It was lucky I rented my little Sicilian casetta during orange blossom season. I had included a recipe for the jam in the book I am working on right now and was wondering how I was going to test it. Well, I didn’t have to wonder too long as I walked with Mary through her citrus grove and found the trees bursting with blossom. All I had to do was decide which of the blossom were the right ones for the jam — some were small and others large and fleshy. Thinking back to the orange blossom jam of the Lebanese sweet-makers, I decided to go for the fleshier kind and the next day, Amy and I went down early in the morning to pick 1 kilogram of blossom, which was the quantity I needed for the recipe. We quickly realised that if we were to pick so much, we would be spending the rest of our week making the jam. Not only would it have taken forever to pick the blossom — the flowers are surprisingly light — but we would have had to spend hours picking the petals off them. So, I decided to cut down the recipe to a quarter of the quantities and after a good half hour at least, we had picked what we needed.
Middle Easterners are famous for their sweet tooth and I am no exception. I may no longer like chocolate but I still love other sweets, in particular baklava, a generic term describing a range of pastries made with filo or ‘hair’ pastry and filled with nuts and sometimes kaymak (thick cream). However, despite my curiosity for all things culinary from when I was a child, I had never seen commercial baklava being made until I visited the kitchens of Gulluoglu in Istanbul with my dear friend, Nevin Halici, and those of Imam Cagdas in Gaziantep with another dear friend, Filiz Hosukoglu, where an army of sweet-makers were making everything by hand, from rolling the filo to filling and shaping the different types of baklava to drenching it in sugar syrup. And from the very beginning to the very end, the process is mesmerising. Here are some pictures I snapped in Imam Cagdas’ baklava kitchens where they bake the baklava in a wood-fired oven.
Three years ago I was in Dubai filming a food/travel TV show for Abu Dhabi TV with the wonderful Tariq al-Mehyas. And the first thing I did when I got there was to spend 3 fabulous days in Sharjah as the guest of the brilliant Sheikha Bodour al-Qasimi who organised for me to cook with, or to be more accurate watch a group of lovely Emirati ladies cook Emirati dishes including the scrumptious lgeimat (saffron-flavoured fritters served drizzled with date syrup) you see in the picture above in the Sharjah Heritage House.
Some of you will remember Bea from her delicious biscotti and cacciucco. Well, I am back in my friends’ gorgeous house by the sea where Bea cooks the most divine meals, some of which I am hoping to blog before I leave. Until then, I thought I would post the adorable panettone and icing sugar presepio that she made for my friends for Christmas. Such a sweet thing to do (no pun intended). Her edible effort is not unlike the non-edible one outside the Duomo in Perugia below. I guess there aren’t very many ways to depict baby Jesus just born in the barn!