x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

No taste like home

Many holiday traditions are made in the kitchen. Indulge in these shared memories and recipes.

Banana cake is a traditional part of Emily Palagtiosa's Filipino Christmas celebration but she is having trouble finding the required cardaba bananas in Abu Dhabi.
Banana cake is a traditional part of Emily Palagtiosa's Filipino Christmas celebration but she is having trouble finding the required cardaba bananas in Abu Dhabi.

Sandrine Legorgeu consults the tiny spiral notebook in which she's jotted the menu: foie gras et toasts and batonnets de crudités. "Hmmnn, j'adore ça!" murmurs her friend Naima Laraki, when Legorgeu mentions homard a l'armouricaine (lobster with white wine, tomato, onions and shallots). The two friends are sitting in the living room of Laraki's airy villa in Al Mushfir. A large Christmas tree stands in the corner, awaiting lights and decorations. They can't go home this Christmas - Legorgeu to Toulon, in the south of France, and the Moroccan-born Laraki to her adopted city of Montreal. But they are planning a Christmas Eve supper for friends and family that will taste like home.

Emily Palagtiosa understands that desire. This year she would like to make cassava roll and banana cake, the two staples of a Filipino Christmas, but she is having trouble finding the cardaba bananas needed for the cake. "They're small," she explains, and forms a small basket with her hands to show the shape they grow in. She's been to all the major grocery stores, but no luck. She saw some at Carrefour, she says, "but they looked too ripe". Still, Palagtiosa is determined this year to make the cake of her childhood, the cake her family ate every Christmas Eve.

Like many residents of Abu Dhabi, I, too, am far from home this holiday. It has been 20 years since I left Los Angeles for Montreal, and I find myself feeling especially nostalgic for the Hungarian cookies my mother bakes every year in her Los Angeles kitchen. There are her almond crescents - made with icing sugar, pounds of butter and crushed, toasted almonds - and her coronation cookies, golden disks made with brown sugar. She also makes pogácsas, crumbly with butter and marked with a fork's cross-hatching atop a lovely yolk glaze.

The only cure for all this yearning? Cook. Bake. Bring home here. That's the idea as Legorgeu and Laraki plan their shared dinner. They will start cooking in Laraki's kitchen on Dec 23 and continue into the next day. "Little by little, it will all come together," says Laraki, pouring a glass of mint tea for her friend. They confer in French about another detail and the two women break into sudden laughter.

"I thought Sandrine was going to make the puff pastry for the mini feuilletés gruyere by hand, but she just told me, 'Of course not! I'm going to buy it!' It is a huge, ambitious menu, after all. They will need to cut corners somewhere. Legorgeu won't cut corners, however, on the 13 desserts, which are Provençal traditions dating back to at least the 18th century. They are not cakes and tortes, but rather are made of more natural ingredients such as dates and dried figs, mandarins and winter melon. "I may have a little trouble finding some of these in Abu Dhabi," admits Legorgeu.

Her childhood Christmases were spent with her large family and many cousins. Come Christmas week, she and her sister would help their mother make small butter cookies shaped like trees, moons and stars. "I will make them with my own children this year," she says. Her kids may even help in the preparation of the bûche de noël, the traditional yule log French families serve with Christmas Eve dinner. ("It's like a religion," says Laraki.) Legorgeu's mother has been making the sponge roll filled with chocolate cream for years. "We only make it at Christmas," she says.

Needing some continuity last Christmas, her first in Abu Dhabi, Legorgeu asked her mother to send the recipe. She holds the pink paper now, handwritten in her mother's script. This year will be sweeter yet: Legorgeu's parents are coming to Abu Dhabi to spend the holiday. Palagtiosa, on the other hand, will be away from family. She would love to go home to the Philippines but has decided to wait until March, when her daughter graduates from high school. Palagtiosa knows that, even in her absence, her mother, mother-in-law and husband will make the best Christmas possible for her three children. They will spend it in much the same way that she spent Christmases as a child in her family of eight.

"We went to mass at 10pm on Christmas Eve. It's a very long mass." She mimes falling asleep. "As a kid I was always saying, 'Oh, mother, I'm so tired'. All we kids wanted to do was go home and go to sleep. But no, my mum wanted us to eat." They reserved a big meat dinner for the new year. Christmas Eve was the time to bring out loaves of fresh-baked banana bread and cassava roll, a dish made with cassava (something like sweet potato), dark brown sugar, sticky white potatoes, tapioca and coconut milk. Like her cardaba bananas, some of these ingredients may be hard to find in Abu Dhabi. But this year, Palagtiosa says she would like to make at least the banana cake. She will also try to spend the day with the one relative she has in the region, a cousin in Dubai.

"She's working for a difficult employer," Palagtiosa says, "but I hope we will meet. This is our holiday." At home, Christmas day would be spent opening presents. "And after, we sing and dance," says Palagtiosa. She is quiet for a moment. She has been working in other countries for 13 years and is philosophical about the reasons for being away. She says that she is as dedicated to her employers as they are to her but sometimes she just has to stop talking about home. Sometimes it's just too hard to remember, especially at this time of year.

I have lived 4,800 kilometres away from my parents for nearly two decades, but since I moved even farther east three months ago - nine time zones farther - my mother's kitchen seems even more distant. And more precious. To cheer myself up, I resolved this year to make all her Christmas cookies, forgetting that, at 85, she still makes nearly a dozen kinds every year. My mother, Jacky, comes from a long line of proud Hungarian bakers, a family of women who entered bitter rivalries over who had the best recipe for poppy seed strudel. When I was growing up, she baked nearly every day, but at Christmas she was in her glory, making Hungarian favourites but always eager to try some new recipe from Bon Appétit or the Los Angeles Times. She stored the edible treasures in the laundry room, stacked on the washer and dryer in a mountain of plastic containers, with waxed paper squares between each luscious layer.

She thought they were hidden there. But by Christmas, all of us had drifted into the laundry room several times a day to quietly open a lid and pop in a cookie - or four. Sometimes there were would hardly be any left for friends and neighbours. After all this time, it is my mother's almond crescents, that even she admits, "we remember the taste of from year to year". "How many years have you been making them for Christmas?" I asked over the phone a few days ago.

"Oh, at least 50," my father said. "No, no," said my mother. "That would make me too old. Say 45, OK?" And then she reminded me to not to forget to toast the almonds. "They don't taste right otherwise." Of course, Mum.