The first ten days of the Islamic month of Dhul-Hajj are quite bittersweet for those of us who are not performing the pilgrimage. We are happy because it is a celebration and time for worship, family and festivities, but we are also very sad that we are not in Mecca experiencing it first hand. To be here going about the daily grind while miles away people are in the most sacred of lands, is a hard thing to forget. We yearn to be there, to stand on the marble floors of the Sacred Mosque, to gaze upon the black cloth of the Kaaba, and to feel the serenity that is ever present even in the frenzy of the crowds of worshippers.
I performed Hajj when I was a wee thing and it doesn’t count because I was a child; only Hajj as an adult counts. But I have memories of my time there and the experiences, which was very different from what it is now. These days, there is every convenience for the pilgrim; from magnificent, mechanical lily shaped umbrellas that gracefully spring open to shield the courtyards from the sun, to air conditioned tents for the stay in the desert. The water of the well of Zam Zam, flows through modern plumbing providing fresh, sweet water to all the worshippers at the Sacred Mosque in Mecca.
I went back when I was older, not for Hajj but for another visit and I remember my first glimpse at the structure called The Kaaba (The Kaaba is used as a direction for all Muslims over the world to pray, like a compass) that stands in the middle of the mosque. My hair was on end. The atmosphere, the peacefulness; even as a child I could feel it around me. There are no words to describe it and for a Muslim, this is why it’s the biggest trip of their life time.
The pilgrimage to Mecca is also controlled by the Saudi government. They have to limit how many people can safely perform the ritual so there are only so many Hajj visas that are issued per country. It is also very expensive and so when you are able to go, it really is a very big deal.
So those of us who are not there this year, just suck it up and bear it. We pray extra hard to be able to go next year. We try and fast the 9 days before the Eid day and get in as much worship and good deeds we can during this time.
Like any other special celebration, Eid day is about family, friends, community and of course, food. Food is shared during the Eid day and since the official celebration lasts 3 days, there are many gatherings and parties during this time. We exchange gifts and sweets, visit family and friends and provide for the needy.
Dinner parties are lavish gatherings and the main star is meat. There is usually no sign of chicken at these events! We are talking luscious biryanis, mouthwatering kebabs, spicy masala bits and pieces of the animal, overnight simmered stews made out of shins and muscles, all gooey and gelatinous; or maybe a whole spit roasted lamb on a bed of pillowy couscous or fragrant basmati rice that everyone digs into communal style with their impeccably clean fingers.
If you’ve never eaten a meal with your fingers, you should. There is something about the feel of your food between your fingers, the tactile action of gathering a portion to lift to your mouth, the aroma of the food as you raise the morsel to your lips and finally the taste. It is sensory overload.
I get quite offended when I hear people going on about how eating with your fingers is uncivilised. There are many cultures that eat with their fingers and using a knife and fork doesn’t make you any better than anyone else!
So, today’s recipe is actually a left over from Ramadan that I never got to post. It’s a celebratory kind of sweet and one I like to make for parties. I usually crave it during these special holiday times. It’s a great crowd dessert and can be made in quantity or on a sheet tray to serve many people. It’s very easy to make and can sit quietly in the fridge ahead of time.
Basically, it is a pudding with a layer of firm semolina at the bottom and then a layer of ashta (Arabic clotted cream) on top. Many people just whip some heavy cream and use that, but I like the orange water scented ashta; makes it very creamy and has a firmer, creamier mouthfeel. But you can definitely take the easier route and use whipped cream. Top off with fruit or leave the fruit off and sprinkle with nuts, I like it both ways, but a bit of banana or some berries on top does make it very colourful and quite delicious. A drizzle of rose water or orange blossom water syrup and you’re set. This desserts appeals to sweet eaters and the non sweet eaters because you can adjust the sweetness with the amount of syrup you add.
- 1 cup/200g organic farina/semolina
- ¼ cup/50g organic cane sugar
- 6 cups/1.4L organic whole or full fat milk
- pinch salt
- 1tbs rose or orange blossom water
- Pistachios or fruit for garnishing
- 2 cups/475mL heavy cream
- 2 cups/475mL half and half
- 5 tablespoons cornstarch
- 3 teaspoons rose/orange blossom water
- 2 cups/400g superfine sugar
- 1 cup/235mL water
- ½ tablespoon lemon juice
- 1-2 tablespoons rose/orange blossom water
- Place the sugar, water, lemon juice in a pot and bring to a boil.
- Lower the heat and simmer gently for 8-10 minutes.
- The syrup should be thick enough to lightly coat the back of a spoon.
- Add the rose or orange blossom water and pull off the heat to cool.
- Put aside.
- In medium size pot, bring the milk up to a boil on medium heat.
- Add the sugar and the semolina.
- Stir continuously until the semolina is thick and bubbly.
- Make sure the pudding does not catch at the bottom and burn.
- Stir continuously.
- Once the pudding is thick, add the orange blossom or rose water.
- Pour into a 9 x13 (24x33 cm) dish and spread out evenly.
- Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, at least 2 hours.
- While the semolina pudding is chilling, make the Ashta.
- Pour all but a half cup of the half/half-cream mixture into a heavy bottomed pot and bring to boil over medium heat.
- Stir the cornstarch into the remaining half cup and smooth out into a paste.
- Once the milk is nearly to a boil, add the cornstarch mixture and stir vigorously.
- The mixture will thicken instantly and as soon it bubbles and is thick, pull off the heat.
- Add the orange blossom water.
- Put aside to cool slightly.
- While the Ashta is still warm, pour/spread onto the top of the semolina pudding.
- Cover and chill the pudding completely before serving.
- Sprinkle with pistachios before serving or arrange sliced fruit, like strawberries, bananas, mangoes on top and a drizzle of sugar syrup.
I don’t know why it’s called Layli Lubnan or Lebanese Nights, maybe because it’s smooth, sweet and sultry like a night in Lebanon? I’ll have to ask my dad who spent a lot of time in Beirut.
Eid ul Adha is next Tuesday. I am fasting until Monday (and let me tell you how hard that’s been!) and then we’ll enjoy next week with family and friends. As you are all my friends too, I wish you much peace and good will. I thank you for your love and never ending support of my efforts, and for all your heartfelt wishes and comments for a holiday that is special to me. It means a lot. May we be guided to the right path and may it be filled with tolerance, respect and love for our fellow man. Wishing you all a very wonderful weekend and I guess a long weekend for many. I will be back later next week so I can enjoy this holiday time with my family. Wishing you all the best of this season.