It all started with the rose water.
Well, maybe I should back up. Actually, it all started when I decided to make a bucket list and scribbled in learn to cook somewhere around number 12.
It should have been number 13.
I never learned to cook in my youth because I was more interested in just about anything other than learning the fine art of Italian cuisine from my mother. Fortunately I married Ben; a man who not only enjoyed cooking, but relished all things domestic. So, when I announced my desire to develop some culinary muscle to him, I wasn’t too surprised by his response of several eye rolls followed by the purchase of a fire extinguisher.
Ben doesn’t use recipes, so I had to purchase some cooking guides. I chose two cookbooks: one Mediterranean and one Middle Eastern. Added to those was the Italian one my cousin, Attilio sent to me from Italy. I chose the recipe for Middle Eastern cookies filled with dates and nuts as my first project. The directions looked easy enough. All I had to do was make a trip to the local market, gather the raw materials, mix them together and shove it all into the oven.
Everything was going as planned except for finding rose water, which no one heard of, let alone carried.
“I need to get rose water,” I shouted to Ben from the kitchen.
“Substitute,” the reply echoed from the living room.
“No, it has to be what is called for in the recipe. I’m not substituting anything.”
An online search revealed a Middle Eastern market in La Jolla that sold rose water. After confirming that they were open and had what I needed, I grabbed Ben and a map and headed out the door for the trek south.
The store was hidden behind a Persian restaurant that had a side path leading to the main entrance. Once inside, the sights and smells of exotic spices and tantalizing treats delighted my senses.
Making my way to the shelf with the rose water, I was captivated by the huge selection of assorted nuts and grains, various cooking equipment and colorful foreign labels. When a young man offered his assistance, I proceeded to bombard him with questions as to the name of each item, how it is cooked, and could he please repeat that word again so I could write it down.
Rose water in hand (along with a bunch of other stuff I didn’t need), Ben and I left the market and decided it might be a good idea to have lunch at the Persian restaurant next door. This way, I could actually find out how the food is supposed to taste.
At the restaurant, I quickly made friends with Zari, the hostess. She listened patiently as I went on and on about my bucket list, wanting to learn to cook and choosing the Middle Eastern cookie recipe. Together, we quickly became animated—she explaining the food and her culture—and me talking about my culinary-challenged childhood, the rose water experience and the nice guy in the market next door. Eventually, we parted with hugs all around, and a promise to return soon.
Back at the apartment, after all the required ingredients were stacked on the counter, the project commenced with the chopping of three kinds of nuts along with dates and some other sticky objects.
“Where’s the automatic chopper?” I asked.
“I chop everything by hand,” Ben replied.
Midway through the chopping and some very loud complaining, Ben had to finish. The preparing of the fluffy stuff (like flour and sugar) seemed to go more smoothly. That is, until I had to mix in the butter. The butter was cold and hard and refused to associate with the loose ingredients. Soon there was flour everywhere and I was crying.
“Is there a problem in there?” came the voice from the other room. I was so distraught, I couldn’t answer.
Quietly entering the kitchen, Ben once again intervened and patiently showed me the proper way to fondle dough. He made everything look so easy, which was really annoying.
The culinary Titanic that by now had hit at least three icebergs was sinking fast. The cooking of the nuts in the rose water and a bunch of other liquids I don’t remember (since I blocked out the whole experience) was a disaster. I cooked the concoction at too high a heat, and the nuts went ballistic.
After the nuts were picked off the ceiling and few other places, everything had to be assembled. The dough had to be flattened into little squares; and the filling spooned into the centers. Then the dough had to be wrapped around the stuffing and made into little balls that were smashed down and put on a cookie sheet. This had to happen not once, not twice but as many times as possible to exhaust both the dough and the filling.
First the dough ran out with lots of filling left. Then the filling ran out with plenty of dough still remaining. For some reason, both things formed a conspiracy to not finish at the same time, which produced stacks and stacks of cookies that just kept growing and growing.
I decided to stop and just get rid of whatever was left (I forget if it was the dough or the stuffing), take some deep breaths and go for a long walk. The kitchen was a disaster, my arms ached and I was a nervous wreck. I felt like Roberto Durán after the 1980 fight with Sugar Ray Leonard. No mas.
But, by the next day, after good night’s sleep, things looked brighter. I decided I would share the cookies with my co-workers and anyone else on the street who would take them. Surprisingly, they received rave reviews, which puffed up my ego and gave me the courage to give cooking another try.
Maybe next time it will be a piece of cake.