I am making my way through a book about food writing, and it suggests that blog postings about our childhood memories of food are commonplace and therefore – well, rather boring.
Humour me, then, please as this is a topic close to my heart.
This is about my Grandmother Mariam’s Tell Kadayif, an Armenian version of a dessert commonly made in the Middle East. “Tell” means “string” in Armenian, due to the thin, long strands of the kadayif.
Kadayif consists of shredded phyllo pastry, which you can find at Greek or Middle Eastern grocers. This dessert is flavoured with rose water; filled with thickened cream, or cheese or walnuts; and topped with a thickened sugar syrup. Western palates might find it more savoury than they’re used to, and perhaps more exotic as well due to the generous helpings of nuts, and rose water – a distinctly flowery and pungent taste. The closest thing I can compare it to is baklava, but that’s just the nut-filled version. The cheese-filled kadayif, my favourite, may be described like a cross between baklava, shredded wheat, and maybe the ricotta filling of cannoli. But for me, it just tastes like a visit to my grandma’s.
My father’s mother passed away last month on the 19th and I am having some trouble reconciling myself with the fact that she’s gone, and I can’t tell her that my son has been asking to go see “Little Nene” (Little Grandmother because of her height).
I’m having trouble coming to terms with the fact that I can’t ask for her advice on how to make Armenian recipes that are endangered because no one bothers to take the time to record them, or because the cookbooks are written in Armenian and it takes too long to translate them. I’m having trouble wrapping my head around the fact I’ll never see her again at Christmas.
Knowing all this, my husband, so thoughtfully this Christmas, gifted me a copy of an English-language Armenian cookbook from the 1970s that he sourced online. It’s market value – used, mind you – is $100. That’s telling, isn’t it?
I will use this book as a guide, that’s for sure. But I feel lucky enough to have a few recipes of my grandmother’s and her voice in my mind. I’ve realized I was just like her when it came to cooking or baking – hesitant to stray from instructions, abandoning recipes at the drop of a hat if I missed any ingredients, and pedantic to the point of perfectionist. I am her namesake, after all.
I’m not going to outline the recipe here because, I think her death is still too fresh, and I’m selfishly hoarding the recipe as something of my grandmother’s just for me. But this recipe is pretty close, except for the recommended cheese – I used ricotta instead.
|My grandma and I at my wedding in 2007.
This Christmas, I tried to honour my grandma’s memory by making her famous sarma, which are grape leaves stuffed with a rice mixture, and tell kadayif. The first version I made, with the walnut filling, as delicious as it was, wasn’t how I remembered my grandma’s kadayif.
It was browned and crispy – almost like the texture of baklava, nutty and aromatic thanks to the generous portion of cinnamon and rose water, but not quite right. Now how I remembered it. So I made a second one – this time with the ricotta filling.
The consistency was right this time, softer but still dense like a baked pan of angel hair pasta, with a warm layer of thick cheese sandwiched right in the middle, and scented with the aromatic liquid of sugar syrup flavoured with rose water. And when I took that first bite, I was instantly transported to a time 20 years ago when I never counted calories, when a visit to grandma always meant a bone-breaking hug, and a square of her famous, warmed-up tell kadayif.