Iran, part one

That first morning in Tehran, we stepped out into the street and I could smell bread. A friend’s father had told me about it: san-gak, sounds just like “saint jacques” (the French term for sea scallops.) I could smell it but I couldn’t find it, so we went to a nearby youth hostel for breakfast.

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Naan-e-barberi baker in Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

Fresh barberries, herbs, and chilis at Tajrish market, Tehran

After that first day, spent exploring Tajrish market, I had a better idea of what a bakery should look like. We’d found a few in Tajrish – selling naan-e-barberi, and little cornmeal sesame muffins whose name I never managed to learn.

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

Sangak bread cooling in Isfahan

The second morning, I followed my nose and found the bakery, and let my male companion push his way into the Iranian line and claim one san-gak for our breakfast. He flicked the hot stones off the back of the bread as it cooled a bit on the metal rack before collecting his change and, following the local example, folding the bread into thirds and sticking it under his arm like a newspaper. We bought feta cheese and cherry jam from the corner store (“Hi! How are you today!” the shopkeepers recognized us from the day before…) and headed back to our apartment to have breakfast.

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Sangak bakers in Isfahan

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

Saffron ice cream in Shiraz

In Shiraz, we found the city’s best ice cream and I marveled at its elasticity. We met lovely CouchSurfing hosts who gave me the great joy of helping out in the kitchen – to decorate cardamom saffron rice puddings in celebration of Ashura, the holiday commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein.

Decorating in Shiraz

Decorating in Shiraz

At Persepolis, our guide organized a picnic lunch. His wife’s Shirazi salad was the best I had during the whole trip.

Lunch at Persepolis

Lunch at Persepolis

In Yazd, we bought a whole box of baklava and snacked on it for days. The saffron rock sugar (nabat) was starting to work its charm on us, and by our final days in Iran, we’d buy a whole kilo to cart home and share with family and friends.

Baklava in Yazd

Baklava in Yazd

In Kashan, I’d learn how to make fesenjan from the mother of a Couch Surfer, who was just as excited to discuss cooking as I was – translated through the mind of our host. To be continued…

Setting the table in Kashan

Setting the table in Kashan

 

Tsoureki, and overcoming loss

With most of my family firmly planted on the other side of an ocean, I had spent a lot of time thinking about how I would feel, what I would do, the day a dear loved one would pass. During the first few years abroad, I panicked every time the thought came to mind: what will I do? I can’t afford to fly home. My heart would seize up and waves of guilt and helplessness would sow their seeds.

Years past. I got older and became more financially secure. I relaxed knowing that if the day were to come and I felt the need to hop immediately on a plane to Boston or New York, it would not be completely impossible. My preemptive grief waned. I worried less.

More recently, my perspective has changed. Maybe it’s all that yoga, maybe it’s India, maybe it’s the dabbling in meditation: but I no longer felt like I would need to book the next flight out if “something bad happened.” Finances aside, I felt that if someone I loved had come to the end of a long happy life, I would be able to mourn their passing without jumping in an airship and scurrying back to my native land.

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Last winter, when I shared my Grandmother’s family bread recipe, a dear friend in Greece shared a couple more with me. One, she said, looks very similar to my bread but is usually made at Easter. I kept it aside and thought, if I had the time, I would bake the bread in come spring.

At the end of March, my Grandmother’s health took a steep turn. She had a stroke and, less than a week later, left us peacefully. I learned that despite years of imagining this scenario, I still couldn’t avoid the roller coaster of emotions I would feel now that the day had come. I still couldn’t help but take a look at last-minute plane ticket prices, couldn’t not contemplate, at the least, sprinting home to be there for her last breaths.

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Grandpa and Dad reassured me, insisted there was nothing I could do from near or afar except think good thoughts for her and wish for the best. So, on the day of her funeral, April 3rd, I stayed put in my kitchen, and I did something that she would have enjoyed doing with me. I made a new bread recipe, and perhaps, created a new tradition.

Tsoureki is seasoned with ground cherry pits (mahlab), and a special kind of tree sap called mastic. It’s sweet flavor sings the arrival of spring, and hints at summer yet to come.

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

Tsoureki, Greek Easter bread

For the tsoureki recipe, check out My Greek Dish.

Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread

Every family has taste traditions around different holidays they celebrate together. Be it a particular aunt’s potato salad that always made it to a summer picnic, or even your mom’s awful overcooked, over-buttered green beans that no one ever said anything about at Thanksgiving – but for those who grew up celebrating Christmas, there is almost always an annual sweet treat kids and grownups alike look forward to when the days are at their shortest (speaking from the Northern hemisphere, of course.)

My family couldn’t possibly have imagined Christmas without our Grandmother Joyce’s Christmas Bread. It’s sort of like challah bread, sort of like Finnish pullah – but if you try to call it anything else to my cousins, aunts, and uncles – we don’t want to hear about it. Christmas Bread is just Christmas Bread.

Like snow that had fallen on the bread, she’d decorate the soft buttery loaves with a simple white icing. The chopped red and green candied cherries on top were like little elves’ sleds skiing down the slopes of the buttery braided bread. The bright red, white, and green holiday colors always showed through the wax paper bags that she packed them in, folded and sealed with care with a name tag for each family.

At the peak of her Christmas Bread baking career, Grandma Joyce would prepare over 25 loaves during the month of December. She’d photocopy her recipe and make a list on the back of all the people she planned on giving a loaf to. On the grease-stained and torn copy I have, the lists on the back are from 1991 and 1993.

Christmas Breads

Christmas Breads

The original recipe comes from a copy of Parade magazine from a December long gone – not sure which one – and Grandma modified it slightly over the years, I have modified it still.

I’ll be eating some tomorrow morning, as I always have on December 25, and as I always will.

Jen's Christmas Bread

Jen’s Christmas Bread

Grandma Joyce’s Christmas Bread

Makes three loaves

Continue reading