Friday, June 21, 2013

Helba - A Dessert for New Moms

Monday is 'my' day of the week. It's the one morning when I don't see anyone, I try not to answer the phone and I do not do anything that can be termed 'productive'. After the man and kids leave early in the morning I usually flop down on the couch with a book and a cup of tea while the baby sits at my feet playing or strolls between the, now empty, living area and sunny playroom bringing me toys or books that we can look at together. Sometimes she force-feeds me bits of spitty rice-cake. She's very lovey in the morning, very docile, and soon goes down for a long nap, leaving me to indulge my slothful agenda.

My friends know this but, the week before last, one of them texted me asking me to come over the next day (Monday morning). "I know it's your day" she said, "but if you come over I'll make you a pot of tea". Bribery sometimes works. My price, apparently, is a cup of well-brewed Earl Grey tea and Za'atar Crackers. Because she is considerate enough to understand what Mondays mean to me I requested her to allow me just two hours of 'me time' in the morning and then I would show up, baby in tow. And so, off I went to see one of my most favorite people in the world. 

I met 'B.' a little over a year ago when we shared a ride to Ikea on the communal bus. She had just moved into our neighborhood, did not know anyone and was eager to make friends. We reached the store before it opened for the day, giving us opportunity to have coffee together with a few others while introductions were made and she told us where she was coming from. Her name is an unusual one: her father named her after a historical Palestinian town (since then re-named) renowned for it's beauty in Ottoman times. I remember being struck immediately by her gentleness which belies a passionate and strong nature. She has strikingly attractive blue eyes that are warm with compassion and an inner radiance. When she speaks she is calm, her voice comforting. She soothes me.

Where we are located, finding like-minded people is a bit of a fluke. It doesn't happen too often. I was lucky to have found 'B'. She is the one I call when I am wit's end with something one of the older kids have done and vice versa she calls me when she's trying to figure out how to deal with her stubborn middle child. We drink tea or Jallab and share Lebanese treats while we vent, sitting in her little backyard listening to the neighborhood kids frolic in the playground just beyond her yard.

'B.' had a baby earlier this year. Her third child. And it was only natural that I bring her something delicious (and nutritious) when she invited a few friends to meet him for the first time. And so I made Helba - a Basbousa-like dessert made with semolina, fenugreek seeds, shredded coconut and fennel-seeds: all the things that are great for lactating mothers. Fenugreek is a very good galactagogue, a fact few women seem to know, but needs to be taken carefully because it can have a severely lowering effect on blood sugar if taken in excess. Years ago my OB-Gyn advised me to steep a heaped teaspoon of fenugreek in a cup of boiling water for 15 minutes and drink it up just before nursing, repeating as many times as I wanted to during the day. I followed this advice religiously and would drink up to 5-6 cups a day. I used to sweeten it with a spoon or more of honey but over the years (and 3 children later) I've acquired a taste for fenugreek tea and can drink it completely unsweetened. Fenugreek has lots of other health benefits that you can read about here.

Helba, in Arabic, means fenugreek. I found this recipe quite by accident over a year ago when I was looking up things I could make ahead for myself before the birth of the baby. I didn't know what to expect and was actually a little wary because fenugreek is very bitter and I thought the 2 tablespoons this recipe asks for would go a long way. So I was pleasantly surprised at how utterly delicious this dessert was. Especially cold, straight from the refrigerator. I made a large tray for myself and each morning a small square of this scrumptious treat was often the first thing that I reached out for. I have made it several times over in the past year, sometimes using more fenugreek and substituting whole wheat flour for the all purpose flour. The WWF substitution did not yield the best results but I still ate it all! I know it's super rich and so this kind of thing would not otherwise make an appearance at my house too often. But my justification is that us new Moms need to keep up their strength and a little indulgence in those early weeks is just okay!

Friday, June 07, 2013

Carrot-Date-Sultana Cake for Baby's First Birthday

The day is done: we have been partied out. The last of the dishes cleared, leftovers put away. Kids in bed. And now the inevitable long stretch of quiet that follows.

I've spent the past hour uploading photos from my camera, re-living our day, and smiling at the recollections. As a third-time-around mom I knew this bittersweet day would come: my precious baby would become a toddler and I would sit here, stumped, wondering where the past year went. This time the wistfulness hits me harder. How can anyone stand moving beyond this phase? 

I am not prepared for this: with the baby I've been far more relaxed than I was with my older children. I've tried to treasure every moment, every developmental stage; every smile, babble and squishy-cheeked bit of deliciousness. There were days when I felt I could not get anything done because we'd had a rare bad night or two but I was perfectly content to hold her close, breathe in the smell of her sweet, downy head and sit immobile for an hour or two while she napped. For the first months I carried her almost all the time. Her Reflux was just an excuse: the truth is I loved wearing her in my moby wrap, cherished the option of being able to kiss the top of her head each time I tilted down my chin . . .  of drinking in her moments of quiet alertness and of deep sleep. When she became older I would carry her on my left hip, hugging her to me with my left arm, as I went through my day and attempted to perform my daily chores with my other free arm. . . when I went out to visit friends they were ceaselessly amazed how, in the midst of our chatter, she would suddenly rest her head against me and croon herself to sleep. The loud crooning was my cue to begin patting her back or to walk up and down the room a few times and gently rock her. She was the only baby at play-dates who did this. Who fell asleep in this adorable, funny, quirky way.

A baby's first year is a real roller-coaster of emotions and experiences. The whole year can feel like the longest day of your own life. But I still didn't want to rush it. To those with two children or just one child, 3 can seem like a scary number. An out-of-control, chaotic number. But it isn't. Motherhood, the third time around, is that much sweeter. That much more fulfilling. And so much easier. I may have had a few niggling doubts about how I could possibly open my heart to one more little person. But that first moment I held her in my arms, surrounded by my other children, cleared every uncertainty from my mind. "She completes us" I texted back to a friend who had sent a message congratulating me on her birth.

Now, a year on, our little 'apple' (nicknamed by older siblings) is a bundle of energy: walking room to room pointing one little index finger up and shaking her fist to make herself heard, eyes twinkling, bestowing infinite smiles, laughing her new cheeky but darling little laugh as if she's just discovered that the world is a hilarious place, gumming every wire in the house, or quietly (and adoringly!) following her older sister around.

We celebrated her birthday simply. I invited a few close friends over. There was far too much food, too much noise and two cakes too many. I  baked a fruit-sweetened, sugar-free smash cake just for her (Recipe found here): a rather sorry attempt at making an apple-shaped cake which, quite sadly, I forgot to take photos of before she began wrecking it. However, she loved it and enjoyed it tremendously as you can see. 

She had no idea what was going on, but she knew something was up. And that it was something good.

So she weaved her way between our guests, moving from one room to another, laughing at everything and even enduring all the torture bestowed upon her by her elder sister: being carried, jostled, made to wear party hats and over-sized sunglasses along with a pair of ratty fairy wings. She kept going for hours and hours, at last falling into deep sleep as soon as the last of our guests said goodbye.

Happy Birthday, my sweet girl.


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