Saturday, June 16, 2012

Jam Cakes & Wild Food

“What are those?” I asked, looking down at my sneakers, at the stains beneath them sprawled over the floor of my friend’s garage, free of cars and quietly enclosed behind the looming gates of their villa. “I can’t remember their name,” Jinan shrugged, “but we can eat them.”
Away from today’s trends of foraging for plants we can eat, I hesitated at the notion back in 1994. “Are you sure?” I said making way for the burgundy stains to show themselves, to reassure my insecure self that they were ingestible as she comforted me — 10-year-old to 10-year-old.
I, after all, belonged to the supermarket generation of expatriate Abu Dhabi — one that did not see fresh markets except on our trips back home to our respective countries. Things were delivered, clean; the entirety of it had to be deemed safe before reaching our homes.
Popping it into my mouth, street dust and all, I smiled as it burst and started collecting more of these little bumpy purple gems with my foraging friend. Rinsing them in tap water and setting them down on the floor, we surrounded the bowl, descending on it to consume the fruit forbidden for us to pick up off the ground in vacant garages.
For years, I thought that what I had secretly shared with Jinan were blackberries. Only later did I find out that these were mulberries, grown in our region, sprouting high up on smooth-stemmed trees, seemingly black in the shade, plump and sugary. Blackberries on the other hand are grown on thorny vines, round and fragile-skinned, more uniform and smaller. The fact is that most people cannot differentiate between them and these days, most kids at first instinct would tell you that the blackberry is a phone and not a fruit that stains the spot it falls on.
I remember watching the stain on my fingers spread, creeping further on my skin, leaving tangible memories for me to take home, for me to ask my mom what those beautiful berries are called.
“Toot,” she said and so I trailed through my childhood calling them “toot” unable to understand that we Egyptians call most berry-looking berries “toot” with the exception of strawberries, holding a special place in our hearts.
“Blackberry jam” I read today on the jar’s label — “toot shami” neatly typed in Arabic. We as a market, still remain confused, unable to determine the genus of the plants around us. “Toot shami” were in fact Levantine mulberries, juiced in the hotter months by the sellers on the streets of Damascus for passersby to quench their thirst. I do not know what to do about this problem of misidentifying ingredients except to single them out, to make things easier for the interested to know.
I am lucky to live in one of Cairo’s gated communities but find that not many actually use the sprawling gardens away from the children’s playground. While walking our dog, I’ve come across ingredients lying around, often growing out of control. I’ve spotted a fully grown button mushroom but did not eat it out of fear that I picked the wrong kind. Instead, I pulled it out of the ground, broke it in two and examined it; feeling the same anxious excitement I first did with that tall mulberry tree. What I have managed to pick regularly is fresh basil for my caprese salads and saucy pastas.
I can barely even call myself an amateur forager but I’m curious to know if our gardens are full of edible wild plants that might serve our weak fine dining scene well, changing the way Egyptians perceive their weeds. If René Redzepi of Noma, chef of the best restaurant in the world 2010, 2011 and 2012, can deep fry moss and roast lettuce to make juice, it’s about time someone steps up to the plate to dig up the resources around us that have long been neglected. I wait eagerly for the day one of our restaurants, old or new, serves something intelligent, inspiring and wholly ours. Until then, I’ll keep on searching for the discrepancies and point out the correct names and origins of our region’s food.
Mulberry-Strawberry Jam Cake
You’ll need
1 stick of unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups of sugar
3 eggs
1 1/2 cups of cake flour, sifted
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3 tablespoons of mulberry jam (Toot shami, often marked as blackberry jam)
3 tablespoons of strawberry jam
Icing sugar, to dust
Butter a round cake pan and dust with flour. Tap out the excess flour and discard. In medium-sized bowl, sift together the flour and the salt. Combine the cream and vanilla in a cup and set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter and sugar and whisk at high speed until pale, light and fluffy. Begin to add the eggs one at a time making sure each one is incorporated before the addition of another. Beat hard for two minutes until it begins to slightly rise in volume. Add the flour in three batches alternating with the cream. Begin with the flour and end with the cream. Mix just until all is incorporated. Pour the thick batter into your greased pan and smooth out the top. Dust each dollop of jam with flour before adding it to the top of the cake. Once done, swirl the jams around with a knife. Pop into a cold oven at 175 degrees Celsius and bake for a little over an hour (approx. 65 minutes). Remove from the oven. Cool before turning out of the pan. Slice; dust with icing sugar and an extra spoon of jam of your choice. Serve.  


  1. Terrific recipe - I love this cake! Thanks for the great post and congratulations on Foodbuzz Top 9:)

  2. Just recently stumbled onto your blog...and I LOVE IT! It's beautiful, but simple at the same time. Really nice work!

  3. Just stumbled onto your blog...and I LOVE it!! It's really beautiful. Nice work!

  4. I adore mulberries and am always on the lookout for mulberry recipes. This cake looks absolutely fantastic. Well done!


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