16 September 2007

How to Make Friends in the Middle East

Or a Rather Long Story on Why I Made a Maté Roll Cake with Sesame Cream

The first day I met Umm Hana, the woman who would become my Syrian adoptive mother, she cooked me a fabulous lunch. We hit it off right away, even though my Arabic was terribly out of practice, and after the lunch dishes were cleared, she asked if I would drink maté. Mate, I said, like yerba maté from Argentina? Thrilled that I was familiar with the drink, she fixed me a cup and we sat for hours, the first of many afternoons and evenings whiled away sipping cups of maté.

I knew yerba maté from my family’s Argentine side, the small shrub grows all over Argentina, and it’s leaves are dried and then used to make an herbal infusion much like green tea. The chopped, dried maté leaves are packed into a cup about halfway full and then simmering water is poured over top. The leaves swell to fill the whole cup, and the drink is sipped through a special straw with a filter on the tip: you suck out the infused water, and then continue adding hot water, drinking, and refilling, drinking, and refilling. Maté has a distinctly grassy herbal taste that many people find unappealing, and less courageous drinkers add sugar to mask. It is caffinated but also said to have many health benefits, as Umm Hana indicated to me that first day, patting my back and telling me it was good for my kidneys.

As I lived in Syria, maté-drinking became an important part of establishing connections with the people I met and interacted with. Maté is only drunk at home in Syria, you’ll never see it in a restaurant or cafe, and tends to be favored by the lower classes. Taxi and bus drivers always have a cup on their dash board, and stop at special roadside stands for hot-water refills. As a young independant American girl in Syria, I was naturally a curiosity to many locals I met. Speaking decent Arabic was the first step in establishing a relationship, but drinking maté was another.

Occasionally I would go out to rural areas to meet with poor families for work. We would sit on mats on the floor of their homes and be offered drinks; when I chose maté, a conversation would immediately begin as to how I knew about the drink. I would explain about my Argentine family, and since Syrians consider all lineage from the father’s side, I was now no longer American but Argentine in their eyes, an automatic plus. The conversation would then turn to the old Argentine-Syrian relations: many Syrians immigrated to Argentina in the early 1900’s, including the ancestors of Argentine President Menem. This migration and resulting trade is how maté first made it’s way to Syria, and in fact Syria is the world’s largest maté importer and one of the only places it is consumed outside South America. The conversation would usually then turn to Messi and football, and by this time I was no longer a suspicious foreigner but someone they could talk to.

One time when P. was visiting, we hiked up to an historic mosque high on the mountainside above Damascus. After the requisite tour, in which we were shown where the cave drips tears from the days of Cain and Abel, and then massaged with a holy stone, I chatted with the lone imam about what it’s like to be a hermit. Alone, a tough hike above the city, he tends his grapevines, enjoys a calm routine of prayer and ritual, and praises the freezer for keeping the meals people bring him. He offered us tea, but I had already spied his maté cup, and suggested that instead. Since he only owned one maté straw, we sat and passed the cup between the three of us, sipping and sharing.

Jamiyya al-Arba'een (Mosque of the Forty) nestled into a cave on the side of Kasayoun Mountain

Back home in the U.S. I noticed the proliferation of green tea flavored baked goods in shops and cookbooks. The Japanese often flavor sponge cakes, cookies, and ice creams with traditional matcha tea, a trend picked up by French patissieres. Matcha sounds quite similar to mate, which is how I first thought of using mate in a dessert. But which dessert? At first, I was going to use mate in one of Eric Keyser’s French tarts, but then I decided to reach into my own roots and make one of my favorite desserts: a roll cake. Having decided to make a maté-flavored cake, I had to decide what kind of filling to use.

The answer came to me when reading about molecular bases for food pairings: one listed pairing was green tea and sesame. Of course, sesame is traditional in Japanese cuisine, and Arabs use tahini in everything, not to mention the benne seed wafers of my youth! I used a dark roast tahini to make the filling, tahini is sesame seed paste and it can vary from pale white made with raw sesame seeds all the way to very dark and peanut-butter-like from roasted sesame seeds. If you can’t find a darker tahini, you can use another nut butter with delicious results.

All those experiences and research paid off, because this is one fabulous cake. If I were a chef and had a list of “signature dishes,” this would be on it. It’s unique, but it’s also accessible, and most importantly, delicious. And it will certainly make you a lot of friends in the future!

Maté Roll Cake with Sesame Cream

4 eggs, separated
3/4 cup sugar
1 heaping tablespoon yerba maté or green tea*, finely ground in a coffee grinder
1 tablespoon vanilla
3/4 cup cake flour, sifted
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 drop green food coloring (optional)
1/2 cup dark roast tahini or nut butter**
1/4 cup cream cheese
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 cups heavy cream (for 3 cups whipped cream)

1. Make the filling: combine tahini, cream cheese, and powdered sugar until smooth. Whip the cream to stiff peaks. Gently fold the whipped cream into the tahini mixture and refrigerate until ready to use.
2. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a 15 by 10 by 1-inch jelly roll pan with wax or parchment paper. In a small bowl beat egg whites until stiff but not dry and set aside. In another bowl, beat the egg yolks until light. Gradually add the sugar and vanilla, and mix well. Sift together the flour, baking powder, mate, and salt. Add the sifted flour mixture to the egg yolk mixture. Fold in the egg whites into the egg mixture and pour the batter into prepared pan. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the cake is golden.
3. Loosen edges of cake, invert cake onto a towel dusted with confectioners' sugar. Gently peel wax paper off cake. If your cake edges are very crusty you can trim them off (personally, I don't bother). Begin with the narrow side and roll the cake and towel up together. Cool cake, seam side down, for 10 to 15 minutes (but no longer, or the cake may crack when you unroll it).
4. Once cake has cooled slightly, gently unroll and spread cake with filling and re-roll. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar.

* Yerba maté is available at Latin groceries and Middle Eastern markets. You can substitute green tea or matcha tea with excellent results.
** Tahini is sesame seed paste, for this recipe I prefer to use tahini that is made with roasted sesame seeds and has a dark color and nutty aroma. You can substitute another nut butter like peanut butter, almond butter, or soy nut butter.


Kendra said...

I'm a romantic, so I just loved your story. I felt I was with you sitting in peoples homes and becoming part of their lives. How unique that the reason the barriers were let down was mate! I've tried the drink and I have to admit, I must be the faint at heart...I don't exactly love it. But the cake you've made looks exquisite. I love tahini and adore roll cakes. Now if only I could make them!

Anonymous said...

I Talked about yerba mate. I want to try your cake with mate. Great idea!

Anonymous said...

What an interesting post Mercedes. Thanks for the background on your experiences and inspiration for a very unique sweet. I plan to pass the recipe on to a friend who regularly drinks mate. Thanks!

SteamyKitchen said...

What a great story! I loved reading every word of it. I've never had mate before - but I'm curious about the taste...

Mercedes said...

Kendra- thanks! You're not faint at heart- I think most people don't like mate, it is a very acquired taste, one of those things that if you aren't brought up with it, or have some bizarre genetic pre-disposition, you probably will think it tastes like grass. But it's delicious when masked with all the suagr of this cake, you should give it a try!

Bri- thanks, how interesting you have a friend who drinks mate. I think this is just the right kind of recipe for passing on to friends!

Jaden- thank you. I think you might find mate is very remincent of matcha. However, don't be surprised if you don't like it, (as I said above), it's very much an acquired taste!

saint said...

Hi Mercedes,
I run into your blog by chance, and I’m glad I did. Your choices are all my favorites and also part of our cousin. I loved the story of Mete and the places you described all I’m familiar with. I lived in there a good part of my live before coming to USA. I’m originally from Damascus, and the places and people you mentioned are so familiar. Additionally I put you blog link on my blog: saintonearth.plogspost.com
I wish you would have your blog one the Syrian blogger aggregate listed on: www.syplanet.com so you and my favorite blog there abufares.blogspost.com would be there, see his last posting on, Samak Hara, a dish from Tartoos.
One thing about your story is as far as I know mainly some parts of Syria like Kalamoon, and the coast drink Mete, but it seem you have seen more. I would love seeing you posting the dish called “ Mojadarah”.

Figs, Bay, Wine said...

How fantastic to have come up with something so uniquely you! This is a fascinating post, and your cake looks and sounds utterly delicious. I must find some mate to drink and then to bake your recipe with.

carolina @ patagonia gifts said...

Thanks a lot for your post, Mercedes! Here in Argentina we love mate, is part of our lives, but it's a "cultural drink". If you are not born with it, as you say, you would probably think it tastes like grass. By the way, I love your blog!

base said...

This is a fascinating post, and your cake looks and sounds utterly delicious.

Take a look polish yerba mate site:
Yerba mate

Anonymous said...

Small corrections:
It is spelled "mate" (not maté), and the plant doesn't grow all over Argentina but only in the north east (Misiones & Corrientes). Only a proportionally small area has the right conditions to grow it.
It is drunk all over the country though.

Cuñataí said...

I liked your blog very much. Im Argentinian and Im very interested in arabic culture and people, also I love mate. :) I will try this receipe .

Ali Raza said...

Thanks a lot for your post. I liked your blog very much. I'm Argentinian and I'm very interested in Arabic culture and people, also I love mates. :) I will try this recipe.