September 22, 2019

‘Mimounizing’ Your Life

Although I consider myself a social person, I realized early on that in a party situation, I’ve always gravitated toward the kitchen. Everyone expresses themselves differently, but I think chefs tend to have this trait in common. Most of us would rather watch other people have a good time as we melt into the background while serving little slices of joy and nostalgia.

Perhaps it’s the romantic in me that remembers the atmosphere during holidays when our family cooks would gather in the kitchen. “Tombe la Neige” or Pavarotti would be playing in the background, my aunt’s favorite. She’d be singing along while working on repetitive tasks such as stuffing grapeleaves or frying leek patties.

My cousin who is also a chef told me stories of growing up in Migdal HaEmek in Israel, where roughly half the population is Romanian while the other half is Moroccan. When Passover ends, and Jews begin to eat chametz again, he and the rest of the Romanians look forward to their Moroccan friends’ Mimouna celebrations. He would find himself hiding in his neighbors’ kitchens watching the moufletas being made and wishing he was the cook standing over the stove. He described his awe at watching his friends’ grandmothers turning over the thin crepes, again and again, building up one crepe on top of the other until the stack reached over a foot tall and threatened to topple. Someone else would drench them with butter and honey while other hands would roll them up and bring them to the table.

Mimouna is a singularly Moroccan tradition, and although it’s not a religious holiday, it is a cultural phenomenon that has grown in popularity over the years. While Ashkenazi and even Sephardic Jews usually prepare a dairy feast with matzo brei taking center stage, the Moroccans break out their gold and finery and run a sweet fantasy tour through their neighborhoods, blessing and kissing, flirting and enchanting. During the Mimouna, there is an unwritten rule that even if you have been fighting with your neighbors or friends all year, that night is the time to forgive and be forgiven, to let bygones be bygones, and to hope for love and success. Mimouna is the night when “emouna” or belief meets “maimun,” the Arabic word for good fortune.

Everything about the Mimouna celebration, from the sweets-laden table with stuffed dried fruit to the buttery honey-kissed moufletas, spicy sweet tea and arak (a Levantine alcoholic spirit), tells a story of letting loose and of love. Traditionally, the ban on the time of the year when marriage is prohibited lifts and many couples receive the blessings of their families for an engagement. Matchmakers are out in full force, and romances are kindled and rekindled. It’s easy to feel footloose and fancy-free, lost in the giddiness of the Mimouna atmosphere. Why not take this feeling forward and use it as a motif for the rest of the year?

Everything about the Mimouna celebration tells a story of letting loose and of love.

It’s an unfortunate byproduct of the times in which we live that cynicism and fear often undermine romance and love. While it’s tempting to blame the media or our iPhone-driven lives for this trend, discontent is not the domain of our times. After all, we live in an age when almost anything is possible, and we have more opportunities than ever. So why are we so lonely and disconnected? Why does it take a Mimouna to help us to forgive the grievances we’ve collected?

I can tell you from watching from the background all of these years what I’ve gleaned from the safety of the kitchen while catering parties:

1) Rich or poor, it makes very little difference — all people have worries.

2) The idea of protecting yourself — forget about it; love can’t happen in the absence of disclosure.

3) Looking for someone to make you whole? You need to make yourself whole first.

4) Thinking that if only you meet the perfect person that your life would be complete. Nobody is perfect, and neither are you.

5) Holding on to the past? Past failures are an indication only that you tried, not an indictment of your character. Move on and forgive yourself.

So, before I give you a marvelous moufleta recipe, let me assure you if you start “mimounizing” your life by being generous with your love, your good words and sharing your sweetness, then the air around you will change. It won’t happen overnight, but unlike the magical Mimouna celebration that comes only once a year, your sweet vibes will attract others with good intentions — and that can lead you to relationships and connections that might last a lifetime.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 packet or 2 1/4 teaspoons active
dry yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 1/2 cups warm water (not so hot that it
kills the yeast)
1/2 cup vegetable oil (not olive)
1 stick butter
1/2 cup honey

Mix the flour, yeast, sugar and salt. Add warm water and mix well in a stand mixer until a soft shaggy dough forms. Knead in a machine or by hand until the dough is very silky and smooth — about 5 minutes.

Oil hands generously and form dough into a rough cylinder about 2 inches in diameter. Using a bench scraper or your hands, pinch off small balls of dough and place on a tray or plate. When all the dough is separated into balls, pour the rest of the oil on the tray and roll the dough balls over in it until they are fully covered. Cover with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let the dough rest for 30 minutes.

Put a nonstick pan on the stove on medium heat with a touch of oil on the surface.

Remove a ball and flatten out on a smooth, cold surface. Using well-oiled hands, press and push the soft dough into a very thin, almost transparent, circle — as thin as you can get it and about 10 inches in diameter. Don’t worry if the dough tears. Place the crepe in the warm pan and cook it for about 60 seconds while working on the next ball.

Flip over the crepe and then immediately place the next crepe on the surface of the hot crepe in the pan. Keep rolling and turning, rolling and turning until all the dough balls are used and you have a stack of crepes in the pan, each time lifting carefully and turning over the stack, taking care not to overcook.

Put butter and honey in small pot and heat until butter is melted. Separate the stack of moufletas one by one, spooning the melted butter and honey over each, and then roll into a cylinder or fold in half and then into quarters.

Makes about 30 moufletas.

Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive
chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.