Grief is a funny thing. It can come out of nowhere and feel like a curtain descending upon the heart like a black veil. The scent of something cooking, a taste of your soul food, a song or photograph — you never know when the sorrow of loss will come to unmoor you.
My solution is to imagine a team of these lost souls moving around with me invisibly and protecting me from harm. These guardians are my grandparents, my uncles and aunts who are no longer here but I hold them in my thoughts as if they were. I have designated them as my protectors, and I know that when I need help I need only ask one of my team, and I tend to get the answer magically in the form of a memory.
Because I don’t reside in Israel where the rest of my extended family lives, it’s sometimes easier for me to simply pretend that my loved ones are still around even when they are long gone. Although the way we bury our dead in Israel leaves very little to the imagination, there is still a conscious denial that takes place when you are not used to seeing someone on a regular basis. This can lull you into a sense that they might still be there — that is, until you go to ask them a question. Like this past week, for example, when I wanted to ask my Aunt Dora how to make kadayif, a dessert, like a baklava, that is ubiquitous in Israel, made from a shredded phyllo-based pastry abundant in Turkey, Greece and throughout the Middle East.
The trouble is, even though I spoke to my Aunt Dora about recipes on the phone every Saturday for most of my life, when my impulse was to reach for the phone, the reality that she’d been dead for a year suddenly bore down on me. Because kadayif, in all its angel hair-like pastry glory, is reminiscent of a bird’s nest, I recalled a story that Dora told me when I was a child about two girls who set off in search of a magic potion made from the milk of birds. In the fable, one of the girls who stops and enlists the help of others gets guidance to the elixir and prevails, while the other who tries to find the mythical potion alone comes up against obstacles and gives up hope.
Because kadayif, in all its angel hair-like pastry glory, is reminiscent of a bird’s nest, I recalled a story that Dora told me when I was a child about two girls who set off in search of a magic potion made from the milk of birds.
That same day, one of my other aunts in Israel was invited to the home of a chef who served her a special meal. The dessert was kadayif with whipped cheese and plum confiture, and she said she thought of me instantly and sent me a photograph of the appropriately heavenly concoction along with the recipe.
Was my Aunt Dora communicating with me? Did she whisper in my Aunt Hana’s ear to deliver the message? Who knows? What I do know is that almost a year ago, just a few weeks after Dora died, I was sitting at my computer late one night in Uganda when I received a message out of the blue from a stranger in Los Angeles. The message was an offer to write this weekly food column. I remember distinctly feeling that she had sent this gift to me as a consolation and I accepted the offer without hesitation.
If you think about it, the very notion that you’ve been so loved that a benevolent team would assemble in your honor to promote your fate is enough. Even if it doesn’t seem sensible — perhaps even this belief is magical enough to attract all the right sweet things to you.
CHEF TADMOR SCHUTZ’S CHEESE KADAYIF WITH PLUM SAUCE AND CARAMELIZED NUTS
Note: you can find kadayif pastry in the frozen section in most Middle Eastern specialty stores or at a Greek or Turkish market. Don’t be intimidated by the number of ingredients in this dessert. You can make the components in advance and assemble the dessert at the last minute.
FOR THE PASTRY:
1 package kadayif pastry (300 grams, about 10 1/2 ounces), defrosted overnight in the refrigerator
300 grams (about 10 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
FOR THE WHIPPED CHEESE TOPPING:
500 ml (about 17 fluid ounces) whipping cream
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/ 2 teaspoon finely grated ginger
1 tablespoon lemon rind
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
500 grams (about 17 1/2 ounces) ricotta cheese
FOR THE PLUM SAUCE:
4 dark plums, pitted and cubed
4 tablespoons sugar
Rind of one lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup water
FOR THE CARAMELIZED NUTS:
4 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
1/2 cup almonds, roughly chopped
Preheat oven to 360 degrees.
Pull apart defrosted kadayif pastry until it resembles cooked angel hair pasta. Pour cooled melted butter over the pastry and mix in with your fingers, fluffing up the kadayif.
Grease 12 large muffin tins or 12 ring molds and lay down an even layer of pastry in each. If you measure this out, each mold should hold 25 grams (about an ounce) of pastry. Bake for approximately 30 minutes or until pastry is a light golden brown.
In the meantime, make the whipped cream and cheese mixture. In a chilled bowl, whip the cream, confectioners’ sugar, ginger, lemon rind and vanilla until soft peaks form. Add the ricotta and whip until the mixture stiffens and holds its shape. Cover and refrigerate until assembly.
To make the plum sauce, place chopped plums and remaining ingredients in a small saucepan on medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and let simmer until plums break down and liquid thickens. Turn off heat and set aside to cool.
To caramelize nuts, put sugar in a small saucepan on medium heat and melt without stirring — about 8 minutes. When sugar is caramel colored, tip in chopped nuts, and with a heat-resistant spatula, stir mixture until the nuts are fully coated. Spread nuts evenly on baking paper or greased aluminum foil and let cool until hardened. Be careful not to touch the nuts at this point because they are the temperature of lava. When nuts are completely cool, break up into smaller chunks.
To assemble, place kadayif pastry bases on a serving platter. Top each with one heaping spoon of whipped cheese mixture, load up with plum sauce and garnish with caramelized nuts. You can use any fruit — raspberries, peaches or strawberries and switch out the nuts as well. You can also stack kadayif bases with cheese mixture and fruit in between for a fancier presentation.
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.