A few days before the turning of the year, I stepped out into the stairwell of our three-story home and smelled something unusual. What is that smell? It didn’t really signal that something was burning but it spoke to me that something was indeed HOT.
I also heard women’s voices — excited women’s voices.
I went down to investigate, the intensity of the unusual smell increasing with each step, to find Zora and Letifa near the entrance door. They greeted me warmly with the customary inquiry about my health and well being. And I replied with the customary “Everything’s good, thanks be to God.”
The ladies were baking a special cake in Fatima’s box oven in the closet under the stairs. A cake for “Bonne Annee,” a French phrase meaning “Good Year.” Letifa said it was Zora’s cake but that she would be making one also.
This short encounter clued me in that our neighbors would be having some kind of celebration to welcome 2015.
So that got me to thinking — What would I like to do that would be special to welcome 2015?
I mentioned in a previous post that I used to love to bake but that I didn’t have an oven. That is not exactly true, because there is an oven in the laundry room on the roof that Fatima said I could use. Only problem is that there are no racks in it and no numbers on the dial to indicate how hot this gas oven might get.
Still, I had been contemplating how to bake a quiche in a tajine for a few months — to the extent that Tomas had already acquired from the hotel construction site next door a couple of broken bricks that I could place in the oven to make a baking “platform” or maybe “pedestal” would be a better word.
In an instant I had my New Year’s program all mapped out; Tomas agreed to be my willing accomplice.
So Monday the 29th we went to the vegetable market to find two kilos (about four pounds) of red squash from which to make enough soup for all the families in our compound. We found a whole uncut squash that looked perfect — almost five kilos! But we lugged it home and New Years Eve morning Tomas carved it up and I cooked up the biggest batch of Red Squash Soup I’ve ever made. We actually needed five kilos of squash to have enough for all the neighbors. Hamdulillah!
We began delivering the soup at sunset. It was then that we saw the “Bonne Anee” Cakes. Hannan was in the process of decorating FOUR of them. In her tiny kitchen, she, her two boys, two neighbor ladies and one of their daughters were putting the finishing touches on the elaborate decorations that included lots of whipped cream, glazed cherries, chocolate and bright pink frosting — drizzled and swirled and dropped and placed — a delightful project for adults and children alike. We passed off our soup to Hannan, who invited us back to eat the cake at midnight. We headed over to Zora’s.
Zora’s husband answered the door. I have never seen this man (Tomas said he saw him once) and so this was a wonderful surprise in itself. I still don’t know his name but he was another warm and genuine Moroccan man who received our soup and chatted with us for awhile with many “thank yous.”
We delivered soup to Anna and the man we call the Grandfather — both of them so sweet. Habiba’s home was completely dark, so we held onto her soup for a day. Letifa’s son, Omar, answered the door at their house. Apparently, his parents had gone out for the evening but he graciously accepted our gift on their behalf.
The soup delivered, Tomas and I returned home to settle in for an evening to ourselves — just the way we like it.
Then there was a knock on the door — Omar had gone over to spend the evening at Zora’s and now they were bringing the first soup container back with a large piece of Zora’s special cake in it for us. How wonderful!
Shortly, during our meditation, there was another knock — Sufian, Hannan’s older son, handed us a plate with two pieces of one of the cakes we had just watched them decorate. Thanks for the soup, he said — thanks for the cake, we said. “Bonne Annee!”
New Year’s Day, I planned to make couscous and have Debbi, our American friend who now lives here, come and help. I also decided to “Go for it!” and make the fabled quiche in the tajine in the upstairs oven — to tide us over until the couscous was ready. It was an ambitious plan, especially when Debbi arrived with one hand bandaged and her arm in a sling from a fall the evening before.
In order to help me get the temperature right in the oven upstairs, I “channeled” my great-grandmother, Sarah, who used to bake fabulous cakes in a wood-fired oven. It all worked, although the dough of the crust bonded with the clay of the tajine, which made for a very intense cleaning episode later. Tomas — you are my hero!
Debbi was wonderful company while I showed her the steps for making couscous the Moroccan way. She suddenly understood WHY it is one of the most expensive items on the menu in any restaurant that offers it — most do not. She also realized WHY most places require you to order it a day in advance. I told her that I prefer to make mine over three days, which allows the whole process to move more gently and enjoyably. And with her one good arm, Debbi was able to assist with some of the trickier tasks involved.
For dessert Debbi had brought — Bonne Annee Cake — from a local bakery, decorated with whipped cream, chocolate letters and fresh fruit.