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A Muslim and a Buddhist’s Quiet Rebellion: A Dessert Recipe Swap

“This is my favorite Almond Harrissa recipe,” Roba said as she handed me the ingredients and baking method printed in neat white paper. I took it smiling and gave her my favorite flan recipe in return. The exchange left me feeling a little like a rebel. Somewhere else in the world, what we had done could amount to a death sentence. And in our own country Islamophobic sentiments were tearing communities apart. Instead, we were reaching out to each other, seeking not only understanding but also friendship.

It had been three weeks since the Paris attacks. Roba and I had spent many shifts working side-by-side on terrorism stories at CNN’s International Desk. From our seats in the newsroom we had watched, documented and reported on the growing anti-Muslim bigotry and vitriol in Europe and the United States. We saw Muslim and Arab communities become the real targets of hatred as result of the actions of a deranged few.

The recent events had left me with a longing to connect with my Muslim colleagues in a deeper way and to understand how their lives had changed in the last three weeks.

Growing up in rural Puerto Rico I had limited exposure to the Muslim and Arab world. In History class during a lecture on the Crusades, I felt deep shame that a Catholic Pope had ordered the slaughter of countless innocent Muslims and Jews. In Religion class we learned that the Three Magi who brought gifts to Jesus at the time of his birth were likely Kings of Arab nations. And in Spanish class we learned the Arabic etymology of words like azúcar (sugar) and café (coffee). Even my mother’s name, Zulma, had an Arabic origin.

But the night of the recipe swap, I wasn’t looking for a classroom lesson. I was looking to understand someone else’s life. To see the world through their eyes.

Roba and I shared stories about our families and the places we grew up in. She comes from a Kuwaiti Muslim family and is married to a Spaniard. They are parents to two beautiful children. She told me what it was like growing up in Kuwait City, a very hot place with lots of air-conditioned buildings, her summer vacations in the lake and living through the Persian Gulf War. She also told me about the prejudice she had witnessed as a Muslim woman living in America. I in turn told her about my childhood as a Catholic in Puerto Rico, my conversion to Buddhism, my marriage to a midwestern American and about being the step-mom of two amazing boys. Inevitably the conversation led to food and our shared love of baking.

That night as we traded our favorite recipes I understood that Roba and I were quietly rebelling against all the evil we had seen in those last three weeks. We were rebelling against all the prejudice, the anger and the fear. In our own small way we were speaking out against the voices of intolerance and extremism.

Instead of exchanging bullets, we exchanged recipes for dessert. And with that exchange we chose friendship over hatred.

That night, humanity won.


Roba’s Almond Harrissa Recipe

Harrissa is an Arabic semolina cake drenched in syrup.


2 cups of Cream of Wheat

1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cup of yogurt

1 cup of sugar

2 teaspoons of baking powder

1/8 cup of coconut flakes

1 1/2 tablespoons of melted butter

blanched almonds



1 1/2 cups of sugar

3/4 cups of water

2 teaspoons of lemon juice

2 tablespoons of butter


Mix the cream of wheat, yogurt, sugar and coconut flakes. Let the mixture rest for 30 minutes to one hour.

Prepare the syrup by mixing the sugar and water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil on medium heat while stirring. Add the lemon juice and bring to a boil for 9 minutes on medium heat. Then add the butter and let it cool.

Preheat the oven at 350 degrees. Add the baking powder to the cream of wheat mixture and stir. Brush a 9×13 inch or 12 inch pan with tahini. Pour the batter in the pan and score the surface with a smooth knife to a shape similar to the above or diamond shape. Place an almond in the center of each square or diamond. Bake for 30 minutes then score again along the same lines and then return to the oven for another 20 to 30 minutes until golden brown. Pour the cooled syrup over the pan and let it cool.


Paola’s Flan Recipe

Flan is a custard dessert with a layer of soft caramel on top.

This recipe was a gift from my dear Venezuelan friend Paola Arenas. It is my favorite flan recipe.


2 cans condensed milk (14 ounces each)

6 eggs

2 cans of whole milk (use the discarded condensed milk cans to measure)

1 tablespoon of high quality vanilla

10 tablespoons of sugar


Pre-heat the oven at 350 degrees. In a blender combine condensed milk, eggs, whole milk and vanilla—blend for 10 to 20 seconds.

Pour sugar into a 12 inch round cake pan and caramelize over the stovetop. Pour flan mix over the caramel. Place pan on a bain-marie before placing in the oven. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes. The flan will be ready when the surface is toasted brown and a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in room temperature about 1 hour. Insert a knife of very thin spatula along the sides to separate before turning onto a plate.


We hope you enjoy both, in the company of many friends, old and new.


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