Yalda: Midwinter in Iran

by MK Martin

There are one or two mentions of Pagan solstice festivals in the facebook feed these days. Midwinter is a ‘trend’, and did you know that Santa was really tripping on mushrooms? But one I’ve never heard of, until I went looking, is Yalda. I’ll only give some brief details, as it’s worth reading about yourself. *

Of Iranian and Persian descent, this 5000 year old, four day Fire Festival, beginning on the 21st, marks the Birth of the Iranian sun god Mithra, and the symbolic triumph of light over darkness. Dating back possibly as far as 3rd or 4th millennium BCE, Zayeshmehr, Shab-e Cheleh, or Yalda marks the beginning of the solar year. Fires burn all night, to ensure Ahriman (Satan!) will get a clue and keep away from the feast. At the party, forgiveness, god worship and acts of charity are custom, and in the morning, it is believed Creator, Ahura Mazda (Lord of Wisdom and affordable cars), would grant wishes.MithraONE.png

Much like certain European festivals, this was a time for servants and lords to trade places, with the king ‘hiding’ among commoners. The strict standards of living were relaxed. These traditions merged with the Roman traditions, which included decorating with greenery, throwing massive parties (though, that was a Roman theme for anything), and letting bygones be bygones. Wars were suspended, businesses closed and grudges forgiven.

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But now for the important bit: the food. Preserving summer foods for Shab-e Cheleh is important, as the mixing of summer with winter food is the feature, and there are no specific recipes. Watermelon, pomegranate, feta cheese and nuts served alongside herbs like mint and tarragon are devoured with lavash bread and ground Angelica. As long as the food is contrasting in seasons, it’s welcome at the table.

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I found a great recipe for a Baghlava cake. There are photo steps, as well as written, and it looks not -too- difficult to pull off. From persianmama.com:

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Bake 35-40 minutes at 350 F center rack
yield: Twenty 2 x 2 inch pastries

Author: Homa
Recipe type: Dessert
Cuisine: Persian

INGREDIENTS:
FOR THE DOUGH
8 ounces sweet butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 cup plain yogurt
2 eggs
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp vanilla powder or 1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
4 ½ – 5 cups all-purpose flour
FOR THE FILLING
2 tsp cardamom powder
2 tsp cinnamon powder
¾ cup powdered sugar
1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts, split-pea sized
2 egg whites, beaten until foamy (save the yolks)
2 egg yolks mixed with 1 tsp cold water for the egg wash
FOR THE SYRUP:
1 ½ cups water
1 ½ cups sugar
1 ½ TBSP honey
1 TBSP plus 1 tsp rose water
GARNISH:
Chopped Pistachios

INSTRUCTIONS:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F, center rack
2. Grease a 9 x13 x1 inch nonstick baking pan with butter flavored Crisco and lightly dust with flour. Tap the pan over the sink to shake off the excess flour.
3. In a small bowl mix 2 tsp cardamom, 2 tsp cinnamon, ¾ cup powdered sugar and 1 ½ cups coarsely chopped walnuts. Set aside.
4. In a large bowl, whisk all the dough ingredients except the flour, until smooth.
5. Add the flour gradually and mix well with a wooden spoon after each addition. Add enough flour until the dough stops sticking to the fingers; you may have some leftover flour. On a lightly floured surface pat the dough into a fat rectangle, then divide it into two equal pieces.
6. Use a rolling pin to roll out one of the dough pieces into a 9 x 13 inch rectangle.
7. Gently lift the rolled dough and lay it on the prepared baking pan, use your finger tips to gently stretch the dough to fit the bottom of the pan perfectly.
8. Brush some of the foamy egg white on the dough.
9. Sprinkle all of the walnut filling mixture over the dough in the pan.
10. Drizzle the rest of the beaten egg white on the mixture.
11. On the floured surface roll out the other piece of dough into another 9 x 13 inch rectangle for the top. Carefully cover the nut and spice mixture with the rolled out dough and stretch it with your fingertips to completely cover the top of the pastry. Press the dough onto the filling.
12. Use a sharp plastic knife to mark the dough into 20 equal rectangles. Cut through the thickness of the pastry on the marks you have made. Brush the egg wash over the entire surface of the pastry.
13. Bake in preheated 350 F oven for 35-40 minutes, or until the top of the pastry is a rich golden brown.
14. After 15 minutes into baking start making the syrup: In a 2-Qt saucepan add 1 ½ cups water, 1 ½ cups sugar, and 1 ½ TBSP honey. Bring it to a boil over medium heat. Let it boil for 2-3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add 1 TBSP plus 1 tsp rose water. Set aside until ready to use.
15. By the time the pastry is ready, the syrup should reach a lukewarm temperature.
16. Remove the pastry from the oven. Place the pan in a larger baking pan to catch any possible syrup dripping.
17. Use your plastic knife once again to cut through the baked pastry between the squares. Drizzle all of the lukewarm syrup evenly all over the hot pastry, don’t forget the borders. It might look like all the syrup will not fit in the pan, but it does and all of it will get soaked up to make this cake amazingly moist and delicious. Sprinkle the pastry with chopped pistachio. Allow to cool completely in the pan over a cooling rack before transferring the pastries to a serving platter in a single layer.
18. This pastry is best when served at room temperature
NOTES
Freeze any extra pastries by arranging them in a single layer in an airtight freezer container, cover the top of the pastries loosely with a sheet of parchment paper, then cover the container with the lid tightly.

*These details are truncated. If anyone sees an incorrect one, let me know!