Admitting to a sweet tooth these days seems rather illicit, what with sugar cast in the role of Public Enemy No. 1. But here is my confession: I rarely go a day without a slice or bite or square of something sweet. If it’s not cake, then it’ll be a cookie, a slice of tart topped with fruit or a slab of dark chocolate, a little pop of joy to accompany a short black coffee or a tall cup of green tea.
But it’s not the sugar I’m addicted to. Rather, it’s the comfort, surprise and delight that dessert, or any food, can bring, that ideal match of the right dish and the right moment. The reason a colorful, vertiginously tall and booze-filled trifle brings so much joy at the end of a party is not because of the sugar in the list of ingredients. It’s because nothing says “sharing” and “celebration” and “ta-da!” quite like it.
And so I introduce my new column for The New York Times, which will appear occasionally and is to be filled with all things baked and sweet.
My cookbooks have been known so far for their focus on vegetables (in the case of ”Plenty” and “Plenty More”), the food of my Middle Eastern childhood (in “Jerusalem”) or the food of my restaurants (as with the Ottolenghi and Nopi books). When I started out in the world of cooking, however, I was firmly on the sweet side. I trained in patisserie, and my first job in the kitchen was as a pastry chef. It wasn’t until the first Ottolenghi shop opened that one carrot led to another and I came to focus as much on the savory side of things as I did on the sweet. It was never an either/or, but for a good decade, I was peeling and roasting more than I was beating together butter and sugar, or lining cake tins.
Recently, though, my work surfaces have become covered in flour, and my electric mixer has been getting a workout. I’ve been baking, and the kitchen smells good. I always find cooking for people satisfying, but there is something particularly — and instantly — rewarding about that moment of bliss that you see when someone bites into something sweet and delicious for the first time. Whether it’s a rich and composed dessert, such as my kataifi nests, or a refreshing and light granita, the world, for that shared moment, is all about a simple and straightforward kind of pleasure.
Again, though: It’s not about the sugar. I spend my days cooking and eating a wide range of foods, sweet and savory, Asian or Middle Eastern or Mediterranean in inspiration. Similarly, when I’m baking, I’m just as likely to reach for all sorts of ingredients. The sugar is there, of course, just like the eggs, butter and flour, but the things that really excite me and deliver that pop of joy lie elsewhere. It’s the pinch of golden saffron threads used to poach pears, the cubes of tangy feta whipped through some cream, the use of kataifi pastry (long strands of shredded phyllo) in the place of a more obvious shortbread base. It’s the jewel-like slivered green pistachios that make me smile, and the ruby-red pomegranate seeds.
In the columns to come, you will find me using things that are not always so obviously associated with baking. The presence of hard herbs like rosemary, for example, in an orange and olive oil cake. Cookies bound together and enriched by tahini, the use of which tends to be confined, by many, to the making of hummus. Spices will bring flavor, citrus will bring freshness. I hope you’ll come to share my obsession with lemons, that you’ll indulge my penchant for adding a splash of booze wherever I can. I hope you will agree that, just sometimes, a sprinkle of rose petals really is enough to make the day something special.
And so to this week’s recipes! I’m writing and testing my recipes from London, but I first shared these two with an audience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in November. Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, the co-authors of “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” joined me in curating two evenings of “Hafla,” or family-style feasting, for 120 guests who sat side by side at long communal tables. The menu we chose was inspired by an exhibit at the museum at the time, called “Every People Under Heaven.” Spanning the period between 1000 to 1400 in Jerusalem, the exhibition covered a lot of ground. Spanning three courses and 13 dishes, our meal covered a lot of the table.
It was quite special to see so many different people share so many different dishes. As food was passed around, conversations were had and stories were told, either about specific dishes — the marinated sweet-and-sour halibut, for example, with a taste profile much more common in the medieval era than it is today — or about the significance of particular ingredients in cooking during the period. Sugar, for instance, beyond its obvious use as a way to sweeten dessert, was regarded as an indication of warmth and hospitality. “The sweeter the tea, the more generous the host,” as Laila told our guests. It’s a time-honored practice that, I like to think, continues to this day.
I love to cook, I love to bake, I love all sorts of food at all sorts of times. In the spirit of my earlier confession, then, this is going to be my safely sweet space for the time being, the place I’m going to come to with my ideas for all things dessert. I hope you’ll want to roll up your sleeves, grab some flour and dust the counter as well.