My Family Recipe

How Baba's Surprise Pastries Kept Our Family Together

A story about bridging distance and isolation—one package of date cookies, sambusac, and rugelach at a time.

November 29, 2021
Photo by MJ Kroeger Prop Stylist: Alya Hameedi Food Stylist: Kate Buckens

Good food is worth a thousand words—sometimes more. In My Family Recipe, a writer shares the story of a single dish that's meaningful to them and their loved ones.


The packages began arriving in early April, a few weeks after the pandemic confined my father to his home. The first box contained sambusac, Iraqi pastries filled, variably, with chickpea paste, salted cheese, or a mix of nuts, sugar, and cinnamon. The next box carried kubbot, deep-fried Iraqi dumplings with ground meat, cumin, cardamom, and pine nuts. After that came jars of quince jam and Tupperwares of stuffed grape leaves, which we shared with our neighbors. The fifth box—this time at my son’s request—delivered gaurag, a crunchy Iraqi flatbread, packaged in enough Bubble Wrap to survive the flight from Los Angeles to the Bronx intact. It did.

Summer brought deliveries of Israeli dishes: beigele, a type of airy bread covered in sesame seeds; falafel; roasted eggplant; and hummus. By fall, we received Italian breads of every variety and the thinnest, most exquisite grissini; in winter we were opening bags of rugelach, babka, and cheesecake.

My father, approaching 80, retired from decades of work as a diamond dealer and jeweler mere weeks before the pandemic began. For the first time, he was bound to his home and left to his memories. He finally had time to think about the past. Dish by dish, he began revisiting his life story in the kitchen.

My father, Shlomo Kattan, was born in Baghdad, his childhood cocooned in an affluent, multigenerational Jewish-Iraqi family, where aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins lived around a communal courtyard, sharing elaborate meals and rituals. A traumatic move, without his parents, at age eight, brought him to a kibbutz on the Mediterranean coast of a recently established, impoverished Israel, where he remembers often being hungry and eating foods foreign to his Iraqi palate, accentuating his feelings of loss and distance from his parents. He spent his university years in Florence, where he studied architecture and developed an appreciation for chocolate and al dente pasta.

Life led him eventually to Los Angeles, his home for three decades, most of them with his partner of Polish-Jewish origin (hence the rugelach). For many years, their dining room table became the center of gravity for their children and our friends. My father had his signature dishes—his pasta arrabbiata drew crowds—but he was usually the sous-chef. Now, as his partner worked long hours remotely upstairs, cooking allowed him to fill the many hours of each endless day.

Summer brought deliveries of Israeli dishes: beigele, a type of airy bread covered in sesame seeds; falafel; roasted eggplant; and hummus. By fall, we received Italian breads of every variety and the thinnest, most exquisite grissini; in winter we were opening bags of rugelach, babka, and cheesecake.

But he didn’t know how to make the foods of his youth, having grown up far from home and never having had the opportunity—nor the expectation, as a young man—to cook. Undeterred, early in the pandemic, he called his sisters in Or Yehuda and Ramat Gan back in Israel for guidance as he attempted re-creating his mother’s recipes. He spent months recipe-testing and developing his own versions of each dish. Soon, he was delivering care packages of freshly baked pastries to relatives and colleagues who were mourning tragic losses.

During Hanukkah, he texted a photo of himself in a tuxedo with red suspenders and a bow tie, proudly holding a platter of sufganiyot. We lit candles together on Zoom, as we longingly eyed the treats too far to taste.

My father with his sufganiyot from last Hanukkah. Photo by Sarit Kattan Gribetz

By the following summer, he had perfected his apricot fruit leather recipe, which I remember his mother—my grandmother, Savta Rima—making in her minuscule kitchen in Petah Tikva, Israel, before taking the baking sheets out onto her front porch to dry in the scorching summer sun. She would lovingly roll the fruit leather in small parcels and store them in her cabinets for Sabbath lunches, when her children and grandchildren came to spend the day in her company, devouring her cooking and lining up to receive the precious treat at the end of the meal. Cooking was the way my grandmother expressed her love.

My father could not gather all his children and grandchildren to his home for meals, and so instead he mailed the fruit leather, dried in the California sun, to us—and to all of my grandmother’s descendants around the world.

My father spent a lot of time trying to make pita. He ordered every kind of pot and mini-oven he could find online, attempting to replicate the taste of the taboun, a clay oven used to bake breads, meats, and vegetables. Despite his best efforts, he was never quite satisfied with his pitot. He did end up in the emergency room with a severely burned hand after putting a pita pot into the oven and accidentally grabbing the handle without an oven mitt. As soon as he could move his fingers again, he was back at the counter, kneading the dough. While he succeeded in making the crunchy, thin, airy gaurag, he eventually gave up on the pita, declaring the loaves at the nearby Persian market to be better than his. He turned to experiment with hummus instead.

The whole while, my father consulted my children. Which chocolate paste tastes better? Should the dough be filled with tomato sauce or feta? What do you think about the honey in the challah? Is there too much turmeric? He sent them his handwritten recipes: 500 pages of notes and photos. They slowly, tediously, began typing them up; they called frequently when they couldn’t decipher his handwriting, or when they weren’t familiar with one of the Hebrew words he used. My dad told them that he crafted these recipes—so far there are 52—in honor of them. They started calling the collection Baba Sibu’s Secret Recipes. “I’m doing it for them,” he insisted, each time he called or texted with a new recipe idea. To keep them engaged. To help them cope with this awful, scary time. To give them hope.

He also did it to sustain himself, and us, through the isolation and distance.

The whole while, my father consulted my children. Which chocolate paste tastes better? Should the dough be filled with tomato sauce or feta? What do you think about the honey in the challah? Is there too much turmeric?

Eventually, my father arrived in New York on a late-night flight. He came to spend the weekend with us after a pandemic year apart, and to cook the dishes he couldn’t put in the mail: soup, stews, and salads. We finally saw him in his element: marinating, grinding, blending, chopping, and stirring in the kitchen. Before long, he was boarding a flight back to L.A., to keep expanding his repertoire in the kitchen. It was a short but delicious visit. The soup was hearty, the reunion sweet.

My father perfecting Iraqi date cookies in preparation for this Hanukkah Photo by Sarit Kattan Gribetz

Hanukkah is now around the corner again. It’s hard to believe that yet another pandemic year has passed. Yet, my father is still in the kitchen. This year, instead of making sufganiyot my father decided to bake traditional Iraqi date cookies called ba'ba ta'mar. They’re round, with dough on the outside and dates tucked inside, and they’re covered in sesame seeds. They’re sweet but not too sweet. They remind him of Iraq—a land that, when he lived there, was well known for its palm trees and their luscious dates—and of his mother, who transformed them into holiday pastries. We cannot wait to receive his shipment in the mail. We’ll eat them as we light our candles.

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7 Comments

Cathy B. December 5, 2021
With all the time, effort, and love put into recreating your Dad's cherished recipes, I think you should look into creating a book with his recipes and stories. I know I would buy a copy and I suspect many of Food52's readers would, too.
 
FoodieTina December 5, 2021
Lovely story, thank you for sharing your dad with us!
 
[email protected] December 5, 2021
What a beautiful story! A story of resilience and triumph over so much early pain. I wanted to know if "Baba Sibu's Secret Recipes", compiled by his children can be obtained/purchased from the family. But perhaps, they want to keep this as cherished recipes for themselves.
 
KatyWho December 5, 2021
This is such a beautiful story on every level. Thank you for sharing!
 
Yael E. November 30, 2021
Loved reading this article. It is giving me the push to start documenting my family favorites for my grandchildren!
 
Catherine November 29, 2021
Such a lovely post. I enjoyed reading every line and look forward to trying this recipe.
 
Andrea H. November 29, 2021
I can practically taste the Medjoul dates in these livingly crafted cookies. What a blessing that your children were able to share your father’s love of cooking and baking. Please share more recipes. Sababa?