Since it is actually Ash Wednesday already, and you may be looking for something a little more contemplative and pious, I want to begin by pointing you in the direction of a reflection I wrote last year regarding Ash Wednesday in the Holy Land: “Close Enough To See The Cross Necklace.”
For the rest of you folks that don’t mind a little irreverence, let’s talk about that time I wrote in Japanese on the door, used an icewine bottle as a rolling pin, cut a cake with scissors and tried to feed a green army man to our party guests. Actually, that was all yesterday. So let’s back up.
There’s the Japanese on the door, my first attempt at writing Japanese, and apparently I did okay, according to our two Japanese friends. (The sign below with the flowers says our last name in Hebrew. When I look out the peephole it’s like looking over a little multicolored garden!) In honor of Mardi Gras yesterday, we arranged a little field trip with our friends followed by a fun evening at our place. Here is the story.
First, some of us went to the Wujoud Museum and Cultural Center, the Palestinian and Bedouin culture museum where my dear Texan friend works. They have a bunch of really interesting cultural and historical artifacts from various periods of history in an ancient building in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. The museum has some gorgeous Ottoman-era furniture, antique holy books and, my personal favorite, a collection of local costumes according to region. Each region of Palestine has its own typical style of embroidery and dress. To the untrained eye, they all look similar, but they are actually quite diverse and all beautiful. After visiting the museum, we enjoyed ahowee (that good, thick Arab coffee that will grow some hair on your chest) and black tea in the museum’s lounge.
Then we headed home for a delicious taco dinner, because, of course, no Mardi Gras celebration would be complete without … Mexican food? (Since Cajun food is mostly impossibly non-kosher swamp food, like catfish and shellfish, we scrapped that idea pretty early.) We recently discovered that the little Asian food shop our Japanese friend showed us near the open air market has a few Mexican food products as well. So we got tortillas, refritos, and jalapeños. We also made taco meat with Rodolfo’s Mexican mom’s secret recipe and delicious guacamole from fresh avocados!
And, of course, as my Texan friend informed me before the party, we had to have a king cake, too! Of course, they don’t sell them at all here (naturally), as the local Jewish population is busy gearing up for Purim festivities and couldn’t care less about Mardi Gras. So I dove headfirst into making a king cake based on this recipe, and soon realized I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew. It takes nearly FIVE HOURS to make a king cake, and a lot of that time is just sitting around waiting for the dough to rise. (Or, in my case, running around completing a slew of other party preparations while the dough rises.) But here was the problem; the recipe calls for you to set the cake in a warm place to rise. Since I started making the cake after dark on Monday, there was no warm place in the apartment at all. I have mentioned before that we don’t have central heating, so in certain parts of the house it’s kind of like living in a refrigerator.
So, I did the best thing I could think of. I turned on a space heater specifically for the rising cake!
Another problem; I realized a few steps in that we don’t have a rolling pin and I was soon going to need it. But luckily, we have a dear Chinese friend who is currently working in Ontario and came for a work-related visit to Jerusalem recently. Rodolfo and I went to Niagara Falls on our honeymoon and fell in love with icewine, and he remembered this and brought us a bottle! Since it is a very sweet wine, it comes in a very thin bottle which, when wrapped in saran wrap, makes a great makeshift rolling pin!
Add the filling…
And, as a testament to my inexperience in the king-cake-making field, it appears that I cut the wrong part of the cake, but it turned out okay anyways. (And can you believe you’re supposed to cut the cake with scissors?!)
And then, to further test your patience, you have to wait for it to rise again. Before…
Then you bake it, and the problem is that our oven is unreliable, to say the least. I ended up burning the cake completely black and crispy on the outside in a fourth of the recommended cooking time (at the proper temperature) and freaking out a bit. But luckily, the construction of the cake is kind of like a cinnamon roll, and I was able to just peel off the outer burnt layer and cook the rest of the cake at a lower temperature.
There are some things that are simply not widely available here. That is why we had a chicken for Thanksgiving and began this pineapple chicken recipe by making a batch of teriyaki sauce. It is necessary to grow and adapt as a cook in a foreign land; one must find local versions of things and make regional adaptations. So I couldn’t find colored sugar or food coloring for the frosting anywhere, but they sell these candied orange peel chunks in the baking section of the local grocery store. So I gave it a shot and it was delicious!
…Aaand here is the masterpiece! (With apologies for the bad quality photo!)
You may already know that there is also a tradition of hiding a little plastic baby in the cake. Whoever finds the baby either has to throw the next party, or gets the good luck for the year, or becomes the king of the feast, depending on where you’re from. Apparently, little plastic babies are also really hard to come by in Jerusalem. So I started by buying a little orangutan to hide in the cake, and then I realized it was metal and there was no way I was going to let someone bite down on that and break all their teeth. So I ended up putting in a little green army man instead! (Note: you must put this in AFTER baking. I didn’t attempt baking it in myself, but it seems that could be disastrous.) And guess who found the army man in his cake?
My king of the feast!
I love our friends! What an odd assortment of people we are. I love looking around our apartment and seeing how Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy, Ecuador and the U.S. have all converged in this one little corner of the Holy Land.
Happy Mardi Gras and a blessed Lent to you in your own little corner of the world!