In Tasbih Salam’s blog, Cleobuttera, there are myriad of soft and alluring recipes that cannot be described in words, as Tasbih assumes a number of roles at the same time; a cook, recipe developer, writer, photographer and editor.

Once you open her blog, which contains English-speaking Arab recipes, you’ll be mesmerized by the shining crust of her rich, crispy and gooey kunefe which she filled with gently rolled creamy ricotta cheese and garnished with coarse grounds of pistachios.

You will most likely feel compelled to run to your own notepad and write down that amazing recipe, along with other mouth-watering recipes, such as her fluffy cinnamon rolls which maintain its delicate and spongy texture for days, and of course that astonishing milk and cream Basbousa which she makes with roasted milk powder, a brilliant ingredient that can transcend sweets taste to level beyond your imagination, according to her. 

On the other hand, you might feel that making the 3-layer vanilla cake is a daunting task, not to mention the amount of strawberries that cover it. Guess what? It is easier than you could ever imagine, and you will feel as happy as a kid on Christmas eve once you watch the gentle union between thick, hot chocolate with creamy peanut butter at the moment the mix is poured over vanilla ice cream.

In this article, we will read the story behind the making of this masterpiece blog, which was established in late 2014. 

 

By Hadeel Atalla

 

SINCE WHEN DID THE KITCHEN BECOME YOUR FAVORITE PLAYGROUND?

The passion for cooking began when I was six. I enjoyed helping my mother out every weekend when she used to make us marble cake. At the age kids enjoy watching cartoons, cooking shows were my favorite.

When I was eight, I remember how I astonished my family with Osh el Bolbol sweets (small pieces of kunefe rolls filled with nuts). I confidently asked my mother to prepare the kunefe and ghee for me and made the rest by myself. That was the time when I discovered how talented I am. Later on, my obsession ignited during my teens. As any teenager who was so cautious about her fitness, I used to follow a diet 6 days a week and kept myself an open day to enjoy dishes that were not available in Egyptian shops. I’m talking about the nineties here; all the sweets that I saw in foreign movies and craved to try were not available, and even if it was, it wouldn’t be made with good quality. Therefore, I had to make those sweets myself. Then, my parents noticed my passion and began bringing me cook books as gifts whenever they traveled. At that time, I used to strictly follow the recipes and it was so delicious. Every time I made a dish for my family, they would spontaneously respond “how delicious!”. Sometimes, I surprised myself. In those  times, I remember I barely left the kitchen, and I am truly grateful for that, a coincidence born out of necessity. 

On the other hand, my mom created the perfect setting for me to try and innovate, even if I ruined things. She also used to send me to one of my aunts who was known for her cooking skills so I could learn from her more, while my grandmother used to record cooking shows by one of Egypt’s most famous chefs, Mr. Osama Al Sayed.

Moreover, and back when I was studying at an American school, my classmates used to call me the “Cheesecake Queen”, especially during school trips. One of my teachers was astounded by my cheesecake, saying that the cheesecake I made was better that the cheesecake she had in the States. All that gave me tremendous motivation to innovate and try new recipes.

 

 

WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START A BLOG?

I started my blog when I had the confidence that no recipe is too hard for me to make, not to mention that I had this feeling that my gift needs to be passed to others. At the time, I was so drawn to foreign food blogs, especially American and Canadian ones, given that most of the content I was interested in was not available in Arabic websites; I enjoyed the interactions I had with those blogs, as people answered my inquiries in a friendly manner, which was not available when I would take recipes out of a cook book. 

Then, the idea of having a blog became much more eminent when I dreamt of doing some pastries, especially after having my babies, I became much more creative with preparing for birthdays. My friends and family were so bedazzled by the cakes I made, then I had this thought of opening a café or a bakery, but I felt that would be hard given that I would leave my kids during work hours. Then I decided to start my blog, which gave me the convenience of working from home. I just wanted to leave an impact through presenting Arab-influenced dishes in English. The years I spent in Canada gave me the opportunity to innovate and discover my potential in the light of the availability of countless ingredients.

 

WHAT CHALLENGES DID YOU FACE?

At the beginning, I consulted some of my acquaintances who didn’t give me the encouragement I needed due to the fact that making a food blog required a certain mastery in taking photographs. Still, I decided to take that leap of faith and learn the skills needed through attending training sessions. 

Then I had some fears that I would be held accountable for any word or photo I post and I was afraid that my followers wouldn’tt succeed in making my recipes and give bad reviews for it.

Nonetheless, my husband was very supportive and told me that I had nothing to lose, nothing bad would happen if I decided to takedown my blog. By the way, my husband was the one who chose this unique name for my blog; it may sound funny, but it works for a food blog and had an Egyptian touch to it as well; it serves as an homage to the well-known pharaonic queen.  The name I had in mind at first was Zubda (butter), which is the most important ingredient in sweets, but I prefer the current name more!

 

ON WHAT BASIS DO YOU CHOOSE THE RECIPES YOU POST ON YOUR BLOG?

Firstly, it is so important that I choose a recipe that I am sure of. When I have some luck, I master some recipes through making it 3 or 4 times during one week. On the other hand, it took me 2 years to master the red velvet cake recipe. When I like a recipe that I make, I make sure to let others taste it to give me objective feedback whenever I make something new. 

There are recipes that I keep on the bench until I reach a certain mastery in making it; my personal philosophy dictates that I only share recipes that people consider the best thing they have ever tasted in their entire life. For instance, my Kunefe is not just a unique kunefe, it should be is the epitome of kunefe. If it is not mind-blowing, I don’t think I am going to share it.

 

 

WHAT SHOULD IT TAKE SO YOU CAN REACH THE HIGHEST LEVEL OF A RECIPE?

Making sweets is as minute as making a chemical formula; there is no room for mistakes. For me, accuracy is crucial. It fills me with joy when someone comments “finally we have found a precise recipe for Balah el Sham or Baklava”, or “this is the first time we find Arab recipes with such level of accuracy”.

I don’t get money from this blog, I spend on my experimentations from my own money, and it is really important to me that I am fully satisfied with my recipes, so I spend months without publishing, unlike others who may not give much time and effort for their recipes and publish it with the least regard for using precise ingredients, and this is how I won people’s trust.

 

WOULD YOU DESCRIBE FOR US THE PREPARATIONS YOU MAKE PRIOR TO PUBLISHING OR POSTING A RECIPE?

Sure! Since I am not originally a photographer, doing a photo session takes double effort from me, not to mention making elegant styling for the dishes. The preparations I make take a really long time, and I didn’t think it would be this hard at the beginning. Due to my neat work, people think that this blog is managed by a team of professionals, but the fact is that I do all this by myself and it exerts unspeakable pressure on me.

Styling and photo shooting take two to three days since I photograph the dishes step by step, or at least photograph the steps I deem necessary in order not to confuse people.. I am not in favor of taking a photo for the end product and that’s it, as I am keen on taking a photo for each and every step, like showing the shape of a dough when it rises, made into shapes and what not. Also, I try my best to utilize natural light for my shots. 

Normally, a one-hour recipe would take 4 hours when making a photo session, given the fact that I need to stop every now and then. In some occasions, I need to continue working the next day, especially if the recipe requires putting it in the fridge, not to mention that I need to focus on the final shots, such as capturing the moment when chocolate flows down the dish.

Sometimes I don’t feel satisfied with the photos I take, which forces me to retake some shots. Moreover, when I make a recipe with too many steps, I divide the session into more days. On the other hand, some recipes cannot wait till the next day, such as chocolate fondue, as chocolate will solidify, so it would take a maximum of 6 hours.

By the way, disasters may happen when making a photo session; I am used to taking photos on a table by the window. But if I needed to take a birds-eye photo, then I need to stand over the table to take the shot from above and I almost fell over onto my back many times.

Then comes the editing phase; dishes usually look better in real life than in a photo, which means that editing may take a whole day. Then I move to the content writing phase; each recipe I make must have a story that I would love to write to give life to the recipe, then I delve deep into boring details. Then I try to answer possible questions, and that includes mentioning possible alternatives. Finally, I post the recipe on social media, which is a daunting phase since I need to deal with a hefty number of messages which I may not have the time for.

 

IS THERE A COMMENT THAT AFFECTED YOU THE MOST?

Yes, I remember the comment made by Chef Tariq Ibrahim, the only Egyptian who holds the title “Master Chef”. He commented after I published my Basbousa recipe saying: “you are a star”. His comment overwhelmed me with happiness, then I answered him that it took me three years and over 40 iterations until I made it right. Then he replied, “It took me 90 times and I have never got the hang of it”.

This hobby became a 24-hour exhausting duty, but my followers replies are what give me the drive to continue. One time a young lady told me that she prepared for  her dad my chocolate cake recipe and he told her it was the tastiest cake he has ever had in his entire life, while another lady told me that her in-laws call her “chef” after making my recipes. Personally speaking, it is enough for me to have people pray for me after trying my recipes. 

Honestly speaking, I am really happy to work with people from different backgrounds; it honors me to know that a person from Malaysia or South Africa have tried making kunefe, and I was surprised to learn that most of my followers are actually foreigners.

 

 

LASTLY, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GIVE FOR THOSE WHO HAVE THE PASSION FOR COOKING?

I hate copying people; if you want to stand out from the crowd, then you have to find your own tone. Yes, it takes a lot of time, but the results will be tremendous. Again, be yourself, practice, try, fail, learn from your mistakes and do better. 

 

Thank you Tasbih.