I just made my family their first-ever batch of cupcakes, which is pretty amazing considering my mother-in-law is 66 years old.
But understandable considering we live in a remote village in Jordan.
And just a little bit dangerous.
My sister-in-law looked quite terrified when I mentioned I’d need to use the oven to bake the cupcakes. The moment she announced it was time to light it, everyone rushed into the kitchen to watch. She ripped a huge piece of cardboard off a box that contained my cooking equipment and lit it. Everyone rushed out of the kitchen, grabbing me by the arm and dragging me with them. I heard a giant POOOF! And she came out looking dishevelled and a bit shocked.
Oh-kay … thanks sis.
Since there are no packet mixes here, I made my cupcakes from scratch. Normally I just grab a Betty Crocker mix and voila! But here things are not so simple.
I started off Googling a simple chocolate cake recipe. It seemed easy enough. I had to ask my sister-in-laws for all of the equipment I needed. This was a little challenging as I only know the Arabic names for common kitchen items, such as glass, and pot. So getting a large mixing bowl was a bit tricky. After lots of broken Arabic and English, many hand gestures and a few games of charades, I had my equipment. Luckily for me I brought kitchen items like a hand-held electric mixer and a cupcake papers.
Cooking in a house filled with 30-odd people is not easy. As soon as I mentioned the word “cake” the kid’s ears pricked up. They were looking over my shoulder as I found a recipe on the iPad. They followed me around as I gathered up my equipment and I had to keep shooing them out of the kitchen as I feared an industrial accident.
Once I started mixing, the brother-in-laws put in their two cent worth, telling me it was too wet, too dry, I needed to mix it more … then my mother-in-law had a look and decided it was not chocolately enough for chocolate cupcakes. I added some more chocolate just to keep her happy. For a family that has never had a cupcake in their lives, they sure knew a lot about baking them!
I had to make 60 cupcakes if everyone was to get at least one each (word was spreading fast). I poured the mixture into the cupcake cases, my audience keenly watching every move. I put two trays in the oven at a time.
The fire-lighting sister-in-law insisted that I should put the cakes on the bottom of the oven (the floor of the oven) I assured her that they would cook better on the shelf (in the middle) I put them were I wanted and went to the lounge for a few minutes. When I walked back in, she had moved them and put them on the floor of the oven. I moved them back up onto the rack. I could not find her to ask her if she had moved them and went out again. Sure enough, I came back 10 minutes later and there they were on the bottom again. So I decided to stay and keep guard over my oven.
I sat on a stool next to it, rotating the trays. My first batch came out and I had to whack a few fingers from nicking one or two. I put tray after tray in the oven patiently sitting there and waiting for them to bake.
Once all the cupcakes were out, I let them sit and cool before decorating them. Again, I had to guard them like gold. I had a very limited amount of frosting.
I’d been hoping to ice and decorate them in peace, but no, that was never going to happen. Not with eight sister-in-laws and kids around. I’m quite particular about presentation. They don’t need to be perfect, but they have to all look the same. Forget that – my sister-in-laws elbowed their way in and started icing and sprinkling and having a great time!
Ah well, they turned out just fine.
I’d brought a Spiderman three-tier cupcake stand with me from Australia so I decided it would be a nice way to display them for afternoon tea. I sat the first dozen or so on it and put them out on the coffee table for the family.
I went out to the kitchen to get the rest and when I walked back in, it was like the paparazzi had arrived! Everyone had their mobile phones out taking photos. I left to get the other tray of cakes and when I returned the cupcake stand was empty. Not a crumb, not a sprinkle remaining.
The kids loved them, and the adults thought they were pretty good too. Though I suspect they’re not a patch on the post-Ramadan sweets we’ll be eating in a few weeks time.
I keep being surprised by these small things that we take for granted in our western world. Having a cupcake is something we do quite often at children’s parties or even just from a cupcake store as a treat with our coffee. The children here live a different life, birthdays are not really a big thing.
It’s not just cupcakes I’ve been feeding my relatives. I’ve also been trying to make some unusual meals for my family. Last week it was Vietnamese spring rolls and chicken red curry. Later in the week I made penne with chicken, mushrooms and cream sauce. My mother-in-law tries each meal and then asks questions about what it is, how I made it etc. Then she just looks surprised and does not eat much of it.
But I persevere because I miss western food. The Arabic food is lovely, but there are days I really crave something that reminds me of home. My son, however, is loving it. All that meat and rice is his idea of heaven.
Hopefully my Arabic cooking will improve with familiarity too. I’m still getting used to how labour intensive it is to preparing food here. Most of the time, the women sit on the floor and cut and peel vegetables. Even when we go out for BBQ’s the tabouli is made from scratch while the meat is cooking. It puts my Aussie 20-minute weekday dinners to shame!
Jodie Okasheh blogs at Middle Eastern Maneuver. She is returning to Australia next week due to the crisis in Syria, but is hoping to return to Jordan soon.
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