Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more! In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish they've inherited, and why it's meaningful to them.
My parents almost always baked desserts in the middle of the night, while my siblings and I were asleep. That was the only way to ensure that the curly strands of their kids’ hair would not make it into the batter. I witnessed this magic on one particular night, after I'd fallen asleep on the sofa while watching Toy Story (again). I woke up to the sound of a wooden spoon falling to the ground. Through still-sleepy eyes, I caught a glimpse of my mother cleaning a bit of brownie batter that splashed on the floor.
Both my parents moved silently through the kitchen, which was right next door to the living room. They didn't discuss whose job it was to mix the wet ingredients, or how high the oven needed to be preheated. I was maybe 7 years old, but I knew better than to disrupt their flow, so I guided myself to my bedroom and allowed the harmonious smells of chocolate, milk, and butter to lull me back to sleep.
One morning after a night like this—when the smell of dessert drifted up to my room—I woke up to a dish that was...not brownies. Far from it. It was macaroni and cheese. But after my initial surprise subsided, my siblings and I marveled at the dish in all gooey glory. We were beyond thrilled.
At the time, there was nothing I craved more than macaroni and cheese right out of the box. I was utterly fascinated by the quickness of such a meal, the fact that it needed only two ingredients (pasta, powdered cheese) to be capable of filling my belly the same way any traditional Egyptian meal my mother made would, minus the hours required to slow-cook meat or fillet fish. My mother’s love of cooking with whole, fresh ingredients, even for classic American dishes like homemade meatballs with tomato sauce, only intensified my craving for Easy Mac, or the frozen pizza our babysitter heated up when my parents were out, because those meals were so rare and mysterious.
So what was macaroni and cheese doing on the counter that early in the morning? And why did my mom make us wait half an hour to eat it?
I soon found out it was not macaroni and cheese on the counter, but macaroni and milk—or macaroni bil laban, as it is called in Egypt. It was sweet, closer to a bar cookie than a pasta, because it was cut into little squares before being served, after about 30 minutes of cooling down. The “pasta” filling is coated in and held together by a sugary shell of cornstarch and ghee, which makes the first bite slightly crunchy. From there, the insides are soft, gooey, and sweet. My mother told me the dish could also be chilled in the fridge and eaten later, but I love how fresh it tasted right then and there, surrounded by my family.
I still wanted Easy Mac—and my mom eventually caved in and allowed it every once in a while—but at that moment, she made macaroni bil laban instead because she wanted to bring a little bit of Damietta, Egypt, where she grew up, to our house in suburban Connecticut. My father had lived in the United States since he was a teenager, and my mother moved a few years before I was born. They were already settled comfortably into American life before my siblings and I played soccer, listened to Justin Timberlake, wore platform Skechers, or asked her to please make Easy Mac.
Homemade Egyptian food was the best, most effective way for my parents to fold their heritage into our daily lives. By serving macaroni bil laban instead of Easy Mac, mother felt she had more control over how much Egyptian culture entered our childhood. She wouldn't give into my demands without a fight.
A simple Google search will yield results that seem like this dish, including savory versions with bechamel, herbs, spices, and meat, but they don’t come close to her hometown specialty. I was only able to find one YouTube video that seemed similar, but it had no written instructions or ingredients. In the clip, a woman that could easily be my aunt (she’s not) speaks the same dialect of Egyptian-Arabic I learned growing up.
When I called my mother to ask her about the origins of the recipe, she told me about the cultural history behind the pastry in Damietta, how her father’s side of the family (known as the Yaseens) were known for baking and serving up endless orders of this sweet macaroni at my mother’s uncle’s bakery. As we spoke on the phone, I overheard the sounds of her knife on a cutting board, chopping up bits of coconut for a different dish. She told me about how she would go to her uncle’s bakery, a storefront with nothing but a massive brick oven in the back and a counter where he took orders.
“The pastries were so fresh, you could eat them by the pound and not even realize you were full. The macaroni bil laban was something that brought us all together, something we’d make over and over again,” she recounted. In the middle of our conversation, it occurred to my mother that her love for baking had everything to do with the long line of bakers that came before her in the Yaseen family. “I can’t believe I didn’t make this connection sooner,” she said, laughing. It was news to me, too. I’d heard her talk about baking for years, how her uncles used to be manufacturers of baked goods in Egypt, but I never realized there was a hereditary aspect to her love of baking until I called to ask her about this recipe.
Macaroni for Dinner & Dessert?
I haven’t eaten macaroni bil laban in years, and I’ve never cooked it myself, despite the recipe being so simple and requiring only 5 bare-bones ingredients. It’s just too special to me and my family’s history, and I don’t want to spoil my associations with the sweet pasta. You’re more likely to find me eating the regular, savory macaroni and cheese, or a slice of New York pizza.
Because I am so used to tucking into this macaroni with my family at home or with them at our mosque, it wouldn't feel right to make it without them to share it with.
But I am currently observing Ramadan, and I always use this time to reconnect with my Egyptian heritage. Thanks to my mom, I know how much spice to add to my kofta, how to descale sardines, and the difference between Egyptian hummus and grocery store hummus—skills I use all year round.
This year, however, feels special, because when my mother comes to visit me for an iftar (the evening meal after a day of fasting), she’ll be teaching me how to make macaroni bil laban, among other dishes like spicy baba ghanouj, kanafeh, and basbousa.
I can’t wait to for us to unlock the memories behind those other dishes, too, and bring an old piece of Damietta to my new home.
- 8 ounces penne pasta
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 4 tablespoons ghee, divided
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