whom one was obligated to share. Mother and daughter made hundreds of cookies: date-filled, sugar-covered, crescent-shaped, all rich with butter and fragrant with vanilla powder, crushed anise, toasted sesame and almonds.
Aida and her mother lined up their cookies in rows on huge pans, 3 feet by 5 feet long. The family's maids -- in such a poor country, even middle-class families had servants -- carried the cookie sheets on their heads to the end of the street where the baker was able to fit them in his large, wood-burning oven.
"In Egypt, women bragged about their cookies. They made dozens of different kinds and competed over whose were best," Mady recalls.
Forty years later in Northern Virginia, Aida Mady, wife, mother, interior decorator, accomplished home cook, is still baking cookies for Eid al-Fitr.
Sweets are an important element not only of Eid, which falls this week, but also of the evening meal during the month of Ramadan, a time of spiritual cleansing and regeneration when the world's 1.2 billion Muslims, by the Islamic Center's estimate, are required to fast from sunrise to sundown.
"Dessert is the main thing throughout Ramadan. I think your body needs that sugar and that richness when you are fasting," Mady says, recalling that during Ramadan in Egypt, people eat a deep-fried pancake called atief or kunefa that is stuffed with nuts or cheese and covered with syrup and is sold in the streets.
Generous by nature and committed to a cultural tradition that stresses hospitality, Mady still enjoys baking for a multitude. She shares her bounty with family, friends and neighbors of every religious persuasion. "In this country, we've always been close to our neighbors. Christian and Jewish, we have invited them to our home to share our food and get to know our customs. They have done the same. I have loved this openness," Mady says.
This year Mady has cooked and baked the foods of the Ramadan in the kitchen of an Alexandria townhouse. Next year she looks forward to working in a large open kitchen of her own design ("in another life I would have been an architect") in the house her family is building along the water in Mount Vernon.
Aida Mahy has lived in the United States with her physician husband for nearly 25 years. Their three children were born here. And she describes herself as having two homelands, Egypt and the United States. Her cooking, however, harkens back to the world of her mother's kitchen, where, at age 9, she elevated herself from helper to cook.
"My mother's rice was so soggy. 'Why don't you do it this way?' I asked her, and she said, 'Young lady, show me.' So I did, and my rice was so much better. Everyone in the family loved it, and that was that, I was a cook. Maybe I was born with this talent," says Mady.
More than anything, Mady liked making desserts. "The dough smell, the cookie smell, I loved these things," she says. "I still do," she confides, though she indulges only moderately.
She still follows the cooking techniques she learned as a child. She uses vanilla powder, a flavoring brought to Egypt by the Ottoman Turks, finding it less harsh than vanilla extract. Her work is punctuated by many hand washings, as she generally uses her hands to stir ingredients and to knead cookie dough. She doesn't own a set of measuring spoons and pays little attention to measuring in general. She works by smell and feel, eyeballing ingredients, adding a bit of this, a bit of that, paying close attention to how the ingredients interact.
Making kahek el eid (feast cookies), she comments that you must make sure the butter bubbles. "When you add the boiling butter to the flour mixture -- don't use your hand for this or you will get burned -- the dough partially cooks, and this improves the flavor of the cookie," she says. The end product bears her out: Buttery and rich, her baked goods have an indisputable refinement.
During Ramadan, Mady cooks during the day while fasting. "We are used to this. We have been fasting since we were little. The fasting is training for your soul. It is good to have control over your impulses. The first few days can be a little difficult, but there are rewards. The fasting increases compassion for the poor and others who suffer," she says, adding that when it is over, "you feel proud that you have done this."
Ramadan will end tonight and Eid-al-Fitr will be celebrated tomorrow if the new moon is visible. If the slim crescent moon marking a new month cannot be seen, fasting will continue and the Eid feast will take place on Friday.
Mady and her family will enjoy the feast at the Pennsylvania home of one of her four brothers. Mady will bake, of course, and cook some of the dishes. There will be leg of lamb with garlic or perhaps a lamb shish kebab -- traditionally, families slaughtered animals for Eid, giving most to the poor, reserving just a small portion for themselves. There will be phyllo dough stuffed with meat and baked as a pie. Fata hummus, fried pita bread topped with hummus made with chickpeas or eggplant and garnished with toasted nuts, is another traditional dish, as is fattoush, a traditional Egyptian salad made with diced vegetables and topped with toasted flatbread, with a dressing flavored with pomegranate syrup and chopped mint.
"It's like Thanksgiving or Christmas," Mady explains. Family and friends, proud to have lived up to the rigors of their faith, come together to celebrate and to feast. "We feel so happy," Mady says, "to have lived up to what our religion asks of us."
Freelance writer Michaele Weissman last wrote for Food about Indian men who have cooked together for nearly two decades.