Unleashing the baker within

Unleashing the baker within

I never used to be the “cooking/baking type.” Just the occasional brownies-from-the-box or cake-from-the-box. From scratch meant nothing to me.

But then I moved to Qom. The first few weeks were the hardest. My eldest, FZ, was 4 when we moved and she just wanted all those simple comforts she remembered from her life back in the U.S. Like brownies, mac n’ cheese, and cereal.

I had no idea where to begin. We were lucky to run into a grocery store here named Kowsar, which carried cake mixes, brownie mixes, cereal, etc. But when I brought the cake mixes home to give them a whirl, they just didn’t add up to the quality of a good ol’ box of Betty Crocker cake mix. Or a Ghirardelli brownie mix. Oh, how I miss those Ghirardelli brownie mixes!

So I started looking up recipes. My new friends who also came from the West, all talked about making baked items from scratch. They talked about how much better it tasted. I was a little nervous. Baking from scratch meant having a slight idea about textures, temperatures and consistencies. It meant knowing a bit about alternatives and substitutes. It meant having a know-how of the science of baking. That was not me.

But long live the Internet! Partly due to the fact that some ingredients are not readily available in Qom, I was forced to search high and low for good substitutions on my baking adventures. And along the way I found lots of healthy alternatives for dishes I was already baking.

Here are a few tried and true substitutions:

*Note: Start slowly to see how these substitutions affect the taste/consistency of your finished product. Like if a recipe calls for 1/2 cup butter use 1/4 cup cream cheese and 1/4 cup butter.

  • 1/4 cup yogurt = one egg
  • Applesauce = oil/butter (spoon for spoon, except it works better in foods like cakes, brownies and pancakes)
  • Cream cheese = butter
  • Date/grape syrup = sugar/sweetener
  • 2 tbsp. date/grape syrup mixed with 1 cup granulated white sugar = brown sugar
  • 1 tbsp. vinegar mixed with 1 cup milk = buttermilk

Once you start becoming a regular baker from scratch, you start getting lots of ideas and understanding what makes cookies flat and brownies thick. Now making brownies, pancakes and cookies from scratch is part of my regular routine. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not to mention baking and cooking from scratch means you are able to steer away from those quick-fix ideas that add too many preservatives/additives in your meals.

Here are a few great sites I have come across with wonderful recipes and helpful tips:

Here’s to healthier meals and desserts for my family! And learning new skills along the way!

In Iran, guests are kings

In Iran, guests are kings

A guest, or mahman, is a very important person here in this part of the world. When someone comes over, you automatically start the royal treatment. First you lavish on the greetings: Khaste na basheed, befarmayeed, etc. Then you pour on the delicacies: Fruits, cookies, shirini, etc. Tea is automatic – not requested.

I learned that the hard way.

Soon after moving, we had Iranian guests and I asked them if they wanted tea. They politely said, no, it’s OK. So I sat down and talked with the guests. In my defense, in case my mother reads this and faints with embarrassment of my treatment of guests, I had sweets and some sandwiches already laid out.

Then my Iranian friend came to me and said in my ear: “You just make tea. Even if someone says no. Just make some and offer it.”

Well, I’ll be darned. So I made some tea and served it to my guests, and sure enough, everyone took a cup. Even those who said they didn’t want it. Lesson learned.

In this regard, shirini (or sweets) is very popular. At every corner you will find shirini shops carrying a variety of pastries, cakes, cookies, etc. You never go to a person’s house empty handed. You always arrive with a kilo of shirini. And in Qom, the best shirini is found at Boye Gandom in Dor e Shahr. I love their selection of cakes and pastries, not to mention just standing in their shop is a glorious experience. The wonderful smells of a bakery just wafting around. It’s heaven.

In Islam, it is said that a guest brings with himself/herself rizq, or sustenance. As a child I would groan when guests were coming because that meant extra cleaning up and extra work. My father would always remind us with this saying, that guests are a blessing from Allah. And now that I am older, this certainly rings true. There is no time that a guest comes and I feel burdened, rather I feel like our home has extra light. There is laughter and happiness, and the sharing of food. It is a beautiful time, indeed.

May your home always be filled with joy, laughter and the blessing of guests!