Monthly Archives: August 2017

We Need to Talk About Kevin

THE BOOK:

WeNeedToTalkAboutKevinI’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, as it comes up frequently when podcasters  talk about books with twisty plots, so I was prepared to really like it, which I did- it was definitely a page-turner. The story is told in a series of letters from Eva to
Franklin, her husband. Franklin and Eva have one son, Kevin, who has committed an atrocity against his schoolmates. (No spoilers here, it’s all on the book jacket.) Through the writing of the letters, Eva reflects on her family in an attempt to understand and process all of the horror, so the reader only gets Eva’s point of view, which is perhaps why I found Franklin so unlikable. His staunch support of Kevin beginning in infancy seemed unrealistic and at times unnatural, begging the question, what is Franklin trying to prove? In order to consider himself a good father, must he view everything Kevin does in a positive light? Or given the opportunity, would Franklin have told a different story? It is questions like these that make the book such a good candidate for discussion. It reminded me of Defending Jacob by William Landay, and The Dinner by Herman Koch. All three books explore nature versus nurture and the lengths to which a parent will go in protecting their children. The reflective nature of the narrative in We Need to Talk About Kevin made it a more ponderous read, but also a deeper, richer examination of lives in turmoil. I highly recommend it.

THE BEAUTY:

When Eva first learns that she is pregnant, she surprises herself when she bursts into song- not showtunes, but Armenian folk songs that her mother used to sing to her and her brother when they were children. Her mother was shocked, but pleased when Eva called to ask her the words to a favorite, “Soode, Soode.” According to the book, the words mean, “It’s a lie, it’s a lie, it’s a lie, everything’s a lie; in this world everything’s a lie.” The irony of these lyrics make this the perfect, double-edged source of beauty and pain in the book.

On a historical note, this song was purported to have been written by Armenians in America. This style of music is referred to as the “kef” style, meant to be enjoyed at parties for dancing and general merriment. With the increase in the Armenian population in the United States after the Armenian genocide, the style continued to be played and also evolve, as it took on influences from other cultures and incorporated new instruments and compositions. Start this video at the beginning. After about the 1 minute mark, after the dancers have cycled through, the melody repeats itself, so you’ll get the flavor of the music in this small portion of the clip.

Published on YouTube June 21, 2015, it was recorded at the St. James Armenian Festival in Watertown, Massachusetts.

THE FOOD:

When Kevin was ten, Eva and her mother were in the kitchen making khurabia, Armenian sugar cookies, while Kevin, in another room, was systematically cutting up the custom Christmas cards his grandmother had just finished making for a wealthy client, transforming hours of work into ragged paper snowflakes. Having just posted another Armenian recipe, I find these accidental coincidences of topic curious. I certainly did not set out to explore Armenian culture, but here I am, exploring Armenian culture.

Khurabia (Armenian Sugar Cookies)
Makes:  about 3 dozen

1 ½ cups (3 sticks) salted butter (about)
1 cup granulated sugar (process in food processor for about 1 minute to break down granules)
2 cups flour

Clarify butter: Melt butter over low heat in a heavy saucepan without stirring. When the butter is completely melted, skim the foam off the top and discard it. You will see a clear oily layer atop milk solids. You can buy ghee at some grocery stores, but at my local one, it was $12.95 a jar, so I opted to make my own.

Slowly pour the clear liquid into a measuring cup, leaving the milk solids in the saucepan; discard them. Measure 1 cup of the clarified butter and put in refrigerator until it’s hard (solid) enough to beat.

In bowl, whip butter until it’s almost white. Add sugar and whip until mixed. Add flour, mix in with a spoon and then knead it with your hands, like kneading bread dough. This incorporates all of the flour into the mixture. It takes about 3 to 4 minutes. The sugar granules will break down a little bit, and you should be able to roll it out with your hands and the dough will all stick together as one ball. This kneading process allows the sugar crystals to become less grainy, to disintegrate, and in the end the khurabia will be more delicate and melt in your mouth.

Depending on the environment, humidity and weather, you might have to put in an additional spoonful of flour and mix it in. If the dough gets too soft, you also may put it in the refrigerator for a few minutes to make it more workable.

Preheat oven to 325º degrees.

Take a handful of dough and roll with palm of hand on a cutting board into a rope until it is the diameter of a nickel.

Cut into about 2 inch pieces, on the diagonal, and put on an ungreased cookie sheet. Leave room between the cookies as they will expand a little in the oven. If desired, use a fork to make little hatch marks on the top of the dough for decoration. Bake in preheated oven 15 minutes. Remove cookies from oven but leave them on the sheet to cool. Do not remove from cookie sheet until they are cool. Khurabia may be stored in the freezer. They were light, fluffy with a delicate taste to match. Delicious.

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My Cat Yugoslavia

THE BOOK:

41SMp-foJ7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I had seen this book on a list of anticipated debut novels for 2017, and remembered it because of the cat in the title and the cover drawing. I’ve talked so much about book covers recently, that I’m pretty sure this is a banner year for them, at least among the books I’ve read. That cat has more style than me! When I picked up a hold at the library the other day, I went to the shelves of new books conveniently situated near the exit, where this book was displayed with the front cover facing out, so of course I had to go back and check it out. After reading the second chapter, where Bekim purchases a boa constrictor and all of its accoutrement, I didn’t know if I wanted to continue with the book. I have an intense loathing of snakes, and don’t even like saying the word. But I persisted (I need an emoji for irony) because I hadn’t yet met the other protagonist who had been introduced in the blurb. I was immediately rewarded and drawn completely in to the story as I read on.

When Bekim meets the titular cat in a gay bar, the cat is singing along to Cher’s “Believe”  playing in the background. The cat is so comfortable and self-possessed that Bekim can’t take his eyes off him. They leave together and head for Bekim’s home where the cat spends the night and beyond, perhaps overstaying his welcome. The cat is rude, selfish, obnoxious, and airs his prejudices proudly. I can only guess that Bekim was so charmed by this talking creature that he put up with the abuse. I am happy to report, however, that the boa constrictor behaved himself, making it possible for me to continue reading, as he played a minor role early on. The other story is of a young Muslim girl in Yugoslavia, whose arranged marriage flourishes with five children. Emine and Bajram’s marriage takes a turn after their initial infatuation- or were they both just playing roles, only revealing themselves to each other after the marriage rituals were concluded?

There is much history about the Balkans, of which I know very little, although I have heard of all the places mentioned, sometimes in their actual historical context. This story is primarily about the chaos in Yugoslavia after president Tito died in 1980. Serbs grew more powerful, and tides turned against Albanians, making it dangerous for them to continue to live there, prompting Emine to muse, “I wondered what was happening to this planet. At what point had humans turned into beasts that mauled one another, that held their neighbors’ heads beneath the water?” Finally, Bajram decides that he must take his family to Finland (he didn’t have enough money to get to either Australia or the US) to insure their safety. When that happened, the story became an immigrant’s story, with all of the attendant rejection of the newcomers whose culture is different from the host country, creating an underclass. In all of my immigrant/outsider reading this year, the word that consistently comes up is “nationalism.”

I was fascinated by the wedding traditions of Albanian Muslims as presented in the book. The marriages were arranged, so the couple did not know each other before the wedding. The wedding festivities lasted several days and included the whole community. One of the traditions that seemed kind of lovely was on the wedding night, the sisters and aunts of the couple sing outside the door of the marriage bedroom: if the bride is pretty give us some sweets, to which Bajram responded by opening the door and handing out a bag of sweet confections. Alone with his bride, he throws a bowl of raw white beans in the air and they scatter all over the room. The bride’s job is to collect them all by crawling around on the floor to retrieve every last bean, giving her groom the opportunity to “observe her movements,” thus getting to know her body.

Finnish people apparently love cats, and keep them as pets, where the Albanians from Kosovo find them dirty and disdain them. Albanians eat their pite (spinach pie) with their fingers, which Finnish people consider crude, at least according to the book. I’m sure the list goes on and on, but it underscores why the two groups disrespect one another. Finnish people expect the Albanians to blend, and then won’t hire them because their Finnish language pronunciation isn’t good enough, and on and on in a circular pattern of not fitting in for one reason or another.

I’m still trying to sort out the metaphor of the cat. The title indicates perhaps that the cat was named Yugoslavia, although the name is never mentioned in the book. And if that were the case, wouldn’t there be a comma after the word cat in the title? The fact that Bekim met him in a gay bar and that the cat says he hates gays must have some significance. Maybe he represents those members of society that do not accept LGBTQ people, or are disdainful of the group, but more tolerant of individuals. Or, maybe the cat represents the old Yugoslavia that died with Tito: one that was more accepting of different ethnicities and protecting of human rights in general.

THE BEAUTY:

The cat is such a character, I can say that’s the reason I like him in spite of his xenophobia and homophobia. Once, when Bekim left the apartment hurriedly, he was relieved when he returned, to hear the cat, still in the shower, still singing Bruno Mars’ “Grenade,” not quite mastering the English lyrics, despite his self-proclaimed “citizen of the world” status. I love, love Bruno Mars. When I dance to “Uptown Funk” in the kitchen, my dog, does not like it. Not only does he bark, he does this bow-y thing where he goes into downward facing dog, and then barks on the uptake as he stands back up on all fours. And because George doesn’t like my singing either, I’m pretty sure his vocal editorial comments are about me and not Bruno Mars.

THE FOOD:

There’s a lot of talk about unnamed sweets in the story, so I decided to include a recipe for Turkish Delight, as that could have been the sweet provided to the female relatives by the bridegroom on his wedding night.

Microwave Turkish Delight

¼ C powdered gelatine
2 cups sugar (put in food processor in two batches to make granules more fine)
¾ C corn flour
1⅓ C confectioner’s sugar
¼ tsp cream of tartar
tsp rosewater
1 to 2 drops red food colouring
3 oz chocolate

Lightly grease an 8 x 8 inch pan. Line base and sides with parchment paper, allowing a 1 inch overhang on 2 sides to aid removal from pan.

Place 2½ cups hot water in a large heatproof, microwave-safe bowl. Sprinkle gelatine over water. Using a fork, whisk until the gelatine dissolves. Stir in 2 cups of sugar. Microwave, uncovered, on high for 5 minutes. Stir well. Microwave, uncovered, on high  for another 4 to 5 minutes until mixture is thick and syrupy.

Whisk corn flour, icing sugar and cream of tartar together and whisk into gelatine mixture. Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Stir in rosewater and food coloring. Pour into prepared pan. Refrigerate until firm.

Remove Turkish Delight from pan. Using a hot knife (place knife blade in a glass of very hot water for i minute), cut into  squares. Remove squares to a new sheet of parchment.

Place chocolate in a heatproof, microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on high for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring with a metal spoon every 30 seconds, until melted and smooth. Spoon chocolate into a ziplock bag. Snip off 1 corner. Pipe chocolate over squares. Stand at room temperature until set. Serve.

As you can see from the photo, there is no drizzled chocolate. That’s because what I thought was an opened package of Nestle’s Semi-sweet morsels turned out to be an opened package of Dark Rye Flour! I need a light in the pantry. (Or get my eyes examined.)

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Goodbye, Vitamin

THE BOOK:

51+SgqT67tL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_One holiday, thirty year-old Ruth Young spent Christmas with her parents and decided at the end of the visit that she wanted to come back to live with them for a year. So she does. During this time, she keeps a diary, recording things that happen, her memories and reflections of her childhood, and of her family’s history. She learned that her father, Howard, had begun a journal himself, starting when she was small. Initially, the reader sees only a few snippets of what Howard wrote, but as more and more are revealed, the reader is treated to a precious view of a father’s love for his funny, quirky, intelligent daughter, reflected in his observations of her. Here is the first entry:
“Today you asked me where metal comes from. You asked me what flavor are germs. You were distressed because your pair of gloves had gone missing. When I asked you for a description, you said: they are sort of shaped like my hands.”

There were many random facts in the book that sent me googling nearly every page. If the information sticks in my brain, I will have learned a great deal that should help if I’m ever on Jeopardy. The first fact was revealed when Ruth met a trucker named Carl on the road. He was transporting endive and they happened upon one another at a gas station. As they were saying their goodbyes, Carl handed Ruth a pamphlet entitled “Cookery by Carl.” He said that someone told him there’s a tradition in Thailand that before you die, you compose a cookbook that is then distributed at the funeral. Later on, when someone is looking for something to cook and they crack open your book, not only to they get a recipe, they get to think about their old friend, Carl. Lovely gesture from a foodie!

The book was so many things. A story about family, about love and loss, and the decisions we make, or don’t make. In spite of the sometimes seriousness of the plot, the tone of the book was light, witty, and entertaining. I loved the characters and experienced that sense of loss that happens when a book ends and you’re not going to be able to spend time with the characters any more. Mine was a library book, but I loved it so much, I’m going to have to buy it, because I want to savor it again, knowing that the book in my hands is mine.

THE BEAUTY:

Ruth drives from San Francisco south to her childhood home to visit her parents. As the San Gabriel Mountains come into view, Ruth reflects on her conviction as a child, that it is a picture-perfect vista. So picture perfect, in fact, that she not only thought that it looked like the posters you affix to the back of a fish tank, she believed it was a photograph of those specific mountains. “That other mountains existed didn’t dawn on me until embarassingly late in the game.” This photograph is “San Gabriel Moutains at Sunrise,” by Alex Cameron. I found it on Pinterest

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THE FOOD:

When Ruth visits her uncle, John, her father’s brother, he makes her mackerel baked in foil for lunch. When she teases him about not getting the memo about using foil, (her mother believes that food cooked in aluminum foil or aluminum pots and pans is harmful to one’s health) “Your mother is nuts,” he says. That reminds Ruth of her mother’s quest to make homemade Cheetos when Ruth 9 or 10, because Ruth had become obsessed with them. They took a tour of the Frito-Lay factory in Bakersfield where they sampled Cheetos fresh off the conveyor. A few weeks later, Annie produced an impressive Cheeto for Ruth. While there may have been more meaningful and healthier foods I could have selected, I loved this story, and hope I’m not nuts for wanting to recreate Annie’s act of love in a homemade Cheeto.

Cheese Curls
Yield: 3-4 dozen cheese curls

4 T chilled unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch cubes
½ tsp kosher salt
⅛ tsp garlic powder
1 C unbleached all-purpose flour
1½ tsp yellow cornmeal
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, finely shredded (about 1 cup)

Cheese Coating

2 T Cheddar cheese powder
½ tsp buttermilk powder
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp cornstarch

MAKE THE CHEESE CURLS: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter, salt, and garlic powder at medium-low speed for 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the flour, cornmeal, and shredded cheese. Stir together at low speed until a firm dough forms. Shape into a disc and place on a large sheet of plastic wrap; wrap tightly and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Preheat the oven to 350˚F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat liners.

Pinch off small pieces of the chilled dough and gently roll between your palms and fingers to form lumpy logs roughly 2 to 2½ inches long and ¼ to ½ inch across. Place on the prepared baking sheets—you can space them fairly close together because they won’t puff up while baking.

Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, until the pieces are no longer shiny and are just beginning to brown around the edges. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.

ADD THE COATING: Place the cheese powder, buttermilk powder, salt, and cornstarch in a spice grinder or mini food processor and whir for 10 to 15 seconds to blend evenly. I couldn’t find cheddar cheese powder, so instead I used Nacho Cheddar Popcorn Seasoning from the snack aisle in the supermarket. (Do not add the other coating ingredients if you use the popcorn seasoning.)

Transfer to a large zip-top bag. Add the cooled Cheetos, seal, and shake gently to coat evenly.

They are best comsumed the day you make them. The leftovers on the second day started to get a little limp. Restraint was the only thing preventing me from eating them all on that first day. They’re not the healthiest snack, althought they would have been worse if I’d used a recipe that deep fried them. I loved this salty treat. (They’re very filling!)

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The Changeling

THE BOOK:

TheChangelingCoverThe epigraph in The Changeling gave me goose bumps: “When you believe in things you don’t understand then you suffer,” from Stevie Wonder’s song “Superstition,” and so it was the perfect way to set the stage for this remarkable story that defies description. It’s a fairy tale, as the author tells us on page one, and it’s also a very well-written book that has elements of horror, fantasy and romance. But at its core, it is about parenthood and family.

Apollo Kagwa’s father, Brian West, disappeared without a trace when Apollo was 4 years old. His mother Lillian, originally from Uganda, raised him alone in the 1980’s, working as an administrative secretary at a law firm in midtown Manhattan. When he was a junior in high school, there came an insistent knocking on the door to their apartment, and Apollo, thinking it was his father coming back for him, as he had secretly wished all those years, was disappointed to find no one at the door, only a cardboard box on the threshold. I still can’t figure out how it got there, but it contained ordinary things his father had saved, like the movie ticket stubs from his first date with Lillian, a rental agreement to an apartment in Jackson Heights, the bill for an overnight stay at a hotel on Ninth Avenue, and a marriage certificate for Brian West and Lillian Kagwa. At the time, Apollo couldn’t understand why a man who would save such things, would leave his family and never contact them again, but it remained a mystery. Apollo became quite an entrepreneur in the used book business as a teenager, and instead of going to college, he pursued his passion: combing estate sales and used bookstores for that one incredible find that would make him a millionaire. In pursuit of this to the detriment of his social life, Apollo, at the age of  34, awoke to an unbelievable longing for a a close relationship one day as he was  examining the books of deceased couple who had clearly loved each other and shared something that no one, not even their children, could appreciate or understand. And that’s when he met Emma Valentine, librarian extraordinaire. There the adventure begins.

THE BEAUTY:

One of the items that was in the box that so mysteriously turned up at Apollo’s apartment was a well-worn children’s book called Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak. The book begins, “When Papa was away at sea.” Apollo tried to imagine his father reading it to him, but could not conjure up an image from memory, and his father’s face was also lost to him. But the memory of this book stayed with him well into adulthood. In this panel from the book, Ida is intently playing her wonder horn to still the baby to sleep, while goblins came quietly to replace the human child with an ice one. Disturbing imagery: absent adults not minding the child. Maurice Sendak’s contribution to children’s literature is a thing of beauty!

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THE FOOD:

When Emma’s childhood friend, Nichelle comes to New York to visit, they meet at Bouley restaurant on Duane St. for dinner. We ate there in August of 2007, and the note I made in our journal was “Best lunch ever!” I wish I had kept a record of what we ordered, but I do remember the foyer with the shelves lined with apples that so impressed Apollo. At their Bouley dinner, Emma was 38 weeks pregnant, Apollo had just purchased a book he thought he could sell for $250, and Nichelle was drunk. Thinking he’d be the one to pick up the tab, Apollo only asked for more bread instead of ordering an entree, while Emma had lamb and Nichelle had the duck, which is legendary at Bouley. (So they say. Not a duck fan.) For dessert, Emma ordered the Amaretto flan, but it immediately sent her off to the ladies room. Minutes later their waiter sprinted to the table yelling, “Your wife needs you,” and that’s when things really started getting interesting. So the recipe here is in honor of Baby Brian. And by the way, Nichelle paid the bill, as she had intended when she invited them there.

Individual Amaretto Flans
Yield: 6  6 oz. ramekins

½ C sugar
2 T water
Cooking spray
⅔ C sugar
⅛ tsp salt
3 large eggs
2 large egg yolks
2 C whole milk
¼ C Amaretto

Preheat oven to 325°.

Combine 1/2 cup sugar and 2 tablespoons water in a small, heavy saucepan. Cook over medium-high heat until the sugar dissolves, and continue cooking 5 minutes or until golden brown (do not stir). Immediately pour into 6 (6-ounce) custard cups or ramekins coated with cooking spray, tipping quickly until caramelized sugar coats bottoms of cups.

Combine 2/3 cup sugar, salt, eggs, and egg yolks in a medium bowl, stirring well with a whisk.

Heat milk over medium-high heat in a small, heavy saucepan to 180° or until tiny bubbles form around edge (do not boil). Gradually add hot milk to egg mixture, stirring with a whisk. Stir in liqueur. Strain mixture through a sieve into a bowl, and discard solids. Divide mixture evenly among prepared custard cups. Place cups in the bottom of a broiler pan; add hot water to pan to a depth of 1 inch. Bake at 325° for 40 minutes or until flan centers barely move when custard cups are touched. ( I had to cook mine an additional 20 minutes, so monitor their progress carefully.) Remove cups from pan; cool completely on a wire rack. Cover and chill at least 8 hours.

Loosen edges of flans with a knife. Place a dessert plate, upside down, on top of each cup, and invert onto plates.

 

The Guest Room

THE BOOK:

Bohjalian-Chris-The-Guest-Room-coverThis was a disturbing read. It follows Alexandra, a captive in the sex trade industry, from her kidnapping as a young teenager in Armenia to her arrival in Bronxville, New York as a stripper at a bachelor party in a private home. It is a heartbreaking story, but also a testament to the human spirit’s ability to survive. While fiction, it is based on actual stories  researched by the author. In an interview he suggests that there is much nonfiction in the world to better address the issue of sex trafficking. He hopes that his book shines a light on human trafficking in a way that nonfiction might not be able to by prompting an emotional response as the reader connects to these very real, very human, very flawed characters. He also wants the reader to be invested in the two remarkable female characters in the story and the breakdown of a marriage.

One of the aspects of the novel that struck a chord with me is how when a person’s freedom has been taken away, instead of rebelling against their captors, the captives seek their approval. This phenomenon has so many applications in all relationships where the balance of power is unequal: parent/child; teacher/student; boss/employee; marriage where one person’s earnings far exceed their spouse’s, et al. The cruelty that was leveled on these poor girls (and they all were just girls) left them with nothing. They survived by doing what was expected of them to the best of their ability, in spite of the fact that none of that got them any closer to “normal” relationships. Their normal was living in an abusive environment. As revulsed as I was by what they were made to endure, I was filled with respect for their ability to survive. I found myself angry at the men in the novel, mostly the captors and enforcers, but also the privileged white men who paid for the girls’ services. The latter group never once thought about why these clearly young, some underaged, girls were engaged in this activity. I felt at times as close to physically sick as a reader can become by just reading a book. So much of my reading recently has been about man’s inhumanity to man, here, women. The inequities of the world are about power. But I wonder why it is that power feels so good when it’s used to keep others down. Is a world where all human rights are universally upheld even possible?

THE BEAUTY:

Two female characters in the story behave in a way that subjugates their personal feelings, wants, and desires, compelling them put the needs of those who have suffered the most before their own, even their family’s own. It made me ask myself, what would I sacrifice to do the right thing, provided I could even figure out in the first place what that was?

THE FOOD:

The food is a Middle Eastern sugar cookie called a ma’amoul. Alexandra had a dream near the end of the novel where she is being fed a maamoul by a trusted adult. The innocence of this imagery summarized the book poignantly, and provided a comfortable “hook” for me to come to terms with my feelings about the characters in a very satisfying way.

I bought a ma’amoul mold online because I liked the way the way the cookies made with one looked. When I opened the package when the item was delivered, I was surprised to see where it had been made.

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Ma’amoul Date Cookies
Yield: 2 dozen

Dough

3 C farina
½ C All Purpose flour
2 T granulated sugar
½ tsp salt
1 C ghee, clarified butter (regular butter works too)
½ tsp active dry yeast
½ C lukewarm water
⅓ C whole milk

In a small bowl, mix yeast in water and allow to stand for 3 minutes. In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, mix together farina, AP flour, salt, sugar and butter. Add the yeast and water and milk to the bowl and mix until dough forms. Allow dough to rest for 10 minutes.

Filling

3 C dates, pitted
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp orange blossom water
1-2 T coconut oil or vegetable oil

Blend dates together in a food processor with spices and 1 tablespoon oil until smooth. Add orange blossom water. Roll 1 tablespoon dates into 24 small balls and reserve on a baking sheet.

Assembling the cookies

Preheat oven to 400º.

Use a level tablespoon of dough. Flatten it in your hand to make a 3″ circle. Place a ball of filling on top of the dough. Bring up the edges of the dough to meet and press them together to seal the filling. Place the filled dough in the mold and press down to etch the imprint on the dough. Gently tap the mold on a clean surface until the dough releases. Place on the parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, or until golden brown. Cool on a wire rack. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar.