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A Daughter Bakes A New Connection With Family During Ramadan

Eslah Attar for NPR
Eslah Attar for NPR
A mix of traditional and nontraditional Arabic desserts served with Turkish coffee.

Warak enab, a dish of grape leaves stuffed with rice and meat, has always been a favorite Middle Eastern dish of mine.

Growing up, I would sit with my mother at the dining room table as she taught me the technique — down to the detail of where to place my fingersfor wrapping the perfect warak enab.

When I moved out of my childhood home, Mama would send me stacks of grape leaves, rolled into a burrito-like form, picked straight from the vines we grew in our backyard. I was on my own, but there was always comfort in being able to call or FaceTime her as I cooked.

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For iftar, the fast-breaking meal after sunset during Ramadan, a mixture of traditional and nontraditional Arabic foods, including lamb served with rice and a side of fattoush, an Arabic salad topped with fried pita bits. Eslah Attar for NPR[/caption]

Through FaceTime, Mama walked me through many of her recipes: mjaddarah, a Lebanese lentil dish topped with caramelized onions, her vermicelli rice and leban, yogurt. After much trial and error, I perfected many of her complicated Middle Eastern dishes. I even felt confident in my grape leaf-wrapping skills.

But I never quite mastered traditional Middle Eastern desserts. Baklava, knafeh, a pastry made of thin noodles, stuffed with cheese and soaked in syrup, and maamoul, a date-filled pastry topped with pistachio, required patience, time and skill I had yet to learn.

I had never even attempted to bake with Mama. I just knew it would be too complicated, mostly because she rarely sticks to set measurements. It's as if she throws her ingredients into the air and a decadent, cheesy slice of knafeh magically appears in front of her.

[caption id="attachment_154547" align="alignnone" width="743"]

Left: The photographer's mother mixing knafeh food coloring into shredded phyllo dough. This is what gives the knafeh a deep orange color. Right: The old cookbook Huda Attar brought with her from Syria when she moved to the United States. She learned most of her recipes from this book. Eslah Attar for NPR[/caption]

This summer I was supposed to move from Washington, D.C., to New York to start a new job — but the coronavirus crisis postponed those plans. And so, I decided to move back into my parents' home.

Initially, I was disappointed, but I recognized the rare opportunity I had to reconnect with my parents as an adult, especially during Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, which began on April 23 this year.

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A portrait of Huda Attar, the photographer's beloved Mama. Eslah Attar[/caption]

One important aspect of Ramadan is the communal iftar dinners, where we break our fast together. No matter how much we eat, there's always room for knafeh.

Desserts are a big part of Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, the three-day celebration that marks the end of Ramadan. For my family, the sweet smell of knafeh and maamoul baking in the kitchen signifies the end of this special month. This year, Eid begins on the evening of May 23.

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Maamoul stacked on a platter in the way Attar's mother typically serves them. Eslah Attar for NPR[/caption]

A couple of weeks ago, Mama and I were rearranging boxes of stuff I'd brought home, and we came across one of her old recipe books in the basement.

She had brought it with her from Syria when she moved to the U.S. at age 24, right after she got married. She told me this book taught her almost everything she knew about cooking and baking — with occasional phone calls to her mother in Syria for assistance.

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Photos from a family vacation to Syria show baking bread and grape leaf vineyards. Eslah Attar for NPR[/caption]

Moving back in has given me full access to Mama's world — her spices, her recipe books and the chaos that her kitchen turns into every time we cook or bake.

It also has given me access directly to Mama, without a screen between us. So I asked her to teach me how to make the complicated maamoul and knafeh that once seemed so out of reach.

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Eslah Attar writes: "Though I've never been much of a baker, both my older siblings are. My sister, Shorook, started experimenting with macarons, the French meringue-based sweet. This year, she added a twist, using ingredients like dates, rosewater and pistachios from Middle Eastern desserts like maamoul and knafeh." Eslah Attar for NPR[/caption]

Traditionally on Eid, Mama baked enough desserts to share at the local mosque and with friends. As the baklava trays piled up, my little brother and I would sneak a bite or two.

Now, I know how to bake these delicious desserts myself, and I'm excited to put my skills to the test next Eid and carry on the family tradition.

Learning how to bake with Mama at my side has been my favorite part of being home. It's brought us closer together and connected me to my roots while feeding my sweet tooth at the same time. I always underestimated the level of patience it takes to perfect this craft. Now, I see just how much skill — and love — are required.

[caption id="attachment_154544" align="alignnone" width="743"]

A mix of traditional and nontraditional Arabic desserts served with Turkish coffee. Eslah Attar for NPR[/caption]

Eslah Attar is a photo editor and photographer currently based in Ohio. Follow her Instagram @_eslahlahlah.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.