The cookie recipe that changed my view of travel

The cookie recipe that changed my view of travel

Most tourists settle for a t-shirt or magnet to remind them of a trip abroad. My favorite souvenir is usually a local recipe that a chef or cook is generous enough to share with me.

My precious collection is kept in a thick file, proof of years of eating my way around the world.

Most of the recipes are written on scraps of paper, some in a foreign language with a scribbled translation next to them. Not all have exact measurements or methods.

Browsing through them immediately brings back the excitement of discovering new flavors and the landscapes they come from.

These include Paulina’s Bolo da Fuba (cornmeal cake) from a fazenda (farm) in Minas Gerais, Brazil, Eileen’s scones with clotted cream from a cozy B&B in Devon and empanada pies filled with beef and olives from Chef Adrian, with whom my daughter and I did a fun cooking workshop in Buenos Aires.

The last recipe before corona struck is from October 2019 and is a riboletta from a trattoria in Florence. We all know what followed. Between the lockdowns and travel warnings, we have not crossed the Israeli border once.

No long summer vacations to visit family in Brazil, no trips to Europe or any other foreign location, for that matter. From the summer of 2020 to most of 2021, traveling within our small country had not only become the second best option for flying abroad. For many, it was the beginning of appreciating our homeland as a great destination in its own right.

Our family had several short local outings. In Arad we stayed in a peaceful desert retreat, near Mount Gilboa we swam in a pool overlooking a vineyard and marveled at the view from a small hotel on Mount Tabor.

All were accompanied by memorable meals. Still, it never occurred to me to connect these breaks to my precious collection of travel recipes.

It’s not that I don’t like local food.

During a cooking workshop in Matat (Northern Israel) with Erez Komorovsky, the chef who introduced Israelis to artisan bread in the 1990s, I learned to bake za’atar focaccia in the taboon, a dessert of strawberries macerated in Arak , and had my first taste of freekeh in a delicious salad, but I never added any of these recipes to my travel collection.

A glass jar filled with cookies

Idyllic patio setting at Hemdatya. Photo by Elana Shapic

This all changed with a stay in Hemdatyaa guest house in the Galilee village of Ilaniya (Sejera), a former agricultural colony founded in 1900 on land bought by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

The cookie jar at Hemdatya. Photo courtesy of Hemdatya

The first thing I saw as we entered our stone cottage was a glass jar filled with biscuits, invitingly placed next to a bowl of freshly picked herbs to make tea.

The biscuits were soft and crumbly and had an unusual, delicate flavour. In no time they were all gone.

More culinary experiences followed. Breakfast was served under a vine canopy on the main house’s large verandah on a heaving table with a range of cold and hot dishes.

But what remained in the memory of the taste buds were those cookies.

An extensive breakfast at Hemdatya. Photo by Elana Shapic

The secret ingredient

On the third and final day of our stay, I felt like I had to ask our host, Atalya, what spice I was tasting in those delicious complementary cookies (ugiyot in Hebrew).

She replied emphatically that the only person who would know would be Hayat, the young woman in charge of all the delicious baking in the guest house – from flaky za’atar bourekas to sambusak filled with freshly picked mangold.

Sambusak filled with freshly picked mangold. Photo by Elana Shapic

I entered the kitchen and introduced myself to Hayat, who was weighing flour and sugar on a large scale.

I asked her a little hesitantly what the magic spice in her cookies was (you never know for sure if a baker is willing to share a secret). But Hayat replied with a beautiful and questioning smile: “Aah, those are ugiyot yanson† What do you never bake with? yanson

Yanson, I discovered, is the Arabic word for anise, which is why the biscuit had the faint taste of licorice. The seeds are also used to make tea, Hayat told me, and they are often found in Galilean bread and pastries.

Hayat in Hemdatya’s kitchen. Photo by Elana Shapic

Then Hayat gave me the best gift ever: the yanson cookie recipe, which she says she learned from her Aunt Fadila.

That wasn’t all. She generously offered to bring me some yanson seeds so I could make the cookies myself at home. The next morning, as we had our last breakfast, Hayat kept her promise and gave me the precious jar of seeds straight from the market in Daburiyya village.

After returning home, I immediately went to my travel recipe file and added the precious newly acquired recipe with the headline “Hayat’s Yanson Biscuits from Hemdatya, Ilaniya.”

A few weeks later, my daughter went on a school trip to the Negev desert and took home a recipe for Bedouin tea, which we added to the collection. Then we baked some yanson biscuits to serve with the sage and cinnamon-scented tea.

This turned out to be a perfect match. It also marked a turning point for us; we discovered that we could be culinary foreigners in our own country.

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