The month of September always hits me hard. There’s something about the shift of seasons, the equinox and this time of year that has the same effect on me, year after year. At the equinox the night time and the day time are equal. The sunshine of the summer months can almost have an insomnia effect. Staying for too long inside of this can make reality appear distorted. The creeping back in of a lengthening night comes with a reminder, a wake up call of sorts.
The transition in Jordan happened quite suddenly, with an agonizingly hot heat wave one day, and the next day, the night became so cool I needed a jacket.
But the 21st of September has another meaning for me. This is the day that a dear friend of mine passed away suddenly, many many cycles ago. When she died I made her a promise, and I am deeply loyal to that promise. That promise was that the qualities I loved in her, I would cultivate and embody in myself. Her incredible aliveness, her poignant perception, her connection to her wild nature, to nature, and her fierce willingness to be on this path.
So every year on September 21st, whether I am aware of it or not, I always review this promise. Am I still living it? How can I go even deeper into this promise? How can I embody being fully alive even more? What in me is dying? What can I let go of now? There is a direct link between death and being fully alive.
The equinox in itself is a time to review the harvest of the previous year and prepare for the winter. There is a dying that is happening through the seasons, and because we are extensions of nature, through us as well. Our ancestors knew this, and the wisdom of the cyclical seasons came through in their mythologies, meant to mirror our internal psychological and somatic landscapes.
2020 has been a particularly rough year, and that intensity doesn’t seem to be lifting anytime soon. The need to be fully alive, because I can die at at any moment, is alive in me more than ever.
September 23rd also happens to be Zaatar day. I am not going to explain what Zaatar is, you can find that online. Zaatar seems so appropriate to me as a plant ally at this time of year. Zaatar boosts the immune system, preparing us for cold and flu season. Zaatar is the foundation of my diet, as it was for my ancestors as well. At times, if I haven’t bought any groceries in a while, as long as I have olive oil, Zaatar mix & bread, I know I will eat well and be nourished.
Zaatar is a plant that has a fire to it. For me, I feel it helps me to digest life and have the capacity to reflect on things I may have been struggling with before. In Egypt Zaatar was used in the process of embalming mummies, linking it to death, grief and letting go. There is also a biblical story that Zaatar was put in the manger after Jesus was born, which is why it has such a lovely scent, linking it to life and rebirth.
In honor of Zaatar day, I am going to share my Great Aunti Jamilas Zaatar Cookies recipe. This cookie makes me nostalgic and the smell of it baking in my kitchen is one of my most favorite smells on earth.
My mother gave me this recipe from her memory and it is not an exact science. I am not a chef, but my mother (and most Arab mothers and grandmothers) is most certainly an artist in the kitchen, so she will never give me exact ratios of ingredients. Rather, I get a chance to figure out my ratios and what works, which sometimes ends up disastrous and other times not. I think this is why for every single bilad al sham dish, every family does the dish differently. Every family has their unique signature on the dish, even if it is something subtle.
When making this, if you don’t have certain ingredients, the cookies will still turn out delicious, but might not have that extra special flavor that my great Aunt brought out! For instance, the clarified butter spices are not easily available, even in Jordan, but you can still make it without them. I have yet to do a whole other blog post on the 7 amazing herbs used in clarified butter and certain dishes from bilad al sham, but that is for a later time. For now, if you can’t find them, don’t worry about it, making these cookies will still be worth it!
Great Aunti Jamillas Zaatar Cookies
1 kilo of whole wheat flour
1 cup of olive oil
1 tablespoons of powdered milk if needed to make dough more smooth (I used oat milk)
1 tablespoon of shomar powdered
1 packet of yeast (or 1 tablespoon of yeast)
1 and ½ cups of sugar or date syrup
2 tablespoons of Yansoon powdered (anise seeds)
½ tablespoon of 7awajet al samnah (the mix that we make to put in ghee and mansaf
A sprinkle of mistaka (optional)
1 teaspoon of mahleb
1 coffee cup of arak (optional)
Fresh zaatar leaves are best but can also use dried (put as much of this as you like, and really the more you put the tastier!)
Add a bit of hot water and a teaspoon of sugar to the yeast, mix thoroughly, cover and allow to rise for 10 minutes. In the meantime, add all the ingredients to a big bowl. When the yeast is ready, add that too. MIx the dough and knead into a big ball. Let sit, covered, for 45 minutes. Then break into small balls and put in your baking tray (that you have already brushed with oil), and let sit, covered, for another 15 minutes.
Then flatten the balls and let bake at a medium temperature for 10 minutes (keep checking, they cook quickly).