Lebanese Fig Jam with Anise, a full jar

Ever since my cousins and I had what can only be described as an extremely fun baking disaster day a couple of years ago, I’ve been on the hunt to learn Lebanese flatbread from a pro, the way my Sitto taught me far too long ago. Turns out that’s a tall order, since very few Lebanese women are still doing it. Yet I did finally find someone in Lansing, Naemi, and she agreed to a lesson—but not after telling me that nobody learns this bread anymore, and those who try, fail.

That’s alright, I told her. OK, she said, having gotten the hard truth out of the way. I was ushered to the basement, and there we spent the morning throwing the dough, stretching it on the cauda, and turning it out onto the makeshift saj—a hot metal dome made here from an overturned round metal sled, purchased at Meijer many years ago, set over a miniature gas stovetop.

The whole experience was so reminiscent of my Sitto that I had to keep pinching myself to be sure I was really there and not caught up in a very detailed gift of a dream.

Sitto’s baking mornings always ended in a hearty, delicious lunch, because baking makes a girl tired and hungry. So when Naemi and I wrapped it up downstairs, she led me to the kitchen and called her brother. Time for lunch, she told him. OK, I’ll be heading out now, I said, not wanting to be presumptuous. Of course you’re staying? Naemi said. Of course!, I said, probably too quickly.

She set about her business of making lunch by pulling out jars. Jars of homemade olives, green and black brined with lemon slices. Jars of labne balls preserved in olive oil. Jars of candied pumpkin and fig jam. And a big jar of clarified butter out of which Naemi took a scoop on the end of a whisk to make kishik, a kind of soup of dried yogurt, sautéed garlic and ground lamb (imagine the scent). I ate everything with a ravenous hunger that I knew had as much to do with the food as it did my nostalgia. The procession of jars was astonishing, and so old school beautiful that I felt I should head to church and sing a Te Deum of gratitude for the experience.

The table was set with bowls and some of the jars, all atop a white plastic tablecloth that could be wiped down after lunch with ease. A few loaves of our bread were placed just off to the side. Naemi’s brother and sister arrived and we ate. I hadn’t had the fig jam in a very long time, and I asked if it had onions in it, thinking it was a savory-sweet chutney. They all looked at me as though I must not be Lebanese after all. It’s a sweet, Naemi said. Of course it is, I said, and spread a big forkful on my bread. Then another, and then another. I had to stop myself so that I didn’t put off bad manners. The jam was scented with anise and studded with toasted walnuts, and I remembered my mother, who eats fig jam straight from the jar, no bread necessary.

Then Naemi’s brother told me, teasing but not really, that I will never learn to make the flatbread. It’s too much work and too much skill, he said. Nobody wants to do it anymore.

Perhaps, I said. But I will learn it, cousin, and I don’t care how much work it is, or how long it takes, even if that means I’ve got to put in The Outlier’s 10,000 hours to become a baker like Naemi and Sitto, and to keep a kitchen stocked with at-the-ready jars full of very good things to eat.

Lebanese Fig Jam
Fig jam makes a lovely sweet element on a cheese plate. It is also delicious on toast, or scooped up with flatbread.

1 ½ cups sugar
¾ cup water
Juice of 1 lemon
4 cups coarsely chopped dried figs
2 cups chopped walnuts, toasted
2-3 tablespoons aniseed

In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, water, and lemon juice. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat to medium, and cook until slightly syrupy, about 5 minutes.

Add the figs, reduce the heat to low, and continue cooking until the mixture is very thick, about 10 minutes.

Remove the figs from the heat and stir in the chopped nuts and aniseed. Taste and add more anise if needed.

Cool and store in jars.

Find a PDF of this recipe here.

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15 Responses to Lebanese Fig Jam with Anise, a full jar

  1. Geralyn Lasher says:

    I love that you went and baked with her! Mom is going to be so excited!

  2. Celine Terranova says:

    Sitto is beaming with pride Maureen and would NEVER want you to give up trying to master flat bread.
    Every one of us is in your corner, cheering you on. And dearest cousin, you will succeed!! God Bless Naemi for spending time with you and teaching you her secrets. But there’s nothing like the challenge of being told YOU can’t do something…..You Go Girl! Get baking and throw that flat bread !

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Ah Celine, you are my partner in baking! Thank you cousin for the cheers of encouragement!! You KNOW it!!

  3. Janet Moore says:

    Oh what memories you stirred up. I get my bread from my Aunt Dorothy in California…she still bakes and sends me frozen bread that will last me a few months. But, did you know that my sister Geri bakes and throws the bread and she does a good job. She is my go to bread maker, cause I usually loose it on the floor. You and she should have a bread baking day. How awesome would that be. And, of course god bless Naemi for opening her home and teaching you. She is one of the best ! My Aunt Dorothy and my Aunt Jenny also make the Fig Jam. Yummmmm, I think I need to request a jar…I am out!
    Loved this post Maureen.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Janet, I had no IDEA that Geri bakes flatbread!! Wow wow wow, what a treasure. This is great news. I would love to have a baking day with her if she would have me!!

  4. Bakers making breads like this are true artisans. You now have the responsibility of keeping the tradition alive. You also have the skills and the desire. Clearly you are the right woman for the job. Please keep us appraised!

  5. Diane Nassir says:

    Maureen, brings back heavenly memories–I can see my Mother now, 60 years after the fact, all of the family out in the back yard, picking the figs, and my Mother at the sink washing them, and them cutting the figs, and making big pots of jam on her very ancient stove, with one burner sterilizing the glass jars in another large pot of boiling water. I can still recall he aroma of the figs simmering with the anise. You keep the legends alive! Beautiful column, as always.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Made with fresh figs (from your OWN yard)! How wonderful! I will try it, thank you Diane,, for sharing your memories.

  6. paul zeidan says:

    My wife and I have started making this bread recently so we loved your post. what are the chances of sharing her bread recipe. I’ll get my wife to post her recipe. we buy our fig jame from a lebanese grocer and after your post I looked at the “ingredients” and sure enough they add Anise. Mind you we have to add our own walnuts but I’ll try roasting them next time.. great stories.

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Paul, that is so great that you and your wife make this bread. I will look forward to hearing your recipe and tips. As soon as I have it mastered well enough to share, I will be posting my recipe and technique, absolutely!! Thank you for sharing!

  7. Patti says:

    Hi, I love that story. I have a cousin who used to make the bread and sell it. She refuses to share the recipe or show the rest of us how to do it, and our aunts who used to make it are all gone. I would love it if you could please post the recipe for the bread and your techniques you learned. I would love to pass on the tradition to other cousins who are interested. I did a search on your site but was not able to find it.
    thanks so much!
    Patti

    • Maureen Abood says:

      Patti, thank you for your comments. I’m working on the bread and hope to share soon! So true that it is a dying art…

  8. Kathy Tamer says:

    Question: How do I modify this recipe if I’m using fresh figs instead of dried figs? Also, I loved the picture with the bread cooking. My grandmother always liked making bread at our house because the bottom burner in the oven had a metal plate on it! She taught me how to toss the dough using a damp dish towel cut in the shape of a circle!

 

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