Ever since I started elementary school, my family spent two weeks of winter break in the mountains, where we had an adorable, miniature, and very rustic cabin. Everything we needed, we had to pack into the trunk of Father’s Fiat 1300; there were no stores and the narrow, mountain road was often buried under the enormous snow drifts, which made it impossible for anyone to navigate for days.
The week before our departure, Mother and Njanja would rarely leave the kitchen, preparing enough food to sustain us and guests for the fortnight. The refrigerator and pantry shelves slowly filled up with enameled pots of beans, sarma*, cabbage with pork, and goulash, trays of pastries, rolls, and cookies, and bowls of semi-prepared side dishes.
Father would pack them tightly around snow tires, along with packages of frozen meat, wooden crates of vegetables and fruit, sacks of pantry staples, and casks of red wine. Five of us would remain pretty much immobile during the three to four hour trip to the cabin, Mother and the three of us buried under the canvas bags and baskets containing the rest of the supplies, Father intensely focused on the road conditions. Filled with excitement and sense of adventure, we never complained, even after we had to help unload the car and take the provisions in the house down a path Father shoveled for us moments before.
He would immediately get to work defrosting the pipes and building fire in the fireplace. It took a long time to warm up the foot-thick stone walls and we sat on the couch with our full winter attire on, shivering, but awaiting with anticipation the first offering: a cup of hot tea and a plate of cookies. Mother would empty a bottle of water she filled at home into a teapot, turn on a small two-burner gas stove, and get the tea steeping, while unwrapping gurabije, not too sweet, but crispy butter cookies topped with chopped nuts, she and Njanja prepared ahead.
Never did those cookies taste better than on those frigid early afternoons, when we dared take the gloves off only to dunk a piece in our tea. They dissolved on our tongues, their buttery flavor chased by the fragrant aroma of hibiscus and wild flowers, bringing comfort, and temporarily easing hunger caused by the unrelenting mountain air. The tea would warm our hands just when the fireplace came to life, and we would finish the last bites huddled together in front of fire.
I have never even contemplated making gurabije here in the New World, as for me they are inextricably tied to those long-gone winters and our beloved small cabin that is not there any more. But the memories flooded me when I opened Jerusalem: A Cookbook, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, looking for a dessert to make for our monthly virtual club started by my friend Beth of OMG!Yummy. There on page 260 was a recipe for Ghraybeh, simple butter cookies topped by pistachios. I knew that I had to make them right here in my kitchen, even though southern California comes in contact with snow and ice only via Hollywood.
I am sure that graybeh and gurabije have a common ancestor somewhere in the Middle East and that the cookie reached the Balkans carried in fond memories of many Ottoman Turks who occupied the area for several centuries. Unlike Njanja’s version, it asks for orange blossom and rose petal waters. I am lucky that I live near two Persian grocery stores and finding those, to me, elusive and exotic ingredients does not pose a problem.
Njanja used various cookie cutters to shape gurabije; in this recipe, the small balls of dough are flattened by hands which gives them more old-fashioned, rustic look. There is no egg-white wash, nor chopped nuts on top, rather a solitary shelled pistachio in the center of the cookie. They baked to slightly golden color and accompanied by a cup of strong tea, they were satisfying and comforting, albeit lacking the tantalizing promise of adventure the cookies of my childhood miraculously possessed.
Jerusalem: A Cookbook is a treasure filled with recipes that have the power to instantaneously whisk you away to those enchanted, ancient lands. One day soon I hope to walk the streets of Jerusalem and experience a new adventure. In the meantime, I am filling my wandering soul with promises just by flipping page after page. Why don’t you join me in Tasting Jerusalem?
*Sarma is a Balkan take on dolma; it features sauerkraut leaves stuffed with ground meat and rice).